Every area of study has its classic puzzles; the “anomalies theorists” pay their dues by proposing explanations. For the biology of sexual selection, it might be the peacock’s tail. For early-20th-century physicists, it was the black body radiation problem. For comparative political sociology, it is, in German historical economist Werner Sombart’s phrase, “Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?” For over a century, the absence of a mass socialist or labour party has been a defining aspect of “American exceptionalism.” But what if that were no longer true? What if socialism were to become a major force in American politics, even as it declined in Europe?

Since the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, almost every major democratic country has had a self-proclaimed labour, socialist or communist party as a major contender for power. Most of the undemocratic world either had a self-proclaimed socialist government or underground insurrectionary movement (and, not infrequently, both).

The United States was different. It exited the 20th century with the same Democratic and Republican parties it has had since the 1860s, and without mainstream politicians rhetorically proposing an alternative to capitalism. The fact of an exceptional American aversion to socialism was undisputed, with leftists and academics alike arguing about the reasons: the racial legacy of Jim Crow and slavery, the immigrant experience, the frontier, Protestant revivalism or the canny political instincts of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

But looking around in 2018, we might wonder whether this classic contrast makes sense any more. In Europe, these are gloomy days for the successors of August Bebel, Kier Hardie and Jean Jaurès, with the traditional parties of the left wiped out in France and Italy, in apparently terminal decline in Germany, and riven by serious internal crisis in the United Kingdom. On the other side of the Atlantic, things are looking up for the estate of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas. In 2016, an unteleginic self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” almost won the Democratic nomination for president. Arguably (although, of course, controversially), in an anti-establishment election decided in the Rust Belt, Bernie Sanders would have won.

The election of Donald Trump has, naturally enough, led to increased attention to right-wing populism and the racist “alt-right.” But it is at least possible that developments on the left will be of longer-term significance. Trump’s support is overwhelmingly among older Americans, while the even older Sanders won big among younger voters regardless of race and gender. A 2017 YouGov poll showed that 44 per cent of millennials (defined in this case as people born after 1987) would prefer to live in a “socialist” country, compared with 42 per cent opting for a “capitalist” one. Other polls with other questions consistently show more positive associations with “socialism” than with “capitalism” among younger Americans.

Polls of inchoate public attitudes are one thing; organizational power and intellectual influence are another. Here too something is happening among millennials outside the visible parts of mainstream American discourse. The once moribund Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have received a remarkable “Trump bump”; membership has gone from under 7,000, when Sanders’s campaign began, to its present 30,000. This growth in membership has occurred along with a sharp turn to the left, as the DSA in 2016 cut its ties with the Socialist International of mainstream social democratic parties, ties that its founder, Michael Harrington, worked hard to build in the early 1980s.

A larger ecosystem of a millennial socialist left – not to be confused with mainstream Democratic progressives or liberals – including the DSA, a “podcast” scene led by the popular and profane Chapo Trap House, “red rose Twitter” and Jacobin magazine has spread beyond its native university milieu. Common to all of these is the combination of a millennial cultural vibe with a remarkably “old left” orientation around class (as opposed to an “identity politics” primarily oriented to race and gender), Marxist theory, traditional activism and the internecine debates of left history.

It is important not to get carried away. The organized off-campus socialist left might be growing rapidly, but it is still tiny. The DSA is small, compared not just with the German SPD or the British Labour Party but even with other fringe American organizations like the Libertarian Party. High abstract support for “socialism” among young Americans might turn out to be a lifecycle phenomenon they grow out of rather than a cohort phenomenon presaging future political realignment – the old cliché that a person who is not a socialist at 20 has no heart while one who is not a capitalist by 30 has no brain may be relevant here. The DSA is also small compared with Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party, which obtained almost a million votes in the presidential election of 1920, 3.4 per cent of the total, before it split into Communist and anti-Communist factions. Like other ideologues, American socialists are undoubtedly overrepresented online.

Still, given the vast attention lavished on the alt-right that everyone ignored until Trump came along, it may be worth asking whether the left might also be able to mount a challenge to American consensus values. No generation before the millennials has ever reported a preference for socialism over capitalism to pollsters. DSA is already bigger than any overtly socialist organization since Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) imploded in 1969. According to John Michael Colon, DSA, unlike SDS, consists primarily of former university and college students, who are often facing downward mobility and large student loans. This is interesting, given Peter Turchin’s evidence that internal social conflict is correlated with the “overproduction of social elites”: in the modern world, this typically occurs when many more people have postsecondary educations than can use them in the economy.

Trump proves that the longstanding certainties of American politics have become less reliable. At a minimum, it is quite possible that socialism, in some form or other, might be on the verge of a breakthrough in the United States. If this happens, since a substantial proportion of the country will continue to view socialism in apocalyptic colours, the already bitterly divided American political culture will become even more polarized.

