Socialism in the air

The return of socialism to US political discourse

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s run for the Democratic Party nomination has helped to make “socialism” part of the mainstream discussion in US politics today. And even though, at the time of writing (March 2016), it remains doubtful that the Democratic Party will choose Sanders as its nominee, the idea of socialism is very much in the air.

Socialism’s renaissance actually predates the Sanders phenomenon—especially since the economic crisis that hit full force in 2007–2008. When large sections of American finance and industry appealed to the government for aid to keep them afloat, talk of socialism made it into the mainstream media. Remarking on the government bailouts and the Obama administration’s massive stimulus bill, Newsweek famously declared in 2009 that, “We’re All Socialists Now.”1 Opinion polls soon found that about one-third of Americans viewed socialism positively, and that a plurality of Americans younger than thirty preferred socialism over capitalism.In 2015, Merriam-Webster reported that “socialism” was its most searched word in its online dictionary.3 

The increased interest in socialism can only be welcomed. For decades, socialism was taboo in the United States. After the end of World War II, the United States was locked for almost five decades in a global military, political, and ideological struggle against the allegedly “socialist” or “communist” Soviet Union. Each side, with its own set of exploitive and repressive social relations, presented itself as the paragon of freedom and the other side as the apex of tyranny, and used these claims to enforce ideological conformity and to target dissent. The anticommunist witch-hunts of the late 1940s and early 1950s in the United States—which are collectively remembered as “McCarthyism”—drove socialist ideas to the margins. To be a socialist was to be “alien” or “un-American.” This ideological offensive cost thousands of people their jobs, their families, and in the political show trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, their lives.

McCarthyism enforced a national amnesia that tried to bury the legacy of grassroots socialism in the United States. At the turn of the last century, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans not only considered themselves socialists, but were members and supporters of the Socialist Party (SP). Ironically, given today’s politics, the Socialist Party drew some of its strongest support from “red” states like Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. The SP’s candidate, Eugene V. Debs, took 6 percent of the vote in the 1912 presidential election that Democrat Woodrow Wilson won.4 The two main socialist holidays celebrated around the world, May Day (May 1) and International Working Women’s Day (March 8), commemorate milestones in the late 1800s/early 1900s labor movement in the United States.

Communists and socialists played key roles in the major social movements of the twentieth century, the 1930s mass unionization drives, and the 1950s–1960s civil rights and Black Power movements. In fact, the last time that socialism gained a mass following in activist circles was in the 1960s and 1970s, when mass social movements and the Vietnam War radicalized American society and broke through the anticommunist Cold War consensus. In 1968, opinion polls showed that more than one million students considered themselves on the left, and almost 400,000 people supported creation of a “mass revolutionary party,” Max Elbaum noted in his Revolution in the Air.5

Still, US rulers managed to reestablish their control, opening a generational counteroffensive against the working class and the gains of the 1960s social movements. This counteroffensive had its ideological component in the neoliberal celebration of free market individualism. The aim was to establish, in the words of Conservative British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, that “there is no alternative” to free market capitalism. This ideological offensive reached its zenith in the early 1990s, when the collapse of Stalinist regimes across Eastern Europe and the USSR itself led procapitalist ideologues to proclaim the “end of history.” Society had reached its highest point, and free-market capitalism was it.6

Neoliberalism's "common sense"

And yet, here we are, twenty-five years after socialism was proclaimed dead, with 56 percent of registered Democrats, including 52 percent of Clinton supporters, telling New York Times pollsters that they have a favorable opinion of socialism.7 But while Sanders’s campaign may have forced the mainstream media to talk about socialism, Sanders alone isn’t responsible for this newfound interest in socialism.

A number of factors working themselves out over the course of the last decade or so have brought us to this point. A few are worth mentioning here. In 2006, the explosion of the immigrants’ rights movement helped to reconnect the US labor movement to its radical roots. Workers from other countries helped revive the tradition of May Day in the United States. Developments since the Great Recession have made socialism more popular. As the social democratic writer Harold Meyerson explained in a Guardian op-ed, 

Bernie Sanders didn’t push the young toward socialism. They were already there.

