The Dim-Post

March 7, 2011

Ultimate left-wing novel

Filed under: books,tv — danylmc @ 1:24 pm

One of Tyler Cowen’s readers asks:

I am hoping you and your readers can help settle an issue. I am a left-leaning voter.  A conservative friend and I recently discussed Atlas Shrugged, which he said was the ultimate right-wing novel. He challenged me to point him towards a left-wing novel that does for that side of politics what Rand does for the right. I think the book needs to do two things: justify the welfare state and argue the limitations of the invisible hand. While I can think of lots of non-fiction texts, I am drawing blank on fictional offerings.

Do you or your readers have any suggestions? Any assistance would be greatly appreciated.

Cowen mentions Grapes of Wrath. I’d nominate Catch 22 and The Great Gatsby, although neither of them quite fit the definition supplied.

Maybe Atlas Shrugged is a bit of an outlier. Outside of Rand’s work you can’t point to any other ‘ultimate right-wing novel’ either.

I think the best pieces of political propaganda I’ve ever seen are the Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister shows. They demonise the idea of centralised government and a professional civil service and consistently make the argument for public-choice theory with such wit and sophistication you never know you’re being manipulated.


  1. Grapes of Wrath, “A million acres? whats a man to do with a million acres they cried”

    Comment by Che Tibby — March 7, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

  2. Not quite nominating it, but Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal is rather obviously anti private ownership of infrastructure.

    Dickens? You might have more options if you include theatre but I’m still out of immediate ideas.

    Comment by lyndon — March 7, 2011 @ 1:34 pm

  3. How about The Illuminatus! Trilogy?

    It makes almost as little sense as Atlas Shrugged

    Comment by pete — March 7, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

  4. The Dispossessed, kinda.

    Comment by James Butler — March 7, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

  5. Man Alone – left massive footprints on our islands.

    Comment by taranaki — March 7, 2011 @ 1:43 pm

  6. Hence why DPF would constantly refer to Yes Minister…

    Comment by max — March 7, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

  7. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell (or Robert Noonan/Croker). A great book.

    Comment by Bearhunter — March 7, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

  8. The book is …”Based on his own experiences of poverty, exploitation, and his terror that he and his daughter Kathleen — whom he was raising alone — would be consigned to the workhouse if he became ill, Tressell embarked on a detailed and scathing analysis of the relationship between working-class people and their employers. The “philanthropists” of the title are the workers who, in Tressell’s view, acquiesce in their own exploitation in the interests of their bosses. The novel is set in the fictional town of Mugsborough, based on the southern English coastal town of Hastings, where Tressell lived. The original title page of the book carried the subtitle: “Being the story of twelve months in Hell, told by one of the damned, and written down by Robert Tressell.”

    Thanks Wikipedia.

    Comment by Bearhunter — March 7, 2011 @ 2:10 pm

  9. The Lorax, by Dr Seuss

    A parable about the dangers of focusing on just one product (the Sneed) and just one source of raw materials (the Truffula tree).

    It probably also has an environmental message

    Comment by Paul — March 7, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

  10. If you stretch acceptance of random acts of god to acceptance of the diktats of the market (and that’s not a huge stretch at times) then Voltaire’s Candide should be considered.

    Comment by Nick — March 7, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

  11. Modern left-wing thought is based on liberal-biased reality. So it makes more sense that you would find justifications of right-wing thought in fiction and for left-wing thought in non-fiction.

    I recommend Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich.

    Comment by pete — March 7, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

  12. Though the Left traditionally criticise Dickens for writing likeable charitable rich people, he exposed the terrible social conditions caused by laissez faire capitalism. Hard Times, Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield are all socially progressive for the time. And as for Christmas Carol – the ultimate conversion of a right-wing miser to a humanistic leftie! If only Rodney Hide could recieve a few ghostly visits to his bedchamber

    Comment by dave armstrong — March 7, 2011 @ 2:16 pm

  13. Hence why DPF would constantly refer to Yes Minister…,

    Less sinister explanation being it’s a political show with ‘wit and sophistication’, hence lending itself to the odd mention in the political blog-o-sphere.

    Comment by StephenR — March 7, 2011 @ 2:18 pm

  14. Dave Armstrong has beaten me to it – I was going to suggest Dickens as well.

    Comment by Carol — March 7, 2011 @ 2:24 pm

  15. I always thought that Yes Minister was written by a Tory, although now I can’t find my reference…

    Comment by James Butler — March 7, 2011 @ 2:24 pm

  16. … not meaning to denigrate it, it was a brilliant show, just to suggest that just because it was good doesn’t mean it couldn’t legitimately support a right-wing agenda.

    Comment by James Butler — March 7, 2011 @ 2:26 pm

  17. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.

