The new, radical politics of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn mirror similar movements throughout history.
The worldwide rise of right-wing populism is impossible to ignore. Most recently, it entered the news after the far-right Vox won enough votes to enter Spain’s parliament. But it is easy to miss a similar phenomenon on the left.
In Europe, the Americas, and other regions, left-wing populists win support by taking a hardline stance against economic inequality and austerity. The hard left Andrés Manuel López Obrador won the Mexican presidency in 2018, the socialist Jeremy Corbyn leads the British Labour Party, and Bernie Sanders is a top-polling candidate for President of the United States.
Meanwhile, Vox may dominate the news, but Spain’s left-wing populist coalition, Unidas Podemos, is in a more powerful position. Although it lost seats in the latest election, its support could be necessary in giving the center-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) control of parliament.
To their supporters, these movements represent something completely new. In some cases, left-wing populists even go beyond simply advocating for a Scandinavian-style welfare state and instead call for the transformation of the very capitalist economic system.
In the US, which traditionally lacks a strong leftist movement, Democrats and 18 to 29-year-olds now have a more positive view of socialism than of capitalism. Though, this alone does not tell much. Even if someone says on a survey that they support socialism, an ambiguously-defined term, it is unlikely that they will go around seizing the means of production any time soon.
Still, to those on the right, the mainstreaming of far-left politics represents something all too familiar. Donald Trump’s 2016 state of the Union speech railed against socialism in Venezuela and warned that progressive Democrats are trying to import it to the US. Similarly, former UKIP leader Henry Bolton blamed the left-wing resurgence on a lack of education about the history of communist atrocities.
It is deniable that left-wing, anti-capitalist ideology led to disaster in countries such as Russia, China, and Venezuela. However, these movements, which came to power after overthrowing corrupt or authoritarian regimes, do not tell the whole history of the left.
Anti-capitalism was trending throughout the industrial world during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Corbynites claim that they are bringing the Labour Party back to its roots, and there is merit to this claim. The 1900 Labour Party General Election Manifesto called for “socialisation of the means of production” and “emancipation of labour from the domination of capitalism.” The traditional party anthem is the “The Red Flag.”
While “social democracy” today signifies milquetoast center-left politics, its roots lie in a far more radical tradition. The Spanish PSOE, French Socialist Party, and German Social Democratic Party, among others, can find anti-capitalist and even Marxist ideas in their early days.
The reasons that these parties did not follow the path of the Bolsheviks are numerous, but the most important relate to democratic institutions. In autocracies like the Soviet Union or dysfunctional democracies like Venezuela, the easiest way for a far-left party to maintain its power is to stamp out its opposition.
Instead of relying on a popular mandate, leaders derive their power from the support of power-hungry bureaucrats and the hardline party base. This fuels an endless cycle of economic disasters and political purges as the interests of the ruling class trump that of the people.
In contrast, this type of strategy would quickly see one removed from office in consolidated democracies like those of North America and Western Europe. Instead, holding onto power means making compromises with rival parties and maintaining the support of the people.
Abolishing private ownership of the means of production is not a quick or easy process, so democratic socialists of the early-to-mid 1900s started slowly through reforms like universal healthcare and child labor bans. In the United States, the most electorally successful branch of the Socialist Party was the Sewer Socialists of Milwaukee, whose dedication to municipal reform allowed them to control the mayorship for most of the period between 1910 and 1960.
Anti-socialists were also instrumental in this process. One of the earliest modern welfare states came about in 1880s Germany, as an attempt by Otto von Bismarck to undercut working-class support for the Social Democrats.
In either case, socialists in the West failed to abolish capitalism, but they served as the impetus behind the beloved European social model. As they turned their focus from revolutionary rhetoric to day-to-day governance, the parties that once called for the overthrow of capitalism converted to the policies of third-way neoliberalism. Now, today’s left-wing populists are trying to renew the cycle.
The Direction of the Future
Due to the moderating nature of democratic politics, neither the wild hopes of a new economic order nor the frantic predictions of Leninist dictatorship are likely to emerge from developed nations’ left-wing populists, most of whom do not even embrace radical policies of their forbearers, like nationalizing the means of production.
This movement could be a passing fad that will soon fizzle out. It could also be that the digital revolution is creating an economic disruption on par with the industrial revolution, and today’s democratic socialists will be essential in adapting capitalism for a new era.
In the long run, democratic trial-and-error means that states generally embrace good policy, but individual cases are variable. When François Mitterand’s Socialist-Communist coalition came to power in France in 1981, he developed an ambitious long-term plan for socializing the economy. However, all it took was a couple of years of inflation, unemployment, and similar problems to force him to make 180 degree turn and switch to austerity policies.
Similarly, the switch from revolutionary rhetoric to pragmatic policies rarely goes smoothly. In the 1930s, the Great Depression created a bitter schism in the British Labour Party, with the defection of the National Labour faction on the right and Independent Labour on the left.
History lets us glean trends that tend to stay true over time, but we cannot predict the future with total certainty. While certain pathways are more likely than others, the ultimate direction of these left-wing populist movements depends on human decisions.