Socialism in the United States has gone mainstream. It has a presidential candidate and a flourishing political movement. It has widespread sympathy amongst Americans, especially younger Americans. Yet liberals and conservatives tend to treat the topic with the assumption that the new American socialism is an extension of traditional twentieth century European socialism, with similar political and economic aims.
American socialism, however, is not this kind of socialism. As I argued last fall in the Washington Examiner, American socialism is distinct from traditional European socialism, and rejects essential tenets thereof. It is a new, home-grown ideology, a made-in-America socialism. In this Law and Liberty essay, I shall analyse the unique ideological passions composing the new American socialism, which circumscribe its differences from traditional European socialism and define its characteristics and aims.
Socialism and the Anti-Bourgeois Passion
By traditional European socialism, I mean the Marxian-inflected 20th century political movements, which, focused on the economic plight of the working class in a capitalist economy, built their political programs and parties around the theme of class struggle. This socialism is neither Leninism nor Stalinism. European socialist parties contended that economic change had to happen not through violent revolution, but through democracy.
Yet socialists were not social democrats—that is, mere economic reformers. They shared the Leninist goal of ending capitalism: they remained, as Jean Jaurès once put it, the “party of opposition” to the whole capitalist system, the exploitative system of exchange based off pursuit of profit.
Traditional socialism’s theory and practice developed out of what François Furet in The Passing of an Illusion called “the oldest, most constant, most powerful passion,” the “hatred of the bourgeoisie.” The bourgeoisie came into existence not as a political class with an assigned role in the political regime, but as a class that owed its status to its capacity to create and acquire wealth. The bourgeois are defined entirely by economics. They bring into existence the new economic system of capitalism. Moreover, the bourgeois are not defined by the values of particular political or religious traditions. They bring with themselves the fundamental freedom to acquire more property and wealth. Contending that this freedom should belong equally to everyone, the bourgeois brandish the universal values of liberty and equality, as well rights of contract, free association, and the right to choose their own conceptions of happiness: “in short, the idea of individual autonomy, in opposition to all earlier societies based on dependence.” This combination of social, economic changes and the dissemination of universal values created an entirely new society.
Socialism confronted the bourgeois for their contradictions. The bourgeois were the agents disseminating unjust social and economic transformations: Touting equality, they exacerbated economic inequality. They gave class struggle an acute, painful form, because the sufferings of the working class, caused by the commercial practices of the bourgeoisie, were almost—but not quite—de-legitimised by the universalist ideology of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeois became socialism’s villain. They had to be attacked for both their economic exploitation as well as for their ideology of “individual autonomy.” The proletariat, in turn, became socialism’s hero. They had to be defended as the class with the power to end the contradictions of capitalism and redeem society. Marx’s contribution was to make these observations scientific.
The practical aim of socialism was to end capitalism, which meant defeating the bourgeois and suppressing their profit motive. This required organising the means of production away from the profit motive. Throughout the twentieth century, socialist parties defined their strategy to do so through state ownership of the means of production.
How American Socialism Transforms the Anti-Bourgeois Passion
Self-styled American socialists leave this behind. They define socialism not by government control of the economy or by state ownership of the means of production, but rather in terms of an open-ended commitment to equality. This shift shows how American socialists are punting the elimination of capitalism—supposedly the goal of the “party of opposition” to capitalism—to an ill-defined future. Certainly the anti-capitalist rhetoric persists, but the emphasis on an open-ended equality, rather than a strategy for eliminating capitalism, has changed socialism’s characteristics and aims. The clearest sign of this is how American socialists de-emphasize economic class struggle.
This is the most important difference between Bernie Sanders in 2016 and Bernie Sanders in 2020. When Sanders first ran for President, he largely focused on the “social question” of economic class. However, Sanders became vulnerable to the charge—peddled by the intellectual wing of the Clinton campaign—that he was insufficiently attentive to race and identity issues. So in 2020, to give his campaign a wider reach, Sanders is now clear he is not just fighting oligarchy. In a June 2019 speech, he names “oligarchy, corporatism, nationalism, racism and xenophobia” as his foes. These are connected because oligarchs encourage “violent rage against minorities.” Sanders connects his call for economic redistribution with a call to focus on the concerns of minorities, naming “women,” “people of color,” “immigrants,” and “members of the LGBT community.” “Class struggle” has transformed into the struggle on behalf of an open-ended, ever-growing category of “minorities.”
