Reading Orwell in Tirana
On the importance of the Vital Center and a genuine anti-authoritarian commitment to human freedom and flourishing.
In 1980s Albania, there were certain rules for sharing a stick of chewing gum. The gum’s “owner,” naturally, started first. But everyone in the friend-group got a couple of chews. Eventually, the exotic item found its way around the circle and back to its original source.
Coca-Cola cans, however, were different. These were not “shared.” If you pilfered one from a tourist or bought one at market, you made the colorful foreign object, often adorned with a flower, a living room centerpiece. Neighbors and friends were welcome to gawk and admire. Even in the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, Coca-Cola cans were private property.
Not all of life was filled with Western luxuries and pleasant past times. Surrounded by capitalist adversaries and revisionist-communist nemeses, Albanians were on constant alert for invasion. Concrete bunkers were omnipresent, with one planned for every neighborhood and rural expanse—every Albanian was supposed to have a designated bunker from which to battle invaders. These enemies included the dastardly revisionist-communists that led the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Unlike these faithless world powers, Albania’s Enver Hohxa resolutely maintained an orthodox Stalinist path. When Hohxa’s regime finally fell in 1990, there were fewer than 600 cars in the entire country. Most Albanians had never even seen, much less eaten, a banana.
Though shocking to contemporary minds, Albania would have scarcely surprised George Orwell. Decades earlier, Orwell had aptly described Hohxa’s socialist paradise in his celebrated novel 1984: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” A standard fixture in high school curriculums, Orwell might still be read—but his legacy has been lost. Born to the “lower upper middle-class,” he deserted his station for a democratic socialism aimed at the working class. But his encounters with radicals and communists stripped him of utopian innocence. As a writer, Orwell earned fame for his unflinching intellectual integrity.
Orwell endures because his words are timeless. Social justice greatly mattered to this democratic socialist, but ideas mattered just as much—if not more. For Orwell, means and ends were inseparable: how one arrived at a political goal counted just as much as the target itself. In this way, 1984 and Animal Farm were necessary antidotes to a postwar left intoxicated by the moral fervor of its egalitarian aims. His ideals were not universally embraced; throughout the postwar era, the Western left was divided between Soviet apologists and the anti-totalitarian left. Made up of socialists, radicals, and liberals, the anti-totalitarian left threaded the needle between right wing reactionaries and Lenin’s “useful idiots.”
As the post-1945 world fades into history, much of the political right and left are returning to old, sloppy habits. Trumpism’s nativism, isolationism, and protectionism is, in many ways, straight from the Old Right’s playbook. In this sense, Donald Trump amounts to a wealthier and more corrupt Warren Harding—albeit with bafflingly better heart health given his general sloth and fast-food habit. Likewise, parts of the American left have transported themselves back to their illiberal past. We can see this on college campuses, opinion polls, and online behavior. Matt Yglesias famously termed this shift among the college-educated the “Great Awokening.” What started as a marked swing on issues of race and racial inequality has spread to leftward leaps on immigration, crime, abortion, and even reparations for slavery.
It is laudable to recognize and redress the past sins of slavery, racism, misogyny, and nativism. But means and ends are, as Orwell taught, indivisible. The attitudinal shift of college educated liberals did not come out of nowhere: it was born on elite college campuses and has trickled down to nearly every university. Sadly, the Great Awokening is founded upon a soppy yet rigid mishmash of post-Marxist theorizing and well-intentioned bromides. This ideological framework, such as it is, inoculates itself from criticism and drives headlong into an intellectual cul-de-sac.
It is, in a word, illiberal.
The liberal intellectual tradition prizes honesty, fair-mindedness, courage, and empathetic listening. To arrive at truth, or good policy, requires debate, give-and-take, and above all epistemological humility—the sense that we can’t be certain that we’re always right all the time. Much of the social justice cant taught at American universities teaches just the opposite. No single idea best encapsulates the Great Awokening more than “privilege theory.” Peggy McIntosh first coined the term in an iconic 1989 essay where she identified “white privilege” as an “invisible knapsack,” which contained a host of unearned racial advantages. This essay is now required reading at hundreds of American universities and colleges.
