Book Club

Why You Should be a Socialist book club guide

July 20, 2020

We gave everyone a month to read each part and had a separate book club meeting for each part.

Pitching this event:

We’re reading part 1 (2) of Why You Should be a Socialist by Nathan Robinson.

If you only have time to read one chapter, we will focus on chapter 3 (7). When we meet virtually, we want to figure out: Is this book the best introduction to socialism generally (and ethical socialism specifically)?

Is this THE book we should uncomfortably foist on our liberal friends and family?


Cliff notes: Robinson begins by recounting Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign for president, Alexandria Ocascio-Cortez’s improbable victory and other electoral victories, rise in DSA membership, and other unexpected recent successes of the left. He notes the rigorous intellectual underpinnings of the socialist movement (policies like Medicare for All are carefully thought out and persuasively argued for).

Overall, this will probably not be news to you since you are a DSA member. However, Robinson explains that his goal is to convince a skeptical reader that they ought to be a socialist. This books wasn’t written for us, but we should figure out if this book lives up to its premise: is this the best available case for socialism in general and ethical socialism specifically?

Robinson explains how he started Current Affairs.

Quotes that jumped out at me:

“You couldn’t change things through the electoral system; Obama’s disappointing presidency had shown that. So [Occupy protestors] were caught in a bind. The reason they couldn’t come up with a good answer was there wasn’t one.


I’m one of many millions of people who have, over the course of the last decade, come to identify as an anti-capitalist. I had the same coming-of-age experience that many others did: watching my peers’ parents lose their houses in the mortgage crisis, friends give up on any prospect of ever owning a house themselves, and people who wanted to be parents forgoing parenthood because raising a child seemed hopelessly unaffordable.

Chapter 1

Covered: Wall Street Journal mansion listings vs GoFundMe pages for fatal medical conditions, people begging others not to call ambulances for grievous injuries; many more uncomfortable, similar comparisons.


And I couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t constantly enraged by all this.

p31; very ethical socialist:

I didn’t read Karl Marx and suddenly reinterpret old facts in a new light. It was a visceral, emotional reaction that came from encountering the facts. I couldn’t reconcile certain features of society with my deepest moral intuitions, and…[t]he arguments that were put forth tho justify the existing state of things seemed unpersuasive. In fact they seemed like nothing more than excuses.


People often seemed to simply be coming up with whatever flimsy rationalizations would allow them to avoid confronting the ugly truth: every day, we let others suffer, and we don’t care.

p 33:

Nobody wants to hear how their food or phones are made.


The leftist orientation I begin with, then, is one of deep appreciation of spectacular things and deep loathing for junjust and cruel things. It’s easily dismissed as “bleeding heart”-ism, and, well that’s exactly what it is. People’s hearts should bleed more!


Do you feel this same mix of perplexity and revulsion at the inequalities Robinson describes (eg, mansions vs GoFundMe pages)?

Robinson argues that leftists appreciate the wonderful things of the world, “which is one reason why we sound so paranoid about threats.” He adds that this usually doesn’t come across; we’re so worked up with the problems that we don’t do a good job of explaining why we are so worked up. Do you agree with this? Do you have a sense of the wonder of the world? Do you notice that those on the left have this sense more than others? Do we need to do a better job explaining this side of leftism?

Chapter 2

Covered: Catastrophic climate change which capitalism has no answer to and neither political party has any interest in addressing; nuclear weapons; people underestimate just how grossly unequal our world is; terrible conditions at Amazon warehouses (and white collar workers) while Jeff Bezos is richer than entire countries; dire economic situation of Millennials (attention paid to inability to start families); crisis of consumer debt, particularly student debt. Quick summaries of appalling situation of racism, sexism, militarism, immigration, animals. Discussion of deaths of despair: rising suicide rates, rising overdose deaths, and decreasing life expectancy.

Summarizes “neoliberalism,” or once-extreme views on the economy that became mainstream (free market is always better than government, so privatization, deregulation, are in society’s best interest; schools are valuable because they train people for the job market, rather than education, humanity, etc; GDP is the only measure of well-being that matters.


Very few of us were raised as leftists; we somehow arrived here. How did you get here? Try to think back: would reading Robinson’s catalogue of “Neoliberal Nightmares” have helped you get here sooner?

