Law & Liberty Review: Socialist Temptation

America’s Gen Z Jacobins

Iain Murray’s The Socialist Temptation is a helpful, timely resource most appropriate for those who already know that socialism is a bad idea. It is a collection of 44 short, conversational chapters dedicated to debunking many common socialist claims (such as the lies that socialism has never been really tried or that the Nordic economies are “socialist”) and refuting many socialist critiques of “capitalism,” our supposed status quo. As the Vice President for Strategy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Murray is on his most solid ground when he is explaining the myriad economic, political, and ultimately moral and religious problems inherent in the basic blueprint of all socialism, as well as that system’s inescapable inferiority compared to one premised on the idea of individual freedom, enterprise, and responsibility.

The stated aim of Murray’s book, though, is not simply to discredit socialism and the familiar arguments of its latter-day apologists, which is where the work’s true comparative advantage lies. Rather, Murray, an avowed Gen X capitalist, also wishes to explain to us why it is that younger people are becoming socialist. In my view, this is something he never fully grasps.

Understanding Socialism’s Appeal

From the beginning, Murray recognizes that socialism (particularly its new incarnation among the young in America) appeals to real people for real reasons, above all genuine moral concern for the vulnerable and the disadvantaged within our society. Murray is also aware that in the minds of many young people, “socialism” simply stands for kinder, gentler government that gives you free stuff. (Blame our education system, not just its wards, for the fact that many young people don’t see the obvious problems with that attitude of naïve entitlement.) Conservatives and libertarians need to always keep this reality in view: good people can go in for bad ideas for at least some good reasons. Recognizing this, Murray even attempts to imaginatively inhabit the young socialist’s point of view throughout the work, and for this he deserves credit.

Murray’s charitable and even cheerful exploration of the pull of socialism has a second major virtue: it does not fall into pessimism about the future of free enterprise on account of the resurgence of socialist ideology in our world today. Rather, Murray (drawing from Reagan) emphasizes that the return of “socialism” to political popularity presents its critics with a challenge—and one they can meet. As a Brit who lived through that country’s sclerotic seventies, Murray understands that significant, coalition-and-society-reshaping reforms of the Thatcher variety are still possible even when socialist policies are significantly more entrenched and advanced than they are in the United States today. Such reforms and policy changes “simply” depend on initial victories in the realms of public opinion and ideas, and that battle is very much still raging. This is why Murray is so keen to unpack socialism’s appeal among young people. 

We cannot understand, much less defeat, socialism if we shrink from listening and talking to actual socialists, and then engaging with their words as spoken.

Indeed, Murray begins to do this right from his definition of the term, as he writes, “A simple but comprehensive definition of a socialist regime is one in which the individual is subject to control by the collective, to the determination of bureaucrats, and to the expropriation of wealth. How such a dreary situation could continue to be attractive is the true mystery—and the subject of this book.”

To this I say: Well, sort of. The Socialist Temptation shines in its account of socialism’s dreariness, and indeed, that account makes up the bulk of the book.

But as for “the true mystery” of why Americans (and especially young ones) embrace socialism, Murray’s proffered analysis is thinner and ultimately less persuasive.

Although he is clearly interested in the socialist mindset (such that an entire chapter outlining the socialist position is written sympathetically from an imagined socialist’s point of view), Murray doesn’t engage nearly enough with real, live socialists or their actual arguments or writings. This can be confirmed by looking at the book’s endnotes; while they could be more robust and rigorous throughout, the sole citation in Ch. 7, “The Socialist Position,” is an article entitled “Toby Young Destroys Socialism in One Sentence.” Imaginative inhabitation of an opposing point of view can only go so far when one doesn’t really understand that point of view in the way that its proponents do; to achieve such an understanding in this case would require, at the very least, reading—and then citing—more socialist writings. This is not to say there is any single writer that Murray must refute, but some engagement with real socialists and their ideas would be in order. A college campus would have been a good place to start. This would have worked to Murray’s benefit, even if it would have introduced more nuance and thus cooled some of the book’s hotter takes (such as the repeated and in my view unhelpful insistence that environmentalists are like watermelons: “green on the outside, but a deep, bloody red inside”).

Specifically, I fear that in sidelining actual socialist discourses and possibly alienating some of those he ought to be trying to persuade with in-group-directed remarks like the one above, Murray missed the opportunity to engage with stronger, more popular critiques of capitalism than those considered in the book. These too often lapse into straw-manned Marxist clichés that one would be unlikely to hear outside the work. If we are to believe Murray that he has found the reasons why socialists believe what they do—and has thus solved his own self-styled mystery—then we’d want to hear more straight from the horse’s mouth. We cannot understand, much less defeat, socialism if we shrink from listening and talking to actual socialists, and then engaging with their words as spoken.

Word for word, economics professor Edward Glaeser’s essay “How to Talk to Millennials About Capitalism” is the better read on why young people are looking to their left for political salvation (and what you can do about it). In a more even tone than Murray, Glaeser convincingly links the resurgence of socialism to younger Americans’ negative experiences of the Great Recession, which took place outside the ideologically orienting cultural context of the Cold War. Glaeser also offers a more fine-grained account of anti-socialist hope, reminding us that for all their faults, many self-described socialists (and their “Democratic” counterparts) still value entrepreneurship, non-governmental organizations, and other aspects of the market order; part of the problem is simply showing them why those things are incompatible with their professed socialism, taken seriously. As an economic educator, Glaeser has classroom experience doing just that, which makes his essay an essential pairing with Murray’s book.

Is Socialism the Root of Our Problems?

