We Live in Strange Times

By William Galligan
A reflection on a talk with Dr. Steven Hayward about the rise of socialism.

Dr. Hayward described his initial reaction to the recent revival of socialist thought around the globe as one of surprise. According to Hayward, the steady retreat of socialism, which began with the collapse of the USSR, has suddenly reversed despite the obvious failures of recent socialist experiments like those in Venezuela and China. Even in America, the label of socialist has once again become acceptable and electable. House representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, has become one of the most influential politicians on the Hill. Such occurrences would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

Hayward argues, however, that the recent revival of socialism should not be as surprising as it may at first appear. In order to understand socialism’s revival, Hayward asserts that it is first necessary to understand its main rival system, capitalism. Turning to capitalism’s foundational thinker, Adam Smith, Hayward highlights capitalism’s emphasis on the division of specialized labor and the importance of free trade. For these tenants to exist, a society must protect open entry competition and ensure state protection of contract and property rights. Although capitalism maximizes growth and wealth, it fails to ensure an equitable distribution of resources among a society, which Hayward describes as capitalism’s Achilles heel.

Karl Marx, socialism’s central thinker, proposed both an economic and a philosophical critique of capitalism. According to Marx, economic inequality under capitalism stems from the ruling class’s use of destabilizing boom and bust cycles to exploit workers and preserve profit margins. Philosophically, Marx argues that capitalism’s underlying emphasis on individual self-interest, rooted in its protection of privacy and private property, perverts human nature from its natural state. Only through a violent rejection of private property can human nature be returned to its natural state. As such, socialism and communism absorbs a messianic view of politics: only through political upheaval can humans find redemption.

Unfortunately for Marx, many of his predictions failed to materialize. Working classes were not pushed deeper into poverty; despite continued boom and bust cycles, the world has seen long-term economic growth; and social mobility is usually upward. Nonetheless, Hayward argues that it is inevitable that socialist critics of capitalism will reemerge time and again. Bureaucratic managers will inevitably try to undermine public support for capitalism. Socialism or a transition to a socialist system requires active management by experts. As a result, intellectuals and bureaucrats, who would become those managers, have a vested interest in promoting such a system. The convergence of these social forces with the forgetfulness of younger generations encourages the reemergence of socialist thought. As strange as the current socialist revival may seem, it makes sense in light of historical and social factors.

Hayward ends by emphasizing the spiritually rooted appeal of communism and socialism. He reminds his audience that the problem of the socialist belief in allocating resources through central political institutions is that it is impossible to centralize knowledge in its totality. Socialism is a prideful belief in humanity’s ability to master the world. Hayward likens to this to the serpent’s temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: “Ye shall be as Gods”. Pride is a fundamental flaw of humanity and socialism will always tempt a proud few to its cause. As such, socialism will never completely disappear nor should we be surprised at its revivals.   

Will Galligan is a junior in Pierson College. He can be reached at william.galligan@yale.edu