Ever since Marx, the concept of class has been foundational to sociology—as well as to almost everything else. This would not have surprised the German economist, for class, as he saw it, determines all: one’s motivations, one’s social position, even one’s consciousness. Britain, where Marx’s Capital was written, has long been known for its intricate class system, and as such is the source of much writing on the subject. Two of the most acerbic English social critics of the past century, George Orwell and Theodore Dalrymple, take class as a central subject. Drawing on firsthand experience (Orwell as a journalist, Dalrymple as a prison doctor and psychiatrist), both document in detail the suffering and privations of the class below them. Both also contend that a central cause of this poverty is the indifference of the middle and upper classes, a conclusion Marx would surely have agreed with. Yet, despite this, their work stands in flat contradiction to Marx’s central dogma that the material conditions of a society determine everything about it, including class. In their literary journalism, the authors’ social commentaries and insights into the human condition far surpass Marx’s “scientific” analysis.
To begin, it is worth considering the work of historian David Starkey, who argues that the essential class distinction is not the one Marx drew, of proletarians and their bourgeois oppressors. Instead, it is between manual workers, whose trade is material, and the professions, whose work is knowledge—and it dates back to antiquity. This was the key dividing line in Roman society, differentiating slaves from citizens. The slaves did the manual labour (craftsmen, porters, servants), while the liberal (i.e., free) arts of the professions (statecraft, oratory, literature) were reserved for free men. The same distinction between the learned literate and the masses can be traced all the way through ecclesiastical Christianity to the modern professions of law, medicine, and academia, all of whose structures are based on that of the medieval clergy. On this model, credentialled, learned authorities profess revealed knowledge to the untrained layman. Today, these secular clergy are reverentially known as “experts”. But it is in the nature of these professions, which, being based on ideas, always begin at least one step removed from material reality, to get carried away with their own dogmas. This is especially true where there is no worldly authority against which to verify their claims. If an architect or engineer is a fraud, his buildings are likely to fail. In academic peer review, only the initiated have the credentials required to judge.
That class is a function more of outlook than income was clear to Orwell, as he explains in his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier, which depicts both the privations of working-class life and the British class system as a whole.
Orwell describes how the “lower-upper-middle-class” (Orwell’s own), generally professionals in the “Army, Navy, Church, Medicine [or] Law”, understood and aspired to all the many customs of the upper classes (hunting, servants, how to order dinner correctly) despite never being able to afford them. Thus, “To belong to this class when you were [only] at the £400 a year level was a queer business, for it meant that your gentility was almost purely theoretical.” This same dynamic applies today (though the bourgeois values aspired to now are quite different): a poor librarian is far less likely than a wealthy plumber to have voted for causes like Brexit or Trump, which are both populist and, thus, lower-class.
Themselves men of letters, both Orwell and Dalrymple understand that this class distinction is frequently signalled through language. “As for the technical jargon of the Communists,” writes Orwell, “it is as far removed from the common speech as the language of a mathematical textbook.” Such contorted academic prose means little to the ordinary worker, for whom, Orwell argues, Socialism simply means “justice and common decency.” Indeed, Orwell laments that “the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents” because of their distance from everyday concerns and inability to speak plainly. Summarising the problem, he quips: “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.”
A lifelong socialist, Orwell was repeatedly frustrated by the symptoms of this intellectual snobbery—why do the revolutionaries have such disdain for the ordinary punter? Dalrymple, meanwhile, in his essay “How—and How Not—to Love Mankind,” takes aim at its roots. Here, Dalrymple compares the life and work of Marx to his now lesser-known contemporary, Russian novelist and playwright Ivan Turgenev. Though their lives closely resembled one another’s, Dalrymple argues, “They nevertheless came to view human life and suffering in very different, indeed irreconcilable, ways—through different ends of the telescope, as it were. Turgenev saw human beings as individuals always endowed with consciousness, character, feelings, and moral strengths and weaknesses. Marx saw them always as snowflakes in an avalanche, as instances of general forces, as not yet fully human because utterly conditioned by their circumstances.”
The problem, for Dalrymple, is abstraction. As Kant understood in his Critique of Pure Reason, theory alone, unchecked by experience, is always liable to overextend itself. This intellectual narcissism is portrayed archetypally in literature by Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost. Cast out of Heaven and bent on revenge, he declares bitterly: “The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”
Thus, preferring his mind’s eye to reality, the idealist intellectual creates glittering cathedrals in the sky; it is only when construction begins that problems start to arise. Marx’s mechanical theory of society reduces real individuals, with their hopes and fears, beliefs and desires, to mere abstract “classes”. He subordinates reality—messy, limited, and all too human—to a perfect model in which utopia is the only possible outcome. As Dalrymple puts it: “Marx’s eschatology, lacking all common sense, all knowledge of human nature, rested on abstractions that were to him more real than the actual people around him.”
For Orwell, a key cause of such ideological pretensions is the abuse of language. The question is whether one sees plain speaking as a virtue. “If you simplify your language,” writes Orwell in Politics and the English Language, “you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy.” He is concerned especially with “the invasion of one’s mind of ready-made phrases”—the hallmark of being a mere puppet to conventional wisdom or ideological dogma, rather than actually thinking.
Dalrymple illustrates this in a recent essay, in which he excoriates the inane word salad accompanying a London art exhibition. Though it may be incomprehensible, he explains, that “does not mean it is without function. It mystifies, the better to extract public funds to support those who want to play at being artists, who ‘perform composites,’ ‘create interventions’ and ‘presence their objectification’ while focusing on (surprise, surprise) race and gender.” Dalrymple notes that the class element underlying this prose necessarily takes on an “Emperor’s new clothes” dynamic: “No arts bureaucrat wants to admit these pompous, profoundish-sounding statements convey nothing to him.” This is language used less for communication than for the pursuit of social status.
Orwell aptly explains the mental process behind such writing: “When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing, you probably hunt about till you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning.”
Orwell knew what the postmodernist philosophers denied: that reality exists prior to language. Words do not exist in and of themselves—they refer to real things or potentially real ideas. The right-on artist who “performs composites of plants, animals, elements and people” is less trying to describe an existing reality (what on Earth does that mean?) than to demonstrate her immense linguistic skill. Instead of finding the right words to express an idea, she stitches words jarringly together, then leaves it to the reader to wonder what they could possibly refer to.
Both writers criticise intellectuals’ pretentious jargon, but it is worth pausing over how each relates his own social position to their subject matter. In a telling passage of Wigan Pier, Orwell describes the working man who has made it into the middle class, perhaps as a Labour MP or trade union official, as “one of the most desolating spectacles the world contains. He has been picked out to fight for his mates, and all it means to him is a soft job and a chance of ‘bettering’ himself. Not merely while but by fighting the bourgeoisie he becomes bourgeois himself.” The scare quotes reflect Orwell’s mixed feelings about social class: does Orwell not believe that a middle-class career—such as his own—is an improvement over the harsh, backbreaking labour of the miners he so vividly documents? He has hit on a deep dilemma, born of a compassionate humanism that points in contradictory directions.
Ostensibly, Orwell chronicles poverty in order to change it, to shock the comfortable hearts of his readers into action. Yet, at the same time, (romanticising the poor against his own advice), he presents the dirt as liberating: squalor and poverty are in some sense more authentic, more real than bourgeois comforts. Thus, as literary critic John Carey argues, Orwell’s “phobia about lower-class dirt collides head-on with his determination to invest dirt with political value, as the price of liberty.”
For Carey, Orwell’s class confusion stems from guilt. It is clear at least that much of Orwell’s harshest criticism is reserved for his own social milieu. Indeed, he writes: “It is strange how easily almost any Socialist writer can lash himself into frenzies of rage against the class to which, by birth or by adoption, he himself invariably belongs.” True enough, Orwell’s polemics take the form of acerbic wit, not apoplectic fury, but he is certainly self-deprecating just like the bourgeois Marxist who, one always suspects, protests too much. In proclaiming their hatred for privilege, they both confess their own privilege and seek atonement for it. As Carey thus explains, “Dirt, if sufficient of it got on him, could make up for [Orwell’s] past career as an imperialist oppressor.”
Theodore Dalrymple, by contrast, leans into his upper-class conservatism. Anthony Daniels’s pompous pen name is a deliberate caricature of an upper-class English gentleman (Eric Blair’s nom de plume edges in the opposite direction). His essays, written for a conservative US audience in City Journal, show a cultivated man lamenting a culture in rapid decline. The irony of this is that his unabashed upper-class perspective, in fact, puts him gravely at odds with the fashions of the British intelligentsia in his time of writing (as it still does). In the memorable final essay of Life at the Bottom, ‘Seeing Is Not Believing’, he recounts being invited to a lunch at a “famous and venerable liberal publication” to which he is a dissident contributor (surely the New Statesman). “Around the lunch table (from which, I’m glad to say, British proletarian fare was strictly excluded) were gathered people of impeccable liberal credentials: the one exception being myself.”
