…continued from Part 1
Patriotic Socialists try to combine left-wing economics with a Trumpian, nationalist populism. Some of them even call themselves “MAGA Communists”, after the Trump slogan “Make America Great Again”.
To be honest, I have never quite managed to work out whether Patriotic Socialism is a real thing, or an elaborate prank. My working hypothesis is that it started out as the latter, and that at some point, some of its protagonists started to actually believe it.
Still – the PatSocs are starting from one correct observation: socialism was always supposed to be a working-class movement, but in practice, it never is. It was historically a movement led by intellectuals, and nowadays, it is a movement led by social media influencers.
Socialists love “The Working Class” in the abstract, but they often consider actual working-class people a bit “cringe”. Working-class people can be quite small-c conservative, “unwoke”, and patriotic, and these are, of course, horrendously uncool, low-status opinions, which make fashion-conscious socialists cringe with embarrassment.
PatSocs differ sharply from other socialist groups in that they openly embrace the most low-status views on cultural issues. In fact, they go ridiculously overboard with this, quickly turning into caricatures of themselves.
But while the starting point may be an interesting one, I nonetheless cannot see it ever seriously take off. The combination of Trumpism with socialism is not logically impossible. However culturally, it is a terrible fit. It is true that if socialists want to broaden their appeal, they will probably have to get a little better at suppressing their cringe reflexes. But this does not mean that socialism could be viable as a deliberately anti-intellectual movement.
(subcategories: Luxemburgists, Anarcho-Communists)
“Libertarian” Socialists represent a variant of the real-socialism-has-never-been-tried fallacy. They accept that historically, socialism has always gone hand in hand with authoritarianism, and unlike other far-left tribes (especially Tankies), they are not trying to defend that. When arguing with those folks, you don’t need to tell them how bad North Korea is, or how bad the Soviet Union is: they already know that.
The big mistake they make is to believe that the authoritarian character of those regimes was simply the result of deliberate policy choices, as opposed to an inevitable outcome which is inherent in the system, and which does not depend on the intentions of the individuals in charge. They believe that Lenin, Mao, Kim Il Sung et al just “misinterpreted” Marx, turning Marxism into a top-down philosophy when it was really meant to be the opposite.
“Libertarian” Socialists admire short-lived socialist regimes, which were overthrown before they could fully enact their programme (e.g. Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular in Chile, Revolutionary Catalonia, the Paris Commune), as well as failed socialist leaders who never came to power at all (e.g. the Polish-German communist Rosa Luxemburg). They believe that those were the “true” Marxists, who would have made socialism work if only they had been given a proper chance.
Marx and Engels believed that the “workers’ state” they had in mind would be a transitional arrangement, which would, over time, become superfluous, and wither away, giving way to a stateless society. The most radical “Libertarian” Socialists, the Anarcho-Communists, want to skip that intermediary stage, and dismantle the state straight away.
“Libertarian” Socialists can be found in the orbit of Jacobin magazine, Current Affairs magazine and Novara Media. Tankies hate them, because they see them as fair-weather socialists, who like the fluffy ideals but shy away from the tough decisions required to actually make it happen.
They can, however, overlap somewhat with Trotskyism and Tankie-adjacent Marxism. Their biggest overlap by far is with Hipster Marxists. Nowadays, one could, in fact, almost think of them as a subgroup of the Hipster Marxists.
Hipster Marxists are people who use political opinions, first and foremost, for image purposes. They adopt whichever opinions are currently most in vogue. If you know such a person’s opinion on one subject, you know their opinions on every subject, because nowadays, fashionable opinions come as a package deal. They may not have been a Marxist ten years ago, when that was not yet as trendy as it is today. But in the 2020s, being a Marxist is just as much part of the standard package of hip opinions as the latest woke fad or the latest environmentalist fad.
While Tankies and Trots are usually quite well-versed in their corner of the Marxist literature, Hipster Marxists can be a little clueless. When debating with them, you may find yourself in the strange position of having to explain their own ideology to them. But what they have is a very keen intellectual fashion sense. They know instinctively where a political opinion, a political figure or a political movement ranks in the hierarchy of social kudos, and align themselves accordingly.
When they discard a former comrade, it is not because of an ideological fallout. It is because that person has lost their “vibe”, and being associated with them is no longer beneficial for one’s social image. Russell Brand, Chris Williamson, Ken Livingston and George Galloway were once very popular with Hipster Marxists, but have since fallen out of favour, although ideologically, these people have been as consistent as one can be.
Hipster Marxists would go nowhere near a low-status Marxist organisation like the SWP, because they can sense the “crank vibes” emanating from them, and are repelled by that. But they would struggle to explain where they differ ideologically from the SWP.
Hipster Marxists are not bad people. They don’t want to send you to a Gulag, and they don’t fantasise about a future role as executioner for the Revolutionary People’s Court. But they can be annoying, because they have that inflated self-confidence that comes from feeling safe in the knowledge that one’s opinions are fashionable.
Like the “Libertarian” Socialists, with whom they overlap hugely, Hipster Marxists can be found in the orbit of Jacobin magazine, Current Affairs magazine, Novara Media, and – although most of them are a little bit too old for that – Teen Vogue. They account for the majority of political Twitter.
The Hipster Marxists differ in important ways from the other tribes described here.
Its “membership” cannot be clearly delineated. Membership of the other tribes is a relatively clear-cut matter. You either are a Trot, or you are not. You either are a Maoist, or you are not. But Hipster Marxism is more of a vibe than an ideology, so anyone can lean a little bit that way.
Its vibe-based character makes this group many orders of magnitude larger, and more influential, than all the other ones combined. But it also makes it fickle, unpredictable, and impossible to coordinate.
We have seen this play out in recent years. The Hipster Marxists were the driving force behind the “Youthquake” of 2017, which nearly made Jeremy Corbyn Prime Minister. None of the other groups are ever going to get this close to power.
And yet, as soon as Corbyn was gone, they scattered to the four winds. Some stayed in Labour and tried to get behind a Continuity Corbynite candidate; some tried to make the Northern Independence Party a thing; some tried to make the Breakthrough Party a thing; most just left party politics altogether and flocked into social movements like BLM, XR and Just Stop Oil.
Vibes spread more easily than ideology. They can suddenly grip and energise millions. But when circumstances change, that energy cannot easily be redirected or repurposed.
Other Marxist tribes create small-to-medium-sized groups which never become hugely relevant, but which achieve a certain name recognition, and which sustain that modest success for decades. Hipster Marxists create movements which suddenly explode onto the scene, and which are all the rage for a couple of years, but which then suddenly deflate (e.g. BLM, Momentum, Occupy).
Of all the socialist tribes out there, the Hipster Marxists are the only one that truly matters. There’s not going to be a re-enactment of the Russian, the Chinese or the Cuban Revolution on British soil – but there could be another 2017 any time. And maybe next time, it will work.
Hipsters of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your vibes.