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And the Word, is Orwell

by a hell of a writer Wednesday, Jun. 06, 2001 at 2:19 PM

He created Big Brother and defined the Cold War, becoming a century's most prescient political writer. But it's a long time since the wall came down. And his terrifying dictator is now a prime-time voyeur. Yet, writes Timothy Garton Ash, George Orwell is more relevant than ever.

Wow, what an article! Makes me think what a Timothy McVeigh could have done with a book than a bomb....

And the word is Orwell


He created Big Brother and defined the Cold War, becoming a century's most

prescient political writer. But it's a long time since the wall came down.

And his terrifying dictator is now a prime-time voyeur. Yet, writes Timothy

Garton Ash, George Orwell is more relevant than ever.

Why should we still read George Orwell on politics? Until 1989, the answer

was plain. He was the writer who captured the essence of totalitarianism.

All over communist-ruled Europe, people would show me their dog-eared,

samizdat copies of Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four and ask: "How did he


Yet the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four ended in 1989, the year the Berlin

Wall tumbled. Orwellian regimes persisted in a few remote countries, such as

North Korea, and communism survived in an attenuated form in China. But the

three dragons against which Orwell fought his good fight European and

especially British imperialism; fascism, whether Italian, German or Spanish;

and communism, not to be confused with the democratic socialism in which

Orwell himself believed were all either dead or mortally weakened.

Forty years after his own painful and early death, Orwell had won.

What need, then, of Orwell? One answer is that we should read him because of

his historical impact. For Orwell was the most influential political writer

of the 20th century. This is a bold claim, but who else would compete? Among

novelists, perhaps Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Albert Camus; among

playwrights, Bertolt Brecht. Or would it be a philosopher, such as Karl

Popper, Friedrich von Hayek or Hannah Arendt? Or the novelist, playwright

and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, whom Orwell privately called "a bag of


Take them one by one, and you will find that each made an impact more

limited in duration or geographical scope than did this short-lived,

old-fashioned English man of letters.

Worldwide familiarity with the word "Orwellian" is proof of that influence.

It is used as a pejorative adjective, to evoke totalitarian terror, the

falsification of history by state-organised lying and, more loosely, any

unpleasant example of repression or manipulation. It is used as a noun, to

describe an admirer and conscious follower of his work. Occasionally, it is

deployed as a complimentary adjective, to mean something like "displaying

outspoken intellectual honesty, like Orwell".

Very few writers have garnered this double tribute of becoming both

adjective and noun.

Everywhere that people lived under totalitarian dictatorships, they felt he

was one of them. The Russian poet Natalya Gorbanyevskaya once told me that

Orwell was an east European. In fact, he was a very English writer who never

went anywhere near eastern Europe. His knowledge of the communist world was

largely derived from reading.

Three personal experiences had transformed his understanding. First, as a

British imperial policeman for five years in Burma he was himself the

servant of an oppressive, though not a totalitarian, regime. By the time he

resigned, he had acquired a lifelong hatred of imperialism and also a deep

insight into the psychology of the oppressor. Then he went to live among the

"down-and-outs" in England and in Paris. So he knew at first hand the

humiliating unfreedom that comes from poverty.

Finally, there was the Spanish civil war. Spain, for Orwell, meant the

experience of fighting fascism and getting a bullet through his throat. But

still more important was the revelation of Russian-led communist terror and

duplicity, as he and his comrades in the heterodox Marxist POUM militia were

hunted through the streets of Barcelona by the communists who were supposed

to be their allies. Of the Russian agent in Barcelona charged with defaming

the POUM as Trotskyist Francoist traitors, he writes, in Homage to

Catalonia, "It was the first time that I had seen a person whose profession

was telling lies unless one counts journalists."

The tail sting is typical black humour. It also reflects his disgust at the

way the whole left-wing press in Britain was falsifying events that he had

seen with his own eyes.

As he says in his 1946 essay Why I Write, after Spain he knew where he

stood. He had earlier adopted the pen-name George Orwell in preference to

his own, Eric Blair, but it was after Spain that he really became Orwell.

Every line of his writing was now to have a political purpose. Imperialism

and fascism would remain major targets of his generous anger. But the first

enemy would be the blindness or intellectual dishonesty of those in the West

who supported or condoned Stalinist communism ever more so after the Soviet

Union became the West's ally in the war against Hitler. And so he sat down

to write a Swiftian satire on Stalinist Russia, with the communists as the

pigs in a farm run by the animals. "Willingness to criticise Russia and

Stalin," he wrote in August 1944, "is the test of intellectual honesty."

The rejection of Animal Farm by several British publishers, because they did

not want to criticise Britain's heroic wartime ally, showed what he was up

against. When it was finally published in Britain in 1945 (and the United

States in 1946), the book was a political event, helping to open the eyes of

the English-speaking West to the true nature of the Soviet regime. One might

call this the Orwell effect.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its more generalised dystopia, became another

defining Cold War text. Not accidentally, the first use of the phrase "cold

war" recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from an article by


In short, he was more memorably and influentially right than anyone, and

sooner, about the single greatest political menace of the second half of the

20th century, as well as seeing off the two largest horrors of the first

half. But those monsters are dead, or on their last legs. To say "read him

because he mattered a lot in the past" will hardly attract new readers to


Fortunately, there is a more compelling reason why we should read Orwell in

the 21st century. This is that he remains an exemplar of political writing.

Both meanings of "exemplar" are required. He is a model of how to do it

well, but he is also an example a deliberate, self-conscious and

self-critical instance of how difficult it is.

In Why I Write, he says that his purpose, after Spain, was to "make

political writing into an art". Animal Farm is the work in which he most

completely succeeded. In his "little fairy story", artistic form and

political content are perfectly matched partly because they are so

grotesquely mismatched. What could be further apart than Stalinist Moscow

and an English country farmyard?

He cared passionately for the countryside, and lived there in the late

1930s, keeping a village shop, a goat and a notebook. Animal Farm overflows

with lovingly observed physical detail of country life. But then, from the

mouth of the pig Major, there erupts a perfect parody of a communist speech:

the fruit of many hours Orwell had spent poring over the political pamphlets

he collected. Only he would have this peculiar combination of expertises.

Only Orwell would know both how to milk a goat and how to skewer a


The twists and turns of his animal regime closely follow the decay of the

Russian revolution into tyranny. There is no ambiguity here: the pig

Napoleon is Stalin, the pig Snowball is Trotsky. And there is his humour, an

underrated part of Orwell's sandpapery charm. (Soon after he was shot

through the neck in Spain, his commanding officer perceptively reported:

"Breathing absolutely regular. Sense of humour untouched.")

Unforgettable is that perfect one-liner, at once comic and deeply serious:

"All Animals Are Equal, But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others."

Animal Farm is a timeless satire on the central comi-tragedy of all politics

that is, the comi-tragedy of corruption by power. This ability to move from

the particular to the universal also characterises his essays: the other

genre in which he wrote best about politics.

What he abhors, perhaps even more than violence or tyranny, is dishonesty.

Marching up and down the frontier between literature and politics, like a

sentry for morality, he can spot a double standard at 500 metres in bad

light. Does a Conservative MP demand freedom for Poland while remaining

silent about India? Sentry Orwell fires off a quick round.

Orwell the moralist is fascinated by the pursuit not merely of truth, but of

the most complicated and difficult truths. It starts already with the early

essay Shooting an Elephant, where he confidently asserts that the British

empire is dying but immediately adds that it is "a great deal better than

the younger empires that are going to supplant it". At times, he seems to

take an almost masochistic delight in confronting uncomfortable truths.

Not that his own political judgment was always good. His vivacious and

perceptive wife Eileen wrote that he retained "an extraordinary political

simplicity". There are striking misjudgments in his work. It's startling to

find him, early on, repeating the communist line that "fascism and

capitalism are at bottom the same thing".

He opposed fighting Hitler until well into 1939, only to reverse his

position. In his wartime tract The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the

English Genius, he proposes the nationalisation of "land, mines, railways,

banks and major industries".

Orwell was a very English writer, and we think of understatement as a very

English quality. But his speciality is outrageous overstatement: "No real

revolutionary has ever been an internationalist", "All left-wing parties in

the highly industrialised countries are at bottom a sham", "A humanitarian

is always a hypocrite".

As V.S. Pritchett observed, in reviewing The Lion and the Unicorn, he "is

capable of exaggerating with the simplicity and innocence of a savage". But

that is what satirists do. Evelyn Waugh, from the other end of the political

spectrum, did the same. So this weakness of his non-fiction is one of the

great strengths of his fiction.

Both his life and his work are case studies in the demands of political

engagement. In Writers and Leviathan he describes the political writer's

dilemma: "Seeing the need of engaging in politics while also seeing what a

dirty, degrading business it is." After briefly being a member of the

Independent Labour party, he concludes that "a writer can only remain honest

if he keeps free of party labels". That keyword "honest" again. But he plans

and becomes vice-chairman of a non-party organisation called the Freedom

Defence Committee, defending freedom against imperialism and fascism, of

course, but now, above all, against communism.

A word is due about the already notorious list of crypto-communists and

fellow travellers which he is popularly thought to have handed over to the

British secret service. ("Socialist icon who became an informer", trumpeted

The Daily Telegraph when "breaking" the story in 1998.) The facts are these.

Orwell kept a pale blue notebook in which he noted names and details of

suspected communist agents or sympathisers. The content of this notebook is

disquieting, with its sharp judgments "almost certainly agent of some kind",

"decayed liberal", "appeaser only" and especially its national/racial

annotations: "Jewish?" (Charlie Chaplin) or "English Jew" (Tom Driberg) as

well as "Polish", "Jugo-Slav", "Anglo-American" and so on.

There is something unsettling a touch of the old imperial policeman about a

writer who could have lunch with a friend like the poet Stephen Spender and

then go home to note: "Sentimental sympathiser and very unreliable. Easily

influenced. Tendency to homosexuality."

However, two very important things need to be said in explanation. First,

there was a cold war on. There were Soviet agents and sympathisers about,

and they were influential. The most telling example is the man Orwell had

down as "almost certainly agent of some kind". His name was Peter Smollett.

During World War II he was the head of the Russian section in the Ministry

of Information, and it was on his advice that T.S. Eliot, no less, rejected

Animal Farm for Jonathan Cape. We now know that Smollett was indeed a Soviet


Second, Orwell did not give this notebook to the British secret service. He

gave a list of 35 names drawn from it to the Information Research

Department, a semi-secret branch of the Foreign Office which specialised in

getting writers on the democratic Left to counter the then highly organised

Soviet communist-propaganda offensive.

Absurdly, the British government has not declassified this list and any

letter that accompanied it. So we still don't know exactly what Orwell did.

But from the available evidence it is quite clear that Orwell was not

putting some British thought police on to these people's tails. All he was

doing, in effect, was to say: "Don't use these people for anti-communist

propaganda because they are probably communists or communist sympathisers!"

A dying man, but still in complete command of his faculties, Orwell judged

this to be a morally defensible act for a writer in a period of intense

political struggle, just as he had earlier judged that it was proper for a

politically engaged writer to take up arms against Franco. I think he was

right. You may think he was wrong. Either way, he exemplifies for us he is

that exemplar of the dilemmas of the political writer.

Finally, of course, Orwell's list, and Orwell's life, are much less

important than the work. It matters, to be sure, that there is no flagrant

contradiction between the work and the life as there often is with political

intellectuals. The Orwellian voice, placing honesty and single standards

above everything, would be diminished. But what endures is the work.

If I had to name a single quality that makes Orwell still essential reading

in the 21st century, it would be his insight into the use and abuse of

language. If you have time to read only one essay, read Politics and the

English Language. This brilliantly sums up the central Orwellian argument

that the corruption of language is an essential part of oppressive or

exploitative politics. "The defence of the indefensible" is sustained by a

battery of euphemisms, verbal false limbs, prefabricated phrases, and all

the other paraphernalia of deceit that he pinpoints and parodies.

The extreme, totalitarian version that he satirised as Newspeak is less

often encountered these days, except in countries such as Burma or North

Korea. But the obsession of democratically elected governments with media

management and "spin" is today one of the main obstacles to understanding

what is being done in our name.

There are also distortions that come from within the press, radio and

television themselves, partly because of hidden ideological bias but

increasingly because of fierce commercial competition and the relentless

need to "entertain".

Read Orwell, and you will know that something nasty must be hidden behind

the euphemistic, Latinate phrase used by NATO spokesmen during the Kosovo

war: "collateral damage". (It means innocent civilians killed.) Read Orwell,

and you will smell a rat whenever you find a newspaper or politician once

again churning out a prefabricated phrase such as "Brussels' inexorable

march to a European superstate".

He does not just equip us to detect this semantic abuse. He also suggests

how writers can fight back. For the abusers of power are, after all, using

our weapons: words. In Politics and the English Language he even gives some

simple stylistic rules for honest and effective political writing. He

compares good English prose with a clean window pane. Through these windows,

citizens can see what their rulers are really up to. So political writers

should be the window cleaners of freedom.

Orwell both tells and shows us how to do it. That is why we need him still,

because Orwell's work is never done.

Timothy Garton Ash is a writer and fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford. We

The People (Penguin), his personal account of the revolutions of 1989, has

appeared in 15 languages.


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