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“The ultimate left-wing novel”

Tyler Cowen asks what is the ultimate left-wing novel? He comes up with John Steinbeck and refers us to this list by Josh Leach that includes soclal-realist novels from around 1900. But Cowen is looking for something more “analytically or philosophically comprehensive.”

My vote for the ultimate left-wing novel is 1984. The story and the political philosophy fit together well, and it’s also widely read (which is an important part of being the “ultimate” novel of any sort, I think; it wouldn’t do to choose something too obscure). Or maybe Gulliver’s Travels, but I’ve never actually read that, so I don’t know if it qualifies as being left-wing. Certainly you can’t get much more political than 1984, and I don’t think you can get much more left-wing either. (If you get any more left-wing than that, you start to loop around the circle and become right-wing. For example, I don’t think that a novel extolling the brilliance of Stalin or Mao would be considered left-wing in a modern context.)

Native Son (also on Leach’s list) seems like another good choice to me, but I’m sticking with 1984 as being more purely political. For something more recent you could consider something such as What a Carve Up by Jonathan Coe.

P.S. Cowen’s correspondent wrote that “the book needs to do two things: justify the welfare state and argue the limitations of the invisible hand.” But I don’t see either of these as particularly left-wing. Unless you want to argue that Bismarck was a left-winger.

P.P.S. Commenters suggest Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Les Miserables. Good choices: they’re big novels, politically influential, and left-wing. There’s probably stuff by Zola etc. too. I still stand by 1984. Orwell was left-wing and 1984 was his novel. I think the case for 1984 as a left-wing novel is pretty iron-clad.

27 Comments

  1. Chris says:

    Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver's Travels, was a Tory. Allan Bloom has a good essay on its politics in his book Giants and Dwarfs.

    Les Miserables by Victor Hugo would probably be my nominee for best lefty novel.

  2. Xi'an says:

    Orwell's 1984 is a great anti-totalitarian book but I would not call it left-wing in that it denounced Stalinism as well as fascism. My vote would rather be Malraux's L'Espoir for its depiction of the Spanish Civil War, seconded by Conrad's The Secret Agent…

  3. subdee says:

    1984 is about the horrors of an all-powerful State. I think it's actually an anti-leftist novel. It's hard to see this because a) the totalitarianism is so advanced in 1984 that it more resembles a conservative regime than a progressive one, and b) the State uses a perpetual war to justify curtailing the rights of its citizens. But think about how we'd get there from here: more monitoring of civilians, ala CCTV in England. More regulation and State control. These are leftist goals.

    An anti-rightist dystopian novel would be one where unchecked corporate power has taken over the world. Margarat Atwood and Neal Stephenson are two authors who write those kinds of novels.

    Actually I think our 1984-like dystopian future is not going to come from video monitoring (where you need like half the population to monitor the other half), but from automated surveillance and data mining. The novel that most clearly expresses this is the Japanese horror/mystery novel Loups-Garous.

    There's too much SF sensibility and pop culture detritus in all of these novels for any of them to be put on someone's "best example of political fiction" list, though.

    The best political fiction book I read this year was Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Petals of Blood. I guess I'd call it a leftist novel – Thiong'o shows how a religious movement can fill up internal holes but fail to alter material reality, which a socialist movement can alter material reality while failing to address people's spiritual needs. (In the most reductionist reading.)

  4. David Blake says:

    1984 is most certainly not left wing. It is a hymn of hate to Britain's Labour government and to communism.

  5. marcel says:

    Harriet B. Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin"?

    Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward: 2000-1887"?

    According to Wikipedia, Bellamy's book was the "3rd largest bestseller of its time," after UTC and Ben Hur

    Sinclair Lewis's "It Can't Happen Here"?

    I see now that the last two are on Cowen's list, so I'll plump for UTC. Pretty significant; Lincoln, probably not seriously, credited Stowe with causing or starting the Civil War.

    Anyway, 2 of these 3, and "1984" do not meet the criteria of Cowen's correspondent: "justify the welfare state and argue the limitations of the invisible hand." Bellamy probably comes close. So does K. Marx in "Capital, V. 1" (see "Moneybags Must Be So Lucky: On the Literary Structure of Capital" by Robert Paul Wolff for the hypothesis that Capital is a novel).

    Note: I tried using the u-tag for the titles, but it is ignored when I preview this.

  6. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    What about The Jungle?

  7. tom says:

    It should be noted though that 1984 was meant as a critique of stalinism/totalitarian communism.

  8. Wonks Anonymous says:

    Orwell's anti-Stalinist novels seem more popular with righties today (why not keep reliving righteous victory over the Evil Empire?). However, T. S. Eliot rejected Animal Farm as Trotskyist but unwilling to own up to its Trotskyism.

    I believe Swift was a Tory.

  9. While a book but not necessarily a novel (as probably implied) I would throw "Leaves of Grass" by Whitman in the ring. And my gut says that Animal Farm seems more appropriate than 1984, but that may be because I just re-visited AF.

  10. Muz says:

    The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin. It might be science fiction but it is what has changed my perception at the age of 16.

  11. Nameless says:

    The best way to justify the welfare state for a modern man is to demonstrate the injustice of a libertarian state. Since none of the western societies have been libertarian for more than half a decade, you have to look at novels set pre-WWII or in emerging countries.

    From that list I'd support "Grapes of wrath", and "The iron heel" by Jack London. I recall "The valley of the moon" by Jack London to be quite loaded in the same way from modern perspective, but that may be true for virtually any book that tries to make a honest description of the working class before Roosevelt and the New Deal.

  12. Marius Cobzarenco says:

    I completely fail to see how "1984" is a left-wing novel. I know it was frown upon in the US in the MacCarthy era as a communist book, which I find utterly baffling. As others here have pointed out, it denounces totalitarism and the the meddling of the state in the lives of individuals. If anything, it's a right-wing novel, although I've always found it silly to use only one dimension (left-right) to describe political beliefs.

  13. Tom V says:

    @Muz:
    Yes, definitely The Dispossessed. It had a very similar effect on me (at a slightly later age — it hadn't been written yet when I was 16).

    I'd agree with Dave Robinson on Animal Farm. Bear in mind that my view of that book was very strongly influenced by reading Orwell's Homage to Catalonia — (stalinists and fascists ganging up on the anarchists when Orwell was an ambulance driver in the Spanish civil war.

  14. J.J. Hayes says:

    The thing about 1984 is that it can be read as an analysis of how freedom and human dignity can be eroded and controlled at any number of levels governmental. The tools and methods used in 1984 were and are certainly put to use by the large corporations as well as the government. To even get bogged down as to whether it is properly left or right wing seems to miss the point. But I vote it as left wing, since I tend left, and like most leftists that I like am opposed to the use of governmental power against the individual unlike those views I dislike like secret prisons, and indefinite detention and fear mongering and having to ID myself on suspicion of being an immigrant, and therefore label as right wing or conservative. Which of course is the danger. Once we attach a label to the other side like right or left, we can drum up the hatred factor be controlled accordingly in our thought processes. Orwell and the Left! Rand and the Right! Me and Bobby McGee!

  15. Ivan Karamazov says:

    Methinks the criteria are too narrow to describe good literature. They describe the antonym of Atlas Shrugged and the Fountainhead (yes, I've read both). Trouble is, novels that are both 'serious' and 'good' are not so narrowly focused. Rand in particular spends hundreds upon hundreds of pages beating the same horse to death. This is the same horse she slaughtered rather elegantly in Anthem, but Anthem is a fairly obvious ripoff of Yevgeny Zamyatin's We. So…

    If I had to pick, it'd be something by Viktor Pelevin. The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, maybe.

  16. A. Zarkov says:

    While Orwell generally claimed to be a "man of the left," his writings tell us otherwise. His famous essay Politics and the English Language, mainly attacks the left style of writing. For example, Orwell comes down pretty hard on Harold Laski. Laski was Chairman of the British Labour Party (1945-1946) and believed in the collective ownership of the means of production.

    Andrew if you think Orwell wrote from a left viewpoint then I don't think you have read much Orwell. A good place to start is with Davison's The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell is divided into four volumes. Here you will find Orwell's opinion on a variety of topics. All well written and thought provoking. To be sure, Orwell is far from being a man of the right or even a conservative. Were he around today, I think he would be extremely critical of Obama as well as the Republicans. But you can be sure his rapier would fall on the American left most of the time. For example, he would not be happy with campus speech codes, the kind we find at Columbia University. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), gives Columbia a red light rating.

    Let's classify him as an independent thinker.

  17. Nameless says:

    The problem with saying that Orwell was left-wing is that "left-wing" can mean different things to different people at different times.

    The way to look at it is from the "political square" point of view. There are two dimensions to a square: social and economical. "The left wing" (Democrats) is socially permissive: in favor of freedom of speech, freedom of marriage (which, 50 years ago, meant interracial marriage, today, gay marriage), even things like legalization of marijuana; but economically restrictive (in favor of heavy regulation, high taxes, and redistributionist fiscal policy). "The right wing" is the exact opposite.

    In Orwell's times, there hasn't been much difference in positions between left & right on the economic axis. (Eisenhower was a Republican, yet he is credited with two largest projects in the history of this country which were financed with federal money: the moonshot and the Interstate highway system.) But there was already a difference on the social axis. Joe McCarthy was a Republican, and much of the McCarthyist oppression was coming from the Republican side of the aisle. (According to a 1953 Gallup poll, public opinion of McCarthy was neutral among Democrats, but Republicans supported McCarthy more than 3 to 1).

    So when we say that Orwell is left-wing, we mean to say that he was primarily opposed to social control, as practiced by his contemporary right-wing politicians (McCarthy) – and, paradoxically, by the very people McCarthy was trying to combat: Stalinist-type communists. Neither 1984 nor Animal Farm express any opinions about the economic axis (welfare state vs free market zero-tax state), which dominates the left vs right discourse as of 2011.

  18. Andrew Gelman says:

    Zarkov:

    I've read a lot of Orwell and he definitely identified with the left. He was anti-Stalinist, yes, but still on the left side of the political spectrum.