Straddling the Left Traditions

Characterizing this new trend is a difficult task, if we want to avoid both inaccurate generalization and a level of detail about obscure disputes that would induce eye bleeding in even the most tolerant reader. As Monty Python’s Life of Brian illustrated, the overeducated/underemployed in general, and Marxists in particular, have a love for nuanced theoretical-programmatic differentiation. To get a handle on things, and at the risk of offending anti-individualist principles, we need a representative figure.

Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor of Jacobin, will do as well as anyone. One way in which the 28-year-old Sunkara is typical is that, politically, he tries to straddle the social democratic, Leninist and anarchist traditions that characterized the 20th-century left. Sunkara defines this mission of Jacobin in explicitly generational terms, as “the product of a younger generation not quite as tied to the Cold War paradigms that sustained the old leftist intellectual milieus like Dissent or New Politics.” Sunkara endorsed Bernie Sanders’s purely social democratic program and points to Scandinavian countries as models of the kind of change he hopes for in the United States. He says he is not opposed to markets in principle, although Jacobin never supports the free-market side in any controversy.

At the same time, as the name Jacobin suggests, Sunkara uses revolutionary imagery and has published sympathetic articles about the Russian Revolution and the Communist tradition. The DSA combines Democratic Party elected officials with a “tankie” fringe of Leninists who retroactively support Soviet military suppression of democratic working-class rebellions in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland against Communist rule.

Sunkara’s generation of left activist is defined in reaction not only to post-9/11 U.S. military interventionism and the post-2008 financial crisis and Great Recession, but also to what they rightly perceive as fundamental failures in the movements against those things. The anti–Iraq War movement essentially disappeared when Barack Obama was elected president, despite the substantial continuity in policy with the Bush administration when it came to the war in Afghanistan, the surveillance of Muslim Americans, drone strikes around the world and disastrous regime change policies. Neoconservatism gave way to a functionally similar liberal internationalism insisting on “U.S. leadership,” but any mass movement dried up with a Democrat in the White House.

While Obama expressed some disagreement with the interventionist foreign policy establishment and may have blunted their most bellicose instincts, he never expressed any interest in spending political capital in transforming U.S. foreign policy. Despite the anti-interventionist instincts of the American public, especially younger Americans, he faced no political pressure on foreign policy from the left. The political left just ignored these issues after Bush left office, while the intellectual left either recycled sixties anticolonial ideology or was sympathetic to liberal internationalism. The most interesting and hardheaded critiques of American hegemonism tended to come from conservative realists such as Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, writers at the American Conservative and antiwar libertarians.

Occupy and Identity

The financial crisis and its aftermath of low employment rates hit millennials harder than any other age cohort. The immediate leftist response, the Occupy movement, is a target of particular ire among millennial Marxists. Occupy combined complete inflexibility on its chosen tactic of creating ungoverned camps in urban public spaces with hostility to programmatic responses to the Great Recession. The leaders of Occupy, influenced both by anarchism and by traditional American hostility to telling anyone what to do, went out of their way to discourage the movement from posing any specific demands or analysis. No doubt this was a way of resisting Leninist entrism, but it also reflected a basically antipolitical refusal to debate alternatives. One common feature of the Jacobin circle is their disgust at this aspect of Occupy, which they analyze as an internalization of the post–Cold War narrative that “there is no alternative” to “neoliberalism.” Sunkara (and others like him) saw Marxism as a hardheaded and systematic alternative to this disgustingly New Agey “anarchist” antipolitics.

From my own perspective, Marxism has very little interesting to say about periodic financial crises and the business cycle, beyond the (salutary) emphasis that they are endemic to capitalism. Marx himself was never happy with his crisis theory, which Engels published after his death. With its dependence on the labour theory of value and a self-contradictory account of the determination of profit rates, it has little to offer now. It would be more useful to read the 20th-century American economist Hyman Minsky or various post-Keynesians.

But for young activists looking for something less soupy than Occupy was able to supply, the old left tradition seemed refreshingly hard-edged. Occupy, Obama and the antiwar left all celebrate feelings and moralism; old-line socialism told underemployed-but-overeducated young activists to open up books and argue about economics, philosophy and history as well as show up for demonstrations. That might appeal to intelligent young people with high student debts and suddenly limited job prospects.

Even more important, old leftism might liberate young people weighed down by the fraught world of identity culture but unwilling to embrace a right-wing backlash narrative. By now, anyone of any age knows how dangerous the online “call out” politics of race, gender and sexuality has become. The Jacobin–Trap House milieu gets to be the moderate middle here, a position that appeals to many millennials. They can parody or analyze both the moral posturing of the “social justice warrior” crowd and the anti–social justice warrior industry.

