Marcus Bachler
Marcus Bachler

George Orwell: The Fight against Totalitarianism

This year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of George Orwell. Therefore it seems an apt time to review the life and ideas of the author whom I considered from the age of 16 onwards to be my favourite author of all time, and this just based upon the reading of his two most famous works.

It is now more than 50 years since Orwell's two political works of fiction, Animal Farm and 1984, were published, and yet they remain popular best-sellers and an integral part of school curriculae throughout the English-speaking world. Their gloomy messages of state repression still manage to evoke public distrust in the motives of ideological revolutions, resentment against invasions of individual privacy by governments and the association of any invasion of privacy or restrictions on freedom of expression with totalitarian regimes. Not only that, but the language of the novels themselves, which illustrates so starkly the potential perversion of the English language by totalitarian regimes, has ironically become a part of it. There is no need to explain the meaning of many popular phrases and words from these books to the average man on the street as they have become permanently ingrained in the culture and politics of English-speaking western countries. For example: "Some [animals] are more equal than others," "Big Brother is watching you!" "2+2=5," "Doublespeak" and "Thought Police" all encapsulate dark images of the potential abuse of power and manipulation of the public by corrupt Governments. In fact, the expression "Orwellian" is all that is needed to instantly evoke the dark images of totalitarian regimes depicted so well in his books. Since the publication of these books, they have been used as intellectual ammunition against Government intrusions of privacy and curtailment of freedoms by civil liberties groups, cold war warriors, libertarians and Objectivists. Indeed, the novel 1984 even features alongside other fiction by Ayn Rand for sale on the SOLO website.

Rebellion and Class Struggle

Eric Blair (George Orwell) was born in 1903 in India, where his father worked for the Civil Service. The family moved back to England in 1907. Orwell came from what he described as a "lower-upper-middle class" background. His parents couldn't afford his primary education at a "public school" and he was accepted as a promising pupil of talent at reduced fees. However, Orwell complained about constant bullying by both pupils and schoolmasters due to his poorer background and lower social status. "All through my boyhood I had a profound conviction that I was no good, that I was wasting my time, wrecking my talents, behaving with monstrous folly and wickedness and ingratitude - and all this, it seemed, was inescapable..." This and other experiences during his lifetime would convince Orwell that there existed in his country an unfair hierarchy based upon social status and wealth. Nevertheless, he managed to win a scholarship to an exclusive public school, Eton, which he entered in 1917.

His political thoughts were influenced by the times. This was the period following World War One, when young men returning from the war were angry at their elders' incompetence for having led them to such mass slaughter. Everywhere there was a mood of rebellion against the old class system, which was inextricably linked in the minds of many with capitalism. "One day the master who taught us English set us a kind of general knowledge paper of which one of the questions was, 'Whom do you consider the ten greatest men now living?' Of sixteen boys in the class fifteen included Lenin in their list. This was at a snobbish expensive public school, and the date was 1920, when the horrors of the Russian Revolution were still fresh in everyone's mind. ... Hence, at the age of seventeen or eighteen, I was both a snob and a revolutionary. I was against all authority ... and I loosely described myself as a Socialist. But I had not much grasp of what Socialism meant, and no notion that the working class were human beings ... Looking back upon that period, I seem to have spent half the time in denouncing the capitalist system and the other half in raging over the insolence of bus-conductors."

After leaving school he followed in his father's footsteps and served with the Indian Imperial Police Force in Burma. During his five-year service he became convinced that the British Empire was run by a non-productive corrupt upper class that exploited her colonial possessions for financial gain and left the native population and England's own working classes in poverty and squalor. "... the Empire was under-developed, India slept in the Middle Ages, the Dominions lay empty, with foreigners jealously barred out, and even England was full of slums and unemployment. Only half a million people, the people in the country houses, definitely benefited from the existing system."