The most important consequence of de-emphasising class struggle is that socialism becomes much less hostile to the bourgeois. To hide this shift, American socialists’ open-ended struggle on behalf of the minorities tries to pass itself off as continuous with the old class struggle, and therefore as continuous with the old anti-bourgeois passion. But there is in fact a great chasm between the two.
American socialism offers an alternative explanation of the classical theme of economic inequality, why some are wealthy and others are not. Under the logic of traditional socialism, class is the barrier to economic prosperity. If class were eliminated, then wider prosperity would be possible. But if the struggle is to equalize minorities, the principal barriers to economic prosperity are now sexism, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia. These serve to explain economic inequality, and if these were eliminated, then wider prosperity would be possible. So the obstacles to equality are different. As the list of ‘isms’ and ‘phobias’ grows, it becomes clear that we are not talking about how dysfunctional economic relations prevent materially similar communities from enjoying the fruits of economic production. This new socialism expands the list of ‘isms’ and ‘phobias’ because its intention is to indicate how unjust these forms of discrimination are. The explanation for why they are unjust is that they thwart individual self-expression, individual self-determination, or most fundamentally, individual self-creation. But this is tantamount to defending the “idea of individual autonomy” that traditional socialism attacked.
The task American socialists have set themselves is to achieve and sustain a culture of free self-creation. But this culture, the culture of individual autonomy, grows out of the bourgeois. The social conditions that make bourgeois life possible, and contribute to its expansion, also make the culture of individual autonomy possible, and contribute to its expansion. However bohemian this culture of self-creation may aspire to be, then, its conditio per quam is bourgeois: bourgeois social conditions and bourgeois morality. It cannot escape its bourgeois origins. What emerges is the bourgeois-bohemian, the “bobo”: the champion of freedom as self-expression, self-determination, and self-creation, whose social condition is inescapably bourgeois.
The bobos denounce the bourgeois from within the bourgeois, an activity as old as the French Revolution. The old activity denounced the bourgeois for their politically conservative attitudes that opposed revolution. The new activity, making support for individual autonomy and self-creation the decisive issue, has the bobos denounce the bourgeois for their attitudes that are hostile to individual autonomy and self-creation, the practices that hold minorities back and get in the way of equality. Let us call these the practices of acknowledged dependency, whose paramount examples are found in familial and religious life.
By scrutinizing the bourgeois for these practices of acknowledged dependency, the bobos denounce the bourgeois in the name of bourgeois principles. Yet rapidly the question arises: why should we assume that only the bourgeois have “problematic” attitudes that are hostile to self-creation? We must scrutinize all of society, including the lower, working classes, as they might also share in those problematic attitudes that hold minorities back and get in the way of equality. And what a minefield we find! So for the new socialism, the primary target for social criticism shifts from the bourgeois to the working class. The working class now falls under permanent suspicion.
There are three strategies to try and fit the new wine of minority struggle within the old wineskins of class struggle. To target the bourgeois again, we can play the card of ideology-formation, arguing that it is the bourgeois who are teaching problematic attitudes to the working class (e.g., oligarchs encouraging violent rage against minorities). But when one thinks of the social and political attitudes of Fortune 500 CEOs and the propertied denizens of New York and San Francisco, this argument is empirically unsustainable.
Second, we can adjust the class struggle thesis so that the propertied bourgeois are no longer the problem. The new class struggle is between the super rich, the 1% of Wall Street and big business, and the rest of us. Sanders often addresses this theme in his speeches, but there are two problems with this approach. The first problem is that this approach, at best, targets capitalism only indirectly. As Norman Thomas observed, to attack the sins of big business as a progressive like FDR did is not to attack the profit system per se. The second problem is that it suppresses another plausible interpretation of the new class struggle: it is not the 1%, but the 10%, against the rest. This new class struggle interpretation counters that focusing on the problem of the 1% permits the 10% of the bobos to peddle critiques that are radical, but not radical enough to threaten their way of life.
