“The typical socialist often had very little concrete experience with the actual conditions facing those they purported to care about. They were often middle class, well educated, and highly resentful of the rich.”
One of the most common critiques made by today’s post-modern conservatives and classical liberals is that the Left is dominated by various kinds of “elites.” This was the accusation made in a February New York Times op-ed by David Brooks entitled “How the Left Embraced Elitism.” In the op-ed, the author chastises progressives for believing that “political elites” have the “wisdom” to direct the lives of hundreds of millions of ordinary Americans. The conservative outlet National Review has published numerous articles on the “spoiled brat” mentality of “elite white liberal” snobs and other left-wing groups. And, of course, members of the Intellectual Dark Web have gotten in their shots as well.
Most of these accusations are not especially interesting, mainly boiling down to criticisms of the tone of left-wing activism or pointing out that some of the figures calling for wealth redistribution, like Bernie Sanders, are not exactly poor. Countering such claims involves little more than pointing out that they say nothing about the substance of egalitarian arguments, being little more than complaints about tone or borderline ad-hominem attacks. Moreover, accusations of hypocrisy would seem far more apt when directed against wealthy and educated individuals who invoke the language of elitism to attack those who wish to establish a more egalitarian society. What I want to look at is the more interesting claim, advanced recently by figures like Jordan Peterson, that the Left does not actually care about helping the poor or disadvantaged. Instead, they are driven by less noble sentiments, from pure envy of the rich to Dostoevskian resentment and a desire for revenge against reality itself (analyzed here). This argument is most articulately advanced by George Orwell in his classic book The Road to Wigan Pier and other texts. In the remainder of this essay, I will focus on analyzing Orwell’s argument, acknowledging its merits while also observing why we shouldn’t use it as a basis to deny the need for major egalitarian reforms to society. This is something which Orwell himself, as a committed socialist, also believed.
George Orwell on the Left
George Orwell is probably best known among the reading public for his classic literary denunciations of totalitarianism in Animal Farm and 1984. These books drew chilling parallels with the real life Stalinist experiment and painted a damning portrait of societies driven by paranoia, constant fear, and a total lack of personal freedom. What are less known are Orwell’s non-fictional works, from his essays to book length journalism ala The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia. In Why I Write, Orwell’s lovely paean to his craft published in 1946 shortly before his death, he elaborates on his writing philosophy: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for Democratic Socialism, as I understand it.”
To understand Orwell’s support for democratic socialism, one can turn to the first part of the The Road to Wigan Pier. The text was commission by Victor Gollancz, who wanted Orwell to describe conditions in Northern England around 1936. He travelled north and lived there for four months, before returning to London and publishing the book in 1937 shortly before joining the fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. The completed text contains some of the most vivid and scathing depictions of working class life in the early 20th century available. Orwell describes destitute hovels covered in filth, men and women living in single rooms and common houses for the duration of their (often short) lives, and perhaps most memorably it depicts a few days in the lives of English coal miners. The miners are depicted as honorable, hard-working, and stoic figures who face an often hellish and dangerous job supplying the world’s most vital resource while receiving next to nothing in compensation. This portrait is extended to their families, who often eke out a meager living while the capitalists they work for get rich without ever bothering to experience the hard labour which is the basis for their affluence. Orwell also castigates the wealthy and middle class British who condemn the working classes for alleged laziness and indolence, without ever bothering to experience or empathize with the trials they face every day. Yet they nevertheless criticize them for their “smell.”
These experiences affirm Orwell’s opinion that not only is some form of socialism preferable to capitalism, it is remarkable that any thinking person could not prefer it to the status quo:
“…Everyone who uses his brain knows that Socialism, as a world system sincerely applied, is a way out. It would at least ensure us getting enough to eat even if it deprived us of everything else. Indeed, from one point of view, Socialism is such elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed that it has not established itself already. The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everyone; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions, seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.”
They also tended to adopt a highly intellectualized approach to left-wing agitation, invoking obscure and opaque theoretical texts and concepts to justify their positions while being entirely divorced from more practical worries they could afford to be ignorant of. This also meant that socialists often came across as puritanical and self-righteous, a point echoed by contemporary critiques about the Left and its demands for political correctness.
And yet, as Orwell immediately observed, “Socialism is not establishing itself.” The question then becomes, if it is “blatantly obvious” that only a corrupt person could prefer the present system to a socialist alternative, why have things not changed? The answer Orwell opined, with characteristic bluntness, is that socialist and left-wing parties have done a terrible job of agitating for their noble cause. Many people would have little objection to socialism or establishing a more egalitarian world but they do not support such causes because they dislike the individuals promoting them. They did not necessarily, “object to Socialism, but [they did] object to Socialists.” As a result, Orwell observed that fascists and conservative governments were coming to dominate the Europe of his time, and they were often supported by the very working classes they oppressed.
