Jeff Greenfield: What the left could learn from Orwell

(AP Photo, File)

Jeff Greenfield has an opinion piece at Politico titled “How Orwell Diagnosed Democrats’ Culture War Problem Decades Ago.” It’s an interesting piece that really does live up to the headline. The focus is a book by Orwell titled “The Road to Wigan Pier.” The book was based on a visit to northern England soon after the depression in 1936. The first half of the book described “horrific conditions” in the mines and the towns where people lived. But the the second half is Orwell’s attempt to explain a striking phenomenon. The struggling people of these towns are not drawn to socialism. Orwell spelled out a series of reasons why that was the case.


Orwell, himself a socialist, argues first that “Socialism in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the [relatively well-off] middle class.” In its language, it is formal, stilted, wholly distant from the language of ordinary citizens, spoken by people who are several rungs above their audience, and with no intention of giving up that status.

Orwell had identified the “Latinx” problem 85 years ago. He also noticed what a bunch of weirdos those labels seemed to attract.

In the most provocative segment of the entire book, Orwell also cites “the horrible, the early disputing prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw toward them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.” And he notes the prospectus for a summer Socialist school in which attendees are asked if they prefer a vegetarian diet.

“That kind of thing is by itself sufficient to alienate plenty of decent people. And their instinct is perfectly sound, for the food-crank is by definition a person willing to cut himself off from human society in hopes of adding five years onto the life of his carcass; a person out of touch with common humanity.”

And while feminism and vegetarianism aren’t so off-putting now as they once were, he’s definitely on to something.


One reason that’s the case is Democrats have not found a way to draw clear, convincing lines separating the most militant voices in their party from the beliefs of a large majority of their base…

Former Democratic Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has described the image of his party this way: “coastal, overly educated, elitist, judgmental, socialist — a bundle of identity groups and interests lacking any shared principles. The problem isn’t the candidates we nominate. It’s the perception of the party we belong to.”

I think that last statement by Bullock is correct. Joe Biden may not be a fan of defunding the police, but plenty of people in his party supported it in 2020 and some still do. Biden may not be eager to rename the Washington Monument or tear down the Jefferson Memorial but members of his party likely are, even if they’re careful not to say so in public.

Despite their best efforts to sound moderate, the word it out. That’s why even the DCCC chair’s advice to candidates, based on some very worrisome internal polling, was “Talk like real people.” Don’t “sound like a jerk.”

That seems like a low bar but it’s not. Because the chief joy of being a morally superior person is demonstrating that superiority to others. And you do that by using the correct buzzwords and reciting the correct talking points to show you’re the right kind of anti-racist ally. Again, this is a point made by Orwell. Holding on to that sense of superiority is very important to the people who embrace the leftist pose most enthusiastically:


To this you have got to add the ugly fact that most middle-class Socialists, while theoretically pining for a class-less society, cling like glue to their miserable fragments of social prestige. I remember my sensations of horror on first attending an I.L.P. branch meeting in London. (It might have been rather different in the North, where the bourgeoisie are less thickly scattered.) Are these mingy little beasts, I thought, the champions of the working class? For every person there, male and female, bore the worst stigmata of sniffish middle-class superiority. If a real working man, a miner dirty from the pit, for instance, had suddenly walked into their midst, they would have been embarrassed, angry, and disgusted; some, I should think, would have fled holding their noses…

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…

The ordinary man may not flinch from a dictatorship of the proletariat, if you offer it tactfully; offer him a dictatorship of the prigs, and he gets ready to fight.

Choosing not to not to use the buzzwords or repeat the talking points would be akin to surrendering the high ground to the enemy. So you’re going to continue to see Democrats using “Latinx” and talking about the need to explain gender identity to 1st graders regardless of how it plays in working class communities or among Hispanic adults. Democrats really could turn this around in short order but they won’t. They’d rather lose than compromise and, fortunately, this fall they will.


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