Overall, when we read this book, Robinson is “preaching to the converted,” so it will be impossible to assess if his arguments are actually effective. However, we can consider: are there things that should have been in this chapter that weren’t?

Do you agree with Robinson’s definition of neoliberalism? Do you agree that the term is so overused it means nothing?

Robinson says he is not a “totalizing” socialist: that is, he does not try to link everything together under one “System” (ie, racism, sexism, capitalism can all be explained as manifestations of a single phenomenon). Do you agree with this position?

Chapter 3


Corporations are devoted to endless growth and are not allowed to do anything but pursue endless growth.

Various arguments: Property is theft, passive income of people who own capital, marginal utility, merely studying economics makes people act less morally, bosses are dictators, inventors rarely get rich from their inventions (even as others do)


Very few of us were raised as leftists; we somehow arrived here. How did you get here? Try to think back: would reading this chapter have helped you get here sooner?

Overall, when we read this book, Robinson is “preaching to the converted,” so it will be impossible to assess if his arguments are actually effective. However, we can consider: are there things that should have been in this chapter that weren’t?

Anything that surprised you?

Anything that might have helped in a conversation with an unsympathetic relative?

Chapter 4

“A socialist is just someone who is unable to get over his or her astonishment that most people who have lived and died have spent lives of wretched, fruitless, unremitting toil.” (Terry Eagleton)

“On a basic level, I am a socialist because I simply cannot fathom reconciling myself to a society whre so many needlessly suffer because of circumstances beyond their control; where human dignity is distributed on the basis of luck and a social caste system is allowed to permeate every aspect of daily life; and where all of this is considered perfectly normal and acceptable in a civilization that has split the atom and sent people to the Moon.” (Luke Savage)

Robinson begins the chapter by saying that he heretofore he has only established a moral imperative, but not a moral imperative for socialism. Everyone agrees (or at least pretends to agree) there is a moral imperative to address the widespread suffering of our world. Simply pointing out how messed up the world is is not a case for socialism.

He argues that socialism means an expansion of democracy: making our current democratic processes more fair, but also extending democracy into the economy (eg, workplaces). He argues that this overturns redbaiting arguments about the Soviet Union: the Soviet Union was not socialist because there was no democracy anywhere (not in the political system, and not in the economy).

You will notice that I am not providing a blueprint for what socialism will look like. This is because my kind of socialism does not have blueprints. It is not a fixed picture of how every single thing ought to look. Rather, it’s a set of principles that we use to measure whether society is operating fairly and guide us as we move toward a better world.

We discussed at length that ethical socialism as a set of principles rather than a blueprint: for example, that some schools of thought on the left do not pay enough attention to how the rights of people who cannot work would be protected.

Robinson cites examples of people who are dismissive of socialism as simplistic altruism: “Industry is polluting? Make them stop.” ie, without considering that we might need the products industry is making. He responds that this isn’t a matter of pragmatism:

To the socialist, the fact that “we have no idea” how to solve a problem does not countenance resignation, but resolve.


Do we agree with Robinson’s definition of socialism as an expansion of democracy? Is there more to it or does that really cover it?

Have you ever been redbaited like this? Would this response have been useful?

Have you been accused of being unrealistic?

Would this chapter be convincing to someone skeptical of socialism? Ie, would your aunt stop telling you that you will be conservative once you buy a home and be more sympathetic to you wanting to keep people dying needlessly?

Chapter 5

I actually think that lacking a utopia can be just as dangerous as having one, because if you don’t have a guiding star for your journey, you won’t know whether you’re going in the right direction. Marx was famously an opponent of utopian socialism, and he and Friedrich Engels advocated a more “scientific approach to thinking about future social transformation. But the lack of a clear vision of what a better world would look like is one of the reasons the Soviet Union successfully convinced many communists that it was what they had been asking for.

Robinson argues that most people’s utopias are being able to relax, do hobbies, and hang out with friends, and not having to worry about money, housing, or healthcare:

When you think about what you’d need for a really perfect moment, you’ll probably soon realize that it’s not very demanding in terms of economic resources.

Also discusses libraries, a world without borders, prison abolition (“Let’s say we’re trying to eliminate crime, but we don’t consider prison an option. What would we do?”)