Living with the Down-and-Outs

After leaving the Burmese Police in 1927 Orwell returned to England and for the next few years voluntarily lived in poverty amongst the down-and-outs. Orwell felt that he had been part of an oppressive regime for the last five years and this left him with a bad conscience. "I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate. I felt that I had got to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man's dominion over man. I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants." At that time he still did not have any defined ideas concerning socialism or any other economic theory.

During this time he developed his skills as a writer. In 1933, his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, an account of his time living in poverty, was published. After several rejections, the left-wing publishing house Victor Gollancz picked up this book because of its "social importance". This was the beginning of a fruitful relationship for Orwell that was to last 12 years. In 1936, on assignment from Victor Gollancz, Orwell travelled through the industrial north to the small coal-mining town of Wigan Pier. Here he lived with a working class family and went down into the coal-mining pits in order to experience coal mining first hand. Again, he was struck by what he perceived as an unjust divide between the living standards of the different classes. He felt himself, as middle class, awkward amongst them. Here he developed a kind of new socialist utopian ideal that would mean the abolition of class differences. "Everyone, barring fools and scoundrels, would like to see the miner better off ... every empty belly is an argument for Socialism." Simultaneously he expressed the beginnings of a dislike of the insincerity of other left-wing intellectuals, especially Marxists. "Sometimes I look at a Socialist - the intellectual, tract-writing type of Socialist, with his pullover, his fuzzy hair, and his Marxian quotation - and wonder what the devil his motive really is. It is often difficult to believe that it is a love of anybody, especially of the working class, from whom he is of all people the furthest removed. ... The Socialist movement has not time to be a league of dialectical materialists."

Fighting for Socialism

At the end of 1936 Orwell travelled to Spain to fight for the communist republicans in the civil war against the fascists. This experience was to shape more than anything else both his future political direction and who his sworn ideological enemies were to become. By accident Orwell ending up joining one of the factions of the communist republicans seen to be sympathetic to Trotsky called POUM (The Marxist Workers' Party). Orwell was now willing to sacrifice his life for his socialist ideals. This war was not only about what he saw as a social revolution of the working classes, but also an all-important fight against fascism. Before leaving for Spain he had declared that "The choice is not, as yet, between a human and an inhuman world. It is simply between Socialism and Fascism, which at its very best is Socialism with the virtues left out."

He fought on the Aragon front for only six months in trench-style warfare, his time being cut short when he was shot straight through the neck by a sniper. Astonishingly, he survived his injury and was sent to a sanatorium to recuperate. It was during this time that he was diagnosed with TB, an illness that would eventually kill him in 1950. Shortly after his release from the hospital, the communist-led Government in Spain under the influence of Moscow passed a law making POUM illegal and by implication all its members criminals. "These man-hunts in Spain [of those of dissenting opinions or affiliations] went on at the same time as the great purges in the USSR and were a sort of supplement to them." He and his wife amazingly managed to avoid arrest and flee the country. This experience left him with a deep mistrust and hatred of communism and fascism. He deeply resented how these ideological regimes had misrepresented the truth of the Spanish Civil War and how intellectuals of both the right and left had been a party to it. This also become a general hatred of the suppression of objective truth by totalitarian regimes. "The organised lying practiced by totalitarian states is not as sometimes claimed, a temporary expedient. From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned." Orwell boldly declared that from 1936 onwards everything that he wrote would be dedicated towards waging war on totalitarianism.

World War II: The war against Fascism

Upon his return to England, there was a build-up to the inevitable Second World War. During this period and throughout the war, Orwell stepped before the British public to promote a fiercely pro-war and anti-fascist stance against the dissenting opinions of other intellectuals. He was disgusted over how many left-wing intellectuals had now become pacifists in harmony with the Russo-German Pact of 1939. He was not at all surprised when many of these same left-wing pacifists suddenly changed sides and became pro-war following the outbreak of war between Russia and Germany. He equally despised those intellectuals of the right who prior to the War were actively sympathising with Hitler and fascism. Nevertheless, he never lost his faith in a socialist revolution against the class structure of society led by the working classes devoid of intellectual bullies, Marxists and Fascists. "Only revolution can save England; that has been obvious for years, but now the revolution has started, it may proceed quickly if only we can keep Hitler out. ... This war, unless we are defeated, will wipe out most of the existing class privileges."

