The Politics of Guilt

The affluent, the leisured, the sons and daughters of the captains of industry—why does radical egalitarianism appeal to them?


Collective guilt and liberal guilt. One hears talk of these from time to time, but what are their implications? Does such guilt play a role in the molding of political ideologies? Is there anything to back up a hunch that it is the foundation of egalitarian radicalism—and Marxism, in particular?

The guilt in question might more accurately be called political guilt, for it tends to be exhibited in the political realm. It is not the kind of guilt familiar to psychologists—its origins are cultural. Nor is it engendered by past sins, faults, or wrongdoings.


We get a clue to the nature of political guilt from Harry Levinson's The Exceptional Executive. "In Western cultures," Levinson observed, "there is a feeling of obligation about work. People who are not working feel guilty." Could we further speculate that guilt might be felt by those who are not members of the working class, as well as those who have unearned or easily earned wealth or those who are able to live comfortably in the midst of poverty?

Drawing on these speculations, we can construct a model of political guilt to be checked against political reality. On this model, people's vulnerability to political guilt feelings are largely a reflection of the extent to which—

  1. they can exist without working and thus live idly;
  2. they can exist without working hard (e.g., doing manual or strenuous labor) or without working long hours;
  3. their background is of the upper (wealthy) classes;
  4. they live or are able to live in affluence, whether or not they actually do so;
  5. they are separated from the working class—in life style, tastes, habits, place of residence, or (most importantly) extent of education.

Obviously, we should expect that some of those who are in the above situations will be able to resist guilt feelings; after all, we are all vulnerable to cancer, yet few of us contract it. Moreover, if someone does not satisfy one or more of the above points—by being poor, for example, or doing manual labor—he should be able to squelch virtually all political guilt feelings. Thus, business executives would tend to be comparatively free of this guilt, even though vulnerable on points three and four, because of their proclivity to work long hours and assume grave responsibilities (point two). This provides insulation against guilt.


But what of those who do experience such guilt? How might they alleviate or control it so that they could contain the mental misery it produces? Radical educator Jonathan Kozol, in an interview with a Chicago newspaper, may have inadvertently provided the answer:

when I say that all guilt is not neurotic, it does not follow automatically that therefore all guilt is healthy. Some guilt is neurotic—the kind that causes such paralysis and self-contempt that we cease to function effectively, that we do nothing except sit in a two-month or a two-year or a ten-year bind of self-hatred. The kind of guilt which I advocate is guilt which serves solely the function of a catalyst. It is not a cell which we enter and dwell within for the rest of our lives, it is a threshold which we cross and which liberates us to take creative action. And for most people that I know, it lasts longer [Kozol may have meant to say, "it lasts no longer"] than the months that it took Che Guevara to discover the poverty of Latin America on his way from Buenos Aires to the meeting with Fidel.…the kind of guilt to which I refer seems to me wholesome if it is something which liberates people rapidly, and they are no longer guilty once they begin to take action, and they no longer feel guilty.

The "action" Kozol refers to is radical, egalitarian politics.

Extreme egalitarianism attracts the guilt-ridden because it promises to relieve their guilt. If no one starves and if all have the same, those who experienced guilt because of their affluence or their detachment from the laboring masses need no longer feel guilty. (It is not poverty itself that causes guilt for those who view it from a position of comfort; it is their own complacency, contrasted with the poverty of others, that causes it.)

Psychologists know that those with guilt problems tend to counteract them with expiating or altruistic behavior. Egalitarian radicals typically exhibit the same pattern. Some, like Jane Fonda and Jessica Mitford, apparently can be relieved by using political statements or affiliations. Vocal support of egalitarian causes is in itself a useful guilt-tranquilizing device that can be enjoyed concomitantly with an affluent life style. Other radicals, however, seem to require more expiation than this; it is quite common to see radicals abandoning comfortable life styles in favor of impoverished ones. The deification of the working class by the left can also be interpreted as a manifestation of such poverty seeking. A radical with upper-class ties cannot change his birth circumstances, but he can make an ideal of the plebeian background he would like to have had. Similarly, as the self-appointed saviors and representatives of the laboring classes, radicals can ease their regret about not having been born into them and attempt to bridge the gap between themselves and the workers.

