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John Judis

John Judis

It’s an eye-opening read—a new book, that is, The Socialist Awakening, authored by John B. Judis. What struck me about the title isn’t just the word, socialist, but what that word modifies, awakening. There’s an enticing sub-title, too: “What’s different now about the Left?” Those words suggest something important is going on, and it’s happening right now. For Progressives it is, and Judis tells why.

Of course, not all Progressives are Democratic Socialists. But irrespective of the term used, most—if not all—Progressives embrace what Bernie Sanders said in 2015 in a speech on the topic of Democratic Socialism. “It builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans,” Sanders told a Georgetown University audience. “It builds on the success of many other countries around the world that have done a far better job than we have in protecting the needs of their working families, the elderly, the children, the sick, and the poor.”

Tomorrow’s politics might be something other than what it often is today—mostly about centrist Democrats and right-wing Republicans taking on each other.

And even though Sanders didn't win the Democratic nomination, he built a foundation for moving America’s politics to the Left. For Judis, it’s one of the things ‘that’s different about the Left today.’ Tomorrow’s politics might be something other than what it often is today—mostly about centrist Democrats and right-wing Republicans taking on each other.

But, as Judis sees it, that bright future will happen only IF the Left can successfully link

  • public grievances about unsatisfactory political responses, such as wealth inequality, systemic racism, climate change, and health care for all,
  • WITH widespread aspirations for a fully-functioning democracy where citizens are engaged authentically, grassroots activism is respected and encouraged, and voices from the margins are heard and heeded.

That’s a hill climb. And to make it even more challenging, Sanders’ successor(s)—and less likely Sanders himself—will lead the way. But no matter who comes next, Sanders has bestowed she/he/they with a gift: the concept of Scandinavian-style Democratic Socialism is now engrained in America’s political vernacular. Yes, it’s still a straw man for many, but the good news is that it has ‘hung around’ long enough to make it far less frightening for millions of others. And it’s a magnet for people like me.

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I’m used to reading books that grab intellectual attention, and Judis’s contribution did that. But I also felt an emotional connection to this book—as though I was reading a personally-relevant story—about how socialism has evolved over the years in America and Great Britain, and where it stands today. His is an unvarnished rendition—the highs and lows, warts and all—of how we got to today and where we might go from here if we’re successful.

Judis’s metaphoric postscript is as direct as somebody pressing a finger on your chest. What happens next is about you and the choices you make. Of course, the beauty of the English language is that ‘you’ is both singular and plural.

To get a better grasp on what Judis has in mind, I think it’s best to read the last chapter first, “Populism, Nationalism, and Socialism.” All three are connected, he argues, because they share in the growing public consensus about “the breakdown of free market capitalism and globalization.”

Populism, which can be expressed from the Right, Center, or Left, pits “the people against the elites and establishment.” In post-industrial capitalism, that group has gotten larger, too. It now includes a new class of elites, Judis contends, namely, ‘the new working class,’ of executive leadership and management. Over the past several decades, that group moved up in economic and social status. Their upward migration was one more thing that fueled populism’s fire, and it brought many disenfranchised voters to Trump. (Note: In truth, I was in the new working class. Decades ago, when I decided to devote my career to higher ed, I never thought in my wildest dreams that anybody could ‘get rich’ making a career in college education. Today, though, it’s neither wild nor a dream.)

Nationalism is also a byproduct of how market capitalism and globalization have evolved. It’s tricky, though. If you take that ethic too far—as many believe Trump has done with his ‘America First’ campaign—it results in an ungodly level of insularity. On the other hand, it’s important to understand (per Judis) that “moral commitments go in concentric circles from family to friends and to nation.” At issue, then, is how far to go beyond that and why. One response is settling in the middle between the extremes of insularity and unabridged international stewardship. Examples of that middle range might include responding to international crises, supporting development initiatives in key countries, and addressing issues that require international cooperation (e.g., climate change).

Judis’s preference just expressed (an optimal settling place is somewhere in the middle away from the extremes) is also the way he thinks about socialism. For Judis, socialism worth pursuing politically is socialism that is both desirableandpossible (italics and bolding added). He writes: “Citizens will not seek to replace capitalist with socialist institutions purely out of moral conviction. They have to believe that purely market-based institutions have dramatically failed to provide prosperity and well-being.”

Getting there is more easily said than done, though, and Judis points out two reasons why. First, various constituencies on the Left will need to relax ideological rigidity and find common ground, and that’s no easy task. Second, the movement to socialism can’t be captured by any organization that espouses inflexible positions, as does the Democratic Socialists of America. Judis argues that diverse partners (italics added) will need “to focus single-mindedly on the profound weaknesses in the economy and on the (glaring weaknesses in the) safety net that the current pandemic has revealed.”

With ‘partnerships,” though, the devil is in the details. Only dreamers, fools, and manipulators believe partnerships are always ‘good.’ In fact, the plight we experience today is a by-product, in part, of past partnerships, including notable (and in some ways notorious) U.S.-British partnerships of the past. One was the Reagan-Thatcher collaboration, which enabled neoliberalism (free-market fundamentalism combined with smaller government, reductions in the social safety net, and loosened regulations) to take root in government/public policy and beyond. The neoliberal emphasis on getting ahead via competition also fueled a “Me-First” ethic that persists to this day.

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Another nefarious collaboration was the W. Clinton-Blair ‘Third Way’ approach, which married market fundamentalism with social reforms in a way that extended, rather than interrupted/shifted, what Reagan and Thatcher had put in place. Judis describes that proclivity as ‘conciliatory liberalism,” although ‘capitulatory’ is the modifier I prefer. Another way of framing it is by way of the seemingly oxymoronic term, Progressive Neoliberalism, which appears to be the preferred approach of centrist Democrats.

In the end, the ‘socialist awakening’ of which Judis writes won’t happen if only politicians and Left-wing intellectuals lead the way. Anything new, meaningful, and powerful requires a citizens’ revolt. And there’s evidence that’s happening.

Enter young Americans.

If you pay attention to local and organizational affairs, then you know that youth is one of the first groups to speak up, organize, and become active. Unencumbered by employment affiliation and other constraints, and driven by the strong urge to serve the public good, youth are inclined to raise questions and combine grievances with efforts to reform faulty systems. We saw that in students’ response to the Parkland (FL) high school massacre. I’ve seen the same type of response—time and time again—in higher education with respect to a diverse range of issues, including campus sexual assaults, collegiate endowment investments, and college athletic reform.

And if there’s any single group in American society that truly believes in and buys-into what Judis describes in what follows, it’s America’s young people. “These are people who “reject the competitive individualism of industrial capitalism…prefer altruism to selfishness … and are inspired by revolutions past—American (“all men (sic) are created equal”) and French (‘liberty, equality, and fraternity (sic).

What’s more, youth (as a group) are more likely than any other American age-group to affirm what Sanders expressed when he said: “I believe that you are richer emotionally as a human being when we have a community, when we care about each other, when we love each other. When we are compassionate—and when we are not stepping on other people.” Further buoyed by women role models found in The Squad”—Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Ilhan Omar (MN), Ayanna Pressley (MA), and Rashida Tlaib (MI)—many of America’s youth see a different way forward.

Data provide evidence. As early as 2015 (as the Sanders’ campaign was getting in gear), Junis reports that a YouGov poll found that nearly 40% of young Americans (age 18-29) had a favorable view of socialism. In this election cycle (as of January 2020), Pew Research found that 60% of Democrats in that same age group supported either Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. And when young Democrats were asked to classify themselves as liberals, progressives, moderates, or socialists (pick one), YouGov reported nearly 20% picked socialist.

These data align with primary election data among all-age voting Independents that I analyzed during the 2020 primary season using Washington Post data. Even in states where Sanders lost the state primary to Joe Biden, Sanders frequently outpolled Biden among Independents—even in states where you’d think that couldn’t happen (e.g., Missouri). Like many youth, Independents are free agents unencumbered by political affiliation.

When you combine youth preferences with what I’ve just reported about Independents, you have the makings of a movement—especially if you factor in something else that Judis reports. When he and a colleague analyzed YouGov survey data, they found that 58% of all Democratic voters age 18-44 identified themselves as socialists, as did 47% of college grads/post-grads. Of course, on the flip side is a preponderance of older and less educated Democrats and the lion’s share of Republicans.

If you wonder why more people are moving to socialism, credit (in part) The Great Recession, Trumpism, the pandemic, and increasing distress about the wealth gap, systemic racism, access to health care and other pressing issues. Could a mainstream political party, the Democratic Party, move to the Left—to a progressive, socialist Left? While that outcome seems unlikely when viewed through the lens of the middle-of-the-road Dem 2020 presidential ticket, think again. We’re talking future here.

So, the question is: Will it happen? I think it can happen if a carefully orchestrated tightrope act can be performed. Junis writes:

“The larger liberal electorate is fully supportive of gay marriage and opposes job discrimination against transgender people, but is wary of transgender activists who advocate the abolition of gender. They (the electorate) support affirmative action and oppose discrimination against African Americans, but they are not ready to support reparations. They decry racial injustice in policing and in the courts, but they are not ready to abolish prisons and defund the police. They favor comprehensive immigration reform, but they oppose open borders.”

Junis concludes that America can move significantly to socialism’s side. What stands in the way? It’s the leadership to get there. The history in this country, and also in England, tells us that it has been difficult for socialist leaders to relax hardwired ideological stances—to accept going beyond affirming the ‘we support’ (in the list above) to embracing ‘the but.”

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Perhaps Judis’s biggest contribution in The Socialist Awakening is naming that reluctance as the biggest obstacle to change. If he’s right, then progress is a matter of who will step forward post-Sanders and whether he/she/they are up to the task. Of course, that task will include responding to purists who’ll undoubtedly label it a sell-out, ‘socialism light,’ and not worth undertaking.

Frank Fear

You can listen to this article at ">Under the Radar with host Frank Fear.