Generation Left terrifies right
Eddie Ford calls upon Marxists to take up the challenge to organise the socialist majority of young people
Published earlier this month, Left turn ahead? Surveying attitudes of young people towards capitalism and socialism, written by Kristian Niemietz, has caused quite a splash. The 71-page report commissioned by the rightwing Institute of Economic Affairs is based not least on polling done by Michael Hantman and Alex Cowley of Forefront Market Research of just under 2,000 participants aged between 16 and 34 (it classifies those aged 16-22 as ‘Zoomers’ or ‘Generation Z’ and those aged 23-34 as ‘Millennials’).
Firstly, a health warning. Clearly, the political agenda of both the writer and those who commissioned him are clear in terms of the questions that are asked and what conclusions are drawn. After all, Niemietz is the IEA’s head of political economy and the IEA itself is unapologetic about its mission to “further the dissemination of free-market thinking” - subscribing to a fiercely neoliberal outlook that encompasses climate change denial and the total privatisation, or abolition, of the national health service. It is funded by the tobacco industry and other dubious sources, while some its publications include Socialism: the failed idea that never dies and Universal healthcare without the NHS. But, either way, Left turn ahead? makes very good reading for socialists and very worrying reading for the IEA - as Niemietz readily confesses.
Hence we have the pleasing statistic that 67% of this entire cohort said that they wanted to live under a “socialist economic system” - or ‘millennial socialism’, as it is called elsewhere. For the purposes of this survey, ‘socialism’ is defined as “an economic system whereby business, trade and industry is mostly run and owned by the government” - which the IEA admits is a “simplified version” (!) of the dictionary definition of socialism, but more on that later. The author emphasises the point that this is not some fleeting fashion - like those politicised in the 1960s, who eventually gave up their heady idealism (except for a small number of refuseniks). Indeed, the survey’s introduction is subtitled: ‘From generation apathy to Generation Left”.
In other words, the IEA is saying that these ideas are deeply embedded in the consciousness of this age group - it is obviously worried that what is a generational question at the moment could become “a preview of what will be the mainstream opinion in Britain tomorrow”, as the older generation begins to wink out of existence. Today, says the report, Millennials are “much more commonly described as a hyper-politicised generation, which embraces ‘woke’, progressive and anti-capitalist ideas”. Other surveys too, the author ruefully notes, show that there is “a lot of truth in the cliché of the ‘woke socialist millennial’”. Yes, “younger people really do quite consistently express hostility to capitalism, and positive views of socialist alternatives of some sort”.
For supporters of the market economy, argues Niemietz, “this should be a cause for concern” - but so far, “they have mostly chosen to ignore this phenomenon”, or discount it as a juvenile socialist phase. Yet this is foolish complacency “simply not borne out by the data”. There are “no detectable differences” between the views of the Zoomers and the Millennials. Alas, concludes Niemietz, it is no longer true that people ‘grow out’ of socialist ideas, as they get older.
As further evidence, look at some of the answers to the other questions. With regards to housing, 78% blamed capitalism for the crisis. Consequently, this 78% also believe that solving it requires large-scale government intervention, through measures such as rent controls and public housing. This is hardly surprising, as we are dealing with a generation for whom it is no longer an expectation that they will be able to buy a house if they had a reasonably paid, full-time job. Instead, especially if they live in the south-east of England, they are forced to rely on the private sector and paying rent long-term.
Similarly, 72% support the renationalisation of various industries, such as energy, water and the railways - also believing that “private sector involvement” would put the NHS at risk, which is quite correct. Also unsurprising, 75% think that climate change is a specifically capitalist problem, 71% agree with the assertion that “capitalism fuels racism” and 73% believe that capitalism creates “selfishness, greed and materialism”. Perhaps most wonderfully of all, 75% agree with the statement that ‘socialism is a good idea, but it has failed in the past because it has been badly done’. I might be from a different generation, but would cheerfully put myself in the same category - socialism it is a great idea despite what has been done in its name. In the opinion of Niemietz, “the cliché that ‘real socialism has never been tried’ is not just a cliché: it is also the mainstream opinion among Millennials and Zoomers”.