What better example of these syndromes in action than Marx himself? The Prussian agitator was a well-educated intellectual who had never been a workingman. Was it ideological dedication that led him to adopt a political life style and refrain from obtaining the well-paying jobs his education could have opened up for him? Or was it that he never wanted to live comfortably and make money (in marked contrast to what a poor man would have wanted)? If money and comfort aggravate an intellectual's guilt feelings, we might expect Marx to eschew both—just as he did, and as many leftist bohemians still do. Antipathy to private property naturally follows.


If our model is accurate, we should expect those in situations most vulnerable to political guilt to be the most sympathetic to radicalism, because of its clear expiatory function. And it is here that our model has its finest hour. No social or occupational group is more exposed to political guilt than students, and students have certainly always been the numerical backbone of most, if not all, radical movements. Most students have no jobs or only part-time jobs and, while students, are vulnerable on points one, two, and especially five. Many are susceptible on all five points. Even working-class students and young nonstudents are vulnerable to political guilt, because if work is indeed a device of atonement and redemption, it might take years of working steadily for a living to build up an immunity to this guilt.

The degree to which many students feel separated from the working class can be grasped by noting the extremity of the efforts they often make to attach themselves to it. In Russia in the 1870s, there arose a movement of students and young people aimed at taking the revolutionary and socialist message to the peasants. These students from sheltered backgrounds donned shabby peasant clothing and, when asked by friends where they were going, would reply, "To the people." An almost identical effort was launched by a faction of the SDS in the late 1960s, called the Worker-Student Alliance. The idea was to infiltrate factories with the revolutionary message. This crusade was no less of a failure than that of the Russian students.

Running a close second to students in the political guilt derby are their professors, who are extremely vulnerable on point five and similarly exposed on some of the other points. A radical movement without professors is as inconceivable as one without students. The same can be said for writers. When Marx and Engels began to call themselves the Communist Party, they were able to recruit, counting themselves, 17 members—of whom no less than 15 were writers. (Perhaps communism should call itself the movement of the downtrodden working writers.) The high percentage of writers in leftist circles is no less obvious today, although the list would have to be expanded to include journalists, artists, playwrights, film makers, and book and film reviewers.

Even more noticeable is the swarm of "rich kids" who have always found a home in the left. Their vulnerability to political guilt is the most extreme of any group, and it also applies to the children of the middle class. As Kozol stated:

In an extraordinarily large number of cases, whether we're talking about Emma Goldman, who was not the child of very rich people but was the child of intellectuals, or whether we're talking about Ho Chi Minh, who was educated at the Sorbonne, or whether we're talking about Karl Marx or Che or Fidel, in almost every one of these cases important revolutions were led by the rebel children of the ruling class who had undergone periods of enormous upheaval in their lives.

This trend runs deeply through the left. Most of the utopian socialists came from the upper classes. Robert Owen, in fact, was a capitalist, as was Engels's father. Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin all hailed from moderately well-off families, while Castro and Guevara sprang from quite wealthy backgrounds. So did faithful sympathizers Corliss Lamont and Frederick Vanderbilt Field. The "first American Communist," John Reed, had wealthy parents. Also not to be forgotten is Grace Hutchins, a fanatical Communist and a Bryn Mawr graduate from a distinguished old Boston family. Enrico Berlinguer, the Italian Communist leader, also comes from an aristocratic family.

Jane Cheney is a long-time socialist and the daughter of a wealthy Connecticut silk manufacturer and was Dr. Benjamin Spock's first wife. Mrs. Daniel Ellsberg, the Marx toy tycoon's daughter, is surely as liberal or radical as her affluent spouse. Stewart Mott has an estimated worth of $25 million (his father was once the single largest General Motors shareholder) and has been a financial angel of a number of radical causes, including Ramparts magazine. George Pillsbury, who inherited the baking magnate's fortune, set up (along with other wealthy heirs) a foundation to fund radical causes. Pillsbury was quoted as saying, "Having money makes you different from your friends. You don't have to have a job; you have to explain why you have a tan. It makes you feel guilty." And radical politicking submerges this guilt, at least to a controllable level. No wonder a friend of Whittaker Chambers's remarked, "In America, the lower class are Democrats. The middle class are Republicans. The upper class are Communists." Such is also true elsewhere: prominent South American radical guerrillas have included a daughter of a vice president of Kaiser Industries and "Carlos," son of a wealthy Venezuelan lawyer.

