All Commentary
Wednesday, March 1, 2000

Guilt, Blame, and Politics by Allan Levite

Does a Wealthy Background Breed Radical Leftists?

Stanyan Press • 1998 • 259 pages • $16.95 paperback

Allan Levite adds an important perspective to the political landscape. He builds an overwhelming case that a certain social profile, the “Guilt Profile,” breeds leftist radicalism. He discerns a pattern: a disproportionate number of statist ideologues hale from well-to-do or wealthy backgrounds or have occupations that are far removed from the workaday world. Levite argues that they suffer from a form of guilt—political guilt—that derives not from their individual sins but rather from their “privileged” status.

“This pattern,” he writes, “is so prevalent that by adding to it the Guilt Profile’s theoretical base, we [can] dispense with the old notion that these individuals became radicals ‘in spite of’ their elevated socio-economic status, and begin to assume that they became radicals because of it.”

Levite solves two puzzles that have confused conservatives and libertarians about radicals on the political left. The first is about what really motivates them. Conservatives and libertarians assume that “liberals” and socialists are motivated by a quest for power. Levite contends that it is instead often a desire to erase the distinction between themselves and “the workers.” As liberals assume the patina of workers, they lose their guilt. But a dilemma remains for them, because they want to become part of the working class while maintaining the benefits accruing to intellectuals.

This dilemma leads to the second puzzle for conservatives and libertarians. It is so blazingly obvious today that a free-enterprise system improves the lot of the poor, paving a superhighway out of poverty for many. It is equally clear that redistribution leads to stagnation and decline. Why does this so thoroughly elude the left? Why do liberals prefer redistribution to additional production of wealth as a solution to poverty?

Levite’s answer begins with the realization that leftward-leaning intellectuals like their lot in life. They love the soft jobs they hold as professors, journalists, and entertainers; and they want to keep those jobs. Still they suffer a nagging, if misplaced, guilt that to remain in those soft jobs, others must toil in tedious or backbreaking occupations.

To atone to those poor workers and assuage their own feelings of guilt, leftists support the state as an institution of redistribution, not so much to relieve them or others of their wealth, but to be an independent, outside force that blesses their lives and livelihoods. The state in effect says, “It’s all right. You may be a journalist or an academic, but you’re part of the working class now, and you’re earning just what you should in support of your brother and sister proletarians.”

Levite cites the comment of French novelist Simone de Beauvoir, “I know that I am a profiteer, and am one primarily because of the education I received and the possibilities it opened up for me. I exploit no one directly; but the people who buy my books are all beneficiaries of an economy founded on exploitation. I am an accomplice of the privileged classes and compromised by this connection.” Levite concludes that “de Beauvoir did not want to command or rule, but to be commanded and ruled—to live in a ‘planned’ society that would have specific rules and procedures to decide for her how much income she could have, where she could live . . . and so on. If such rules have been established, one need only obey the rules to be relieved of responsibility, thereby alleviating the discomfort produced by political guilt.” The guilt-ridden leftist intellectual looks to the state to establish those rules, which make the lives of millions miserable, but make him feel better.

Levite writes persuasively, but the book comes across as overly documented. Portions of it—those consisting of page after page of identifying individual radicals and tracing their origins—would have been better banished to an appendix. His research is valuable, providing a useful compendium of prominent leftists afflicted with political guilt. The problem is in the presentation.

The political guilt Levite describes is unwholesome and socially destructive. It undoubtedly serves as a drag on the freedom and prosperity of all the rest of us who don’t feel that our wealth and success are unmerited and exploitative. It is an arresting thought that the damage wrought by burgeoning statism may be rooted more in the psychological frailties of leftist intellectuals than in a conviction that it works.

James Woehlke is the counsel and director, Technical Services Division of the New York State Society of Certified Public Accountants.