Socialism is back. Today, more young people in the United States express positive opinions of the socialist ideology than ever before.
An October 2016 YouGov poll identified 53 percent of voters aged 18–29 hold favorable views toward the Marxist concept. Coincidentally, 2017 marks the exact centenary of the October Revolution—the 1917 Russian workers’ revolt that ushered in the Soviet Union.
But socialism? The Red Scare? The same YouGov poll showed only 25 percent of U.S. adults altogether view socialism favorably. For many older Americans, mere mention of the term conjures images of Soviet-era workers in coveralls and do-rags carrying pipe wrenches in a gray dystopia. Or is this the hip socialism of pop culture iconography with handsome mustachioed Cuban revolutionaries in tilted berets? Is this the socialism America feared so deeply during the Cold War?
The short answer is no: The movement under current construction is brand new, and the end goal is nothing short of total societal revolution. The longer answer is more complicated because a hard and fast definition of socialism is difficult to pin down. This is not your father’s socialism.
You tell me it’s the institution
For millennials, the pre-1989 demonization of all things red doesn’t exist. And why would it? Millennials are direct witnesses to the failures of capitalism. Many saw their parents lose homes to foreclosure in the early 2000s as result of predatory capitalist lending schemes, or they’ve seen friends and family graduate college buried in student loan debt. They’ve witnessed an explosion of homelessness, pharmaceutical industry-induced addiction, emergence of bold-faced racist ideologies, and an entire palette of social maladies engulf their so-called American dream.
Adding fuel to fire, millennials are inheritors of the worst disparity of wealth since economists began tracking income. Data from a 2017 Oregon Department of Revenue report states, “In 1980, the average income of the highest-earning 1 in 1,000 taxpayers was 26 times that of the Oregonian in the middle of the income ladder. By 2015, it was 126 times larger.” When adjusted for inflation, that’s the widest gap in income inequality ever recorded.
With this in mind, it’s not hard to understand why younger, idealistic voters would disregard fears of past generations and consider alternative solutions for imposing equality into society. But how, exactly, a socialist makeover would work and what it would look like remain unclear. The issue manifests locally with ubiquitous campus group, the Portland State International Socialists Organization.
You say you got a real solution
“Want to build a better world?” the fliers read. “Join the Socialists! Solidarity!” They’re hung everywhere on campus—fliers inviting curious passersby to weekly meetings of the PSU ISO. Better-world building sounds like a worthwhile endeavor; however, attending ISO weekly meetings presents a befuddling dichotomy: the urgency of recruiting new adherents to the movement and ousting the present, failing capitalist system; yet attempts at gaining an understanding of said movement are met with suspicion.
For example, before entering an ISO meeting, a door checker asked, “How did you hear about us? Why have you come here?” Upon entering, another ISO member stated,“We don’t allow cameras or recording at our events.” The member expressed concern that photos could lead to doxxing, the process of exposing individuals’ private information as means of harassment or humiliation by people opposed to the ISO.
The guarded approach is puzzling, yet the impassioned appeal is strong:
“Our generation is being presented with a stark choice,” said keynote speaker and ISO member Nico Judd at a recent meeting. “With the planet in peril and social crisis in every corner of the world, we have to ask ourselves what we are going to settle for: socialism or barbarism.”
Judd’s speech voiced the fears of entire communities of targeted peoples: women, immigrants, people of color, the LGBTQ community—groups of people who have seen first-hand the effects of unchecked capitalism and have experienced discrimination run wild since the election of Donald Trump.
“The crisis we face is not getting any better, and the political class in control is neither willing nor able to find a solution,” Judd continued. “We need a revolution. We need to train a new generation of revolutionaries like the ones we saw emerge in the ‘60s and ‘70s here in America who can help advance the struggle…We are the change that we’ve been waiting for.”
At a subsequent meeting, PSU assistant professor of philosophy Colin Patrick spoke, peppering his monologue with glimpses of humor and esoteric references to the Russian Revolution. He described a post-revolutionary world in which people would be free to develop their full potential, a dream he described as impossible under the oppression of capitalism. Patrick also acknowledged the uphill struggle of the movement.
“It’s easy to feel isolated and powerless as a revolutionary socialist,” he said. “It’s easy to feel a sense of futility against the most ruthless and powerful capitalist system. But you need to remember that when you move as a socialist, when you go out on a demonstration or a rally, when you contribute to the work of organizing, when you say, ‘fuck no’ to this entire system and everything that’s built on top of it…whether you realize it or not, and whether they’ve heard of you or not, you have comrades all over the world who stand in solidarity with you.”
And solidarity provides a comforting element in the fragmented, polarized U.S. of today. Many participants at ISO meetings refer to each other as comrades. Many among the audience respond audibly to ISO speakers with “Mmm hmm” and “That’s right.”
At one point, Patrick addressed the issue of suspicion within the movement. “As my comrade Nico once pointed out, if you have a serious objection to something we’re doing and you keep it to yourself out of deference or politeness, you are not helping but hurting the organization,” Patrick said.
Yet when moderators open the floor to questions about details of the revolution and the order to follow, those questions remain unanswered. Both supporters and skeptics raise questions, and alternative socialists state conflicting opinions with the ISO’s declarations. ISO panelists accept questions, appear to jot them down, then move on to the next speaker.
“I wanted to get an understanding of the basics of how their group would run things after the revolution,” said Sean Bambic, a graphic design major at PSU who attended a presentation. “I just wanted to know what their basic institutions will look like. It’s giving people hope, but I think it’s a false hope. The appeal to fear is a similar tactic to Trump’s campaign.”
