Why Orwell Matters

Tuesday, October 30, 2001

Why should we still read George Orwell on politics? Until 1989, the answer was plain. He was the writer who captured the essence of totalitarianism. All over communist-ruled Europe, people would show me their dog-eared, samizdat copies of Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four and ask, "How did he know?"

Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.

Yet the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four ended in 1989. Orwellian regimes persisted in a few remote countries, such as North Korea, and communism survived in an attenuated form in China. But the three dragons against which Orwell fought his good fight—European and especially British imperialism; fascism, whether Italian, German, or Spanish; and communism, not to be confused with the democratic socialism in which Orwell himself believed—were all either dead or mortally weakened. Forty years after his own painful and early death, Orwell had won.

What need, then, of Orwell? One answer is that we should read him because of his historical impact. For Orwell was the most influential political writer of the twentieth century. This is a bold claim, but who else would compete? Among novelists, perhaps Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Albert Camus; among playwrights, Bertolt Brecht. Or would it be a philosopher, such as Karl Popper, Friedrich von Hayek, or Hannah Arendt? Or the novelist, playwright, and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, whom Orwell privately called "a bag of wind"? Take them one by one, and you will find that each made an impact more limited in duration or geographic scope than did this short-lived, old-fashioned English man of letters.

"All over communist-ruled Europe, people would show me their dog-eared, samizdat copies of Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four and ask, ‘How did he know?’"

Worldwide familiarity with the word Orwellian is proof of that influence. Orwellian is used as a pejorative adjective, to evoke totalitarian terror, the falsification of history by state-organized lying, and, more loosely, any unpleasant example of repression or manipulation. It is used as a noun to describe an admirer and conscious follower of his work. Occasionally, it is deployed as a complimentary adjective, to mean something like "displaying outspoken intellectual honesty, like Orwell." Very few other writers have garnered this double tribute of becoming both adjective and noun.

Everywhere that people lived under totalitarian dictatorships, they felt he was one of them. The Russian poet Natalya Gorbanyevskaya once told me that Orwell was an East European. In fact, he was a very English writer who never went anywhere near Eastern Europe. His knowledge of the communist world was largely derived from reading.

Three personal experiences had transformed his understanding. First, as a British imperial policeman for five years in Burma he was himself the servant of an oppressive, though not a totalitarian, regime. By the time he resigned, he had acquired a lifelong hatred of imperialism and also a deep insight into the psychology of the oppressor. Then he went to live among the down-and-outs in England and in Paris. So he knew at firsthand the humiliating unfreedom that comes from poverty.

Finally, there was the Spanish Civil War. Spain, for Orwell, meant fighting fascism and getting a bullet through his throat. But still more important was the revelation of Russian-led communist terror and duplicity, as he and his comrades in the heterodox Marxist POUM militia were hunted through the streets of Barcelona by the Communists who were supposed to be their allies. Of the Russian agent in Barcelona charged with defaming the POUM as Trotskyist Francoist traitors, he writes, in Homage to Catalonia, "It was the first time that I had seen a person whose profession was telling lies—unless one counts journalists." The barb’s black humor also reflects his disgust at the way the whole left-wing press in Britain was falsifying events that he had seen with his own eyes. (For more on Orwell’s experience in Spain, see "The Man Who Saved Orwell" on page 180.)

"After his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell knew where he stood. From that point on, every line of Orwell’s writing had a political purpose."

As he says in his 1946 essay "Why I Write," after Spain he knew where he stood. He had earlier adopted the pen name George Orwell in preference to his own, Eric Blair, but it was after Spain that he really became Orwell. Every line of his writing now had a political purpose. Imperialism and fascism would remain major targets of his generous anger. But the first enemy would be the blindness or intellectual dishonesty of those in the West who supported or condoned Stalinist communism—even more so after the Soviet Union became the West’s ally in the war against Hitler. And so he sat down to write a Swiftian satire on Stalinist Russia, with the Communists as the pigs in a farm run by the animals. "Willingness to criticize Russia and Stalin," he wrote in August 1944, "is the test of intellectual honesty."

The rejection of Animal Farm by several British publishers, because they did not want to criticize Britain’s heroic wartime ally, showed what he was up against. When it was finally published in Britain in 1945 (and the United States in 1946), the book was a political event, which helped to open the eyes of the English-speaking West to the true nature of the Soviet regime. (One might call this the Orwell effect.) Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its more generalized dystopia, became another defining Cold War text. Not accidentally, the first use of the phrase Cold War recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from an article by Orwell.