Of course, any Marxist knows why it has been done badly in the past - as we do not believe in socialism in one country, nor think that backward countries can transition to full socialism and communism. Nonetheless we have seen a 20th century marked by many false starts and failed attempts, some of which turned very ugly indeed. Yet we still have a majority of this generation committed to the idea of socialism. Much to the frustration of Niemietz, very few young people associate socialism with ‘failure’ and virtually nobody associates it with Venezuela - let alone North Korea. Rather, they associate socialism with positive terms, such as ‘equal’ and ‘fair’ - whilst capitalism for them means “exploitative”, “unfair”, “the rich”, “corporations”, etc. Bad things.
Naturally, Niemietz does not want its results to “mean that supporters of capitalism should throw in the towel, concede defeat in the battle of ideas and just accept that the future belongs to socialism” - though that would be a quite reasonable conclusion to draw, it does have to be said. But it does suggest to Niemietz that advocates of capitalism should take ‘Millennial socialism’ far more seriously than they currently do - “engage with it, rather than dismiss it or deny it exists”.
True, the ‘socialism’ we are talking about is very much along the lines Niemietz suggests - ie, that nationalisation equals socialism, and so on. Having said that, the situation could be more complex than that. If we look at what got this generation politicised, it is Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion and the Greta Thunberg effect, not sensible parliamentary Labourism or routine trade unionism. In fact, around 40% of Millennials agree with the statement that “communism could have worked if it had been better executed.”
Now, the task for the left is to connect with this left-leaning generation, which at the moment is more an amorphous mass than an organised force. Or, as the IEA puts it, “none of this means that Britain is full of young Marxist-Leninists” - rather “socialist ideas are widespread, but they are also thinly spread”.
Proving that “the morons” who enabled Jeremy Corbyn to enter the Labour leadership contest were aptly named, we had a mass influx into the Labour Party because Corbyn looked like a winner right from the very beginning - and after he was elected leader in a landslide victory, there were two blocs: those under 25 who joined in huge numbers; and those who came back after resigning over the Iraq war or New Labour’s enthusiasm for privatisation and people getting filthy rich. The latter group knew the ropes and were in it for the long haul. But for many of the under-25s their first Labour Party meeting was also their last, as it was probably dull to the point of brain death - with disillusionment quickly setting in. So in some ways we have a generation who are looking for easy answers, regarding Jeremy Corbyn or whoever as the equivalent of a man on a white horse - some sort of saviour.
But for Marxists there are no saviours from on high - the answer is organisation and political consciousness. Of course, a lot on the left have been saying similar things - thinking it is now their chance to recruit hand over fist. However, this generation - like a lot of people - has an aversion to the sects and bureaucratic centralism, which is a healthy instinct. They will never accept the idea that you cannot read the publications of other left groups, that differences can never be expressed in the open, or that you have to unquestioningly parrot the line of the leadership.
We are not going to easily organise masses of young people. It is going to be a long battle and it is still the case that we have to go through the existing left and its organisations, not circumvent them in some magical fashion, as some imagine.
But clearly there has been a big change in social attitudes, similar, in that sense, to what we saw around Bernie Sanders in the US - which is not to say that the Democratic Socialists of America is the fully formed answer. Nevertheless, it has organised largish numbers. So we need to go beyond ‘click’ politics or the politics of protest - these are worthwhile activities, it goes without saying: clicking for Corbyn is better than not clicking for Corbyn.
We have to move forwards to the idea of a mass Communist Party that believes in debate, views it as healthy and not a heresy. A party which recognises that our struggle is not about this or that little part of the world: it is a global struggle - precisely in accordance with the general views of those who will be protesting later this year at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow.
Climate protestors and ecological campaigners are not stupid - they know that merely marching, or gluing yourself to a train, is not enough. Which means that these people are receptive to socialist and Marxist ideas … and organising in order to put them into effect.