Who are the new socialist wunderkinds of America?

Every time I’ve come home to the US from my home abroad over the past four years, I notice a trend among people of my demographic: they have become increasingly politicised – and increasingly radical.

I met Rachel Rosenfelt on one of the first cold days of this year and it was chilly in her office, a small room crowded with three desks stacked high with books and papers in a converted warehouse space in Brooklyn. Rosenfelt, who kept her leather jacket on and sat on her feet to keep warm, is the editor and publisher of The New Inquiry, an eclectic and exceedingly intelligent online journal and monthly magazine of essays and criticism, much of which engages with radical feminist, Marxist and anarchist thought. I have been reading The New Inquiry for a few years and thought that maybe Rosenfelt could help me to understand something.

Every time I’ve come home to the US from my home abroad over the past four years, I notice a trend among people of my demographic: they have become increasingly politicised – and increasingly radical. The stereotype of the apathetic hipster has given way to a new kind of well-educated, middle-class twentysomething who rails against the prison-industrial complex, who talks about wages for housework, who throws around words like “imperialism” and “exploitation” with a growing sense of comfort. Occupy Wall Street may have something to do with it, but what is happening now in America feels more like a moment than a movement.

What is going on? “When I was first starting the New Inquiry and I had these ideas about this moment,” she told me. “Everyone said, ‘Rachel, write an essay about it!’ And I thought, ‘What if I just did it?’” She launched the magazine in 2009 with two friends, starting it on a Tumblr. Four years later it has only grown.

And Rosenfelt isn’t alone. Something is brewing in Brooklyn, something far more inspiring than another batch of artisanal organic ale. There is a revival of left-wing intellectual thinking on a level unseen since the 1960s. Young people are starting magazines and engaging in serious, substantial critique of the status quo. In addition to The New Inquiry there is Jacobin, “a magazine of culture and polemic” launched in late 2010 with an avowedly socialist perspective. Dissent, a socialist journal founded in 1953 has seen a revival, with a new crop of young staff. The hip literary magazine n+1 has also taken a decidedly political turn in recent years. And while many people launch publishing projects with earnest enthusiasm only to seem them fail quickly, this new crop of journals seems to have enjoyed unprecedented success. At the same time, a new cohort of journalists has emerged, young and enterprising reporters devoted to covering labour, poverty and inequality, and they see interest from the old guard of left-liberal magazines peaking.

“There are a lot of wonderful kids – people in there 20s and early 30s – who are really refreshing,” says Doug Henwood, a veteran leftist journalist and commentatorof a different generation. “There’s an intellectual seriousness without a narcotic earnestness. I find it very encouraging.”

It’s impossible to pin down a single explanation for this revival but a few things make sense: capitalism offering few opportunities to young people, a formal political structure that is paralysed and seems to ignore the concerns of most people, the internet providing new opportunities for intellectuals to find each other. Where it is going, what it means in terms of formal politics, the future of social movements in the US, or the overall intellectual climate are hard to predict.

One very likely effect, though, is a widening of the American political discourse. Earlier on the same day that I met Rosenfelt I sat at a posh pub in rapidly gentrifying neighborhood on the other side of Brooklyn with BhaskarSunkara, the editor-in-chief and publisher of Jacobin, a journal that claims to take the mantle of Marxist thought of Ralph Miliband and a similar vein of democratic socialism. “One of our main goals is to be an openly socialist voice, to be a left wing voice. That in and of itself widens the spectrum. In America you have a few steps to the right but not many steps to the left,” said Sunkara, a speed-talking 24-year-old socialist.

Articles on the website and in the quarterly print journal often delve into serious policy specifics on topics like transport workers’ strikes or the political economy of the Oslo AccordsJacobin has received much attention in the mainstream and liberal media for a bunch of self-declared radicals. Jacobin authors have been cited by columnists in Bloomberg, on the reliably liberal, pro-Democratic Party TV network MSNBC, and elsewhere in the less-than-radical-spectrum. That’s because, Sunkara said, “We intentionally engage with liberals.”

It’s tempting to assume that this is all the province of a privileged cast of the educated, urban and young. That assumption may carry some truth. (For what it’s worth, Rosenfelt and Sunkara both went to elite private universities, as did most of the people I now hear talking socialism.) But there is evidence that something bigger is at play: A 2011 poll found that 49 per cent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have a positive reaction to the word “socialism,” while 47 per cent have a negative reaction to the word “capitalism.” Among the population as a whole 50 per cent view capitalism positively and 60 per cent view socialism negatively. The sample, needless to say, are not all living in Brooklyn and working in the creative industries. Moreover, both Jacobin and The New Inquiry say that their readers come from all over the US (and other countries), suggesting that the enthusiasm for this is not limited to New York. And although Occupy (now three years ago) began in New York, it quickly spread across the country, if that is any indicator.

What accounts for this? An answer that sounds straight from Marx’s mouth might be the most obvious one: capitalism is in crisis. People in their late 20s and early 30s graduated university and entered the workforce in the worst economy since the Great Depression. GDP growth has stagnated since the financial crisis began in 2008 even under the “recovery”. Long-term prospects don’t look great, either, with some economists even suggesting that the era of growth might be ending in the US. Young people have been especially hard-hit by the downturn. Unemployment rates for people aged 18 to 29 are around 11.8 per cent compared to 7.3 per cent for the economy overall. And many economists warn that the prolonged unemployment will have lasting effects, permanently reducing incomes for thiscohort.Seventy percent of students in the US graduate with debt, and the averagedebt load is more than $35,000. 

If that’s not enough to convince you of a turning tide, then consider that inequality in the United States has reached astounding levels. In the current recovery, 95 per cent of the gains have gone to 1 per cent of the people. It isn’t surprising that people are asking more systemic questions and attempting to imagine alternate futures, even futures that don’t include capitalism.

The current political situation in the United States doesn’t give cause for much optimism in the status quo. Even before the debacle of the government shutdown last month, American politics has been less than inspiring. The millennial generation voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2008. Young people led many of the campaign activities, hoping for a more equitable and more peaceful world, repudiating the war-mongering and free-market fundamentalism of George W. Bush. Obama ran on slogans of hope and change but the end result wasn’t quite the level of change many may have hoped for: Deportations of undocumented immigrants has skyrocketed, spying on citizens continues, inequality grows worse as the Democratic Party pushes an austerity-light agenda to counter the radical austerity of the Republicans.

Peter Beinart, a prominent liberal commentator, recently predicted that because of the harsh economic conditions and liberal social values of younger generations, this generationwill push American politics in a left-ward direction. Beinart points to the election of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a fierce advocate of the working class, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a man who once described himself as a democratic socialist, as evidence. If Warren emerges as a national figure in the Democratic Party, perhaps running against Hillary Clinton in next year’s primary, that would further Beinart’s thesis.

That may only be part of the story, though. “Liberals can’t get anywhere unless they’re the real reasonable alternative to some more threatening force,” said Henwood.That’s precisely what Sunkara is hoping for with the openly socialist platform at Jacobin. A resurgent socialist movement, even a small one that finds its strength in the realm of ideas rather than action of party politics, may be one step toward transforming the US political and intellectual landscape.

At the moment there is intellectual ferment but only vague flickering of action. And there remains tremendous ideological and intellectual diversity, even if the publishing and thinking world is the most visible manifestation of the current moment. But it was the anti-Stalinist left, much of it based in New York, much of it centered around magazines, that helped to lay the groundwork for the New Left of the 1960s. What happens next remains entirely unclear.

 “We’re also trying to figure out the moment,” Rosenfelt said of The New Inquiry and its cohort. She was certainly not referring to elections. “And the limits of what we’re doing aren’t determined by the limits of our imagination.”

Occupy Wall Street protesters picket during a May Day rally in front of the Bank of America buidling on May 1, 2012 in New York City. Image: Getty
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Owen Smith interview: “I’m pretty red”

The Labour leadership challenger is struggling to win over a left suspicious of his past. 

The south Wales valleys embody the history of the labour movement: its victories, its defeats, its heroes, its villains. It was this resonant location that Owen Smith chose for his speech on the morning of 22 August. Labour Party members had that day begun voting on whether the 46-year-old Pontypridd MP should replace Jeremy Corbyn as their leader.

“Our history, our party was literally hewed from the hillsides around where we sit today,” Smith told a small audience at the Ely Valley Miners Welfare Club in Tonyrefail, a short distance from his home. The Welshman cited the Taff Vale judgment of 1901, which ruled that trade unions could be sued for losses caused by industrial action. It was this decision that spurred on the establishment of a Labour Party in parliament to repeal the law (as it would do in 1906 in alliance with the Liberal government).

Smith spoke later of marching with miners from the Maerdy Colliery as a 14-year-old, on the day they returned to work at the end of the 1984-85 strike. “I saw that they were utterly unbowed,” he recalled. “But they were ultimately defeated.”

Such moments, he concluded, proved the need for Labour to win power and to maintain “a powerful voice in parliament” – something he believes Jeremy Corbyn is incapable of providing. On 28 June, less than a year after Corbyn’s landslide victory, 172 MPs (81 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party) endorsed a no-confidence motion in him. Sixty-five shadow ministers, including Smith (who was then the shadow work and pensions secretary), resigned from the front bench.

