Thursday, January 13, 2005


We have heard a lot about neo-conservatism, of course, over the last three years. Neo-liberalism is a term often used to avoid the confusion between the different meanings 'liberal' has in the US and France, say. 'Neo-Christianity' was used by William Empson in 'Milton's God' (revised ed. 1965). He wrote of the neo-Christians:

they boast of the morally disgusting aspects of the religion, which more traditional Christian writers have often been anxious to hide or explain decently.

When I see something by Adam Curtis or John Laughland, though, the expression that comes to my mind is one that Orwell used: neo-pessimists. The word did not really catch on. It did not help that Orwell used it to refer to two different (if in his mind related) groups: here to refer to power worshippers such as James Burnham; elsewhere to refer mainly to conservative Christian writers such as T. E. Hulme, T. S. Eliot and Malcolm Muggeridge. This, however, is still worth quoting:

The danger of ignoring the neo-pessimists lies in the fact that up to a point they are right. So long as one thinks in short periods it is wise not to be hopeful about the future. Plans for human betterment do normally come unstuck, and the pessimist has many more opportunities of saying ‘I told you so’ than the optimist. By and large the prophets of doom have been righter than those who imagined that a real step forward would be achieved by universal education, female suffrage, the League of Nations, or what not.
The real answer is to dissociate Socialism from Utopianism. Nearly all neo-pessimist apologetics consist in putting up a man of straw and knocking him down again. The man of straw is called Human Perfectibility. Socialists are accused of believing that society can be—and indeed, after the establishment of Socialism, will be—completely perfect; also that progress is inevitable. Debunking such beliefs is money for jam, of course.

The answer, which ought to be uttered more loudly than it usually is, is that Socialism is not perfectionist, perhaps not even hedonistic. Socialists don’t claim to be able to make the world perfect: they claim to be able to make it better. And any thinking Socialist will concede to the Catholic that when economic injustice has been righted, the fundamental problem of man’s place in the universe will still remain. (As I Please, 24 Dec 1943)


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