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Millennials support socialism because they want to make America great — but for everyone

The next generation of socialists believes that the intolerable cannot be tolerated. And if you believe that, you just might be a socialist yourself.
Image: Karl Marx, a German political philosopher.
German political philosopher Karl Marx was a champion of socialism. But what does socialism mean in the 21st century?Bettmann / Getty Images

The word “socialism” is becoming more and more mainstream. When Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders launched his 2016 presidential bid, only a fringe few dared to use the label. To call yourself a socialist was supposedly a political death sentence. Now, in part thanks to Sanders, many are wearing “socialism” as a badge of pride. Dozens of socialist candidates have won seats all over the country, including two members of Congress, and membership in the Democratic Socialists of America has exploded. According to a 2019 YouGov poll, 70 percent of millennials now say they would vote for a socialist.

But what is socialism? How do you know whether you’re a socialist? Could you be one already without knowing it?

But what is socialism? How do you know whether you’re a socialist? Could you be one already without knowing it?

In fact, it can be difficult to answer the question of what precisely socialism is, because socialists themselves disagree over it. That’s not surprising; Democrats disagree over what it means to be a Democrat, too. It’s an abstract term that describes a diverse population with a lot of conflicting ideas. One popular perception, repeated by Republican Sen. Rand Paul in “The Case Against Socialism,” is that socialism is about “government control of the means of production.” But that’s pretty clearly wrong: historically, many socialists considered themselves outright anarchists, who wanted to get rid of government altogether.

A better definition, at least as far as the economic dimension of socialism, is the concept of “worker control.” What socialists have disliked is the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a small number of people. What they have demanded is that ordinary working people get their fair share of the wealth. Some socialists have believed strongly in the power of government, others have believed that worker cooperatives or syndicates could give workers their share. Matt Bruenig of the socialist People’s Policy Project has proposed a large “social wealth fund” that would distribute returns on public assets to the people as a whole, while Bernie Sanders (now running for president again) has put forth a plan to give employees seats on company boards and give ordinary workers guaranteed shares of stock.

The specifics vary, but what all socialists have in common is a dislike for the class system, where some people work incredibly hard all their lives and end up with nothing, while other people get to make money in their sleep just by owning things. Socialists think that if you work for a company, you ought to reap rewards when it succeeds, and you ought to have a say in how it’s run.

But there’s more to it than that. In my book, ”Why You Should Be A Socialist,” I argue that what socialists have in common is a sense of “solidarity” with people at the bottom, no matter who they are. As the famous socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs said 100 years ago, “while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

That commitment may seem radical: who wants to be of the criminal element? But socialists think in terms of universals: we think everyone deserves healthcare and housing, not just the people who prove themselves morally worthy. Sanders was criticized when he said that inmates should be able to vote. But that was an admirably socialist thing to say: some rights should not have exceptions.

A lot of socialists’ day-to-day focus, then, is not on restructuring who owns the “means of production,” but on looking at the lives of people at the bottom and figuring out how to make them better. And we have this commitment because of solidarity: you want the same things for everyone else that you have for yourself. That’s what Sanders was talking about when he ended a speech this fall by saying:

Are you willing to fight for that person who you don’t even know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself? … Are you willing to fight for young people drowning in student debt, even if you are not? Are you willing to fight to ensure that every American has health care as a human right, even if you have good health care? Are you willing to fight for frightened immigrant neighbors, even if you are native born?

The “even if you are not” part is what’s important for socialists. Anyone can pursue their own self-interest, and there are good arguments for, say, joining a union based on what it will do for you personally. But socialism means rejecting the idea, pushed by people like Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, that being primarily concerned with one’s own self-interest is acceptable.

Millennials are sometimes criticized for not knowing what socialism means. But I think we have a pretty clear sentiment in mind: We all look at the migrants trapped in President Donald Trump’s squalid jails, the homeless people sleeping at the foot of luxury towers, the people trying to pay their medical bills on GoFundMe, and we are horrified. Our mindset is quite simply that the intolerable cannot be tolerated. And if you believe that, you just might be a socialist yourself.