The trouble with idealism

Why do people with the best of intentions so often create the worst of outcomes? They come up against reality

Gabriel Gavin

Nobody wanted to be a peasant in 19th-century Russia. Except maybe the rich. For a whole generation of bright-eyed, well-heeled young activists, the most noble people in the country didn’t live in the palaces of St Petersburg, they toiled in the fields and they dug out the ditches. They ate meat at most once a week, if times were good, and bathed even less. Their life, scarcely improved since the abolition of serfdom, would have been entirely foreign to anyone who’d ever set foot in the Bolshoi Theatre or learned a word of French, as the fashion of the day required.

And so, malodorous and uneducated though they might be, the peasantry was the ultimate target for the revolutionaries, communists and anarchists who’d emerged from the more respectable classes. Behind their slogans and their dreams of a fairer, brighter future for the country was, they were convinced, a muddy mass of men and women who would work with them to achieve it—if only they could be shown the light.

That was the rationale behind the Narodnik movement when it began in the 1860s. Aristocratic—or at least upper middle class—young people went back to the land to tell village folk that another world was possible. Ivan Turgenev describes in his novel Virgin Soil how they donned the most ragged tar-coated jackets they could find, patched their trousers and practised their coarsest voices to fit in. They might have been a social justice movement, but they’d undoubtedly have been accused of cultural appropriation by their activist equivalents today.

Possibly unsurprisingly, they were met with suspicion and bemusement, if not outright ridicule. A labourer might willingly sit through a seminar on economic exploitation in return for a drink but he’d still have to get the crops in before night fell. He’d still have to fix the roof of his house and worry about making payments to his landlord. And how that would change, communism or no communism, would have been unclear. So, when the 1917 revolution did finally come to cities like St Petersburg, villagers stayed home. The Narodniks had come up short.

It’s almost too easy to caricature Jeremy Corbyn, the privately educated posh radical, wrapped in burlap and handing out leaflets in some hamlet east of the Volga. His leadership of the Labour Party, such as it was, had been entirely defined by his belief that he alone stood up for and could champion the British working class. And, in the end, it was their indifference, suspicion and ridicule that left him high and dry.

As the veteran politician contemplates his return to the role he was always best suited to—father, gardener, Parliamentary Beard of the Year champion—it might give him some cheer to know that he is among good company. Henry Pelling, the historian of the British Left, stuck a bayonet in the most sacred of its cows when he argued that the foundation of the welfare state had not been a victory for the burgeoning trade union movement. Instead, he chronicled how it was middle class politicians at the turn of the 20th century who championed the idea of compulsory education, of housing reform and of mass vaccination, often against the will of those they were supposed to benefit most.

Sending poorer kids to school would have been a popular idea for those who’d benefited from a classical education. But for families barely scraping a living in turn-of-the-century slums in places such as Spitalfields and Whitechapel, it took a potential earner out of action. The demolition of dirty, unsafe, eminently flammable tenement housing undoubtedly saved lives, but to generations who had been born and raised in the same spot, the scheme seemed to make as many homeless as it rehoused. As for vaccinations, well, it’s worth remembering that conspiracy theories aren’t just an invention of the internet age.

The collision of idealism, the all-encompassing belief in political transformation, with reality is a perennial problem for those who set out to do good. Anyone who cut their political teeth on the left will have heard the quote, often misattributed to Winston Churchill, that if you are not a socialist when you are young, you have no heart but if you are still one when you are older, you have no brain. You’ll change your mind about socialism when, you know, you start paying taxes. And, much to the annoyance of many, it turns out to be true. Grand, elegant, beautifully just worldviews might make sense when you are 16, but it doesn’t take much living before efficient bin collections become your chief political priority.

One man who knew this well was Mao Zedong. Less than a hundred years after the revolution that the Narodniks had so hoped for, the People’s Republic of China had virtually the opposite idea. Educated, anti-establishment urban youths, it worried, were ready to undermine the workers with their secret sympathies for capitalism. The answer was simple. To strip them of their idealistic pretensions, 17 million young people, often fresh out of high school, were shipped off to the mountainous countryside to live a hard, honest, normal life among the peasants. Being exposed to the realities of life, it was thought, would knock those fantasies out of them.

The scheme appears to have worked. Among their number was Xi Jinping, the future premiere of China. After his father was purged from the Communist Party, Xi was sent to a barren village in Yanchuan county, where he lived in a cave house. Unable to stand rural life he ran away to Beijing, before being captured and forced to dig ditches instead. His experiences left him marked, politically at least, with two key characteristics. The first is his brutal pragmatism, with little ideology bar the ruthless pursuit of success. The second, crucially, is his lack of romanticisation for poverty and pastoral life. From his domestic policies, it is easy to get the sense that Xi wouldn’t shed a tear if every picturesque village in the country was bulldozed to make way for shopping malls and multiplexes.

Back in Europe, that nostalgia for the working-class life never lived is a defining feature of left-wing idealists. Corbyn, for example, tied himself in knots over how to square his green credentials with his pledge to reopen the coal mines. For him, those rural towns with their hard-working, tight-knit communities were the very essence of his vision for the country. The fact that working down the mines was regarded as awful by everyone who ever did it didn’t seem to trouble him. For Corbyn, a nation of office workers drinking espresso and living in serviced apartments might be a happier, healthier place, but it is one that has lost its soul.

If there is a border between standing up for less fortunate people and fetishising them, idealism often helps people to leap across it. In the US, young college students have become enamoured of the notion that the very language we all use is so engrained with white supremacy, that it must be altered at every opportunity. And so, somehow, people of Latin American extraction went from being “Hispanic” to “Latinx” overnight. The term is ubiquitous across liberal arts campuses from California to the East Coast, and often said to be the only acceptable descriptor for the 60 million people of Latin American extraction in the country. However, a study of the group themselves found that fewer than one in four had ever heard the term, and of those that had, almost 90 per cent didn’t use it, preferring instead “Latino” or “Hispanic”. The students have carried on, unperturbed.

But as easy as it is to mock idealism, we should never write it off altogether. If its polar opposite, pragmatism, is given free rein over politics, the result is a joyless plod in the direction of the status quo. Much of Britain’s dry, uninspiring and managerial political culture could be chalked up to an assertion that scarcely anybody in positions of power actually believes in anything other than getting through the day without a crisis. Corbyn’s stubborn naivety might not have struck a chord with voters, but it does serve as a reminder that there can be more to political life than securing a supportive tabloid headline.

Incremental change—evolution, rather than revolution—might be the most sustainable and effective political strategy, but it is decidedly less explosive. It’s true that economic crisis and demographic shifts would have inevitably brought down the Soviet Union at some point or another, but nothing could have rung in a new era better than sledgehammers tearing through the Berlin Wall. Mixed with a healthy dose of cynicism, utopian dreams can, once in a while, win out. Idealism might be short-sighted, it might be unworkable, it might even be ultimately fruitless, but it’s still worth keeping a spark of
it alive.

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