Notes for John Judis Socialist Awakening

Putting aside the questions about whether or not socialism is on the rise, what is the case for someone who is skeptical that this is a good thing? Can John convince Bob to abandon his libertarian creed?
Should socialism still be a dirty word? While Judis attempts to define socialism down to mere social democracy, Hayek would say that any step towards socialism puts us on the road to serfdom.

Not long ago, the word “socialism” was something of a taboo. Following the failed Soviet experiment in hardcore socialism, most Americans of a certain age still shudder at the prospect. Libertarians schooled in Friedrich Hayek’s writings have learned to instinctively resist even the smallest encroachments of government ownership into the means of production. But have we perhaps learned a lesson too well?

Revisiting Socialism

Every so often, I like to re-assess my fundamental beliefs by inviting highly intelligent people to make the case for ideas like socialism on my program. A glance through my show archives reveals that I'm long overdue for a challenge, and John B. Judis is the perfect man for the job.

John is Editor-At-Large at Talking Points Memo and author of eight books, including most recently The Socialist Awakening – the last in his trilogy of books on the revival of the doctrines of nationalism, populism, and now, the "S" word.

Venezuela or Sweden – Which Way for the New Socialist Man?

Judis observed how Trump used populism to promote a nationalist agenda, and calls on today's progressives to use these same populist forces to advance a rebranded socialist program.

For Judis, Bernie Sanders is the poster-child of the evolution of socialism, from orthodox Marxist ideology calling for imminent revolution to an incremental approach of expanding the power of labor over capital in a modern "mixed economy." Where I see a flashing red DANGER sign in Sanders' appeal to young people, Judis sees a sign of hope.

Is Judis’s vision compatible with a robust economy, free markets, and individual autonomy, or will a single step toward Scandinavian-style socialism set us down the "Road to Serfdom"? Can socialists learn from the mistakes of the past, or are they doomed to be relegated to the dustbin of history?

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BIO - John Judis

John B. Judis is Editor-At-Large at Talking Points Memo and author of eight books, including The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics (Columbia Global Reports, 2016), Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origin of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014), The Folly of Empire: What George W. Bush Could Learn from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (Scribner, 2004), The Emerging Democratic Majority with Ruy Teixeira (Scribner, 2002), and The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and Betrayal of Public Trust (Pantheon, 2000). He has written for numerous publications, including The New Republic, The National Journal, The New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, and The Washington Post. Born in Chicago, he received his B.A. and M.A. degrees in Philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley. He lives in Silver Spring, MD.


Editor at Large, Talking Points Memo

Amazon: The Socialist Awakening, Sept. 29, 2020

Main topics

"The Socialist Awakening"

Amazon: The Socialist Awakening, Sept. 29, 2020

Book notes

Since 2015, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has grown from 5,000 to 70,000 members.

Traces the roots of socialism from Utopian socialism of Proudhon, Owen, Fourier, and Saint-Simone – based on Christian ideals – to orthodox marxism (also utopian and eschatological), to Marxism-Leninism, to the Social Democracy of Sanders, et al.

Socialism within Capitalism has come to replace the idea of a succession of stages of history, a la Marx.

As Peter Thiel says, Capitalism has a way of absorbing its critiques and adapting to stave off the revolution. Expansion of social legislation, etc., acts as a pressure valve on violent overthrow?

Modern academics like Thomas Pikkety call for "participatory socialism" where workers serve on corporate boards, etc. (see Richard Epstein show on Elizabeth Warren's plan), wealth would be diffused, so that capitalist class is not an inheritable status.

Definitions of socialism:

"Subordination of markets to democratic politics" ← evolutionary process

"Concern for the common good." ← compatible with voluntarist implementation

"Control of the means of production" ← orthodox marxist definition (not what Judis is talking about)

Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation:

There is a "double movement" or pendulum swing between dynamic forces of markets (framed negatively) and the attempt by workers to erect "fortifications against their isolation and exploitation."

Both Naziism, and the New Deal were reactions to the Great Depression and economic collapse.

Today we see COVID being used as the justification for another Great Transfrmation or Great Reset.

