What is the ultimate left-wing novel?

by on March 4, 2011 at 7:17 am in Books, Economics, Education | Permalink

Isaac L. writes to me:

I am hoping you and your readers can help settle an issue. I am a left-leaning voter.  A conservative friend and I recently discussed Atlas Shrugged, which he said was the ultimate right-wing novel. He challenged me to point him towards a left-wing novel that does for that side of politics what Rand does for the right. I think the book needs to do two things: justify the welfare state and argue the limitations of the invisible hand. While I can think of lots of non-fiction texts, I am drawing blank on fictional offerings.

Do you or your readers have any suggestions? Any assistance would be greatly appreciated.

What jumps to mind is Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, but if you read the request carefully it does not qualify.  Here is a list of thirty famous left-wing novels, heavy on the mid- to late nineteenth century.  There is Bronte, Dickens, Hugo, Sinclair, Zola, Gorky, Jack London, and Edward Bellamy.  None of these books is as analytically or philosophically comprehensive as the novels of Ayn Rand. 

I would say that the story per se is usually left-wing, in both good and bad ways.  It elevates the seen over the unseen, can easily portray a struggle for justice, focuses on the anecdote, and encourages us to judge social institutions by the intentions of the people who work in them, rather than looking at their deeper and longer-term outcomes.  Precisely because the story is itself so left-wing, there won't be a definitive example of the left-wing novel.  Story-telling encourages context-dependent thinking, although not necessarily in an accurate manner.  One notable feature of Atlas Shrugged is how frequently the story-telling stops for a long speech or an extended dialogue, in order to explain some first principles to the reader.

1 Cahal March 4, 2011 at 3:31 am

The problem is that right wing principles are far more easy to define than left wing ones. You have posted about this before; conservatives are usually less flexible due to the very nature of their beliefs.

The only possible example I can think of is '23 things they don't tell you about capitalism' which presents a good case for big government, regulation and so forth.

2 recherche femme russe March 24, 2011 at 7:27 pm

I searched for this theme! Of course a lot of writers and critics would disagree with me, and would argue that art should be political, to which I can only shrug and say there’s a lot of uninteresting political “art” that nobody cares about.

3 Pepe March 4, 2011 at 3:40 am

I think the real problem is that Ayn Rand was both a bad novelist and a bad philosopher. You won't find many novels where the story-telling stops for philosophical/political sections because its a bad writing tactic. Good fiction does not "tell" its principles like that.

4 Cahal March 4, 2011 at 3:45 am

OK I've just realised I completely missed the fiction vs non-fiction part. Apologies.

5 Dan March 4, 2011 at 3:58 am

The fact that it's a children's book (and short) aside, The Lorax probably fits the bill ideologically.

6 Jonm March 4, 2011 at 4:05 am

What Pepe said. The Jungle, maybe? There is nothing with such a cultish following though.

7 Charley March 4, 2011 at 4:09 am

Jude the Obscure is a great novel about class aspirations, and the constraints against those aspirations. (I'm not sure if that makes it a left-wing novel.)

8 Jon Sealy March 4, 2011 at 4:09 am

That's an interesting point about "story" in general being left-wing. One thing I would add is that the point of fiction is to put the reader in the mind of someone else as they experience a variety of trials and tribulations, which is the definition of compassion.

But I think looking for political ideology in fiction misses the point, because fiction that is overtly ideological becomes a polemic, not art — think Uncle Tom's Cabin or Native Son (polemics) vs. The Known World or Beloved (art). Of course a lot of writers and critics would disagree with me, and would argue that art should be political, to which I can only shrug and say there's a lot of uninteresting political "art" that nobody cares about.

Where I do see the left vs. right divide in fiction is in terms of human nature, whether the novelist believes people can change or whether there is some essentialist core. Dickens, for instance, might be left-leaning in his sense of human nature (even Scrooge can be transformed), vs. Dostoevsky, who is quite paranoid of left-leaning utopians because (I think) he has fairly conservative conception of human nature.

9 Arthur March 4, 2011 at 4:12 am

I also thought to suggest "The Player of Games" by Iain Banks. Much of the book is a detailed comparison of the nature of a communist society versus a capitalist society.

