Polibooks

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Orwell's Warning to the 21st Century Left

Trump's first 10 days in office have catapulted George Orwell's classic novel 1984 to the top of the bestseller list, and many will be better off for having read it. 1984 was Orwell's dystopian vision of what English Socialism, or 'IngSoc,' might lead to. In the real world, the year 1984 came and went without Orwell's nightmarish future being realized, but a lesser known work of his, The Road to Wigan Pier, succeeded where 1984 had failed. Written in the 1930's, it provides an eerily accurate foreshadowing of Trump's election and how problems with the political Left's public image helped drive voters to the opposite extreme.

There is a quite obvious danger that in the next few years large sections of the middle class will make a sudden and violent swing to the Right. In doing so they may become formidable. The weakness of the middle class hitherto has lain in the fact that they have never learned to combine; but if you frighten them into combining against you, you may find that you have raised up a devil.
-Orwell, 1930s

The Road to Wigan Pier

Orwell was commissioned to write The Road to Wigan Pier by the Left Book Club, a Socialist organization in England. His mission was to investigate the plight of the unemployed in Wigan but he took the project a step further, investigating the employed coal miners as well. The final product is basically divided into two parts - the first a compelling piece of investigate journalism that paints a picture of horrible conditions among the working class, the second a blistering critique of Socialism that prompted publisher Victor Gollancz to write an introduction to the book containing a rebuttal. At first glance this seems strange - why would time spent with the working class, on whose behalf Socialism was fighting, lead Orwell to write what many viewed as an attack on Socialism itself?

A basic understanding of the worldview of early 20th century Socialists might look something like this: Socialists believe that the capitalist class is a parasitic one that exploits the working class, which is more virtuous and in fact derives a certain amount of virtue from their oppressed status, and the nature of the capitalist system rewards and ingrains said exploitative behavior in the capitalist class. Orwell turns this idea on its head, describing elements of the working class in harshly negative terms and then laying the blame on capitalist society. Looking ahead to part 2, this is important - Orwell's analysis doesn't focus on the oppressor, the 'parasitic capitalist class,' instead he focuses on the rest of society.

The working class isn't entirely without virtue in Orwell's writing - he has a high opinion of the coal miners that he spends time with, and depicts them as the essential and invisible element in society. Orwell also documents the challenges miners face in everyday life, in language that is incredibly familiar to anyone who pays attention to social justice advocates today. The status of the working class leads to worse treatment in banks, reduced access to housing, and a million other injustices that mount up over the course of a lifetime. Combating these injustices is the end goal of the Socialist project and Orwell, as he writes in Part 2, has grave concerns about the ability of his contemporaries, and perhaps the ability of their progressive counterparts today, to do so effectively.

Part 2: Orwell's Criticism, and his Warning

The ordinary decent person, who is in sympathy with the essential aims of Socialism, is given the impression that there is no room for his kind in any Socialist party that means business.
-George Orwell
Man is neither angel nor beast, and the misfortune is that he who wants to play the angel plays the beast.
-Blaise Pascal

Two main themes are present in the second half of Orwell's book, the first being a startling similarity between the public images of Socialism in England in the 1930s and progressivism today. Before we get to the second issue, let's flesh that out.

Progressivism today has, to put it bluntly, an image problem, probably due to an orthodoxy problem. The 'correct worldview,' so to speak, for a progressive person to have isn't limited to political viewpoints and concepts - it specifies the language that one must use, the brands it's appropriate to support or oppose and alternate spellings of certain words, and it comes with social consequences for those who fall out of line. Orwell observed the same issues with Socialism in his time.

One of the analogies between communism and Roman Catholicism is that only the "educated" are completely orthodox. The most immediately striking thing about the English Roman Catholics...is their intense self-consciousness. Apparently they never think, certainly they never write, about anything but the fact that they are Roman Catholics...the really interesting thing about these people is the way in which they have worked out the supposed implications of orthodoxy until the tiniest details of life are involved. Even the liquids you drink, apparently, can be orthodox or heretical...a working class Catholic would never be so absurdly consistent as that...it is only the "educated" man, especially the literary man, who knows how to be a bigot. And, mutatis mutandis, it is the same with Communism. The creed is never found in its pure form in a genuine proletarian.

The caricature of today's progressive is of someone who believes that conservatives are motivated by hate on almost every issue. All Pro-Lifers are carrying out a war on women, people who want less immigration are all xenophobic, all Republicans are racist, and on and on. Progressives, or at least 'orthodox' progressives, are viewed as people who are incurious to a fault about their political opponents because they believe that, implicitly or explicitly, their opponents' political positions are motivated purely by bias.

Faced by the fact that intelligent people are so often on the other side, the Socialist is apt to set it down to corrupt movies (conscious or unconscious)...undoubtedly [this] is important, but there are plenty of people who are [not influenced in this way] and are nevertheless hostile to Socialism.
Marxists as a rule are not very good at reading the minds of their adversaries...possessing a technique which seems to explain everything, they do not often bother to discover what is going on inside other people's heads.

Orwell believed that Socialism's public image problem had disastrous consequences for the future of the movement. As he saw it, there was a significant divergence between the philosophy of the 'book-trained Socialists' and that of the actual proletarians. A public image that emphasized the philosophy of the proletariat would attract the right kind of followers, he thought, whereas an image reflecting the philosophy of the 'book-trained' would drive those very same people away, maybe even into the arms of Fascism. To be clear, Orwell isn't referring to far-Right reactionaries when he talks about people who are hostile to Socialism, he's talking about moderates - people who would likely, with a different approach, become allies.

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 warm hearted 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 Second Issue

The similarity between the images of the Left in Orwell's time and the Left today raises an important question: is it possible for a progressive movement of this kind to avoid a bad public image in the eyes of moderates? If not, should they care? And what are the likely consequences of such a public image?

The question needs clarifying. What I'm not asking is 'is it possible for a progressive movement to not be a bad thing?' Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement were deeply unpopular with many white Americans, and at the same time were striving for the most laudable goal imaginable, in a morally upright way. Public image is not an indicator of the goodness or badness of an idea or movement.

The key difference between the progressivism of today and the progressivism of Dr. King's time, at least as it relates to Orwell's work, is in the circumstances being challenged. Today the fight is not against segregation and the legal instantiation of inequality, rather it's mainly against an oppression that is cultural in nature. It's about poverty rates and implicit bias, about privilege, and police enforcement, and the achievement gap and many other issues. It's the same fight that the Socialists of the 1930s engaged in on behalf of the working class, but updated to fit the circumstances of today. And fundamentally, it's about changing the way that people think and act.

Orwell believed that the nature of this fight often resulted in Socialists misdirecting their energy. I think of this as 'punching upwards,' as opposed to 'helping downwards.'

Sometimes, when I listen to these people (orthodox Marxists) talking, and still more when I read their books, I get the impression that, to them, the whole Socialist movement is no more than a kind of exciting heresy hunt.

The danger Orwell saw in this kind of movement, a movement with the goal of helping group X and/by changing the attitudes of group Y, was that it would tend to attract people who are only interested in the latter, and who have little regard for the former. Think about that for a second. To focus your energy on 'helping downwards' is difficult, which is why many people don't do it, and one reason why the people who do are generally praised. Not only are you constantly reminded of the plight of less fortunate people, which can be emotionally difficult, you also have to cope with failure if and when all your efforts don't succeed as you'd hoped, and you can never really win, given the sheer numbers involved.

On the other hand, there's a lot of self-satisfaction to be had, at low cost, in trying to 'punch upwards.' There's the feeling of moral righteousness, because you view yourself as doing some version of fighting the bad guys. There's the feeling of control, because you know the right way to behave and feel that you have the moral authority to tell others how they should behave. This is, objectively, an easier path to a desirable self-image - one of being a good person who cares about the right things - and it's a path that is likely to be more appealing to more people.