Robinson suggests imagining your own utopia. What would your utopia look like? Is he right that most people’s ideal society would involve less worry and more relaxing (and are therefore not very expensive or impractical)?

Do you agree that envisioning utopias is important? Is this useful for people who are skeptical of socialism?

Chapter 6

Robinson cites criticism of socialists not being able to define “socialism,” but points out that no other ideological term (liberal, freedom, democracy, etc) can be defined, either.

I think we can all relate to this:

…with communistic and revolutionary socialist arguing that the only “true” socialism involved swift siezure of the means of production by the state, and reformist socialists arguing that socialism was a set of egalitarian ideals that could be implemented bit by bit on a gradual road to utopia.

He discusses the difference between a democratic socialist and a social democrat: the social democrat wants to build a robust welfare state, but a democratic socialist wants that and more (expansion of democracy into the economy). He illustrates it with the debate over Clause IV of the Labor Party constitution calling for democratic control of industry (emphasis added):

This clause, Clause IV, caused strong internal division between those who thought the party was taking progressive steps toward this radical end and those, like Blair, who did not have radical ends in mind in the short- or long-term. In this division, you can see the stark difference between a democratic socialist and a social democrat. Even though they can look identical in their policy platforms, there’s a differnce between believing that your policeis are a small step toward a utopian endpoint and believing that your policies are the endpoint.

He ends the chapter by saying that “socialists are the only ones who take climate change seriously and stand a chance of solving it.”


Do you agree with how he distinguishes democratic socialists from social democrats? Is he right that even if a democratic socialist and social democrat have identical policy platforms, they can be fundamentally different?

Would this chapter be effective to people skeptical of socialism? Would they understand that socialism does not have a definition because it is a set of principles?

Chapter 7

This is the most important chapter for our purposes. Robinson cites libertarian socialism as the opposite of Stalinism, despite arguing for many things that are incompatible with libertarian socialism. Robinson simply doesn’t know what libertarian socialism is. By now, you probably agree that he is a full blown ethical socialist. So what do we make of this chapter?

For example, in chapter 6 (p 135) he writes “The social democrat, on the other hand, is mostly content with the achievement of a robust welfare state. Socialist want that, too.” But libertarian socialist don’t actually want a robust welfare state. They want to abolish the state.

Robinson gives a worthy summary of Marx’s contributions, and adds that even in Marx’s time, socialists were warning about threads of authoritarianism embedded in Marxism’s “programmatic beliefs.” He also summarizes how leftists Emma Goldman and Bertrand Russel found the Soviet Union to be a betrayal of socialist values; this experience did not cause them to stop being leftists. Both were concerned about lack of freedom of speech, democracy in the economy, etc.

Robinson gives a very short summary of Christian socialism, which stems from the fact that socialism is the only honest interpretation of Christian teaching.

He discusses American socialists, including Milwaukee’s Sewer Socialists and Bernie Sanders as mayor of Burlington. He talks about how popular socialists are in office because their ideas are popular, and how socialists manage to pass very popular bills even though they are a tiny minority in a legislative body, because they are good ideas. Eg, in Wisconsin, 15 socialist-introduced bills were passed in a single legislative session.

He also discusses other American socialists, like Martin Luther King, Hellen Keller, Black Panthers, and examples from elsewhere like UK Labor party officials who passed universal healthcare there. He concludes:

Those who treat socialism as synonymous with the Soviet Union are being selective in their presentation of history.


Robinson doesn’t actually endorse libertarian socialism, but someone with no prior knowledge would walk away with a very favorable opinion of libertarian socialism. Perhaps this is because he is more interested in taking on redbaiters: he can cite libertarian socialists as socialists who were harsh critics of Lenin, and even imprisoned by Lenin. In this way, his representation of libertarian socialism is how it is against Leninism or Stalinism. He does not actually go any further into what libertarian socialism is. Related to this:

  • Is this a problem for us to recommend this book? Do we need to recommend this book with a disclaimer?
  • Chapter 6 is about how labels have limited use. How do we go about recommending a book as an introduction to ethical socialism if the book does not once mention ethical socialism?

Religion is very important to a lot of people. The only honest interpretation of the founding texts of the world’s major religions is socialism. Is religion a possible way to teach people about democratic socialism?

