Socialism Butterfly

Why You Should Be a Socialist BY Nathan J. Robinson. New York: All Points Books. 336 pages. $28.

The cover of Why You Should Be a Socialist

It seems like all the kids—and many of their parents and grandparents, too—are socialists these days. The reasons are well known: a detoxification of the term socialism nearly three decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse; low wages and crushing student debt; and a newfound sense of possibility sparked by the rebirth of Left activism through the Democratic Socialists of America. The result: poll after poll showing a plurality of young people suspicious of capitalism and open to radical alternatives, even if they aren’t exactly sure what the latter entails.

These developments are heartening to Nathan J. Robinson, the editor of Current Affairs magazine. “Elementary moral principles compel us all to be leftists and socialists,” he writes in his new book, a highly readable attempt to elaborate on these tenets. The three sections of Why You Should Be a Socialist expand on the claim in the title. Robinson gives an overview of just how bad things are; a case for socialism being the solution to those bad things; and a primer on the shortcomings of arguments against socialism that are commonly voiced by conservatives, liberals, and assorted others (e.g., the supposed opposition to freedom, humans’ “inherent” greed, the magic word Venezuela).

Any rising movement needs intellectual outlets to help it cohere. Robinson’s freewheeling, irreverent magazine, founded in 2015, is one of them. Current Affairs specializes in extended takedowns of right-wing figures like Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro, and Robinson regularly drops missives like his ten-thousand-word deconstruction of Brett Kavanaugh’s 2018 Supreme Court confirmation hearings or a Pete Buttigieg broadside of similar length. You also get takes on whatever else Robinson feels like writing about that day, such as a reflection on inefficient government bureaucracy after a trip to the DMV. Deep dives into political theory—notably, for a socialist magazine, there is little about Marxism, an ideology Robinson politely eschews—go unaddressed in favor of timely, urgent interventions. Robinson, who is in his early thirties, has somehow also found time to write books on Bill Clinton’s civil rights record and the rise of Trump, as well as an essay collection on right-wing critics of social justice and a pamphlet on his intellectual hero, the linguist and activist Noam Chomsky.

Like Robinson’s articles, Why You Should Be a Socialist is breezy, jokey, and rooted in a sense of fierce moral urgency. He jumps from subjects you might expect, such as a pocket history of the Left in America, to ones you might not, such as a meditation on his correspondence with a Texas death row inmate who was eventually executed. A discussion of what to do when neoliberalism has you down—“yes, now we have to talk about neoliberalism,” he apologizes; “I’m sorry. I wish we didn’t, but we do”—begins with a suggestion to “pause” and “appreciate the majestic seahorse” when the reader needs a mental pick-me-up. The book’s overall structure is sensible, its arguments are clear and comprehensive, and its barriers to engagement are low—perfectly pitched for readers with a sense that something is very wrong in our society but unsure where to begin changing it. Page by page, the content is determined by whatever happened to flit across Robinson’s brain as he was writing and is peppered with charmingly self-deprecating caveats. “I fully realize that these thoughts are naive and childlike,” he admits at one point.

Robinson’s is a socialism of feeling. From an early age, he “couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t constantly enraged by” the vast inequalities of the world. He’s still angry about those and thinks you should be, too—that anger is the basis of his socialism. “I didn’t read Karl Marx and suddenly reinterpret old facts in a new light,” he writes of his politicization. “It was a visceral, emotional reaction that came from encountering the facts.” Robinson’s outrage is refreshingly uncynical. But is moral outrage a solid foundation to build a movement on? Central to Marxism is the contention that workers—the vast majority of us—have both the social power and the material interest to organize for a better world. Pitching your movement to potential converts as the right thing to do, as Robinson insists it is, is important, but so is an appeal to workers’ self-interest. Robinson is fueled by an unending supply of righteous indignation, but for most people indignation can burn out quickly. A socialism that can become a mass movement needs an appeal also based on tangibly improving lives.

And Robinson’s gleeful ecumenism obscures important differences among the traditions he draws upon, the most significant being debates about the role of the state. Robinson identifies with the libertarian socialist or anarchist tradition, typically hostile to state power in favor of decentralized movement building. He writes that “libertarian socialists hate government and capitalism alike.” Yet immediately after his case for anarchism, Robinson approvingly recounts the noble history of the early-twentieth-century “sewer socialists” in Milwaukee, who wielded state power to build parks, raise wages, reduce infant mortality, create affordable housing, and fight corruption. He finds value in the entire Left tradition: nineteenth-century anarchism, the contemporary DSA, the early-1900s American Socialist Party. He’s also a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist who’s running on a platform to expand government power for humane purposes like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal.

You can’t have both a radically pared-down state and a society with a universal public health care system, let alone a society able to reduce carbon emissions to avert climate catastrophe in the coming decade. To do the latter, we’ll need much more from the state, not less. Still, Why You Should Be a Socialist is a broad, basic, and compelling argument for leftist politics, published at a moment when such arguments are desperately needed.

Micah Uetricht is the managing editor of Jacobin magazine and coauthor of the forthcoming Bigger than Bernie: How We Go from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism (Verso, 2020).