Why Are Two Old Socialists Like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn Leading the 21st Century Left?
What does it mean that the left movements in the United Kingdom and United States in 2016 and 2017 have been led by old guys who happen to call themselves socialists? A first effort to explain this appeared in the New York Times in June, and it correctly stressed the situation young people find themselves in today amid the economic and environmental failures of capitalism over the past generation. The article spoke of the relevance of Jeremy Corbyn’s and Bernie Sanders’ left-wing platforms to the current crisis, and then looked to the future when a younger leadership and a new socialist politics will inevitably pick up the torch from them.
But while the author, Sarah Leonard, understandably looked ahead to a socialist politics that “doesn’t just look like” Corbyn and Sanders, we should pause for a moment to ask why today’s new, new left speaks in their voices. What does it say about recent elections that today’s remarkable rejection of neoliberal politics and economics was led by two grandfatherly men calling themselves socialists? To understand the present moment, the question, “Why old socialists?” needs a bit more reflection.
Of course, we must begin with their programs, but we must look behind these to the power of their analyses and their appropriateness for the younger generation. Even if Marxist movements and parties have long since faded, both men draw from that allegedly obsolescent tradition something young people talk about all the time. Young people have been learning to prize the old guys’ ability to “connect the dots.” It is an instinct for Bernie and Jeremy to find the links between various problems and see how they stem from capitalism today—inequality, poverty, the political power of the 1 percent, climate change—and to propose solutions that, if not removing the underlying structural issues, at least seek to control their consequences. Another old guy, also clearly of the left although not self-identified as a socialist, has connected the dots even more strikingly, not only calling for protecting the environment and ameliorating the lot of the poor but even proposing an end to progress as we know it. I am referring of course to Pope Francis.
But there is more to the role of these old men than their intellectual habits and persuasive powers, other qualities having to do with their age itself. In our obsessively future-oriented societies where the “next new thing” matters most, there is really very little hope for a future qualitatively different from the present. The old guys, by their very age, manage to connect the dots between the present and the past. They hearken back to a time when hope for a better society was alive, when it was common to propose policies to improve the lives of the least well off—and before what Zygmunt Bauman calls the “individualized society,” when people thought and acted collectively. Because Jeremy and Bernie have been acting forcefully in the present, this is more than nostalgia. Their voices and words come from a time when social hope was possible.
In their being it is the past, not the harsh and chaotic present, that points young people to the future. The logical alternative to “individualist”—the meaning of contemporary society and culture—is “socialist.” There is something reassuring in saying that people thought these things before, that they once created powerful movements seeking socialist alternatives to capitalism even if these movements faded or were defeated. No wonder recent surveys show that the young have not only become critical of capitalism but sympathetic to something old-new called “socialism,” awaiting contemporary definition, as an alternative.
Further, it says something about this moment that despite the highly scripted politicians marketing themselves throughout 2016 and 2017, politically active young people embraced instead the rumpled simplicity and gruff sincerity of a Corbyn and a Sanders. Although Leonard doubts it, their charisma mattered every bit as much as their platforms. To many they seemed authentic in a way that a Clinton or a May could never be. It was obvious—if only to young people—that these men embody the humility of old-fashioned values such as fairness and equality. Above all, in societies that have feverishly promoted self-interest for a generation, they stand for something besides self. They believe in social solutions to social problems, rather than the hyperindividualism that has become rife in the neoliberal era. They obviously still believe in that holdover from the past, the belief that our most important concern should be what we need, all of us.
Thus the two men, lacking wealth and political power, lone wolves in relation to the establishments, exude a unique authority. In a world permeated by bullshit—to use Harry Frankfort’s term for communication that is indifferent to truthfulness and intended only to convince, Corbyn and Sanders still insist on communicating truth rather than marketing. When they speak, it is obviously from a place beyond the system’s cynical blandishments and corruptions, and their age has something to do with it. They have survived into what used to be called old age with their convictions intact, achieving much and inspiring many just by refusing to knuckle under. Young people seeking to find a better way can observe their continuing determination to make the world a better place. Just how does not have to be spelled out yet—for the moment to call it “socialist” points in the right direction.
Their charisma is due in part from Jeremy and Bernie being grandparent-figures rather than parent-figures. A key role of parents after all is to prepare their children for functioning in the world, and they approach this with a strong sense of what reality demands and the need to teach proper attitudes and habits. Parents are concerned that their children will be able to adapt, adjust, compete, and survive. Grandparents, on the other hand, can focus less on the “real” world and more on the grandchildren themselves. Less on schooling them for the future and more on enjoying them in the present. Grandparents who have preceded the neoliberal world embody values and habits from an earlier age.
But if the old socialists can be inspiring, one thing that both men and all of their supporters agree on is that supporting them does not mean electing an aspiring authoritarian strongman such as Donald Trump. The Trump phenomenon is a distorting-mirror reflection of the hyperindividualism we find throughout the society. In contrast, the most authentic response to today’s situation is rather to build a movement drawing on the collective democratic energy of people inspired by similar struggles in the past. But it will have to be built for the long haul, and the old socialists carry in their persons the memory and inspiration of such movements. “Our Revolution” and Momentum may continue to pose problems for the established parties, and even to have difficulty coming to agreement within themselves. But unlike Donald Trump’s sales pitch—“I alone can fix it”—the two old men knew from the beginning that the key to meaningful change is not to elevate individuals but to encourage movements that will outlast themselves.