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.
A 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.