Yet though Smith enjoys the overwhelming backing of the PLP, few believe he will prevail among members. He achieved only 53 constituency nominations, against the leader’s 285. On social media, where internal party contests are increasingly decided, Smith’s reach is minuscule compared to that of Corbyn (who has 795,000 Facebook fans to his 14,000).

The day before Smith spoke in south Wales, he won the endorsement of Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London and Labour’s most senior elected politician. He was subsequently also backed by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband have trumpeted his cause. Yet Smith-supporting MPs fear that such declarations count for little. “It’s like the Remain campaign and the Archbishop of Canterbury,” one told me, suggesting that Labour members, like Leave voters, ”weren’t listening” to such grandees.

Corbyn’s allies and foes alike are already preparing for the aftermath of the leader’s anticipated victory. The former warn that rebel MPs put themselves at risk of deselection by members. In response, some have threatened privately to form a parliamentary breakaway group and bid for the status of the official opposition.

Smith, unsurprisingly, insists that he can win. “I think the CLP [Constituency Labour Party] nominations don’t truly reflect the views in CLPs,” he told me when we spoke after his 20-minute address. The challenger, dressed in his favoured combination of dark suit and open-necked white shirt, welcomed the black coffee proffered by his aide. “They reflect the fact that some of the people who are new members and are supportive of Jeremy were very organised . . .

“Anybody who knows the Labour Party knows that selections are very often won by the sleepers: the people who don’t go to CLP meetings and don’t necessarily shout from the rooftops.” Smith’s hopes rest on those who share Oscar Wilde’s view: “The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many spare evenings.”

***

Smith first publicly revealed his leadership ambitions in an interview with me back in January. “It would be an incredible honour and privilege,” he said. I wrote then of a widespread view among Labour MPs that the next leader “will at least need to be from the party’s soft left to be acceptable to the party membership”. When the rebellion against Corbyn came, it was this consideration that proved decisive. Smith was embraced as a Miliband-esque socialist and a parliamentary “clean skin”, untainted by the New Labour years, having been elected in 2010. By contrast, his initial rival, Angela Eagle, had been an MP since 1992 and voted for the Iraq War.

However, Smith proved to have a more ambiguous past than some of his backers anticipated. Corbyn’s supporters swiftly unearthed a series of interviews from 2006 in which their opponent made a notably centrist pitch. Smith, then a by-election candidate in Blaenau Gwent, south Wales, defended Tony Blair (suggesting that they differed only over the Iraq War), supported private-sector involvement in the National Health Service and praised city academies. “I’m not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances,” he told Wales Online.

Since then, he has struggled to reconcile these positions with his increasingly left-wing programme: opposing private provision in the NHS, returning academy schools to local authority control, banning zero-hours contracts and imposing a wealth tax of 1 per cent.

“To be honest, my opponents have extrapolated rather a lot in an attempt to brand me as a ‘Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing’,” Smith told me. “Well, I’m nothing of the sort, I’ve always been a democratic socialist and I always will be. My views haven’t really changed at all, I’m someone who has been on the left of the party.

“My dad [the Welsh historian Dai Smith] is someone who’s been on the left of the Labour movement all his life. I’m someone who’s been surrounded by people who’ve been on the left of the Labour movement all their lives. It should come as no surprise that I’ve come out of that background and I’m pretty red. Because I am.”

Yet a former shadow cabinet colleague told me that Smith did not stand out as “a radical” in meetings: “The only time that I remember him becoming really animated was over further tax-raising powers for Scotland and the implications for Wales.”

What Smith believes in most, some say, is himself. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, described him as “one of the most ambitious career politicians I’ve met”. Others have dismissed him as a “Big Pharma lobbyist” because of his past as head of policy and government relations for Pfizer.

“I’m not ashamed that I had a life outside politics before I became an MP,” Smith told me. “Yes, I worked for Pfizer and I also worked as a BBC journalist and as an adviser to the last Labour government on the peace process in Northern Ireland.

“People don’t want career politicians – they want men and women who have had experience of working in business and in the different sectors that make up our economy. Critics may use it against me, but my time in business has helped me understand what’s wrong with it and how we can make it work better.”

Corbyn’s supporters, however, allege that Smith’s left-wing pledges would not withstand contact with centrist colleagues. The degree to which the challenger has rebutted this charge shows that he recognises its potency.

He has offered to make Corbyn party president or chair if he wins, to allow Corbyn to act as “a guardian of Labour’s values”. In his speech, Smith vowed to increase member influence by making conference votes binding on the leadership.