This creates an enormous problem for good people in good movements trying to address societal problems of this kind. You need people to join your cause, and the more the better. But, as with any large-scale social movement, your messaging and public image are very difficult to control, and negative headlines get more play than positive ones.

On the other hand, it would be a mistake to regard the book-trained Socialist as a bloodless creature entirely incapable of emotion. Though seldom giving much evidence of affection for the exploited, he is perfectly capable of displaying hatred - a sort of queer, theoretical, in vacuo hatred - against the exploiters.
Meanwhile the thinking person, by intellect usually left wing but by temperament often right wing, hovers at the gate of the Socialist fold. He is no doubt aware that he ought to be a Socialist. But he observes first the dullness of individual Socialists, then the apparent flabbiness of Socialist ideals, and veers away.

I've been thinking about this idea in the context of today, specifically around two cases. Let's say we took all the money, time and energy that's been invested into the fight against Voter ID laws, and instead could have applied it to an effort to help people get IDs. There are organizations doing this, but they benefit from far less public awareness and support than the general outcry against the law receives. What would the outcome have been compared to where we are with Voter ID today? Or, what if all the effort that people have put into making others aware of their privilege had been directed towards making them aware of other people's disadvantage? How many more of the right kind of allies would the progressive movement have made? How many more people would be eligible to vote? And, the key question, would these tactical changes have compromised the movement's goals in any way?

[Every person with any brains or dignity] will not necessarily [come to Socialism] of his own accord...he will have to be persuaded, and by methods that imply an understanding of his viewpoint. Socialists cannot afford to waste any more time in preaching to the converted. Their job is now to make Socialists as rapidly as possible; instead of which, all too often, they are making fascists.

One school of thought in liberal post-election analysis, featured in a New York Times op-ed by Mark Lilla, has posited that identity politics is counterproductive to progressive goals and needs to be left behind. At the core of the public image of identity politics today is the idea of intersectionality, first put forward by the legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw. From Wikipedia: "[Intersectionality] is the study of overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. Intersectionality is the idea that multiple identities intersect to create a whole that is different from the component identities." We shouldn't be surprised to learn that the prescient Orwell had an opinion on this issue decades before the theory was put forward.

The recent Women's March was an excellent example of intersectionality in action - in the leadup to the event a significant amount of media attention was devoted to the differences between the goals of white and minority women. For example, in a New York Times piece titled 'Women's March on Washington Opens Contentious Dialogues About Race,' the author describes how a post on the event's official Facebook page, which "advised 'white allies' to listen more and talk less," alienated a number of white women who had planned to attend the march.

When interviewed, the author of the post in question said that "I needed [white allies] to understand that they don’t just get to join the march and not check their privilege constantly." Without making a value judgment, I think it's fair to say that the public conversation around the Women's March emphasized the ways in which different sub-groups of women have different challenges and goals and emphasized, to paraphrase, the historical oppression of minority women by white women. This wasn't without controversy, with some marchers and commentators asking "why can't we all just get along?" For Orwell, the crucial question would be "what is the likely political outcome if we can't all just get along?"

Orwell's primary concern at the time of writing was his desire for Socialism to triumph over Fascism. Socialist rhetoric, he wrote, emphasized people's differences over their similarities to such an extent that it ran the risk of pushing potential allies towards Fascism. No matter how important those differences were, he thought, they were less important than the need to defeat Fascism. After the election of Trump, who rode on a wave of 'anti-PC' backlash, and given the success of European Fascism in the early 20th century, Orwell's warning seems as relevant today as it was then.

Economically, I am in the same boat with the miner, the navvy and the farm hand; remind me of that and I will fight at their side. But culturally I am different from the miner, the navvy and the farm hand; lay the emphasis on that and you may arm me against them.

Or, to put it another way:

The last thing that is going to make me endeared to you, to know you and love you more, is if you are sitting there wagging your finger at me.
-Jennifer Willis, as quoted in the NYT 'Women's March' piece.

Want to read The Road to Wigan Pier yourself? You can get it here.

Or, if you like audiobooks, you can download two for free from Audible using this link.