    Comment by Richard — March 7, 2011 @ 2:32 pm

  18. Oh arse. I didn’t expect that to happen.

    Comment by Richard — March 7, 2011 @ 2:33 pm

  19. 1984 or Animal Farm for their messages against totalitarianism

    To a small extent – The Thin Red Line – Sgt Welsh’s musings that the war is all about private property

    Comment by Paul — March 7, 2011 @ 2:34 pm

  20. Or, to really annoy the right-wingers … The Bible?

    Comment by Richard — March 7, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

  21. What about the ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ books? They are all about selfless hard work for the greater good.

    Comment by ieuan — March 7, 2011 @ 2:42 pm

  22. More concerned with the international level, but most of John Le Carre’s post-Cold War novels are pretty searing denunciations of the market and status-quo politics.

    And what happened to your love of “Freedom”, danyl? “The book is about how humans are highly social, interdependent animals reliant on each other for our happiness, and Franzen shows that if you put animals like that in a culture that celebrates individual freedom to the exclusion of all other virtues then you end up with a society filled with depressed, angry, lonely, frustrated people.”

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — March 7, 2011 @ 2:42 pm

  23. “What about the ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ books? They are all about selfless hard work for the greater good.”

    Ummm … how do you think the Fat Controller got so fat?

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — March 7, 2011 @ 2:43 pm

  24. +1 to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. My poppa lent me his copy when I was in high school, and I still remember it well.

    Comment by Jordan — March 7, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

  25. Unfortunately you can’t use Yes Minister or Yes Prime Minister as your examples.
    The requirement is for a NOVEL, ie a work of fiction.
    As anyone who has ever worked for the Government will tell you both of those television series were not fiction at all. They were 100% factual with only the names being changed to protect the guilty.

    Comment by Alwyn — March 7, 2011 @ 2:57 pm

  26. dunno if the Dispossessed is the right stuff. it’s a treatise on anarchist really. i think the person asking about ‘left wing’ is really driving at something like Brazil.

    Comment by Che Tibby — March 7, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

  27. My suggestion would be George Orwell’s “The road to Wigan Pier”, especially the second part.

    Comment by Bruce Hamilton — March 7, 2011 @ 3:17 pm

  28. As read by human beings; Atlas Shrugged.

    Comment by Pascal's bookie — March 7, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

  29. Les Miserables – despite Papa Victor digressing all over the place and at the drop of a hat

    Comment by Leopold — March 7, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

  30. …though if you want something specifically celebrating the triumph of the caring society, and the mixed economy, examples rather harder to find – Agree that the Jungle and Oil (Upton Sinclair), and Orwell’s worksare possibilities.
    {Purely NZ work – what about J A Lee’s books?

    Comment by Leopold — March 7, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

  31. John A Lee’s Children of the Poor? (further to Leopold above)

    Haven’t actually read it, but the play’s pretty good. Apparently his mother wrote a memoir in response because she felt he’d over-egged the whole horribleness bit.

    Comment by lyndon — March 7, 2011 @ 3:43 pm

  32. Orwells 1984 and Animal Farm are the greatest “rightwing” books every written by a leftist…

    Comment by James — March 7, 2011 @ 3:47 pm

  33. “The Larch” by Monty Python. It seemed to fit most occasions and ideologies.


    Comment by JC — March 7, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

  34. “They demonise the idea of centralised government and a professional civil service and consistently make the argument for public-choice theory”

    I get this sentence right up to the public choice theory. what is the public choice theory??

    Comment by K2 — March 7, 2011 @ 3:49 pm


    Comment by Simon Poole — March 7, 2011 @ 3:51 pm

  36. When applied to the state it assumes every person working for the government is acting in their own rational self-interest, ie teachers are interested solely in enriching themselves and not in educating their students.

    Comment by danylmc — March 7, 2011 @ 3:59 pm

  37. Isn’t the problem here that a substantial chunk of the most important works of art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are directly or indirectly against totalitarianism and for Democratic Socialism as they understand it, and that we’re basically spoilt for choice here? I mean, you can start with Zola and finish with Lessing and take your pick of innumerable novels in between, some better some worse some more or less programmatic? It’s a bit like asking for the novel which best deals with love.

    Comment by Keir — March 7, 2011 @ 4:24 pm

  38. John Dos Passos “USA”

    Sembene “God’s Bits of Wood”

    Upton Sinclair “The Jungle”

    Comment by Robert Winter — March 7, 2011 @ 4:27 pm

  39. I’d nominate Catch 22

    That’s a big call. I think it’d be a struggle to come up with a convincing argument that the anti-war message of the novel is a specifically left-wing phenomenon.

    Comment by Phil — March 7, 2011 @ 4:32 pm

  40. … especially when it could be argued that the military-brass are represent the wider coersive power of the state.

