Is There a Socialist Re-awakening?

Any estimation of socialist prospects in the United States must include the defeat of Donald J. Trump, the election of the Biden-Harris ticket, and… dancing in the streets. Was it Socialist Dancing? We would surely like to think so. Such a massive outburst of joy brought by the defeat of racism, misogyny, and nativism will mean much to DSA, and should turn our careful attention to the subject of socialist possibilities. Cue author John B. Judis and his new book, The Socialist Awakening: What’s Different Now About the Left.

This compact and useful little book offers a mostly optimistic prognosis for the revival of socialist ideas and also an optimistic version of a contemporary policy savant’s own turn of mind. Judis, a key drafter of the formulations for the first issue of the journal Socialist Revolution (1970), drifted away, as he told viewers of a recent dialogue with E.J. Dionne, but has come back to socialist faith in a new way. This time, it’s not Marxism, but it has a lot in common with Bernie Sanders and even the recent growth of DSA. Judis believes that if socialists can stay away from wild rhetoric and third party experiments, they may become a decisive lever for progress.

Judis makes a strong case for the advance of socialistic ideas, often without the label, especially from the New Deal onward. Insisting upon the progress of a “socialism without capitalism” suggested long ago by Karl Polanyi and elaborated in recent times by Thomas Piketty and others. These steps seem to him a foreshadowing of more and better, within the guise of the Democratic Party mainstream. In order to become victorious, he argues, they must be combined with a clear and positive claim of national identity. Socialism will be American socialism, perhaps even American something-else that adds up, in time, to socialism.

Here, some conceptual difficulties kick in. Judis’s otherwise convincing themes and arguments put race, war and the clash of empires aside. These giant and depressing features that toppled the socialist movement early in the twentieth century still haunt us today. Within Judis’s political lifetime, they halted the Great Society and arguably cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 election. 

How is the circle to be squared? One of Judis’s strongest arguments draws upon a Bernie Sanders discussion, made even better by famed leftwing historian Eric Foner, in response to a Nation editorial of 2015. In that seemingly distant time, Bernie suggested, and the Nation editors echoed, the value of Scandinavian successes in creating a modern, relatively egalitarian welfare state. Foner, in a provocative open letter to Sanders, argued that it might be better to look at Tom Paine, Frederick Douglass, the Second New Deal and the Second Bill of Rights proposed by FDR in 1944. Pressed by the Congress of Industrial Organizations, crucial in Democratic victories that year, a dying Franklin Roosevelt promised a new slate of fundamental rights. These were not to be delivered by Harry Truman or any other subsequent president, and we are still waiting.

Judis also looks usefully at major experiments in social reform, most persuasively by the British Labour Party’s introduction of the National Health Service (NHS) following the Second World War. His description of this Labour history touches upon one of the book’s strongest arguments:, the ways in which the argument was made for an advanced welfare system in the name of national, in this case British, achievement. 

The victory of the Left within the Labour Party in 2017, answering the humiliations of neoliberal, war-mad Tony Blair, seemingly offered a way forward. But Brexit proved an issue hugely difficult to handle in 2019, and he argues that Labour’s leadership made the wrong tactical choice, i.e., neither for nor against leaving the EU. Judis does not, however, offer a convincing argument that a bitterly divided Labour Party could have made any better choice without ripping itself apart. It was a no-win situation custom made for Boris Johnson. If the election had been held even six months later, who knows?

Coming back home, Judis suggests in the strongest terms that DSA has the opportunity to do what Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters could not do, but only by jumping into the Democratic Party with both feet, arms and other body parts. It’s a good argument as we anticipate a Biden-Harris administration.

Is this the road to socialism? None of the legitimate U.S. reform heroes actually argued for socialism, raising once more the old problem of socialism sneaking into the polis described as something else, something more ‘American,” definitely less frightening. And yet it has been precisely the rebranding of “socialism” by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in particular, that draws the attention and devotion of young people and not only them.

A legitimate and popular socialist movement is not likely to arise without a serious consideration, indeed reorientation, around issues of race, empire and war, all of them causes of the climate crisis already at hand. But Judis makes his case well, and we should be listening.


The Socialist Awakening: What’s Different Now About the Left

Columbia Global Reports, 129 pp, $15.99.

By John B. Judis