Everywhere the radical groups consist mainly of intellectuals (a la Maxim Gorky, Isadora Duncan, Lillian Hellman, and Regis Debray), those born into plenty (à la Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda), and those who come into money easily (à la Shirley MacLaine), as well as others in situations most vulnerable to political guilt (e.g., students). Lenin himself admitted, in What Is to Be Done?: "The theory of socialism…grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals." While guilt cannot be said to be the sole source of radical thought, its powerful influence should nonetheless be noted.

Although radicals can solve their guilt problems with political activity, they actually cannot afford to jettison their guilt completely. As Jonathan Kozol insinuated and as Whittaker Chambers realized, the intellectual often finds himself with no reason to live. Common people have no such barrenness because they are striving for personal goals, such as a home in the suburbs or two cars in the garage. But the intellectual often cannot enjoy such material comforts even though they are readily available to him. Either he is already jaded to them, or his guilt feelings would be aggravated upon having them. So the radical intellectual constantly requires something to feel guilty about, because the effort to control this guilt (even if it is merely advocating Marxism in conversations with acquaintances) forms a facsimile of purposeful activity and thus a reason to live—a cause. The catalog of guilt objects must be kept well-stocked. Feeling guilty about the poverty of blacks gives way to feeling guilty about the poverty of Latinos, and so on, ad infinitum.


As Kozol hinted, political guilt can easily boil over into self-hatred. Marx is a fine example. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn has identified self-contempt as Marx's most salient characteristic. For instance, Marx was born a Jew but hated Jews; he sprang from the middle class but despised the bourgeoisie. A similar example is that of Diana Oughton, the SDS-"Weatherman" terrorist killed in a bomb explosion. Her biographer, Thomas Powers, observed:

The Weathermen felt they contained within themselves the seed of everything they opposed. Inside the organization, they turned savagely on each other and on themselves in an attempt to root out that seed. In Dwight (Illinois), Diana had hated being rich; in Guatemala she had hated being an American; in the Weathermen she finally came to hate herself.

Also intriguing in this context is the observation of the lily-white literary critic, Susan Sontag, that the white race is "the cancer of human history." The radical guilt and self-hatred is as apparent as the extreme self-righteousness of most radicals, and the two may be connected; for as Eric Hoffer pointed out, "Self-righteousness is a manifestation of self-contempt."

Intellectual self-hatred is also exhibited in the urge for self-punishment or self-depreciation that often results. Perhaps there is no more explicit example than that of yet another offspring of well-to-do parents—"Iron Felix" Djerjinsky (or Dzerzhinsky), first head of the Cheka, the murderous Soviet secret police. Whittaker Chambers described the hangman's early years:

As a young man, Djerjinsky had been a political prisoner in the Paviak Prison in Warsaw. There he insisted on being given the task of cleaning the latrines of the other prisoners. For he held that the most developed member of any community must take upon himself the lowliest tasks as an example to those who are less developed.

Djerjinsky seemed to have had an ideological reason for debasing himself, but the connection with radical self-punishment is too obvious to ignore. The real impact of this syndrome, however, becomes visible when leftist social and political beliefs are analyzed:

• When the egalitarian comes to view "society" as an independent entity and puts it above himself, becoming totally subservient to it and showing a willingness to obey what he believes are its dictates, no matter how demanding (e.g., allowing "society" to place ceilings on everyone's earnings, including his own), is he being public-spirited, or is he merely furthering his own self-abasement?

• When he adopts the view that our present society and its institutions beget poverty and criminal behavior (meaning that he, as a member of society, is partially to blame for it), is this the result of sociological conviction or of a desire to prolong his guilt feelings?

• When he advocates a global omnipotent state (a milieu in which he too would live), has he reached this position through reasoning and reflection or through a masochistic desire to be restrained and controlled?

• When he is a male and supports equality for women, does he do so because he believes women to be his equals or because he feels just as guilty about being male as about being white and middle-class? And from the radical feminist perspective, is the women's movement a social crusade, or is it a reflection of the desire of women intellectuals to artificially proletarianize themselves by forming a new, oppressed class that even wealthy or cultured women can belong to merely by virtue of their sex?

• When the egalitarian plunges into Malcolm X's autobiography or a book about Nat Turner, is his enthusiasm stirred by a sympathy for blacks or by the perverse thrill of exciting his white self-hatred?