The 2016 Democratic primaries pitted Sanders’s class-based appeal against Hillary Clinton’s promise that the first female president would be transformative. Clinton explicitly made identity-based appeals to defeat Sanders. In her stump speech in the primaries, Clinton asked, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community?” From a Marxist perspective, this looks like weaponizing identity politics in defence of “neoliberalism.” Sanders’s male supporters were labelled as (and sometimes acted like) “Bernie bros,” holding Clinton to sexist standards. One major intellectual influence (albeit himself a curmudgeonly Slovenian baby boomer), Slavoj Žižek, went so far as to endorse Donald Trump as the true proletarian candidate in the general election. While the millennial Marxist milieu certainly supports broadly feminist and antiracist positions, it also provides space for criticisms of identity politics that many on the centre-right would agree with.

The old left was often opposed to racism and sex oppression, a tendency that can be dated back to Marx and Engels, but beyond that the Marxist tradition never worked out its relationship to gender and national-racial inequalities. At its worst, Marxism engaged in genocidal politics, a thread that runs from Engels’s call to eradicate Slavic national identies after the 1848 revolution through the racist as well as murderous policies of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Even at its best, Marxism never worked out how class analysis and what it called “special oppression” worked together.

It would be insane, in the era of Trump, to discount the significance of racial and gender loyalties on how people vote. But gender or racial polarization seems like a dead end for the left politically and rarely of much use as a lens into policy solutions. Even crucial racial issues like police violence and mass incarceration turn out to affect a numerically larger, albeit proportionately smaller, group of whites. The resistance to social democratic or even liberal solutions to America’s problems around access to healthcare and reasonable-quality education have everything to do with race. However, sensible solutions would redistribute power and resources primarily along lines of class, not race.

Moreover, objectively, class gaps kept getting deeper over the decades between the 1970s and 2016 as America was making cultural progress in its representations of nonwhites, women and sexual minorities, and the business and professional elite endorsed at least symbolically the principle of racial, gender and sexual inclusion. Trump’s election, which puts this cultural progress in doubt, can be seized on as evidence that a failure to address class will ultimately undermine even this progress.

For the millennial Marxists, the glory of the Sanders movement was that it challenged the “neoliberal” consensus they believe has prevailed since the end of the Cold War. In some ways, the rise of right-wing populist nationalism challenges neoliberalism as well. Now that the inevitabilist “end of history” illusions of the 1990s are finally shattered, it becomes possible to engage again with the Marxist tradition, hopefully without the dogmatism and hostility to civil liberties that disfigured it. The millennial Marxists explicitly see themselves as in continuity with those on the socialist left who tried to find a way between Leninism and social democracy, including the Eurocommunists, the British Labour left and strands of the New Left.

Defining the Enemy

Assuming, then, that millennial Marxism really is a “thing,” is it a good thing or a bad thing? My own perspective is that of a Generation Xer radicalized in the 1980s moment of solidarity with Nicaragua, anti-apartheid activism, zines and punk rock. It was a lesser moment for North American leftism than the 1960s or the present, but I have to be careful to avoid paternal condescension. I was in the minority of my generation in being attracted to orthodox Marxism precisely because it seemed to provide a hardheaded analysis as against anarchism, postmodernism and identity politics.

I certainly despised Clinton and Blair when they were elected. But I gave up on any emotional identification with the far left during the travelling antiglobalization protests of the late 1990s. It seemed to me then, and seems to me now, that the benefits of freer international trade for the global poor between 1989 and 2001 had to be prioritized if internationalism was to be meaningful. It also seemed to me that the dominant wing of capital was open to pushing for a postethnic West with a more egalitarian sexual morality. In other words, capitalism had not stopped playing the “most revolutionary” part Marx and Engels spoke of in the Communist Manifesto. I briefly thought there might be something to the “Third Way” of Blairite social democracy, although I was disappointed by Blair’s embrace of the Iraq War and then shaken by the financial crisis.

From this somewhat idiosyncratic perspective, there are some things to welcome in the development of millennial Marxism. While the mainstream left might long ago have been too exclusively focused on the concept of class, for many decades it has seemed to pay insufficient attention to this concept, in light of the growing disparities of wealth and income in the West. No decent person should regret the enormous reduction in global poverty as a result of globalization or the relative opening of cultural space to women, racial and sexual minorities as a result of the logic of commodification breaking down older patriarchal structures. But the Marxist tradition has special insight into the dialectical nature of these developments. Capitalism has both its brutal progressive side and its tired conservative side.

Any movement can be understood by how it understands its enemy. For the millennial Marxists, its enemy is “neoliberalism.” This core concept is a slippery one, both intellectually and politically. It basically includes everybody the millennial Marxists disagree with, other than right-wing nationalist populists and Stalinist tankies. “Neoliberalism,” in the hands of the millennial Marxists, becomes an oddly ahistorical and idealist concept, a spectre haunting not only Europe but the world, betwitching people into supporting policies clearly contrary to their interests, in very different political contexts and affecting movements with very different social bases, simply because it is the spirit of the (post–Berlin Wall) age.

Politically, it throws together every mainstream politician in the Atlantic democracies over the last two generations – from Mitterrand, Reagan and Thatcher to Obama, May and Macron. Intellectually, it includes mainstream economists behind the Washington Consensus in the 1990s or Clinton- and Blair-style centre left governments as well as economists such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman who rebelled against the postwar mixed economy from a libertarian direction. Neoliberalism is not only the explanation for the Iraq war and the financial crisis, but also for why movements that the millennial Marxists like (Syriza in Greece, Chavismo in Venezuela) have ended in disaster. Sunkara sometimes puts forward Scandinavia as a model, without perhaps realizing the extent to which it has combined high taxes and social spending with a more rigorous commitment to free market liberalism in many areas than prevails in the United States.

Millennial Marxists need to develop a more historically grounded analysis of the limits of the liberalism/social democracy of the era of Clinton, Blair and Obama, one that starts from the historical problems the forces associated with those names had to solve. By the 1970s, as the public sector increased, it became increasingly difficult to simultaneously satisfy the producer interests of public sector workers, meet the demands on already-established public services, not frighten off middle-income taxpayers and keep the positive-sum spirit of “les trentes glorieuses” (the 30 years of relative prosperity after the Second World War). High levels of aggregate demand led to widespread strikes and inflation. In the Anglo-Saxon world, Thatcher-Reagan-style conservatism appeared to provide a way out of these problems, with tight money, a harder attitude toward unions and a limit on the growth of the tax-and-transfer state (although no real attempt to actually reduce it in size).

During this time, Michael Harrington’s project of ideologically sorting the major parties actually succeeded: conservative southern Democrats left, the Democrats became the unquestioned party of labour and minorities, and organized themselves programmatically around filling in the clearest hole in the U.S. welfare state, the lack of universal healthcare coverage. Republicans, by contrast, became firmly committed to opposing any tax increases, even as market income diverged and even as these became necessary to pay for the federal government’s commitment to Social Security and Medicare. But with the defeat of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis in the 1980s, the Democrats tried to move to the centre culturally (to attract white working-class voters) and on taxes and spending (to attract upwardly mobile middle-class voters). This more or less corresponded to similar moves within the British Labour Party under Tony Blair and the German SPD under Gerhard Schroeder, so while disappointing from a left perspective it did not really falsify Harrington’s bet that the Democrats were becoming a social democratic force in all but name.

Outside the English-speaking world, so-called “neoliberalism” was not an ideological phenomenon at all, but a reaction to the reality that postwar social democracy faced the limits of the nation-state as a structure. The program of Mitterrand’s Socialists to “change life” had to be abandoned not for ideological reasons but because it necessarily implied a devaluation of the franc against the Deutschmark. The ultimate solution for these problems, the European monetary union, cannot be reconciled with an effective social democracy until and unless there is a European working class that thinks of itself as such. And that does not seem forthcoming. The structures of internationalism, and even of Europeanism, do not seem capable of being democratized the way the nation-state was in the 20th century.

If a breakthrough for the left does not seem to be coming from Europe, what about the United States? The difficulties are different. One is the nature of the U.S. Constitution, with its multiple veto points, which would render a coherent social democratic program hard to introduce. As the millennial Marxists rail against the failure of Clinton and Obama to accomplish more, they tend to ignore these structural problems. Another difficulty, which gets more analysis, is the way in which group status competition – around race, religion and education – fails to correspond to economic class, but is far more motivating. In the very long run, generational changes may make this less important, but as Keynes pointed out, we do not live in the long run.

Even more important to whether the end of this particular kind of American exceptionalism leads to good or bad consequences is the extent to which millennial Marxists avoid reproducing the illiberalism of the Leninist tradition in a desire to appear radical. The American left has often felt it can avoid the moral ambiguity of the often oppressive legacy of 20th-century socialism precisely because any extremism on the left will inevitably be so marginal to American politics as to be harmless. But that will no longer be true if socialism is no longer marginal in America. Even if they avoid a Leninist ancestor cult, American leftists will not get anywhere unless they embrace the pragmatic nature of their country, as well as create roots at the state and local level. But if they do these things, they might promote a better society at home and give some impetus to the left internationally. In any event, they are something to watch out for.