I read somewhere that sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have risen lately – perhaps in response to the federal government’s snooping into the cyber world of American citizens. It’s not at all hard to imagine a tool like the internet being used in a sinister fashion. Orwell’s Big Brother would have killed for internet capability.
Regardless of the reason for the Orwell revival, he deserves it. A lifelong socialist, he was also fearlessly immune to any party line—especially after his service in the Spanish Civil War where he saw the Stalinists’ utterly ruthless pursuit of power. From that point and despite his own political ideas, he maintained a fair minded perspective on politics, even when his views were in conflict with the party hacks and mouthpieces of the Left – of whom post-war Britain had a more than ample supply. Orwell was suspicious of orthodoxy of any stripe.
Animal Farm (which was once rejected by an American publisher because “Americans didn’t like animal stories”) is of course an allegory about power and its ability to corrupt. It is a literary version of Milovan Djilas’ The New Class. Djilas’s book was a critique of Yugoslavian communism, and he went to prison for writing it. That is the communist approach to literary criticism.
Orwell combined a clear eye with a clear writing style, and his political and cultural essays are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them. His classic is “Politics and the English Language” – an important essay in which he makes a vital point: “If thought can corrupt language, language can also corrupt thought.” Here again, the chief villain is political orthodoxy that comes with ready-made phrases and talking points that convey little or nothing and in fact damage the quality of discussion. The usual suspects on news television these days do not even have to open their mouths; having seen them once, we know what they are going to say and how they are going to say it. Such talk is rarely more than filler between commercials.
Consider this from the same Orwell essay:
“Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
This is a good idea to remember, especially when you hear a word ending in ‘ism’ or ‘ist.’