Last week, several self-proclaimed Democratic Socialists defeated long-serving Democratic incumbents in New York State primaries. One of the insurgents, Zohran Mamdani, tweeted out the words, “Socialism won.” His pinned tweet on his profile page says, “Together, we can tax the rich, heal the sick, house the poor & build a socialist New York. But only if we build a movement of the multiracial working class to stand up to those who want to stop us . . . Solidarity forever.”
This is a pretty good summary of what people currently attracted to socialism think they mean by the term — tax the rich and bring down the special interests to bring about a better country founded upon an agenda of radical egalitarianism. Yet anyone who has studied the history of socialism knows that this will fail, painfully, and possibly violently. Why do people fall for this time and again?
That’s the question my new book, The Socialist Temptation, released today, tries to answer. In it, I argue that socialism has learned how to speak the language of American values. The three main American values identified by cultural theorists are fairness, freedom, and community. Socialism says it can provide all of those.
Yet when you look at just how socialism purports to do that, it is full of contradictions. Those contradictions have been in full display whenever anyone has attempted to build an actual socialist state. Whether it be the Soviet Union, today’s China, or the Britain I grew up in, we see that bureaucrats and officials gain a privileged position, rights are trampled in the name of democracy, and communities are broken apart.
Of course, when everything goes to hell, socialists console themselves by saying that wasn’t real socialism. As Kristian Niemietz of London’s Institute of Economic Affairs has documented, in every such case the program began lauded as real socialism at last. As the wheels come off, they blame “wreckers” and foreign agents, and then finally deny that the project was ever socialist in the first place.
Thus, socialism is able to start again with a blank slate. Today’s socialist supporters say the last thing they want is nationalized industries and tractor-production targets, and wax lyrical about the joys of democracy and democratic control of corporations instead. In other words, they’ll replace direct government ownership of the economy with micromanaging bureaucratic oversight of it. Corporations won’t be the state, but they’ll be its agents. Imagine today’s woke capitalism with a National Recovery Administration imprimatur and you’ll get the idea. This will, of course, kill wealth creation and innovation and lead to a divided society with no rights and, again, broken communities.
As socialism’s appeal appears to be the way it speaks to values, it would seem that defeating socialism is a communications challenge. In this respect, we are in the same position as Ronald Reagan was in 1977 when he delivered his Hillsdale lecture, “Whatever Happened to Free Enterprise.” He said:
If you lose your economic [freedom], you lose your political freedom, all freedom. Freedom is something that cannot be passed on in the bloodstream, or genetically. And it’s never more than one generation away from extinction. Every generation has to learn how to protect and defend it, or it’s gone and gone for a long, long time.
It is our generation’s turn to meet this challenge. Things have changed. Reagan’s generation could rely on strong support from big business, although he himself suggested that too many were even then willing to feed the crocodile. As we know, that has now gone — big businesses are now all too often willing to support governmental control of our lives, feeding us to the crocodile instead.
We must therefore learn to communicate in new ways, learning how to speak to values. If we are to defeat socialism, we must persuade people that socialism is a threat to, not a guarantor of, equality (read Animal Farm to your children soon). We must argue that embracing socialist definitions of freedom will mean sacrificing some of our most cherished freedoms, like freedom of speech and of worship. We must argue that the bedrock of American community isn’t a union job for life in a subsidized industry but the free-enterprise system itself, allowing us to create wealth with and for our neighbors.
If we fail in this challenge, then we can look forward to a long march of America’s democratic socialists, out of New York and through our states and cities.