During the Second World War, he served in the Home Guard and worked for the BBC Eastern Service as a broadcaster until 1943. Orwell was to write his next book toward the end of the war, Animal Farm. It would be an open attack upon the misguided ideology of totalitarian regimes, with the USSR as his main target, which would alienate him not only from the left-wing intellectuals but also from the war-time political correctness of the British Government. Not only did Victor Gollancz refuse to publish this book in 1944, but it was also rejected by most publishing houses on advice from the Government. Russia at this time was the ally of the UK and the "Ministry of Information" warned that the representation of the predominant castes as pigs would likely cause the Russian Government offence as they were "a bit touchy." Orwell, in desperation, was considering publishing the book himself. At the last minute however, the book was picked up by a publishing house and released at the end of war. This book was to become an international bestseller and Orwell's first huge success. Animal Farm together with 1984 (finished in 1948) would transform the way the western world thought about totalitarian regimes and give intellectual ammunition for the ensuing cold war to follow. So what were the underlying motivation and themes of these two books?

Orwell and Language

George Orwell, explaining in an essay in 1946 why he became a writer, stated that when he was about sixteen he "...suddenly discovered the joy of mere words." Orwell was passionate about the usage of the words of the English language and its ability to communicate the world as it really was. His love of prose and the concrete world of objective truth reinforced this love. "So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects." His belief in the use of words and language to communicate the tactile world led him to despise those who would use language to try to falsify reality and conceal the truth. He treated the language of orthodox politicians and political parties with contempt. "Political language - and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists - is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." He recognised that language should be an instrument for expressing and not concealing thought. The stale political speakers who loved the use of pre-fabricated terms in their speeches were in his eyes less than human, almost brain-dead. "When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases - bestial atrocities, iron heel, blood-stained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder - one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy ... the appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself."

The political writers and intelligentsia were the ones whom Orwell considered most guilty of this and therefore attacked most vigorously. They were the ones who were seeking to defend the indefensible. "Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, 'I believe in killing off your opponents when you get good results by doing so'..." Instead he uses an inflated style and "...a mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details."

Orwell not only believed that there was a real danger that political writers often perverted truth, but that they even polluted the language of politics and prose in free countries. "To be corrupted by total-itarianism one does not have to live in a totalitarian country. The mere prevalence of certain ideas can spread a kind of poison that makes one subject after another impossible for literary purposes ... when the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer ... but if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can be spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better."

The words that Orwell would later use in his own novels were to become his most effective weapons in his anti-propaganda war against totalitarianism. He warned his readers in his novels Animal Farm and 1984 of a totalitarian regime that would ultimately control its subjects' minds by the addition or replacement of words. In 1984 the controlling regime even goes as far as replacing the entire language with a new Big Brother-friendly one called "newspeak." This was to supersede modern English with a set of words capable of forming only a limited number of mind-numbing concepts.

Orwell knew that the suppression of language and ideas or concepts was one and the same, yet he also knew that it was the responsibility of political writers in free countries to keep alive the momentum of truly free uninhibited speech. This involved not only intellectual honesty and the ability to face the truth, but also clear communication through the good use of language. Orwell offered advice on how this is to be done. "What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about. ... It is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meanings as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterwards one can choose - not simply accept - the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impression one's words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of mind cuts out all the stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally."

Animal Farm and 1984

Animal Farm is an allegorical satire of Marxism, Communism and the Russian Revolution. Here animals are used to symbolise different factions or groups of individuals in Russian society at that time. After an ideological revolution equivalent to Communism is begun on Manor Farm, called Animalism, the human occupiers are ousted by force and the pigs, representing the Bolsheviks, take over power. They are led by a brutal dictator called Napoleon who is a caricature of Stalin. Another pig called Snowball, a caricature of Trotsky, flees after a power struggle with Napoleon, and is forever afterwards portrayed as Enemy Number One, responsible for any failings of the regime. Ever increasingly the pigs under Napoleon betray the original ideology of the revolution until it comes full circle, restoring the same system as before with different rulers. This was an important point for Orwell - that the power structure of the former hierarchy is restored - because for him it is the ultimate form of betrayal of socialist revolution. A second important point was the criticism of the left-wing intelligentsia and regime propagandists, represented by the pig Squealer, for their support of such cruel regimes and their rewriting of history. This is seen in the rewriting of the Animals' Seven Commandments of Animalism by Squealer: for example, the change from "all animals are created equal" to "all animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others".

The exact same themes are revisited in 1984. Set in the future, during a contrived war, three Superpowers run by totalitarian regimes have carved the entire world up among themselves. Winston Smith, the last free man in Europe, desperately wants to hold onto the remnants of his memory of the truth about history before the party gained control and the nature of the controlling party regime. The party is systematically trying to control both the minds of its citizens and their ability to perceive truth, through propaganda, constant surveillance of its citizens, Thought Police and the invention of a new language.

Winston's personal rebellion against Big Brother turns out to be merely a ploy by the thought police of the inner party to completely crush his individual spirit and transform him into a brain-washed, unthinking sheep-like zombie who will believe whatever the party tells him. In the end they succeed in this. This book, as with Animal Farm, is another attack on the communist regime of Russia and the English left-wing intelligentsia that happily supported it. This was Orwell trying to make his point even more stark and relevant than Animal Farm by transferring the site of action from an allegorical Russia to England herself. The party's leader, Big Brother, is a caricature of Stalin, while the enemy of the state, Goldstein, is yet another caricature of Trotsky (born Bronstein) upon whom all failings of the party can be blamed. The ideology of Ingsoc, English Socialism, has undergone a revolution in wartime and has now become perverted in the hands of the controlling powers. Here again Orwell is damning the use of left-wing ideology in the re-establishment of new hierarchical structures established in society to replace those in the past: with the inner party of Big Brother at the top, the outer party in the middle, and the "proles" at the bottom.

This time though, the hierarchy is engineered to be perfectly stable through the alteration of objective truth and the wielding of power for power's sake. "If you want a vision of the future," says O`Brien, "imagine a boot stomping on a human face forever." In both books Orwell states that all hope for justice in society lies in the working classes and not in those who preach left-wing doctrine with sinister underlying motives. In Animal Farm the horse Boxer, as a caricature of the working classes, helps to build up the farm's wealth and genuinely believes he is doing something worthwhile. In return he is cruelly exploited by the pigs in power and is eventually sent by them to the knackers when he can longer work. This is possible because he is not clever enough to realise that he is being duped and that he has the power to overthrow his leaders. In 1984, Winston Smith as the voice of Orwell, constantly emphasises that the only hope for change lies with the proles (working classes). The proles are however too stupid to realise this and can be easily distracted from their plight by the party with a constant supply of cheesy pornographic films and books.

Orwell's Anti-Ideology

Orwell's political ideas were shaped by what he saw as his life-long struggle against class barriers. From his belief that he was a victim of them in the English public school system he attended, to his guilt at being a party to them in the guise of the Indian Imperial police force, to his sympathy with their perceived victims in the down-and-outs and working classes ... Orwell had experienced it all and reported it all with journalistic precision and intellectual honesty. Orwell never could conceive of any pure political ideology that would eliminate what he considered to be "class injustices." He believed in a revolutionary uprising of the working classes that actively promised to abolish or supplant the current hierarchy and would be unsullied by corrupt intelligentsia.