10 Marie March 4, 2011 at 4:24 am

So, what would be considered a right-wing novel OTHER than Ayn Rand's books? Is she an outlier of the right and is trying to compare to her futile?

11 celestus March 4, 2011 at 4:26 am

On a more serious note, Paul Krugman became an economist because of the Foundation novels, though it doesn't fit the specific criteria you're looking for.

12 A jerk March 4, 2011 at 4:26 am

The correct answer is clear, obviously, and absolutely:

Looking Backward.

No other submission required, thank you.

13 A jerk March 4, 2011 at 4:30 am

Going against my own statement, I'll also throw in Phillip Dru: Administrator, but only as a supplement to Bellamy. It has the benefit of being actually written by one of the prime architects of the modern progressive state.

14 Rahul March 4, 2011 at 4:35 am

It is easier to write a good right wing novel because right wing ideas are elegant, intuitive and appealing. It almost feels like math. That does not mean they are correct. It is a elegant, albeit simplistic model of the world. A lot of left wing material is derived from flaws or complexities that the right-wing models ignore. Generally second order effects. But they tend to be harder to communicate. It is easier to explain efficient markets and rational consumers than inefficiencies and irrationalities.

Another reason could be that free market philosophies are more tried and tested. If communism had succeeded maybe more left wing novels would be out there. It would demand a lot of credulity on the readers to believe in a successful left-ideal society and protagonists when most of what he sees around him is contrary and most left experiments have failed miserably.

15 Kien March 4, 2011 at 4:51 am

The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) seem pretty left-wing, although many right-wing Christians may not realise it. Luke has Jesus start a populist movement by proclaiming liberty to the oppressed, and commending the poor (but warning the rich), and even befriending the widely despised tax collectors, telling the lawyers to render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar!

16 DK March 4, 2011 at 4:57 am

Plato's Republic is the ultimate left wing story, with its philosopher-kings planning everyone's education, marriage, and family life for the greater good in accordance with expert opinion. It is beyond classification into fiction or nonfiction, but it's a better read that most of either, and it is where the whole progressive movement began, even if today's progressives have modernized most of the values at stake.

17 Oskar March 4, 2011 at 5:08 am

Upton Sinclair was the first thing that came to my mind, but I have to admit that if I were to identify the works that have shaped my thinking about the world and influenced my lefty views the most, it's Charles Dickens. He's not trying to beat your head in with a political philosophy (because, as many has already pointed out, that makes both bad literature and bad philosophy) but because he so beautifully portrays real poverty. One of the biggest problem I have with right-wing political philosophy is their insistence that circumstance doesn't matter, that it doesn't matter whether your family is poor or not, if you're just industrious and entrepreneurial enough you can succeed. They, clearly, have never lived in poverty, and would do well to educate themselves.

18 Kevin March 4, 2011 at 5:23 am

The Great American Liberal Novel, I'll suggest, is Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird". It's easy to overlook this book because segregation is now a dead letter and it's written from a child's point of view. The sine qua non of a leftist novel, though, is that it stipulates some great social problem which individuals have to confront by challenging (and to some extent repudiating) conventional social norms (often ones backed by the rest of the community, law enforcement, etc). Other Americans who have written in this tradition include Sinclair, Dreiser, Lewis, Steinbeck. If we were having this conversation circa 1970, indeed, this kind of social novel had become so familiar people might have gotten hung on the topic of why conservatives didn't write them as well (with Rand being the feathered fish, the one who tried). I'm not sure why people don't write them today. I think it has something to do with the fact that most people don't read novels anymore for this sort of social criticism.

19 Jim March 4, 2011 at 5:35 am

Funny how it's hard to name left-wing novels whereas most films are very left-wing.

I suppose that "corporations are evil" can hold up for a 95-minute movie with a hot chick in it but gets rather stale across three hundred pages.

20 JohnH March 4, 2011 at 5:48 am

The Iron Council – by China Mieville is very much a left wing novel. The writer is an avowed marxist who has been pigeonholed as writing "wierd fiction" and most of his novels could be said to have a maxist viewpoint in them, often in the background but with iron council it was definitely in foreground as it depicted socialist revolution and collective action – just in a fantasy setting

which is probably teeing itself up for any right wing critics wanting to take a shot at it.