Politics will determine which path unfolds - it's not an inevitability. Judis is exploring what might be possible with the right brand of politics.

Bernie Sanders is the model candidate, who uses populist framing of the ideas to make a vision of socialism that is "viable and feasible."

This vision has to forego some of the left's more radical propositions.

"Besides Sanders and AOC, there are no national politicians right now that can shape a post-Marxist socialist politics."

Debs to Sanders

The young Eugen Debs was not yet a socialist:

"My view of capital and labor is that a community should exist between the capitalis and the laborer, instead of antagonistic feelings."

This fits with the mutual benefits of cooperation and exchange. Why does Judis assume that cooperation is not the default between workers and employers in a free market?

Later, Debs adopted socialism with a religious fervor, much like Sanders did.

The third-party approach of sociaism failed as all third parties seem to in the United States.

Socialism also failed because its objectives were fundamentally religious, and religions thrive on otherwordliness, not political gains.

One faction lead by Victor Berger around 1900 in Milwaukee was an exception. They succeeded by planting the seeds of socialism within capitalism (minimum wage, municipal water system, etc.)

Sanders's political career started small - Mayor of Burlingame Vermont – making incremental reforms.

In Congress, he decided to caucus with the Democrats, and urged the DSA to seek partnerships between private sector, unions and government.

Judis argues that just as Roosevelt enhanced the power of labor at the expense of capital (?), Sanders et al. can succeed by making a moral appeal to the public, and adding radical policies that expand the power of the state to guide outcomes in certain areas like health care, labor and housing.

Judis asks attendees of a Sanders Rally in 2015 what their definition of socialism is and none tell him "public ownership of the means of production."

Socialism after Sanders

There are a score of socialist publications and podcasts, but no think tanks or policy groups.
Sanders got more votes from 18-29 year olds than Trump or Clinton Combined! 21% of all voters favor socialism, compared to 55% who favor capitalism. Among 18-29 years olds it's flipped - 18% favor capitalism, 47% favor socialism.

There is conflict in the DSA between hardcore revolutionaries and softer social democrats.

"The conflict b/w the post-Marxists and the Marxists emerged clearly at the 2019 convenetion and has had repercussions on how DSA has responded to Biden's winning the nomination."

DSA leader Marxists opposed Biden's candidacy, which Judis thinks is a missed opportunity to appeal to the broader universe of the left.

"The historic task of socialists and the broader left has been to unite the bottom and middle of society around an agenda that shifts power and wealth from capital to labor."

British Socialism and Nationalism

JEremy Corbyn is the UK's Bernie Sanders.

The origins of British socialism in Fabianism - named from Quintus Fabius who sought incremental victory against the Carthiginians.

Clement Atlee of the Labour Party, promised to establish a "socialist commonwealth of Great Britain."

National Health Service remains today.

Margaret Thatcher rolls back socialist nationalism, dismantling the Labour Parties "countervailing institutions," denationalizing industry, and empowering capital against labor.

She made labor organizing more difficult and membership plummets.

Tony Blair follows Clinton in the "third way" but under "progressive neoliberalism," capital still dominates.

Corbyn emerges as a popular force within Labour. He was traditionally anti-imperialist, and uses nationalism to his advantage - supporting Brexit for example - as a way to leave the "capitalist club" of the EU.

Old guard labor party backed Brexit, over younger internationalist, cosmopolitan left in the big cities.

Corbyn released a "socialist manifesto" that was received well by millennials, but they were routed by the Tories in the recent election.

"The Tories were able to highlight Corbyn's various global allegiances to countries like Russia and Venezuela that had little good to say about Britain."

Is socialism just a backdoor for the return of communism?

Conclusion: Populism, Nationalism and Socialism

Populism is a political logic that can be harnessed for any ideology. Frames politics as conflict between the people against elite establisment.

This kind of campaign is especially appropriate for the current "post-Marxist era."

Today the workers class includes some non-traditionally blue collar workers, like nurses, teachers, etc.

Socialists are likely to identify nationalism with Trump's America First agenda, but a viable socialism must also be nationalist.

