| September 05, 2019 11:00 PM
The specter of socialism is haunting the United States. More Americans, particularly younger Americans, have a favorable view of socialism than ever before. Membership in the Democratic Socialists of America has increased sevenfold since 2016. Self-styled socialists sit in Congress and run for president. Republicans call Democrats “socialists” with ever-greater frequency. But we cannot yet claim that socialism itself has become a great power in the U.S. because it is not clear what American socialism really is.
Conventional wisdom among both liberal and conservative columnists is that American socialism is a revival of traditional socialism. By “traditional socialism,” I mean the primarily European 20th century political movements that viewed the economy through the lens of class conflict and focused on the economic concerns of the working class. Seeking to gain power through elections, these movements made government ownership of the economy — state ownership of “the means of production” — a central aim.
Many think that this type of socialism is storming America’s beaches. To fight it, they repeat familiar lessons. Socialism promised more material abundance for more people. But even at its peak in the 1970s and ’80s, it did not keep this promise. Its enemy, capitalism, did, and European socialism collapsed. The landscape of present-day Europe shows socialist parties that have taken Tony Blair’s “Third Way” have either abandoned their traditional economic policies or faced electoral oblivion. American socialists, the columnists argue, must confront reality or meet a similar reckoning.
But this approach fights on the wrong battlefield by discounting a vast gulf that exists between traditional socialism and American socialism. The false assumption pundits make is that American socialists are imitating Europe, importing European economic principles into the U.S. Yet the tenets of American socialism are more domestic and less concerned with economics. To understand American socialism, we need something similar to what French historian François Furet provided for communism in The Passing of an Illusion: an understanding and evaluation of the core passions of American socialism. Only then can we understand what makes it so distinctly dangerous.
American socialism is a curious thing. While traditional socialism focuses on seizing the means of production, American socialism focuses on achieving an ambiguous “equality” through government interference.
One clue to its distinctiveness lies in how Americans define socialism. In the past, a plurality understood socialism by its traditional 20th century definition: government ownership of the economy. Now, the most popular understanding is in terms of an open-ended commitment to “equality.” A 2018 Gallup survey found a plurality (23%) understood “socialism” to mean “equality — equal standing for everybody, all equal in rights, equal in distribution,” compared to only 17% who understood it as government ownership.
It’s on these terms that most style themselves socialists. Yet this socialism is often at odds with traditional socialism. Bernie Sanders is undoubtedly the most prominent spokesman for socialism in America today. Yet in a Nov. 19, 2015, speech at Georgetown University, at which he provided his most substantive definition of socialism for his presidential primary campaign, he explicitly stated: “I don’t believe government should own the means of production.” In a line, Sanders raised a debate that plagued the British Labour Party for decades — whether Labour should support government ownership of the means of production — speedily resolved in favor of Tony Blair, against Tony Benn. Most American socialists agree with Sanders and Blair. When surveys ask about support for government control of the economy, a strong majority, including self-identified socialists, answer in the negative.
Instead, Sanders and his ilk associate socialism with the liberal political tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In a June 12, 2019, speech on socialism, Sanders repeated a theme from his 2015 speech. He explained that he is a democratic socialist because he aims to enact the “economic bill of rights” that FDR outlined in his 1944 State of the Union address. Democratic socialism completes what the New Deal began. Sanders puts the New Deal, Martin Luther King Jr., the Great Society, and democratic socialism all on one single historical continuum. His argument is that if you liked FDR and his policies, which were implemented by the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, then you should note that his critics called these policies socialist. So you might as well agree with FDR’s critics and call yourself a socialist, too.
Yet this ignores FDR’s powerful left-wing and anti-capitalist critics. Sanders tosses Norman Thomas and the Socialist Party of America into the dustbin of history, suggesting that they were wrong to oppose the New Deal as a sop to capitalism because it was socialist all along. Barry Goldwater was right after all: Roosevelt’s economics were those of Charles Coughlin and Huey Long.
Sanders also does not criticize liberalism, that bête noire of traditional socialism. Mid-20th-century American liberalism argued that loopholes, subsidies, regulations, and handouts that constitute state intervention in the economy — in short, state capitalism — had transformed social relations. Because the state had moderated capitalism’s excesses, business owners and employers of wage labor — “the bourgeoisie” in traditional Marxist analysis — were now less hostile to the working class. State control of the means of production was henceforth irrelevant. In response, traditional socialists and the New Left declared war on American liberalism. In the 1960s, the New Left called American liberalism “corporate liberalism,” arguing that state intervention in the economy benefited capitalists.
