“Both Ortega and Orwell concluded that the Left was in trouble as a result of these developments, and their analyses and diagnoses pointed the way forward to the situation we have today in the West.”
n both the United States and the United Kingdom in the early 21st century the working class has been betrayed by the Left. Millions of working class people living in America’s “flyover country,” and millions living in the former industrial heartlands of Northern England, are feeling abandoned. Today’s Left—dominated by woke progressives obsessed with identity politics, social justice, climate change, and international humanitarianism—views the “rubes,” and their English counterparts the “little Englanders,” as being ignorant, narrow-minded nationalists blinded by racism and xenophobia. But the “rubes” and “little Englanders” are refusing to conform to the role that the Left’s ideologues have in mind for them: helpless pawns in the politics of international socialism and paternalistic interventionist universal humanitarianism. So the “rubes” and “little Englanders” rejected the message of the Left and found solace in supporting what is derided by the Left as the “populist” political appeals of former President Donald Trump and Brexit.
Despite calls for the Left to reconnect with working class causes, there is no sign of this happening. The reasons for this go far beyond what Julian Benda called—in 1928—the “betrayal of the intellectuals.” Benda’s message—that the intellectual elite in the West has largely abandoned the disinterested pursuit of truth in favor of pursuing its own political philosophy and allowing this interest to corrupt its intellectual and moral values—remains as relevant today as in the late 1920s. But of far more significance today are the penetrating insights offered by José Ortega y Gasset and George Orwell on the betrayal of the working class by the middle class socialist ideologues of the West and their well-meaning but politically naïve supporters.
Ortega—a Spanish academic philosopher—published his The Revolt of the Masses in 1930 and intended it as an exposé of the moral and intellectual degradation of a new kind of middle class, mass movement political activist. He used the term “mass man,” but it is better translated as “mass movement man.” Informed by his own liberal republican and democratic socialist values, Ortega concluded that the appeal and usefulness of political mass movements served to corrupt the values and ideals of the Left, just as much as had happened on the Right.
Orwell—the social and political commentator best known for his novels Animal Farm and 1984—published The Road to Wigan Pier in 1937. In this book, he laid before the reader the vast gulf in the social conditions, outlook, and understanding that existed between the desperate plight of the working poor in the English northern industrial heartlands and the comfortable middle class socialist ideologues, who expounded in abstract terms on what the remedies for poverty should be.
Both Ortega and Orwell concluded that the Left was in trouble as a result of these developments, and their analyses and diagnoses pointed the way forward to the situation we have today in the West. Woke progressivism is but the latest manifestation of the intellectual and moral degradation of the Left’s high ideals at the hands of middle class ideologues (and activists), whose alienation from the working class is now all but complete. The feeling is mutual, and those who have been abandoned by the Left cannot be blamed for that.
This new bourgeoisie consisted of a new kind of barbarian living in a civilized society—rising through the ranks to assume positions of influence, authority, and power.
However, the defining characteristics of woke progressivism as a mass movement—its collectivism and enforced conformism, its abandonment of mutually-respectful rational debate in favor of uncompromising demands and direct action, its tactics of permanent revolt against established authority, and its intellectualized anti-intellectualism—were all anticipated by both Ortega and Orwell.
Ortega on the Rise of the New Barbarians
In The Revolt of the Masses, Ortega analyses the mindset of what he viewed as a new phenomenon in the West, a new kind of person, constituting a new bourgeoisie. This person had benefited from the social and technological developments of the 19th and 20th centuries and had risen out of the working class to become part of the bourgeoisie. A conformist by nature, narrowly and shallowly educated yet convinced of his or her own moral and intellectual superiority over those who had been left behind, this new kind of person was ripe for exploitation by those seeking recruits for political mass movements that sought to destroy the achievements of Western civilization.
This new bourgeoisie consisted of a new kind of barbarian living in a civilized society—rising through the ranks to assume positions of influence, authority, and power. Ortega adopted Walther Rathenau’s concept of the “vertical invasion” of the barbarians for this phenomenon. It was all the more dangerous because these new barbarians were self-opinionated, self-satisfied, and smug. At the same time, though, they were critically ignorant of the context from which they had risen. Their narrow and shallow education had produced a class of what Ortega called “specialists,” who remained ignorant of the cultural and technological context of the advances of Western civilization, the benefits of which they so carelessly enjoyed. In so doing, they held up their comfortable middle class lifestyles as an achievement; their snobbish complacency was grounded in mediocrity because—like all parvenus—they were at heart conformists who wanted nothing more than to “fit in” with those others who had also risen from humble beginnings to a higher status. However, they despised their humble beginnings and those whom they had left behind in their ascent, while resenting those who, by virtue of the trappings of inherited upper class privilege, assumed an effortless superiority. All the while, there was an alternative to this outlook, which such people had rejected.
Ortega identifies another kind of person, a character who had absorbed the cultural values of Christianity (but not necessarily a Christian in belief) and who aspires to excellence of being, independence of thought and opinion, individual achievement, and personal responsibility. These were attributes that anyone—however humble—could develop. Further, they indicated a nobility of being that transcended any conventional social rank or status.
But, in the ideological struggle between Left and Right, this latter kind of person had been devalued and side-lined (and still is), along with the values and ideals for which such a person stood. This, Ortega argued, was to the detriment of society and humanity; the political mass movements of the 20th century, which appealed to the new barbarians, would trample over and destroy all that was good in their struggle to achieve absolute power.
Orwell on the Gulf between the Workers and the Ideologues
Orwell did not offer an analysis of political developments in terms of barbarians vs. civilization; however, he offered something arguably more insightful as it pertains to the alienation of the ideologues of the Left from the people whose cause they claimed to champion. By contrasting the conditions of the working poor in Northern England in the 1930s with the disengaged theorizing of comfortable middle class socialist intellectuals, Orwell demonstrated how far the Left had already moved away from a genuine engagement with the aspirations of the poor, and this only thirty years or so after the establishment of the British Labour Party in 1900.
In the 1930s in Britain, the Labour Party still used the rhetoric of class solidarity, but its intellectuals had already moved far ahead with their aspirations of socialist universalism, as well as with their claims of solidarity with the workers of the world. At their party conferences they still sang of a “New Jerusalem,” but what the ideologues had in mind was something more akin to a socialist workers’ utopia presided over by the ideologues, rather than the workers themselves. The workers in the main wanted nothing more than to be lifted out of poverty so they could enjoy a middle class lifestyle; the ideologues wanted the workers to be compliant pawns and foot-soldiers of the permanent worldwide, socialist revolution:
“The truth is that, to many people calling themselves Socialists, revolution does not mean a movement of the masses with which they hope to associate themselves; “…it means a set of reforms which ‘we,’ the clever ones, are going to impose on ‘them,’ the Lower Orders.”
Orwell’s barely-disguised contempt for those he viewed as corrupting socialist ideals comes through when he declares that the idealism of socialism “has been buried beneath layer after layer of doctrinaire priggishness, party squabbles, and half-baked ‘progressivism’ until it is like a diamond hidden under a mountain of dung.”
“Progressivism” in Orwell’s day was different from that of today. In the 1930s, left-wing “progressives” believed that socialism would achieve a better society through social progress and the construction of a society that would retain the best of the society they wished to replace. But today’s woke progressivists intend nothing other than the wholesale destruction of Western civilization to build a society that retains nothing of the original. They may speak of “social justice,” but it is not justice for all because disfavored groups (such as white men and others) do not seem to qualify; and, as for liberty, that will only be for those who conform slavishly to the shibboleths of woke progressivism. Conformism and ideological purity are what matters most—not loyalty to values and ideals.
Despite his disillusionment with ideological socialism in the 1930s, Orwell remained a practical socialist all his life, albeit, paradoxically, an increasingly idealistic one as socialism in practice disappointed him. He never changed his belief that:
“…the essential aims of Socialism are justice and liberty.”
He remained antipathetic to mass movements of any kind and believed that the success of socialism depended on its humanization and its universalism:
“…the interests of all exploited people are the same…Socialism is [and must be] compatible with common decency.”
But Orwell was already aware that the destruction of Western civilization would be the outcome if ideological socialism were successful:
“The fact is that Socialism, in the form in which it is now presented, appeals chiefly to unsatisfactory or even inhuman types. On the one hand, you have the warmhearted unthinking Socialist, the typical working-class Socialist, who only wants to abolish poverty and does not always grasp what this implies. On the other hand, you have the intellectual book-trained Socialist, who understands that it is necessary to throw our present civilization down the sink and is quite willing to do so.”
The first type would—in Orwell’s view—become the puppet of the second type. Next, middle class ideologues—who from the 1950s on rose from working class origins through enjoying the benefits of the expansion of the universities—developed into a new class of aspiring elitists who eventually displaced the old ruling class to became the new establishment, their triumph being all but complete by the turn of the 21st century.
The rise of these newly middle class ideologues in Britain was mirrored by the rise to intellectual prominence of a similar class of left-wing intellectuals in the universities of North America, where they propagated their message of anti-Western ideology to new generations of students. This was made possible by higher education’s rapid expansion and the easy availability of student loans.
Only very brave and resilient individuals can withstand such pressure and stand out from the herd as independent thinkers.
On both sides of the North Atlantic these, it turned out, were the new barbarians whose vertical invasion Ortega had predicted would threaten the survival of the West.
The New Barbarians Take Over
Ortega described a political climate in Western Europe in the 1920s that applies with little modification today to the West in general. The political, social, and intellectual culture of woke progressivism is characterized by its collectivism, just as were the mass movements of both Right and Left in the 1920s and 1930s. The identity of individuals is dictated by the characteristics of the group to which they belong or are assigned, and it is group pressure that dictates how they should think, feel, and act. Only very brave and resilient individuals can withstand such pressure and stand out from the herd as independent thinkers.
The main difference today is that—at present—there is no clamor from within the woke progressive movement for strong leaders who will dictate what the members should believe and do. Authority over the adherents is diffuse and—because of social media—the demands for conformity and concessions appear with astonishing abruptness, gather momentum, and then disappear almost as suddenly, to be replaced by another set of demands. With cancel culture now in full swing, it is clear that the practice of denunciation will serve to focus the mob’s hostility just as Orwell predicted in his dystopian novel 1984, in which the scheduled nightly “Two Minutes Hate” elicited the expression of almost maniacal anger from the participants, each seeking to outdo the others in the intensity of emotion. In this, they were aided by their total ignorance of their real situation because the Party (“Ingsoc”/English Socialism) controlled everything they were permitted to know.
The new barbarians in the West are also intent on controlling what ordinary people are permitted to know, and their tactics are clever and devious. Not only do they revel in their ignorance of (and hostility towards) Western civilization, they use the ideals, values, and principles of the West as weapons against it. The woke progressivists demand the West be morally perfect according to its own standards but employ an “the ends justify the means” approach to their own activities. They see no inconsistency in this. They apparently believe that demanding unattainably high moral standards from their opponents while, at the same time, condemning any good their opponents achieve as being sullied by ideological transgressions does not amount to “making the perfect the enemy of the good.” In this way, they deny those they claim to be helping the benefits of what their opponents have achieved, even as they claim to be friends of “progress.”