"Imperialism and fascism were the major targets of Orwell’s generous anger. But his first enemy would be the blindness or intellectual dishonesty of those in the West who supported or condoned Stalinist communism."

In short, he was more memorably and influentially right, and sooner than anyone, about the single greatest political menace of the second half of the twentieth century, as well as seeing off the two largest horrors of the first half. But those monsters are dead or on their last legs. To say "read him because he mattered a lot in the past" will hardly attract new readers to Orwell.

Fortunately, there is a more compelling reason we should read Orwell in the twenty-first century: he remains an exemplar of political writing. Both meanings of exemplar are required. He is a model of how to do it well, but he is also an example—a deliberate, self-conscious, and self-critical instance—of how difficult it is.

In "Why I Write," he says that his purpose, after Spain, was to "make political writing into an art." Animal Farm is the work in which he most completely succeeded. In his "little fairy story," artistic form and political content are perfectly matched—partly because they are so grotesquely mismatched. What could be further apart than Stalinist Moscow and an English country farmyard?

He cared passionately for the English countryside and lived there in the late 1930s, keeping a village shop, a goat, and a notebook. Animal Farm overflows with lovingly observed physical detail of country life. But then, from the mouth of the pig Major, there erupts a perfect parody of a communist speech: the fruit of many hours Orwell had spent poring over the political pamphlets he collected. Only he would have this peculiar combination of expertises. Only Orwell would know both how to milk a goat and how to skewer a revisionist.

"In short, Orwell was more memorably and influentially right (and sooner than anyone) about the single greatest political menace of the second half of the twentieth century."

The twists and turns of his animal regime closely follow the decay of the Russian revolution into tyranny. There is no ambiguity here: the pig Napoleon is Stalin, the pig Snowball is Trotsky. And there is his humor, an underrated part of Orwell’s sandpapery charm. (Soon after he was shot through the neck in Spain, his commanding officer perceptively reported: "Breathing absolutely regular. Sense of humor untouched.") Unforgettable is that perfect one-liner, at once comic and deeply serious: "All Animals Are Equal, but Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others."

Animal Farm is a timeless satire on the central tragi-comedy of all politics—that is, the tragi-comedy of corruption by power. This ability to move from the particular to the universal also characterizes his essays: the other genre in which he wrote best about politics.

What he abhors, perhaps even more than violence or tyranny, is dishonesty. Marching up and down the frontier between literature and politics, like a sentry for morality, he can spot a double standard at 500 yards in bad light. Does a Tory MP demand freedom for Poland while remaining silent about India? Sentry Orwell fires off a quick round.

Orwell the moralist is fascinated by the pursuit not merely of truth but of the most complicated and difficult truths. It starts already with the early essay "Shooting an Elephant," where he confidently asserts that the British empire is dying but immediately adds that it is "a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it." At times, he seems to take an almost masochistic delight in confronting uncomfortable truths.

Not that his own political judgment was always good. His vivacious and perceptive wife, Eileen, wrote that he retained "an extraordinary political simplicity." There are striking misjudgments in his work. It’s startling to find him, early on, repeating the communist line that "fascism and capitalism are at bottom the same thing."

He opposed fighting Hitler until well into 1939, only to reverse his position. In his wartime tract The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, he proposes the nationalization of "land, mines, railways, banks and major industries." Orwell was a very English writer, and we think of understatement as a very English quality. But his specialty is outrageous overstatement: "No real revolutionary has ever been an internationalist," "All leftwing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham," "A humanitarian is always a hypocrite."

"Unforgettable is that perfect one-liner, at once comic and deeply serious: ‘All Animals Are Equal, but Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others.’"

As V. S. Pritchett observed, in reviewing The Lion and the Unicorn, he "is capable of exaggerating with the simplicity and innocence of a savage." But that is what satirists do. Evelyn Waugh, from the other end of the political spectrum, did the same. So this weakness of his nonfiction is one of the great strengths of his fiction.

Both his life and his work are case studies in the demands of political engagement. In Writers and Leviathan he describes the political writer’s dilemma: "seeing the need of engaging in politics while also seeing what a dirty, degrading business it is." After briefly being a member of the Independent Labour Party, he concludes that "a writer can only remain honest if he keeps free of party labels." (That key word honest again.) But he plans and becomes vice-chairman of a nonparty organization called the Freedom Defense Committee, defending freedom against imperialism and fascism, of course, but now, above all, against communism.