    Nameless:

    The political square to which you refer is itself a politically loaded idea. Social conservatives don't define themselves as socially restrictive but rather as wanting to support tradition. Economic liberals (in the U.S. sense) don't define themselves as economically restrictive but rather as supporting economic prosperity. To define social conservatism as social control or to define economic conservatism as government spending itself expresses a strong political position. Regarding Orwell, he consistently defined himself as a socialist and he supported massive expansion of the welfare state.

  19. Rand says:

    You guys think too small.

    1984 is the best anti-organized-religion tract ever written.

  20. Nameless says:

    That's just semantics. All we need to say is that liberals are consistently in favor of greater personal freedom than conservatives (can you think of a more reviled institution on the right than ACLU?) and at the same time in favor of stronger regulation and stronger welfare state than conservatives. And the relative relevance of these two factors today is completely different from 1949.

    Orwell personally lived through the greatest expansion of the welfare state in the UK (for example, the NHS was launched in 1948, and income tax rates in the highest bracket were hiked somewhere into the 70% to 80% range around the same time), and there's nothing in '1984' to suggest that he was insufficiently happy with the state of the economy or fearful of reversion to libertarianism.

  21. Wonks Anonymous says:

    McCarthy was a senator who claimed the government was employing people in sensitive positions who were security risks. A completely separate issue from the House Unamerican Activities Committee, which was founded during the "Brown Scare" which preceded the 50s "Red Scare".

    I agree that Orwell the man can be considered as a man of the left, and a socialist more specifically. But in 1984 there's basically just an attack on a particular manifestation of socialism from his time. The ideology of the Party is even identified as "English Socialism", or "Ingsoc". He seemed to go about as far as a leftist can in trying to enlist the sympathies or non or even anti leftist readers.

  22. Wow, this absurd notion that a powerful and intrusive government cannot be associated with the political right is astonishing.

    It's as if these libertarian-inflected ideas have an awareness of political history that encompasses only the post-WWI era and which also necessarily elides contemporaneous Fascism.

    There's something very intellectually impoverished about American political discourse.

  23. Rick Wicklin says:

    While I don't debate that 1984 is a good choice, I am a big science fiction reader. In that genre, I nominate
    Robert Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land
    Aldous Huxley: Brave New World
    Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451
    Isaac Asimov: The Foundation Trilogy

    All are widely read and make political statements. Although the Foundation Trilogy isn't too liberal, it gets a special mention since the main theme is that statistics can be used to predict the long-term behavior of civilizations!

  24. Robert Bell says:

    How about "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists" as the ultimate left wing novel?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ragged_Trousered

  25. Mercy says:

    1984 is structurally similar to Atlas Shrugged: both are dystopian novels which contain a long essay where the author reveals much of their view on politics. But as we've seen in this thread Orwell is the complete opposite of Rand socially, so popular among conservatives that they'll go to great lengths to argue that he wasn't really a socialist.

    The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is the social equivalent, a book that can only appeal to true believers, many of whom will admit that it isn't particularly well crafted.

  26. Tom says:

    I would second the nomination of Lewis' It Can't Happen Here, though it's been so long since I read London that he might be the better example.

    The "political square," separating economic views from social views, is useful. Another approach is to distinguish the ownership of wealth (economics) from the control of wealth (politics). The control of wealth axis runs from authoritarian and centrist to participatory and decentralized, while the ownership axis runs from common ownership to private ownership. The political axis can be seen to run from authoritarian through strong federal government to pure consensus-based government. Traditionally, liberalism has been in in the corner of private ownership and participatory control of wealth (i.e. egalitarianism), while conservativism has been in the opposite corner. In the U.S., however, public ownership of wealth is so unpopular that conservatives and liberals generally agree on private ownership but disagree on control of wealth.

    The debate currently going on in Michigan and the ongoing debate over health care are good examples, where liberals and conservatives fall about where you'd expect on this matrix. The early debate in the U.S. between the Federalits, most notably Hamilton, and the anti-Federalists, notably Jefferson, also exemplifies this distinction. On both sides was agreement over private ownership (as compared to later Marxist theory) but disagreement over the control of wealth.

    @subdee "leftists," or liberals, do not generally have a goal of "more regulation and State control." If anything, such concepts are antithetical to liberalism. However, liberals do believe in participatory government, and have been known to respond to inequalities that threaten such participatory involvement with greater public oversight. Of course, conservatives will also use more government and State control to achieve more centralized or authoritarian control of wealth (see Michigan), but can also go the other way and pursue less government as a means of allowing the control of wealth to be centralized in the hands of the wealthy (I think that this fits Rand's writings, though I admit to a limited familiarity).

  27. Miles McNerney says:

    Orwell's being a leftist doesn't make his novels left-wing. May depend more on the reader.

    I knew a hardcore Republican who was something of an Orwell fan. He thought Animal Farm showed the failure of communist Russia, and 1984 demonstrated the evils of an all-powerful state. Both novels argued right-libertarian ideologies (to him).