21 Carl March 4, 2011 at 5:52 am

I am pretty sure Atlas Shrugged itself is itself a wildly liberal novel. It deconstructs itself beautifully.

22 IVV March 4, 2011 at 5:59 am

Reading these comments, it's clear to me that I don't understand what is meant by "left-wing" and "right-wing".

Could someone please state what they mean?

(Maybe it's because I have trouble separating the concepts of "state", "corporation", and "group of people working towards some goal"?)

23 A jerk March 4, 2011 at 6:02 am

Incidentally, people should be aware that there is much space to the right of Atlas Shrugged, which more or less supports "anarchy plus a street constable".

24 DaveyNC March 4, 2011 at 6:06 am

Pretty much anything by Dos Passos or Steinbeck.

I think it's easier to right a novel with a right wing philosophy because conservatives are more concerned with the more basic, primary needs as in Maslow; the bottom two levels of the pyramid. Left wing philosophy is more concerned with the peak of the pyramid, Self-Actualization. Which, by the way, cannot happen until the lower level needs have been met. So, look for a novel that posits a world in which there is no hunger, no fear, nothing to live or die for. In other words, John Lennon's sappy "Imagine" sums it all up in that one song. Which sounds boring and insipid as hell.

25 todd March 4, 2011 at 6:11 am

Is it too late in the day to simply reject the premise of the question? How is any Rand book an "ultimate" right-wing novel? In America? C'mon. Leave aside the hack writing style. The basis of her philosophical system is totally antithetical to the sizable majority American conservatives. Is anyone more pro-choice than Rand? Is anyone more atheistic than Rand? Especially anti-Christian? I don't know who you think makes up the right-wing in this country, but to borrow a phrase from Woody Allen: If any of them ever actually read "Atlas Shrugged" (which they will not be doing any time soon), they would never stop throwing up.

"Atlas Shrugged" may very well qualify as the ultimate bad massive Objectivist-Libertarian philosophical fiction. I guess. But right-wing? Nope.

26 bluto March 4, 2011 at 6:17 am

Les Miserables, gets my vote.

27 Tomas March 4, 2011 at 6:29 am

Orwell's Homage to Catalonia.

28 *daniel March 4, 2011 at 7:13 am

I don't want a comprehensively left wing novel. Rand's novels are long-form tracts, and have about as much enjoyability as a tract. I never, ever want to read something that dry and artless again. I don't want any author to write a novel about their worldview. It's like taking pictures of your lens to show how awesome your camera is.

29 dirk March 4, 2011 at 7:36 am

Agree with Pepe.

The question is loaded because Atlas Shrugged isn't a novel in the traditional literary sense. A novel in the Western sense from Cervantes on presents existence in the form of a question not in the form of an answer. A propaganda piece is something else.

Many of Kurt Vonnegut's works are bold-faced pro-union, pro-socialist works, but those are exactly his worst "novels". His best novels explore themes but don't take a position.

30 OneEyedMan March 4, 2011 at 7:38 am

It does seem as though Rand represents the ultimate libertarian novel rather than the ultimate liberal one. That allows The Dispossessed and Bank's culture novels to be closer to anarchist novels rather than left wing ones. I thought it was interesting that both leaned very heavily on near-omniscient computers to do the business of governing and markets.

When I hear left wing novel, I think of one in which the regulatory and progressive tax agenda is advanced and the failings of traditional institutions and markets are highlighted. To that end, I'd single out the Jungle for the way it focuses on the need for unions, regulation of real estate, food processing, and labor contracts, and the out-sized effect of the rich on the political process. The jungle may be only fourth in political influence of any book in America behind the bible, Atlas Shrugged, and Uncle Tom's Cabin.

31 gappy3000 March 4, 2011 at 7:39 am

I agree with a couple of commenters above: Atlas Shrugged is neither the ultimate conservative nor the ultimate libertarian novel. Rand is too systematic, too idiosyncratic and too poor a writer to qualify. Tolkien seems to me the ultimate conservative author; as for a libertarian novelist, I am not sure. But I think Kundera is Hayekian, if not libertarian.