Throughout the 1980s, another soft-left Welshman, Neil Kinnock, struggled to assert authority as the hard left retained control of vital bodies. Smith’s proposals risk replicating this conflict. But he told me that he would respect Labour’s conference even if it endorsed stances such as Trident abolition (Smith joined CND as a teenager but later renounced unilateralism). “I do think in order to reassure members that, under my leadership, we would listen hard to them and act in accordance with their views, conference does need to become sovereign once more,” he said.

Tony Benn’s dream of internal democracy appeared to be within reach. I asked Smith whether he would support other reforms such as a reduced MP nomination threshold for leadership candidates (Corbyn allies have proposed a cut from 15 per cent to 5 per cent). “All of these things can be debated,” he told me. “I’m not sure it should be 5 per cent: I need to look at it when we get closer to it. But I am convinced that the left needs to be able to put up candidates in this contest, I’ve always felt that.”

Smith’s assertion is contradicted by a colleague who described him as having been “furious”, “apoplectic” when Corbyn made the ballot last year (he supported Andy Burnham’s campaign).

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Smith is less equiovcal over the mandatory reselection of MPs. “That would be a really retrograde step for the party,” he told me. “It would be an uncomradely way for us to do business.” He is critical of the Corbyn-aligned group Momentum, some of whose members are spearheading deselection efforts. “I fear an attitude within Momentum that they are a separate organisation and they shouldn’t be,” he told me. “It’s hard to argue that they’re loyal and supportive if they’re organising a bloomin’ great really in the same town at the same time in competition to the Labour Party” (the group will hold its own four-day conference alongside Labour’s in Liverpool).

Some of those close to Corbyn, such as John McDonnell, have unhesitatingly described themselves as Marxists (in 2006, the shadow chancellor named Marx, Lenin and Trotsky as his “most significant” intellectual influences). I asked Smith whether he believed Labour could encompass such views. “Yes, I think we’ve always been a broad church and there have always been people who’ve come from that tradition,” he replied. “There are two broad traditions: the extra-parliamentary tradition, that has always seen parliament as a compromise and parliamentary socialism as a compromise, from [the trade unionist and theorist] Noah Ablett here in south Wales with The Miners’ Next Step through to Ed Miliband’s dad [Ralph, a Marxist historian] ... and the mainstream social democratic tradition that I came from.”

He added: “We’ve had this battle in the Labour Party over the ages, haven’t we? Except now I think it’s more serious because there is a very real danger, with Labour at such a low ebb and politics fragmented more broadly, and so many more parties and so many options for people and such a lesser tribal attachment to the Labour Party, that we can’t afford those fractures.

"If we splinter, there’s lot of other places for people to put their vote.”

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Though they will not say so publicly, some of Smith’s supporters believe Labour would remain unelectable under his leadership. A former shadow cabinet minister told me that he was offering a “warmed-up Ed Milibandism, which was rejected by the voters”. Smith naturally contests this analysis. “I don’t think that we lost the last election because we were too left-wing,” he said. “The proof is that the Tories have engaged in all sorts of these policies ... Theresa May’s opening speech upon becoming leader was to talk about social injustice, economic insecurity, lack of security in the workplace. Labour values, Labour words in a Tory mouth, evidence that the broad story we’re telling about Britain is right.”

Smith said that, unlike Corbyn, he would resign if he became leader and lost a confidence vote by MPs. “Yes - I would [resign]. We are a party that believes in parliamentary democracy and, as such, it is only right that the leader commands the support of his or her colleagues in the Commons.”

Should Corbyn win the contest, as expected, Smith will not return to the shadow cabinet but act as “a loyal backbencher”.  He pledges to resist any breakaway: “I'm Labour, I've always been Labour and I will never stop being Labour," he said. 

Speaking of his fear that Corbyn would seek to remain leader even if the party lost the next general election, he said: “I’m deeply worried about it. I think he’s determined to hang on come hell or high water. And what does that say about him? ... I think he is more concerned with his version of the Labour Party being sustained and being victorious than he is with the Labour Party being victorious in elections. I think he is actually prepared to sacrifice unity and victory - two great words that have traditionally been emblazoned on Labour banners through the ages - in order to secure control of the party.”

The trouble for Owen Smith is that, for all his combative talk and appeal to the left, he is trapped between his past pragmatism and his present radicalism. 

Tony Benn, Corbyn’s late mentor, divided politicians into “signposts” and “weathercocks”: those who shape opinion and those who are shaped by it. He would have branded Smith a “weathercock”. Even if he wins, Smith risks being remembered not as a politician who resolved his party’s contradictions, but as one who embodied them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser