George Orwell, Our Contemporary—Almost

The current wave of cultural Marxism and postmodernism (amounting virtually to the same thing) that is prominent at our universities now threatens to bleed full-bore into our mainstream culture. This has caused more than one observer to liken the current American scene to something akin to George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Published in 1947, the book introduced several new concepts into the English language, the most recognizable being the reference to “Big Brother.” Without attempting to summarize a finely filigreed novel, one cannot help but point out some features which possess a certain resonance in the current American scene.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell divides the world into two conflicting superpowers perpetually at war with one another. Much of the action of the novel takes place in Oceania, whose capital is London. Authority is exercised by the Ministry of Truth, which instructs people what to think and also invents most of the country’s art; the Ministry of Peace, which runs the military; the Ministry of Plenty, which runs the economy; and the Ministry of Love, which runs the prisons. Endless wars keep the people busy and focussed, and the thought police aggressively pursue people who commit, or are alleged to commit, thought crimes.

In Oceania, words lose their conventional meanings, or rather, they assume their opposite meanings. For example, war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength. A faceless enemy is constantly held up for repudiation. Periodically the regime orders two minutes of hate, or even a hate week. Nowadays, we have more up to date perversions of the truth, such as, for example, the alleged non-existence of sexual differences or the inversion of racial superiority. Still, the similarities are too obvious not to strike a responsive chord.

Orwell was also the author of another, perhaps even more famous book, Animal Farm, which offered the most telling aphorism: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” The recent conduct of various American politicians during the current lockdown provides a positively up-to-date rendition of this concept, not to mention the twitterings over inequality (or now, as Madame Harris would have it, “inequity”) put forth by precisely the people whose assets are 10 orders of magnitude or more greater than the public they profess to instruct and who—as the Clintons among others have demonstrated—have absolutely no plans to divest themselves of even a modest portion of their wealth.

It may surprise some to know that George Orwell came by these ideas through long and committed militancy in the British socialist movement, to which he belonged in one sense or another to the very end of his life. Although some neoconservatives have attempted to co-opt Orwell or rather, Orwell’s ghost, in fact he was always a man of the Left, which makes a fuller study of his writings worthwhile for anyone regardless of one’s politics. The best place to begin is to take a deep dive into an omnibus volume of his Essays (Volume 242 in Everyman’s Library, published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf). At first glance this door-stopper is a bit intimidating—a good 1400 pages of closely-printed type. 

Yet few books contain more solid political and cultural wisdom. Orwell was a deeply cultured man, widely traveled and well-read, and willing to take on a range of subjects. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that reading these Essays amounts to a graduate seminar in Anglo-American culture and politics of the type once (alas, no more!) on offer at most American universities.

Who Was Orwell?

Orwell (real name: Eric Blair) was born in 1903 in British India, where his father was an imperial civil servant. Educated first at home, he was sent off at an early age to England and subsequently to a private boy’s school. He won a scholarship to Eton but his performance there was not sufficient to win a scholarship to university, so instead he joined the Indian Imperial Police. After five years in Burma (then an administrative division of British India) he returned to England and began to pursue a career as a writer.

Orwell’s early writings are boldly reflective of personal experience. He took odd jobs, working for a time as a dishwasher in several Paris and London restaurants, eventually chronicling his impressions in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). The following year he published Burmese Days, a novel which produced a devastating critique of the impact of British imperialism, not merely on its subjects but also on its practitioners. About that time he also joined the Independent Labour Party. In 1937 he was sent by the Left Book Club (an institution whose enormous role in inter-war Britain is hard to imagine today) to investigate poverty and unemployment in the British midlands, eventually recast in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) .

In the north of England Orwell came face to face for the first time with the reality of British socialism, or rather, with British socialists. “Socialism” and “Communism,” he discovered, “draws towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature cure’ quack, pacifist and feminist in England.” Socialist ranks—as opposed to the working class itself—he found dominated by middle-class individuals who “while theoretically pining for a classless society, cling like glue to the fragments of social prestige.” 

As for left-wing politicians and publicists, he argued in another place, “the majority . . . are people who earn their livings by demanding something they don’t really want.” It amounts to a small miracle that The Road to Wigan Pier was commissioned and published by the Left Book Club, although it must have provoked considerable discomfort among its subscribers.

At the outbreak of the Spanish civil war in 1936, Orwell decided to volunteer for the International Brigades and was wounded at a battle near Huesca, and eventually invalided out to England. But during his brief time in Spain he discovered certain unmentionable truths. In British left-wing circles the battle for Spain supposedly was a confrontation between democracy and fascism—indeed, that is what conventional history books claim to this very day. In Spain Orwell discovered, however, the sinister role of the Soviet Union in this enterprise. Its purpose there, he witnessed, was not to further a social revolution but to suppress it, since Moscow had other fish to fry (namely, not to frighten the French, with whom the Soviets hoped to build a Popular Front and forge a military alliance). Inasmuch the Russians were the only country (except for Mexico) provisioning the Republic with arms, their influence over the government there was overwhelming. 

In Barcelona, he later wrote in Homage to Catalonia (1938), he witnessed “forcible suppression of [other] political parties, a stifling censorship of the press, and mass imprisonment without trial.” Workers’ militias were being dismantled, the old hierarchies in the army officer corps were being restored. Local Communists and their Soviet minders were building an “ordinary bourgeois state, with, in addition, a reign of terror to preserve the status quo.” Needless to say, this was precisely the opposite of the version propagated by the Soviets themselves and conveyed by their ideological transmission belts near and far, most especially the British left-wing weeklies and the mainstream Labour party.

