The Perils of Independent Thought: Re-Reading George Orwell’s Essays

George Orwell was first brought to my attention in 7th grade, when our teacher read us excerpts from his fairy story, Animal Farm: A Fairy Story. Despite the deadpan ferocity of the satire, this warning was not enough to save me from succumbing to the totalitarian temptation in my early 20s, that dangerous age when youthful idealism so often gives rise to self-righteous zealotry; but if the early exposure failed to preserve me from subsequent infection, it perhaps ensured that I recovered from the condition fairly rapidly and remained immune to the virus thereafter. Later at school I read at least two of Orwell’s novels, including his jaundiced view of the writer’s life, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and Coming Up for Air, which was set as a text in Form V (Year 11) English, along with Macbeth, Gulliver’s Travels, novels by Dickens, Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues, among others — stimulating fare for 16-year-olds . Looking back, I find George Bowling’s nostalgia (George Bowling was the main character in Coming Up for Air) for the lost calm of rural England and horror of industrialism oddly reminiscent of Tolkien’s idealization of the Shire.

At some stage I must have read 1984, as it was a frequent reference point in political discussions at university, but it was not until I was researching my thesis on Australian literature and politics in the 1930s that I really came to grips with the full range of Orwell’s achievement. It was then that I read through the four volumes of the collected journalism and essays published by Penguin, and the annotated edition of 1984 prepared by Bernard Crick, author of what is still the best biography of Orwell. My expectation was that Orwell’s approach to politically informed writing (turning political writing into an art, as he put it) would give me insights into the efforts of the Australian writers who became politicized and moved to the left during that turbulent decade; what I actually discovered was that no Australian writer could even approach his versatility, productivity or insight, with the possible partial exception of Frank Dalby Davison in his anti-fascist pamphlet, While Freedom Lives (1938 — more economically literate than Orwell’s Lion and the Unicorn), and M. Barnard Eldershaw’s ambitious novel Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (written 1940-42, published in censored form in 1947), a masterpiece of political speculation that invites comparisons with 1984.

All readers of Orwell are impressed by his clarity of expression, his independence of mind, the prescience of some of his judgements, and the silliness of his more sweeping generalizations. But what particularly struck me re-reading some of his major essays just recently is the extent to which his observations are applicable to the contemporary antagonism between traditional liberals (followers of Enlightenment universalism and J.S. Mill who believe in free speech, individualism, non-discrimination and equal opportunity) and the new breed of campus radicals (followers of Marcuse, Lyotard, Foucault, Derrida, Said and the other luminaries of culture, ethnic, and gender studies) who want to shout down what they call “hate speech,” support claims for group recognition based on tribal identities, and demand positive discrimination and equality of economic and social outcomes, especially for social categories that they regard as “vulnerable” or “marginalized.” Reading Orwell’s essays, I found many similarities and parallels between this new intellectual fraction and the intellectuals of the 1930s and 40s whom Orwell criticized for their own violent but fluctuating partisanships, and particularly for their failure to defend liberal values  at a time when democracies were threatened from both sides (left and right) by totalitarian ideologies  (i.e. Stalin’s Soviet Communism and Hitler’s Fascism). Consider, for example, this passage from his essay “Inside the Whale” (1940):

“By 1937 the whole of the intelligentsia was mentally at war. Left-wing thought had narrowed down to ‘anti-Fascism’, i.e. to a negative, and a torrent of hate-literature directed against Germany and the politicians supposedly friendly to Germany was pouring from the Press. The thing that, to me, was truly frightening about the war in Spain was not such violence as I witnessed, nor even the party feuds behind the lines, but the immediate reappearance in left-wing circles of the mental atmosphere of the Great War. The very people who for twenty years had sniggered over their own superiority to war hysteria were the ones who rushed straight back into the mental slum of 1915. All the familiar wartime idiocies, spy-hunting, orthodoxy-sniffing (Sniff, sniff. Are you a good anti-Fascist?), the retailing of atrocity stories, came back into vogue as though the intervening years had never happened. Before the end of the Spanish war, and even before Munich, some of the better of the left-wing writers were beginning to squirm. Neither Auden nor, on the whole, Spender wrote about the Spanish war in quite the vein that was expected of them. Since then there has been a change of feeling and much dismay and confusion, because the actual course of events has made nonsense of the left-wing orthodoxy of the last few years. But then it did not need very great acuteness to see that much of it was nonsense from the start. There is no certainty, therefore, that the next orthodoxy to emerge will be any better than the last.”

You have only to substitute racism and racist for Fascism and Fascist, and “White privilege” for Germany, to read it as a valid characterization of the mindset of the young campus warriors who de-platform invited speakers and violently shout down opinions of which they disapprove.

Another feature of modern culture picked up by Orwell is the tendency for university-educated intellectuals to focus their energies on criticizing the relatively mild inequalities and abuses of their own societies, while ignoring or apologizing for major oppressions and persecutions elsewhere. As he wrote in “The Lion and the Unicorn” (1941), by the end of the 1930s the left could almost be defined by its disenchantment with and hostility to its own country:

“It should be noted that there is now no intelligentsia that is not in some sense ‘left’. Perhaps the last right-wing intellectual was T.E. Lawrence. Since about 1930 everyone describable as an ‘intellectual’ has lived in a state of chronic discontent with the existing order. … The mentality of the English left-wing intelligentsia can be studied in half a dozen weekly and monthly papers. The immediately striking thing about all these papers is their generally negative, querulous attitude, their complete lack at all times of any constructive suggestion. There is little in them except the irresponsible carping of people who have never been and never expect to be in a position of power. Another marked characteristic is the emotional shallowness of people who live in a world of ideas and have little contact with physical reality. Many intellectuals of the Left were flabbily pacifist up to 1935, shrieked for war against Germany in the years 1935-9, and then promptly cooled off when the war started. It is broadly though not precisely true that the people who were most ‘anti-Fascist’ during the Spanish Civil War are most defeatist now. And underlying this is the really important fact about so many of the English intelligentsia — their severance from the common culture of the country.

In intention, at any rate, the English intelligentsia are Europeanized. They take their cookery 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 own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box. All through the critical years many left-wingers were chipping away at English morale, trying to spread an outlook that was sometimes squashily pacifist, sometimes violently pro-Russian, but always anti-British.”

Again, you need to update the terms, but the general description is eerily applicable to many academics and students in the university humanities departments, or at least to those who reach public prominence, as well as to many writers, journalists, artists and (in Australia) employees of the public broadcasting corporations, who rarely seem to miss an opportunity to bag the traditions and symbols of their own country. (It is, of course, true that an irreverent or even mocking attitude to authority is an ingrained Australian characteristic — something the government should have taken into account in its recent efforts to articulate a set of “Australian values.”)

If this anti-patriotic trend was emerging when Orwell observed it in the 1930s, it has only strengthened since that time — though there are, it must be admitted, good reasons for a certain disenchantment with the establishment. During the 1950s intellectuals largely shared the political consensus forged in the long war against Nazism and Japanese fascism — a set of liberal democratic principles embodied in the Atlantic Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Faced with the new threat of Soviet totalitarianism (which sought to present itself as more progressive and the true champion of the oppressed), most Western intellectuals rallied to the defense of pluralism and celebrated the End of Ideology — that is, the emergence of a liberal consensus in which the old divisions of left and right were submerged in a domestic commitment to material affluence and tolerance of dissent, while the struggle between opposing world views shifted to the international sphere (i.e. the Cold War). More than any other single event, it was the misconceived war in Vietnam that brought this consensus to an end, deprived the United States of the moral authority it had won as the chief opponent of fascism, and revealed that its power was not as great as it believed — not quite as feeble as a paper tiger, in Mao’s famous words, but no longer the sort of hegemonic power that could restructure German and Japanese society in its own image.

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A still from the Vietnam War

The United States regained some of this authority in the 1980s, when its firm stand on human rights — at least in relation to the Soviet Union’s abuse of them — was a factor in the dissolution of the Soviet empire, the demise of which led Francis Fukuyama to proclaim the End of History, much as Daniel Bell and Co had announced the End of Ideology a generation earlier. By then, however, post-modern modes of thought had spread from France, and the humanities departments were scrapping boring old subjects like history and literature (stuffed as they were with those dreadful white males) in favor of cultural and gender studies and the promise of diversity, at least as regards to gender and race. The scholars and activists emerging from these disciplines were not going to be fooled by conceited claims that the West was significantly superior to other societies, no matter how authoritarian; on the contrary, they were determined to show that every problem in the developing world was the direct or indirect result of past imperialism or present-day global capitalism. Because they no longer studied history, however, they were unaware that precisely the same excuse was made by Western apologists for and fellow travelers with the coercive excesses of revolutionary Russia — that they were the inevitable result of intervention and boycott by the jealous capitalist powers. Traditional, evidence-based historians who stood out against this trend, such as Niall Ferguson, who perversely defended the record of British imperialism, were conspicuous by their rarity, and increasingly despised as patsies for the oppressors.

The 1980s were the decade in which it was finally brought home to the old hard left that the proletariat was not going to perform the redemptive role assigned to it in Marxist theory; workers (at least in the developed countries) were far too busy enjoying the fruits of affluence to be bothered with leading a revolution. Accordingly, the left cast around for new messiahs capable, by virtue of their alienation and oppression, of overthrowing capitalism and emancipating mankind. I had observed this trend emerging in Australia in the 1970s, when young communists (mostly graduate students and junior academics) began to emphasize the role of women, migrant and Aboriginal workers in the transformation of society; but during the 1980s the language of class disappeared entirely, replaced by gender, sexuality and race — in short, personal or tribal identities. Alongside this transformation appeared environmentalism: the problem with capitalism was no longer that it exploited the workers, but that it ravaged the environment. At least in relation to race, these trends had first emerged in the 1960s, with the glorification of Third World liberation struggles, associated with a revival of Lenin’s theory that the key to revolution was to find the weak link in the imperialist chain: the Russian revolution had failed to spark the expected revolutions elsewhere, but perhaps Vietnam, Cuba, Angola or some Middle Eastern guerrilla movement would do the trick.

I was under the impression that this was a new development, but it seems that Orwell had already identified the same tendency for emotional identification with oppressed others as a form of what he called “transferred patriotism.” A modern intellectual unable to identify with his own country, but who nonetheless felt the need for solidarity with some large collective entity, would transfer those feelings from nation to some other group or ideology. Classic instances were identification with the proletariat, commitment to Communism (usually involving loyalty to one or other socialist fatherland — first Russia, then, as that disappointed, China, Cuba and, for the really desperate, Albania and North Korea), and of course that old stand-by, the Roman Catholic Church. Today the same role is beginning to be performed by the ultimate ideological other, Islam as a religion and lifestyle. But there was also the possibility of identification with oppressed races — what Orwell called “color feeling”:

“The old-style contemptuous attitude towards ‘natives’ has been much weakened in England, and various pseudo-scientific theories emphasising the superiority of the white race have been abandoned. Among the intelligentsia, colour feeling only occurs in the transposed form, that is, as a belief in the innate superiority of the coloured races. This is now increasingly common among English intellectuals, probably resulting more often from masochism and sexual frustration than from contact with the Oriental and Negro nationalist movements. Even among those who do not feel strongly on the colour question, snobbery and imitation have a powerful influence. Almost any English intellectual would be scandalised by the claim that the white races are superior to the coloured, whereas the opposite claim would seem to him unexceptionable even if he disagreed with it. Nationalistic attachment to the coloured races is usually mixed up with the belief that their sex lives are superior, and there is a large underground mythology about the sexual prowess of Negroes.” (“Notes on Nationalism,” 1945)

This sort of enthusiasm could lead dissident intellectuals to an uncritical endorsement of other cultures and corresponding denigration of their own, as Orwell argued in a provocative review of a book on British rule in India by Lionel Fielden:

“He does indeed marshal a number of facts about India, and towards the end he even produces a couple of pages of constructive suggestions, but for the most part his book is simply a nagging, irrelevant attack on British rule, mixed up with tourist-like gush about the superiority of Indian civilization. On the fly-leaf, just to induce that matey atmosphere which all propagandists aim at, he signs his dedicatory letter ‘among the European barbarians’, and then a few pages later introduces an imaginary Indian who denounces Western civilization with all the shrillness of a spinster of thirty-nine denouncing the male sex:

‘… an Indian who is intensely proud of his own traditions, and regards Europeans as barbarians who are continually fighting, who use force to dominate other peaceful peoples, who think chiefly in terms of big business, whisky, and bridge; as people of comparatively recent growth, who, while they put an exaggerated value on plumbing, have managed to spread tuberculosis and venereal disease all over the world … he will say that to sit in the water in which you have washed, instead of bathing yourself in running water, is not clean, but dirty and disgusting; he will show, and I shall agree with him absolutely, that the English are a dirty and even a smelly nation compared with the Indians; he will assert, and I am not at all sure that he is wrong, that the use of half-washed forks, spoons and knives by different people for food is revoltingly barbaric when compared with the exquisite manipulation of food by Indian fingers; he will be confident that the Indian room, with its bare walls and beautiful carpets, is infinitely superior to the European clutter of uncomfortable chairs and tables’, etc. etc. etc.