• When he derides as a capitalist hoax the observation that working people require incentives and that they will hardly exert any effort without incentives, is this due to a simple misunderstanding of reality? Or is it due to the egalitarian's guilt having destroyed his desire to make money and enjoy life (two interrelated pursuits), with the result of making him unable to comprehend how anyone else could have such "base" desires?

Finally, what does the egalitarian radical see in the commune and the collective? Their underlying idea is that individuals should want to work almost entirely for the benefit of others and not—as poor people are wont to do—for their own personal benefit. This is easily expanded to include a near-total relinquishment of pride, self-respect, and personal autonomy and freedom—to the point where, as in China, one must obtain the commune's approval before doing practically anything. Do such ideas spring from idealism or from an urge to practice self-humiliation and to punish one's self by refraining from enjoying life? Similar patterns are visible among some liberals, although to a lesser degree: for example, the dogmatic liberal supports the welfare state even though, as a middle-class taxpayer, he must bear its costs. If misery loves company, perhaps self-debasement demands it.


In Red China these patterns are emphasized by such slogans as "criticism and self-criticism" and "fight yourself—fight self." Even the manner of dress betrays this self-contempt. While Westerners (particularly the guilt-free poor) strive to dress with aplomb, totalitarians like Mao and Castro have taken care to attire themselves in exactly the opposite manner: in chaste army fatigues. The Chinese example is classic. Chou En-lai had a patrician background, while Mao's prosperous father was a grain speculator and landowner. Mao lived his entire adult life as if his sole aim was to punish himself for the "sin" of not having humble origins. Unlike the common Chinese he claimed to represent, Mao evidently enjoyed poverty: he deliberately kept himself in that condition. Unfortunately for the Chinese, however, he demanded the same of them and, in true monastic fashion, constantly preached against the evils of materialism and the enjoyment of consumer goods. Mao's disinterest in money and comfort (like that of Oughton and Castro) should serve to indicate, not a laudable altruism, but a self-punishing personality that by its very nature is anti-working class.

In total egalitarianism, poor people must be kept poor for two reasons: the leaders' self-punishment must be imitated, and the dependency relationship must be protected. If the poor were ever to advance into a middle class and thus escape their dependency on the leader and his largesse, his guilt would have no outlet. Since this spurious charity giving is so uplifting to the dictator, he transforms his subjects into charity cases by prohibiting small business enterprise under the guise of preventing "exploitation." There is no other way to keep poor people poor.

Guilt also serves as the totalitarian's strongest weapon, for it can be used to win the people's obedience. We are deluding ourselves if we believe fear to be more effective. Kozol, when advocating his choice of propaganda weapons, preferred guilt even to self-interest: "There's only one appeal you can make it on, and that is justice and fair play, and the only way you can initiate that is with the type of indictment that is going to cause temporary guilt." Far from being a new idea, this concept has long been an egalitarian forte. Soviet and Chinese citizens are told that the Party, and only the Party, feeds the hungry; hence, any act of resistance or noncompliance is an offense against the people, for which one must feel guilty. Cubans are made to think of themselves as selfish for not wanting to sacrifice weekends to cut sugar cane without pay. One pro-Peking writer declared that without Mao's slogans, "the abolition of financial rewards, premia, bonuses, and piece-work in Chinese factories in 1967-68 would have been impossible." Indeed. The author of these lines might just as well have said that workers are too selfish and unsophisticated to appreciate the fine points of a vow of poverty unless someone like Mao generously teaches them how to hate themselves like intellectuals. Such sentiments reveal the vastness of the worker-radical gulf.

The tremendous risks undergone by escapees to Hong Kong indicate that the common Chinese, like any other people, are prepared to risk life and limb to flee a land where life itself is regarded as atonement instead of enjoyment. As the strikes and work slowdowns in China's Chekiang province in mid-1975 illustrated, no Marxist country has succeeded in replacing self-interest with guilt. When working people do become radicalized, it seems to be for capitalist rather than collectivist reasons. Avraham Yarmolinsky's history of prerevolutionary Russia quoted one peasant who, "having heard an agitator picture the coming repartition of land," exclaimed, '"Won't that be great when we divide up the land! I'll hire two farmhands and live like a lord."'