A word is due about the already notorious list of crypto-Communists and fellow travelers, which he is popularly thought to have handed over to the British secret service. ("Socialist Icon Who Became an Informer," trumpeted the Daily Telegraph when "breaking" the story in 1998.) The facts are these. Orwell kept a pale blue notebook in which he noted names and details of suspected communist agents or sympathizers. The content of this notebook is disquieting, with its sharp judgments—"almost certainly agent of some kind," "decayed liberal," "appeaser only"—and especially its national/racial annotations: "Jewish?" (Charlie Chaplin) or "English Jew" (Tom Driberg) as well as "Polish," "Jugo-Slav," "Anglo-American," and so on. There is something unsettling—a touch of the old imperial policeman—about a writer who could have lunch with a friend like the poet Stephen Spender and then go home to note "Sentimental sympathizer and very unreliable. Easily influenced. Tendency to homosexuality."

"Orwell taught us that the corruption of language is an essential part of oppressive or exploitative politics."

However, two very important things need to be said in explanation. First, there was a Cold War on. There were Soviet agents and sympathizers about, and they were influential. The most telling example is the man Orwell had down as "almost certainly agent of some kind." His name was Peter Smollett. During World War II he was the head of the Russian section in the Ministry of Information, and it was on his advice that T. S. Eliot, no less, rejected Animal Farm for Jonathan Cape. We now know that Smollett was indeed a Soviet spy.

Second, Orwell did not give this notebook to the British secret service. He gave a list of 35 names drawn from it to the Information Research Department, a semisecret branch of the Foreign Office that specialized in getting writers on the democratic left to counter the then highly organized Soviet communist propaganda offensive. Absurdly, the British government has not declassified this list or any letter that accompanied it. So we still don’t know exactly what Orwell did. But from the available evidence it is quite clear that Orwell was not putting some British thought police onto these people’s tails. All he was doing, in effect, was to say: "Don’t use these people for anticommunist propaganda because they are probably communists or communist sympathizers!"

A dying man, but still in complete command of his faculties, Orwell judged this to be a morally defensible act for a writer in a period of intense political struggle, just as he had earlier judged that it was proper for a politically engaged writer to take up arms against Franco. I think he was right. You may think he was wrong. Either way, he exemplifies for us—he is that exemplar—of the dilemmas of the political writer.

"The extreme, totalitarian version of political doublespeak that Orwell satirized as Newspeak is less often encountered these days, except in countries such as Burma and North Korea. But the obsession of democratically elected governments, especially in Britain and America, with media management and ‘spin’ is today one of the main obstacles to understanding what is being done in our name."

Finally, of course, Orwell’s list and Orwell’s life are much less important than the work. It matters, to be sure, that there is no flagrant contradiction between the work and the life—as there often is with political intellectuals. The Orwellian voice, placing honesty and single standards above everything, would be diminished. But what endures is the work.

If I had to name a single quality that makes Orwell still essential reading in the twenty-first century, it would be his insight into the use and abuse of language. If you have time to read only one essay, read "Politics and the English Language," which brilliantly sums up the central Orwellian argument that the corruption of language is an essential part of oppressive or exploitative politics. "The defense of the indefensible" is sustained by a battery of euphemisms, verbal false limbs, prefabricated phrases, and all the other paraphernalia of deceit that he pinpoints and parodies.

The extreme, totalitarian version that he satirized as Newspeak is less often encountered these days, except in countries such as Burma and North Korea. But the obsession of democratically elected governments, especially in Britain and America, with media management and "spin" is today one of the main obstacles to understanding what is being done in our name. There are also distortions that come from within the press, radio, and television themselves, partly because of hidden ideological bias but increasingly because of fierce commercial competition and the relentless need to "entertain."

Read Orwell, and you will know that something nasty must be hidden behind the euphemistic, Latinate phrase used by NATO spokespeople during the Kosovo war: "collateral damage." (It means innocent civilians killed.) Read Orwell, and you will smell a rat whenever you find a British newspaper or politician once again churning out a prefabricated phrase such as "Brussels’ inexorable march to a European superstate."

He does not just equip us to detect this semantic abuse. He also suggests how writers can fight back. For the abusers of power are, after all, using our weapons: words. In "Politics and the English Language" he even gives some simple stylistic rules for honest and effective political writing. He compares good English prose to a clean windowpane. Through these windows, citizens can see what their rulers are really up to. So political writers should be the window cleaners of freedom.

Orwell both tells and shows us how to do it. That is why we need him still, because Orwell’s work is never done.