As for left-wing novel/novelists: Zola, naturalists, and verists (in Italy) don't qualify. They are closer to Proudhon than Marx, and so is Dickens. And London is just an anarchist, really. I'd say that socialist realism produced the ultimate left-wing novels, even if they are not much read by American leftists (if they did, they would not be leftists). Pretty much all Gorky's work, but especially "Mother", and John Reed's "Ten Days that shook the world".

32 Ben March 4, 2011 at 7:46 am

Agree with Cahul and Erik above: The outlook on the left (notwithstanding Bolshevism/Maoism) tends to look toward the "gaps" in society that the conventional narrative leaves out; hence, the left does not cohere around one single narrative or idea. I would say the entire idea of the novel is somewhat "leftist" in that a novel should challenge one's perspective and provoke new thought and emotion.

That said, Dos Passos's USA trilogy is the premier "leftist" novel. Ayn Rand is a joke.

33 Dan Tarrant March 4, 2011 at 8:02 am

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis is the ultimate left-wing novel.

34 figleaf March 4, 2011 at 8:10 am

"…It definitely justifies the welfare state," Hello? "Plato's Republic is the ultimate left wing story, with its philosopher-kings planning everyone's education, marriage, and family life for the greater good in accordance with expert opinion." Seriously?

I guess you'll have to do a better job of defining "left wing" then. Because you're describing the governments of Singapore, Oman and similar Gulf emirates, Red China, and maybe Japan, or, for something a little more regimented, Germany and Italy in the 1930s and maybe England in the 1940s when Orwell was writing 1984. On the business side Apple and WalMart are both philosophically committed to dictating the behavior of their customers, suppliers, employees, and the communities in which they operate. And I don't know if any of the readers here are well to do enough to be able to afford life on a covenant-based gated community or co-op apartment but sweet mother of pearl, talk about planned economies! I appreciate that Glenn Beck might consider any of those "left wing" but I doubt there are many people in the American mainstream left who'd agree. There are certainly none of any significance.

I'm with Kien, above, that the ultimate progressive/liberal "novel" would be the first four books of the New Testament. Virtually every sentence of which is anathema to Ayn Rand types specifically and the right wing in general.

I agree with Jeff J that most of Vonnegut's novels nicely capture the left's warily pragmatic attempts to mediate imbalances of power between government, private enterprise, and organized pressure groups. His novels certainly refute the hysterical fantasy that liberals imagine that only good can come from centralized power. In fact, the reason it's so difficult to pin down a definitive "left wing" book is that unlike Libertarians and Ayn Randians, liberals are wary of *all* forms of centralized power, not just centralized government.


35 Rahul March 4, 2011 at 9:37 am

1+ for Les Misrables

36 CharlieMcMenamin March 4, 2011 at 9:38 am

Does no one else remember William Morris and his News From Nowhere?

37 shane March 4, 2011 at 10:12 am

Huckleberry Finn and anything by Dickens.

38 John March 4, 2011 at 10:43 am

God Bless You Mr. Rosewater or Jailbird, both by Kurt Vonnegut.

39 Byrd March 4, 2011 at 11:05 am

Is Vonnegut intentionally being avoided? I'd point to Cat's Cradle, Player Piano or Jailbird (particularly with the ripping of Nixon). Certainly, Vonnegut disdains government just as another institution, but in the end, his novels focus on very positive liberal themes.

40 Steve Horwitz March 4, 2011 at 11:20 am

I'll echo the votes for *Looking Backward*. It was the *Atlas Shrugged* of its day.

41 AnotherPhil March 4, 2011 at 12:16 pm

“I think the book needs to do two things: justify the welfare state and argue the limitations of the invisible hand. While I can think of lots of non-fiction texts, I am drawing blank on fictional offerings.”

I think the above list of requirements is incomplete. Any leftist novel needs to justify statism and the omniscience,immutability, impeccability and benevolence of the state, as they are the functional apparatus and moral preconditions to the welfare state. Unfortunately the history of state power and its use make that implausible, if not impossible.

