26 May, 2022


Socialism From Marx To Millennials

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

Karl Marx, the first violin, was only 29, and Frederick Engels, the second fiddle, 27, when they co-wrote the Communist Manifesto that was published in early 1848. As Trotsky wrote nearly a hundred years later, “the young authors were able to look further into the future than anyone before them, and perhaps than anyone since them.” And a full 170 years after the publication of the Manifesto, a new generation of young Americans are raising the banner of socialism in their land that has long been considered the bastion of capitalism and at its highest stage, as Lenin called it, imperialism. They are the American millennials, and their democratic battle cry for socialism has even ‘inspired’ The Economist, once the flagship journal of unmitigated capitalism and now a refined exponent of the market economy and political liberalism, to devote its latest cover page and story to “The Rise of Millennial Socialism” in America. 

Engels and Marx

There is a parallel between what Marx and Engels, two émigré Germans, wrote for communism in the mid-19th century, and what the Americans Millennials are doing for socialism in the early 21st century. With their astounding Manifesto, Marx and Engels brought the egalitarian movement from the secret corners of conspiracy into the limelight of mainstream politics. Over the next century, however, the experience of revolution and socialism in many non-western countries did much to diminish rather than enhance the attractiveness of socialism in western countries. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the induction of formerly socialist countries into the global market economy were hailed as the ultimate victory of capitalism over socialism. Some even wrote about the ‘end of history.’ Rather, it may have been the start of a new historical chapter.

Far more than Europe, America has been quite virulent in its opposition not only to full blown socialism but to anything that seemed like even a distant reflection of it. The two main parties, the Republicans and the Democrats have traditionally been too far to the right of every right-wing party in every other western country. Even President Obama, hardly a radical in economic matters, was berated as a socialist by the Republicans and their Tea Party extremists. And Obama did little to address the alienation of those who felt left behind by the uneven benefits of globalization. The upshot was the “Occupy Movement” that was launched on Wall Street, in New York, in September 2011, even before Obama was through his first term. The street occupancy was the statement on behalf of hugely relatively deprived 99% against the 1% enjoying a hugely disproportionate share of the national and global incomes. Five years later, during the Democratic Party primaries, the Occupy Movement found a political voice in Bernie Sanders, a cranky old throwback to the protest movements of the 1960s. But he was attracting crowds as young as what Marx and Engels were when they wrote their Manifesto.

The election of Donald Trump as America’s President, after initially giving some license to the racist and sexist desperados, has eventually opened the floodgates to others who want an America that is racially, sexually and economically far more equal than it is now and in keepings with its endowments and its promises. Millennial socialism is at once a reaction to everything that Trump venally represents and an aspiration for everything that would make America more equal, fair and just than it is today. Just as Marx and Engels with their Manifesto made communism and socialism mainstream political pursuits, the millennials are making socialism an acceptable addition to America’s political vocabulary. For a new generation of Americans, socialism is “no longer the boo word it once was,” as The Economist said it aptly. Trump has already thrown the gauntlet warning America that the Democratic Party is being hijacked by radical socialists, but even the old Democratic Party leadership has become wise to Trump’s tricks. The leadership is dismissive of Trump’s taunts, because he will call them socialists any way. So, why not enjoy this wave of millennial socialism for as long as it lasts? 

The Differences

To be clear, American millennial socialism is not at all a programmatic endorsement of the old Communist Manifesto. But it does not hide its enthusiasm for what Marx and Engels wrote 170 years ago. In fact, the 2008 financial crisis dramatically increased the fascination for the old Manifesto among the western intelligentsia, political activists and, most of all, the millennial generation. The generational significance is writ large all over the face of millennial socialism – in the election of young radical women to the US Congress in the November 2018 election, in a resounding rebuke of the Trump presidency. The poster-face of millennial socialism is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex (AOC), the young US Congresswoman elected from New York last November. Born to Puerto Rican immigrant parents, AOC was not even a month old when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, apparently signalling the triumph of capitalism over socialism. 