Third, we can argue that a new, multi-ethnic, multi-minority working class updates the framework of economic materialism. We need to overcome the ‘isms’ because they hold the minorities within the working class back. But stressing the minorities therein rather than the working class itself gives the game away. It is another way of saying that all of the working class is equal, but some are more equal than others. We cannot have working class solidarity when half the working class is potentially racist.
American socialism does not defy but rather kneels before the bourgeois. It may criticize individual autonomy in the market for producing inequality, but its concern is mainly that inequality infringes on the autonomy of other individuals, their capacity for self-creation. This is what American socialists tend to mean when they say the liberal economy is “undemocratic.” As Furet observed in the early 1990s, the American left wishes to extend, not condemn, bourgeois life. In non-economic domains, the imperative of extension is obvious. American socialism zealously promotes individual autonomy. In the pursuit of self-expression, it turns the residents of Greenwich Village and the bathhouses of San Francisco into ideal character-types. But now we must address another question. Greenwich Village’s individualist self-creation and its defenders are over a hundred years old. Its sub-cultures survived and thrived. Whence the imperative to extend the bobo culture of self-creation? Whence the imperative to denounce those who hesitate to extend it? The origins of this moral passion lie in the singularly American phenomenon of the civil rights movement.
The Passion for Equality and Bourgeois Guilt
Furet argued that the major transformation of the American left came from its desire to imitate the civil rights era. The civil rights crusaders, closely associated with American Progressivism, worked to remedy a unique wound in American history: the inability of Blacks to participate in the American Dream because of the history of Black slavery and the persistence of legalized racial segregation. The successes of this era constituted the main moral passion of the American left. Moreover, it was successful in large part because it gave theological meaning to that moral passion. Furet had observed that the bourgeois had a “guilty conscience” at their core. In the American landscape, theology provoked it. The practice of civil rights leaders, notably King, was far from the secular public reason that a later generation of liberalism tried to extract from the era. Read through the Bible and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, the Declaration of Independence became a text in civic theology, a hope for racial equality, a call to action, and a faith in the power to heal America’s wound. This theology turned desegregation from an elite cause into a mass movement, culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
As the specific struggle of the 1960s became more of a memory, however, the moral passion became increasingly abstract. The generations that missed the sixties turned the civil rights era into a readily applicable analogy to all other fights against inequality. Furet observed that American feminists first claimed equal access to work as a “minority group,” a “literally absurd claim” only intelligible by reference to the Black experience. Then there came the call for equalizing ethnicities new to American soil with older ethnicities; then equalizing sexual orientations; and now in the 21st century, equalizing gender identities. For their enthusiasts, each of these struggles—always a struggle on behalf of a “minority”—replicates the moral crusades of the 1960s.
Moreover, the theological concepts did not fall out of use; they became displaced from the referents that gave them specific content. Victimhood remained sacred and the moral authority for victimhood remained. But its uses became more vague, more careless, and more instrumentalised. Black Americans wear the crown of thorns, giving them their moral authority. But displaced from the Black experience and coupled with an open-ended, abstract passion, applications of the concept multiplied, along with claims to moral authority. Decades of proliferating the crown of thorns reference across the American landscape has provoked new tensions, and not all minorities remain victims. The old moral authority of some minorities passes on to new minorities (in Furet’s example, from Jews to Muslims). Moreover, if not one but many American minorities wear the crown of thorns, then its application now diminishes the unique significance of its initial application to Black Americans. They become just more victims of oppression.
We can differentiate the displaced theology of this moral crusade from Marxism. There is no repetition of Marxism’s messianism for the working class. Marxian-inflected socialism turned the working class into an agent bestowed with moral freedom to end capitalism. When this failed to happen, socialists projected this failure onto an impersonal, deterministic “system,” contending that when this state of affairs no longer holds, its limits and failures will no longer exist. But for the present, this impersonal system made everyone part of a historically conditioned and determined phase of society, abandoning moral agency.
