BOOK REVIEW–> Socialist Awakening: What’s Different Now About the Left, by John Judis. Columbia Global Reports, 2020. 127 pages.

By Jason Sibert

The new book by John Judis gives anyone on the center-left a lot of food for thought. He worked as a journalist for years, well-known for his regular dispatches for James Weinstein’s In These Times newspaper. He was the co-author, along with Ruy Teixeira, of “The Emerging Democratic Majority (2002),” a book that was partially prophetic, as the Democratic candidate has won the popular vote in every presidential election with the exception of one since 1992. In the one exception, in 2004, nearly half of the country voted for Democrat John Kerry. However, this doesn’t translate into a majority in a gerrymandered House and a Senate that give sparsely populated states two senators just like heavily populated states. This book also didn’t take into account the voter suppression we see going on around the country. It was also written before the rise of the populist left and the populist right in various industrial democracies.

He has penned, or co-penned, nine books. He was active in a New Left organization Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960’s. Judis exited the organization when the influence of Maoists and Marxist/Leninists surged and joined a breakoff organization, New America Movement. The NAM, started in 1971, merged with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee to form Democratic Socialists of America in 1982. Judis was the founding editor of “Socialist Revolution,” later named “Socialist Review” and “Radical Society.”

“Socialist Awakening” covers the reemergence of socialist ideas, particularly among the young, in western democracies around the world. These movements are a reaction by young people to their dissatisfaction with the current economy, economies based on what we call Reaganism here in the United States and Thatcherism in the United Kingdom and in the rest of Europe. Center-left parties adapted themselves to this trend in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Here in the U.S. we saw the rise of President Bill Clinton’s New Democrats (President Barack Obama was of the same school) and people in the United Kingdom saw the rise of Tony Blair and New Labor. Other center-left parties went through similar makeovers in other countries. I was a Clintonite in the 90’s and for years after that before reading Lane Kenworthy’s “Social Democratic America.”

This new book covers the history of socialism in the U.S., including interesting content on figures like Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas, and Bernie Sanders. It also covers socialism in other countries. This is a very enjoyable feature of Judis’ work. I found this history on the Labor Party in the U.K. to be very interesting. The populist left has different manifestations all over the world – the Bernie Sanders faction in the U.S. Democratic Party, the Jeremy Corbyn faction in the U.K. Labor Party, and the Jean-Luc Melenchon’s Left Party in France. We’ve also seen more center-left voters moving to the Left Party in Germany or to the Greens. Right wing politics has seen a similar shakeup with the rise of Trump, Marine LePen and the National Front in France, and Nigel Farage in the UK.

The growing power of these populist movements also has ramifications in the pursuit of a world defined by international law and peace. The main audience for the populist left are those with some education (an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree in the U.S.) who are working in positions that don’t require a degree – the Starbucks  barista with a BA (bachelor of arts) . Many felt they would have meaningful work but have seen their dreams dashed. They might have found that meaningful work in the past in a world where technology did not do so much of the work formerly done by college graduates. The main audience for the populist right are members of the dominant ethic group (whites in the U.S.)  that have a high school diploma or maybe some college and have seen their dreams dashed by stagnant wages and benefits in the private sector. In the past, they would have had quality wages and benefits due to the power that labor unions had, a little-mentioned fact in the media. These voters are drawn to demagogic appeals based on race, gender, and sexual identity and preference. These movements also attract fans of 1930’s era fascism. These voters are also scared at becoming a racial minority, something that will happen to whites in the U.S. eventually.

One problem with the populist right is that it is incompatible with internationalism in any form. This form of populism could lead to a less stable and more war-prone world.  While Judis gives credence to the populist left for raising the issue of inequality, he feels that socialist and social-democratic parties need to discover a respect for the concept of the nation-state. No doubt, democracies are moving away from Reaganism and Thatcherism and to economies with more state involvement. Judis feels that our country’s future will look different than its past in terms of socialism, or I really prefer to use the term social democracy, which amounts to a mixed economy; if I may borrow a term for the 1980’s era Social Democratic Party in the U.K., a Labor Party breakoff group. The young, who make up a good deal of Sanders’ following, do not associate the word socialism with revolutionary Communism, like many in older generations. Future politicians will be able to run under the banner of socialist or social democrat and not be associated with Communism.