Indeed, the current socialist emergence was foretold by the polls that showed most American looked positively upon the message of Occupy Wall Street—that the 1% has flourished at the expense of the 99%. It was foreshadowed by the rise to bestseller status of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and by the success of the Fight for $15 movement in prompting cities and states to raise the minimum wage.8

It’s unfortunate, then, that Sanders—very much unlike Eugene Debs, who excoriated the two-party system—has no intention of channeling this sentiment in a direction other than what he has repeatedly promised: to support the neoliberal hawk Clinton as presidential nominee for one of the United States’ two procapitalist parties. 

The examples Meyerson cites may be the most proximate antecedents to today’s interest in socialism, but they became so because of long-term factors that challenged neoliberal capitalist common sense. Perhaps the least of these is the fact that few people under the age of fifty even remember the Cold War or the association of socialism with what President Ronald Reagan called an “evil empire.” More important is what they do know about how they have experienced capitalism throughout their lifetimes.

The neoliberal gospel holds that free market capitalism, with its toolbox of free trade, privatization, cuts in taxes and government spending, deunionization, deregulation and “personal responsibility,” is the only way to organize a free and productive society. It’s the only way that wealth is created. What has been the result of forty years of devotion to this gospel?

The median annual income of a male worker, working full time in the United States, was less in 2014 (at $50,383) than in 1973 (at $53,291), in inflation-adjusted dollars. A woman working full time earned about $9,000 more in 2014 than in 1973 (moving from $30,180 to $39,621 in annual income). This certainly illustrates the crucial role that working women play in supporting households. But in the last half of that period—since the tight labor market of the late 1990s—neither men nor women have seen any sustained increase.

As a result, most American households have experienced economic stagnation or worse for the last decade and a half. For non-elderly households, real median household income, adjusted for inflation, dropped 12.3 percent, from $66,845 to $60,462, between 2000 and 2014.9

Between 1973 and 2014, the median worker’s hourly compensation increased by 8.7 percent, while the economic output per person (i.e., productivity), grew by 72.2 percent, according to an Economic Policy Institute analysis. The difference between what workers produced overall and what they were paid represented huge profits flowing into capitalist bank accounts. Between 2000 and the second three-month period in 2015, the percentage of corporate income going to workers’ wages dropped from 82.3 percent to 75.5 percent, according to the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis.10

In other words, for most workers in the United States during the last forty years, the period has not been one of greater “freedom” and “opportunity,” but one of just getting by while the richest .01 percent—even wealthier than Occupy’s 1 percent—increasingly acts as if it lives in a separate gated community from everyone else.

The Great Recession produced an ideological crisis for those who run this society. Alan Greenspan, the Ayn Rand acolyte who, as Federal Reserve chair, had promoted financial deregulation in support of his market fundamentalism, admitted he had been wrong. “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity (myself especially) are in a state of shocked disbelief,” Greenspan told Congress in 2008.11 As Newsweek noted in the aforementioned 2009 article, “The U.S. government has already—under a conservative Republican administration—effectively nationalized the banking and mortgage industries.” The 2007–2008 crisis not only showed how little relation neoliberal ideology bore to reality, but it also exposed the self-serving nature of much of the ruling class’s paeans to free enterprise.

Bankers and corporate leaders who had lectured the poor about their need to take personal responsibility for their failures received government bailouts with no accountability or strings attached. Privatization of city services and schools has, in many cases, simply enriched wealthy and politically connected elites while delivering none of the promised efficiency, lower costs, or improvement in services. International free trade agreements have allowed free movement of multinational corporations across borders, while denying that same freedom to workers. Consequently, working people do not associate free trade with the neoliberal buzzwords of “flexibility” and “innovation,” but with a global race to the bottom in living standards and working conditions. The rhetoric of personal responsibility and choice doesn’t hold much attraction to workers and their families trying to cope with longer work hours, lower pay, and greater costs for necessities, while governments cut back on needed social supports.

The Cold War coincided with the 1948–1973 capitalist boom that doubled family incomes for the US working class. This created a material basis for the “American Dream” of social mobility and reinforced working-class support for American capitalism against “communism.” In the same way, “actual existing capitalism”—as it been lived for the last four decades—has plowed the fertile ground on which the seeds of “socialism” can sprout. At its most basic level, the current interest in socialism represents a rejection, in part or in whole, of the neoliberal version of capitalism that had become a reigning orthodoxy. 

Two souls of socialism

“Socialism’s crisis today is a crisis in the meaning of socialism. For the first time in the history of the world, very likely a majority of its people label themselves ‘socialist’ in one sense or another; but there has never been a time when the label was less informative. The nearest thing to a common content of the various ‘socialisms’ is a negative: anti-capitalism.”

