Many people accuse the major intellectuals on the political left of writing very poorly. Needlessly verbose, difficult and ugly left-wing writing is often seen as little more than a screen of obscurantist neologisms concealing a dangerous lack of substance. Naturally, a lot of this venom comes from conservatives, too many of whom have a mortal aversion to actually engaging with the complicated arguments of the other side. But the problem has gotten serious enough that socialist outlets like Jacobin and Current Affairs have committed to turning things around—to the point of taking pot shots at hallowed figures for crimes against the written word.
As a liberal socialist, I think the left is broadly correct in its principles and in how we apprehend the world. But there can be no doubt that the opacity of some of our prose has gotten us a bad reputation in some circles. As Thomas Piketty points out, one of the motivators behind the recent surge in right wing populism—itself a distinctly postmodern phenomenon—was a sense that that the left has cut itself off from its humble working class roots and evolved in a Brahminesque direction, spouting impenetrable wisdom about vaguely radical change on behalf of marginalized people in prose that requires ten solid years at graduate school to understand. This is a shame—both because decent prose should be valued in and of itself and because we could win hearts and minds if we were willing to make the more complex points of left-wing analysis available to many of the people we’re aiming to emancipate.
Simplicity, Clarity and Precision
Some of the key ambiguities here concern the distinctions between simplicity, clarity and precision. Simplicity refers to how accessible a piece of writing is. Clarity refers to whether both the writing and the thought behind it is clear and unambiguous. Precision refers to the analytical cogency of the writing. The ideal type of precise writing is found in the hard sciences, logic and mathematics, which, at their best, are models of clarity and precision, though they are rarely simple or accessible to anyone who is not an expert in the fields concerned. However, other fields are not always amenable to the rigid deductions such precision requires. Whether the freezing temperature of water is actually 0°C can be tested. Whether we should be deontologists or virtue ethicists, call Mrs Dalloway or To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece, support the political left or the political right cannot be settled with this degree of precision. But that does not mean that good political writing cannot aspire to be more precise.
A lot of political writing displays one of these three virtues in spades, but is deeply deficient in the others. Consider this sentence from Dennis Prager’s essay “The Left Ruins Everything”:
If what I am about to tell you is true, almost everything we most treasure—freedom, beauty, reason, the family, economic well-being, and even goodness—is in jeopardy. Who or what poses this threat? The answer is the most powerful ideology of the last hundred years: leftism.
This sentence is undeniably simple, accessible and even entertaining. It is also-superficially- clear, in the sense that Prager’s thesis and arguments are unambiguous. The “left” ruins everything, including “freedom, beauty, reason, the family, economic well-being and even goodness.” But the essay itself could not be more imprecise. Prager never specifies what the above concepts mean, why the left wants to destroy them or even what the left is beyond the most “powerful ideology of the last hundred years.” This is nothing but a rant, onto which readers can project their own presuppositions and biases in order to have them strengthened. So long as one sympathizes with the general tenor of what Dennis Prager is talking about, one is unlikely to scrutinize the argument too closely. The point isn’t to persuade or argue, but to aid in partisan affirmation. A reader may bring her anxiety that the left is a threat to capitalism, and come away frightened that it is also a threat to the arts, universities and even the boy scouts. Each new anxiety tends to ramp up the general atmosphere of fear, even if no individual threat is particularly well explained. So much for facts over feelings.
The Problem with Left-Wing Writing
Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity. What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.” I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience.—George Orwell, “Why I Write.”
