One explanation for why socialism is currently popular among young Americans blames their poor knowledge of 20th century European history. But we need not look overseas for an explanation. We can blame their poor knowledge of the history of the American left.
Consider a common refrain among young socialists who support Bernie Sanders. In their minds, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a socialist. Their argument is that New Deal entitlement programs were socialist. If those entitlements were socialist all along, and you support them, then supporting them makes you a socialist. So you might as well feel the Bern. The young American left is now at a point where it unironically repeats old conservative polemics against Roosevelt.
This is partially the result of enough people listening to what Bernie Sanders says. He has been comparing himself to Roosevelt for years. Like Roosevelt during the Great Depression, Sanders wants to clean up Wall Street and take on big business. To link Roosevelt to socialism, Sanders lets Roosevelt’s partisan critics pass their judgment on him, and leaves it to his listeners to draw their own conclusions:
Almost everything he [Roosevelt] proposed was called “socialist.” Social Security, which transformed life for the elderly in this country was “socialist.” The concept of the “minimum wage” was seen as a radical intrusion into the marketplace and was described as “socialist.” Unemployment insurance, abolishing child labor, the 40-hour work week, collective bargaining, strong banking regulations, deposit insurance, and job programs that put millions of people to work were all described, in one way or another, as “socialist.”
But another part of the problem with the young American left is that they have no idea that the left once thought of Roosevelt as a “state capitalist.” This was the view of Norman Thomas, for decades the chief spokesman of American democratic socialism. In order “to point out how false is the charge that Roosevelt and the New Deal represent socialism,” Thomas attacked Roosevelt. Because Roosevelt’s message was to challenge big business and clean up Wall Street, rather than unite the workers and abolish the profit system that exploited them, Roosevelt couldn’t be a socialist. In Thomas’s view, Roosevelt strengthened the power of the nationalist state, using state capitalism as bread and circuses to keep the people quiet.
In their ignorance of this criticism, the young American left show that they lack the conceptual language to grasp why “state capitalism” might, from the left-wing perspective, be a problem. They do not understand that Roosevelt was a Progressive, not a socialist. His administration would be unintelligible without reference to the tradition of American Progressivism. Drawing from German idealism and the social gospel movements, Progressives believed in strengthening the powers of the “modern” nation-state to achieve social and economic reforms. Progressives were technocrats. Socialists, for their part, were technocracy’s critics. They charged that managerial liberalism would not solve social and economic problems—these solutions could only come with the end of capitalism.
Throughout the 1930s and 40s, Progressives and socialists fought on these points. Thomas corresponded with Roosevelt to advise and admonish him, while Roosevelt worked to discredit Thomas politically. After the war, Progressivism won the upper hand. Capitalism had not failed during the Great Depression, but had led to greater and more widespread prosperity. Moreover, socialist foreign policy proposals, such as isolationism and pacifism during the Second World War, made socialism seem not just naïve but also dangerous. Socialists fell back upon ever more radical denunciations of American Progressivism’s encouragement of state capitalism at home and abroad. Since American Progressivism also put a lot of effort into spreading economic prosperity around the globe, socialists intensified their critique of Progressive foreign policy as neo-imperialist. Progressives contended that this critique delegitimized the American socialist movement, and ensured it remained a marginal force within the Democratic Party.
This 20th century battle between Progressives and socialists is virtually unknown among young voters today. But Bernie Sanders is old enough to know it, and we can assume he intentionally blends Progressivism and socialism. Why? Because by presiding over a synthesis between democratic socialism and New Deal Progressivism, Sanders gets to redefine nearly a century’s worth of political debates on terms favorable to socialism.
The young American left’s unironic repetition of conservative polemics might suggest that Barry Goldwater got the last laugh. And in some sense, he did. The Cold War persuaded the majority of the baby boomer generation that communism and socialism were horrendous experiments. But they did not think post-war progressivism concretised socialism—if you wanted concretisations of socialism, you had plenty of miserable countries to look at, and the Progressives certainly were not proposing that. So with some exceptions, this same generation did not regard the expansion of the federal government as ‘socialist’. For this reason, post-war Progressivism largely got what it set out to achieve. 1960s Great Society programs and their entitlements persist. In terms of policy, Reagan largely set Goldwater and ‘a time for choosing’ aside, keeping federal entitlements growing. Several generations of Democrat politicians, from Ted Kennedy to Joe Biden to Chuck Schumer, spent their careers defending these entitlements as part of the mainstream consensus of American politics—a consensus defined by Progressivism. By and large, American Progressives have been successful at consolidating the post-1964 administrative and welfare state.
But the new socialist interpretation of this history disregards this. The new interpretation, almost axiomatic in socialist circles, is that the United States does not have a real welfare state, because its massive federal government (which can expect an alarming fiscal future) did not achieve the egalitarian results that Scandinavian welfare states have achieved. The new interpretation suggests that because the programs Progressives built did not achieve the Scandinavian ideal, they changed nothing of consequence. And so, in their eyes, postwar Progressivism failed. This is the strategy of revolutionary maximalism: if the Great Society programs did not change everything, then they changed nothing.
Dyed-in-the-wool Progressives, such as Barack Obama, think they can ward off this revolutionary impulse by defending incremental change. But this strategy misses where American socialism wants to go. It wants to fight a political and cultural battle about the whole history and legacy of American Progressivism. Socialists as cunning as Sanders hope for a rematch in the historic quarrel between progressivism and socialism. Knowledgeable socialists capitalise upon the ignorance of those who do not remember or know about the battles over the “Great Society,” let alone the New Deal, to argue that the Progressives did not bring change, and in fact, contributed to the ongoing exploitation of the status quo. Thus they declare the impotency not just of the present generation of Schumer Democrats, but also of the entirety of postwar American progressivism. The belated cultural dissemination of the truth about Ted Kennedy, the promotion of a narrative around the Civil Rights Act that defames President Johnson, and the “reckoning” with Bill Clinton’s personal and political legacy all serve this end. The teaching is univocal: the Progressive movement and its leaders were impure and ineffective.
Progressivism’s legacy in the older, mainstream American left is still strong, and even conservative-leaning voters jealously guard federal entitlements from spending cuts. But these older voters do not regard the federal entitlements as socialist. The result, however, is that in the American public, socialism has become an abstraction. Older Americans can concretize socialism through their old memories of particular socialist and communist regimes. Yet younger Americans who do not share these memories can also idealize socialism. The cunning strategy of Bernie Sanders and his fellow American socialists is to make the ideal real, but by avoiding references to particular countries and regimes that might provoke those old memories. They concretize socialism right at home. They claim that the most successful elements of American Progressivism were socialist all along. Then they consign the old socialism’s critique of technocratic, managerial statism to oblivion and double down on the platform of massive state centralisation. They characterise post-1964 welfare-state expansions, up to an including Obamacare, as paltry accomplishments, effectively labeling the past and present leaders of the Democratic Party as status quo conservatives. They trust—rightly, it seems—that political ambition will cause these older Democrats to repudiate their own legacies in a bid to win votes in the present.
American socialists do not just aim to move the policies of the Democratic Party to the left. Their goal is to repudiate the whole history of American Progressivism. It is to create a mass political movement that never has to look backward to its ancestors. It teaches the young to despise everything and everyone that came before them, even those who were once on their side.