For those proletarians who succeed in entering the middle class, radicalism reserves a special hatred, accompanied by an amplified effort at guilt-inducement. Kozol's arguments strongly suggest that working people should feel guilty for owning tidy, secure homes while others languish in tenements. Or, more to the point, "It's not good to eat a ten-dollar steak while someone else is starving." Carrying this inane argument to its logical extreme, one can become remorseful about enjoying anything, which seems to be the argument's intention. If people are starving, does it not seem heartless to enjoy any satisfactions at all? For an exercise in adventurous living, Mr. Kozol should locate a factory worker who puts in long hours so that he and his family may enjoy expensive steaks (thanks to the government's inflation, are there any other kind?) and pedantically explain to the man that it is wicked to eat these steaks while others cannot. (Kozol should first become intimately acquainted with the art of self-defense.)


Guilt has a much more devastating effect on those who fit our model than on those moving up into the middle class. Garry Trudeau, creator of the popular comic strip Doonesbury, is perceptive enough to understand this process. One of his earlier strips pictured a white campus liberal approaching some Black Panthers selling their party newspaper, which the liberal refuses to buy. Upon hearing this, the Panthers reply, "You say you're against our Free Breakfast Program for children?" The liberal, of course, is so shaken that he relents. His vulnerability to guilt has afforded him no defense against this clever debating trick. If more people would learn to understand the role of guilt in politics, perhaps fewer simpletons would fall for the notion that political opposition to welfare and Social Security is proof of hatred for the poor. There is, after all, a difference between guilt and compassion. When one delights in the old adage, "If a man is not a communist at age 20, he has no heart; if he is still a communist at age 30, he has no brain," one reveals a dangerous failure to recognize the adage's confusion of guilt with "heart."

A great illustration of such confusion is the case of Djerjinsky. Liberals, especially, might read of his self-sacrificing prison episode with spellbound reverence and then be amazed to discover that such a humble man with such apparent concern for others could become a mass murderer. The confusion lies in the habit of not distinguishing self-sacrifice from humanitarianism. A true humanitarian would view charity as an end in itself and self-sacrifice as a means to that end, but Marxism seems to view self-sacrifice as the end and charity as the means.

Whatever the merits of free enterprise compared to socialism, socialism has the advantage of guilt. Its real strength lies in being able to convince people that without socialism our poor, blind, and elderly citizens will be dropping in the streets like flies. But this argument was long ago disposed of by Bastiat (would people not be religious if the government did not provide churches?) and by Eugene Zamiatin, author of the novel We, the forerunner of 1984. We described a future totalitarian regime that compels its subjects to chew each piece of food exactly 50 times—for their own good, of course. The central character, taught this from birth, would wonder how past civilizations managed to survive without constant chaos and misery, having had no omnipotent authority to dictate the number of times each morsel should be chewed. Are we, too, approaching the point where we will be unable to understand why America was not plagued by constant mass starvation before Social Security and welfare were enacted? If political guilt goes unchecked, we could become convinced that freedom itself is evil because it makes no absolute guarantee that all will be fed and clothed—a guarantee that only a prison cell or a totalitarian government can make. At this point, we would no longer have any argument with totalitarianism.

Any struggle against political guilt and its effects must focus on totalitarian propaganda. In addition to the guilt-inducing techniques previously mentioned in this context, there is also a quite effective guilt-by-association tactic. For example, Cubans are led to "discover" that all those who oppose Castro are really former plantation owners, drug smugglers, or Mafia gangsters. To whatever extent Americans also believe this, Castro can make himself look good by comparison without ever expounding his own ideas. This tactic works well because it can often leave sincere anti-Castro Cubans and others with a sense of guilt about having a supposedly common cause with such people. Only a thorough understanding of political guilt and its effects could enable those who are vulnerable to such tactics to resist them. Similarly, many susceptible college-bound youths might be spared the kind of mental anguish that Diana Oughton and others have undergone if they could be shown that this guilt lacks a logical basis and is unconnected with any actual sins. Being able to eat three meals a day is no iniquity; and, if nothing else, being born in this century makes one innocent of the crimes depicted in Roots.

Vulnerability to the pestilence of political guilt can be reduced by promoting pride and self-esteem in whatever ways possible. Since there is now some talk about replacing our national anthem with something more up-to-date, let us suggest the soul music song "Respect Yourself."

Mr. Epstein is a free-lance writer who lives in Chicago and is a devotee of Austrian economics.