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What Is ‘Millennial Socialism’?

Views: 746 Opinion polls suggest that the younger age groups in the United States – colloquially referred to as ‘millennials’1– are much more open to socialist ideas …

by Stephen Shenfield



5 min read

Opinion polls suggest that the younger age groups in the United States – colloquially referred to as ‘millennials’1– are much more open to socialist ideas than their elders. At least the taboo that used to surround the word ‘socialism’ is rapidly disappearing. The figures are quite striking. A poll conducted in April 2009 found that 33% of the 18–29 age group favored ‘socialism’ over ‘capitalism’ with slightly more (37%) still favoring ‘capitalism.’ By August 2018 a little over half (51%) of the new generation of 18–29 year-olds favored ‘socialism’ with 45% favoring ‘capitalism.’ An even more recent poll, conducted in January 2019, found that 51% of those aged 25-34 and 61% of the youngest cohort polled, aged 18-24 years, favored ‘socialism.’  

Three factors help explain this dramatic shift.

First, the millennials are the first generation no longer affected by the legacy of the Cold War. During the Cold War ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ were associated with a fearsome external threat. Advocating them marked you out as a traitor. For today’s young Americans the Cold War is ancient history.2

Second, the millennials are the first generation to grow up with the internet. They are less likely than their elders to rely on the corporate media for news and its interpretation. The internet exposes them to a broader range of ideas, including socialist ones. 

For example, efforts by the corporate media to discredit and ridicule warnings about climate change have had considerable success. Thus the proportion of respondents in Gallup polls who agree that ‘the seriousness of global warming has been exaggerated’ rose from 30% in 2006 to 33% in 2007, 35% in 2008, and 41% in 2009. However, this regressive shift was confined to people aged 30 years and over. The campaign to deny climate change did not affect the distribution of views in the 18–29 age group.   

Third, the millennials are the first young generation since the Great Depression of the 1930s who have no hope of maintaining, let alone improving on, their parents’ standard of living. Many are already laboring under a pile of student debt. They face a grim and uncertain future. 

A Broader Radicalization

The changing reaction to the word ‘socialism’ is part of a broader radicalization of public perceptions of American society. Polls show increasing proportions of respondents willing to acknowledge deep-seated injustice in the country’s political and judicial as well as economic system. Only half of those questioned in a July 2018 poll thought that elections in the United States are fair and open. A March 2014 poll found an almost even split between respondents who considered the judicial system ‘fair to most Americans’ and others who thought it ‘unfair to most Americans.’ (Only a third thought it ‘fair to poor Americans’ with a half disagreeing.) And fewer than a third now believe the myth that ‘it is still possible for just about anyone in America to work hard and get rich.’ 

But what do Americans in general and millennials in particular mean by ‘socialism’? 

Here the polls are much less helpful. I have found no studies of this question that single out millennials. That leaves us with the answers offered by pundits. First, however, it is worth looking at a paper by Gallup pollster Frank Newport entitled ‘The meaning of “socialism” to Americans today’ (posted October 4, 2018). 

Newport offered his respondents a choice of eight answers to the question What is your understanding of the term ‘socialism’? (They were allowed to formulate an answer of their own if they wished, but only a few took advantage of the opportunity.) He compares the results obtained in 2018 with the results of a similar poll conducted in 1949, at the start of the Cold War. Here are the main results:

  • The definition of socialism as ‘state or government ownership or control of business,’ chosen by 1 in 3 respondents in 1949, was selected by only 1 in 6 in 2018. 
  • A definition of socialism in terms of ‘equality’ (‘equal standing for everybody, all equal in rights, equal in distribution’) was preferred by 23% in 2018, up from 12% in 1949. 
  • A ‘welfare-state’ definition of socialism focusing on free social services, universal healthcare, and other benefits was chosen by 2% in 1949 and 10% in 2018. 
  • The proportion of ‘don’t knows’ was very high in both surveys. 

The most popular marker of ‘socialism,’ now chosen by almost a quarter of the respondents, is therefore equality of status and rights, including consumption rights. I regard this as good news, because although this is not adequate as a definition it does have something to do with socialism.  

Pundits agree that the majority of millennials are opposed to state ownership. Even a major government role in regulating the economy has the support of only 25–30%. Christopher Gage concludes from this that ‘millennial socialism’ is a myth (American Greatness, 2/22/2019). Jimmy Quinn does not go quite so far, but in an article entitled ‘Don’t assume millennials and Generation Z have given up on capitalism’ he argues that many millennials are open to the idea of tackling social problems by giving freer rein to market forces. For instance, many millennials support the movement for zoning deregulation as a means of increasing the housing supply and reducing rents.3 

We in the World Socialist Movement (WSM) do not automatically equate opposition to state ownership with support of capitalism. That is because we do not define socialism as state ownership. State ownership can be and often is opposed from the vantage point of private ownership, but that is not the onlyvantage point from which it can be opposed. The WSM opposes both state and private ownership from the vantage point of common ownership, i.e., genuine socialism. 

