From the Archives: George Orwell, Democratic Socialism, and 1984

Originally Presented at Text & Talk, August 15, 2020

George Orwell, Democratic Socialism, and 1984

Eric Arthur Blair, who later became George Orwell,  was born in 1903 in MotihariBiharBritish IndiaHis great-grandfather, Charles Blair, was a wealthy country gentleman in Dorset who married Lady Mary Fane, daughter of the Earl of Westmorland, and had income as an absentee landlord of plantations in Jamaica. His grandfather, Thomas Richard Arthur Blair, was a clergyman. Eric Blair described his family as “lower-upper-middle class.”     His father was in the opium department of the British imperial civil service.  His mother was the daughter of a French entrepreneur with interests in French Indochina.  

            The family, without their father, whom they would not see again until 1912, returned to England in  1904, and Eric began his school career at Wellington, which he hated, and Eton, which he admired.  When his classmates were at Oxford and Cambridge, Eric was in the Burmese police, perhaps the first notice of his interest in justice and fairness, a disposition his sister claimed was characteristic even of the boy.   In  his late twenties he made the investigation of the poor and of poverty a principal project, visiting the East End and similar scenes in Paris. 

           These experiences gave Orwell the material for Down and Out in Paris and London; the book’s publication in 1933 earned him some initial literary recognition. One critic catalogs Orwell’s early novels thus: “Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days (1934), established the pattern of his subsequent fiction in its portrayal of a sensitive, conscientious, and emotionally isolated individual who is at odds with an oppressive or dishonest social environment. The main character of Burmese Days is a minor administrator who seeks to escape from the narrow-minded chauvinism of his fellow British colonialists in Burma. His sympathies for the Burmese, however, end in an unforeseen personal tragedy. The protagonist of Orwell’s next novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935), is an unhappy spinster who achieves a brief and accidental liberation in her experiences among some agricultural labourers. Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) is about a literarily inclined bookseller’s assistant who despises the empty commercialism and materialism of middle-class life but who in the end is reconciled to bourgeois prosperity by his forced marriage to the girl he loves.”

       Orwell’s first socialist book, The Road to Wiggan Pier, published by Gollancz in 1937 was a two-part work, the first describing the lives of a Sheffield family who lived at the top of the category called “the poor.”   The second was a defense of what he later called Democratic Socialism, and which he would persist all his life.  The boy born into the imperial civil service was moving away from that culture and into a life-long defense of the poor and of the system he believed would bring them relief.   It was a complex mission, for although Orwell had the acuity to see that although oppression may begin, as he, in common with about a million upper middle-class Englishmen saw it,  with poverty, there was a deeper darkness afoot.   

       1984 is not a critique of any particular regime, although one can see in it references to elements of the Marxist terror and to the rise of Fascism in Hungary, Italy, Romania, and Spain.  It is a futuristic dystopia built of demonic uses of communications technology to provide universal surveillance; appropriation of all property and all means of production by the party; the systematic destruction of the past so that memory cannot challenge the present, partly through the direct ‘correction’ of history, more significantly through the conversion of English (and presumably every other language) into Newspeak so that Oldspeak and the ideas it carried with it are simply unavailable—recall that Winston’s friend Ampleforth had been sent to Room 101 for using in desperation, there being so few rhymes for ‘rod,’ the word ‘God;’ the sewing of distrust and fear among the population so that no one quite knows who has betrayed whom; the use of what we would recognize as deconstruction so that there is no objective reality that might challenge the party;  political control through a single ideology supported by a single party; dark uses of psychology, and above all the use of terror, all justified by the endless pursuit of unwinnable wars the purposes of which have been forgotten.  Who would like to argue that these policies and ideas are not represented somewhere in the political temper of the West today?  Perhaps triumphant in the various Marxist regimes (China, Venezuela, North Korea), perhaps as a shadow on the horizon in most western democracies. If Orwell was wrong about anything, it was his assumption that sexual pleasure would wither away.   It has its uses; in directing desire toward this pleasure as destructive of Oldspeak. 

       If the above is even in part an apt analysis, it is difficult to see why Orwell so consistently supported Democratic Socialism.  Understand first that there are a dozen well-represented Socialisms.  Social Democracy (Norway and some other European states) is not Democratic Socialism.   In the former the state does not own the means of production; in Democratic Socialism the state may and often does.   The 1945 government of Clement Atlee exemplified Democratic Socialism, with the government owning mines, railroads, airlines, and gas and electrical services.  Presumably, George Orwell approved of this.  But the controversy centers around the fact that socialism is always a threat to property, and while it does not always exert its power to the fullest extent, it may at any moment do so.  And property. As Richard Weaver wrote, is essential to personality.   Orwell knew this: “Everywhere, always, the eyes watching you, he voice enveloping you . . . .  Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your head” (Winston,  BNW, 26).

       Was Orwell correct in seeing capitalism as the cause of poverty?  One may wonder if there is any other society on earth in which home ownership stands at 64%? 

        Of course there are other problems.  One is the inability of African-Americans to move above 42% home ownership since 1994, while Asian ownership in the same time-period has increased almost 10%, and this in a period when black applications were seldom turned down.  Another is the inability to control the monopolistic drift that characterizes capitalism.  There have been many federal anti-trust laws, but there is a tendency not to use them.  And never to be forgotten is the cash nexus between politicians and donors.  A swing senate race may cost a cool million, or more.  And donors consider themselves worthy of a little respect.  

             Even if one considers Orwell’s politics as contrary to his broader goals, his political insight is a permanent treasure. Consider:

  • “Television will tell them what to believe and they will believe it.”
  • “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people something they do not want to hear.”   
  • “Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.”
  • “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
  • “In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” 
  • “War is peace.  Freedom is slavery.  Ignorance is strength.”
  • “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
  • “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”
  • “We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness.”

       This last quote is an opportunity, obliquely,  to consider Orwell and  religion, specifically  Christianity.  Of course he disliked Roman Catholicism.  Sometimes he called Christianity the lesser of evils.  When he died, he surprised his executors by commanding that he be buried according to the rites of the Church of England, that he not be cremated but buried in the church yard.  In the hospital he befriended Waugh and Muggeridge, who was asked to write Orwell’s biography but failed.  This is, like almost everything Orwellian, complicated.  Let me add as a subscript that I understand  only superficially the pleasures of power for its own sake. Perhaps others can shed some light.