Immigration,as Judis points out, drives support for the populist right. He feels the nation-state has the right to control immigration and brings up the issue of employers using low-skilled immigrants to undercut the labor of workers who have lived in a particular nation-state. This is a real problem for the populist left, as it sometimes sees the immigration laws of that nation-state as illegitimate. This allows the populist right to stir up fear around the issue. Judis feels that the Left needs to move away from views on immigration that are defined by few if any means of regulation in the area, or the idea that once one sets foot on U.S. soil, they are legal. This doesn’t mean that the left needs to engage in racism light to try and capture populist right votes. In 1977, President Carter advocated an immigration policy that legalized those in the country illegally, made it illegal to hire illegal immigrants, and supported the enforcement of immigration laws on the border. None other than President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986 where these ideas became a reality. President George HW Bush legalized even more illegal immigrants. Keep in mind, companies who hire illegal immigrants do so to avoid following labor laws, undercutting the power of workers already here. I remember a news story in the last year about a Walmart store that hired illegal immigrants. Of course, the store wasn’t following labor law. A 90’s Clinton administration committee, chaired by Barbara Jordan, the first female African-American congresswoman, echoed a similar set of policies. The commission supported the government setting a number on the immigrants our country admits per year.

The Left’s immigration policy should stress that those here illegally are not hardcore criminals, like murders or rapists. Those who entered the country illegally should pay fines and do community service – that’s all. Some on the populist right claim immigrants don’t want to assimilate. However, wave after wave of immigrants have assimilated into our culture. Social democrats should mention this fact. Social democrats must also support the right for people to apply for refugee status, a right under international law. The populist right demagogues refugees – we should not.

According to Judis, the Left should move away from slogans like “abolish the police” or “abolish prisons. How could we have arrested Derek Chauvin and imprisoned him if there were not police or prisons? Social democrats should work on taking on the prison-industrial complex. Journalist Eric Schlosser thoughtful piece, “The Prison-Industrial Complex” (The Atlantic, December 1998) pointed out that. many of the people in our jails are not hardcore criminals.  We imprison more people than the People’s Republic of China with all of its ‘ideological criminals’. If one is sent to prison for petty crime, they often find it hard to find work in the regular economy upon release. Then they return to more petty crime! There’s an endless cycle that costs the taxpayer lots of money. However, there’s money to be made in constructing prisons and running them if we’re talking about a private prison company. Congressmen and congresswomen looking to create jobs in their districts sometimes look to prisons. There’s also a class connection to petty crime, as those involved in petty crime are usually poor. Lifting people out of poverty would be a great way to combat petty crime! Recent laws legalizing marijuana are positive as far as petty crime is concerned. It must be added that the Clinton administration’s crime policy federalized certain petty crimes, increasing the prison population..

The Left, he argues, should return to some sort of economic nationalism, or the idea that we produce more of what we consume here in the U.S., an idea associated with the Democrats in the Reaganite 1980’s.  In the Covid-19 pandemic, we found out how dangerous it was to not be able to manufacture ventilators and other essential items here in the U.S. Social democrats should work to relocate manufacturing essential to our security within America’s borders, and becoming less dependent on China would be good considering current geopolitical tensions,. Of course, this would create jobs. Hillary Clinton carried 30 percent of the white working class in 2016, but Joe Biden carried 35 percent of the white working class in 2020, an improvement. If the Democratic Party could carry 40 percent of the white working class and add this to their current coalition of educated professionals, minorities, and union members, the party would have a winning coalition.

This carries over into the struggle for a world defined by international law and peace. Trump’s foreign policy was defined by alienating our country from allies as well as from foes. We could easily return to that policy in the future, if someone similar wins the presidency. The various nation-states of the have much in the way of dangerous weaponry. Spreading more geopolitical tensions around the world increases the likelihood that these weapons will be deployed.. Social democrats must campaign hard for a more orderly international system and the positive outcomes it produces for the security of people in our country. It is essential that we find a form of internationalism that works for our future. Otherwise, our future looks pretty scary!

Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.

One thought on “BOOK REVIEW–> Socialist Awakening: What’s Different Now About the Left, by John Judis. Columbia Global Reports, 2020. 127 pages.

  1. Regarding policing, maybe a better slogan would be something along the lines of #JustAJusticeSystem. We currently use the phrase “criminal justice” instead of thinking in terms of our pledge to “liberty and justice for all.”

    Justice isn’t about meting out suffering: it’s about alleviating the suffering that leads to crime, and giving those who’ve done wrong the tools to do better — the first step to that being by doing what they can to alleviate the suffering that they previously caused.

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