Soviet poster

I am now writing a weekly column for the Observer. It is actually a weekly page with two articles, one long, one short. This week’s articles were on red scares and Millennial rage and a tribute to Cyrille Regis. This is the essay on young people and rage against capitalism, published in the Observer, 21 January, under the headline ‘No reds under beds, but the young are awake to the flaws in capitalism’.


Are student Red Guards about to storm the quads of Oxbridge colleges? Do young people think that famines and purges and mass executions are good? Apparently so.

ComRes poll last week showed that young people worry more about capitalism than communism: 9 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds thought communists were ‘the most dangerous in the world today’ while 24 per cent thought it was ‘big business’.

It was, in all honesty, a daft poll. It’s a bit like asking: ‘Who do you fear most – Jack the Ripper or the murderer now living in your road?’ Nevertheless, it created ripples. On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, John Humphrys interviewed Fiona Lali, president of the Marxist Society at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She put up a defence of the Soviet Union. ‘It was [not] allowed to develop or flourish in the way that it could have done because the US, the British, were all involved in attacking it’, she suggested.

‘Universities luring millennials to communism, leading don warns’ ran the faux-shock headlines in both the Times and the Daily Mail. The don in question was Orlando Figes, professor of history at London University’s Birkbeck College and a Russia expert, who, according to the Times ’warned that the drive for balance and moral relativism in universities risked minimising Stalin’s crimes’.

No, we shouldn’t minimise Stalin’s crimes. And, yes, some do, though those who wish to airbrush Uncle Joe are hardly either the loudest voices or the brightest sparks, even among millennials. Relativism among the young today expresses itself not through regurgitated Stalinism but in the embrace of identity politics.

Worrying more about capitalism than communism is no more to minimise Stalin’s crimes than worrying more about the murderer down the road is to minimise the horrors inflicted by Jack the Ripper. What else should we expect young people to say? Communism is barely alive, while capitalism ravages their lives.

The West, some seem to have forgotten, won the cold war. The Soviet Union is no more. The Chinese Communist Party has long ago embraced the market, albeit in a particularly statist and authoritarian form. In Europe, only rumps of the old communist parties remain.

But having won the cold war, capitalism is losing the peace. There is a growing backlash against the consequences of free market policies and a sense of alienation from mainstream institutions. The lives of most young people have been shaped not by Stalin’s purges or Mao’s cultural revolution, but by the financial crash of 2008, by the austerity policies that have followed and by the gross inequalities that disfigure the world.

It is not Lenin who has ensured that real wages in Britain today are lower than they were in 2007. Nor is it Castro’s policies that have led to the housing crisis. Nor yet is Pol Pot responsible for the collapse of Carillion. Anyone who imagines that young people (and not just young people) would not feel rage about what the free market has wrought are as much living in the past as those who are nostalgic for Stalinism. It is a measure of how little faith the right has in its own market-led policies that it is forced so often to wheel out the red scare, a scare that gets more pathetic with every outing.


What is striking about the ComRes poll is not that so many should despise capitalism, but that so few do: 24 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds may have been most worried about big business, but only 12 per cent thought that capitalism was the biggest threat – not that different from the 9 per cent that most feared communism. The fact that less than a quarter of young people worry too deeply about big business seems to suggest a strain of conservatism rather than of communism.

The problem we face is not that young people are being drawn once again towards Soviet-style communism but that most forms of progressive collective action have faded. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, not just the Soviet Union but much of the non-Stalinist left began crumbling, too. The labour movement has withered. Trade unions have lost influence. Social movements have faded. We are left with anger, but little progressive politics to give it shape.

Capitalism isn’t working. Alternatives to capitalism have been discredited. That’s the predicament in which we find ourselves and that’s the problem we have to solve.


  1. Your Jack the Ripper reference should be sufficiently clarifying for anyone who felt the poll “created ripples.” My dismay concerns millennials groomed in XYZ Studies courses that reify demographic categories and throw out the baby with the Western Civ bathwater. Some of the rage against capitalism and the West needs to be reconsidered, as simply taking down Western democracies revolution-style right now would leave a vacuum for the other power brokers of the world, who do not seem to promise more enlightened governance. Be careful what you wish for. Every age begins as a new birth but carries the seeds of its own destruction in the form of its own contradictions. When those contradictions reach a critical mass, the shell starts to crack. As the shell of capitalism starts to crack in the face of wealth inequality and ecological imperatives, the idea is not to crush everything but to bring forth the hidden seed that has been nurtured and throw away the husk. In particular, we need to retain the Enlightenment values of universal rights based on rational principles, not tribal loyalties, and keep the freedoms of liberal democracy intact while pushing hard and mindfully on the transformation into a post-capitalist economy that leaves no group stranded. Young Western radicals need to start thinking about a revolution within the West, not a revolution against the West.

  2. The subtlety here is to ridicule fears of communism while ignoring its massive influence.

    Marxism’s goal, of the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions, is alive and well in its current form of neo- or cultural Marxism. It has eroded the West’s moral and cultural foundations through relativism, fragmented identity in order to diminish its national and cultural forms, increased polarisation, and employed victimhood in order to use sympathy as a means of social change.

    Neo-Marxism has tacitly encouraged capitalism and neo-liberalism by consistently failing to address its consequences. Allowing it to flourish permits its worst effects to consolidate which in time, it is expected, will lead to revolution.

    This has come about through post-modernist philosophy, the Frankfurt School’s ‘critical theory’, and Gramsci’s ‘long march through the institutions’, which has marginalised contrarian analysis by constricting academia’s world view. Pat Buchanan is undoubtedly correct when he said, “Cultural Marxism has certainly been more successful than the economic Marxism of the 19th century and the Leninism associated with it.”

    Neo-Marxism has written its own moral high-ground, brooks no opposition, and has goals identical to classical Marxism. With the end justifying the means, ordinary people will continue to be treated with contempt even as they are used to achieve this end. This is what independent thinkers are concerned about.

    • Wonderfully stated. This independent thinker feels “concern” is not a strong enough term. If the polarization continues on the track it is on, it will bring us all to unimaginable horrors. Hopefully more people become warriors for personal responsibility instead of social justice.

      • The underlying problem is that both Marxism and Capitalism give no value to the individual, unless he / she conforms to their respective templates of the Worthwhile Individual.

        That road, dissing many individuals, leads to mass-murder.

        We’re a long way here from Benedict XVI’s statement that every individual is (or should be) “respected, loved and needed.”

        • I highly recommend this analysis of the two (capitalism and socialism). I would like to know what you think.

          I think capitalism is more ethical (far from perfect) than all other options to date because it awards people the liberty to control their own destiny. Discipline themselves to the level at which they chose.

  3. Nancy Ogg

    The “forms of progressive collective action” were inevitably to fade when the institutional Left began subscribing to the same “prosperity gospel” the Right used successfully to induce workers to vote for exploiters. All that was to matter was “growth,” defined as more spending by everybody. No one noticed the building-in to this process of the structural inequalities of debt-logic (easy credit allows for worker participation in the consumption imperative while, itself, padding the gains of capital) and efficiency-logic (we make everything cheaper and more freely available, precisely BY diminishing labor’s share in creation of saleable value). Youth distrust of capitalism, expressed as resentment of “having to work harder than our parents to have what they had,” lacks the penetration to recognize and reject the terms of consumerism as the very vector of inequalisation. At least in his warning of how commodity fetishism might subvert revolution by distracting with material goods, Marx got it right.

  4. It’s not that capitalism doesn’t work, it’s that for quite some time now Western countries like the UK and America where I’m from have been on a system of crony capitalism, which is a melding of big business with big government. Enormous amounts of regulations, fees and high taxes are typical in such a structure and only those with wealth, power and/or connections can navigate the byzantine structure.

    • Capitalism “won” the Cold War ?

      Only in the sense that Communism lost it by collapsing, very largely of its own accord.

      Just as the Vietnam fiasco was caused by the Western Elite’s arrogantly interpreting the victory of 1945 as The Triumph of the West (whereas it was almost the West’s last gasp), so 1989 has been trumpeted-forth as the West’s near-apotheosis (whereas in fact it was the last gasp of a West that had been propped up by its Soviet sparring partner).

      Hence Irag, hence 2008. And raving about Communism won’t cure Capitalism’s terminal illness or save the Elite from the consequences of their self-destruction.

      • Did I say that Capitalism won the cold war? That’s nonsensical. Capitalism is an economic system of distributing goods and services to societies that lets individuals make, sell and buy what they want, nothing more, nothing less. Communism distributes societal goods too, but decisions on who makes and gets what is managed by bureaucrats under a single authoritarian party, not individuals. It melds the economic with the political and relies on the power of the state and the use of force to keep people in line.