At some level, the purpose of a political novel is to illustrate and persuade the reader of some truth through the framework of fiction. However, the left is dedicated to the proposition that there is no truth or if it exists- it is so elusive that no group and certainly no person can rightly make a claim of possession. There’s no need of literature that’s explicitly fictitious if there’s no attainable truth. There is also no possibility of humor, tragedy, irony, heroism, villainy or any other necessary element of a great literary work when your zeitgeist is the individual as an inevitable victim of greater forces, without individual power or choice. (and as Paul Johnson pointed out in his book “Intellectuals”- merely a fungible and insignificant component of some abstract class to be used as a cudgel in the pursuit of political power).

Another factor leading to the dearth of leftist polemical novels of the type desired by the inquirer is that the left is inherently martial and authoritarian, (“I won”) so it sees no need of persuasion. The left wants submission, not agreement. That's why it is obsessed with state or collective action, and will resort to censorship and why its so unfamiliar with literary devices of subtle persuasion. There’s simply industry of persuasion among people merely awaiting an enforceable edict.

In addition, the left- especially the echo chambered retail left- appeals to the young and ignorant, in spite of the hubristic assertions to the contrary in this thread. As a result of that, and the fact that leftist impulses are essentially visercal emotions, not intellectual responses, the left’s literary devices are chants, slogans and other more compact literary forms. Those devices are more comprehensible by left’s foot soldiers. The purpose of leftist rhetoric isn’t inspiring the individual to think or act, but conditioning the individual to submit to the group and be acted upon (against). The principal aim of the left isn’t cool reason, but boiling rage. That’s why leftists, such as Steinbeck (among those cited in this thread) primarily wrote to incite indignation, not purpose and were descriptive, not prescriptive.

Snark Attack: The left reserves their lengthier writings for legislation that nobody reads.

“On a more serious note, Paul Krugman became an economist because of the Foundation novels, though it doesn't fit the specific criteria you're looking for.”

So what novel caused him to quit the profession and pursue his new career or was it just filthy lucre?

“Orwell's 1984 is THE ultimate left-wing novel.”

“also for Brave New World.”


“The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) seem pretty left-wing”

Only to somebody who thinks that a disclaimer to opine implied approval. Christ’s message was that in the long run, such matters don’t matter. You don’t have to be religious to understand that Rome and all its subjects have been dead a lot longer than they were alive.

42 Brendan March 4, 2011 at 12:42 pm


Just for the sake of open-mindedness and heterogeneity, this is an article that challenges some of the main assumptions of the post above

43 martin March 4, 2011 at 2:08 pm

"None of these books is as analytically or philosophically comprehensive …"

That I would argue is the crux of the matter. Note that for the same reasons, there are no left wing equivalents in the US to Fox News or AM talk radio. Seems to me the lhe liberal (not the far) left do not gravitate to the sort of easy one-size-fits-all solutions that the "new" right so readily hungers for. No bibles (ala Atlas Shrugged) for us. Give me the Grapes of Wrath or just about any Dickens and I can come to my own conclusions.

44 Shaun March 4, 2011 at 5:14 pm

"To Kill a Mockingbird" and "1984" are both good votes, but the most important left-wing novel is "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

For the past 33 years, however, the official novel of the Left has been Toni Morrison's "Beloved," although it has nothing to do with the welfare state or the limitations of the invisible hand. Unfortunately, neither does the Left anymore, which is why it's the perfect novel for the contemporary Left.

Good examples of novels that do express these concerns are anything in the naturalist tradition: Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris (esp. "The Octopus"), and Richard Wright come immediately to mind. As the literary critic Walter Benn Michaels has pointed out, the only significant production of this kind in the last 10 years is the TV show "The Wire."

45 Miguel Madeira March 4, 2011 at 5:55 pm

I think that there is a problem with all this thread, because it is not much clear what is intended by left-wing and right-wing.

When the concepts where invented in Europe, "right-wing" means the defense of elites and social hierarchies, while "left-wing" means egalitarianism (or at least theoretical defense of egalitarianism)

However, I have the impression that, in USA (probably because your political range is more narrow than ours – in USA you don't have significant left-wing or right-wing radicals in European sense), many people simply define "right-wing = free-market" and "left-wing = regulatory state".

