Review: The Socialist Awakening – What’s Different Now About the Left, by John B. Judis

In 2002, John Judis wrote a book predicting a new Democratic majority. It was his riposte to Kevin Phillips’ The Emerging Republican Majority (1969) which correctly predicted a quarter century of conservative Republican dominance of American politics. Judis argued then that demographic trends indicated that the Democrats were on the cusp of locking in a majority that would sustain them for decades to come. And then, in the 2004 Presidential election, the Democratic candidate went down to defeat at the hands of an unimpressive and unsuccessful Republican President.

In his newest book, Judis argues that after many decades in hibernation, the socialist ideals espoused by Eugene V. Debs have undergone a resurgence of sorts in the United States. This is undoubtedly true. He points not only to the Bernie Sanders campaigns in 2016 and 2020, but also to the spectacular rise of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the successor organisation to Debs’ Socialist Party. Judis is scathingly critical of some people in the DSA leadership who come from sectarian Trotskyist backgrounds. Those people reject the very strategy (known as realignment) that was first embraced by DSA founder Michael Harrington in the 1960s and that stood behind Bernie Sanders’ campaigns. Instead of trying to create yet another failed third party, democratic socialists need to engage with the Democratic Party, which is where their natural audience (trade unionists, feminists, environmentalists, people of colour) are to be found. I think Judis is right about that.

Where his book goes astray is in lengthy discussions of various academic disputes about the relevance of this or that strand of socialist thinking, with Judis coming down firmly in the camp that rejects “orthodox Marxism”. He does, however, seem to have a warm spot for “social democracy” which is good thing. It would be useful in these kinds of discussions to get beyond the tired Scandinavian examples that are always cited and to look at some more radical socialist experiments that managed to remain democratic, including both the kibbutz movement in Israel and the short-lived Georgian Democratic Republic of 1918-21, which was led by the Mensheviks.

Judis inserts a chapter about Corbynism which is largely correct and adequate. But he completely misses the significance of the debate about the rise of anti-Semitism on the British Left. He notes in passing that “Corbyn was plagued by accusations of anti-Semitism” and concedes that “some of which were justified”. Judis’ book was written long before Corbyn was suspended by his own party — an event unprecedented in British political history. This had everything to do with the “accusations” of anti-Semitism. The book would have been a better one, I think, had it stayed more focussed on U.S. politics, which Judis understands very well.