Perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid to a political writer is that their writing can be enjoyed by people of virtually every ideological persuasion. Certainly this is the case of dear old Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell. The presence of the man is nigh-on inescapable. Regardless of the issue, whenever democracy or freedom appears to be threatened, some quote or other is wrenched from Orwell’s pages, however unjustifiably, and used as ammunition. I don’t wish to chastise those who seek to appropriate Orwell’s many axioms and sayings: he was, after all, an incredible craftsman when it came to language. Orwell-made ammunition is, perhaps, some of the most high-power verbal ordinance that can be acquired. He had an uncommon ability to cut through hypocrisy and insincerity with ordinary, but syntactically deliberate language: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear” is a personal favourite.*
The basic question is: why is this? Orwell was a socialist, but with strong attachments to liberal, democratic ideals. How can it be that people with whom he would have disagreed so violently invoke his spirit to win arguments? The short answer is that the majority of people who quote Orwell couldn’t give a summary of his politics, but this is something that could be said of many commentators and about the legacies of many thinkers. There is something else going on.
In his biography of Orwell, D. J. Taylor remarks that whenever anyone else writes about Orwell he finds himself thinking “Hang on: that’s my Orwell they’re talking about?!” This struck me as the most succinct encapsulation of my own feelings towards Orwell’s writing I’ve ever encountered in print. Orwell seems to be one of the only authors to have managed this. The lucidity of his essays never fails to engage and galvanize, and they hold their ground today just as they did when he wrote them. He got little wrong politically, in my view, apart from his unfortunate predilection for homophobia and sexism in his private letters.
Orwell persists as a political force throughout the political spectrum, with never a month going by that he doesn’t get a mention in a variety of right and left publications. Many journalists speculate wildly about what Orwell would’ve made of today’s world. I recall a slightly nauseating article about what Orwell and Jeremy Corbyn might’ve had in common, had Orwell miraculously survived his tuberculosis, or any number of pieces which take a stab at what Orwell would’ve said about the reprobate currently residing in the Oval Office.
There are, of course, some citations of Orwell that are totally incongruous with his political convictions. An excerpt from Hillary Clinton’s book springs to mind, in which Clinton interprets the moral of Nineteen Eighty-Four as a warning about the dangers of “mistrust towards exactly the people we need to rely on: our leaders.” Clinton uses this reading to make the point that Donald Trump’s squalid, lying tactics are comparable to that of the totalitarian regime in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But, to be fair to Hillary, she chose a bad example to illustrate an otherwise good point. The worst invocations of Orwell are often those made by espresso-communists (like Ash Sarkar) on Twitter, who seek to conflate Orwell’s democratic socialism with their own doctrines, and, ironically enough, to protect themselves from the kinds of criticisms that Orwell made of communism. The dubious manoeuvre that underlies this tactic is a disingenuous one, as Orwell was fervently anti-communist.
You mean George Orwell the Socialist? This Orwell?https://t.co/O8Fi4ygt0T
— Ash Sarkar (@AyoCaesar) October 7, 2019
Whenever I read a counterfactual article about Orwell, I am filled with the same irritation and a sense that Orwell wouldn’t have wanted any of this. He always downplayed his importance as a political figure, asking that there be no biography after his death, and always striving to remove himself from his writing: in Why I Write Orwell remarks, “One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.” Such pieces put me in mind of religious cranks running around in circles desperately trying to guess what their saviour would’ve done.
What Orwell himself actually would’ve thought might be a fun exercise to play with yourself, but it is a totally useless one for political discourse. Not only would Orwell have resented the sycophantic narcissism with which people attempt to summon his essence, but such writing misses the point of Orwell’s legacy. What Orwell would’ve wanted, if anything, is for people to merely read and understand his values, and,possibly, to take some of his own lessons into their thinking. It is not the point of this article to summarize all of Orwell’s politics and beliefs, but he stood for four things above all: liberty, truth, democracy and a restrained form of English patriotism. Besides, the great summary of Orwell’s political ethos has already been printed, in the form of David Dwan’s Liberty, Equality and Humbug: Orwell’s Political Ideals.
The final question is, perhaps, given the recent 70-year anniversary of his death: who has the right to claim Orwell for their cause? Everyone from Alex Jones to Owen Jones has invoked Orwell, with varying degrees of success, in their writings. In the absence of any certainty about what Orwell would’ve actually said and thought, who has the right to call him one of their own? The answer, I think, must be that Orwell’s legacy has reached the point at which this question no longer matters. The reality is that Orwell wrote and said many things that could justifiably be martialled by either the left or the right and to great effect. Orwell has become, in effect, a ghost that haunts the political realm of our age and culture. He seems to embody an outlook much more than anything else: an outlook which, I would submit, regards utopia as folly and instead favours a self-critical and ultimately anti-totalitarian form of secular humanism. But, after all, there is an inverse proportionality at play: the greater the legacy a thinker has, the more their ideas are misunderstood and corrupted. The higher the zoom, the lower the resolution.
This outlook to which I refer is difficult to precisely define. I can only speak for myself, but my own love for Orwell’s writing seems to emanate from his hatred of the disingenuous, the cowardly and the ideologically servile. Orwell’s rejection of the triad of ideologies of the twentieth century—communism, fascism and imperialism—was grounded in the fact that all three assume themselves to be right at all costs, and have therefore already decided the course of history by extension of their politics. For Orwell, such ideologies were closed systems, lacking in the ability to foresee their flaws and capacity for evil. This is the basic reason why he repudiated them so thoroughly in his writing. In short, he was sceptical of ideologies that sought to make the world into a totality and recognized—in the case of communism—the capacity of revolutions to bring about tyranny in the name of liberation. Or as Flaubert has it: “Inside every revolutionary there is a policeman.”
At risk of self-contradiction or irony, what Orwell would’ve wanted from us, looking back at his life and work, would be that we choose our allegiances carefully, and criticize not just the politics of others, but our own as well.
*Correction: A previous version of this piece included a misattributed quote to Orwell.