There is no historical figure — with the exception, perhaps, of Jesus Christ — whose legacy ideologues are keener to appropriate than that of Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell. The author of Animal Farm and 1984 is claimed by propagandists of the left and right as an ideological predecessor.
“Orwell’s legacy,” writes Lee Wengraf of the Socialist Worker, “Is our legacy.” On the other hand, Norman Podhoretz claimed back in 1986 that Orwell would have become neoconservative. Jeff Riggenbach of the Mises Institute suggests that while Orwell was “not… a libertarian as we understand the term today” he was the kind of leftist “few modern-day libertarians would have any trouble getting along with.” Quite a combination.
These disputes involve far more specific events. Last month, an argument on social media concerned the question of whether Orwell would have supported Antifa, with half the disputants insisting that he would have donned a black mask and punched Richard Spencer and half proclaiming that he would have stood up for the right of Americans to wear MAGA hats and post Pepe memes.
Why care? Well, people want to claim such a respected figure for their “side.” It gives their opinions the stamp of authority.
I have bad news. If by some miracle Orwell rose from his grave he would hate all our leading schools of thought. He would, indeed, dislike the modern world and disapprove of all of us.
He would be shocked — to be alive, of course, but also to be renowned. For most of his life he was neither rich nor famous; scribbling away for little magazines and publishers; living in small flats or windswept rural villages. He earned fame in the last months of his life, dying a tragic death because, in the words of Malcolm Muggeridge, “he passionately wanted to go on living.”
It might gladden Orwell to be alive, then, but I do not think he would be glad to make our acquaintance. Fascism and communism he abhorred, of course, denouncing Nazis, Soviets and all their fellow travellers. He fought against the Hitler-backed Francoists in Spain but loathed the thuggish Stalinist aspects of the Republicans. He was so ardently committed to the war against Nazism that he defended the bombing of German civilians, but so distrusted communists that he compiled a list of public figures that he thought might cherish Soviet loyalties.
Anti-communists have claimed Orwell as their own, along with Arthur Koestler and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, but conservatives and libertarians should not forget that when he wrote in “Why I Write” that all his work was directed against totalitarianism he added that it was directed towards socialism. The Orwell who immersed himself in working class life in Down and Out in Paris and London, scorned industrialization in Coming Up For Air and, reviewing Hayek’s classic Road to Serfdom, said “capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war” would hate the inequality and commercialization of our age, and the people who would seem to him to be its propagandists.
Yet Orwell would not be impressed by the modern left. Their tolerance of Islamic authoritarianism would appall the man who said “freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Their universalism would amuse him, as he thought “patriotism… stronger than any kind of internationalism.” Their cultural progressivism would embarrass an old-fashioned man who disliked “nancies,” “gutless” men, feminists, birth-control and vegetarians.
I suspect Orwell would feel unhappy in the modern world. It would please him that we have made economic and scientific progress (the tuberculosis that killed him, for example, is far rarer today) yet as someone who loved nature, solitude, and manual work he would hate our cities, motorways, and office-bound routines. Our garish cocktail-crammed bars are nothing like his idealized pub, the Moon Under Water. Our journalism is about as far from the rules he set down in “Politics and the English Language” as text could be.
My guess is that Orwell would have left for the countryside; finding some faraway cottage in Cumbria or Glencoe, writing books about the classics of English literature and detailing the wildlife in his diary.
This could be wrong. Who can know?
One thing I dislike about these arguments is that authors can be reduced to caricatures of their opinions. Orwell is anti-authority. Mill is pro-freedom. Burke is anti-revolution. How many of the people who have referenced these men have read “The Lion and the Unicorn,” On Liberty and Reflections on the Revolution in France? When our authors have the status of secular saints it devalues their work. They became mere totem poles dotted about our rhetoric.
Even people who know their Orwell, their Mill and their Burke should be wary. It is fun to speculate about what figures of the past would have made of our politics. It is also futile. What is more important than their personalities is their ideas, preserved in their literature.
It is our task to reinterpret those ideas for the present: appreciating the context in which they were formed yet acknowledging the different challenges of our conditions; explaining the importance of what is valuable and justifying our rejection of aspects we set aside.
As for what Orwell would think of Antifa? Well, I think he would look at Trump, and #TheResistance, and the alt-right, and the black bloc, and go for a drink. Considering these political peculiarities, perhaps even a cocktail.
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