It is useful to distinguish between ‘conservative’ and ‘radical’ versions of ‘millennial socialism.’ The conservative version accepts ownership by private companies and seeks only reforms of the ‘welfare-state’ variety, such as Medicare for All and free college tuition – a stance shared by many Americans who do not call themselves socialists (see, for instance, the dialog between Luigi Zingales and Kate Waldock in Chicago Booth Review, 2/28/19). By contrast, radical ‘millennial socialists,’ although they too oppose state ownership, want social change of a more far-reaching nature.

Older Left, Old/New Left, Newer Left

It is this radical variety that Ben Judah has in mind in his piece ‘What Is Millennial Socialism?’ in The American Interest (July 24, 2018). He draws three main contrasts between radical ‘millennial socialism’ and ‘the old 1970s Left’ – which back then was called the New Left to distinguish it from an even older Left.   

First, the 1970s Left – like that even older Left – appealed to ‘the working class’ in the narrow sense of manual workers, while the millennial Left appeals to ‘the 99%’ against ‘the 1%’ – terms borrowed from the Occupy Wall Street movement:

The fraying middle class was not the natural ally of the wealthy; it was not protected by the 1%. People who looked middle class, thought of themselves as middle class, and had ‘middle class jobs,’ but were in fact now drowning in mortgage debt, with their children saddled with vast college debt – these were also victims of the 1%.

Here the WSM has always been in sync with the view that Judah attributes to the ‘millennial socialists.’ We have always regarded those ‘people with middle class jobs’ as part of the working class.

Second, the 1970s Left still thought of ‘revolution’ in terms of violent insurrection by crowds led by charismatic leaders, while the millennial Left works for change by peaceful democratic means – through parliamentarian party politics. Here again the WSM is in sync with the ‘millennial socialists.’ Hopefully the Leninist/Bolshevik tradition of the vanguard party is fading at last.

Third, Judah joins the chorus of those who declare that the millennial Left is against ‘national state ownership’ and central planning. Its commitment to decentralization, he suggests, reflects the influence of anarchism. In his interpretation, however, the ‘millennial socialists’ are against private enterprise as well. Their goal is ‘a patchwork of social, collective, municipal, and union-run enterprises.’ As an example of this sort of thinking he cites the British Labour Party’s 2017 report Alternative Models of Ownership:

These are some of their alternatives: national profit-sharing schemes, community land trusts, municipal businesses, workers’ cooperatives like Legacoop in Italy or the Mondragon Group in Spain, employee stock ownership plans or a sovereign wealth fund to which FTSE-listed companies are required to issue a percentage of stock on incorporation. Millennial socialism is not trying to stop the market economy, but to change its players and rewrite its rules.

So it appears that joint-stock companies will continue to exist after all. And by omitting state ownership from the mix Judah distorts the position of the report’s authors, who do in fact include it in their economic model under the name of ‘national ownership.’  

Clearly the radical ‘millennial socialists’ have been deeply influenced by theories of ‘market socialism’ and workers’ self-management within capitalism. These are the main areas where we in the WSM are out of sync with the outlook that predominates among millennials. If we are to communicate effectively with radical millennials we need to acquire deeper understanding of these theories and broader knowledge of the practical experience associated with them.   


 [1] Millennials in the narrow sense are people who came to maturity around the turn of the century. Some observers identify those who have come to maturity in the last decade and are now aged 15 – 25 as a separate group, dubbed Generation Z (Z for Zero). I do not try to draw a distinction between the two groups and refer to them all as millennials.

 [2] About ten years ago I had the following exchange with a student at a local college. He told me that his sociology professor had announced to the class: ‘I’ll come straight out with this and hope you aren’t too shocked. I’m a socialist.’ ‘Well,’ I asked him, ‘were you and your friends shocked?’ ‘We weren’t quite sure what to make of it,’ he replied. ‘But no, none of us was shocked.’

 [3] This movement had its first success in December 2018 when the Minneapolis City Council voted to eliminate single-family zoning (National Review, May 2, 2019).   

Photo of author
I grew up in Muswell Hill, north London, and joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain at age 16. After studying mathematics and statistics, I worked as a government statistician in the 1970s before entering Soviet Studies at the University of Birmingham. I was active in the nuclear disarmament movement. In 1989 I moved with my family to Providence, Rhode Island, USA to take up a position on the faculty of Brown University, where I taught International Relations. After leaving Brown in 2000, I worked mainly as a translator from Russian. I rejoined the World Socialist Movement about 2005 and am currently general secretary of the World Socialist Party of the United States. I have written two books: The Nuclear Predicament: Explorations in Soviet Ideology (Routledge, 1987) and Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies, Movements (M.E. Sharpe, 2001) and more articles, papers, and book chapters that I care to recall.

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