The growth of the socialist left in America since the start of the Trump administration has been much remarked upon in the press. Which is itself amazing since most US news and scholarly media has been hidebound to its cheerleading for capitalism and disdain for socialism (and therefore communism) for most of the last 150 years since that ideology appeared on the world stage.
As a socialist—mainly in socialism’s libertarian wing—since my teenage years, no one could be more thrilled by this development than I. However, the arrival on the scene of tens of thousands of young socialists has understandably resulted in some growing pains for the American socialist movement of today.
Especially because many of these new entrants are from upper-middle class families or even wealthy ones. Which itself is a good sign. When the children of those who have benefitted most handsomely from capitalism—either as members of the professional managerial class who use their expertise to keep capitalism going or as members of the ruling class who own and control capital itself—decide from direct experience that the dominant political economic system is flawed, dangerous to humanity’s well-being, and desperately needs to be replaced by a more democractic and fair political economic system.
People from better-off families bring with them many skills that any movement for political, social, and cultural change needs. They also bring money to fund said movement, perennially in short supply.
And while it might seem contradictory that an ideology that champions the working class should welcome activists from the professional managerial and ruling classes, it is not. Class is a social relation describing one’s proximity to the commanding heights of capital, not an identity. People can move from one class to another in the course of their lifetimes. They can also actively choose to oppose the political economic system, capitalism, that is built on inequality between a tiny ruling class, a larger upper-middle class, a still larger middle class, and a vast working class. Particularly if they hail from society’s upper echelons. While still retaining the trappings of their class origins: money, status, and connections. In short, their class privilege.
What they decide to do with that privilege is what matters to the socialist movement, though. Do they donate money to its causes? Do they put their status and connections at the service of the movement? Do they labor to draw down power? To make society more democratic and less based on great disparities of wealth? The degree to which they do these things describes the degree to which they are serious socialists.
Hence it’s no surprise that there have been many famous socialists from wealthy, powerful, and even aristocratic backgrounds—including many leaders of major movements.
That said, however, I have observed a problem among some of the new entrants to the socialist movement that I think is worth addressing. Namely, the phenomenon of well-off young socialists claiming to be working class outright. Which is a big deal.
Why? Well, for starters, socialists historically have prided ourselves on being materialists. Striving always to see the world as it is, calling things like we see them, and then acting to change the world for the better for everyone. Even when that action comes at great cost to our livelihoods and even our very lives.
This view leads us to also pride ourselves on our honesty. About the world and about our own lives. Now does that honesty always hold out once our movements win political power—and even run nations? No. We’re as susceptible to the negative effects of holding power as any other human beings. Which has led to socialists doing terrible things to the very people they’re trying to help over the last century. One reason I’m a libertarian socialist—prizing individual liberty as a prerequisite for a better society and eschewing top-down politics of any stripe.
Still, in the early stages of every socialist movement—precisely where American socialism is now—our activists have been known as honest people. Notably in our dealings with working people. That’s why songs get sung and legends retold about our most famous leaders. And that’s a big reason why socialist movements have been very successful in country after country in winning improvements for the working class writ large. Not because of some kind of evil magic of the type that psychotic hard right-wingers fulminate about in tract after screed to this day. Rather because socialist movements strive to understand the needs of working people as a whole and organize those people to meet their needs. Be it for better wages, healthcare, schools, housing, childcare, or political franchise.
They achieve that understanding by developing theories about what’s wrong with society and then acting on those theories, improving them through concrete on-the-ground practice, and continuing to act in better and more accurate ways until achieving the desired political, social, or cultural victories. Then moving on to solve the next set of problems.
Leading me to the second issue I have with new socialists lying about their class backgrounds. People willing to lie about that are capable of lying about anything. Including inconvenient data and feedback on their theory. Which can result in nothing but bad practice on the ground.
Add to this the tendency of young people with elite educations to assume that they are “born to the purple”—destined to lead other people since they have been trained, consciously or unconsciously, to do so—and using their money, status, and connections to leap to the fore of the socialist movements they join … and we have a prescription for disaster in the growing socialist left in America.
So I implore young socialists who have joined the movement in the last few years to be honest about your class backgrounds—and in all your dealings with other human beings.
And I will just conclude with this. Ultimately, working people know when well-off people are lying about their backgrounds. There are a hundred cues that give them away. Just as rich people can tell when a working person is claiming some elite lineage. Eventually, that knowledge will lead working people to avoid the left. And even join the right to actively fight a left that they perceive is led by liars. That is what we call a bad thing.
It is fine to be a socialist from money. So just own it. But I must say that if you are such a one, don’t use your money, status, connections, and training to jump to the front of the socialist organizations and campaigns you join. Don’t assume your right to lead. Work hard in the trenches as a movement footsoldier for a long time. Learn the ropes. Talk to many, many working people from less privileged backgrounds. Be forthright and honest in all your dealings with them. Then maybe, after you’ve proved your fitness to lead because your thinking and actions are both based in material reality and because you’ve helped the organizations and campaigns you work with win some tangible victories, you can move into leadership. Be your brand of socialism more top-down like many European socialist parties or bottom-up like my wing of the movement.
Fail to follow that path and you may very well help destroy the socialist movement that you currently claim to want to help.
And that is not fine. Think it over.
Apparent Horizon—an award-winning political column—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism’s Pandemic Democracy Project. Contact [email protected] for more information. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2021 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.