Another problem with The Socialist Temptation is a tendency to attribute almost everything wrong with our political system to the influence of a broadly defined “socialism.” For instance, in making a point about national conservatives’ and right-communitarians’ newfound affinity for certain criticisms of the market order, Murray suggests that none other than Tucker Carlson might be vulnerable to socialist temptation. Carlson might get a lot wrong about economic policy, including in his support for greater government intervention “on behalf of workers,” but it should be obvious to all observers of American political life that he is no socialist. Murray’s overall orientation to his subject—the way he seems to see socialism’s rise as the greatest issue in our political life today—attributes, I think, too much societal sway, whether potential or realized, to this particular “-ism.” And it sidelines the fact that there are other threats to freedom lurking.

Given that reference to the pandemic occurs only in the afterword, I am led to conclude that the bulk of the book’s text was written early in 2020 or late in 2019. If the latter is true, then that probably explains why Senator Bernie Sanders—then still a serious presidential candidate—and then-Labour party head Jeremy Corbyn seem to feature in Murray’s analysis as the great socioeconomic demagogues to be overcome. Viewed from last November, those personified forces of old-school socialism were making alarming progress indeed, and that could very well have been the impetus for this book project.

Bernie’s crowd has now all but eclipsed him, and in the process swapped a feel-good socialism for a more genuinely revolutionary and even violent zeal for anti-racism.

But the unfolding of historical events has not exactly vindicated this particular concern. Corbyn’s hard-left agenda was rejected by the British public in a historic way in December (which Murray recognizes in the very last chapter), and Sanders, too, has waned from popular consciousness and adulation to a surprising degree. What happened was the pandemic, obviously, and—in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake—a massive pendulum swing from class and economics to race and identity as the primary axis on which left-wing grievance and ideology would be organized headed into the election.

Sanders, despite his revolutionary rhetorical and personal appeal, is simply too old, male, straight, and white for the Democratic Party base going forward from 2020, particularly since he lacks the ideological malleability of a figure like Joe Biden or Ed Markey. While Sanders surely made concessions to the wokesters in his crowd, he was never very enthusiastic about it and always preferred to emphasize more general class-based issues such as wages, housing, and healthcare instead. Bernie is an old-school socialist, forced to accommodate himself in various ways to a younger, more race-and-identity-conscious crowd. But Bernie’s crowd has now all but eclipsed him, and in the process swapped primary-and-platform-focused agitation aimed at a feel-good socialism for a more genuinely revolutionary and even violent zeal for anti-racism. Where he once led, Sanders now follows.

The appeal of specific socialist personalities aside, Murray’s account of what attracts people to socialism—namely, that it speaks to their core values, such as equality and fairness—makes sense of why many Americans might go in for an expanded welfare state, or more redistributionist tax policies, or even a nice-sounding Green New Deal. But it also highlights the differences between what animates political socialism—efforts to arrive at socialist policies through the legitimate electoral and legislative process—and what drives the social upheaval we have witnessed this summer, especially given the peculiarly American strains of racialized thinking that have sprung up to encourage and justify it. The 1619 Project, for instance, is not simply a left-wing Trojan horse for socialism. It is rather its own thing, animated by certain individuals’ aspirations to cultural and political power, which the project itself seeks to legitimize via the encouragement of a weaponized, grievance-laden sense of personal identity grounded in pseudo-history.

Something similar is at work behind elite attempts to establish pernicious concepts such as “white supremacy” and “anti-Blackness” as all-pervading ontological and analytical realities of American history and culture. Promoting deterministic horror-history and pigmentation-based accounts of good and evil are both really bad and divisive ideas, but more often than not they stand alone as cultural-political projects, and thus should generally be analyzed separately from attempts to push socialism—not just as mere race-inflected justifications for the same. Many socialists might be “woke,” yes, and many wokies socialist, but that overlap is not of necessity; we can have a caustic culture of cancellation, thought policing, and un-personing under conditions of capitalism too. Socialism is not obviously the summum malum of our current smattering of social possibilities.

To Murray’s credit, he is aware that capitalists too—for reasons of pure (if mistaken) self-interest—might well embrace the new racial, cultural, and historical value-orthodoxies of the “progressive” vanguard. He follows others in calling this “woke capitalism.” Here I would simply suggest that Murray is too inclined to see every revolutionary-leftist or woke advance as just another paving-stone on the road to socialism as he understands it (more bureaucracy, entitlements, etc.). But the future is more open-ended than this. The more capacious category of “statism” might help to make sense of why woke students and diehard old-school socialists alike view government as the answer to society’s perceived problems (albeit in different ways). But more fundamentally, I would also push Murray to account for the real pull of historically-informed grievance and racialized, power-conscious anger that sees social unrest as an opportunity to get even with the powers and social structures that be—whether doing so advances socialism or not. Rioting is not merely the result of people acting on traditional values in support of more beneficent government.

Suffice it to say, then, that the problems on our left are not just economic-organizational in nature. This makes me skeptical of attempts to reduce cultural, historical, and values-based fault lines to epiphenomena of some imagined grand clash between capitalism and socialism. That clash is there, to an extent, but it doesn’t explain everything, and some of our left-wing brothers and sisters certainly have bad ideas driving them to the ballot box (and into the streets) beyond the siren-song of socialism.

The Socialist Temptation thus offers a valuable contribution to this political moment, but one that is alone insufficient as a means of understanding where we are and where we might go (for good or for ill) in our broader cultural and political affairs. What it makes clear, though, is that today’s socialists—drawn in as they are by moral concerns—will relent only if presented with a compelling moral defense of market society. We ought to take up this task. I simply wonder whether we might need to first refine a more foundational case, and that is the one against burning it all down.

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