Socialism Is Incredibly Popular but Does Anyone Know What 'Socialism' Is?
We asked a bunch of socialists what their vision of America would look like.
Photo illustration by Elizabeth Renstrom.
America is on the brink of socialist revolution. Sorta. A Gallup poll in August suggested that only 45 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 see capitalism positively, compared to 51 percent for socialism. Though left-wing candidates haven’t performed especially well overall in Democratic primaries this year, the surprise victory of New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over a powerful incumbent has been studied and obsessed over by every media source from The Daily Show to Breitbart.
Since then, other candidates associated with socialism have won elections, including Rashida Tlaib, who after a primary victory in Michigan is likely to be one of the first Muslim women in Congress. And 27-year-old Julia Salazar, who won her primary in mid-September, will be the first avowed socialist to serve in New York’s state senate in almost a century.
All this had led outlets like Vox to conclude that “the rising socialist left is a major national story.” As the libertarian Reason recently noted, “People are rightly looking for alternatives, and ‘socialism’ is one of them.”
But though “socialism” is gaining in popularity, nobody can seem to agree on what it means. Some liberal commentators have suggested that socialists aren’t actually all that distinct from liberals—“The new socialist movement doesn’t look that different from a standard progressive Democratic agenda,” Noah Smith wrote on Bloomberg—while the right has described the movement in apocalyptic terms, with Housing Secretary Ben Carson recently decrying a conspiracy based around the “Fabian Society.”
As far as actual socialists are concerned, none of this does a good job of explaining what their movement is about. In the hopes of better understanding that movement, I reached out to nine thinkers with a diverse range of perspectives on socialism and had long, frank, and open-ended conversations with them about what socialism actually is, how it’s influencing US politics, and where the recent surge of enthusiasm for it could ultimately lead us.
Right away it became obvious this new generation of socialists is distinct from the progressives who have traditionally made up the leftmost flank of the Democratic Party. They are less compromising, their rhetoric is more stark, and their demands are often more sweeping. Though there is an open debate within the movement about what “socialism” is, or who the label should properly apply to, the intellectuals, activists, and politicians I’ve spoken to in the past several weeks seemed to broadly agree on several things.
They told me that critiquing our capitalist system and refusing corporate donations is a viable election strategy, fighting to reduce economic inequality can dramatically improve the lives of women and communities of color, and our society is much less democratic and free than many people are willing to acknowledge.
They also reminded me that American socialism has been on the rise before. In the early 20th century, voters elected two open Socialists to Congress, along with over 100 Socialist mayors and dozens of state legislators. The Socialist politician Eugene Debs received nearly a million votes in the 1912 presidential election. “Let’s say we were a peak athlete in full sprint competing for Olympic gold in that past generation,” Bhaskar Sunkara, the founding editor and publisher of Jacobin, told me. “Up until recently we’ve been in a deep coma and now we’ve just woken up and our pulse is still weak.”
Still Feeling the Bern
You could trace the story of this contemporary socialist revival back to the 2008 financial crash, the Occupy Wall Street shockwave that followed it three years later, or the 2013 election of Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council. Yet nearly any socialist you talk to these days agrees that the revival was given rocket boosters by Bernie Sanders, or more precisely, by the grassroots movement that organized behind him.
When Sanders announced his candidacy for president in April 2015 as a democratic socialist, the New York Times ran a brief story on page A21. The mainstream media viewed him as having no shot against Hillary Clinton. But after Sanders’s sometimes explicitly anti-capitalist message drew enough crowds and fundraising to turn him into a serious candidate, the Times re-evaluated its coverage. The paper’s public editor at the time, Margaret Sullivan, acknowledged that “the tone of some stories is regrettably dismissive, even mocking at times.”
Sanders's identification as a “democratic socialist”—he’s controversially not officially a Democrat—helped reactivate a radical tradition. “A lot of black American leftists and socialists have been afraid to step out and be open in that identity,” Z, born Daniel Cook, a co-founder of Black Socialists of America, told me. “It’s obvious why, because we’ve been killed in the past just for being who we are.” Z sees his organization, which formed last year, as “that first foot out there again for black American leftists.” Lee Carter, who won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates as a democratic socialist last year, told me that “it was Bernie Sanders’s presidential run that made me actually google, ‘What is socialism?’”
A New Style of Campaigning
People who run for elected office as socialists tend to have a different campaign strategy than other politicians. They portray themselves as representatives of grassroots social movements instead of political parties. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was running to replace Joe Crowley as the Democratic nominee for New York’s 14th Congressional district, Crowley asked in a debate if she’d support him in the midterms even if she lost the primary.
“This has historically been the go-to ‘gotcha’ question to level at any insurgent primary candidate who criticizes the party’s political outlook,” wrote Seth Ackerman on Jacobin. If she answered yes, then she’d be telling voters her and Crowley were effectively the same. But if an insurgent says no, “Then they’ll be a spoiler. A Republican enabler.”
