“It is a shame, though, that whenever Orwell reappears it is almost always in the context of his dystopian political novel.”
eorge Orwell seems to come in and out of the news. It is usually politics that brings him back. Certain segments of the political right revitalize Orwell in our dystopian fears, now often emanating from excessive left-wing zealots and their policing of speech and thought, to which #1984 trends on social media before fading away. It is a shame, though, that whenever Orwell reappears it is almost always in the context of his dystopian political novel. We forget that Orwell was a master essayist, and despite the conservative appropriation of Orwell, the sage of humane English socialism was, and remained, a dedicated socialist throughout his life.
That Orwell is forgotten for having been one of the preeminent English essayists of the 20th century is unsurprising. It is indicative of the larger desecration of the humane tradition of letters, of which he was among the last great generation of writers to flourish. Orwell lived in a world before the 280-character hot take on Twitter, the 30 second spiel on TikTok, or the seductive but ultimately unsubstantial world of YouTube that is premised more on visuality and polemical acting than serious substance. Yet it is in his essays, and not his novels—of which people only remember Nineteen Eighty-Four and maybe Animal Farm—that the enduring relevance of Orwell is found.
I have loved Orwell since high school. My love for Orwell grows every year. In Advanced Placement (AP) English and AP History, we read Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm respectively. At that time in my life, My AP English teacher gave me her copy of Christopher Hitchens’s Why Orwell Matters. Since then, Orwell has only grown in relevance to my maturation and life.
Our world, frankly, is not much different than Orwell’s. And Orwell’s world was not much different than Jonathan Swift’s (a writer whom Orwell begrudgingly admired). Swift witnessed the Whig cancel culture of his day. When the Whigs came to power in 1715, the old Tory vanguard was chased out of the country and arrested, some even fled to France. Swift feared for his life. The ministry of truth was partisan politics then, just as it is partisan politics now. Reading Orwell’s essays remind us that what we are facing now was what he himself was navigating in the 1930s and 1940s. His searing critiques and insights, his comments about the crisis of objective truth, the hypocrisy of the ruling class, and intellectuals being unable to grasp the human heart read as if they were written in the 2010s or 2020s.
What makes Orwell’s essays so compelling and definitive is the humanity in them. Orwell writes openly and honestly. When he says that, “All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery,” we not only see Orwell openly confessing a truth but exposing the emptiness of those who would say otherwise. But why do writers write? Orwell says “egoism,” “aesthetic enthusiasm,” “historical impulse,” and “political purpose.” Almost every writer I know, or read, certainly falls into one or more of those categories—myself included—even if they do not wish to admit it.
Orwell also fights against the obfuscating rhetoric of most writers. Although he was a writer “against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism,” something many conservatives tend to forget even if they share a fear of totalitarianism, he did not shy away from calling out other lefties for their hypocrisy and contributions to the advancement of totalitarianism. He deplored the dehumanization that emanated from the spirit of politicized beliefs solely on political grounds. Speaking about the dismissal of facts—already foreshadowing the ministries of truth that now seem widespread today—“what impressed me then, and has impressed me ever since, is that atrocities are believed in or disbelieved in solely on grounds of political predilection.” Anyone who spends even a minute on social media finds resonance with that statement. Orwell emphatically states, however, that a large problem of this phenomenon is from the Left. He refused to play team support whenever he saw a problem and a drift toward totalitarianism. His enemy was totalitarianism, Left, Right, or Center.
The danger of losing “objective truth,” Orwell said, was tied to the destruction of language that was readily employed by his kindred spirits on the revolutionary political spectrum. “[H]ere I am concerned only with one kind of English, Marxist English, or Pamphletese, which can be studied in the Daily Worker, the Labour Monthly, Plebs, the New Leader, and similar papers,” Orwell writes. The deliberate veiling of words, changing of definitions, inclusion of foreign words that no one knew and without provided translations were the tactics witnessed and deplored in his own lifetime. This contributed greatly to “the very concept of objective truth…fading out of the world.” When Orwell brought into existence doublethink and the thought police in Nineteen Eighty-Four, they were based on his longstanding critique of the intellectual-writing class engaged in that project.
Orwell, then, had the foresight to see the crisis of freedom of speech and the thought that is roiling us today. He rightly condemns the “monopoly and bureaucracy” of media magnates, film producers, and paid editors who control the dissemination of thought, writing, and art constricting the spirit of creativity and truth through the monopoly of power. They are bad enough. But these men, bad as they can be, were not the long-term enemies of truth. “On [the] long view the weakening of the desire for liberty among the intellectuals themselves is the most serious symptom of all,” Orwell presciently noted in 1946.
The old enemies of thought control from the Right had vanished after 1945. This is why the target of his political criticism changes late in life. Orwell had not changed, but the political environment had. Orwell’s ire was now directed at his “fellow travelers” and former comrades who had fallen for the totalitarian temptation. We remember Orwell and not his opponents because “any writer who adopts the totalitarian outlook, who finds excuses for persecution and the falsification of reality, thereby destroys himself as a writer.” This Orwell never did, and so his legacy as a writer lives on.
There is irony, of course, in those epistemological skeptics who denied the reality of objective truth using totalitarian tactics to assert “objective truths” today, or at least the social truths all societies must live by in order to function. I do find it mildly amusing, as someone who has gone through six years of philosophy education, that those who were the most militantly skeptical of the idea of objective truth are now the most militant in arguing against “alternative facts” and “misinformation.” I felt that these individuals were the ones arguing for “alternative facts” and “misinformation” in my undergraduate days.