These are the opening lines of the classic pamphlet, The Two Souls of Socialism, published fifty years ago by the socialist Hal Draper.12 Although many of its Cold War reference points are dated, and it addressed an audience radicalizing around the Black Power and anti-Vietnam War movements, it remains a classic explanation of the basic ideas of socialism. It bears rereading today for the insights it can impart to a new generation of people becoming interested in socialism.

Draper’s organizing principle is the contrast between what he called “socialism from above” and “socialism from below.” For him, the two most representative examples of socialism from above were the social democratic welfare states of Western Europe, and the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe, China, the USSR, and Cuba. As Draper wrote, 

What unites the many different forms of Socialism-from-Above is the conception that socialism (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) must be handed down to the grateful masses in one form or another, by a ruling elite which is not subject to their control in fact. The heart of Socialism-from-Below is its view that socialism can be realized only through the self-emancipation of activized masses in motion, reaching out for freedom with their own hands, mobilized “from below” in a struggle to take charge of their own destiny, as actors (not merely subjects) on the stage of history. “The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”: this is the first sentence in the Rules written for the First International by Marx, and this is the First Principle of his lifework.

Yet, “it is Socialism-from-Above which is the dominant tradition in the development of socialism,” Draper noted.

In fact, the earliest socialists, the Utopians, were elitist and antidemocratic, Draper argued, because they “looked to the prescription of a prefabricated model, the dreaming-up of a plan to be willed into existence.” Marx and Engels broke with this and founded the tradition of “socialism from below,” by fusing the struggle for socialism with the mass struggle for democracy. Draper again:

The heart of the theory is this proposition: that there is a social majority which has the interest and motivation to change the system, and that the aim of socialism can be the education and mobilization of this mass-majority. This is the exploited class, the working class, from which comes the eventual motive-force of revolution. Hence a socialism-from-below is possible, on the basis of a theory which sees the revolutionary potentialities in the broad masses.

In Two Souls, Draper reviews and critiques the main theories of socialism from above—utopianism, elitist anarchism, social democracy and Stalinism. While the exact historical references may not be current, the trends of social thought he challenges are still with us. Ideas of utopianism permeated the Occupy encampments of 2011. “Anarcho-liberalism” remains a key influence among newly radicalizing people. And Sanders’s own version of socialism is derived from the socialism from above of European social democracy. 

The argument here isn’t that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” As Draper pointed out, when people reject capitalism, they often gravitate to one or another version of socialism from above that is on offer. It often seems easier and more natural for people to place their hopes in a savior from above. But only socialism from below offers the prospect of a transformation that would place ordinary people in charge of the economy and society.

As Draper put it in his conclusion, 

How does a people or a class become fit to rule in their own name? Only by fighting to do so. Only by waging their struggle against oppression—oppression by those who tell them they are unfit to govern. Only by fighting for democratic power do they educate themselves and raise themselves up to the level of being able to wield that power. There has never been any other way for any class. . . .

In the last analysis, the only way of proving [theories of “socialism from above”] false is in the struggle itself. That struggle from below has never been stopped by the theories from above, and it has changed the world time and again. To choose any of the forms of Socialism-from-Above is to look back to the old world, to the “old crap.” To choose the road of Socialism-from-Below is to affirm the beginning of a new world.

Today, we’re at the beginning of this conversation. Millions of people today may express favorable opinions of socialism. But what they mean by socialism requires a lot of unpacking. And winning them to a conception of socialism from below, an idea that animates this journal, is a challenge for socialists today. 

Discovering what socialism really is

At the turn of the last century, the German socialist Werner Sombart asked, in the title of his book, Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? He answered the question with a famous quip: “On the reefs of roast beef and apple pie socialistic utopias of every sort are sent to their doom.”13 Today, more and more people are having trouble affording roast beef and apple pie. So when socialists today say the United States is a class society, most people agree with us. The collapse of Stalinism has made it easier to talk about what socialism really is. When it’s explained to people—a world where the means of production and distribution are collectively and democratically controlled; where everyone has a job, food, and housing; where racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression are abolished and where there are no wars—it sounds pretty reasonable. 