Because of his wound in Spain he was declared unfit for military service when Britain declared war in 1939 and went instead to work for the Indian Service of the British Broadcasting Company. At the same time he was a prolific contributor to various British weeklies and to the Socialist daily Tribune. At a time when Britain was fighting for its very existence against the Nazis, Orwell found himself thinking a great deal about his country and what it represented. In his columns and articles he revealed himself to be an unapologetic English patriot. But patriotism, he explained, had nothing to do with conservatism.

I grew up in an atmosphere tinged with militarism [he wrote] To this day it gives me a faint feeling of sacrilege not to stand to attention during ‘God Save the King’ [the British national anthem]. That is childish, of course, but I would sooner have that kind of upbringing than to be like the left-wing intellectuals who are so ‘enlightened’ that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions—the spiritual need for patriotism, and the military virtues, for which, however little the boiled rabbits of the left may like them, no substitute has yet been found.

He expanded on this concept in a book-length essay entitled “The Lion and the Unicorn” (the subtitle, interestingly is “Socialism and the English Genius”), where he takes even sharper aim at his quarry. “The really important point about the English intelligentsia,” he writes, “is their severance from the common culture of the country.”

In intention at any rate, the English intelligentsia are Europeanized. They take their cooking from Paris and their opinions from Moscow. In the general patriotism of the country they form a sort of island of dissident thought. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their nationality. It is a strange fact, but unquestionably true, that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing at attention during ‘God Save the King’ than stealing from a poor box . . . Unlike [the English intelligentsia], the common people have never indulged in power worship.

England, he concluded, will never recover its greatness “until patriotism and intelligence come together again.”

Orwell’s experience in war—both in Spain and in Britain itself—led him to speak clearly and uninhibitedly of the importance of masculine virtues, of courage and endurance. He was openly anti-feminist and homophobic. He even referred disrespectfully to homosexuals as “Nancy boys”—something that would be unthinkable in today’s polite society. He would have agreed with the observation of Evelyn Waugh, a writer whose values he would otherwise reject, who once tartly observed that gay writers like Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden, having spent the entire 1930s beating the drum against fascism, “disappeared [to then neutral America] at the first squeak of the air-raid siren.”

Wartime Orwell, the Patriot

Some of the best pieces in this volume were written during the Second World War. They amount to a defense of British culture and identity. There is a long essay on Rudyard Kipling, the poet of British imperialism. (“I worshipped Kipling at 13, loathed him at 17, despised him at 25, and now again rather admire him . . . The imperialism of the [1880s] was sentimental, ignorant and dangerous, but it was not entirely despicable.”) 

Kipling’s outlook, he explained, was “pre-Fascist. He still believes that pride comes before the fall and that the gods punish hubris.” Kipling identified with the colonial class, but also with something missing from the more “enlightened”—“a sense of responsibility.” In contrast, the “anti-imperialists” in countries like Britain “are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something they really do not wish to destroy.”

He defended English working-class tastes: “dog-races, football pools, Woolworths, the pictures [the cinema], Gracie Fields, Wall’s ice cream, potato crisps, celanese stocking, dart-boards, pin-tables, cigarettes, cups of tea, and Saturday evenings in the four ale bar.” While unsure how long it might last, he avowed “it was a good civilization while it lasted and people who grow up in it will carry some of their gentleness and decency into the iron ages that are coming.” He even dared to write a defense of English cooking—in the cooking of those days!

It bears emphasis once again that Orwell was not a conservative. Far from it. Indeed, in “The Lion and the Unicorn” he positively unloads on the English ruling elite—the “Blimps” as they were then called. Britain he regarded as “the most class-ridden country under the stars. It is the land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and the silly—a family with the wrong members in control.” On one point, however, he was willing to concede the British aristocracy some merit—“in time of war they are ready enough to get themselves killed . . . That could not happen if these people were the cynical scoundrels they are sometimes prepared to be.”

There are several quirks to his thinking which sound odd today. He was firmly anti-Zionist. But unlike many opponents of Israel today, he cannot be accused of anti-Semitism, a subject on which he wrote often and intelligently. He was outspoken in advocating that Britain open itself to 100,000 refugees from the Holocaust, and urged the Dominion to exceed that number—which was, at any rate, intellectually coherent. He believed that the British standard of living was dependent on the existence of the empire (which explained, among other things, why he was unimpressed by the various “anti-imperialist” vaporings of the British Left) but he likewise seems not to have realized that empires rarely pay. In fact, of course, the British standard of living has risen dramatically since the country’s withdrawal from Africa and all the territories east of Suez.

The most important point in the entire book might well be this: “Patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism. It is devotion to something that is changing but is felt to mystically be the same.” Writing in 1940, he insisted that what had kept England going during the previous year was “no doubt, some idea of a better future, but chiefly the atavistic notion of patriotism. For the last twenty years the main object of the English left-wing intelligentsia has been to break this feeling down, and if they had succeeded, we might be watching SS men patrolling the London streets at this moment.”

At a time when statutes of America’s Founders are being torn down by mobs (often with the tacit and sometimes open approval of our cultural elites), when the mayor of the District of Columbia suggests the need to either dismantle or “recontextualize” the Washington and Lincoln monuments in the nation’s capital, and when the United Nations, Davos, UNESCO and the World Health Organization are seen as more legitimate sources of authority than our own elected officials, Orwell—with all of the differences between his time and ours—speaks to us with authority and with renewed resonance.

About Mark Falcoff

Mark Falcoff is a writer and translator living in Munich. His books include The Spanish Civil War: American Hemispheric Perspectives (with Fredrick B. Pike) and A Culture of Its Own: Taking Latin America Seriously (Transaction).

Photo: Planet Flem/Getty Images

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