    Comment by Phil — March 7, 2011 @ 4:35 pm

  41. Isn’t the problem here that a substantial chunk of the most important works of art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are directly or indirectly against totalitarianism and for Democratic Socialism…

    So the correct answer is “any novel other than Atlas Shrugged“?

    Comment by Richard — March 7, 2011 @ 4:46 pm

  42. I’d go with The Jungle but Catch 22 and The Ragged Trousered Philantrophist also get my vote.

    Comment by Arthur Freeman — March 7, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

  43. How about The Half Gallon Quarter Acre Pavlova Paradise

    Comment by ropata — March 7, 2011 @ 5:11 pm

  44. Surely Brave New World qualifies.

    Comment by hamishmckenzie — March 7, 2011 @ 5:17 pm

  45. David Brin’s The Postman.

    Comment by Daveosaurus — March 7, 2011 @ 5:54 pm

  46. Tom Wolf’s “A Man in Full” perhaps.

    Comment by jack — March 7, 2011 @ 6:21 pm

  47. Another vote for The Jungle.

    Phil, the portrayal of Milo Minderbinder in Catch 22 is a fairly strong denunciation of narrowly market based responses to the problems of the world. Although I agree that the depiction of military authority is also a critique of centralised planning. I don’t think the book is a left wing novel, just a highly sceptical one.

    Comment by Dr Foster — March 7, 2011 @ 10:46 pm

  48. Germinal by Emile Zola. The Anglosphere has always been a bit light on left-wing thought, so looking for the great left wing novel within it is a lost cause.

    Comment by Hugh — March 7, 2011 @ 11:58 pm

  49. In light of recent events with the Welfare Working Group I’d have to say Down & Out In Paris & London:

    “When you are approaching poverty, you make one discovery which outweighs some of the others. You discover boredom and mean complications and the beginnings of hunger, but you also discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future. Within certain limits, it is actually true that the less money you have, the less you worry.”

    “Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else. It is as though all one’s blood had been pumped out and lukewarm water substituted.”

    Comment by Rory — March 8, 2011 @ 1:58 am

  50. Oh, and how could I forget…

    “At present I do not feel I have seen more than the fringe of poverty. Still, I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.”

    Comment by Rory — March 8, 2011 @ 4:19 am

  51. Not “the greatest”, but some further down the list are Pynchon’s Against The Day and Banks’ Culture novels


    Comment by Antoine — March 8, 2011 @ 8:13 am

  52. PS Danyl, if it is decided that there is no “greatest left wing novel”, are you volunteering to write one? The prose would have to be at least as good as that of Atlas Shrugged

    Comment by Antoine — March 8, 2011 @ 8:18 am

  53. Just because the Culture have unlimited resources and everyone flounces around doing whatever takes their fancy how does this make them like Labour? OK so the second part is just like the Labour party.

    And regarding foreign policy, The Culture is reminiscent of neoconservative idealism, with a policy of intervening in foreign societies to promote its own cultural values, so I guess this is similar to Labours domestic welfare policy a.k.a WFF.

    Carry on.

    Comment by leon — March 8, 2011 @ 8:40 am

  54. The Road.

    Comment by uke — March 8, 2011 @ 9:23 am

  55. the weetbix emperor

    Comment by k.jones — March 8, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

  56. Poetry is the genre of the left.

    Comment by Tim — March 8, 2011 @ 5:34 pm

  57. @Tim Poetry is the genre of the left.

    Eliot? Pound?

    Comment by Dr Foster — March 8, 2011 @ 8:15 pm

  58. Capital, by Karl Marx. Francis Wheen in his biography of Marx points out how much that work resembles a three-decker Victorian novel, with a plot revolving around the search for that elusive and curious character Surplus Value.
    Or, for that matter, The Communist Manifesto (1848 edition) – A novella in the tradition of Mary Shelley, with its similar theme – the creation by the new Frankenstein (the bourgeois classes) of Industrial Man

    Comment by Leopold — March 8, 2011 @ 10:21 pm

  59. Frank Herbert’s Dune does a good job criticising elite control based on monarchy, nobles and a corporation that dominates faster than light travel…

    Comment by Conor Roberts — March 8, 2011 @ 10:34 pm

  60. Eh? Atlas Shrugged isn’t a right-wing novel, its libertarian – very different

    Comment by Shaun Holt — March 10, 2011 @ 7:41 pm

  61. Here’s a few more candidates, ‘The Harbor’ by Ernest Poole, ‘The Jungle’ by Sinclair Lewis, and the USA trilogy of John Dos Passos ‘The 42nd Parallel’, ‘1919’, and ‘The Big Money.’

    Comment by S.Jones — February 28, 2014 @ 7:17 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: