George Orwell: A Study in Trans-Political Truth-Speaking

No writer of the twentieth century has touched popular political sensibilities with as broad an effect as George Orwell. There is enduring interest in his two antitotalitarian novels, Animal Farm and 1984, which together set forth a sort of intellectual prophetic ground for the Cold War that Orwell only just glimpsed, dying as he did in 1950 of tuberculosis. But the popularity of these novels has tended to mask the rich variety and clarity of Orwell’s other writings, especially the journalism and essays wherein he builds his case for a politics of conscience, a strange brand of socialism that criticized communist deceit just as readily as capitalist malaise and that had, at its center, a defense of the integrity of language. His is a voice that, if we listen closely, has much to teach us about the urgency of speaking the truth and the necessity of devotion to justice in a world gone awry. In his relentless defense of the economically and politically oppressed (and he sees not only people but language itself threatened), he has provided us with the last century’s salient model for intellectual honesty.

The general conservative take on Orwell is that he is a valuable, if limited, prophet, having offered up a startlingly shrewd exposure of Stalin’s maniac state in Animal Farm (the publication of which was prevented until 1946 so as not to offend Britain’s wartime alliance with Russia) and having suggested the darkness of a future haunted by totalitarian governance in 1984 (published in 1949 on the eve of Orwell’s death). But there is always the rather embarrassing issue that Orwell was an outspoken socialist throughout his entire adult life. Such a fact can be creatively marginalized, but it always remains. Nor can we simply lump Orwell in with the naivete of British socialism between the wars, since naive is an adjective that could never be applied to him. Indeed, the hard-bitten clairvoyance with which he viewed the world in his later novels was not a departure from but, rather, a development out of the earlier arguments. We may criticize the end product of his socialism, but it would be difficult to criticize the integrity of the route he took to get there and impossible to criticize the vitality and power with which he expressed his convictions.

Orwell (his given name was Eric Blair, which he dropped when he began to write) was born in 1903 at his father’s outpost in colonial India and was educated at various English prep schools and, finally, at Eton. His ties with the empire continued after Eton, when he returned to serve in the Imperial Indian Police in Burma from 1922–1927. In the fine essay “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell reveals that, during his service there, he had “made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better.” His formative responses against the fabric of British society and its notions of the propriety of class and empire gave Orwell’s socialism its practical moorings. More striking, though, even from the start of his writing career, is the sharpness of the prose, the realism that also tells a deeper tale. It is journalism of the highest order. One tends to trust the voice that admits, “afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant,” as Orwell concludes unabashedly at the end of the essay. “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.” If the admission is troubling and callous, it is, at the very least, not the work of an equivocator.

Insights of an Immersion Journalist

For the decade after he left the Imperial Police in 1927 and returned to England, Orwell decided to test the realities of his view of life among the “poor and outcast” of urban Europe, with the undeniable effect of compromising his already frail health. (Signs of tuberculosis had been apparent since childhood, but he was not officially diagnosed until 1947.) In Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933, Orwell offers a witty and informative account of his sojourn among the impoverished restaurant laborers of Paris and, subsequently, among the wandering tramps of greater London. Though clearly driven more by curiosity and circumstance than altruistic nobility, Orwell begins in this account to formulate his empathetic relationship with the disenfranchised. He observes,

It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty. You have thought so much about poverty—it is the thing you have feared all your life, the thing you knew would happen to you sooner or later; and it is so utterly and prosaically different. You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping.

In many ways, Down and Out sets the pattern for Orwell’s political, as well as stylistic, development. Tangible, at times grimly realistic, and always tinged with human compassion, Orwell’s work seems from the beginning to have transcended political ranting and to have pressed forward the indispensable role of public truth-speaking.

In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell’s account of his 1936 investigation of unemployment and the working conditions among the coal-mining people of England’s northern industrial regions, the sense of outrage, not only at British capitalism but also at feckless British socialism, emerges most clearly. After building overwhelming documentary evidence that the situation for working-class people in the coal district is untenable, he moves toward a sermonic finale. He laments that “many people who are not repelled by socialism are repelled by socialists,” and then tries out his own understanding of socialism, with striking phrasing: “We’ve got to fight for justice and liberty. And socialism does mean justice and liberty, when the nonsense is stripped off it.” He further declares that “the real socialist is one who wishes—not merely conceives it as desirable but actively wishes—to see tyranny overthrown.” One senses here that the point is not the ultimate triumph of a particular doctrine or party, but the triumph of human dignity.

