It shouldn't be surprising that, in 2020, we're still talking about socialism. After all, in much of the world, just 40 years ago if someone had a political identification, it was probably as a socialist of one kind or another. Maybe they were third-world nationalists looking for a pathway to development for their long-oppressed homelands. Or defenders of the Leonid Brezhnev-era "actually existing socialism" of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Or maybe they were social democrats—no longer seeking a socialism after capitalism but committed to creating a Nordic-style "functional socialism" within it.
The past three decades haven't been kind to any of these socialisms. State socialism suddenly collapsed; Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's attempts to renovate the system only undermined the coercion that held it together. The fate of social democracy in Europe wasn't so dramatic: It ground to a halt rather than imploding. Post-war social democracy had relied on economic expansion—a boon to both capitalists and socialists alike—but when growth started to slow over the last decades, and the wage demands of emboldened workers made deeper inroads into company profits, business owners rebelled against the model
Mainstream social democracy responded to this crisis by halting its egalitarian advance and merely defending existing gains. Eventually it settled for tying mildly redistributive measures to neoliberal economic orthodoxy. And as for the heirs of nationalists like Jamaica's Michael Manley and Tanzania's Julius Nyerere, they made a more radical U-turn, accepting neoliberal dictums from the International Monetary Fund and seeking to attract foreign investment by any means.
But popular ideas don't die so easily. In the decades after 1917, socialists went from fringe organizers to masters of much of the world. The British historian Eric Hobsbawm said there had been nothing like it since Islam's rapid advance in the seventh century. And whatever it was that morally compelled people to seek a radically different world in those days has not disappeared.
Most important, there is still plenty of material injustice to spawn new generations of socialists. Millions of people die every year of preventable diseases. Many more spend their lives mired in poverty. Even where capitalist development has been successful on its own terms, mass abundance is coupled with the unmet basic needs of the most vulnerable. There is no starker example than the United States—the richest society in history but also one where more than half a million people are homeless and 1 in 8 families battle hunger.
Indeed, inequality is not an accidental by product of capitalism—which divides those who own private property through which goods and services are produced from the rest, who have to put themselves at the owners' mercy to survive—it is at the core of the system. Capitalist wealth creation may not be a zero-sum game, but the struggle between bosses and workers over autonomy and power on the shop floor is. And far from dissipating, the contradictions at the heart of capitalism have become only more apparent over the last few decades.
In the 1970s, an emergent neoliberalism curbed inflation and restored profitability for the high-income countries of the global north—but only through a vicious offensive against workers. Since then, real wages have stagnated, debt has soared, and the prospects for younger generations—still expecting to live better lives than their parents—have become bleak. In the United States and United Kingdom, as in other post-industrial economies across Europe, increased flexibility for employers has meant increased uncertainty for workers.
Enter, or re-enter, socialism. The resurgent popularity of the term "socialism" is perhaps a fluke—it is language that the movement's standard-bearers, Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom and Bernie Sanders in the United States, have long used and are now making mainstream. They offer demands that are within the wheelhouse of social democracy: calls for an expansion of social services such as government job creation and action on climate change. But Corbyn and Sanders represent something far different from modern social democracy. Whereas social democracy in Europe spent the last few decades morphing into a tool to suppress class conflict in favor of friendly arrangements among business, labour, and the state, Corbyn, Sanders, and their peers encourage a renewal of class antagonism from below.
For Sanders, for example, the very path to change is through confrontation with elites. His movement is about creating a "political revolution" to get what is rightfully the people's from "millionaires and billionaires." His rhetoric is one of polarization along class lines, and his campaign strategy is to remobilize working-class voters. Similarly, for Corbyn it's a social movement of "the many" against "the few." Only this sort of politics, both men believe, can create an environment where a new reform program can once again be enacted.
But what's so socialist about this program, and what's to prevent it from running into the same crisis that the social democrats of the 1970s retreated in the face of?
The first question is easier to answer than the second. Beyond the means—class struggle rhetoric and democratic mass mobilization—that Sanders and Corbyn pursue, they propose an expansion of social goods in an era when welfare states around the world are in retreat. Sanders appears intent on starting with nationalizing a reviled health insurance industry worth a trillion dollars. Even more identifiably socialist are aspects of his 2020 presidential campaign platform and parallel plans pushed by Corbyn's Labour Party to expand the cooperative sector, create community-owned enterprises, and give employees shares in the companies they work for.
The answer to the second question lies in imagining a social democracy that doesn't just try to reshape capitalism in the interests of workers but seeks to permanently restructure economic relations.
Such a system would mean attempting to transfer not just wealth but also power away from private capitalists to a revived workers' movement. This would be a difficult undertaking. Any governing democratic socialist, no matter their intentions, will always find it easier to move to the right than to the left. On one side, they find guarantees of stability from powerful political and economic interests, while on the other side are capital strikes and stubborn resistance. Today, even more so than in the 20th century, socialists face not only the problem of how to win power but the problem of how to fend off capital's attempt to undermine their program once in government. Reflecting on his years in the Harold Wilson and James Callaghan governments of the 1960s and 1970s, the former British Labour parliamentarian Tony Benn highlighted the mundane coercion that came with power: Do what vested interests want, and they'll make you look good; try to pursue your own agenda, and they'll make your life impossible.
In other words, the social democratic compromise, where wealth is redistributed but ownership is left untouched, is inherently unstable. It faces challenges in two directions. Capital seeks to control it from the outset, but if initial reforms are successful, workers have more leverage to strike, and the increased bargaining power of labour can make unsustainable inroads into businesses' profitability—something that will provoke economic crisis and the likely return to programs that can ensure a more favourable business environment.
Indeed, the welfare states of the 1960s and 1970s didn't placate workers; they made them bolder. Transitional policies such as a federal jobs guarantee proposed by Sanders and others could do the same in our own time. A true socialist agenda thus needs to figure out a way to advance rather than retreat in the face of that instability—and not just for ideological reasons but to deprive capitalists of their ability to withhold investment and roll back reforms.
It is unclear to what extent such an agenda is possible in an era when capital has been internationalized, economic growth rates have slowed in the most developed countries, and automation threatens remaining bastions of working-class strength. But it is clear that unless socialists want to re-create the social democratic arc of the 20th century (from steady advance to steady retreat), the focus from the outset must be on ownership and increasing labour's control over investment.
So what could socialism look like in the 21st century? It might mean a major extension of social and economic rights—a state that provides more than protection from destitution but positively guarantees housing, health care, child care, and education—and public ownership of natural monopolies and financial institutions. These would exist alongside a competitive, market-driven sphere where private capitalist ownership is replaced with worker ownership. That is, workers would elect their own management and have both moral and financial incentives to be productive by being real stakeholders who would receive a share of firm profits rather than fixed wages. Such shifts would represent the starting point for modernity's first truly democratic and socialist society.
But whatever the precise model of socialism after capitalism is, it should be simple and require no massive changes in human consciousness. It must be driven by a serious attempt to avoid what has failed in the past—the stifling of political pluralism and civil rights in state socialist regimes, as well as the economic problems of central planning. Instead, it should take experiments that have succeeded—universal social services and worker-owned cooperatives—and build a social system around them in its drive toward the long-deferred Enlightenment promise of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor and publisher of Jacobin and the author of The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality.