What Would Orwell Think of Us?

(Toby Melville/Reuters)

Seventy years after 1984’s publication, the question is worth asking.

George Orwell’s 1984 was published 70 years ago this month, and he died a few months after it was published. Suppose that he hadn’t, though. Suppose that he’d been cryogenically frozen in his last days, and reanimated in 2019. Whose side would he be on in our trying political moment? What would he think of us?

His first reaction, I think, would be to pull a Moscow on the Hudson and, like Robin Williams’s Russian defector when confronted by the superabundance of coffee choices in the grocery store, collapse in a heap of confusion. “How did I get it so wrong?” he would ask. The world did not, as he foretold, divide itself into three totalitarian superstates. Nor did the stark gray privations of Soviet central planning or wartime rationing, which continued in Britain until four years after Orwell’s death, become permanent. It is not today the norm to live in something like a forced-labor camp powered by terror. Orwell would surely notice that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, with its tranquil populations of pretty people living in a pleasing soma tupor, was closer to the mark than 1984. Weighing the evidence on central planning, he would be forced to conclude that it had never produced the desired results and had instead sown lies and illiberalism.

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Orwell had already turned away from the radical Left by the time he died; late in life, sensing the Soviet menace, he compiled a list of 35 public intellectuals he believed were “crypto-communists and fellow travelers,” and sent it to the British Foreign Office. Yet claiming he stood for the Right while he was alive would be a fool’s errand. Christopher Hitchens once put it well: “George Orwell was conservative about many things, but not about politics.”

Like Thomas Jefferson, he had a tendency to consider a matter from different vantage points, and like Hitchens, a talent for provocation. Always there was a core of between-ness, a quality of being both one thing and the other, Eric Blair and George Orwell. He stood out as an Englishman in Burma, and within the English he stood out as peculiarly sympathetic toward “the natives.” He went to Eton, but as a scholarship boy, not a child of privilege. On the other hand, when he went undercover to lead a pauper’s existence for Down and Out in Paris and London, the real hobos knew he wasn’t one of them: His posh accent betrayed him.

Though Orwell defined himself as a democratic-socialist in “Why I Write,” he could write caustically about his supposed associates, as in, “‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.” That famous passage comes from The Road to Wigan Pier, in which he confesses to having once had an anti-statist bent: “I worked out an anarchistic theory that all government is evil, that the punishment always does more harm than the crime and the people can be trusted to behave decently if you will only let them alone.” The leave-me-alone plea popped up again in “Politics in the English Language” (1946), in which he wrote wearily, “In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’” The Left’s present tendency to politicize everything would have horrified him.

Given the breadth of Orwell’s political thinking, it’s a matter of conjecture where he might find an ideological home today. But I find his socialism to be primarily a response to privation. Desperate impecuniousness runs through his writing; in his self-mocking novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, about a lovelorn writer-cum-bookseller named Gordon Comstock, the protagonist lives for weeks on nothing but bread and margarine, so frazzled he can’t think of anything but money. He can’t write. He can’t get a girlfriend. He can’t socialize. He calls poverty a “filthy sub-world,” “a sort of spiritual sewer,” “spiritual halitosis.” (Filth is a recurring fascination for Orwell: recall those miners, in Wigan Pier, who spent six days a week completely black from the waist down because they didn’t have bathtubs, only basins.)

Knowing what Orwell knew about poverty, about how it rent your soul, flayed your nerves, ate away at your very skin and lungs, he could hardly fail to observe that the underclass of today’s Britain lives in relative splendor. Showers every day? Really? Deaths from infectious disease down 95 percent since the time I was born? Compared even to middle-class people of his day, the average council-flats resident has comforts and leisure opportunities beyond measure. He needn’t spend twelve hours a day at harsh labor; he needn’t necessarily work at all. What Orwell hoped socialism would achieve has instead been delivered by a capitalist-funded welfare state. Orwell thought of the poor as decent people, but he’d be baffled to observe today that the welfare state has created a class of layabouts who, liberated from economic anguish, shackle themselves to screens, drugs, alcohol.

Meanwhile, the class he thought of as the idle rich are also largely a relic of the past: Today’s elite is peopled by bustling, dynamic urban professionals — the new empire builders. Orwell castigates Kipling for being racist and imperialist but also notes that such men “were at any rate people who did things,” “changed the face of the earth,” and could not have maintained themselves in India “for a single week” if “the normal Anglo-Indian outlook had been that of, say, E.M. Forster.” He derided languid, effete intellectuals as “pansy-left circles.”

The British welfare state’s conquering of brutal poverty would, I think, fire up the Tory side of Orwell. Why, he would ask, does no one care about character anymore? Should the state subsidize endless self-indulgence? Why do all of the enlightened liberals think that there should be no strings attached to welfare payments? “‘Enlightened’ people,” Orwell wrote in his essay on Kipling, “seldom or never possess a sense of responsibility.”

The Left’s speech codes and unease with patriotism would also make Orwell rethink his socialist instincts. Orwell loved England and thought only the Right was a threat to his pen. His association of socialism with freedom of speech was critical to his support for the movement. “And the only regime which, in the long run, will dare to permit freedom of speech is a socialist regime. If Fascism triumphs I am finished as a writer,” he wrote in “Why I Joined the Independent Labour Party.” Today, though, it is evident that the impulse to restrict speech is primarily a phenomenon of the Left. Much speech runs afoul of the Left’s chief obsession, which is international identity politics. That same imperative is why the Left is suspicious of patriotism. Yet in “The Lion and the Unicorn” Orwell writes, of the “insularity” of his countrymen, “Intellectuals who have tried to break it down have generally done more harm than good. At bottom it is the same quality in the English character that repels the tourist and keeps out the invader.”

Orwell for Brexit? I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

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