The whole book is written in this vein, more or less. The same nagging, hysterical note crops up every few pages, and where a comparison can be dragged in it is dragged in, the upshot always being that the East is Good and the West is Bad.”

Orwell goes on to rewrite this passage as it might be uttered by an Englishman speaking up for his own civilization as shrilly as Mr. Fielden stands up for the Indians, and comments:

“Two points emerge here. To begin with, no English person would now write like that. No doubt many people think such thoughts, and even utter them behind closed doors, but to find anything of the kind in print you would have to go back ten years or so. (“Review of Lionel Fielden, Beggar My Neighbour,” 1943)

The double standard by which you are allowed to say far more derogatory things about your own society (assuming it is a Western democracy) than about any foreign culture, no matter how authoritarian (assuming it is some sort of “other”) has only become more omnipresent since that time. If you go to the paragraph I left out you will see that it illustrates the freedom that authors then had to place themselves in the shoes of somebody else and to write from his perspective — the sort of imaginative leap that might now be condemned as cultural appropriation. While the scope for discussion of sexual matters has greatly widened since the 1930s, it is not clear that we have greater freedom for making controversial statements on gender or race. When an author’s sentiments could be construed as in some way offensive to a “vulnerable” social category, the seriousness of the crime is doubled; anybody writing as frankly as Orwell today would find himself in big trouble with the PC police, who inevitably pay more attention to a speaker’s terms than to the thrust of his or her argument.

Orwell would not have agreed with Ferguson as to the essential benevolence of the British Empire — he was an ardent anti-imperialist as a consequence of his experience in the Burma police — but he certainly did not believe that Britain’s role in India was entirely negative — unlike, for instance, Shashi Tharoor, in his recent polemic, Inglorious Empire. On the contrary, he was very aware of the benefits that Britain had brought, particularly in defense, and he had sufficient realism to point out that India was better off under British rule than it would be under the Japanese. As he wrote in the review just quoted:

“In a world in which national sovereignty exists, India cannot be a sovereign State, because she is unable to defend herself. And the more she is the cow and spinning-wheel paradise imagined by Mr. Fielden, the more this is true. What is now called independence means the power to manufacture aeroplanes in large numbers. Already there are only five genuinely independent States in the world, and if present trends continue there will in the end be only three. On along-term view it is clear that India has little chance in a world of power politics, while on a short-term view it is clear that the necessary first step towards Indian freedom is an Allied victory. Even that would only be a short and uncertain step, but the alternatives must lead to India’s continued subjection. If we are defeated, Japan or Germany takes over India and that is the end of the story. If there is a compromise peace (Mr. Fielden seems to hint at times that this is desirable), India’s chances are no better, because in such circumstances we should inevitably cling to any territories we had captured or not lost. A compromise peace is always a peace of ‘grab what you can’. Mr. Fielden brings forward his imaginary Indian to suggest that if India were neutral Japan might leave her alone; I doubt whether any responsible Indian nationalist has said anything quite so stupid as that. The other idea, more popular in Left-wing circles, that India could defend herself better on her own than with our help, is a sentimentality. If the Indians were militarily superior to ourselves they would have driven us out long ago.”

There is a much hard-headed good sense here. As Sumantra Maitra observed in his review of Tharoor’s book, it was the British who unified India (previously a collection of mutually antagonistic principalities), and gave the Indians a chain of defined, defensible borders, not to mention leaving an administrative and educational infrastructure that saved them from the disorders (i.e. riot and civil war) that plagued so many ex-colonies in the wake of independence. The British certainly did more good than the Mughal invaders, who regularly laid the country waste, sought to impose Islam on the population, and left, as their most enduring legacy, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Orwell might not have put it quite so strongly, but he would certainly have been appalled by the murders of freethinkers, secularists and other religious dissidents that now occur with such horrifying regularity in those places.