AOC and her generation of Americans did not grow up on a diet of anti-Soviet information, but amidst the negative experiences of global capitalism and the spectacular crash of the financial markets in 2008. They are also more sensitized to the effects of climate change. Fighting climate change is the cause of their generation.  At 29, the same age as Marx was when he co-wrote the Manifesto, AOC has initiated a proposal to legislate a New Green Deal for America – modelled on President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s for the challenges of the 2020s. Along with fighting income inequality and climate change, the millennials also have a new thrust against gender inequality. All three are markers that clearly distinguish the context of American millennial socialism from the circumstances that both provoked and inspired Marx and Engels in their time. 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

The circumstances of Marx and Engels were those of primitive capitalism, of widespread exploitation and suffering in the mere effort to live. Marx and Engels predicted the inevitability of capitalism imploding and being overthrown. But capitalism has learnt to live through cycles of prosperous booms and disastrous busts. Millennial socialism is not seeking to overthrow capitalism, but to go further than the compromising ‘third way’ of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair who came after the triumphalist capitalism of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Some of the millennial socialist goals in America are already common practices in other western countries. The goals include free education at all levels, universal health care system, providing public services and, providing guaranteed minimum income and, most of all, the ‘democratization of the economy.’ Millennial socialists also want to push back on the privatization of public utilities and to give government greater role in the provision of public goods and service. 

America’s starting point is the most advanced stage in the development of capitalism. The socialist purpose is not to create wealth to lift the poor, but to redistribute the wealth that has already been created. Underpinning the tasks of democratization and redistribution are academic research and writings challenging the more established economic approaches. The Economist provides a brief survey of them: “Keynesianism is not enough” is the academic thinking influencing British Labour circles, and hence the need for economic democratization. Globalization is seen more for its shortcomings than for its benefits in works such as “Capitalist Realism” (Mark Fisher) and Bullshit Jobs (David Graeber). Both in Britain, in the Labour Party, and among the aspiring Democratic presidential candidates in America, there are increasing calls for ‘worker-owned co-operatives’ and ‘regional water authorities’ run by local representatives. There is even a somewhat controversial ‘modern monetary theory (MMT)’ to counter the orthodoxies against deficit financing.

There are theories of cyclical generational changes in American history. Each generation (20-22 years) creates a new turning point within a larger cycle (saeculum) lasting 80-90 years. The Millennials are the third in the current Millennium Saeculum, carrying the ‘heroic’ turning point. How far the millennials can go with their socialist turning point that is specific to America – is the question that will stir American political debate over the next two years as the country struggles to see beyond Donald Trump, a political aberration from the postwar boomer generation. There could not have been a worse representative for that dying (boomer) generation whom millennials blame for much of today’s problems in America and in the world. Trump will of course do everything he can to use the bogey of socialism, in addition to racism, to win a second term. Can the millennials outsmart Trump electorally – that is the question that will have to be answered for history in 2020. 

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Latest comments

  • 14

    True democracy can never be effective in practice without socialism and similarly socialism will have no meaning without democracy. It is only through an evolutionary process, the two could combine. It is the future generations that will determine the path of this process.

    Global capitalism is on its decline and this old set up will be pregnant with the ‘new’, yet to be born and as to what to call it, only the future generations will decide!

  • 5

    Interesting read. Still, all this pales at the thought that it is what is dictated by our friends in the Forbidden City that will matter in the decades to come. Who will predict the slowly unfolding plan?

  • 9

    Socialism, communism and capitalism
    Easier to understand socialism if you know communism and capitalism.
    In communism the goal is to eradicate social class system based on income.
    Capitalism promotes, division based on income and the type of job.
    Socialism, finds the middle path of these systems.
    Democracy gives power to the Majority. Socialist structure, gives protection to the minority.
    Together not only it will achieve peace, but gives solution to economic disparity.
    We need to realize, the greed fuels the people to prosper economically, while conveniently forgetting their social responsibility.
    We are clever enough to play the blame game, to rationalize our game of greed.
    Those who gain riches due greed will spend more time counting and protecting them.
    In the final analysis the riches will desert them and realize how foolish they were.

  • 0

    Rajan forgot to mention that Alexandria is much prettier than the two fiddlers Karl and Freddy.

    Seriously though, I too was taken aback by the Economist coming so close to endorsing socialism.

    It however criticizes Millennial Socialists (MS) on four counts.
    a) Income inequality shows signs of falling, not rising as MS thinks
    b) MS does not recognize that public opinion does not support radical redistribution
    c) MS is careless about fiscal policy and does not recognize the harm spendthrift policies do
    d) MS incorrectly rejects carbon taxes in favour of regulations as a means of controlling pollution.

    The Ecoonomist is probably wrong on (a), surely wrong on (b), certainly correct on (c) – vide Venezuela – and I venture no comment on (d).

    • 2

      Kumar David points out ~ “Rajan forgot to mention that Alexandria is much prettier than the two fiddlers Karl and Freddy”.
      Rajan discussed the contribution of the three.
      Misogynists let looks cloud their confused minds.
      Trotsky wrote nearly a hundred years later, “the young authors were able to look further into the future than anyone before them, and perhaps than anyone since them.”
      Rajan please tell Kumar as to who or what this Trotsky is.

