Socialism has never been cooler — so has the revolution started? Alexandra Jones investigates
My sister studied economics but she never read Marx or Engels,’ says 24-year-old Berkay Kartav. The coordinator of the London Young Socialists (a branch of the UK Socialist Party) is sipping black tea in Vagabond on Holloway Road. ‘It just goes to show that mainstream economics, as it’s taught in universities, is not giving people the full picture.’
Kartal grew up in Enfield, where his parents, who came to the UK from Turkey in 1990, still run a café. It wasn’t a particularly politicised household, he tells me, which perhaps explains why, while he is a staunch anti-capitalist — committed to the overthrow of capitalism, which he sees as a grossly unfair economic system — his older sister works for a bank. ‘Capitalism simply offers no future for the vast majority of us,’ he explains (overhearing us, a man in wire-rimmed glasses and a cravat looks aghast), ‘but I don’t really talk about politics with my sister.’
It’s a bold opinion but not an unpopular one — at least not if you’re under 35. In the UK, research by think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) found that 67 per cent of 16- to 34-year-olds would like to live in a socialist economic system. So it’s no wonder that socialist discourse is occupying an ever-expanding space within internet culture right now. Meme accounts such as @sluttyforsocialism pump out wryly observed posts about class consciousness and capitalist exploitation. The TikTok resurgence of Soviet-era art and symbolism has made communism, well, cool. And this month, the online furore sparked by über-influencer Molly-Mae Hague provided a snapshot of the sheer number of twentysomethings who are now versed in Marxist theory, and where they’re angling their attentions.
When a video surfaced of the 22-year-old telling Steven Bartlett, host of The Diary of a CEO podcast, that ‘everyone has the same 24 hours in a day… if you want something enough you can achieve it’, she was quickly branded a Thatcherite. ‘Capitalism feeds off the idea that we can achieve anything we want if we work hard,’ wrote one commenter on Instagram. ‘Unfortunately, there are too many examples where this is simply not true.’ People agreed in their hundreds of thousands, while a raft of internet hot takes skewered the influencer industry as grasping and rapacious — basically ‘Thatcherite poison’ proliferated.
Debate rages over how far online sentiments impact real-world politics (leftist sentiments in particular — right-wing radicalization with its links to violent and racist extremism has long been a greater cause for concern). After all, the Tories — a staunchly pro-capitalist party — won an election by a landslide less than three years ago. As the author of the IEA’s study Dr Kristian Niemietz points out, though, ‘the Corbyn project’ (as he calls Jeremy Corbyn’s bid for power) was both ‘a cause and a consequence of the socialist revival’.
Corbyn, a self-identifying socialist, campaigned on a manifesto that included the nationalization of key industries (railways and the big six energy firms among them) and the building of 100,000 council homes per year. ‘And he got pretty close to power,’ says Niemietz. ‘It is absolutely possible that a Corbyn-like figure could come around again.’ For Niemietz — a pro-capitalist, free-market liberal — a socialist system would be a disaster. ‘A big proportion of young people seem to support an economic system that, time and again, has been shown not to work. One that historically hasn’t delivered anywhere near the living standards we’ve come to expect today. Look at Venezuela, Cuba — it’s not a good sign.’
Interestingly, while they may not be aligned on much else, people from across the political spectrum seem to agree that a bleak economic climate — impacting young people in particular — has galvanised under-35s. ‘Why wouldn’t young people be socialists?’ asks Laura Cunliffe-Hall, chair of the Young Fabians — the under-31s section of Britain’s oldest left-wing think tank, the Fabian Society. ‘Many don’t have access to capital, so a system that redistributes wealth more fairly is clearly attractive.’
Moya Lothian-McLean, the 26-year-old political editor of the left-leaning publication Gal-dem, agrees. ‘The majority of gig economy workers are aged 18-25, and they’re not making a living wage. There’s a housing crisis that disproportionately affects under-35s [meaning that, without significant help from parents, many are barred from home ownership]; going to university is now ruinously expensive — leaving those who do go in huge amounts of debt and often with rubbish degrees that mean nothing in the graduate market.’
