- Interview by
- Meagan Day
Nathan J. Robinson is the founder and editor of Current Affairs and the author of Why You Should Be A Socialist. Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke with Robinson about self-interest versus moral conviction in the makings of a socialist, the cruelty of conservatism and cluelessness of liberalism, the revolutionary reform agenda of Bernie Sanders, and the state of socialist organizations and left media today.
I’ve read your book, so I now know why you want me to be a socialist. But why are you a socialist, and how did you become one?
I grew up in Florida in a very segregated city, and I went to a fantastic public school that was nearly all white in a town and a county that wasn’t nearly all white. I was disturbed by that in high school, and I was disturbed by the way that good liberals appeared to be fine with it. I think a lot of socialists have, at one time or another, found ourselves disturbed by what good liberals are okay with and able to rationalize.
My story has similar pattern to that of lots of people in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of Jacobin writers, of many other people in our generation. Many of us came of age during the Obama presidency. I was protesting the Iraq war in high school, and then was kind of excited about Barack Obama, and then so many of the things that we were protesting about the Bush administration just continued under the Obama administration.
And that automatically puts you to the left of someone who describes themselves as a progressive, right? Barack Obama was supposedly a progressive Democrat. And so you realize just from that alone that being a progressive Democrat isn’t enough.
And then came the the financial crisis, which touched so many of our lives. We looked around us and saw the ravages of neoliberalism. We all saw people that we loved who were working hard and getting nothing or losing everything they had.
As I say in the book, I think many people come to identify with the socialist label before we get to the theory, before we develop a deep understanding of the workings and the mechanics of capitalism. There’s a Terry Eagleton quote that I love and use in the book: “A socialist is just someone who is unable to get over his or her astonishment that most people who have lived and died have spent lives of wretched, fruitless, unremitting toil.”
Occasionally I am criticized for being moralistic in my socialism, but I do feel like there’s a very strong emotional component. There’s a frustration, because we all see what humanity could be if we were able to use what we have in this wonderful world. There’s a disgust and revulsion at avoidable injustices.
There is a kind of dogma on the Marxist left that people must be motivated to fight for socialism by material self-interest. I think that’s true up to a certain point. Imagine people putting everything on the line for a general strike, for example. They won’t do it as a pure act of sacrifice, they must believe they have something to gain.
But at the same time, I agree with you that we’d be foolish to overlook the importance of principle, moral conviction, and belief in fairness and equality. How big a role do these play in making socialists and driving the socialist movement?
I go back a lot to the Eugene Debs quote, “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.” You can hear echoes of that in Bernie’s incredible speech about being willing to fight for someone whose problems you don’t necessarily have.
I talked in the book about the ethic of solidarity, about identifying other people’s struggles as your own, even if they’re not your own. Eugene Debs could have lived a relatively comfortable life. He grew up relatively well off. Lots of people who are socialists are concerned with problems that don’t necessarily affect them directly.
Now, in one sense, it’s in all of our material interest to fight for a socialist world, because there is no escape from what capitalism does in the long run. Climate change is a problem from which wealthy people can shield themselves to a certain degree, but not entirely. But still, even if we can find self-interest in socialism for everyone, I don’t think it gives people on the Left enough credit to say, well, they’ve just recognized their real material self-interest. A lot of socialists are very caring people who don’t like to see others around them struggle and suffer, and they can’t feel comfortable with that even when they’re not suffering or struggling themselves.
Of course, many socialists do experience struggle and suffering. But whether they do or not, many feel like Debs did that “while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Socialists identify with humanity as a whole, and it matters to us when other people go through things that we don’t go through ourselves.
One thing I always think about is, well, what if it turns out empirically that having a greater number of immigrants to this country makes my wage slightly lower? Or what if it turns out that the crime rate might be a bit higher if we had a more humane system of criminal punishment? That shouldn’t affect my judgment of whether we should have a sociopathic system of criminal punishment or a brutal immigration system. Because it just sees me as the only person whose interests matter.