Orwell failed to ever adequately define Socialism "as he understood it" in a philosophical or political sense, but he did advocate a centrally-planned economy that could be combined with the tradition of English justice and decency. Ironically, what put him at odds with left-wing ideology, expressed in Marxism and Communism, was his intellectual honesty and his belief in objective truth, justice and decency. This led him quite rightly to criticise and despise left-wing ideologies and their intellectual perpetrators in Animal Farm and 1984, but he was unable to adequately identify their root causes. Capitalism was for him merely the instrument of a corrupt upper class to keep in place the same old unfair power structures inherent in a hierarchical society. For Orwell, an ideal society was one of absolute equality of all people that included equality of social status, income, and living standards: "...the equivocal moral position of Britain, with its democratic phrases and coolie empire, the sinister development of Soviet Russia, the squalid farce of left-wing politics - all this fades away and one sees only the struggle of the gradually-awakening common people against the lords of property and their hired liars and bumsuckers."

The closest Orwell came to contemplating capitalism as the corollary of individual freedom and the antidote to totalitarianism was his review in 1944 of The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek. He believed that the book's claims that planned economies ultimately lead to corruption, abuse of power and inequalities were overly pessimistic and dystopian. He conceded that the type of utopian equality in society that he longed for may never be possible, but it was something to strive for. Sadly, he had ruled out any possible moral arguments in defence of capitalism already, years before, as these had inextricably become linked in his mind with the unfair class system of the old British Empire. However, between the time of this review and his death there were signs that Orwell may have been coming around to the idea of the American form of capitalism as being compatible with freedom and justice.

In 1946, in an essay reminiscing about nineteenth century American literature, Orwell wrote the following: "Nineteenth-century America was a rich, empty country which lay outside the mainstream of world events, and in which the twin nightmares that beset every modern man, the nightmare of unemployment and the nightmare of State interference, had hardly come into being. There were social distinctions, more marked than those of today, and there was poverty, but there was not, as there is now, an all-prevailing sense of helplessness. There was room for everybody and if you worked hard you could be certain of a living - could even be certain of growing rich: this was generally believed, and for the greater part of the population it was even broadly true. In other words, the civilisation of nineteenth-century America was capitalist civilisation at its best."

In the novel 1984, Orwell quoted the opening lines of the American Declaration of Independence as an illustration of what would be translated by the Big Brother regime into one word, "Crimethink." Orwell was also coming close to identifying the root causes of the evil of repressive regimes: "A society becomes totalitarian when its structure becomes flagrantly artificial: that is, when its ruling class has lost its function but succeeds in clinging to power by force or fraud."

However, to the end of Orwell's life in 1950, he held onto the false belief that intellectual freedom could be upheld in a Socialist society and that it was the only way to ever guarantee equality and happiness of all individuals. In his review of The Road to Serfdom he wrote, "Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader-worship and war. There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can be somehow combined with freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong can be restored."

Ironically it was his belief in planned economies and refusal to embrace free markets and competition that may have hastened his premature death. Near the end of his life he tried desperately to get medication to treat his deteriorating health from TB. In the UK following the Second World War, the nationalisation of the health service combined with rationing made the attainment of simple antibiotics a bureaucratic nightmare, one that proved elusive to all of Orwell's efforts. In relationship to capitalism he wrote, "The trouble with competition is that somebody has to win." Unfortunately, he lost his life.

Orwell's Legacy

Orwell never realised that the planned economy and equalisation of wealth and living standards by Governments he wanted were part of the root causes of the evil that he was describing. Nevertheless, his identification of the evil of totalitarian regimes and his championing of objective truth were and still are valuable insights into the need for vigilance against the brutality of oppressive Governments and regimes. This message he delivered in such a clear-cut, no-nonsense type of language with such vivid symbolism as to be understood universally. His books and their message to the world - to fight against the evil of totalitarian regimes - are his inspiring legacy.


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