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  • Shelly Albaum

Why You Should Be A Socialist: Book Review


I want to buy everyone I know a copy of Nathan J. Robinson's new book, Why You Should Be a Socialist.


First, the book is everything you'd want in a companion -- it's funny, smart, personable, supportive, helpful, considerate, and entertaining. Time spent with this book is entirely pleasant.


But more important, the book solves a real problem that has dogged Americans for decades, and is getting worse every year. Americans mostly know that they are against socialism, but they mostly do not know why.


I have had this conversation dozens of times, not just with angry right-wingers, but with Democrats, progressives, independents, and just thoughtful compassionate people who don't actually know what socialism is, and are just beginning to realize that they don't actually know, but they have nothing to hold onto.

  • They tell me that the Soviet Union failed.

  • They tell me that socialism never works.

  • They tell me that humans are too selfish for socialism to work.

That last one always just sends me to the floor. Humans are too selfish, so we should adopt an economic system whose sole organizing principle is greed -- one of the seven deadly sins -- and which encourages people to express their greed to the maximum extent possible, and to use their greed to try to take advantage of others as much as possible?


Wouldn't it be the opposite, that if people are naturally greedy then we should prefer an economic system that tries to reign in that tendency, rather than stoke it to the max?


I do not convince anyone. But then again, I don't even buy the premise of the argument, that humans are intrinsically bad and can't cooperate. In my experience, people tend to be good, and they mostly enjoy helping others and cooperating. Although, I concede that everyone is susceptible to mixed motives, especially when we make resources tight and force everyone to compete against everyone else, letting the losers and their children suffer with poor access to food, shelter, medicine, education, and economic opportunity.


So I find myself in these frustrating and non-productive conversations quite often, without any effective way of handling it, and then Nathan Robinson comes along and with grace, charm, and humor solves the problem once and for all.


I so, so, so wish I had written this book.


But in truth I wouldn't have done it as well as Nathan Robinson has. I would have expressed anger and bitterness. But Robinson, who has had all the same conversations that I have had, but handles them better, frames the problem in a way anybody can understand. We live in a time of great political uncertainty, says Robinson:


"Hardly anybody thought there could be a black president. Hardly anybody though there would be same-sex marriage in every state in the union. On the other hand...people in the 1920s saw Adolf Hitler as a fringe figure, with little chance of ever attaining power...Likewise, in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an 'evil empire," but by 1992 it had disintegrated. The world changes very fast, and because human beings also get used to new situations very fast, it's sometimes hard to appreciate just how dramatic the shifts have been. Detroit was one of America's most populous and industrious cities in the 1950s, and today huge swaths of it are overgrown and abandoned.


"All of this uncertainty should leave us both apprehensive and hopeful: hopeful because we never know what might be around the corner, and apprehensive because, well, we never know what might be around the corner, and the progress we take for granted is less stable than we might assume.


"In this book, I want to convince you that everyone should join the political left and identify themselves as a democratic socialist. I want to show you, as thoroughly and persuasively as I can, that leftist politics are not just consistent and reasonable, but that elementary moral principles compel us all to be leftists and socialists. I intend to define, as clearly as possible, what I mean by words like 'leftism,' 'socialism,' and 'principles,' and show you how left ideas work, why they're practical, and why the usual criticisms of them are false and/or frivolous. I also want to explain to you why democratic socialism has been gaining currency in recent years, and look at the changes in U.S. and global politics that are driving more and more people to embrace leftism.


"I'm going to assume that you don't consider yourself a socialist. In fact, I'm going to assume that you're extremely dubious about socialism, and that when you hear the word you think something along the following lines:


"Socialism is a discredited and naive ideology that was tried over and over again and failed. However pleasant it may sound in theory, in practice it is a nightmare. It means government control of resources, but sooner or later you run out of other people's money. It destroys innovation and produces dependency. People who self identify as socialists do not understand economic reality, and their ignorance is dangerous. If socialists had their way, freedom would be destroyed and we would live in a dystopia..."


That is EXACTLY the kind of thinking that you will find on every street corner in America, but most of the people thinking those thoughts -- that socialism is a discredited and dangerous ideology -- are actually well-intentioned, open-minded people who would be willing to give Nathan Robinson a chance, to hear him out, as he attempts to create some clarity around what socialism actually is and why it is good, and to hear him address the eight most common objections (including that people are inherently greedy or lazy).


So, PLEASE give Nathan Robinson a chance, and hear him out about Why You Should Be a Socialist.


I think you'll have great difficulty refuting his arguments.


Robinson is no fool. He has a law degree from Yale, and he has a PhD from Harvard. He is amply qualified to be making explaining this, and he is deeply familiar with the culture that he is challenging.


Most important, though, when you're done reading it, and you realize that you are a socialist (or at least that you do not have good reasons for NOT being a socialist), share the book with your friends.


We live in dangerous times. A vicious, loutish reality TV star has risen to the nation's highest office. Powerful corporations and wealthy individuals are looting our national treasure and perverting our most sacred political institutions. All Americans will be called in the coming months to make some decisions that will determine whether America, and even most life on the planet, survives. We need to be smart. This book will help us be smarter. Read it, and share it.




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