Ocasio-Cortez chose neither option. “I represent not just my campaign, but a movement,” she said, listing groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Muslims for Progress. “So, I would be happy to take that question to our movement for a vote, and respond in the affirmative, or however they respond.” In Ackerman’s opinion, Ocasio-Cortez’s reply “was exactly the right answer… because it then throws the question back to Crowley: ‘Well, who are you asking? Who’s the constituency that you’re consulting with when you make these kinds of political decisions?’ And the answer, obviously, is just himself and his cronies.” Ocasio-Cortez told Jacobin later that party officials weren’t happy with her, adding, “I got a lot of respect from voters.”
This isn’t just about moral high ground. Being independent of entrenched interests can also be a tactical decision. When Carter ran as a democratic socialist in Virginia, his Republican opponent was Jackson Miller, the House majority whip. “This was essentially a guy who was going to have unlimited money,” Carter said. “I was never going to beat him dollar for dollar.” He decided to run without corporate donations and focus on turning out voters jaded by the political system. “We sidestepped that whole fundraising arms race entirely and it paid off,” he explained. Carter won by 1,850 votes.
Longer Time Horizons
When socialist candidates win elections they face a dilemma: How do you reconcile the daily work of being a politician with the longer-term goal of ending capitalism? Confusion about this tension has led commentators like Frank Rich at New York magazine to argue insurgents like Ocasio-Cortez aren’t all that far removed from the Democratic establishment. “Despite her embrace of the socialist label, there is nothing radical about what Ocasio-Cortez ran on—government-funded higher education, Medicare for all, abolishing ICE,” he wrote in June.
Progressives might support these types of policies because they will make people’s lives easier, but socialists are looking beyond that immediate aim. They don’t necessarily see such policies as ends to themselves. They’re playing a long game against capitalism, and think greater social protections can help build a movement of people capable of overthrowing it.
Take Medicare for all. On the surface this doesn’t sound all that revolutionary, especially to a Canadian like myself. “Single-payer healthcare seems like kind of a mundane reform when you’re saying like, ‘Let’s have socialism,’” Nicole Aschoff, author of The New Prophets of Capital and a managing editor at Jacobin, told me. But in reality, she said, “It’s such a huge gain because it opens up all of this kind of breathing room, particularly for women.”
A lower-income single mother without health insurance can be financially devastated by a single visit to the hospital. “It can be disempowering to be so precarious,” Aschoff said. Having guaranteed healthcare makes it less risky for that woman to join a union, go on strike and become, for lack of a better word, more “empowered.”
Some people I spoke with pointed to Seattle as a case study for what this idea can look like in practice. One of the first things that Kshama Sawant did after being elected to Seattle City Council as a member of Socialist Alternative was to push the city to implement the first $15 minimum wage in the US. To her the fight was never just about higher wages. “It’s about raising the confidence of working people,” she told me. “That will go far beyond [any] one victory.”
Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib will support similar goals on a national level once they get to Congress (both still have to win in the general elections, but that’s likely given they are running in Democratic strongholds). Tlaib in particular has vowed to fight racism and Islamophobia at the same time that she is backing progressive economic policies like a $15 minimum wage. We have “to roll up our sleeves and dig into the structures that have been set up against us,” she told me.
Ending the Capitalist System
Even relatively modest policies that stop far short of overthrowing capitalism have provoked a massive backlash from corporate interests. After Seattle tried adopting a $48 million per year tax earlier this spring on large companies to address homelessness, Amazon halted construction on a new office tower and successfully pressured the city council to repeal the tax.
“I certainly do feel right now that the state is a tool of the capitalist class,” Maria Svart, the national director of the DSA, told me. “The only way to deal with that is to build an organized movement that’s broad enough, deep enough, and strong enough to withstand that.” At a certain point, she thinks, the balance of power will shift decisively towards this movement. And that, in theory, is when you could begin the process of ending capitalism.
The question is whether that point will ever be reached—and if the current wave of supposedly socialist politicians actually support this goal. Back when he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders told Time that “I don’t believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.” Salazar, the recently elected socialist in New York, told Jacobin that campaigning on the “abolition of private property” is “not very realistic.” Ocasio-Cortez was recently criticized by the New York City DSA for endorsing Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo after he withstood a left-wing primary challenge from Cynthia Nixon.
When I asked Tlaib, who was endorsed by the Greater Detroit DSA, what she thinks about the wider socialist worldview, she told me, “I’m a member of a lot of organizations; for me I’ve always pushed back on these labels.”
This ambiguity about revolutionary economic change sometimes causes socialist activists to question politicians who claim the socialist label. When Black Socialists of America met with Ocasio-Cortez this summer, Z pointed out to her that “most Leftists we talk to and are active with—particularly Black American ones—don’t like or trust politicians (ourselves included).” Z went on: “While your platform and policy proposals are absolutely exceptional, we’re not confident that you have a full, cohesive understanding of what Socialism is or entails, how we are to achieve it, or the base elements of what it would look like in real life.”
Sunkara told me he doesn’t think politicians like Ocasio-Cortez are a “one-to-one representation of where most democratic socialist activists and organizations are at.” But he still thinks it’s useful for the socialist cause to have politicians like her in power. “It’s a sign that we’re creating an environment where what’s mainstream is being pushed further to the left,” he said.