The manipulative tactics of woke progressives in their quest for power were anticipated by Orwell in his dystopian 1945 novel Animal Farm. The pigs on the farm, who are leading the revolution, indulge in a constant stream of propaganda to portray themselves as the saviors of the other animals. Eventually, when they have driven out the farmer and his family, the pigs institute a repressive authoritarian regime and, in the final scene, become indistinguishable from the humans they have displaced. The revolution has followed an age-old path: Tyranny begets tyranny. The revolutionists—the pigs who initially appeared radically unlike humans and, thus, not beset with human failings—are revealed to have developed the worst of human failings, after all: the urge to dominate and destroy.
The woke progressives who currently dominate all levels of Western society—except among the working class—are following a similar pattern of behavior. As was mentioned, they believe that the ends justify the means. As such, they are corrupting their own values and ideals, even if they cannot see this. They reject the cultural heritage of the West and its values and ideals; they know what they hate and hate what little they know. In their fanaticism, they are immune to rational persuasion and, consequently, seek to destroy everything they cannot control or understand. They are as much barbarians as the barbarians of old. In this way, the foot soldiers of woke progressivism conform to the pattern of the participants of the great political mass movements of the 20th century. They collude in their own seduction by propaganda and become fanatical supporters of an ideology that—if successfully implemented—will ultimately destroy them too. They display a zeal to outdo all others in their demonstrations of loyalty to the cause, a phenomenon lucidly explored by American philosopher Eric Hoffer in his 1951 book The True Believer.
Civilization is a rare achievement, and Western civilization is unique in the benefits it offers its inhabitants. Perhaps because of this, the West is now subject to immigration pressures that are unparalleled in history. It is also possibly the most fragile civilization in history because the current political and social liberalism of Western pluralist democracies is hospitable not only to sentiments hostile to it but also to practical initiatives intent on destroying it from within. The new middle class barbarians appear to hate everything about the West apart from its material affluence, something which they are determined to appropriate for themselves, even as they preach the virtue of poverty.
In The Revolt of the Masses, Ortega offered an analysis that placed the origin of this threat at the very heart of Western civilization itself. The new barbarians were pushing upwards from deep within, uncomprehending in their ignorance that the aspects of Western civilization they benefited from would be destroyed just as surely as the negative aspects they sought to abolish. It was not just the political mass movements of the Right that presented this threat, according to Ortega, but also those of the Left.
Far too many people in the West today remain unaware of what is happening all around them, preferring to believe that the ship of constitutional representative democracy will somehow eventually right itself.
Orwell adopted a different perspective in The Road to Wigan Pier, taking the view that what would destroy Western civilization was ideological socialism, with the intellectuals of the Left sneering down at the working class whose saviors they pretended to be. In reality, what the ideologues of the Left sought was domination and political supremacy, and all the privileges that come with these, as Orwell set out to depict in his novels Animal Farm and 1984.
Both Ortega and Orwell fled Spain (in 1936 and 1937, respectively) as the country’s civil war developed into an increasingly brutal struggle between the mass movement barbarians—Ortega into exile in Portugal and Orwell to freedom in England.
Today, it is no longer possible for the inhabitants of the West to flee to safety from the barbarians; they are here among us and are tearing up the foundations of civilization in every Western democracy. There is nowhere else for lovers of freedom and democracy to go. We have only where we are right now.
Far too many people in the West today remain unaware of what is happening all around them, preferring to believe that the ship of constitutional representative democracy will somehow eventually right itself. In reality, it is about to founder on the rocks of a political struggle every bit as extreme as the confrontation between the political mass movements of the 1920s and 1930s.
Ortega and Orwell were correct but from different perspectives. When ideology trumps insight and concern for others, the only winners are those who seek to destroy everything that stands between them and their goal of absolute power. And when a great civilization fails to convince its children that it is worth preserving—and worth fighting for, if necessary—it will disappear just as surely as a great ocean liner that sinks beneath the waves when fatally holed beneath the waterline.
Paul Sturdee is a retired teacher of philosophy who now prefers a life of quiet contemplation. He has also written under the pen name “Wen Wryte.”