I’ve written about the conception of the self-interest of the US as a legitimate thing. It’s commonly accepted that it’s okay for our country to pursue its self-interest, and this has led to basically treating the people of every other country on earth as ants whose lives don’t matter. It doesn’t matter how many of them are exterminated by one of our policies because we are entitled to pursue our self-interest.
Now, if you reimagined the concept, you could argue that it’s in Americans’ self-interest to live a world that is peaceful, where everyone is respected. And then the self-interests of separate categories of people no longer conflict. But the point is we have to be careful about what we mean by self-interest. It can’t just be “Join us and you’ll get a bigger paycheck.” Some people are going to have to make certain sacrifices for the opportunity to live in a world in which all people are cared for.
Your book lays out many counter-arguments against the strains of logic that we hear used against socialism. One I’ve been thinking about lately is the idea that the existence of poverty, and the looming specter of destitution, gives people a kick in the ass to compete with each other, and that competition drives productivity and innovation. Why is that wrong?
What’s interesting about that argument is you could make it about any kind of cruelty. Standing over someone with a whip might be a very effective way of getting to them to work very hard. It might maximize productivity. It might be fantastic for the GDP. But even if that were the case, we shouldn’t allow it.
Sometimes we on the Left fall into making the empirical argument that we don’t need this or that type of cruelty in order to spur innovation or growth. I tend to shy away from that because the amount of growth or innovation made possible by a system doesn’t affect whether it’s legitimate. If it turned out that feudalism was a great way to organize society and and optimize growth, I don’t think that that would justify a hierarchical and abusive system. We have to start with basic, inviolable principles.
Our measures of what constitutes the success of a society are very strange. We talk about employment without talking about the quality of jobs, we talk about productivity without talking about leisure time, we talk about economic growth without talking about whether people are really enjoying their lives. When you think about this for half a second, you realize that you could construct a society that was doing very well on all of the accepted metrics of a successful society and it could still be horrific for the people who actually lived in it. No amount of success on those metrics can justify the cruelty of poverty.
I like the part of your book where you explain what’s wrong with all of the other ideologies. You say that “conservatism is cruel and liberalism is oblivious,” which I think is a very concise way to put it.
Let’s review these a little bit. What are the problems with conservatism, and what are the problems with liberalism?
There’s a very strong effort on the part of right-wing, free-market libertarians to insist that they actually want what’s best for all people. It’s important to actually break down their writings, because when you do, they’re just filled with statements about how people deserve their suffering, and really disdainful attitudes towards immigrants and working-class people and people who supposedly have squandered their opportunities and made bad choices resulting in their own predicaments.
There’s a deep and profound lack of empathy and understanding and a real ignorance of the experience of people’s lives in all conservative writing. And as Albert Hirschman points out in The Rhetoric of Reaction, the arguments are always the same, generation after generation. He identifies the key elements as futility, perversity, and jeopardy. Attempts at change are futile, human nature is fixed, and any attempt to remake the world is is going to produce catastrophe. The fact that conservatives have approached every single social movement throughout history in precisely this way should cause us to be highly skeptical of it.
But liberals aren’t nearly so dismissive and callous. Many will tell you that they understand people suffer through no fault of their own, and society has a responsibility to ameliorate that suffering, to a certain extent at least. So what’s the problem with liberalism?
One of the fundamental problems is a failure to understand how power works in society — who has it, how they use it, and how you change who has it and how they use it.
Liberals are reluctant to challenge the powerful. We see that constantly. They think we can just have more benevolent CEOs, for example, and refuse to consider the way that a corporation’s structure shapes the behavior of CEOs and requires them to act in a manner that is a sociopathic and destructive.
Or to give another example, you have Joe Biden promising he’ll just get the good Republicans in a room and work everything out. Both of those are truly unrealistic.
One of the things that distinguishes liberals from leftists is that the Left looks at how institutions are structured. So for example a lot of nonprofits that are are headed by good benevolent liberals are actually hierarchical and exploitative workplaces. There’s a kind of naivete on the part of liberals, who think if you’re a good person and you’re trying your best and you all want the same things that it will all work out okay. Leftists look at the structure of institutions and say, if we want a different result we have to change that structure. Leftists are more cynical.
