Ten years ago, when historian Jon Meacham was the editor of Newsweek, he wrote a cover story titled “We Are All Socialists Now.”
Meacham was a decade ahead of his time. This past week, New York magazine’s cover story is called “When Did Everyone Become a Socialist?” The main feature by Simon von Zuylen Wood tells readers about the hip new generation of Brooklyn socialists who have formed magazines and a dating website and, as journalist Cathy Young writes, are “full of revolutionary zeal.”
The issue also includes a dialogue between its liberal writer Jonathan Chait and Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor of the popular socialist magazine Jacobin, as well as an online-only piece speculating about the left’s future by historian Michael Kazin.
In 2016, democratic socialist and independent presidential candidate Bernie Sanders popularized the socialist alternative. Now that two members of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have entered the House of Representatives, the concept of socialism has gained even more popularity.
While they may not have convinced anyone but the college-age and post-college generation of its worthiness (which is something in itself), they are having some success in making capitalism a dirty word.
As AOC said at the annual SXSW Festival, “Capitalism is an ideology of capital — the most important thing is the concentration of capital and to seek and maximize profit. And that comes at any cost to people and to the environment, so to me capitalism is irredeemable."
Capitalism vs. Socialism has now entered political discourse, and candidates are being asked to choose a side. When John Hickenlooper was asked by Joe Scarborough to say he was a “proud capitalist,” his response was to first try to dodge the question and then to say “there are parts of socialism, parts of capitalism, in everything.” Many took that as an unwillingness to affirm capitalism and reject socialism.
Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, speaking to CNN’s Michael Smerconish, agreed with him, saying that “capitalism made this country… you know, the question is should capitalism have some guardrails so that we are not seeing excesses, and people exploited, and the land and the water and air exploited?”
Then she added “Do you like your Medicare? Well, hello, that has some elements of socialism in it. Meaning that we are all investing so that everyone can be cared for in this social safety net that we have in this country.”
I think both Hickenlooper and Granholm get it right, and even if Hickenlooper was fudging, the truth is that any modern society has elements of capitalism and socialism in it already. That perspective was laid out by the influential historian Martin J. Sklar, who passed away in 2014. Author of a major prize-winning book, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, and the posthumously published Creating the American Century, Sklar called himself a socialist to his last days, although he had voted for George W. Bush and then for John McCain.
Washington Post columnist David von Drehle recently pointed out that socialism is a word that “means different things to different people. Before we can have a battle over the idea, there must be a battle over the word itself.” That is the task Sklar set out for himself decades ago and refined over the years.
He disagreed with both self-proclaimed socialists, whom he dubbed “sectarians who think they are on the left,” and conservatives, who he argued also did not comprehend that they functioned and worked in a society which was already a good deal socialist. He explained his basic view to a socialist and social-democratic conference held in Washington D.C. back in 1988, “Does America Need a Social-Democratic Movement?”
In his talk, Sklar explained that “with the emergence of the corporate stage of capitalism, U.S. society since the early 20th century has evolved as a mix of capitalism and socialism. The two are intertwined and serve one another.
And the corporation itself is an embodiment of that mix, to be regarded not as a capitalist ogre to be slain, but as a democratic and socializing resource.” Corporations, seen as evil by so many of today’s would-be socialists, Sklar argued, are actually “associations of people” and “need not be considered as the capitalist enemy but as a social resource.”
In his eyes, each were “great social movements in history that together made the modern world.” He told the audience that the left must “disenthrall [itself] of the idea that they are simply enemies, or mutually exclusive,” or that something called a socialist society should and would succeed capitalism.
Both capitalism and socialism, he concluded, are “complementary in their conflict and mutually in need of one another,” and hence the future would be shaped by both “social capitalists” and “liberal socialists.” Capitalism, he later wrote, “needs socialism for stability and civic development, and socialism needs capitalism for the wealth creation that it generates.”
Sklar’s concept of socialism is not one Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would recognize. In rhetoric and arguments, they are still echoing the Socialist Party of America leader Eugene V. Debs in the early 20th century, who believed the two classes, capital and labor, were intrinsically opposed to one another, and that justice would prevail only when the working class held power in the social order.
Today’s young socialists, who think they are reinventing the world anew, are actually replicating old, worn-out ideas, which as history has shown always have ended in failure. By calling for revolutionary change, rather than coming up with practical programs to address inequality, they only reveal their ignorance of history.
To them the old shibboleths provide the answers for today, and for those who point out that all the examples of “really existing socialism,” from the Soviet Union to Mao’s China, Fidel Castro’s Cuba and the Chavez-Maduro Venezuela of today, have failed, they answer that “real socialism hasn’t been tried yet.” It has failed, and it will fail again. Ignorance of history only leads down the road to new disasters.
In one of the last speeches before he died, the great Polish philosopher and ex-Marxist Lezek Kolakowski told an audience at Columbia University that as goals, socialism and Marxism are both dead. Socialist revolution was, he wrote, “the greatest fantasy of our century.” What will live and has a role to play, he said, was social democracy. Kolakowski thought that in some form, a social democratic case would always be around to address the issues facing any modern capitalist society, such as inequality, low wages for working people, health care, and the like. But their case for change would take place within the social order that exists, and would not be one of revolutionary opposition to the society they lived in. He put it this way:
“Be that as it may,” Kolakowski wrote, “socialist movements strongly contributed to changing the political landscape for the better. They inspired a number of social reforms without which the contemporary welfare state—which most of us take for granted—would be unthinkable. It would thus be a pity if the collapse of Communist socialism resulted in the demise of the socialist tradition as a whole and the triumph of Social Darwinism as the dominant ideology.” Socialism was an unrealizable dream, but he put it, “as a statement of solidarity with the underdogs and the oppressed… as a light that keeps before our eyes something higher than competition and greed — for all of these reasons, socialism, the ideal not the system, still has its uses.” Would that today’s socialists discover his body of work and learn from his wisdom.