McIntosh’s argument contains a grain of truth—but just that. Privilege theory, as such, is an illiberal intellectual straight jacket. It is rigid and excessively theoretical. Most damning of all, it is allergic to nuance, debate, and the particular or specific. According to this framework, American society is not a flawed experiment in which the circle of opportunity has slowly widened in a frustrating yet typically human march of two steps forward and one step back. It is, in the harsh and severe verbiage of Marxist-inflected lingo, defined entirely by “dominance” and “oppression.”
Debate and intellectual inquiry are not options—they are merely proof that one wants to safeguard their privilege or it demonstrates, in Robin DiAngelo’s formulation, their “white fragility.” These formulations are moral traps: no right-thinking person wants to be outed as a misogynist, racist, or xenophobe, so only precious few debate the logic and assumptions of the “privilege” exercises now omnipresent at universities and corporation. Recent surveys reveal that 68 percent of college students fear that expressing their true political views will result in negative social consequences. Yet another study demonstrates that “self-censorship” is three times that of the McCarthy era.
This is not a liberal education.
Transforming education into a rigid zero-sum game pitting the enlightened against the reactionary has real world political ramifications. Crime policy focused upon public order is not a contest of competing goods, it is instead “racist.” Any late-term abortion laws are pure-and-simple “misogyny.” Skepticism of current immigration policy can only be termed xenophobic. To be sure, Enver Hoxha’s Albania is a million miles from these illiberal excesses. Chewing gum, bananas, and Coca-Cola remain plentiful. But free speech and debate—the very foundation of a healthy democracy—are not.
Here, Orwell’s lessons in intellectual hygiene ring eternal. Orwell may have been a radical, but he is best described as a liberal committed to socialism. Scornful of orthodoxies, he valued freedom of expression and individual autonomy more than anything else. He would surely recognize the illiberalism at the Great Awokening’s root—but he would also sense the opportunity. The Great Awokening reveals a gnawing, popular hunger for a set of ideals to counter Trumpism. Its adherents rightly sense that being anti-Trump is not enough to rally enduring majorities to build a more egalitarian America. Indeed, anti-Trumpists desperately need a fighting faith—but one founded upon liberal values.
Thankfully, George Orwell points the way to just such an impulse: Vital Center liberalism.
Coined and created by Arthur Schlesinger in 1948, Vital Center liberalism was anything but a banal split the difference centrism. In the spirit of Orwell, it was a radical, anti-authoritarian commitment to human freedom and flourishing. But this anti-authoritarian left was built upon a liberal foundation. Averse to rigid ideology and quick fixes, a liberal worldview accepts that gradual piecemeal reform—not fantastical, wholesale transformations of society—is the only realistic path forward. Indeed, they heed Reinhold Niebuhr’s formulation that politics did not promise rapid and total remedies but offered “proximate solutions to insoluble problems.”
As a fighting faith, the anti-authoritarian left pointed to the best of American ideals for inspiration. Grounding reformist aims upon deep and enduring American principles, the Vital Center impulse was simultaneously optimistic, patriotic, and hopeful. But it was girded by an understanding that humans usually change slowly and organically over time. Progress is always halfway and fitful. Humanity can nevertheless bend the arc of a moral universe toward justice.
The anti-authoritarian left stood in marked contrast to rigid utopian ideologies of its day. Enver Hoxha’s Albania was merely the logical, if extreme, culmination of such dogmas—the Great Awokening has scarcely inspired a mania of bunker building, after all. But in their leftward leap, the educated liberals who exercise control over major cultural organs along with the Democratic Party have antagonized too many voters of all races and classes. Saddled with this baggage, Democrats have managed to become barely more popular than Trump—one of the most unpopular and odious figures in American political history.
It's time for Democrats to recognize that political parties don’t build enduring majorities by shaming and bludgeoning voters with privilege lists and historical sins—they inspire and create them with movements grounded in enduring liberal principles and optimistic visions of their nation’s future.
Jeff Bloodworth is a professor of history at Gannon University (Erie, PA). Bloodworth holds a Ph.D. in modern United States history from Ohio University’s Contemporary History Institute. (Twitter: @jhueybloodworth)