Indeed, protection of free speech, including the right to tell people what they do not want to hear, was perhaps Orwell’s principal preoccupation during his final decade. There are so many eloquent passages  that could be quoted; let us take one of the less well known — an essay called “Freedom of the Press,” intended as the preface to Animal Farm (1945):

“At this moment what is demanded by the prevailing orthodoxy is an uncritical admiration of Soviet Russia. Everyone knows this, nearly everyone acts on it. Any serious criticism of the Soviet régime, any disclosure of facts which the Soviet government would prefer to keep hidden, is next door to unprintable. And this nation-wide conspiracy to flatter our ally takes place, curiously enough, against a background of genuine intellectual tolerance. For though you are not allowed to criticise the Soviet government, at least you are reasonably free to criticise our own. Hardly anyone will print an attack on Stalin, but it is quite safe to attack Churchill, at any rate in books and periodicals. And throughout five years of war, during two or three of which we were fighting for national survival, countless books, pamphlets and articles advocating a compromise peace have been published without interference. More, they have been published without exciting much disapproval. So long as the prestige of the USSR is not involved, the principle of free speech has been reasonably well upheld. There are other forbidden topics, and I shall mention some of them presently, but the prevailing attitude towards the USSR is much the most serious symptom. It is, as it were, spontaneous, and is not due to the action of any pressure group.”

You would need to replace Russia here with something like “non-Western others” to get the point, but I think the relevance of the passage to present-day conditions is clear enough. With his usual acuity, Orwell notes the hypocrisy of those who hold their own country to a far higher standard of morality than anybody else — condemning Churchill as a warmonger, for example, while hailing the Russian Red Army as liberators. An equivalent today might be the omnipresent “whatabout-ism” that floods social media when a Western government condemns an atrocity committed by a Third World power or, more particularly, an Islamic terror attack. Orwell also identified the tendency for objectivity to be qualified by political expediency — the idea that even if an observation was true or just, it ought not to be uttered because it might alienate allies, reflect badly on a cause that deserved support, or was in some other way politically inconvenient. As from the inception of the alliance with Russia against Hitler, he continued:

“You could, indeed, publish anti-Russian books, but to do so was to make sure of being ignored or misrepresented by nearly the whole of the highbrow press. Both publicly and privately you were warned that it was ‘not done’. What you said might possibly be true, but it was ‘inopportune’ and played into the hands of this or that reactionary interest. This attitude was usually defended on the ground that the international situation, and the urgent need for an Anglo-Russian alliance, demanded it; but it was clear that this was a rationalisation. The English intelligentsia, or a great part of it, had developed a nationalistic loyalty towards me USSR, and in their hearts they felt that to cast any doubt on the wisdom of Stalin was a kind of blasphemy. Events in Russia and events elsewhere were to be judged by different standards.

The issue involved here is quite a simple one: Is every opinion, however unpopular — however foolish, even — entitled to a hearing? Put it in that form and nearly any English intellectual will feel that he ought to say ‘Yes’. But give it a concrete shape, and ask, ‘How about an attack on Stalin? Is that entitled to a hearing?’, and the answer more often than not will be ‘No’, In that case the current orthodoxy happens to be challenged, and so the principle of free speech lapses.”

In this area, Orwell’s words might better be seen as directed at the Western governments (and the United States especially) who supported many dictatorial and oppressive regimes merely because they were needed as allies against the Soviet Union — the Greek colonels, Pinochet in Chile, the Shah of Iran and any number of African dictators spring readily to mind. However desperate the United States may be to retain Turkey as some sort of ally against the new Russian threat, there is no justification for its president congratulating Mr. Erdogan on his abolition of democracy, suppression of newspapers and mass arrest of those likely to disagree with his plans for further authoritarianism.

These days Orwell would be regarded as a free speech fundamentalist. The only restrictions he would allow are those proposed by J.S. Mill — vicious personal attacks on individuals (already covered by libel laws) and speech that physically harms, or is very likely to harm, other members of society, such as inciting an angry crowd to riot outside a corn hoarder’s warehouse (Mill’s example), or falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, to take a notorious instance from American jurisprudence. The idea that you would not be allowed to make some general comment on a social or political issue merely because it might annoy or offend somebody would never have occurred to him; it is difficult to imagine that he would not have sprung to the defence of the brilliant Australian cartoonist, the late Bill Leak, against his persecution by the so-called Human Rights Commission. As he wrote in “Freedom of the Press”:

