Jacobin - December 26, 2019
Nathan J. Robinson is the founder and editor of Current Affairs and the author of Why You Should Be A Socialist. Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke with Robinson about self-interest versus moral conviction in the makings of a socialist, the cruelty of conservatism and cluelessness of liberalism, the revolutionary reform agenda of Bernie Sanders, and the state of socialist organizations and left media today.
I’ve read your book, so I now know why you want me to be a socialist. But why are you a socialist, and how did you become one?
I grew up in Florida in a very segregated city, and I went to a fantastic public school that was nearly all white in a town and a county that wasn’t nearly all white. I was disturbed by that in high school, and I was disturbed by the way that good liberals appeared to be fine with it. I think a lot of socialists have, at one time or another, found ourselves disturbed by what good liberals are okay with and able to rationalize.
My story has similar pattern to that of lots of people in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of Jacobin writers, of many other people in our generation. Many of us came of age during the Obama presidency. I was protesting the Iraq war in high school, and then was kind of excited about Barack Obama, and then so many of the things that we were protesting about the Bush administration just continued under the Obama administration.
And that automatically puts you to the left of someone who describes themselves as a progressive, right? Barack Obama was supposedly a progressive Democrat. And so you realize just from that alone that being a progressive Democrat isn’t enough.
And then came the the financial crisis, which touched so many of our lives. We looked around us and saw the ravages of neoliberalism. We all saw people that we loved who were working hard and getting nothing or losing everything they had.
As I say in the book, I think many people come to identify with the socialist label before we get to the theory, before we develop a deep understanding of the workings and the mechanics of capitalism. There’s a Terry Eagleton quote that I love and use in the book: “A socialist is just someone who is unable to get over his or her astonishment that most people who have lived and died have spent lives of wretched, fruitless, unremitting toil.”
Occasionally I am criticized for being moralistic in my socialism, but I do feel like there’s a very strong emotional component. There’s a frustration, because we all see what humanity could be if we were able to use what we have in this wonderful world. There’s a disgust and revulsion at avoidable injustices.
There is a kind of dogma on the Marxist left that people must be motivated to fight for socialism by material self-interest. I think that’s true up to a certain point. Imagine people putting everything on the line for a general strike, for example. They won’t do it as a pure act of sacrifice, they must believe they have something to gain.
But at the same time, I agree with you that we’d be foolish to overlook the importance of principle, moral conviction, and belief in fairness and equality. How big a role do these play in making socialists and driving the socialist movement?
I go back a lot to the Eugene Debs quote, “While there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” You can hear echoes of that in Bernie’s incredible speech about being willing to fight for someone whose problems you don’t necessarily have.
I talked in the book about the ethic of solidarity, about identifying other people’s struggles as your own, even if they’re not your own. Eugene Debs could have lived a relatively comfortable life. He grew up relatively well off. Lots of people who are socialists are concerned with problems that don’t necessarily affect them directly.
Now, in one sense, it’s in all of our material interest to fight for a socialist world, because there is no escape from what capitalism does in the long run. Climate change is a problem from which wealthy people can shield themselves to a certain degree, but not entirely. But still, even if we can find self-interest in socialism for everyone, I don’t think it gives people on the Left enough credit to say, well, they’ve just recognized their real material self-interest. A lot of socialists are very caring people who don’t like to see others around them struggle and suffer, and they can’t feel comfortable with that even when they’re not suffering or struggling themselves.
Of course, many socialists do experience struggle and suffering. But whether they do or not, many feel like Debs did that “while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Socialists identify with humanity as a whole, and it matters to us when other people go through things that we don’t go through ourselves.
One thing I always think about is, well, what if it turns out empirically that having a greater number of immigrants to this country makes my wage slightly lower? Or what if it turns out that the crime rate might be a bit higher if we had a more humane system of criminal punishment? That shouldn’t affect my judgment of whether we should have a sociopathic system of criminal punishment or a brutal immigration system. Because it just sees me as the only person whose interests matter.
I’ve written about the conception of the self-interest of the US as a legitimate thing. It’s commonly accepted that it’s okay for our country to pursue its self-interest, and this has led to basically treating the people of every other country on earth as ants whose lives don’t matter. It doesn’t matter how many of them are exterminated by one of our policies because we are entitled to pursue our self-interest.
Now, if you reimagined the concept, you could argue that it’s in Americans’ self-interest to live a world that is peaceful, where everyone is respected. And then the self-interests of separate categories of people no longer conflict. But the point is we have to be careful about what we mean by self-interest. It can’t just be “Join us and you’ll get a bigger paycheck.” Some people are going to have to make certain sacrifices for the opportunity to live in a world in which all people are cared for. ...
Read full interview at Jacobin