"...[P]roposals for an advanced welfare state and a redistribution of wealth must rest on national boundaries."

Unions must protect domestic wages by limiting immigration. Altruism has its limits.

Socialism is not applicable to many modern corporations, but watered down proposals like workers having a larger stake in corporate governance are achievable.

Makes the argument that pandemic has highlighted the need for reforms. "Essential workers" are often paid the least. We need a "reset of capitalism."

Concrete proposals:

  • guaranteed income
  • massive investment in public welfare
    • schooling
    • health care
  • publicly subsidized and directed industrial policy to revive American manufacturing
  • protecting supply chains of vital industries
  • converting to renewable energy
  • chanelling activity of financial sector toward productive investent
  • universal access to broadband internet
  • redistributive tax reform
  • shift power from capital to labor.
  • "economic patriotism"


Frank Fear, 10/10/2020

What's different now about the left?

Judis’s preference just expressed (an optimal settling place is somewhere in the middle away from the extremes) is also the way he thinks about socialism. For Judis, socialism worth pursuing politically is socialism that is both desirable and possible (italics and bolding added). He writes: “Citizens will not seek to replace capitalist with socialist institutions purely out of moral conviction. They have to believe that purely market-based institutions have dramatically failed to provide prosperity and well-being.”

Opposes the social reforms and "market fundamentalism" that characterizes the "progressive neoliberal" approach a la Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Tony Blair.

Quotes Sanders, making a statement that could easily be said by a libertarian with a straight face:

What’s more, youth (as a group) are more likely than any other American age-group to affirm what Sanders expressed when he said: “I believe that you are richer emotionally as a human being when we have a community, when we care about each other, when we love each other. When we are compassionate—and when we are not stepping on other people.”

40% of young people have a favorable view of socialism.

Radical positions by the left such as reparations, abolition of gender, and end of nation states, are too extreme for most Americans, but socialism is otherwise popular.

Harold Meyerson, 10/9/2020
Judis focuses on two periods in American socialism’s long history: the Debs Era of 1900 through 1920, and the Bernie Sanders Surge, which began to incubate with the Occupy movement of 2011 but didn’t really take off until Sanders began running for president in 2015. Both were periods in which capital concentrated wealth and power, in which little of either trickled down to most Americans, in which the New Deal’s semi–social democratic reforms had either not yet been enacted or had been discarded in the post-1970 turn toward laissez-faire. Sanders has always made it plain that socialist leader Eugene V. Debs was his hero, but in Judis’s telling, the key to Sanders’s zeitgeist-changing success was his move away from the socialist insularity that Debs espoused.

Judis takes Sanders as his model because he has been an incrementalist who tries to develop socialism within a capitalist framework rather than overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with socialism.

The model is the Scandinavian mixed economy (no mention of the fact that Scandinavian countries rank higher in economic freedom).

Elizabeth Warren espouses the same ideas but without the label of socialism.

Berniecrats vs. Trotskyites

Judis thinks that the old school Marxists and Trotskyites are hampering the emergence of a powerful socialist network of think tanks, political party chapters, etc. He thinks it's a shame that the DSA did not get behind Biden as a lesser of two evils.

Mitchell Cohen, 9/29/2020
Judis points out the new interest in the economic historian Karl Polanyi and his 1944 book “The Great Transformation.” Self-regulating markets, Polanyi argued, are myths. Governments always regulate; it depends for whom. Bypassing Marxism, Polanyi supported ethically based socialistic reforms through democratic regimes. Market fundamentalism, inequalities, recession and a pandemic’s economic dislocations have, Judis says, brought what Polanyi calls a second movement in the opposite direction. Sanders captures it, championing universal health care, green politics and egalitarianism.

Judis melds socialism with populism – replying to Trump basically by saying that the left can play that game too.


Nationalism is integral to socialism.

Young people are fueling the rise in popularity of socialism, since they don't have memories of the Soviet Union.

Matt McManus, 4/23/2021

A critique from the hard-left. Jacobin is the most prominent socialist web magazine, founded by Bhaskar Sunkara around 2005.