In fact, I just had a two-hour argument with Ezra Klein on his show. It was really interesting. One of the things he said was that he thinks leftist seem to be incredibly cynical about places like McKinsey and Harvard. Yes, that’s absolutely true. That’s a huge difference. We look at a place like McKinsey, and we realize that because it is devoted to pathologically serving whatever the client wants to do, regardless of who the client is, then the client could be Mohammad bin Salman or Purdue Pharma, and McKinsey would optimize their results no matter how many people died. So yes, we are extremely cynical because we understand how power works.
Anticapitalism has been gaining momentum in the US since the dawn of the Great Recession, but it’s only been in the last few years that socialism has emerged as a positive alternative. What are the main reasons that you think Americans’ Cold War-era resistance is beginning to thaw?
I would give the standard explanation that everyone gives, which is that people who are our age just didn’t live through the Cold War. We look at the dynamics of capitalism, we look what socialist critics have advocated, and we are capable of seeing their insights and their prescriptions with fresh eyes, and evaluating them quite fairly.
For a long time there was this sort of vague anticapitalist sentiment, that’s absolutely true. Occupy was a tremendous success in getting a lot of people to understand something is wrong, and getting people into the streets and articulating their discontent. But it was a terrible failure in actually putting together a political program, or having a theory of change, or even having a vision of what a different society would look like. It left many of us feeling kind of nihilistic and hopeless.
Bernie Sanders came along and said, we can imagine something that is different and successful. We can go back to the democratic socialist tradition, which has always said we can conceive of a practical egalitarianism. We can conceive of a society that does not have class distinctions and we can together begin to formulate both a short-term and a long-term strategy for getting there. This helped us transition from our amorphous dislike of certain features of the economic landscape toward grounding in an intellectual tradition that provides clarity.
But what Bernie’s advocating for isn’t socialism. It’s tuition-free college, free healthcare. It’s good, but it’s not utopian. So what’s the point of rallying around limited reforms like these?
I used to be more cynical about Bernie Sanders. I wrote a piece in 2015 that said, Bernie Sanders is being very misleading about what socialism is, because it certainly doesn’t mean Medicare for All and tuition-free public college. But I’ve come around and I have a lot more respect for what I understand him to be doing, which is holding democratic socialist principles and going exactly as far as he perceives the political landscape to be prepared to deal with.
And so in 2015, still the the Obama years, single-payer healthcare was the most radical you could go in American politics. Now, even though it’s being resisted, it has at least become accepted as a mainstream idea. So Bernie is continuing to advocate for that, but he’s pushed his program and proposed ambitious measures for economic democracy at the workplace and called for a massive resurgence in the labor movement. People can argue that he’s been too cautious or it’s been possible to demand more, but this is a legitimate approach consistent with socialist politics.
It is of course difficult to tell from the outside whether a person really does believe in an ambitious long-term socialist agenda or whether they believe purely in the things that they’re advocating at the time. But what gives us confidence about Bernie Sanders, I think, is that he does seem to become more radical when the moment allows. If we make space for him to be more radical, he will fill that space.
I always come back to the fact that the flagship demand of Karl Marx’s organization, the International Working Men’s Association, was the eight-hour day. Of course that fell quite short of what they ultimately wanted, which was the abolition of wage labor. But their strategy was to set people in motion around an achievable demand that had a socialist principle at the heart of it: in this case the principle being that more of people’s time ought to belong to them.
In the case of Medicare for All, the principle is that health insurance should be decommodified, it should not be bought and sold for profit. The idea is that you rally people around a reform that popularizes values like autonomy and decommodification, and those values get generalized in the struggle for those reforms, and that’s just the beginning.
Right, the hope is that once you have achieved your demand, your exposure to the underlying principle leads you to the conclusion that you must go further. So once we get Medicare for All, ideally we begin having a discussion about the role of private profit in medicine more generally.
Very few people think it would be effective to advocate completely socialized medicine right now in the United States. But the DSA is very good at saying, Medicare for All seems to be the most ambitious demand that we can achieve right now. And then, once you’ve gotten people used to the idea that profit shouldn’t govern one aspect of medicine, then you can say profit shouldn’t govern medicine, period.
You say a lot of nice things about DSA in your book. I saw you at the DSA convention in Atlanta last summer, and you seemed to be having a good time.
It was so fun. It felt so good. It felt like even when there were arguments, they were the arguments that I wanted people to be having. I wished it was the United States Congress.
Fox News made fun of us relentlessly, by plucking out a few zany moments and airing them on a loop. That bothered me because, as a member of DSA who’s deeply invested in it, the convention actually exceeded my expectations. We had complex and in-depth discussions about what to expect of DSA candidates, how to relate to the Democratic Party, and how to relate to labor.
Isn’t it true that you never quite realize just how awful the media is until they cover something that you yourself were involved closely with? That’s when you really see just how vast the gap is between things as they are and things as they could be presented.
I was shocked when I saw the coverage of the DSA convention, because I had witnessed something that was very productive. And yes there were some moments that were chaotic and in some cases silly. But it was really quite impressive.
In any case, I was encouraged by that convention. DSA really is the only game in town. There is no other socialist organization that has anything like the kind of potential or path to power that I see in the DSA.
I’m certainly open to other theories of how socialists build power in the United States, but it seems to me that right now the only feasible, conceivable route is through the DSA. They’ve got multiple members of Congress, they’ve got dozens of elected officials all around the country and they’re going to get more there. There’s Mik Pappas, who is massively reducing evictions in his housing courts — that’s happening because you have a socialist judge, and you have a socialist judge because you have the DSA.
The DSA is still working things out, which makes sense because it’s difficult and challenging. One of the nice things about it being a federated organization is that people can try out different structures and experiment to see what works.
And yes people have arguments, but all of these arguments are being had within the organization. It’s a big-tent organization, with everyone from anarchists to Marxists to people on the left of the Democratic Party who really like Bernie Sanders. In my book, I argue that everyone should be a socialist, and then once you are the next logical step is to join the DSA.
In your book you also say some wonderful things about Jacobin, which I won’t force you to repeat. You credit it with giving you the confidence to launch Current Affairs. And you have this great appendix to your book where you give people a comprehensive view of the left media ecosystem, who they should be paying attention to and what they should be feeding into their brains.
Is our left media healthy? Is it thriving?
You say you won’t force me to repeat myself, but I will say that in my view Jacobin been insufficiently appreciated. Current Affairs wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Jacobin. Bhaskar Sunkara [the founder and editor of Jacobin] proved that people would actually respond well if you build a left media organization that was as professional and credible as anything in the mainstream, and well-designed and well-produced, and factual and reliable. To have a vibrant left, we need many more of these, and certainly we were inspired to build Current Affairs because of the success of Jacobin.
Everyone needs a network of others who are answering the arguments that they don’t quite know how to answer themselves, and who are sifting through the mountains of information that they don’t have time to sift through themselves. Fortunately there really is a vibrant left media, and it consists of brilliant writers, podcasters, and YouTubers. They’re all incredibly smart. They all work very, very hard. They all produce content that is enjoyable, that is informative, and that is soundly grounded in socialist and left principles. If people read nothing else in the book, they should read the appendix.
Final question: our side has the deck stacked against against us, and that means that in all likelihood we’re going to have to fight until we die. Is this a good way to live a life?
Well, it’s the only life worth living, right?
I should be careful here because I live a life of great comfort. My part in all this is extremely satisfying, because I am a person who has opinions on the internet for living. So I don’t want to tell other people what will make their lives good or easy. But I do think I do think that the socialist vision is a really powerful one, and is one that is very sustaining in difficult times.
When you become politically awakened as a leftist, it involved looking at and grappling with all kinds of incredibly depressing things. And it means, as you say, losing most of the time. But the socialist movement allows you to connect to the legacy of those who came before you and whose work you’re continuing. And it allows you to imagine the incredible things that may come to pass in the future.
There’s that quote, “It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” Well, socialists have always refused to accept that. Socialists imagine the end of capitalism, and commit themselves to bringing it about.
That can help free you from hopelessness. And as a result I happen to think that you will live, for the most part, a more fulfilled life if you join the socialists.