    • 0

      MS is about differentiating between unearned income and genuine value creation.

  • 0

    Rajan Philips is at his best, no doubt.

    But the lessons of history is against you comrade!

    Inequality spearheads progress whether in America then and China now. Inequality is the driving force and a little bit of welfarism will do the trick as it did then, now also will.
    Equality dampens the sprit and the initiatives and results in dormant societies.

    Karl Marx, and Frederick Engels produced communist manifesto when the capitalism was primitive and unable to change,yet survived with minimal concessions .

    The capitalism later had faced far more complex challenges and survived-imperialism , neo colonialism and finally globalization.

    Now globalization faces serious challenges. The result is Donald trump, Brexit and millennium socialists.

    When Donald Trump is ousted and replaced by another modern edition of capitalism, the millennium socialism also vanishes into thin air..

    Capitalism is far more resilience than socialism of any variety.

    Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex (AOC) will be a member of the congress only for the next two years, she will be a one term member and at the age of 32 that is in another three years will be history as do millennium socialism.

  • 3

    Rajan and Kumar,

    AOC was elected from a Queens-Bronx district where blue collar workers are a large part of the electorate. She was invited to contest by a progressive group called ‘Justice Democrats,’ led by Saikat Chakrabarti (SC), born and raised in Texas. A Harvard graduate in Computer Science, he was an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley for a couple of years, but didn’t like the way things are going in the country, and left to co-found the new Justice Democrats group. Now SC is AOC’s chief of staff.

    While AOC is popular in social media, outside her district, her support is probably not high; people regard her as the person who triggered a serious discussion among people about capitalism’s flaws, but her policies such as the Green New Deal won’t get enough support even among Democrats.

    The Economist and the Republicans are used to demonizing every idea coming from the left as ‘socialism,’ but millennials are simply calling for a system like the one in the Scandinavian countries. Those countries have relatively high taxes on the middle class, so it doesn’t have enough support in the US. There is plenty of support for raising income taxes on the rich, but unless some drastic action is taken, such as imposing a very high wealth tax ( not just income tax), which will run into constitutional challenges, it won’t be adequate to support the policies promoted by progressives.

  • 0

    Wonderful!……but only if the whole world converts to Socialism at the same instant. And is China in any hurry to do this, I wonder. Otherwise, it will be America further wielding its war-machine on lesser nations so as to ensure Americans have universal their universal health care, free college tuition, higher minimum wages etc.

    The best is Trump’s Capitalistic albeit Socialized plan for America, with Western countries (that have no other option,), remaining capitalistic albeit in a socialized-capitalized milieu. Countries that have the greater capacity to implement Socialism, such as the Motherland Sri Lanka, should implement it ASAP. Thus will rabid capitalism which is running around like a dog gone mad, suffering with all the booms and busts, be balanced out and tempered for the benefit of the whole globe

  • 0

    Writer has deliberately skipped to remind that capitalism was for many not the few. Capitalism itself had great socialism for it to last long. Capitalism prior to 1960s had all these noble long lasting mix of socialism until unscrupulous greedy people acquired capitalist institutions. Capitalism always lasted due to the fact that it brought up big business people from the so-called deprived sector of population. Also capitalism encouraged profit maximization which in other words minimized the use of resources including natural resources. It helped survival of the earth.

    Marx and Engles failed to see wealth created by Capitalism by “ so called production” turned to a knowledge based economy after 1990. That’s what millennials are enjoying now. It helped a millennial in one country to experience the feeling of a millennial in another country. That’s how the empathy based socialism spreading. Marx and Engles also failed to see an economy beyond the earth. Capitalism helps us go beyond the earth.

    Your portrayal of Trump as an “ evil” and even Democratic Party as a socialist party is not entirely true. You have failed to see Trumps fight against state crony capitalism of China which is detrimental to the entire world.

  • 0

    “America’s starting point [for the socialist millennialists’ project] is the most advanced stage in the development of capitalism. The socialist purpose is not to create wealth to lift the poor, but to redistribute the wealth that has already been created.”

    Incredibly, having made this admission, Rajan Philips still goes on to express a desire for the American socialist millennials to defeat Trump and establish what is reality would be a socialist dystopia. He would do well to ponder a quote attributed to Margaret Thatcher: “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.” Does RJ entertain a secret wish for America to become another Venezuela?

    Trump a “racist”? Looks like RP has been exposing himself to too much anti-Trump propaganda like the CNN.

    • 0

      Correction: “millennialists” in the first sentence above should be amended to read as “millennials”.

  • 1

    The problem with Capitalism is you never run out of other people’s money, the money of the working classes.

    “Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.”

    John Maynard Keynes

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