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Socialism Won’t Be Built in a Day

“I am convinced that there are only a few people in this hall who will not experience the great day.” August Bebel had plenty of swagger in 1891 — and he wasn’t alone. As he spoke, Rosa Luxemburg recounted, “a warm, electric stream of life, of idealism, of security in joyful action” swept through the crowd.

The Second International was just two years old and now, at the pivotal Erfurt Congress, the German Social Democrats — the largest socialist party in the world — were laying the groundwork for generations of working-class politics.

In the years that followed, socialists had plenty of cause for optimism. In election after election, labor and social-democratic parties saw their vote totals climb thanks to newly enfranchised workers. It seemed natural — both to terrified capitalists and ambitious trade unionists — that working-class political rights were translating into broader social emancipation.

Of course, history had other ideas. Most social democrats never lived to see their great day. New dynamics emerged that drew the movement close to the nation and class they once vowed to challenge. For those on its left wing, victory came in 1917 but proved to be a Pyrrhic one.

Now, a century later, the question is less whether any of us will live to see socialist triumph than if such dreams belong entirely in the past. We know that instead of great days, we need to think in terms of a “great epoch” of transformation. We also know the dangers of co-optation that face any patient political strategy. What we don’t know is whether anyone else is interested in our dreams.

The recent success of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, and the growing ranks of young socialists, could be signs of a surprising resurgence. Or they could just be an Indian summer.

Capitalism has proven more resilient to working-class challenge and more amenable to reform than any of our predecessors could’ve imagined. But the system isn’t meeting the needs of millions, and at its core, it’s still an economic order rooted in exploitation and coercion. As long as we live in a class society, there will be resistance to it. The unresolved question is whether we can take the small instances of everyday struggle and — rather than just celebrating them — aggregate them into a force capable of pushing beyond capitalism.

The challenges of doing so in the twenty-first century are daunting, and many on the Left are more willing to abandon than reimagine working-class politics.

But if I had to guess, I would say that our message is too simple not to find an audience: it’s not your fault. You’re working longer hours than ever, you’re doing whatever you can to survive, and yet you’re falling further and further behind. We don’t have a gospel of self-improvement or nativist fairy tales, but we have a set of villains — the small elite that benefit from your immiseration.

Class anger isn’t going out of style.

By itself, it isn’t politics either. Yet Jacobin was founded on the idea that a rich working-class movement can reemerge and that alternatives to capitalism can still be constructed. In 2017, just as much as in 1891 or 1917, we should have moral confidence about this goal — a world without exploitation or oppression. But there is something profoundly different between claiming that socialists can unexpectedly break the tide of history and the old assurances that socialism was the tide of history.