“… intellectual freedom is a deep-rooted tradition without which our characteristic western culture could only doubtfully exist. From that tradition many of our intellectuals arc visibly turning away. They have accepted the principle that a book should be published or suppressed, praised or damned, not on its merits but according to political expediency. And others who do not actually hold this view assent to it from sheer cowardice. An example of this is the failure of the numerous and vocal English pacifists to raise their voices against the prevalent worship of Russian militarism. According to those pacifists, all violence is evil, and they have urged us at every stage of the war to give in or at least to make a compromise peace. But how many of them have ever suggested that war is also evil when it is waged by the Red Army? Apparently the Russians have a right to defend themselves, whereas for us to do [so] is a deadly sin. One can only explain this contradiction in one way: that is, by a cowardly desire to keep in with the bulk of the intelligentsia, whose patriotism is directed towards the USSR rather than towards Britain. I know that the English intelligentsia have plenty of reason for their timidity and dishonesty, indeed I know by heart the arguments by which they justify themselves. But at least let us have no more nonsense about defending liberty against Fascism. If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

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The late Bill Leak

What perhaps disturbed Orwell the most was his observation that freedom of speech was under particularly strong attack from the very people who should be, and traditionally had been, its most committed defenders: the literary intelligentsia. As he remarked, “one of the peculiar phenomena of our time is the renegade liberal,” the sort of absolutist who says that because there is not perfect freedom of speech, religious tolerance or racial equality in his own Western country, it is just as bad as the worst Islamic theocracy. Orwell expanded on this point in his essay “The Prevention of Literature” (1946):

“In the past, at any rate throughout the Protestant centuries, the idea of rebellion and the idea of intellectual integrity were mixed up. A heretic — political, moral, religious, or aesthetic — was one who refused to outrage his own conscience. His outlook was summed up in the words of the Revivalist hymn:

Dare to be a Daniel,

Dare to stand alone.

Dare to have a purpose firm,

Dare to make it known.

To bring this hymn up to date one would have to add a ‘Don’t’ at the beginning of each line. For it is the peculiarity of our age that the rebels against the existing order, at any rate the most numerous and characteristic of them, are also rebelling against the idea of individual integrity. ‘Daring to stand alone’ is ideologically criminal as well as practically dangerous. The independence of the writer and the artist is eaten away by vague economic forces, and at the same time it is undermined by those who should be its defenders.

Fifteen years ago, when one defended the freedom of the intellect, one had to defend it against Conservatives, against Catholics, and to some extent — for they were not of great importance in England — against Fascists. Today one has to defend it against Communists and ‘fellow-travellers.'”

As he sadly concluded, “in England the immediate enemies of truthfulness, and hence of freedom of thought, are the press lords, the film magnates, and the bureaucrats, but that on a long view the weakening of the desire for liberty among the intellectuals themselves is the most serious symptom of all.”

This trend has only grown stronger in recent times. It does not take much imagination to find contemporary referents for the actors identified in these paragraphs — for a start, the self-righteous SJWs who idealize people of color and other supposedly “vulnerable” or “marginalized” social categories, while vilifying the system of thought that provides them with the concepts in which they demand their rights. The irony by which those committed to the straitjacket of identity politics couch their rhetoric (their insistent demand that everybody respect the unique status of their group) in the language of universal human rights seems to be quite lost on these slogan-chanting warriors. They forget (or never learned) that most of the leaders of the colonial liberation struggles, not to mention the great names in the struggle for racial equality in the United States, were educated in Western or Western-style institutions, where they absorbed the principles and learnt the vocabulary of the European Enlightenment and subsequent democratic revolutions, and adopted them as the basis for their own program. In this sense, imperialism, as Marx might have said, really did create its own gravediggers. While we should, with Orwell, celebrate the demise of European imperialism we should also recognize that forms of religious imperialism are very much on the rise, and acknowledge that some developing countries were probably better off, at least in some respects, under colonialism than they are today. But we should also take note of Orwell’s more fundamental concern that too many progressive intellectuals look increasingly like the gravediggers of both liberal democracy and civilized debate.

Note

 For the benefit of American readers, I use the term liberal in its original nineteenth century sense, that is, for a supporter of free trade, individual rights, advancement by merit and limited government. For a lively recent discussion of the term, see Edmund Fawcett, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea (Princeton 2014).

Robert Darby

Robert Darby is an independent scholar and occasional essay writer. He lives in Canberra, Australia.

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Robert Darby

Robert Darby is an independent scholar and occasional essay writer. He lives in Canberra, Australia.

3 thoughts on “The Perils of Independent Thought: Re-Reading George Orwell’s Essays

  1. This kept me from going to bed at a sensible hour last night.
    The parallels between 1930s left wing treatment of the soviet union
    and today’s left wing holy cows was especially interesting.
    Some great Orwell quotes too.

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