Follow up attempts at clarification with ISO representatives have been ducked and dodged; responses to email and Facebook inquiries remain unanswered; repeated attempts at clarity of the socialist movement are met with silence.
The PSU ISO maintains a strong presence among activist action on and around campus. The group presents an emotionally charged message, and the allure of potentially eliminating the worst of society’s problems in the U.S. is powerful. It’s an amalgamation of impassioned appeal, historical nostalgia and paranoia. The PSU ISO wants nothing less than a total societal revolution, but it doesn’t want to communicate how it proposes to do it.
We’d all love to see the plan
One of the challenges in articulating a clear strategy for the socialist revolution lies with the public’s vague understanding of what, exactly, socialism means.
In simplest terms, socialism is an economic and political ideology that emphasizes collective equality as its goal—in direct opposition to capitalism, where profit and competition are key. Historically, in a socialist economy the means of production are owned collectively by the people, and many agencies and businesses are controlled by the state. Two German political philosophers, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, penned the tenets of the concept in The Communist Manifesto in 1848, and socialism was born.
“The first thing to know about the term socialism is that it means many different things to many different people,” said Melody Valdini, professor of political science at PSU. “It’s used by a lot of different people, so it’s not the kind of word you can say and have everybody know what you’re talking about. Theoretically, when you get into the purest forms of socialism, the state will fall away, and it would be the community that would own the means of production. But we’ve never seen that in reality.”
Common misconceptions regarding the existence of socialism abound. Many proponents of the revolution point to Canada and the Nordic countries as examples of socialist success, but Valdini explained the important distinctions between myth and reality.
“Canada is still a fully capitalist country, they just have a more state-driven welfare system than we do,” Valdini said. “Not in terms of checks to poor people, but societal welfare—bigger safety nets than the U.S. That’s not socialism. They are taxed, but it’s not as severe as you think it is. The government pays for so much that their expenses are lower.”
Valdini also cited other countries with large safety nets, like Sweden, where citizens pay higher taxes but don’t have to worry about paying for health care, education, or child care. Those who can pay higher taxes do, and those who can’t don’t have to. Everyone still gets the safety nets.
“[The Nordic countries] are more focused on collective equality, but socialism is really about the government owning the land and means of production, the businesses. That’s not how it works in Canada or the Nordic countries at all,” Valdini said.
The problem with the socialist image, Valdini explained, is whenever Democrats have pushed ideas for larger safety nets in the U.S., Republicans know they can easily vilify socialism and label any propositions as such, scaring voters into disallowing their implementation.
“Socialism has its costs and benefits like any other ideology,” Valdini said. “It’s a good answer to some problems. It could solve the problem of intense poverty or shockingly high income inequality. On the other hand, capitalism brings the benefits of innovation through competition. It’s one of the reasons we are such a big, rich country. There is no easy answer. Both come with big costs and big benefits.”
Regarding nostalgic reminiscence of the Russian Revolution of a century ago, many of those who’ve experienced socialism do not espouse its return.
“There are those who remember [socialism] fondly in light of how it was ingrained into every part of their life and gave them a sense of purpose, drive, ambition and being part of something bigger than themselves,” said PSU graduate student of political science Viktoriya Voloshina, who has family in former Soviet lands today. “However, my professor said it best: Marx is best read as a critique against the capitalism of his day that indeed had very little or no rules and regulations. However, his blinders to the importance of the middle class, and the importance of private property and earned gains, puts him to the sidelines of well-respected thinkers.”
Indeed, a variety of local factions recall the 1917 October Revolution today with great sentimentality, commemorating the event and other socialist-sympathetic topics on and around the PSU campus. The PSU ISO hosted its annual Pacific Northwest Marxism Conference titled “Socialism or Barbarism: The Urgency of Fighting for a New World” on Nov. 4 in Smith Memorial Student Union, and the group International Youth and Students for Social Equality sponsored a presentation called “Why Study the Russian Revolution?” on Nov. 7 in the Urban Center. Socialist Alternative Portland hosted a “Russian Revolution Centennial Party and Fundraiser” on Nov. 11, and the PSU Graduate Employees Union presents the raised fist of solidarity as its logo.
PSU is awash in the socialist movement. But until the revolution arrives, what’s a good comrade to do?
We all want to change the world
Anyone truly serious about leveling the economic disparity in the U.S. has to first take an honest inventory of where they place their own hard-earned dollars and how many luxuries they are willing to give up.
“Sometimes people will say, ‘I want socialism, but I also want my iPhone and Starbucks’ and all this other good, cheap stuff that we get lots of choices for, and you can’t have both,” Valdini said. “So if you’re interested in socialism, start at the individual level. Start looking at your money as a way of contributing to inequality.”
Buying cheap products made in factories where the workers have low, unlivable wages perpetuates income inequality. It’s false to say these are evil companies when we make the conscious choice to buy from them.
“Rather than calling for a group revolution in a capitalist country, the way to begin to change things is to speak with your wallet, to be very aware of where your money goes every time you buy something, every time you pay a bill,” Valdini said. “Start making the connection between the economy and how our choices as individuals are keeping the economy alive and creating income inequality.”
The emergence of socialism as a popular alternative among millennials and marginalized groups represents the failure of unrestrained capitalism to care for its own. However, important distinctions must be made regarding the general public’s delusions between socialism as an equalizing economic factor and better use of societal safety nets around the world.
If local socialist organizations are sincere in their search for a new wave of revolutionaries, fired up to take capitalism down and instill a new, egalitarian system of equity for all, they must be able to provide transparency in their revolutionary plans and how socialism will fill the resulting void in governance. If there is anything the people don’t need, it’s replacing one form of barbarism with another.