For A Luxury Leftism

If socialism isn’t about giving people nice things and good times, what on earth is it about?

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Luxury and leftism are too frequently seen as antagonists. But need they be? Is it so inconceivable that one could simultaneously be a leftist and enjoy one’s lifeTake a moment, please, dear reader, and kindly examine the image below:

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Assess your feelings about it. What shall we say is going on here? Yes, yes, it’s some kind of communist party. But do we have thoughts on it, and if so of what sort? We seem to find ourselves with a depiction of radical chic, that comically hypocritical form of pseudo-revolutionary self-indulgence. Our revelers like Karl Marx very much. And yet there they sit, fondling their pearls and sipping their brandies. How laughable their devotion to the cause of the workingman! What poseurs, what impostors!

And yet: perhaps our little cadre of caviar commies are not so indefensible as they seem. For our revulsion at them surely stems from their failure of principle: they talk of revolution as they clink their glasses, they gobble gazpacho as the world burns. They are sippers, flitters, dilettantes.

But what if the world does not burn? Perhaps we are assuming a little much. What if all human problems have been solved? What if we exist in a state of perfect equality? Then may we have pearls and Marx alike, without incurring opprobrium? Is there a certain point at which one may both be a leftist and enjoy one’s self?

“Ah,” you may reply, “but what of the waiter? Surely he gives it away. Your precious egalitarian paradise is illusory, there remains an unacknowledged servant class.”

But this is where you err. You assume that this gentleman is a waiter. This only demonstrates the limits of your imaginative powers. Why should it not be possible to rotate the role of donning the moustache and pouring the wine? Why must we assume that this man does not pour wine for the sheer joy of pouring it? Can we not take pleasure in taking turns serving one another?

There is, broadly speaking, something sound to the charge of hypocrisy around left-wing extravagance. The mansions possessed by Al Gore and the Obamas are an outrage. But they are an outrage because they exist in a time of great suffering, not because the world should not have mansions in it. The problem is not the existence of riches, but the failure to allow all to share equally in them. Progressives who wall themselves off from the poor, buy themselves beautiful things, and stop caring seriously about equality are monsters. But this is no indictment of beautiful things, or of human beings possessing them. The crime is the failure to share.

The problem with limousine liberalism, then, was not the limousines, but the liberals. Radicals should be chic, revolutionaries should drink excellent wine. Anarchist flophouses, abounding in filth and with defective plumbing, present no kind of vision for the future society. Any political movement that wishes to win people over must at least seem like it’s having a good time. The left’s suits must be well-tailored, its pastries must be fattening.

Never laugh, then, at the perfumed leftist. Would you wish them abominably scented? Gandhi said that we must be the change we wish to see in the world. I wish to see lovely libraries and comfortable chairs. Thus I have built myself a library and I am ensconced in a comfortable chair. There is nothing shameful about this. It could instead be called downright visionary.

There is still no excuse for stinginess, there is still no justification for inequality. One should still care about others as much as one cares about oneself. Many of the goods and services traditionally favored by the leisure class are tainted by inherent injustice. Blood diamonds and furs should revolt the soul. Nobody should employ a butler. Et cetera. But the fundamental principle must be this: things ought to be nice, and if they are not nice, then they are not leftist.

The left frequently seems to embrace an unappealing and Spartan set of aesthetic values. It stands for minimalism, sobriety, and self-abnegation. The left is Swedish, i.e. boring. This is no good. Our values must be toward joy, indulgence, and a pleasant time to be had by all. We will build cathedrals, we will wear incredible jewels, we will throw delightful parties and everyone will be invited.

One must always be careful not to go too far in the direction of the hedonistic, however. Again, the central principle here is: the good must be shared, not hoarded. Loving yourself is acceptable, but loving only yourself is not. It is very easy to develop a series of convenient justifications for one’s indefensible acts, and one of the central problems of liberalism is that it has allowed rich people to think that being rich in a time of deprivation is morally acceptable. (It is not.) But it is also true that we are attempting to lift everybody up into elation rather than drag them down into equal opportunity misery.

Consider this a call, then, for a truly luxurious leftism. One that does not deprive itself of the good things in life, but which shares them abundantly with all. When we say let them eat cake, we are serious: there must be cake, it must be good cake, and it must be had by all. The reason Marie Antoinette needed beheading was not that she wished cake on the poor, but that she never actually gave them any.

The international proletarian class deserves the very best.

Illustration by Chris Matthews