“Socialism” is simultaneously one of the most commonly used and most confusing terms in American politics. Does being a socialist mean advocating for the complete abolition of capitalism, markets, and private property? Does it mean supporting a higher tax rate, Medicare-for-all, and Sen. Bernie Sanders? Or does it simply mean a deep hatred of systemic injustice and the institutions that perpetuate it?
In his new book, Why You Should Be a Socialist, Nathan J. Robinson, the founder and editor-in-chief of Current Affairs magazine, attempts to shed light on these questions. In his writing, Robinson distinguishes between a “socialist economy” (think collective ownership, worker cooperatives, single-payer health care) and what he calls a “socialist ethic”:
What is the difference between a “socialist ethic” and a “socialist economy”?
There’s a great Eugene Debs quote, “While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it. And while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” That’s not a description of worker ownership — that’s a description of looking at the world and feeling solidarity with people who are at the bottom with the underclass. And I think that is just as important to what animates socialists as some idea about how production should be managed.
People focus a lot on the question of central planning. But I’ve been doing interviews of socialists, interviewing DSA people around the country, and the unifying thread really is not a very clear vision for how a socialist economy will work. It is a deep discomfort and anger that occurs when you look at the world and you see power relationships and you see a small class of people owning so much and a large number of people working so hard and having so little. There are socialist divides over nearly every question, but this is the one thing that socialists all come together on.
This distinction may sound like a dodge, but I think Robinson gets at something here that — while hard to understand from the outside — is crucial to understanding today’s left politics. We also discuss:
- The central role of democracy to the socialist worldview
- What it means to be a “libertarian socialist”
- What Robinson’s socialist utopia would look like
- Why so many socialists have turned on Sen. Elizabeth Warren in favor of Sanders
- Robinson’s special loathing for South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg
- What he believes Sanders’s “political revolution” would look like
- The lessons of Jeremy Corbyn
- Whether the deep difference between liberals and socialists is temperament
- Why “public versus private” is often a false choice
- The challenge of economic growth
And much more.
You can listen to this conversation — and others — by subscribing to The Ezra Klein Show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Nathan Robinson’s book recommendations:
Understanding Power by Noam Chomsky
An Anarchist FAQ by Ian McKay
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
If you enjoyed this episode, you may also like:
Leftists vs. Liberals with Elizabeth Bruenig
Matt Bruenig’s case for single-payer health care