By endorsing the open-ended struggle on behalf of the minorities, American socialism uses the language of the civil rights era to project its limitations onto an impersonal “system”—here, the systems of minority oppression that characterise American life. This echoes traditional socialism’s crudest determinisms, but with new content. Human beings are no longer passive objects of determined economic processes; now they are passive objects of determined racialised-sexualised processes. But there is no moral agent at hand to remove this system, no messianic “proletariat” at hand to break the chains. The best one can do is become aware of one’s place within these systems by listening to those with victimhood status. Moral agency only appears as guilt, with no opportunity for pardon. And there is a particular agent expected to bear this guilt. The new villain is not the bourgeois, but the white heterosexual American Christian male.
American socialism is more post-Christian than traditional socialist Marxism, because none of those minorities it alleges wears the crown of thorns can serve as a messiah. Its moral crusade has no soteriology, no redemption. Socialism defines the American landscape through a truncated messianism that multiplies moral authority for victimhood and extracts guilt from its new villain. Faced with so many victims and so many claims to moral authority, the bobo vanguard, who often share the characteristics of the villain, are left not with hatred of the other who wounded the victim, but with their own guilt—and without forgiveness, they are left only with self-hatred.
The Revolutionary Passions of American Socialism
Self-hatred is an old theme in democracy. For Furet, self-hatred gives democracy an:
infinite capacity to produce offspring who detest the social and political regime into which they were born—hating the very air they breathe, though they cannot survive without it and have known no other.
American socialism intensifies this passion for self-hatred across all political and social life. Its clearest manifestations are self-hating American bobos who channel their hatred toward the institutions of American democracy. In the Examiner, I argued that the revolutionary passion American socialism stokes leads to a direct assault on American constitutionalism. But another side is a passion for cultural revolution.
Traditional socialism could practice cultural revolution. It aimed to battle the ravages of capitalism by forming new cultural communities for the working class. Yet that response to the social question is long gone. In its place are the new battlegrounds that Jean-Pierre Le Goff spotted: history, environmentalism, children’s literature, formal education of children, and human sexuality, where victory means extirpating the conscious and unconscious prejudices that belong to the villain’s culture. The goal is to negate the entirety of the existing culture.
To achieve that goal the bobos become “bo-Bolsheviks.” Commentary on “woke” ferocity is now abundant, so I shall limit myself to four observations. First, the Leninist nomenclature is appropriate because the very concept of the “woke” is a carnival mirror of Bolshevism. As any erudite 20th century Marxist knew, Lenin’s innovation on Marxism was that it was impossible to wait for the proletariat to become self-aware on their own. Bolshevism contended that only an intellectual elite endowed with superior knowledge could start the revolution. The very concept of “woke” is explicitly this invocation of superior knowledge that the many do not possess.
Second, with bo-Bolshevism we observe substitutionist politics. In substitutionist politics, one substitutes a real unanimous will not yet agreed upon with the will of a vanguard minority. As Charles Taylor observed in his critique of the left, Leninism is subsitutionist politics. In Leninism, a vanguard takes over on behalf of the proletariat, creating a super-subject of the proletariat, to whom the vanguard imputes a will or a direction of history in which it wishes to move. This presupposes unanimity. So the vanguard’s task is to suppress those within the class or super-subject who think differently. American socialism is different in that it multiplies the amount of super-subjects: there are many minorities. But there is only one vanguard, the “woke.” To enforce unanimity, the vanguard deploys its activists, media-adjuncts, and ultimately the power of the state not to persuade but to destroy opponents. The vanguard seeks to destroy rather than to persuade because persuasion involves compromise with those who have reservations about some of particular practical goals of the moral crusade, as well as self-examination about the whole theoretical basis for the moral crusade. The upshot of these hesitations is to risk falling back unto mere reformism, giving up the revolutionary passion. The vanguard cannot allow this. A revolution permits no obstacles, delays, or scruples.
Third, bo-Bolshevism’s revolutionary character is a consequence of understanding freedom as self-determination or self-creation. The aim is to create a world in which individuals can recreate themselves out of themselves. This project fights on the aforementioned battlegrounds to seek out and destroy the practices of acknowledged dependency therein—the religious and family practices, and their determinations in law and politics, which limit the capacity of persons to recreate themselves. The passion for this project can power destruction and transformation for a long time.
Fourth, bo-Bolsheviks develop a new kind of Leninism that serves the goal of self-creation: libertine-Leninism. Yet this goal is not unlike the goal of individual autonomy that American liberalism promulgates. American liberals and socialists tend to ape each other’s account of what constitutes legitimate politics. No one gets cancelled for advocating flat taxes, but if you voice disagreement with a wholly social constructivist understanding of gender, your public speaking days are numbered. Yet this is what American liberalism argued all along: once the benign restrictions to “public reason” are accepted and the liberal state built, then the only legitimate kind of political discussion left is economic management. American socialism is closer to American liberalism than its practitioners care to admit.
American Socialism’s Qui Quem
American socialists equivocate between socialism and the American tradition of liberal Progressivism. This is departure from most of the 20th century. Progressives rejected socialism and sought economic reform through the means of technocratic, managerial liberalism. Socialists accused Progressives of entrenching state capitalism, since their raison d’être was to end capitalism.
Bernie Sanders, however, has presided over a cunning rapprochement between socialism and Progressivism, obliging his progressive competitors to be friendly to socialism. Yet rapprochement goes both ways. Sanders cleaves to the state capitalism that socialists once spurned. The political program American socialists propose—from free college and cancellation of debt, federally funded day-care, mandatory single-payer health care, and new federal agencies—is unreconstructed statism, a colossal extension of the power and size of the federal government.
The new socialism’s confidence in statism departs from the skepticism of the old. Norman Thomas criticized the New Deal and contended that “we do not mean to turn socialized industries over to political bureaucrats,” criticising the bureaucratic centralisation of the managerial, administrative state. British socialism in the twentieth century was a struggle between those who argued that transforming economic relations required strengthening the central bureaucracy, and those who argued that transforming economic relations required strengthening local communities. If the statists got the upper hand in the postwar Labour Party, composing the governments of Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson, Labour Party activists never forgot the localist strand of British socialism. Consider one recent example, a profile in The Guardian of Jeremy Corbyn’s first lieutenant:
[John] McDonnell believes there are limits to how far the left can increase taxes and government spending. In his view, many voters are unwilling, or simply unable, to pay much more tax – especially when living standards are squeezed, as now. He also believes that central government has lost authority: it is seen as simultaneously too weak, short of money thanks to austerity; and too strong – too intrusive and domineering towards citizens.
How extraordinary it would be if Bernie Sanders or one of his chief advisors declared that the federal bureaucracy had lost authority—“too intrusive and domineering”—or that voters will not and cannot pay more taxes. He would be accused of uttering “Republican talking-points.” To be sure, there are American socialist nods toward an “anarchist tradition” to refute the charge that socialism must aim for state ownership of the economy, as well as advocates for “Progressivism localism” and for “democratizing the economy.” But the agent for these proposals remains the centralized state, and none dare disown that. American socialists have a theory on how to take power. But they have no theory on how to use power that does not resemble managerial liberalism.
The decisive point, however, is that synthesising American socialism with American Progressivism does not univocally pull American Progressivism further to the left. The disputes between socialists and progressives mask their fundamental, shared worldview: the bourgeois worldview of freedom as individual self-creation. American socialists may be anti-liberal on economics. But they are ultra-liberal about everything else.
To those ends, socialists and liberal Progressives do cooperate. If, much to the dismay of American socialists, a bill to provide New York State a single-payer health-care system fails to make it through the state senate, in spite of the left’s majority, a bill for unrestricted abortion passes by wide margins. American socialists and liberal Progressives cooperate to advance the ideology of individual autonomy, which strengthens the bourgeois ideology and achieves the old objectives of American liberalism.
Toward the end of After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argued that whenever Marxists had to take moral stances, they fell back into the moral language of liberal individualism. Marxists came to exemplify “precisely the kind of moral attitude which they condemn in others as ideological.” Moreover, the closer Marxists came to power, the more they became zealous defenders of the centralized administrative bureaucracy. This seems to be American socialism’s fate. It deepens individualism and statism. It is not the rival but the patsy of state capitalism. It does not resist but serves managerial liberalism. American socialism is neither Marxian-inflected socialism nor Marxism, but it parodies their defects.