When people criticize left-wing writing, their target is usually critical theory: a hotly debated approach to analysing social phenomena through a variety of disciplinary lenses. A lot of critical theory is written in such a (apparently) hyper-precise manner that it can neither be clear or simple. Indeed, no piece of left-wing theorizing would be complete without complicated technical terminology that seems deliberately uninviting even to the sympathetic. This can make it inaccessible in the same manner as the hard sciences, but without the ability to make empirical predictions that gives science its prestige. Indeed, left-wing theorizing can be impenetrable except to experts in the field (and often even to them). All this contributes to an elitist air that arouses so much disdain amongst opponents, with the most critical conservative commentators consequently mocking the left’s pretenses to speak for the marginalized. In addition, many critics claim that the highly technical language that poses such a formidable obstacle to clarity and simplicity is little more than a sham: a bunch of obscure neologisms—différance, dialectical, intersectional, deterritorialise, performative, etc.—meant to intimidate the reader into submitting to an ideological viewpoint out of a feeling of intellectual inferiority. The argument runs that because readers feel intimidated by the terminology, and therefore unable to criticize it, the arguments either go uncriticized or readers feel compelled to master the language and so unwittingly adopt the ideology associated with it.
A lot of these accusations are made in bad faith by critics who are unwilling or too partisan to actually work out what the other side is arguing. There is nothing inherently wrong with specialized terminology, if it actually increases precision—even at the expense of simplicity and accessibility. Indeed, the nice thing about terminological precision is that, even if it is initially unclear, once you learn it, things can be conveyed with a lot more clarity and economy than otherwise. Dialectical ontology may be a mouthful, but it packs in a lot of information more easily and quickly than a process oriented theory of social reality that focuses on fundamental contradictions that have to be resolved either in thought or material practice. But the question is whether this complex terminology is actually necessary or whether the same points could be conveyed as clearly in regular language.
They certainly could be—and without sacrificing much beyond excess syllables. There are some instances in which a specialized vocabulary may be helpful or necessary, but plenty of others in which it is a needless barrier to simplicity and even clarity. Often, the accusation is that progressive intellectuals are simply pretentious and deliberately obscurantist. But there are more obvious institutional and economic reasons for this.
Getting Out of the Academy
Part of the problem lies in the academic roots of a lot of left-wing intellectual life. Academic writing is intended to be read by specialists, who ultimately dictate the author’s professional future. This suggests that an academic shouldn’t waste time writing for a broader audience who, however appreciative, are unlikely to cite her work in a Harvard Law Review article anytime soon. Of course, this means that many of the people who should be inspired by left-wing arguments won’t be able to read them without significant effort and a hyperlink to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. But, for many left wing academics, those concerns quickly get side-lined by the more mundane need to put food on the table by impressing the right people in the right way.
A lot of the left-wing writing put forward for public consumption remains stamped by the academic aesthetics of critical theory. This aesthetics is so powerful that even commentators who don’t have a post-secondary education can feel compelled to play the game in order to be taken seriously. Meanwhile highly educated writers like Nathan Robinson who write more simply are attacked for being soft or even—God forbid—pseudointellectuals. As Michael Sandel points out in his recent book The Tyranny of Merit, one of the few remaining acceptable slurs—even among leftists who would shudder at being misogynistic, racist, classist or transphobic—is calling someone stupid. We live in a hypercompetitive neoliberal society in which education, intelligence and information are forms of capital. Portraying someone as intellectually lacking is a way of asserting social dominance. This is especially counterproductive among writers who are nominally on the same end of the political spectrum. And it’s a bad look for leftist egalitarians to be posturing over who deserves to be at the top of the pecking order.
To improve left-wing writing will require two changes. First, we should foreground better literary role models. Mary Wollstonecraft, James Baldwin, Mary Beard, Terry Eagleton and Cornel West all write about complex matters in a way that is simple, clear and precise. Second, we need to stop venerating academic aesthetics and the kind of high intellectualism associated with it. This doesn’t mean sacrificing intellectual standards, but it does mean not writing exclusively for an audience that has been primed to focus on technical issues and disputes. This could have the added benefit of distancing us from the interminable doctrinal conflicts that have proven such a barrier to left-wing unity since at least the French Revolution. If these shifts take place, we might be surprised to discover that there is a large audience out there hungry for smart progressive ideas, so long as they’re delivered in a more engaging package.