For very few people raised in English-speaking countries since the latter half of the twentieth century is George Orwell’s name unfamiliar. Since his death in 1946, politicians and pundits of all political persuasions have bandied the word ‘Orwellian’ at their enemies’ ambitions with the contempt of the word ‘fascist’ and the specificity of the word ‘democratic’, all the while claiming Orwell’s thoughts and character as their own political heritage.
His last two and most famous books, Animal Farm and 1984, occupy places on the reading lists of every school in the Anglosphere and amongst the mental furniture of even those of us born after the end of the Cold War. Both became popular during this so-called Cold War – Orwell was the first to so-call it – and were taught as cautionary fables against Communism in both its revolutionary and totalitarian expressions. In this light, it is a great benefit to those who taught this ‘Orwell’ that the man himself died shortly after publishing 1984.
Orwell considered himself a socialist and from his writings it is clear he was a revolutionary waiting for the proper moment. This moment in England, to him, came during the second world war. In “My Country Right or Left,” he wrote that “only revolution can save England . . . but now the revolution has started,” and that “the London gutters will have to run with blood” before the war’s end. In a long pamphlet, also published in the early years of the war, Orwell argued that the shared experience of the war – the sacrifice and the cohesion it demanded from working people – would furnish the material and social conditions for revolution amidst it.
In some ways, it did. In the post-war election, wartime prime minister Winston Churchill lost his job to the chummy socialist Clement Atlee, the first leader of a Labour majority government. Atlee’s government proceeded to build the institutions of public housing, public schooling, and public healthcare – council houses, free secondary education, and the NHS – that stand today, in whole or in part, as monuments of modern Britain. But to Orwell these were, at best, the first steps on a path that was never fully trod and the Britain Orwell wrote and fought for was never realized.
It seems dishonest, then, to characterize Animal Farm as a satire of revolution, in general, rather than the Russian Revolution, in particular. It is equally misguided to read into 1984 a contempt for socialism, rather than read it as the lament of a socialist, and its supposedly inevitable tendency toward totalitarianism. The common reading of both books, unfortunately the only Orwell most people know, is little more than Cold War propaganda increasingly accepted as literary analysis with each generation.
Orwell saw a revolution betrayed in the one case and an ideology betrayed the other. His writings were potent at the time, and his essays more so than his fiction, precisely because he was a leftist criticizing the Soviet Union at a time when the largely left-wing British intelligentsia either ignored or excused its crimes. At the time of Orwell’s writings, the totalitarian threat was a real one.
But the spectre of totalitarianism was a feature of the twentieth century. Few states today bear any resemblance to the IngSoc regime of 1984 and fewer still seem to be tending toward it. Orwell wrote before the increasing interconnection of the people of the world, economically through the processes we call ‘globalization’ and socially and to some degree politically through the rise of the internet.
It is also quite clear to anyone who was born after, or was only in their infancy when, the Berlin Wall fell that, for whatever remains of the revolutionary spirit amongst those disaffected with contemporary capitalism, socialism as a unifying force has passed its due. Given the rapidity with which our sources of knowledge about the world and our political beliefs are fragmenting, the former becoming increasingly dependent on the latter, it is increasingly unlikely that any revolutionary moment, however unified in action it may be, will have a cohesive programme and predetermined aim. It is less likely still that it will be socialist.
This is not to say that the leftist revolutions of the twentieth century were completely cohesive. But the revolutionaries shared a theoretical and practical education in the ideas of Marx, however parsed and interpreted, that furnished them with a common cast of mind. Today we face new challenges, and those who wish to meet them have largely unique political educations. Neither these new revolutionaries nor their enemies will find realistic caution in Animal Farm or 1984.
Should they read Orwell? Sure. But they should also read something else he wrote.