How to Explain Socialism to a Teenager

“What is socialism?”

A teenage girl posed this question on a cold, blustery March afternoon at a climate-change rally organized by high-schoolers via #FridaysforFuture. I was standing next to the banner of a socialist group, so I think the teenager thought I belonged to that group. I therefore might be an authority.

What is socialism! Shit, I should be able to answer that question, I thought, experiencing a panicky moment. Where do I begin?

Well, I said,  launching into a disquisition of what socialism was not, before getting to the point. But after a moment, I stopped. A straightforward question deserves a straightforward response. Sorry, I said, I’m a professor so I tend to be long-winded.

I continued: socialists come in many varieties, and they spend a lot of time – in some cases, most of the time – arguing among themselves. They argue about what is to be done, how, and by whom. But all socialists, I think, share a common principle. They all want to expand the realm of freedom.

They believe that everyone, not just the elite, should have the opportunity to experience freedom – freedom from want, but also freedom to live a long life in the manner that a person has reason to value. But that freedom comes with a responsibility: the duty to work for the conditions that allow for the freedom of others – in one’s society and beyond. Socialists further believe that such an expansion of freedom cannot be achieved within the existing capitalist system. They demand basic economic and political change, including deeper democratization of polity and economy and the promotion of cooperative production.

“But”, responded my interlocuter, “my parents say that socialists are not to be trusted, they just want to control everything, establish like a dictatorship. My parents come from Yugoslavia, so…”

Damn, we never escape the history! I thought.

Well, I can understand your parents’ viewpoint, I answered. Socialists have made some big mistakes, and one of the biggest was to establish Soviet-style Communist regimes. In Russia, to begin with, and later in eastern Europe and elsewhere. The mistake was to believe that you could impose socialism from the top-down via a single party run by militants. That led to tyranny in most cases.

But very few socialist today accept that authoritarian model. Vast majority of them, at least in liberal democracies, believe in the unity of means and ends, which means that you must use only democratic tactics to expand the realm of freedom. You can’t have freedom without an expanded democracy, it’s as simple as that.

And while we’re at it, I should add that, considering the climate crisis, pollution and species extinction, the only kind of socialism that makes sense is eco-socialism. That means restricting the inputs of resources and energy and probably the total consumption of society. That’s hard to achieve because of consumerism and the culture of possessive individualism.

So being a socialist means being bold in your thinking.

“Okay, thanks,” she said with a smile, and melted into the chanting crowd.

I was left wondering: Was that the answer she was looking for? Was I still too long-winded? Then I noticed one of the signs: “Adults, show your power!” And I pondered what power I had, except in ideas, and whether socialism would drown in ideas.


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About Richard

I am a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. I am currently interested in understanding how the humanistic tradition of the left can be adapted to fit the realities of the 21st century. I am particularly concerned with how we can deal equitably with the deadly challenge of climate change and live with globalization. My most recent academic research has focused on the Left’s experience in the Global South and on counter-hegemonic globalization. Africa has been the major site of my field work; I have also travelled widely in Latin America and Asia. My most recent books include Reinventing the Left in the Global South: The Politics of the Possible (2014), a revised and expanded edition of Civilizing Globalization: A Survival Guide (co-editor and co-author, 2014), and Social Democracy in the Global Periphery: Origins, Challenges, Prospects (co-author, 2007).

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