20 April 2020

With Corbyn and Sanders defeated, has socialism had its day?

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After years of going from strength to strength, socialists in both Britain and the US have been going through a rough patch lately. Jeremy Corbyn is gone and Bernie Sanders’ run for the White House is over. For all their immense popularity on social media and university campuses,. electoral success ultimately proved elusive.

They have successfully rebranded socialism as “hip” and “cool”, they can easily fill up town halls and town squares with huge crowds, and they inspire a level of enthusiasm that does not exist anywhere else on the political spectrum.

And yet, the Average Joe remains strangely unfazed (despite expressing approval for socialist policies when polled on a case-by-case basis). Most of the leading political figures of the socialist revival are now stepping down, or are taking a back seat. The moderate centre-left, the long-shunned social democrats and left-liberals, are coming in from the cold again.

Does this mean that our love affair with socialism is coming to an end? Has the revolution been cancelled?

Sadly, the answer is no.

My guess is that over the coming months, socialism will become more detached from frontline politics. It will morph into an extra-parliamentary movement, not specifically attached to any political party or candidate (although, of course, closer to some than others). It will become a social movement rather than an electoral project. But it need not become less relevant for it.

For better or worse, social movements and pressure groups are often more influential than political parties, not less.

Examples abound. Take Extinction Rebellion, the “Climate Strikes”, and the rest of the movement around teenage activist Greta Thunberg. They are a classic extra-parliamentary movement. They do not have a party-political arm. They are not associated with any political party. They are not trying to win elections, and if they did, they would probably find that the enthusiasm of the crowds they draw does not translate 1:1 into votes.

But then – why would they care? Why would they aim for electoral success? They are getting their way anyway. Political leaders all over the Western world are fawning over them. The British government immediately caved in to their demands, and made a blank cheque commitment to a “net zero” economy by 2050. They won.

Or take the various “Nanny State” pressure groups that seek to regulate our lifestyles. They are not connected to a political party, and if a mainstream party specifically ran on a Nanny State platform, it would probably perform badly in elections. But again, they have no need to seek electoral success. They mostly get what they want anyway, from sugar taxes to advertising bans, display bans, plain packaging laws and “sin taxes”. It would be absurd to claim that these campaigners are not relevant, or not influential, just because they would not pick up a lot of votes in an election.

Likewise, Euroscepticism was never successful as an electoral project, if, by that, you mean winning lots of seats in Parliament. (It was, of course, ultimately “electorally successful” in the sense of winning the 2016 EU Referendum.) There were only ever two UKIP MPs, both of whom were defectors from a party that was not particularly Eurosceptic at the time. And yet: we have left the EU. And we won’t even settle for a “half-in, half-out” compromise. The Eurosceptics have won, lock, stock and barrel, without ever becoming a major force in Westminster politics in their own right.

These three examples do not have much in common, except that supporters of these causes are infinitely more passionate about them than their opponents. Not everyone may be fully on board with the Greta hype, but there is no obvious counter-movement either. You may grumble about how expensive a pint of beer or glass of wine has become, but you are not going to move heaven and earth to do something about it. Anti-alcohol activists, in contrast, very much will move heaven and earth to keep it that way. Euroscepticism was a fringe movement until the early 2010s, but there were never a lot of people in Britain who passionately believed in “the European idea”. European integration was accepted, but never particularly celebrated.

Today, socialists in Britain find themselves in a position very much like the one Eurosceptics found themselves in in the early 2010s. The majority of the electorate does not share their passionate hatred of capitalism, just like most people were not irreconcilably opposed to the EU back then. But the EU had no “true believers” on its side. And neither does capitalism today.

Like the EU until 2016, capitalism is tolerated, but hardly anyone in Britain actively embraces it. Attitude surveys show that fewer than one in twelve people in Britain have positive associations with the word “capitalism”. Only about one in twenty people believe that healthcare and education should be privately provided, and fewer than one in twenty people want the state to be any smaller than it currently is.

The Weimar Republic was once described as a “democracy without democrats”. Similarly, Britain’s economic system could be described as “capitalism without capitalists”. I rarely agree with a word Owen Jones says. But I very much do when he says that:

“The British and US new left…found a mass reception for their ideas after the left had spent a generation in the wilderness…On neither side of the Atlantic is the left going anywhere,

“The left brims with policies and ideas that are not just appropriated by mainstream centre-left politicians but even raided by the political right.”

This is not over. Not by a long shot.

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Dr Kristian Niemietz is Head of Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.