In Depth

The return of socialism: what does it mean and will it last?

In Depth: after half a century in the political wilderness, voters appear ready to reject the markets once again

“In the 1990s and noughties, a socialist was shorthand for a person who didn’t understand modernity and couldn’t find political energy without a canary and a pit helmet.”

So said The Guardian’s Zoe Williams in 2016, but just a year later a new brand of socialism appears to be on the rise in the West. 

“After decades in which the market has held sway, voters are ready to summon Leviathan from the depths,” says the New Statesman.

In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn has led the Labour Party to its largest increase in vote share since 1945 on the strength of its most radical manifesto in decades. In France, the socialist Jean-Luc Melenchon recently came within two percentage points of breaking into the second round of the presidential election. And in the US, the country’s most famous socialist – Bernie Sanders – is now its most popular politician.

So what does this new brand of socialism look like and is it here to stay?

What is socialism?

In simple terms, socialism refers to the economic theory that the means of making, moving and trading wealth should be owned by the community. But, more than 175 years on from the original socialists in the UK - The Chartists - the word has taken on many different meanings and been associated with a number of different groups.

The first two decades of the 20th century were socialism’s heyday. In the US, “the Socialist Party of America, headed by the charismatic union leader Eugene V. Debs, grew rapidly, much like its sister parties in Europe and elsewhere: the British Labour Party, the French Socialist Party, the Swedish Social Democratic Party, the Australian Labor Party, and dozens of similar parties that voters chose to govern their countries”, says HuffPost

But the rise of communism and the onset of the Cold War saw socialism lose its lustre. The free-market neo-liberalist policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan found their successors in Tony Blair and Bill Clinton’s “Third Way”, and socialism found itself in the political wilderness for the best part of half a century, says The Nation’s Patrick Iber.

Among the political classes of the time, the “superiority of markets over governments was an assumption so deeply ingrained that it was not even recognised as an assumption”, says The Guardian’s John Quiggin.

What does socialism mean in 2017?

Today’s socialism “implies an unqualified rejection of the system of financial capitalism (variously called neo-liberalism, market liberalism or, in Australia, economic rationalism) that emerged from the economic chaos of the 1970s”, says Quiggin.

“One of socialism’s problems in the 20th century was that its existing examples - at least the ones claiming to have gone beyond social democracy - were always politically repressive single-party states,” says Iber. “The new socialists neither deny this fact nor dwell on it. Instead, they focus on the ethical appeal of socialism.” 

Among those within the movement, “there is no detectable enthusiasm for a centrally planned economy like that of the former Soviet Union or Mao’s China”, agrees Quiggin. “Communism is a distant and discredited memory, even for those old enough to recall the days when it seemed like a possible alternative.”

By contrast, the “social democracy of the Nordics or the Netherlands are championed as a triumph”, says the Financial Times’s Martin Wolf. “These are among the most successful societies on the planet: wealthy, dynamic and stable.” 

“Social democracies’ ideas are now taken for granted among large segments of the middle class: principles like the social welfare state; the notion that the strong bear some responsibility for weaker members of society; and the idea that everyone should have the same opportunity to participate in society,” adds Der Spiegel

What has caused the resurgence?

Socialism’s resurgence can be attributed to the “rise in public dismay over the post-crisis stagnation in living standards, prolonged fiscal austerity, high house prices, relatively high inequality and generational and regional divides”, says Martin Wolf.

“With working-class movements dormant, capital has run amok, charting a destructive course without even the promise of sustained growth,” agrees The New York Times’s Bhaskar Sunkara.

“The anger that led to the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit vote in Britain is palpable. People feel as if they’re on a runaway train to an unknown destination and, for good reason, want back to familiar miseries.”

Support for socialism is especially strong among those under 30. “Young people, in particular, are being proletarianised in droves,” says The Guardian’s Ben Tarnoff. “They struggle to find decent work, or an affordable place to live, or a minimum degree of material security. Meanwhile, elites gobble up a growing share of society’s wealth.”  

It’s not that younger people are actively left-wing but that being left-wing is “the default state; in effect, it has replaced Christianity as people’s moral anchor”, says The Spectator’s Ed West.

But will it stay the course?

Although voters in the UK may have become more sympathetic to socialism, Corbyn’s Labour remains out of power, and the volatility of British politics could see the support for socialism ebb away as quickly as it arrived.

The success of social democracies in Europe has also begun to wane, as their leaders struggle to contend with populist far-right alternatives.

In 2000, social democrats or socialists were part of the government in ten out of the 15 countries that made up the European Union at the time. “These days, though, the picture is a drastically different one,” says Der Spiegel. Following last month’s election in Germany, it looks likely that the German Social Democrats will no longer be part of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government.

“And the same could happen in Italy after voters there go to the polls next spring,” adds the newspaper. Were that to occur, centre-left parties would be part of only six EU governments out of 28 member states, all of them on the European periphery: Malta, Portugal, Romania, Sweden, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. 

In the US, Sanders failed to win the Democratic nomination for president last year despite unprecedented levels of support, and socialism remains on the country’s political fringes.

“No one knows what exactly social democracy stands for any more,” Der Spiegel says.

Brian Coyne, a Stanford University political scientist, told Politico: “The worst thing you can say about a person or an idea within the world of politics is that they’re out of the mainstream, and I think [calling people] socialists — with scare quotes in American politics — is still more of a slur against someone, more than anything else.”

However, not everyone agrees. “When the New Republic, long the house organ of American neo-liberalism, runs an article on ‘The Socialism America needs now’, it’s clear that something has fundamentally changed,” says Quiggin.

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