Sun Tzu, the fifth century BC Chinese military tactician, allegedly once said:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
You will not win the battle if you don’t know you who you are fighting. This is also true of politics and we conservatives should be mindful of it. Prominent commentators on the right warn us daily about the harmful policies that so-called liberal politicians and activists desire to implement. Yet, what, exactly, is left of traditional liberalism today? With the popularity of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the rise of far-left members of the US Congress, such as Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, and the support of a significant proportion of the general American public for policies like Medicare for all and recreational marijuana, it may be time for conservatives to switch gears and prepare to face new foes—not mainstream, rank-and-file Democrats or liberals, but the genuinely left wing. The left hasn’t taken over the Democratic Party yet, but they have been steadily gaining support, especially among young Americans. The right needs to learn what these activists stand for and how we can counter their arguments.
Nathan J. Robinson’s “Why You Should Be a Socialist” can provide a guide. Robinson is editor-in-chief of a small, left-wing magazine called Current Affairs, which provides valuable insights into the socialist left.
Robinson’s book failed to convince me to become a socialist. Considering how radical many of his stances are—he dreams of a world “with no borders, no prisons and no bosses,” for example—I’m sure not many will be persuaded. But the book provides a template for how such works should be written. Everyone should read it.
I disagree with many of Robinson’s arguments. Take his stance on immigration. Robinson argues for a world in which the nation state as we know it today does not exist. Countries would still exist, but their boundaries would be like state borders in the US. One of his central claims is that, since the US rests on “stolen land,” it would be immoral to bar other people from inhabiting it. He is not wrong: it is stolen land, but the United States is not the only thief, nor is American land the only land claimed by conquest. Long before Columbus arrived, Native American tribes had been driving each other from their land for centuries: it would be impossible to determine today which land belongs to whom. The many indigenous peoples of the Americas practiced human sacrifice, slavery and cannibalism, all of which ended with the arrival of the conquistadors. Human sacrifice was common throughout South America. Thousands were slaughtered to sate the appetites of arbitrary gods and idols. And there were certainly borders. Even today, we can trace the boundaries of Aztecs, Inca and Mayan territories.
Many of the societies that today provide free healthcare, free higher education and an enlarged welfare state have the complete opposite of open borders. The Nordic countries, often viewed as a leftist utopia, have immigration policies that make Trump look like an immigrant activist. Denmark, for example, sends unwanted asylum seekers to an island, orders police to confiscate their valuables and money and requires migrant parents in neighborhoods designated as ghettos to send their kids to be instructed in Danish culture and history. American Democrats would surely find this abhorrent. If Robinson wishes to truly represent the people, he should probably ditch his open borders stance. Most Americans support certain leftist economic positions, such as universal healthcare—even the majority of Republicans support this—but they are less keen on opening the floodgates and letting in anyone in who wishes to come. According to a recent Gallup poll, more Americans want immigration decreased than increased. They also tend to have a negative view of immigration’s impact on jobs and crime rates. People do not want open borders.
In the chapter, “Mean, False, and Hopeless: The Ugliness of Conservatism,” Robinson cites Ayn Rand. However, Rand is not a conservative. Most conservatives would consider her pro-abortion stance, strident anti-religiosity and opposition to the death penalty anathema. Robinson also criticizes Ann Coulter for her anger at a murder committed by an illegal alien. But it is natural for a citizen to be angry when someone commits a murder, especially if the perpetrator shouldn’t have been in the country in the first place. Forced to choose, most people would surely save the life of a fellow citizen over that of someone from a foreign nation. We have a responsibility to advocate for the interests of our nation and its citizens first.
Most of the conservative figures Robinson criticizes, such as Dinesh D’Souza and William F Buckley, represent the fusionist and neo-conservative strand of American conservative thought. Though he mentions the bull moose conservatism of Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir, he omits the representatives of the paleo-conservative school, such as Patrick Buchanan or the writers at the American Conservative, who advocate for policies he might find appealing, such as withdrawing troops from unnecessary wars in the Middle East and using anti-trust laws to force big tech companies to preserve freedom of speech. This is the type of conservatism to which I subscribe.
Despite these criticisms, this is one of the best politics books I have ever read. It achieves a near perfect balance between informative and entertaining. Even someone who despises the left-wing would find it an enjoyable read.
Americans, especially teenagers, are far more reluctant to get involved in politics than ever—and it doesn’t help that a lot of the relevant literature—explaining various ideas that could have a drastic impact on our daily lives—is so boring. In addition, political works often discuss controversial and emotionally charged topics, ranging from abortion to immigration and guns, and many readers simply do not wish to immerse themselves in such a conflict-ridden environment. Robinson’s writing defies the trend. His book doesn’t just regurgitate the same old talking points and debunk opponents. He takes a deep dive into the topic and his approach is creative.
My favorite section of this book is the chapter entitled, “A Better World,” where he discusses utopias. He asked Current Affairs subscribers to describe their paradise on earth. Some of the more outlandish suggestions—everyone should receive a free dog and a flying bed—are unrealistic, but these utopias provide an ideal for activists to strive for. The fact that Robinson encouraged his readers to share their thoughts says a lot about his character: he doesn’t isolate himself in an ivory tower. He cares about the opinions of others, a vital trait for anyone engaging in political discourse. I enjoyed this mental exercise—though I’m sure many aspects of my utopia would seem dystopian to Robinson.
What this book shows is that socialists have changed. Robinson describes himself as a libertarian socialist, in the tradition of Murray Bookchin and Emma Goldman. Libertarian socialists, Robinson writes, “hate government and capitalism alike!” Throughout the book, Robinson vehemently rejects the authoritarian communist regimes of Stalinist Russia and Maoist China, and even argues that libertarian socialists don’t need to read Karl Marx, since many of Marx’s followers began to develop authoritarian tendencies over time. The usual arguments we on the right use against socialism—the allusions to Venezuela and Soviet Russia—will not hit socialists as hard as they did the past. The left has adapted, and so must we.