What do we mean by socialism? More here
The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a right-wing think tank, is mildly alarmed. It takes its new research indicating that young people are mostly sympathetic to socialism seriously, and urges supporters of capitalism not to dismiss it as “social media hype”, temporary “student radicalism” or a “passing fad which ended with Jeremy Corbyn’s resignation”. It calls its findings a “wake-up call” and a “challenge”.
They are also, and even more, a challenge for socialists.
The research commissioned by the IEA involved polling just under 2,000 people in the UK aged 18-34 (i.e. from the two “generations” sometimes called “Zoomers” and “Millennials”). It found that:
• 67% want a “socialist” system, defined as a society “where business, trade and industry are mostly owned and run by the government”.
• The terms most associated with “socialism” include “workers”, “people”, “equal”, “public”, “fair” and “opportunity”. The terms most associated with “capitalism” include “opportunity” too, but also “rich”, “corporations”, “exploitative”, “high tax” and “unfair”.
• 73% think capitalism fuels selfishness, greed, and materialism, while socialism would promote solidarity, compassion and cooperation.
• 75% think climate change is a specifically capitalist problem.
• 71% think capitalism fuels racism.
• 78% think capitalism is responsible for the housing crisis and and the same percentage support public housing and rent controls.
• 72% favour nationalisation of utilities and railways and 72% believe private sector involvement threatens the NHS.
• 75% agree that “Socialism is a good idea, but it has failed in the past because it has been badly done (for example in Venezuela)”.
The IEA report reinforces a lot we already knew from everyday life, and from the 2019 climate strikes, 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, and 2021 Police Bill protests. All this should give socialists more confidence to go out, make the case and convince more people to be active for socialism.
With the right riding high in official politics, the Labour left in retreat and the labour movement stagnant, it is easy, if encased within labour-movement routine and social media, to feel as if socialist agitation, education and campaigning will get nowhere. In fact there is a huge audience for them among young people.
This does not mean that clear socialist ideas and socialist activity will grow automatically. The IEA report illustrates multiple ways in which the views expressed in its poll findings are limited — in their definitions of socialism, in how well these are understood, in the percentage who “agree” rather than “strongly agree” and in support for contradictory statements, among others. Interestingly most of the responses suggest the average Zoomer is slightly less pro-socialist or left-wing than the average Millennial.
The report explains well the limitations of its finding on a more fundamental level:
“Britain is not on the brink of a socialist revolution. The rhetoric about ‘Generation Left’ implies a consistency, a coherence, and a degree of commitment to socialist ideas, which most people in this age group do not have. The reality is more chaotic… While socialist ideas may be widespread, they are also thinly spread. They are not necessarily deeply held convictions. They seem more like readily available default opinions, which young people adopt, because they sound familiar and intuitively appealing…”
Or, to put it another way, most of the socialist-minded young people are involved in no week-to-week organising for socialism and discussion of socialist ideas, and many involved in no regular week-to-week political activity at all.
The report’s conclusions, for the pro-capitalist right, are that all this is “neither a reason to panic, nor is it a reason to despair and throw in the towel. But it is a reason for acknowledging the existence of the phenomenon, to accept the challenge, and to act accordingly”.
The challenge for socialists is in many ways bigger. Socialism cannot be won by a thin though wide spread of socialist-mindedness, but only by organised socialist effort.
The spread of left-wing views among young people will only solidify, develop and start to reshape society, if significant numbers are drawn into organised socialist activity and discussion.
There was widespread enthusiasm for Corbyn and “Corbynism” among young people. But by the end of the Corbyn period, there was even less of a grassroots Labour youth movement than there had been in 2015.
The dominant forces on the Labour left had no interest in, or were even hostile to, organising active local Young Labour groups and campus Labour Clubs and creating a democratic national Young Labour. They were hostile to political discussion and debate. They trained a small layer of prominent young Corbynites in NGO-style organising, Labour Party and trade union careerism, and quasi-Stalinist politics, resulting quickly in the collapse of youth organising around Momentum and a reduction of political life in Young Labour.
Youth-led struggles like the climate strikes and BLM protests will only have a lasting impact if they feed into ongoing political organisation and discussion. Socialists have to be out on the streets with the protesters, offering accessible ways to continue to be active.
Socialists must still build Young Labour groups, wherever we can. We must intensify discussions and organising to draw more young workers into trade unions.
Above all we need to get out on the streets and campuses to create a visible profile for socialist politics, and to convince more people that to be a socialist means being active, and to be an active socialist without joining an active socialist organisation makes no more sense than to be a trade unionist without joining a trade union.