What follows is one of the most amusing and biting characterizations of the Left ever produced—and by one who knew it well and agreed with its aspirations. Orwell observed that to the working class, socialism rarely meant more than higher wages, shorter hours, and no one “bossing” you around. By contrast, the typical socialist often had very little concrete experience with the actual conditions facing those they purported to care about. They were often middle class, well educated, and highly resentful of the rich. They also tended to adopt a highly intellectualized approach to left-wing agitation, invoking obscure and opaque theoretical texts and concepts to justify their positions while being entirely divorced from more practical worries they could afford to be ignorant of. This also meant that socialists often came across as puritanical and self-righteous, a point echoed by contemporary critiques about the Left and its demands for political correctness.
The middle and upper middle class socialists described by Orwell often demand absolute ideological consistency from other radicals and their own followers. This belies a deeper truth that many socialists do not actually care very much even for their own comrades, let alone the working class. They are often regarded as deviants from the true faith, to be regarded with patronizing toleration or virulent dismissal as needed. Beneath the sunny platitudes of many socialists lies an inner conviction that that the real problem isn’t low wages, rising inequality, or poor living conditions. It is that the rich are in charge, not them. If they were put in charge, their intelligence and inner righteousness would enable the establishment of a just society freed of disorder and chaos. Power is their real end, and those they profess to care about are simply a means to that objective.
“Sometimes I look at the Socialist—the intellectual, tract writing type of socialist, with his pullover, his fuzzy hair, and his Marxian quotation—and wonder what the devil his motive really is. It is often difficult to believe it is a love of anybody, especially of the working class, from whom of all people he is most removed. The underlying motive of many Socialists, I believe, is simply a hypertrophied sense of order. The present state of affairs offends them not because it causes misery, still less because it makes freedom impossible, but because it is untidy; what they desire, basically is to reduce the world to something resembling a chessboard.”
But the argument that many leftists do not actually care for the people they profess to serve is far more serious, especially when combined with the accusation that all the pious talk about the marginalized, LGBTQ individuals, minorities and so on exists to mask a far darker drive for power.
This objection has been made by many of the more intelligent contemporary critics of the Left and probably explains why Orwell attracts many conservatives despite his own lifelong commitment to Democratic Socialism. Underpinning the more reflective and knowing criticisms of left-wing elitism is not the claim that many progressives are hypocritical rich people trying to atone for their sins—or loud and noisy protestors who should get a real job and stop causing such a fuss. These accusations are easily dismissed. But the argument that many leftists do not actually care for the people they profess to serve is far more serious, especially when combined with the accusation that all the pious talk about the marginalized, LGBTQ individuals, minorities and so on exists to mask a far darker drive for power.
Conclusion: Why We Need to Rectify Injustices
Orwell’s criticisms of the Left have a special currency in today’s climate, when political movements on all ends of the ideological spectrum are trying to claim that populist banner as their own. Many conservatives are trying to ape his observations to claim that the political left, for all its professions to care about inequality and the marginalized, remains dismissive and unconcerned with the actual problems facing people. Indeed the conservative media’s fixation on college age activism and its discontents—a fixation of pundits like Tucker Carlson—is likely driven, in part, by a desire to frame the political narrative along such lines. The Left is portrayed as a bunch of over-educated and manic radicals attending elite institutions, while only conservative media and politicians actually speak to the concerns of “real people.” Perhaps discussing locking up desperately poor asylum claimants fleeing violence or reducing healthcare resources for the poor does not make for as popular of conversation topics on the political right.
For all that, the most important element of Orwell’s thinking is often undervalued. Whether one likes character and background of leftists or not, the actual arguments for more egalitarian positions are often very strong. Much as when he wrote, the world remains riven by staunch inequalities in positions and stature. Around the globe, inequality has grown rapidly since the election of conservative politicians like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. These politicians and their monied allies launched an assault against the limited welfare states established by liberal parties through the middle of the 20th century, while cracking down on unions and other democratic institutions (which gave working people a slender opportunity to direct the flow of their workplace). The result of these efforts have been dramatic and unfair imbalances in the life prospects of the advantaged and disadvantaged even in developed countries. Wealthier Americans are now expected to live up to 15 years longer than their poorer counterparts, with affluent Britons not far behind. Wealthier people have far better opportunities for educational attainment. And things become even starker when comparing the situation of the wealthiest and poorest individuals globally, with climate change and a souring global economy expected to most negatively impact the world’s most vulnerable. Some will argue that there are moral justifications for such inequities, but I would argue that not even a consistent liberalism could support them any longer. The world needs more radical and imaginative solutions to these problems—not the crude imposition of some kind of ordered command economy. Rather, we need dramatic social democratic efforts to redistribute wealth and put a halt to the damage caused by capital and affluent interests. We need more democracy and more equality, and soon.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.