But his conclusion that socialists today should abandon internationalism and commit themselves to a more patriotic and even nationalistic approach is terribly wrongheaded. While there’s good reasons to be contextual, not to mention mindful of symbols that matter to people on the ground, a socialism that isn’t internationalist is no socialism at all.

Different factions within socialism - who will win out, domestic labor, or new international left?

Judis argues that Corbyn missed a golden opportunity to outflank the divided Conservatives by demanding a firm Brexit from the neoliberal European Union and coupling it with an ambitious renewal of public ownership and high state spending. Corbyn was in part pushed to this position, he writes, because the party abandoned industrial working-class constituencies in the North for the hip new leftism of London urbanites.
Dan La Botz, 10/21/2020

Another critique from the left:

Ultimately, John Judis’ The Socialist Awakening is disappointing. He has rediscovered liberalism or progressivism, which were in some form always his politics. He puts his hopes in progressive think-tanks and publications: the Economic Policy Institute, the Nation, the New Republic, the American Prospect, N+1, In These Times, Mother Jones, and the Intercept. He looks to a host of NGOs, particularly the youth groups such the Sunrise Movement and United We Dream Action. He believes that Elizabeth Warren, whom he considers a socialist, and other Democrats like Senator Sherrod Brown represent the future of the left. But then for Judis, “Many elected Democrats are socialist in all but name.”


with Robert Wright, 10/6/2020

Bernie Sanders has made socialism cool again, but John Judis was a socialist before it was cool.

The word "socialist" had been excluded from the mainstream conversation.

To what extent does the revival have to do with the loosening of the definition of socialism?

More powerful for labor at the expense of capital.

Government must intervene in certain sectors but markets remain in effect in many areas.

Climate change is a prime worry for young people - akin to nuclear war.

Judis is not so afraid of it, but he recognizes it as a potent issue for young people.

Trump pushed Democrats to the extremes on immigration, but Judis recognizes that national borders are an important component of socialism and increasing the generosity of the welfare state.

with Bill Radke, 1/25/2021

Starts at 29 minute mark.

How does John define socialism? He doesn't. Too many definitions. He wants to look at how it has changed historically.

For those who weren't raised in the shadow of the Cold War, socialism means something very different.

Sanders is the poster child of the transformation. A marxist in the 60s who believed in public housing, and government control over labor. HE evolved over time into democratic socialist.

Socialism is not a seprate state of history - after capitalism. It is developing from a mixed economy, within capitaism.

with George Hammond, 10/14/2020

Commonwealth Club last year

What does the pandemic tell us about socialism?

Judis says it suggests we need more involvement in health care, transportation, etc.... hmmm....

Intervention should be more than just subsidies – should instead be based on democratic control.

History of socialism is utopianism – Christian idealism, trying to create the Kingdom of God on Earth. The communes of Charles Fourier, Saint-Simone, etc.

with Derek Chollet, 10/21/2020
with EJ Dionne, 10/8/2020
with Jeff Schechtman, 10/27/2020
with Luke Nathan Phillips, 10/14/2020
with Tom Hall, 9/29/2020
By Underreported with Nicholas Lemann, 9/21/2020

Nicholas Lemann: Let’s talk for a minute, just conceptually, where is the border between what you’re calling socialism, for the purposes of this book and this conversation, and conventional Democratic Party liberalism?

John Judis: I think there is no clear border, and that’s part of the trick. I mean, in America, we have really not had a viable public socialism since 1917 or so, and the rise of the Communist Party and the identification of socialism with the Soviet Union. It’s popular among intellectuals, but no politician, except maybe in a few boroughs of New York, would call themselves a socialist and hope to get elected to anything. But we still have people who in the terms I’m describing espouse kinds of socialist politics. Bernie Sanders cites Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights: everybody should have a job, health care for all. You see there again the germs of an American socialism arising within capitalism.

If you look at politicians now, if you look at the House Progressive Caucus, which has 90-plus members, you look at Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren—in my book, I call them shadow socialists because there isn’t a hell of a lot of difference between them and, let’s say, Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. But they don’t call themselves socialists. So there is a fuzzy line.