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Socialism at Harvard

By J Gram Slattery

I came to this school with every intention of becoming a radical. My political education had so far been limited to debates over the capital gains tax, voucher programs, and other wonky minutiae. And while such topics were certainly worthy of discussion, they were all confined to a narrow ideological niche.

If there were ever a place where I could break free from the confines of modern liberalism, it was here, where the currents of Marx still trickle through the professoriate.

Many of my intellectual heroes, from Christopher Hitchens to Walter Lippmann, had, after all, ventured outside the boundaries of republicanism during their college days. Compared to our modern activism, their experiences seemed so heady, impassioned, exciting. So it was with an open and receptive mind that I attended this year’s first meeting of the Harvard Socialists, in which an “Alternative to Capitalism” was to be spelled out for us liberals.

Somewhat to my disappointment, I left that meeting not with collectivist ambitions, but with a begrudging respect for those confines I once despised.

The moment I walked into the club’s room that evening, it became clear that my conceptions of modern socialism had been grossly mistaken. Surrounded by a hodgepodge of union members and Harvard Kennedy School students, a head honcho of the club sat fiddling with her iPhone, a hot cup of Starbucks coffee clenched in the other hand. Although the corporate irony was lost on none us newcomers, I was still eager to hear about the virtues of this alternative route.

But instead of constructing an alternative, the club presenter launched a masturbatory, 20-minute diatribe against both capitalism and the statism of Soviet Russia. It was well delivered, chalked full of trenchant points, and as a leftist, I enjoyed this speech thoroughly. But it nevertheless failed to address the questions about the absence of profit motives or individual dreams that I had wanted answered.

A Q&A session followed the diatribe, in which we are all allotted 90 seconds for questioning—speaking slots to be timed, of course, on the iPhone.

I told them I was convinced of capitalism’s shortcomings, but I needed to understand how an alternative could function. In response, the socialists bombarded me with less-than-helpful answers: “We can’t really conceptualize a post-capitalist world,” they said. “There are many different theories. Mainly we’ll have to adopt and innovate as the revolution progresses.

At the end of the meeting, frustrated by this lack of clarity, I ventured over to a table stacked high with back issues of International Socialist Review. I asked if they were free for the taking, and one of the club’s leaders responded that they were not, but for “two or three” United States dollars they could make an exception.

I was astounded. Never in my Harvard career had I experienced such an impromptu, capitalistic exchange, much less from a socialist.

I accepted the offer, and with the hidden transfer of two dollars bills the magazine was mine. But it had come at the cost of my respect for socialism as a legitimate school of modern political thought. This wasn’t at all like the Cuban Trotskyist-Luxembourgist commune I had read about in Christopher Hitchens’ memoirs. This was simply a group of leftists who, like me, were looking for an answer to the conundrums of capitalism. But without a positive alternative or a cohesive, unified ideology, one could not help but feel that these new age “socialists” were simply liberals who had taken the leftist argument to an illogical and undefined extreme.

As much as I was disappointed as I left the meeting, the nail in the coffin of my radical career having been hammered in, that evening’s episode had been instrumental in my development as a political thinker.

Perhaps there was a good reason that socialism, even at the “Kremlin-on-the-Charles,” had been reduced to the intellectually disparate fringe. I had been listening to that presentation and engaging in that Q&A with a level of historical context unavailable even in the sixties. Not only had the positive alternatives to capitalism failed to materialize in Russia, China, and, yes, Cuba, but the capitalist world has also not devolved in the way those college radicals before us had feared. Overt imperialism has begun to transmogrify into a liberal Wilsonianism, and while the pie slices are no more equal than they were a half-century ago, all classes are still markedly better off. Workers’ foment has calmed, and with it, academia’s affiliation with communism has waned.

It’s true that the wealthy still exert undue influence over our politics, and the ideal of meritocratic society has been reduced to a joke. But recent history, unavailable to our radical predecessors, has showed liberal democracy to be tolerable, and the positive alternatives non-existent.

In a way I’m glad that political radicalism has weakened at Harvard, even though the extremists of old held a romance that us social democrats can never emulate. As history has shown with increasing clarity, their cause was the silly one. And as I trudge back to the Dems meeting the following week, I am disappointed, but I am also relieved, for I had not spent four years of my life fighting for the incorrect cause.

Those ideological confines I could never broach had, it turns out, been the appropriate boundaries all along.

J. Gram Slattery ’15, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Kirkland House.

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