Orwell’s highest achievement in this sort of “immersion journalism” is found in his account of his participation in the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia. A distinctly religious tone attaches itself to his descriptions of life as a common soldier in the militia of the Spanish socialist party (the puom), in which he served for the first half of 1937. Orwell is characteristically candid about the ineptitude of the Republican citizen-armies and the deprivations of the front, but he refers to those few months in the combat line as “a kind of interregnum in my life, quite different from anything that had gone before and perhaps from anything that is to come” and marvels that “I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites … where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism.” Ultimately, Orwell’s account of the Spanish Civil War holds out Stalinism, rather than capitalism, as the chief enemy of humanity. Here the seeds of Orwell’s antitotalitarian understanding were sown, as he witnessed the Soviet “advisors” vilify, then ruthlessly purge, the Spanish socialist ranks. Yet Orwell is not content to criticize the deaf tyrant, when his own people need chastising as well. Hence, it is to England that Orwell offers his final warning in Homage, as he mixes nostalgia with shrewd prophecy on the fate of “the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen—all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.” One cannot help but recall the realities of the Blitz on London just a few years later and the grim punctuations of narrative in 1984 when the random rocket-bombs drop onto London and ravage without purpose. His lessons in Spain lead to the possibility of speaking a truth that, if not heard and heeded, will at least be registered in the collective psyche of his listeners.

The Audacity of Precise Language

The rich imagery of Orwell’s eulogy for England points us, not inadvertently, to the very core of his achievement: the need to preserve the integrity of language, both its primal power and what he elsewhere refers to as its “demotic,” public quality. Behind all of his criticisms of political and economic injustice, there lies a troubling sense that the real threat is to human language and, thus, to human reason and the human soul. Certainly, the harrowing implications of Newspeak in 1984 point out this central theme. But Orwell also deals with the threat outright in several of his postwar essays, including two of the most famous—“Politics and the English Language” and “Why I Write”—and one less known but worthy of close attention, “The Prevention of Literature.” The crisis is simply expressed at the outset of “Politics and the English Language,” when Orwell shows that

A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

In political language, always bursting with catch phrases and slogans, Orwell sees the particular threat that such phrases

will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself…. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine.

The implication of men becoming “machines,” losing their essential humanness through a failure to express thought clearly, serves as Orwell’s darkest forecast, quite illuminating in our technology-obsessed culture.

The manifesto “Why I Write” brings an autobiographical turn to the critique. Orwell elaborates on his theme that all writing is inherently political—“The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude”—and makes an incisive claim about his own work and, by extension, the work of all others who seek to be truth-speakers. “When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art,’” he reveals. “I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” One senses in this bluntness and simplicity of motive something akin to Socrates’ reasoning in starting conversations in the agora at Athens. It might just as well be Orwell insisting upon the point that “opinion” is not a valid substitute for “knowledge.”

The essay “The Prevention of Literature” seems to me one of Orwell’s most eloquent articulations of his essential belief in decency. It is ostensibly a response to a set of speeches that collectively struck Orwell because “moral liberty—the liberty to discuss sex questions frankly in print—seemed to be generally approved, but political liberty was not mentioned.” This reflection leads to a general lament on the acceptance of lying and suppression of intellectual liberty in the modern state, and though the ussr receives much of the censure, Orwell is typically expansive with his criticism. He puts the onus fully upon intellectuals to stand their ground, but he seems pessimistic regarding whether intellectuals are up to the task, since his standards are very high: “To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox.” The situation of the contemporary American academy comes to mind in his lament that “the direct, conscious attack on intellectual decency comes from the intellectuals themselves.” The public’s apathy toward such matters is equally troubling, because “they do not see that any attack on intellectual liberty, and on the concept of objective truth, threatens in the long run every department of thought.” Again, we return to the specters that Orwell brought to life in 1984 and Animal Farm. The paradox in Big Brother’s primary tenets—“war is peace freedom is slavery ignorance is strength”—is less fantastical a deception than we might think, and the leap required to believe the final commandment in Animal Farm—“all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”—doesn’t seem so wide a chasm. The warnings of the later novels are themselves a testament that Orwell did his part to prevent the “prevention of literature.” That his protest has been unheeded, or, rather, left in the realm of allegory would likely not have surprised him. There is no doubt that it would have pained him.

The Integrity of a Courageous Questioner

Perhaps the best question we can ask ourselves about Orwell is not “What did he believe?” but, rather, “What didn’t he believe?” and, further, “What do his critiques reveal to us?” and maybe, finally, “Do we still have ears to hear?” We believe in liberty and justice, we believe in intellectual freedom, we believe in speaking the truth, we even attest to the truths of God’s revelation that Orwell himself could never accept, but do we really know what is at stake if those beliefs are bludgeoned by the manifold forms of oppression that endure in our generation? Orwell’s works serve as a splash of cold water on the face of our intellectual sensibilities. Even if we disagree with his answers, we would do well to attend closely to the integrity and courage of his questions.