So this started when @miss_mcinerney re-posted a blog by @sturdyalex. It's a very well written polemic which comes down to the assertion that there are too many posh boys running the country who don't have a clue.
I don't disagree with his conclusion that we need more diversity in politics - but was mildly piqued by his implied assertion that you need to have experienced poverty to understand it; and to want to do something about it....
Anyway I replied that "most effective progressives in history have not themselves been poor". This led @HFletcherWood to send me one of his blogs that quotes US teaching guru Steven Farr:
"No movement for social justice has ever succeeded without leaders who have suffered that injustice".
This is a great line. It's also wrong. And it was at this point I needed more than 140 characters to explain my point.
So here are my two counter-contentions:
There have been successful movements for social justice led almost entirely by elites.
There are few - if any - examples of successful movements for social justice that have not required the support of elites.
To support my contentions here is a very crude typology of "movements for social justice"
Type One: movements led almost entirely by elites
The obvious example here are the campaigns to end the slave trade in Britain and slavery in the US. These changes had to be driven by white elites because slaves themselves were almost completely disempowered. A small number of ex-slaves like Equiano in Britain and Frederick Douglass in the US played key roles in the respective movements but change was primarily driven by rich white people with a social conscience. Another example might be the labour reform movement led by Lord Shaftesbury in the second quarter of the nineteenth century.
Type Two: movements led by social elites with strong non-elite support
An example here would be the post-war introduction of the welfare state in the UK. While there was clearly a strong groundswell of support for better welfare/health provision (just look at the 1945 election result) the movement for change was led by wealthy liberal reformers like William Beveridge; Beatrice Webb and Henrietta Barnett. Most of the key reforms were introduced by the Atlee Government packed with similarly wealthy reformers (Atlee himself; Hugh Dalton; Stafford Cripps etc) alongside trade unionists like Nye Bevan and Ernest Bevin. Another example would be the rise of the Republican-Democrats in post-revolutionary America. Again the movement tapped into a strong groundswell of support but was led by wealthy plantation owners like Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe.
Type Three: movements led by "sufferers of injustice" but supported by elites
A good example here would be the civil rights movement which was undoutedly led by Martin Luther King and other great civil rights advocates like Ralph Abernathy and John Lewis. Without them it would have taken much longer to introduce any meaningful rights for black Americans but they needed the support of elites to make it happen. In the third volume of Robert Caro's epic biography of Lyndon Johnson "Master of the Senate" he narrates the extraordinary machinations LBJ undertook in order to get the 1957 Civil Rights Act passed. Continued support from the Kennedy brothers; Johnson and incredibly dedicated government officials like Nicholas Katzenbach was needed to get the much more significant 1964 Act passed. When the movement stopped engaging with white elites after King's death it drifted into black panther-style separatism and opportunity for further progress was significantly reduced. Another example here would be the suffragettes who needed support from the Lloyd-George administration to win their fight.
I can't think of any examples of movements for social justice in democracies that were successful without support from elites. Those who have sought to actively alienate elites fail. The poor need the rich.
I now expect to be monstered by some proper historians...