Then, we have the polemics about Ayn Rand, Ursula LeGuin, Plato, etc. – Rand could be the ultimate right-winger in the "non-traditional definition", but are much more powerful right-wing novels in the "traditional definition" (but AS is a right-wing novel even according to the traditional sense); in contrast, LeGuin is a typically left-winger in the traditional sense, but not in the "non-traditional sense".

46 Curt F. March 4, 2011 at 6:08 pm

After further consideration, I now realize that The Grapes of Wrath is the ultimate left-wing novel.

47 DeG March 4, 2011 at 7:51 pm

Miguel, you're right, but your point misses something. USA has virtually none of the Right-winginess you describe as traditional Euro-right wing. Our conservatives do have a pro-ecclesiastical bent and are pro-military, but they don't want to see them become some uber-structure to keep the rabble in line. Our conservatives (when they're not shilling for corporate welfare) are more interested in individual freedoms…in the fashion of 19th century liberals, except less informed and with an extra dose of patriotic sentiment.

48 Bradley Gardner March 4, 2011 at 9:52 pm

I somewhat disagree that Atlas Shrugged is the ultimate right wing novel, because of its tendency to engage in a lot of self-indulgent egotism over actual defense of free markets. My vote would be:

Ultimate right wing novel: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad, for its well argued defense of foreign mining concessions in developing states

Ultimate left wing novel: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad, for its descriptions of all the negative side effects of foreign mining concessions in developing states.

49 Mercy March 5, 2011 at 2:25 am

I agree with the criticisms of Tyler's concept of what an ultimate-leftist novel should argue for, it's quite disappointing after his "attempt to honestly and sympathetically describe your opponents position" meme to see him fall for the old "everything I do only backwards" fallacy when deciding what should characterize their fiction. Though not as sad as all the commentators insisting that Dickens, Le Guin, etc must be wrong about being leftists because leftists are evil, or that non-Marxist leftism doesn't count (?!)

I'd agree with Pavel and David K that, between the unsubtle dystopia and the break for the author to shout at you, 1984 is the obvious structural equivalent of Atlas Shrugs. It fails as a comparison though because it transcended Orwell's socialism to become popular among many right-wingers and liberals. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a better analogue, because it's only selling factor is the propaganda, it's impossible to imagine a non-leftist liking it.

50 Tim March 5, 2011 at 6:37 am

Kurt Vonnegut's about as lefty as they come. But he wasn't a simplistic thinker. Which I think is the flaw in this question. I'm sure there are tons of left-wing polemics as bad as Ayn Rand. But they're bad books. So we don't read them.
People who read, on average are interested in learning new things and being exposed to new ideas. So even if they're conservative there's something in them that is interested in new ideas. Reading is by and large a liberal act.

51 Nathan W March 5, 2011 at 8:00 am

I would almost like to point back to Dickens (say, Hard Times, among others), but mostly because he remains better known and more widely read and studied than most modern literature (which I also have not read, for the most part).

52 rich March 5, 2011 at 4:19 pm

I recommend the New Mexico Trilogy: The Milagro Beanfield War, The Magic Journey, and The Nirvana Blues; by John Nichols. All three furiously left-wing and (especially The Milagro Beanfield War)very funny.

53 Miguel Madeira March 6, 2011 at 4:07 pm

"Reading is not a liberal act — unless you are talking about classical liberalism, Reading literature is individuating and liberating."

The same can be said about writing, and there is strong left-wing leanings within writers.

Can also be argued the opposite – that reading (or writing) are essentially left-wing acts – after all, when you read/write, you are prefering a "reality" created by human reason to the "real" reality created by a series of accidents accumulated during centuries (Tocquevillle, writing about the similarity between "literarry mentality" and "revolutionary mentality" wrote something as ""What is a merit in the writer may well be a vice in the statesman and the very qualities which go to make great literature can lead to catastrophic revolutions.")

54 Miguel Madeira March 7, 2011 at 3:11 am

"If you could name me a single success of left wing(Marxist) ideology in the history of the world"

A problem with that is that, apparently, Tyler was not looking for marxist novels, but for social-democratic/"liberal" novels (looks that he – or Issac L., but with TC endorsment – talks about "welfare state", not about "collective appropriation of the means of production").

