Note: This was written in the Spring of 2019 for a now defunct Facebook group I used to moderate. I resisted posting it anywhere else for a year but finally decided to post it here since I still agree with the central thesis and believe it has a renewed relevance given the class dimension of the COVID-19 crisis.
The stereotype of leftism as some ego-stroking pastime of the wealthy and college-educated wouldn’t be so cringe-inducing if there wasn’t some truth to it. Something that drove me insane when I first became involved in activism in my late 20’s was how many of my peers were exactly like me: privileged people from upper-income backgrounds with college degrees. Few of these people had parents who were the first in their families to attend higher-ed or grew up poor.
Anyone who knows anything about leftism knows how antithetical this is to the cause. Of course, it’s not new either. In his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell excoriates the “book-trained” socialist and his elitist attitudes. “To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night, Socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about,” writes Orwell. “Sometimes I look at a 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 that it is a love of anybody, especially of the working class, from whom he is of all people the furthest removed.”
He goes on to observe that this brand of socialist seems motivated by an aversion to the disorder of the proletarian condition, not by their suffering. “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….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 upon ’them’, the Lower Orders.”
Orwell’s portrait of the didactic “book-trained” socialist is as relevant today as it ever was. The working class and underclass must be able to view the left as their allies. Those of us who come from privileged backgrounds need to quash our petty aesthetic aversions to and stereotypical assumptions about the blue collar worker and the poverty-stricken individual and view them not as infantile creatures we’re saving via our benevolence. We need to view them as our comrades who we’re engaged in a common struggle with for the betterment of humanity.
Of course, I recognize the irony here, being a fuzzy-haired book-trained leftist myself, currently pounding out a tract to be posted on a website run by unprincipled capitalists. Joking aside, my grievance comes from my family history. My working class mother and her siblings, with their father dead and their mother dying, relied on social security to get by. Without that state largess, born of New Deal quasi-social democratic reforms, who knows what would have happened to her and her family. Unfortunately, the cold war red-baiting of the time presented the left to my mother as the enemy. Years later, the failures of the Democratic Party provided the right with an opportunity to seduce the working class.
Attacking the exploitation of labor and the indignity of poverty is at the heart of both social democracy and democratic socialism. Both the worker and indigent must be able to recognize this and not be alienated by elitism and dogmatism. If the “servile masses” are ever to arise from their slumbers and “change henceforth the old tradition,” the left needs to change its tradition of holding the people they claim to represent in contempt.
Image: National Women’s Support groups rallying in support of striking UK coal miners, Barnsley town hall, May 1984. Photo by Martin Jenkinson.