Despite being on the other end of the ideological spectrum to both, Niemietz makes a similar point: ‘The cost of housing is clearly one of Britain’s biggest social problems — certainly if you’re below a certain age.’ The sum total of all this seems to be that social mobility for younger generations has stagnated. ‘Obviously, social mobility isn’t some kind of silver bullet,’ Lothian-McLean points out. ‘But I suppose, for my mum’s generation, the opportunity to [economically] level up was there. For mine, it isn’t, certainly not to the same degree.’
She and Niemietz differ, of course, on how to rebalance. For Niemietz, it’s a case of tweaking individual policies — ‘to look at the causes of expensive housing, for instance’ — rather than overturning the entire economic system. Lothian-McLean, though, echoes the sentiments of many in her generation when she argues that trying to fix a broken system one policy at a time seems naive. ‘The promise of socialism, as I see it, is that you can live a comfortable life, irrespective of your class.’ Not everyone necessarily wants social mobility ‘but everyone should be able to live with dignity regardless’.
Politically, she doesn’t classify herself as a socialist, not in the way that Kartav is, at least. But she did campaign for Corbyn in the last election and can understand why so many in her generation, who grew up in the era of austerity, have become disillusioned. Still, the fact is, Corbyn lost by a landslide. ‘When I was out campaigning, you just couldn’t convince people that a more socialist system was possible, that it was a fully costed agenda. People didn’t believe that things could get better. It’s been going that way since Thatcher; you know “free market” basically meant taking away [government support] and leaving people to fend for themselves. A few decades later, we live in a really individualistic society, where the politics of scarcity rules the mindset of most people.’
“Why wouldn’t young people be socialists? Many don’t have access to capital, so a system that redistributes wealth more fairly is clearly attractive”
Of course, not all those who consider themselves socialists are focused on class politics. Leony, 19, grew up in Crouch End. Her parents — a banker and a lawyer — were ‘socially liberal but politically always voted Conservative, even in the early 2000s when it wasn’t cool at all. She says that the fact that she was born in this millennium ‘in the shadow of this huge global disaster’ means that ‘morally speaking’ she feels she cannot vote for a pro-capitalist party. ‘Knowing what we know now about the climate — and how industrial farming and mass-production is bringing us to the brink of ecological collapse — it’s hard to support a system that would allow the status quo to continue.’
In the IEA’s study, 75 percent of respondents said that the climate emergency was ‘specifically a capitalist problem’. Eighteen-year-old Simon, who grew up in Hackney where he still lives with his dad (a social worker), says that it’s not possible to untangle climate action from social fairness. ‘A more equitable society and a better world for all species go hand in hand, don’t they?’
The thread of eco-grief that runs through modern pro-socialist sentiments hints at one reason why the old adage — ‘if you’re not a liberal at 25 you have no heart if you’re not a conservative at 40 you have no brain’ — no longer bears out. ‘The world we live in now is completely different from the world that older generations lived in,’ says Leony. ‘We know that our resources aren’t infinite — we can’t keep consuming in the way we have been. We need a new system.’ Even Niemietz says that it’s unrealistic to think that young people will ‘grow out of their socialist views. Despite that, he’s not predicting a revolution just yet. He argues that the views of many who call themselves ‘socialist’ or ‘anti-capitalist’ online are ‘thinly held’.
This certainly isn’t true of Kartav, though, who spends most weekends with other members of the London Young Socialists — a diverse group that counts doctors, teachers, hospitality workers, and journalists among its ranks — campaigning at different sites around south London. They usually set up a trestle table and hand out flyers calling for an increase to the minimum wage and fairer pay for NHS staff. ‘We get good responses when we’re running stalls,’ he says. ‘Who’d argue against a fairer minimum wage? Who doesn’t want NHS workers to get a 15 percent pay rise or youth services to be fully funded? Why would anyone disagree with these basic things that will definitely improve the lives of many people?’
There are times, though, when passers-by aren’t interested in hearing about the policies — ‘they’ll come and say they’re pro-capitalist because they want to have an argument about it. It’s usually because they’re benefitting from the system. Maybe they own their house, they’ve got a good job, they don’t understand the struggles of working and middle-class people…’ I suspect the man in the cravat would be one of these. ‘We just respectfully step back. It’s an important message that we’re spreading but I wouldn’t get into a fistfight over it,’ laughs Kartav.