Young socialists are nowhere near as radical as they seem

Young people around the world are leaning left, but all it really means is a return to a broad consensus on social responsibilities that was mainstream not so long ago

Senator Bernie Sanders broke new ground for socialism in the 2016 Democratic primary race. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
Senator Bernie Sanders broke new ground for socialism in the 2016 Democratic primary race. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Socialism is apparently all the rage among younger generations. And research appears to back this idea up. In a recent survey conducted by Harvard University’s Centre for American Political Studies and the Harris polling organisation, 56 per cent of registered voters in the US aged 18 to 24 said they supported a “mostly socialist” economic model. The figure for those aged 25 to 34 was 48 per cent; still a sizeable portion.

This is not just an American phenomenon either. The massive increase in membership of Britain’s Labour Party – at around 600,000 strong, it is now the biggest political party in Europe – is largely thanks to the huge numbers of young people who decided that, under the leadership of the ageing left-wing maverick Jeremy Corbyn, it represented a fresh and viable challenge to a failed status quo.

In the first round of the 2017 French presidential elections, the hard-left candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, won nearly 20 per cent of the vote. This was only 4.4 per cent less than Emmanuel Macron. If he’d won two per cent more, he would have made it into the second round, when he would surely have run Mr Macron far closer than the National Front’s Marine Le Pen managed to. Socialists are in government in Greece, while in other countries, such as Spain, they never really went away.

All of this is of great concern to those who thought that socialism was still a dirty word in America – which it was until the success of Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, in the 2016 Democratic primary race – and too tainted by past failures in Europe to be taken seriously.

Both President Donald Trump and the former Clinton strategist Mark Penn are warning about the dangers of socialism, while conservative pundits in the UK insist that the young are only leaning left because they have never had to live under a socialist government. After all, they were not around when Britain became known as “the sick man of Europe” in the 1970s – a perception often blamed on the policies of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan’s Labour government.

What today’s young socialists want are, for the main part, policies that were totally mainstream under governments of both the left and right until around 25 years ago

I am old enough to remember that time and do recall the power outages and the strikes. I also have memories of a shared belief in the cradle-to grave welfare state that bound us together in difficult times. I’m also not sure that Britain’s problems then can all be blamed on “socialism”. Intransigent unions that held both Conservative and Labour governments hostage undoubtedly played a part in the country’s poor economic performance. One could also point to the fact that strong worker participation in company decision-making and a wave of left-wing reforms during the 13 years that the Social Democrats led the government in Germany until 1982 did nothing to hold its economy back. In fact, real wages increased massively during that period.

But “socialism” has been redefined. Even then in Europe it had little to do with the collectivism and repression of the Eastern Bloc, so anyone warning of the calamitous conditions of Soviet communism is building a particularly flimsy straw man. What today’s young socialists want are, for the main part, policies that were totally mainstream under governments of both the left and right until around 25 years ago.

Take the UK Labour party’s 2017 manifesto, for instance. Three key pledges were to raise the top rate of income tax to 50 per cent, to renationalise the water industry, and to abolish university tuition fees. Well, under Margaret Thatcher – a conservative icon on both sides of the Atlantic – the top rate of income tax stood at 60 per cent from 1979 to 1988. Many people, regardless of their political leanings, feel that national utilities, especially when they are monopolies, should be run by the state and in the best interests of the people. Lastly, university education was free for British students from 1962 until 1998. The irony is that it was a one-nation Conservative government that introduced the policy – and a Labour one desperate to shuck off its past that ended it.

Therein lies the clue. Parties nominally of the left, including both Labour and the US Democrats, moved so far to the right in the 1990s that the whole centre of political gravity did so as well. They bought into liberal market fundamentalism even more than moderate conservatives did. This seemed like a winning strategy until the 2008 financial crash proved that the ideology had no solution to the lost jobs and the bleak futures faced by many people, and the young in particular. These parties rejected the label of “socialist”, helping to turn it into a pejorative term, professing admiration for Mrs Thatcher, who famously once said that “the problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money”.

The new young socialists see it differently. As the economist Grace Blakeley has said: “The problem with neoliberalism is you eventually run out of other people’s assets to sell.”

While many different approaches are encompassed by the word socialism today, the main proposals are not particularly radical, or dangerous. They simply ask for the restoration of a broad consensus about social provision and the role of a mixed-market economy that existed in western nations for decades after the Second World War. To my mind, it is an entirely rational choice. Does that make me a socialist? I don’t think so. But there is no denying the obvious merits of a return to such an approach – and no amount of red scaremongering can conceal that.

Sholto Byrnes is a Kuala Lumpur-based commentator and consultant and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum

Updated: March 4, 2019 05:10 PM