So what’s the problem with champagne socialism?

First published in the Guardian 16 April 2013 (an edited version also published in the paper edition on 17th April)

A political scandal has blown up in the past few days in France over revelations about the apparent wealth of ministers in François Hollande’s government. In le grand déballage – the great unpacking – the Socialist government was revealed to contain several multimillionaires. Hollande and his ministers face embarrassing accusations that they belong to a group (highly unpopular in France) known as the gauche caviar – or what British people call champagne socialists.

Hollande’s concern about the application of this epithet to his government is understandable. It’s bound up with certain tropes about the left with significant populist appeal that the right are fairly skilled in using for political advantage. While in Britain the cork-popping in public squares recently may have brought a new meaning to the term champagne socialist, it’s usually associated with condescending derision of the left in relation to purported hypocrisy and self-deception.

The right often focuses on the comfortable lifestyle of particular figures from the left and extrapolate from this a couple of apparent conclusions. The first of these is a wild generalisation – that wealthy leftists are somehow representative of all. Leftwing views, that is, are really only held among privileged (and, it has to be said, largely fictional) layers in society – “ivory tower academics”, “Hampstead liberals”, “the metropolitan liberal elite” and the “chattering classes” for example. The second is that the very existence of wealthy socialists is indicative not just of the hypocrisy of certain individuals but also of a fundamental and fatal problem for egalitarian politics. If rich socialists who profess to believe that inequality is unjust won’t actually give their wealth to the poor then what are we to make of that apparent belief? It could be argued that you should look first to what these socialists practise rather than to what they preach – and what they practise could be said to be quite in keeping with the conservative view that humans are naturally acquisitive and self-seeking.

The first line of argument is easy to deal with. Of course it’s true that many of the best known leftwing figures historically came from fairly privileged backgrounds. Indeed there’s a good case for regarding one of the fathers of modern socialism – the factory-owning, high-living,Friedrich Engels – as, in some ways, the archetypal champagne socialist. It’s clearly ridiculous, though, to argue that leftwing political convictions are to be found only among the well-off. To the extent that a disproportionate number of influential figures on the left have come from better-off backgrounds, this state of affairs is easily explicable in terms of structural social inequalities. Those with educational advantages and other privileges in terms of “cultural capital” for example are more likely to flourish than those without – in whatever particular pursuit they seek to succeed.

What about the second line of argument? This is more difficult to deal with – but by no means impossible. You might respond that there’s no contradiction in, say, calling for higher taxes on the rich and being wealthy yourself. You might argue that social inequality is a political matter which, therefore, can only be addressed politically through, say, state redistribution rather than through individual philanthropy. You might also argue that, in fact, well-off people with leftwing convictions are, by definition, particularly principled people. After all, wouldn’t it be easier for them to vote and campaign for policies in their own economic interests rather than against them? You could say that the existence of wealthy leftists provides evidence precisely against, rather than for, the conservative assumption that humans are inherently selfish. Here’s a group of people with significant material advantages – and yet they call for the reduction or elimination of these advantages in society as a whole. Perhaps this is why those on the right despise champagne socialists so much.

Nevertheless, the question “if you’re an egalitarian, how come you’re so rich”, is a pretty hard one to answer convincingly – as indeed the egalitarian philosopher GA Cohen shows in his celebrated article (later abook) which uses that question as its title. Cohen provides several ways in which a relatively well-off egalitarian might respond to the question, but isn’t fully persuaded by any of them.

One way of dealing with this problem, however, is to argue that the left isn’t really concerned centrally with equalities per se but with human wellbeing. What socialists want to see is a world in which everyone has equal access to the resources they require in order to flourish. This would involve social equality in a broad sense – a society in which everyone was equally free to thrive – not absolute equality of everything. You might then look at your own condition and ask yourself if you have more than you really need in order to live a fulfilling life and more than you could reasonably expect to get in a society in which resources were distributed fairly. Thinking in this way would probably suggest that holding great wealth as a socialist is very difficult to justify, but it certainly wouldn’t suggest that all those who aren’t poor are in an ethically indefensible position.

Of course it’s not just the right who criticise champagne socialism. Indeed, another useful way of thinking about the issue is best brought out by examining a common objection to champagne socialism from the left. Perhaps counter-intuitively Marxists are not the most vociferous critics of the phenomenon. Those most hostile are usually those associated with labourism. Indeed one of the deepest rooted myths in British labourism in relation to a great historical betrayal pivots on the idea of champagne socialism. Ramsay MacDonald has long been reviled in the British labour movement as a traitor who sold out his party to form a National Government in 1931 . This betrayal is often explained in terms of MacDonald’s lifestyle – it’s claimed that he was corrupted by the high-society company he is supposed to have kept. This narrative is in keeping with the Labour left’s tendency to focus on the personal integrity of political leaders rather than on the broader structural conditions in which they operate. The disappointments of the past and present can be blamed on the purported failings of leading figures within the party. From this perspective, champagne socialism has always been a kind of corruption which has repeatedly derailed the parliamentary socialist project.

While personal integrity is important, Marxists would argue that this concern with champagne socialism and its apparently deleterious consequences for the labour movement is a kind of moralism that misses the structural determinants of Labour’s failure to transform society radically. The problem here is that labourism seeks to manage capitalism in such a way that unjust social inequalities are abolished – but capitalism does not work that way. Similarly, Marxists would argue that a moralistic focus on the relative wealth of specific individuals is a distraction from the real issue – which is not whether this or that “rich egalitarian” should donate more to charity, but how people can change the system that gives rise to structured social inequalities of power and wealth and that constantly reproduces them.

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