But What About Venezuela?
That this debate is happening at all is worrying to people like Marion Smith. He’s the executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit group established by Congress in 1993 to raise awareness of human rights abuses under communist regimes. President George W. Bush was an honorary chairman from 2003 to 2009.
Smith agrees that elements of our economic system aren’t working. He’s open to debating solutions. “We can talk about a high-tax welfare state, we can talk about an expanded healthcare system… We can talk about universal basic income,” he told me. But Smith, like many commentators critical of socialism, points to the USSR, Cuba, China, and Venezuela as places where socialist ideologies did enormous damage. “I do not think that those who are espousing ‘democratic socialism’ have done a good enough job of explaining how that differs from the ideology and the system of it in [those places],” he said. “Socialism has failed.”
There are also countries where socialism—at least some form of it—has been successful. “Since the turn of the century, every big country in South America except Colombia has elected a socialist president at some point,” Francisco Toro observed recently in the Washington Post. Peruvian President Ollanta Humala oversaw a 7 percent reduction in poverty, while in Bolivia, it fell by one-third under Evo Morales. “I never would have voted for any of these people,” Toro wrote. “But when you try to evaluate their records, the word that comes to mind is ‘mixed’: successes in some areas, failures in others, and nary a society-wide cataclysm in sight.”
If the on-the-ground experience of socialism can vary so much in South America, what would a socialist shift look like in the US?
There are many competing answers. Yet Sunkara told me something known as the Meidnar Plan may offer guidance. Decades ago, Sweden considered a policy that would have transferred a fixed share of profits at corporations into funds owned by people who work at them. As these funds grew, it was expected that these workers would eventually gain majority control over Sweden’s stock market.
Though the plan was opposed—and defeated—by business owners, Sunkara thinks the US shift to socialism “will look something like that.” He imagines “lots of strikes, lots of protests, lots of pitched battles. It won’t be a friendly conversation.” But he doesn’t see a bloody revolt.
What Comes After
In the popular imagination—and especially among conservatives—socialism means the death of freedom. Mark J. Perry from the American Enterprise Institute recently defined it as “a centrally planned economy without market prices or profits, where most of the property is owned or controlled by the state.”
Yet when the UK Labour Party released a report last year about what a more socialist economy could look like, it described something different. “National state ownership has historically tended to be too centralised, with power in the hands of a private and corporate elite,” the report argues. Labour’s plan to move away from capitalism, The Economist noted, “owes more to little-known 20th-century economists than it does to Karl Marx. And its radicalism, which is real, lies in the area that has so far attracted least attention.”
Instead of large centralized authorities, public ownership of things like utilities might be managed by local governments, unions, and workers. The Labour model encourages workers to purchase their company and run it as a cooperative if it goes up for sale. “Economic decisions are often made by, and on behalf of, a narrow elite, with scant consideration of the well-being of the general population,” the report reads.
The Economist warned if this model was implemented poorly, “Britain as a whole would be poorer.” Yet economic democracy can be profitable. The worker-owned Mondragon Corporation in Spain has revenues of about $13 billion, and two of its representatives wrote in the Harvard Business Review that it operates “with the same profit motivation as other companies. The biggest difference is that workers have an important say in who manages them and how profits align with values.”
To Marxist economists like UMass-Amherst professor Richard Wolff, this is a huge expansion of freedom. “If you like democracy in the political sphere, why in god’s name haven’t you wondered about its absence in the economic sphere?” he said. Z from Black Socialists of America argued that when you enter a job under our current system “there’s no democracy, it’s a hierarchy and the shareholders who are the ones running the show and if you want to have a job and make money and survive you have to answer to whatever they say.” He went on: “Socialism is about dismantling that structure altogether.”
A New Generation
All of this recent talk about socialism is freaking out Republicans. “In normal times, the declarations of a fringe party and ideology in America would not merit much attention,” Newt Gingrich wrote in August on Fox News. “However, these are not normal times.” The former Republican House speaker urged Democrats to “be a little more careful about the demons they are unleashing,” a slightly ironic bit of advice coming from a prominent Trump supporter.
But it’s unclear how many socialist sympathizers actually want to end capitalism. When the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation commissioned a poll on socialism last year it found most millennials—69 percent—had trouble correctly defining socialism. “People are taking their hopes and aspirations and good visions of what we could be and putting that into a bucket called socialism,” Smith argued.
What is happening now may be far more modest than a revolution. In a time when the impacts of racism, sexism, inequality and climate change are difficult to ignore, “people are like, ‘Well if the status quo is capitalism and this alternative is called socialism, you know, I guess I prefer socialism,’” Sunkara said. “It just shows that people are hungry for an alternative, they don’t yet know the details of what that alternative would look like.”
Even without a precise definition, socialism is already affecting how political battles are fought in the US. It’s opening the door to more radical perspectives, creating a meeting point for people who are fed up with our current economic system, and changing the language we use to talk about social progress. Politically we are in unprecedented territory. “My side of the spectrum is bubbling in a way I’ve never seen before,” Wolff said. “It is a different place from what it was literally as little as five years ago.”
Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change . Follow him on Twitter .
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