But if a substantial section of a new generation is open to the ideas of socialism, the question of organization—whether we need one, and what forms it can take—poses many challenges and, of course, many opportunities. The starting point is to build organizations of socialists that commit to creating a political alternative independent of the two main capitalist parties and their subsidiaries. 

Karl Marx’s greatest contributions were always made in the course of the class struggle, while attempting to organize it and to influence it. As Marx said many times, he was not the first socialist. But he was the first to organize a political movement under the slogan “the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class.” In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and his lifelong collaborator Frederick Engels explained why socialists need to be organized:

The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.14

Put in more modern terms, the most committed socialist fighters and activists need to come together in an organization because collectively they can influence the wider movement. And an organization of comrades committed to changing the world—and debating, discussing, and organizing how best to do that—is the key to “clearly understanding” what the movement needs to win its aims. In the United States, part of the clear understanding involves recognition that the Democratic Party must be soundly rejected as any sort of vehicle for fundamental social change. 

Today, there is an international ruling-class consensus that says we must live through a “decade of austerity” to overcome the imbalances of the period that blew up in 2008. But we need to ask ourselves: is that the future we want for ourselves or our children? Do we want a state of permanent war lasting for decades? Do we want a world where the United States spends more on weapons than the rest of the world combined—while two billion people live on less than one dollar a day? 

Movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter show that there is a growing group of young activists who are deciding for themselves what they will do in the face of these questions. They are looking not only for ideas to change the world, but also for organizations to embody that alternative. Socialists today need to think the same way: how we can build from the struggles of today the kind of political alternative that we need to the current system. As British socialist Duncan Hallas wrote in a seminal contribution on socialist organization, reprinted in ISR 100,15

That alternative must be more than a mere collection of individuals giving general adherence to a platform. It must also be a center for mutual training and debate, for raising the level of the raw activist to that of the experienced, for the fusion of the experiences and outlook of manual and white collar workers and intellectuals with ideas of scientific socialism. It must be a substitute for those institutions, special schools, universities, clubs, messes and so on, through which the ruling class imbues its cadres with a common outlook, tradition and loyalty. And it must do this without cutting off its militants from their fellow workers.

Transforming a new generation of socialists from isolated or individual militants into an organized, and conscious, force will be a key task in years to come. 


  1. John Meacham, “We are All Socialists Now,” Newsweek, February 6, 2009, http://www.newsweek.com/we-are-all-socia....
  2. Alexander Eichler, “Young People More Likely to Favor Socialism than Capitalism: Pew, Huffington Post, December 29, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/29....
  3. Alison Flood, “‘Socialism’ the Most Looked-up Word of 2015 on Merriam-Webster,” Guardian, December 16, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/de....
  4. The best history of Debs and his era is Ray Ginger’s classic, The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2007).
  5. Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (London: Verso, 2002), 17.
  6. Thatcher apparently used the phrase several times. Francis Fukuyama, the then-deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff and former analyst at the RAND Corporation, wrote “The End of History?” in the Summer 1989 issue of the National Interest, available http://www.wesjones.com/eoh.htm.
  7. Giovanni Russonello, “Poll Watch: Democrats, Even Clinton Supporters, Warm to Socialism,” New York Times, November 20, 2015.
  8. Harold Meyerson, “Why are there Suddenly Millions of Socialists in America?” Guardian, February 29, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree....
  9. Figures on median income are from Lawrence Mishel and Alyssa Davis, “Income Stagnation in 2014 Shows the Economy Is Not Working for Most Families,” Working Economics Blog, September 16, 2015, Economic Policy Institute http://www.epi.org/blog/income-stagnatio....
  10. Figures in this paragraph are reported in Josh Bivens and Lawrence Mishel, “Understanding the Historic Divergence Between Productivity and a Typical Worker’s Pay: Why It Matters and Why It’s Real,” Economic Policy Institute, September 2, 2015, http://www.epi.org/publication/understan....
  11. Edmond L. Andrews, “Greenspan Concedes Error on Regulation,” New York Times, October 23, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/24/busine...
  12. Hal Draper’s pamphlet can be found at https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/....
  13. The phrase was famously quoted by Daniel Bell in his 1966 book, Marxian Socialism in the United States (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), 5.
  14. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Phil Gasper, ed., The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Political Document (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), 59. 
  15. Duncan Hallas, “Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Party,” International Socialist Review 100, Spring 2016, 141–156.

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