        I know which system I prefer, albeit its imperfections.

        • My first comment on yours, was a comment on the article itself. Apologies.

          However, you now seem to be claiming that the only 2 economic choices available to humanity, available to the human mind, are state socialism or capitalism (neither of which existed 400 years ago, BTW).

          In other words it’s “Wall Street or North Korea ?”

          Fake Question, Fake Choice.

          Capital;ism is going down, the US after the SU. Inevitably, since Protestantism is dying, thus its conjoined twin Capitalism, is too. Nor will Capitalism find a new lease of life elsewhere – it hasn’t in China nor will it in divided, caste-ridden India.

          So you’d better pray – quickly – that more than those 2 choices are available.

        • Apology accepted. I never claimed Capitalism and Communism are the only choices, I only mentioned the two because that’s what you stated in your opening sentence. There are valid arguments by the way, that the differing Statist focused philosophies, i.e, Socialism, Social Democracy, Fascism, etc….are all parts of the same coin but.

          You should pray to overcome the urge to project your own views in to what people are writing. It’s blinding you from communicating properly.

    • Yes, the system has been rigged.

      But that’s not just Crony Capitalism – it’s Big Business as such and the 1% (+ their many hangers on) as such.

  5. harvardreferences

    I can agree to a point, but these attitudes towards the historic crimes of Communism often indicate attitudes to the more current crimes of Putin, Assad, Iran, Milosevic. It’s indicative of a more general anti Western relativism, and whilst the young people having no idea what the Holodomor was may not mean much, the same mindset on the left used to for instance apologise for Hamas or Hezbollah whilst calling Israelis Nazis, does. It’s not just current identity politics that’s lead to a relativist left, there’s also a moral relativism that’s at least as old as the 30’s which Orwell wrote of. If some hard leftist Millennials are clueless to the Great Leap Forward then maybe we shouldn’t care, but if they’re suggesting Zero hour contracts, austerity and job insecurity (all things to be opposed) is somehow equivalent m, I’d suggest we should be concerned.

  6. I thought democratic socialism was the alternative.

    Sorry to be abit perpendicular to the thrust of your article but I wanted to refer back to the problematics of liberalism and in a sense how liberalism, both economic and social, both tie in with capitalism as the current form of cosmopolitanism but at the same time people wish cosmopolitan forms of social-capitalism to be moderated by varying degrees of communitarianism of which conservatism, communism or some other community focused solution is a part.

    For many liberals, liberalism has become an ideology rather than a philosophy or a personal way of life and therefore it is the moral juncture between liberalism as an Ideology and the observable impacts of capitalism that probably causes the most concern for those that were polled which then leads to the possible alternatives in order to achieve liberal ideological outcomes. However, none of the alternatives provide a convincing solution to the perceived problem hence the low polling rates.

    To now digress into your previous conversations regarding liberalism and the need for a new form of universalism (or cosmopolitanism) that is not strictly based on liberal platitudes, can I affirm that the following is similar to your own reasoning albeit with a different conclusion, in that,

    liberalism has become an Ideology, whether economic or social, that has become rooted as the basis of cosmopolitanism which, whether by force, coercion or intolerant self-righteousness, seeks to universalise a specific set of norms beyond democratic deliberation.

    The opposing set of values to this liberal cosmopolitanism, although not necessarily, tend to be communitarian in nature whereby norms and values are set by discrete communities whether at the national level, regional or local.

    However, in its essence liberalism was meant to frame a set of rules in order that different communities could mediate, debate and discuss their differences but for many, especially since civil rights legislation, liberalism has itself become a set of communitarian values which it seeks to enforce upon others through the moral guise of cosmopolitanism.

    As such the real crisis is being able to differentiate between communitarian forms of liberalism and so-called cosmopolitan forms of liberalism, with the former being a discreet set of individuals holding particular values about how they see the good community and the latter being a discreet set of values by which to mediate community differences.

    Therefore, in my opinion, the way to make the whole affair less complicated, is for liberalism to be now recognised as the communitarian set of value judgments that it now is and what was once liberalism (the philosophical framework by which to mediate differences) be now known as global or cosmopolitan relativism or some other better idea.

    In short then, cosmopolitanism and the liberalism that underlies it has now collapsed into communitarianism. This leaves a universalist vacuum that is yet to be filled that can fulfil the ideals of liberalism as a philosophical framework by which to mediate differences (or relativism) whilst at the same time inspire global solidarity.

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