‘chardonnay socialist’: meaning and origin

The derogatory expression chardonnay socialist denotes a person who espouses socialist ideals while enjoying a wealthy lifestyle.

It was coined after the synonymous expression champagne socialist.
—Cf. also prosecco socialist, limousine liberal and parlour socialist.

The expression chardonnay socialism, therefore, denotes socialism as espoused by people who enjoy a wealthy lifestyle.

Named after Chardonnay, a commune in Bourgogne, a region of east central France, chardonnay denotes:
– a variety of white-wine grape, now grown widely around the world;
– a wine made from this grape.

The expression chardonnay socialist is chiefly used in Australian English. The earliest occurrence that I have found is from The pie’s under siege in Balmain, by Peter Smark and Ben Bremner, published in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales) of Thursday 30th May 1985:

Balmain’s 1 new people are a mix of Chardonnay Socialists whose anxieties over mortgages and divorces are blended with nostalgia for the Whitlam era 2 (when many moved here) and a less bohemian group whose ambitions are more nakedly bound up with property prices and whose bible is Vogue Living. In case they may be overheard by potential buyers of their over-priced houses, both groups profess a harmony of spirit in a warm village atmosphere with the shrinking working class survivors who are markedly less certain of this and mostly concentrate on the Tigers 3.

1 Balmain is an inner suburb of Sydney, New South Wales. Traditionally working class, Balmain has been gentrified.
2 This refers to the Whitlam Government (1972-1975), the federal executive government of Australia led by Gough Whitlam (1916-2014), of the Australian Labor Party.
3 This probably refers to the home ground of the Balmain Tigers, a rugby-league club.

The Australian playwright David Williamson (born 1942) used the expression chardonnay socialist in Emerald City (Sydney: Currency Press, 1987):

Colin: I know the middle class shouldn’t have emotional problems—they’re infinitely better off in a material sense than your average third world villager but for some perverse reason they successfully screw up their lives with great flair, and I find that interesting, and I’m going to keep charting their perturbations and try and make some sense of it all, and those Chardonnay socialists of Melbourne aren’t going to stop me!

This use of chardonnay socialist by David Williamson seems to have popularised the expression, which was frequently quoted in reviews of Emerald City published not only in Australia but also in Britain, the USA and Canada, when the play was produced in those countries.

In fact, the expression became associated with David Williamson to such an extent that Fiona Capp wrote the following in her column Switch on Radio, published in The Age (Melbourne, Victoria) of Thursday 30th November 1989:

David Williamson coined the disparaging phrase “Chardonnay socialist” to describe left-wing intellectuals.

The earliest occurrence of the expression chardonnay socialism that I have found is from a review of David Williamson’s Emerald City, produced at the Ensemble Theatre, Sydney—review by James Waites, published in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales) of Monday 23rd January 1995:

That was the ’80s and it is remarkable now to see how in tune Williamson was with the key moral concerns of the decade. It’s a play about superficiality and greed, “chardonnay socialism” and those pricks of conscience to which, for all our squirming, we usually fail to respond.

The expression chardonnay socialist has occasionally been used in American English. For example, the following is from SC mayor’s advertising debut riles some wharf restaurateurs, by Joan Raymond, Sentinel Staff Writer, published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Santa Cruz, California) of Friday 19th September 1986:

Santa Cruz—Socialist Mayor Michael Rotkin is lending his image to a capitalist venture.
Rotkin—who built a political career on being the city’s first socialist mayor in 1981—was photographed for an advertisement for one of the most expensive restaurants in town. The ad, for which Rotkin wasn’t paid, is scheduled to run in The Sentinel a week from today.
Taxpayers have paid $29 a person for the mayor and city officials to wine and dine at the Sea Cloud during recess from council meetings at City Hall. The dinners, accompanied by glasses of Chardonnay, led two city residents to tag Rotkin with the label “Chardonnay Socialist.”

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