A Review of Nathan Robinson’s Why You Should Be a Socialist

Rooted in a profound moral outrage over capitalism's indignities and absurd cruelties, Nathan Robinson's recent book makes a powerful case for libertarian, democratic socialism.
I recently watched a YouTube video of Nathan J. Robinson, millennial founder and editor-in-chief of Current Affairs magazine, slowly strolling down Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans. He is wearing a bottle-green three-piece suit, with a tan vest and a raffish panama hat. As the camera follows him on this picturesque stroll, he offers a jaunty but astute 24-minute soliloquy on the merits of democratic socialism. It is though novelist Tom Wolfe came back to life with the brain of Gore Vidal.

It might also give you the impression that Robinson, whose magazine attempts to combine serious political commentary with occasional lapses into college humor mag territory, is not quite a serious chap. By my reading of his notable new book, Why You Should Be a Socialist, that would be a mistaken impression.

Robinson calls the book a “primer on democratic socialism for those who are extremely skeptical of it.” He aims to show us that leftist politics are not just consistent and reasonable, but that “elementary moral principles compel us all to be leftists and socialists.” And indeed he makes an excellent case, on the grounds of both consistency and moral principle.

Part I of the book attempts to show what features of contemporary political and economic systems are “so revolting” to the left sensibility. And Robinson is writing to describe not a political platform or even a movement history but a way of viewing the world’s arrangements. I think this larger perspective helps to make his argument persuasive and fundamental.

And it helps him avoid quibbles. (“Is Norway socialist? Is Venezuela? Is the U.S. Postal Service?”) Robinson early on recommends the reader keep in mind: don’t get too hung up on the words themselves. (Although he concludes that the terms socialism and leftism are indispensable.)

Part II connects our basic moral instincts with Robinson’s set of socialist principles, especially solidarity, equality, and freedom. It includes an historical flyover of “the long and honorable tradition of socialist thinking” in this country, with particular attention (we should note) to libertarian socialism.

In Part III, Robinson takes up alternatives and criticisms, explaining “why conservatism is cruel and liberalism is oblivious,” before a final chapter on hope, justice, and solidarity.

The author’s moral conversion, he explains, came not from reading Karl Marx but from his emotional reaction to a simple questioning of the world’s arrangements. “… We all know that the Wall Street Journal Mansion-dweller could have saved poor children from dying of malaria.” And yet—despite knowing such things, he observes, most people do not view this inaction as a crime against humanity.

Robinson found this latter fact puzzling. “The distinction between murdering someone (taking an action that produces their death) and letting someone die (failing to take an action that would have prevented their death) has always seemed fuzzy to me.” In both situations, one’s decisions cause another person to die. “And yet those who murder people get sent to prison, while those who merely let people die get put on the Forbes rich list.”

The author offers several other striking examples of how “a failure to empathize is a failure to think.” There’s the hierarchy of coverage in the media: some people’s lives, according to the data, are considered worthier of attention than others. (One 2007 study found that the loss of one European life was equivalent to the loss of 45 African lives, in terms of the coverage generated.)

And there’s his story of corresponding with a Texas death row inmate, Robert Pruett, while Robinson was in law school and getting to know numerous offenders through a legal aid clinic for which he volunteered. Pruett, who had been incarcerated since age 15, had written a highly intelligent autobiography ruminating about how being a young accomplice to his own father’s crime had first landed him in prison (with a sentence of 99 years), after which his life was a series of violent traumas. “As I read Pruett’s writings,…I couldn’t help but think that if Pruett and I had been switched at birth, I’d be where he was and he’d be where I am. He was just as capable a writer, just as curious a reader. Yet here I am, with an expensive education and a happy career.” Robinson then adds, “Pruett, meanwhile, was put to death in October 2017.”

Readers of this magazine might wonder whether Robinson’s book takes notice of the long tradition of Christian socialism, which it does, over two quite positive pages, at least. “It would be a mistake to overlook the leftist currents in Christian thinking,” he advises before offering brief encomia to Dorothy Day, Ammon Hennacy, Leo Tolstoy, Gustavo Gutierrez, and Pope Francis.

It is curious that this book was published slightly before Eugene McCarraher’s remarkable Enchantments of Mammon: the latter is the more than ample cultural/historical supplement to Robinson’s mostly policy- and present-minded treatment.

And yet we can surmise why Robinson might skimp a bit on the role of Christianity in this story: readers of his generation often find institutional religion an odious, compromised business. And with good reason, given that some 80% of the evangelical right have indicated their approval of our “baby Christian” president and the social Darwinist outlook he represents.

Happily we have also seen in recent years the rise of some notable younger Christian socialists—Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and New York Times columnist Elizabeth Bruenig come to mind, along with the staff of publications such as this one.

In solidarity with you, brother Robinson.

Elias Crim is the founder and publisher at Solidarity Hall, a group blog focused on community renewal, and the podcast Dorothy’s Place (named for Dorothy Day). 


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