This is the “don’t get redbaited” chapter. Would this chapter be effective to someone skeptical of socialism, who would be sympathetic to redbaiting arguments? Ie, would your uncle stop automatically equating socialism with the Soviet Union after reading this chapter?

Chapter 8

Robinson discusses a Renaissance in left policy proposals, from Bernie Sanders’ campaign platform to the People’s Policy Project and others. He focuses on Medicare for All, various paid leave programs, and the Green New Deal. This chapter is basically a laundry list of well thought out, detailed policy proposals that people on the left have put out.


What did you think of this chapter’s laundry list?

This chapter strives to demonstrate to skeptics of socialism how socialism as a set of principles translates to the real world. Does this chapter succeed in making another part of “the case for socialism” to the skeptical?

Chapter 9

Robinson cites Jane McAlevey and discusses the very arduous task of organizing. He takes on the idea that politicians that are “too far to the left” can’t be elected, citing Donald Trump and other conservatives winning despite advancing a platform that most people don’t like. He talks about the growth of left media, DSA members winning seats at all levels of government, and a laundry list of influential left organizations.


This chapter strives to demonstrate to skeptics that socialist goals are achievable, and how they can be achieved. Do you think he succeeded?

Chapter 10

Robinson highlights the meanness of conservatism, which blames people for their own failures, refuses to consider why people might not act the way they assume they ought to, and is callous towards or actually takes delight in the suffering of others. He cites mainstream conservatives like Heather Mac Donald, Dinesh D’Sousa, Kevin Williamson. For example, Williamson says that towns ravaged by the opioid epidemic “deserve to die” and opioids were just making this occur more quickly.

Discusses Albert Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction which claims that all conservative thought is just one of three arguments: X is a bad idea because it goes against the natural order; Y is a bad idea because the problem it seeks to solve cannot be solved; Z is a bad idea because it will actually do more harm than good. Eg, in 1800s, slavery was simply the natural order that was nobody’s fault; and anyway ending slavery couldn’t be accomplished and would paradoxically end up making former slaves worse off.

He ends with some positives of the conservative point of view, which emphasizes caution.


Do you agree with his characterization of conservatism?

This is a very short chapter. Would it be convincing to anyone? Would it at least help conservatives understand why people get so angry with their ideas? What was he trying to accomplish with such a short chapter?

Chapter 11

Discusses complacency of liberals, who could not even consider Clinton could lose in 2016, believed everything was fine and cited statistics even though statistics showed that most Americans were very, very angry. Cites examples of liberals’ flowery words not matching their actions (eg, saying they support education, then fighting against busing poor kids to richer school districts).

He claims liberals believe in the inherent goodness of institutions while leftists do not.

[Republicans] want outright victory [while Democrats want bipartisanship]. Jim Messina, Obama’s deputy chief of staff and reelection campaign manager, was shocked when a Republican staffer told him after the 2008 election, “We’re not going to compromise with you on anything. We’re going to fight Obama on everything.” Messina said, “That’s not what we did for Bush.” The Republican said, “We don’t care.”

Democrats did nothing while they had a supermajority in House and Senate; Obamacare passed in late 2010, after Ted Kennedy died and ended Democrats’ fillibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate. Obama’s accomplishments (drones, deportations, Race to the Top) were conservative goals.

The “most pernicious qualities of liberalism”:

  • Reluctance to challenge the powerful (eg, coziness to Wall Street)
  • Lack of movement building (eg, Obama dismantling the organizing that got him elected instead of using it to help enact progressive policies)
  • Belief in bipartisanship (basically, adopting conservative positions)
  • Politics of attributes (it’s more important who the candidate is than what they actually stand for)
  • Whitewashing of history
  • Use of right-wing premises (eg, “we are the real patriots” legitimizes destructive force of nationalism)

Liberalism “calls for civility and decorum before calling for justice. It laments inequality but takes no steps that would actually reduce it, such as making it easier to unionize.”


Do you agree with his characterization of liberalism?

Would this chapter get a committed liberal to question liberalism or at least see why people would be frustrated by it?

Chapter 12

Concise responses to common criticisms of democratic socialism. Many new ideas but much of this chapter is restatement of previous information–which is a good thing, we want people to remember the most important points.