This aside demonstrates why his liberal credentials are lacking. Unlike Orwell, Dalrymple has no qualms about declaring the superiority of better food and higher culture. Far from marking him out as a comfortable member of a snobbish elite, however, in so doing he fails to affirm the most sanctified shibboleth of contemporary liberal high society: a delicately cultivated moral relativism. In this simple aside, he has trampled over the doctrine of non-judgmentalism, that is, that there is nothing good or bad, dignified or venal—there is only difference. Worse still, his brutally honest depiction of underclass life offends the sensibilities of the mild-mannered guests. Not long into dinner, a fellow contributor, who reads Dalrymple’s columns with interest, asks bluntly: “Did [you] make it all up?” Dalrymple is no less incredulous: “Did I make it all up? It was a question I have been asked many times by middle-class liberal intellectuals, who presumably hope that the violence, neglect, and cruelty, the contorted thinking, the utter hopelessness, and the sheer nihilism that I describe week in and week out are but figments of a fevered imagination.”
The question is particularly galling coming as it does at the end of the book. The first 16 essays of Life at the Bottom (‘Goodbye, Cruel World’, ‘The Heart of a Heartless World’, ‘Lost in the Ghetto’, etc.) hauntingly document the misery and despair of the Birmingham slum in which he works, while the last five (including ‘The Rush from Judgment’, ‘How Criminologists Foster Crime’, and ‘Seeing Is Not Believing’) lay the blame for these conditions squarely at the feet of those bold reformers whose liberating vision has occasioned such social collapse. This narrative structure—a deep dive into the dirt followed by a polemic against the intellectuals who enable it—closely parallels that of The Road to Wigan Pier.
The contrast between dirt and polemic is most striking because of the authors’ touching portrayals of the plight of the underclass. Orwell begins the book with a long description of his dirty lodgings and their down-and-out denizens, dwelling always on the smells of the house and the men, which disgust him. He is soon anxious to leave the slums, but as he does, he sees from a distance a young woman unclogging a drainpipe, and out of nowhere comes the following heartbreaking vignette:
She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that ‘It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us,’ and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her—understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.
This brief human connection is enough for Orwell to empathise deeply with her plight; she is no different to him.
Dalrymple similarly pulls no punches in his essay ‘Lost in the Ghetto:’ “One of the terrible fates that can befall a human being is to be born intelligent or sensitive in an English slum. It is like a long, slow, exquisite torture devised by a sadistic deity from whose malevolent clutches escape is almost impossible.” He describes the life of a patient who, inexplicably, has a great love of French literature and hoped thereby to escape. She is bullied relentlessly at school for being clever but nevertheless makes it to university. Afterwards, having no money, she returns home and decides to teach, but a pupil attempts to rape her, immediately cutting short her career. Now all she wants is to leave. “Perhaps, she mused, it would have been better had she surrendered to the majority while she was still at school: for her heroic struggle had brought her little but three years’ respite from misery.”
Here again is a character who is similar to the reader in every way but her unfortunate social position. Unlike in Orwell’s time, poverty in the era of the welfare state is less material than spiritual. As he explains: “where knowledge is not preferable to ignorance and high culture to low, the intelligent and the sensitive suffer a complete loss of meaning. The intelligent self-destruct; the sensitive despair.” Both authors blame the intelligentsia but for different reasons: Orwell, for living the life of high culture without affording it to anyone else; Dalrymple, for the same, but while also claiming that there really is no difference between high and low, anyway. He concludes pithily: “The absence of standards, as Ortega y Gasset remarked, is the beginning of barbarism: and modern Britain is well past the beginning.”
In their social commentaries—which may deal with general trends but are always about individuals—Orwell and Dalrymple are Turgenev, not Marx. They do not deal primarily in abstractions. They write clearly and perceptively; their truths are unvarnished. Though middle-class and professional, they do not seek to profess. Rather they inquire, document, and reflect. But crucially, they also judge. Seeing themselves in their subjects, they dismiss nothing as being merely how the other half lives. In Marx’s mechanical view of society, no one can transcend their class interest. But these two great English writers prove him wrong. All one needs is a little empathy, honesty, and imagination.