What the Millennials Know
In the US, socialism had some pre-WWII successes but was driven underground by the Cold War division of the world into the capitalist, godfearing US on one side and the communist, godless USSR on the other. Can Wilde’s vision be revived, now that the Cold War is further behind us? Now that a younger generation has seen capitalism as a succession of crises, all resulting in diminished prospects and crushing debt?
Polls show that millennials are increasingly in favor of socialism–not wholesale revolution, but the ‘democratic socialism’ espoused by the “stunningly popular” Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez.
The quotation comes from Nathan J. Robinson, a millennial and founder of the leftist magazine Current Affairs, and author of Why You Should Be a Socialist (2019). Both his magazine and book have attracted a lot of positive attention, and he writes in his book that he became a ‘democratic socialist’ not by reading canonical leftist texts, but through empathy: “that’s where millennials begin, too: not with economic theory, but with a sense of solidarity, a deep understanding of, love of, and sympathy with your fellow human beings in very different circumstances, and wanting nothing for yourself that you do not also want for them.”
A little more studied and doctrinaire in his socialism is Bhaskar Sunkara, another millennial magazine founder and author, of the quarterly Jacobin and the book The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality (2019). Much of his book’s focus is on the long history of socialism’s ups and downs, while Robinson is more interested in the economic cruelties of contemporary society, and in how to disentangle socialism from its stigma in America.
Both their books were written a year or two into the Trump presidency and have sold widely. The corporate rapaciousness of the GOP has never been so blatant, and the rise of democratic socialism among millennials may be in part a galvanized response to the ugliness of Trumpism.
A striking thing about both these new voices for socialism is their playfulness in laying out their vision of a reformed society. Johnson, for example, catalogues the goofy Utopias imagined by his magazine staff, as a way to shake loose our thinking, and Sunkara opens with a socialist scenario that has Bruce Springsteen as president.
Both are also strikingly good writers – their books are very engaging reads, for their intelligence and clarity, for their palpable sense of humor, and for their sense that if the world were more economically fair, it would allow more people to flourish as individuals.
Wilde, no doubt, would approve.
In his classic, clear-eyed, but loving 1984 biography of Wilde, the late Richard Ellman ends by saying, “We inherit Wilde’s struggle…to associate art with social change, to bring together individual and social impulse…to replace a morality of severity by one of sympathy. He belongs to our world more than to Victoria’s. Now, beyond the reach of scandal, his best writings validated by time, he comes before us still, a towering figure, laughing and weeping, with parables and paradoxes, so generous, so amusing, and so right.”
Perhaps Wilde is right–that out of a period of contemplation can come a new, more beautiful way of life, a life based on a mutual understanding that leads to peace. Perhaps the silver lining of the pandemic is that it will open the way to a change in how the US is governed, in how society is shaped.
The ugliness of Trumpism has not gone away. Over 70 million people voted for Trump, and he is already beating the drum for 2024. But the country could turn in another direction, toward a new normal, a normal in which the new socialists help end the gross inequalities that are tearing our country apart. Robinson and Sunkara, Sanders, and Ocasio-Cortez, may be somewhat lonely voices now, but more are rallying to their call.
A final observation from Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist” about contemplation and change: “what we want are unpractical people who see beyond the moment, and think beyond the day…it is through the voice of one crying in the wilderness that the ways of the gods must be prepared.”
In the course of the pandemic, the inequities have been laid so bare–and the madness of the Right has been intensifying. Out of this wilderness, the new socialists are crying out for change, for a new way to be prepared.
Perhaps out of the pandemic, with its period of contemplation, will come an embrace of Wilde’s economic vision, an economy in which people are “not wounded, or worried, or maimed, or in danger” – an economy in which everyone can flourish as capital “I” Individuals. In a more beautiful society.
Wilde, Oscar. “The Critic as Artist”. 1891.
Wilde, Oscar. A Chinese Sage. 1890.
Wilde, Oscar. The Soul of Man Under Socialism. 1891.
Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid. 1890.
Robinson, Nathan J. Why You Should Be a Socialist. St. Martin’s. 2019.
Sunkara, Bhaskar. The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality. Verso. 2019.
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. Vintage. 1984.