Sanders hides the fact that socialism was once extremely critical of liberalism. He repeats the New Left’s argument in his speeches, but he renames the villain. He no longer condemns the handouts and loopholes that constitute state capitalism as “corporate liberalism,” but as “corporate socialism.” It’s a clever switch. Liberals who sympathize with Sanders do not realize that the essence of this argument is anti-liberal. The original argument attacked Roosevelt, the New Deal, and the Great Society. Americans calling themselves socialists today, who vehemently defend all three, have no idea that traditional socialism did not regard progressive liberalism as a friend. Yet by blurring the lines between the two, Sanders makes American socialism the heir to the progressive movement, making it impossible for contemporary, self-styled “progressive” politicians to disown it.
On that front, Sanders has succeeded. Although Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris style themselves “progressives,” they avoid condemning socialism. Harris says, “I am not a democratic socialist,” but skips any criticism of it, preferring to discuss economic inequality. When asked during a March interview whether she was a “democratic socialist,” Warren responded that she was not, but did not deign to discuss it further. “Bernie has to speak to what democratic socialism is,” she replied. “All I can tell you is what I believe,” she said, before talking about the need to have regulated markets.
The political motivation for traditional socialism was class struggle against the capitalist bourgeoisie. American socialism, however, broadens the scope. Sanders frequently defines his struggle as a fight against “oligarchy.” In his 2015 speech, he emphasized that elections are being bought and sold by moneyed interests, the bourgeoisie of the 21st century. This argument is common. One of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s most popular videos makes its point by having her role-play a corrupt politician.
But in 2019, a focus on class and on workers is not enough. Your socialism must also be intersectional. Sanders’ 2016 primary campaign was criticized for being too focused on economic materialism and too little on race issues. He has now adjusted. In his June speech, he said he is now fighting “oligarchy, corporatism, nationalism, racism and xenophobia.” The oligarchs, he says, encourage “violent rage against minorities.” So Sanders complements his traditional demand for wealth redistribution with demands to focus on the concerns of “women,” “people of color,” “immigrants,” and “members of the LGBT community.” American socialism replaced “class struggle” with an overarching struggle for an abstract “equality.”
Rejection of state ownership of the means of production, equivocation between socialism and progressive liberalism, and replacement of class struggle with a struggle for “equality” on behalf of groups considered “oppressed” demonstrate that American socialism is ideologically distinct from traditional socialism. This is what Furet argued in 1992. He was describing the intellectual basis of “political correctness” in the U.S. and how it transformed the Left. But his analysis applies equally to American socialism.
For Furet, the transformation of the American Left stemmed from a singularly American concern to imitate the civil rights era. As the specific struggle of the 1960s faded into the past, the Left’s moral passion became increasingly abstract. It turned the civil rights era into the analogy for all struggles for “equality.”
This moralized passion underwrites American socialism far more than any real hatred of economic capitalism. The rich and powerful, even “oligarchs” and big corporations, can escape opprobrium by subscribing to the broader political program. Capitalism is OK, more or less, as long as it appears “woke.” Nike gets a pass as long as it stands in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, and Apple can operate Chinese labor factories if it threatens to boycott states with religious liberty bills. Traditional socialists, to their credit, saw this for what it was: a capitalist trick to avoid more fundamental reform.
Traditional socialism had an almost inexhaustible wealth of philosophical material to draw from in the writings of Karl Marx, which gave it an allure of intellectual complexity. But the moralized passion of American socialism wears its flaws on its sleeve. Attacks on the dominance of “Western civilization” as the hegemony of the dead white male lump together thousands of years of disparate cultures, as if Aristotle, Augustine, Machiavelli, and Mill are all the same. Such attacks on “the West” also take place in terms spawned by Western civilization. The proliferation of individual rights, liberal freedoms, and equality before the law that are at the center of American socialist rhetoric are themselves products of Western civilization.
The inconsistencies of intersectionality affect its pursuit of “equality” yet further. As the list of oppressed groups grows, at some point a group traditionally considered oppressed gets recast as the oppressor of a newly recognized group. Furet noticed the growing ambiguity on the Left over whether Jews are still a minority or are part of the hegemonic white society. He foresaw that the Left would abandon the moral injunction against anti-Semitism it had cherished since 1945. The critical focus on Israel on behalf of the “oppressed” Palestinian minority has promoted positions that extend far beyond simply condemning Israeli policies toward Palestinians. As Susie Linfield, a journalism professor at New York University, argues in her book The Lion’s Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky, many on the Left are now “repelled by the existence of Israel itself.” The past few years of the British Labour Party have shown how rapidly this repellence over Israel becomes pure anti-Semitism — “the socialism of fools” — with old tropes about Jewish cabals, conspiracies, and Holocaust denial rising to the surface.
Because the intellectual basis of American socialism comes from a moralized passion for an open-ended equality, its battlefield is less about economic reforms and more about political transformation. Sanders says: “And let me also be clear, the only way we achieve these goals is through a political revolution, where millions of people get involved in the political process and reclaim our democracy by having the courage to take on the powerful corporate interests whose greed is destroying the social and economic fabric of our country.”
The goal here is not just to mobilize the electorate to pass laws against corporations. Sanders stokes a revolutionary passion that aims to change the U.S. fundamentally. The most fashionable political proposals on the Left are for regime change.
The Left routinely discusses abolishing the Electoral College. This proposition would not just change the way elections are fought, but, by encouraging the development of third-party candidates, would turn the U.S. into a kind of multi-party system resembling continental European democracies. It would make Europe’s unstable, shifting political coalitions and electoral contests fought by luring disaffected voters toward populist or extremist parties and candidates, regular features of American politics.
While the Left once jealously defended the independence of the Supreme Court against legislative majorities, those days are over. Sanders has proposed rotating judges out of the Supreme Court. Editorials go further, proposing court packing for explicitly partisan ends.
The Left wages open warfare on federalism. Sanders and others attack the institutions of representative government at the local, state, and even federal level when they stand in the way of his goals. State and local decisions are seen as hostile to individual rights when people in those locales choose to restrict things such as abortion.
Progressivism has long hated federalism, but the Left now increasingly argues that one of its key pillars, equal state representation in Congress through the Senate, is intrinsically unjust. Proposals to alter or even abolish the Senate have gone mainstream. Striking Article V from the Constitution would change the very nature of legislative government in ways that the Framers explicitly decried. They purposely chose bicameralism over unicameralism, and for good reason. In the years following ratification, they were soon vindicated when France’s first republican experiment, relying on a unicameral and therefore unchecked legislature, set the Terror in motion.
The stoking of revolutionary passion exposes the most dangerous difference between American socialism and traditional socialism. Certainly, the 19th century origins of socialism lie in exulting revolutionary passion. The proclamations of the First and Second French Republics in 1792 and 1848, and the Paris Commune of 1871, are all key moments in that revolutionary history. But as socialists became established as political parties, they merged socialism into the republican tradition, which after 1871 was much less sympathetic to revolution. (It was, after all, the Third Republic that crushed the Paris Commune.) To join with republicans required setting revolution aside and supporting the (rather bourgeois) regime and its policies. In France, socialists did just that. In 1914, facing German invasion, socialists overwhelmingly adopted the Union Sacré, lending their full support to the war.
By the First World War, then, a fissure had opened up on the Left. On the one hand, there was the revolutionary Left, which, building on Marx’s critique of British parliamentary democracy, made representative democracy its enemy. It insisted that parliamentarians or deputies did not represent the people, but instead controlled the people on behalf of moneyed interests. Representative democracy embodied all the deceptions of bourgeois politics. It was really, as Sanders would say, an oligarchy. This attack reached fever pitch following the First World War. As the Third Republic in France and the Weimar Republic in Germany, the Continent’s two most prominent representative democracies, had written constitutions, revolutionaries attacked the idea of a constitutional state. By the 1920s, rule of law and constitutional limitations on power were all seen as variations of detested “bourgeois legality.” The revolutionary Left hoped to emulate the Bolsheviks in Russia, who within a few months of October 1917 had annihilated “bourgeois legality.”
But on the other hand, there was the Left of established socialist parties of Europe, which supported the republican constitutional order won against monarchists or Bonapartiste dictatorships. It was disturbed by the revolutionaries’ disdain for constitutionalism and admiration for the Bolsheviks. So traditional socialists became defenders of constitutional government and representative democracy. Under the Weimar Republic, the social democrats were the institutional conservatives, desperately defending constitutional, representative government against far Left and far Right. French socialists did the same. During the short-lived Fourth Republic, they saw themselves as the bulwark of representative government. Despite deep disagreements with the liberal-conservative Right, socialists regularly united with them to defend representative government.
Whatever its flaws, and despite its sympathy for revolution, traditional socialism revered its republican heritage. It refused to cut itself off from that tradition. When forced to choose between revolution and republicanism, it usually chose republicanism.
That’s where American socialism takes its leave from traditional socialism. American socialism is revolutionary. It has cut itself off from the tradition of American republicanism. Its refrain is that American representative government is an oligarchy; elected representatives serve moneyed interests, not the people. Every student in America is now familiar with the view that the Constitution, the structuring document of our political regime and American republicanism, is a product of hegemonic white male authority. They are being taught that this tradition cannot be redeemed, but must be discarded. Having severed itself from republicanism, American socialism has little to moderate the revolutionary passion.
Its open-ended struggle for a vague “equality” means American socialism can change its policies with alarming speed. Think of how quickly Sanders went from rejecting open borders as an unthinkable “Koch Brothers proposal” to campaigning for it himself. American socialism also has no qualms about bending policies to its revolutionary passion. Ocasio-Cortez’s erstwhile chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, disclosed that the real reason for the Green New Deal was not to save the environment. “The interesting thing about the Green New Deal,” he said, “is it wasn’t originally a climate thing at all. Do you guys think of it as a climate thing? Because we really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing.”
Conservatives mock the Green New Deal as “pie in the sky.” But while they laugh, America has been exporting it, along with the rest of its version of socialism, around the world. In recent months, the forefront of the public agenda of the Labour Party in Britain has become the “Green New Deal.” Following the lead of American socialists, Labour’s present and former leadership are trying to publicize and promote the slogan and its policy worksheet. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has made the “Green New Deal” the subject of his recent political speeches. Former leader Ed Miliband has advocated for it in print and as a board member for a new think tank, Common Wealth.
The European Left is buying up other causes made in America. In 1992, Furet commented on the central place of feminism in the ideology of political correctness. From the French perspective, he thought American feminism was strange. It was composed of upper-middle-class leaders touting radical politics, a mixture that meant it focused on expanding, rather the criticizing, the bourgeois world. It overemphasized successful professional life. In a move he thought “most extraordinary,” American feminism denounced any idea of natural female particularity and “valorized female homosexuality as political emancipation” because these kinds of relationships dissolved sexual difference.
This mixture, he thought, was “infinitely more powerful and more revolutionary than its European counterpart.” But he thought a robust European counterpart still existed. This is no longer so. Investigating the origins of some recent feminist protests in France, a May 2019 exposé for the French magazine Valeurs Actuelles revealed an intricate network of upper-middle-class professionals doubling as feminist activists. The magazine discovered that formally nonpartisan media figures belonged to a number of feminist and LGBT associations, which directed them through WhatsApp to promote particular causes and narratives. The brand of American feminism that Furet identified has stamped itself all over France.
Even the theories are made in America. Consider the stunning rise of gender theory in politics. The idea that womanhood is socially constructed, that one is not born a woman but becomes one, has its roots in French philosophy, combining ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. But it took an American academic, Judith Butler, to turn this idea into a worldwide political project. Sexuality is fluid, and can and should be changed. As Valeurs Actuelles concluded, the European Left has discarded its homegrown intellectual heritage and now takes to the barricades to apply American theories to their domestic politics.
On the home front, American socialism’s immediate political effect is limited. Presidential candidates touting socialist ideas offer ever-expanding plans that could never past muster in Congress and, like Warren’s plan for a wealth tax, would fail constitutional scrutiny. These proposals are largely political theater. These candidates put on a show to demonstrate moral passion for a congregation of true believers, while betting that it will not alienate the more moderate segment of the Left’s electorate.
But regardless of how this bet plays out in 2020, the political theater of American socialism is deleterious to the institutions of the U.S. The theater’s moralized passion flames its revolutionary passion, firing up an assault on what remains of the nation’s constitutional order. The assault increasingly takes the form of an argument that America’s constitutional order is fundamentally opposed to equality, as well as to all the minorities on whose behalf American socialism claims to struggle. American socialism’s real enemy is not capitalism, but the Constitution.
In 2019, the common refrain from the Left is that constitutionalism gets in the way of democracy. Harris threatens to rule by executive order to enforce gun control, overriding the constitutional right to bear arms. Sanders challenges the independence of the judiciary by arguing that justices should be rotated off the Supreme Court. Pete Buttigieg calls for open-ended “structural changes” to American democracy. The New York Times’ recent “1619 project” wants to teach the whole country that there is nothing to celebrate in the American founding, the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution.
All these positions draw closer and closer to the revolutionary moment when the political leaders of American socialism can tell their flock directly what they teach in media, schools, and popular culture — that the U.S. Constitution stands in the way of equality. It is your enemy. And their followers will cheer. American socialism culminates in post-constitutionalism.
Nathan Pinkoski is an associate research scholar with the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, and a lecturer in politics, at Princeton University.