But, even if we were talking about marxism, why the failure of marxism would imply that can't be an "ultimate marxist novel"? An ideology could be a complete failure in real life, but being capable of inspiring powerful literature (specially if it was writing before the failure becomes visible).

55 Miguel Madeira March 7, 2011 at 10:57 am

TC will have their own reasons, but my opinion:

"Is the right not concerned with (its own conception of) justice?"

The left is more prone to see things as a fight between good and evil (as the bad aristocrats/capitalists/imperialists vs. the good peasants/workers/"oppressed peoples"), while the right is more prone to think that "the world is a hard place" where you have to make difficult decisions and usually choose the lesser of the evils (style "the French – or Tzarist – absolutism was bad, but what came after?"; or "Yes, some income inequalities are shocking and immoral, but if you try to solve them, you will probably create even more problems") and that in much occasions an "unfair" order is better than the destruction of social fabric.

"Are leftists more likely to judge institutions by the intentions of their members? (In my experience, this cognitive error is the province of non-extremists, regardless of what they're not extreme about.) Exactly what about the unseen is to the right of the seen?"

The left is more prone to think that human reason could and should create a better society (and the problems of the world only are not solved because there is not political will to solve them), while the right is more prone to believe that there are things that can't be controlled by intentional human will nor understand by human reason and that the "Hell is full of good intentions" (and sometimes also the opposite – that many good things are the product of not particularly good intention); the classical liberal theory of "invisible hand" is a clear example of that.

[note that I am a Portuguese – I have the suspection that this pessimism, cepticism and resignation is not so strong in American right-wing as it is in European right-wing]

56 Henry R March 7, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Gulag Archipelago

57 Miguel Madeira March 8, 2011 at 7:29 am

"It's hard to write a great left-wing novel because the left-wing worldview is fundamentally pessimistic about human ability."

I think you want to say "individual ability" – if anything, the left-wing is over-optimist about "human ability" (of humans in large groups)

"you can't solve your own problems. You need government on your side against all the big powerful people."

My impression is that, in left-wing novels, the message is not usually that – the "collective hero" who saves the "helpless individual" is usually a union, or something like that, and usually the police and/or the army are in the side of "bad guys". More concretely – in many left-wing novels, the "happy end" (when there is an happy end") is not the government making a law raising wages, or giving land to landless peasants – more usually, the story is more in the lines of workers secretly creating an union, entering in strike, having many fights with the police, "scabs" and boss's militias, some of them are imprisioned, perhaps one or two is dead, but in the end the boss accepts the union's demand; or, the peasants try to invade the lands of the big landlord, are expelled by the police, but, in the end, they end up occupying the land (in modern versions, we have poor neighborhoods making sit-ins against development projects in favor of powerful bussines, or something like that)

But, really, this makes indeed difficult to find novels justifying the welfare state, because the message of left-wing novels is more "join the union – divided we are weak, united we are strong", not "vote for the Democrats and you will have more food stamps".

What Tyler Cowen and Isaac L. are asking is by "modern liberal" novels, not by left-wing novels (like, btw, Atlas is a classical liberal novel, not a specifically right-wing novel)

58 Nalph Rader March 9, 2011 at 12:33 pm

Can anyone here comment on Ralph Nader's 736-page novel, "Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!"?

Its premise and size might qualify it for nomination as the ultimate left-wing novel. But the proof is in the pudding.

59 rmangum March 21, 2011 at 1:32 pm

It’s interesting that Hard Times comes in at #2 on that list you link to, because in many ways it’s as critical of what we have come to call “the left” since that time. The novel features an ugly caricature of a capitalist in Bounderby, to be sure, but it also features an ugly caricature of a demagogic union leader. Dicken’s has Gradgrind name one of his children after Adam Smith, but it was the classical liberal Smith who provided a critique of the Gradgrind type long before Dickens, in what Smith called “the man of system” who

“is apt to be very wise in his own conceit, & is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. . . . he seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the pieces upon a chess-board . . .”

Though hardly a member of the power elite, Gradgrind is a politician, and his technocratic system is very similar to the kind put forward by intellectuals of the progressive era.

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