In short, Orwell’s essays are every bit—if not more—prescient and profound than his novels. This is in part because we can see Orwell working out the crises he was living through, which made their way into Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. And unlike the dreariness of his novels, his essays also offer a certain charm and wit, a rhetorical grace, when reading through them. His punches sometimes come out of the blue, but they land hard when he decides to throw them. It is a far better manner and style of writing than the all-too common invective laced blog posts, tweets, and foul-mouthed social media videos that proliferate across digital space and rack up hundreds and thousands of likes and shares.
Orwell was more than a political writer, even if he acknowledges and identifies himself as one, and a “democratic Socialist” one through and through. It is sometimes hard to detect, but he had many considerations on the now ubiquitous crisis of technology in politics that we deal with in the 21st century. Reread Nineteen Eighty-Four in that light and one sees Orwell’s foresight. It is, in my view, Orwell’s scattered but luminous consideration on technology that is most enduring of all his writings because it is the common thread that unites almost all his writings.
While he had charming and amusing essays condemning the gaslight stove or gathering round a “gilded radiator” for Christmas dinner, Orwell’s conflicted view of technology demands our interest as we must grapple with what he was grappling with. At the heart of his more casual writings, condemning technology was an aesthetic argument. Technology is ugly. Yet he also spoke positively about technology, nodding in favor of the idea that the Industrial Revolution and its attendant technologies made socialism believable: “The question is very simple. Shall people like that Italian soldier [from the Republican armies in the Spanish Civil War] be allowed to live the decent, fully human life which is now technically achievable, or shan’t they?”
Orwell, like many of the socialists who came to be after the Industrial Revolution, implicitly recognizes the innovative and revolutionary role of technology. More than capitalism, it was technology that was the real pulse of modernity, to which capitalism was merely the wingman; technology was the primary force from which capitalism (and socialism) sprang. Technology, more than the theories and doctrines of socialist egalitarianism, made the arguments for socialist egalitarianism palatable. In the days of donkeys and horses, ox-drawn farm equipment, wooden tools and pitchforks and wheelbarrows, that idea of a “technically achievable” humane society was impossible to conceive outside of the eschatological imagination of theology. The “religious socialism” of the past was not socialism at all because it was independent of the “technically achievable” impulse that socialism—as a discernible political theory—was tethered to.
Orwell sees the positive potential of technology. This makes him a kindred spirit to the 19th century liberals (often wrongly called “classical liberal,” as if there is any difference between their contemporary heirs) who also saw science, technology, and progress leading to global internationalism, rationalism, and the end of the romantic passions they associated with Dark Age barbarism and superstition. Orwell articulates the liberal to progressive to socialist mentality as, “On the one side science, order, progress, internationalism, aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene: on the other side war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses. History…is a series of victories won by the scientific man over the romantic man.” Yet in doing so, he also critiques technological optimism despite being sympathetic to it. He also sees the dark side of technology. “Modern Germany,” he wrote in 1941 in the middle of the war, “is far more scientific than England, and far more barbarous.”
Technology is not neutral. Technology is also not wholly and solely a force of “positive” advancement as naïve Whigs, liberals, and socialists often conceived and still conceive. Orwell understood this, which allowed him to critique the naïve technologists in progressive, liberal, and socialist clothing in his life. Again, reread Nineteen Eighty-Four in this light. But also read his statements about why Fascism won in Spain and why Germany was the great totalitarian threat in the 1940s. “The Fascists won because they were the stronger; they had modern arms and the others hadn’t. No political strategy could offset that.”
Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany significantly utilized the new power of technology for their totalitarianism. Radio. Art. Industry. Tanks. Planes. Trains. All were marshaled for the totalitarian phantasmagoria they almost manifested. Many of us alive today still feel this skeptical hesitancy toward the benignity of technology even as we increasingly utilize it and as it becomes a ubiquitous fixture in our daily lives. Something lurks behind it that makes it prone to totalitarian impulses just as much as technology can be the great promise and engine for liberation and individual and social advancement.
Orwell, more than the utopians of the 19th century and the utopians of the 20th century—and we might include the utopians of the 21st century—understood this problem within technological progress. The global world-state people were dreaming of—made possible by technology—was becoming an ever-increasing reality. But for Orwell, that did not necessarily mean it would be the progressive utopia that so many had conjured up in their imaginations because these fickle, brain-dead intellectuals had eliminated the real blood of existence.
What makes Orwell a pariah to the Left, though he was and remained a man of the Left, was his understanding of the “romantic man” that socialists and liberals derided as reactionary and barbarous. Orwell understood that humans have instinctive desires for patriotism, blood, toil, and heroism. He also tried to caution in his life what few leftists consider to be a legitimate position today, “Patriotism has nothing to do with Conservatism.” Conservatives might play patriotism superior to liberals and socialists, but patriotism is not owned by conservatives. What Orwell knew and what his compatriots hated or forgot was that the heart of “high sentiments” is what “always win[s] in the end.” Maybe not always if we want to critique Orwell, but certainly most of the time.
In mocking H.G. Wells and the progressivist socialism that he represented, Orwell noted that it was not really the dream of a better tomorrow or the socialist utopia—not even “democracy”—that kept the English and the Russians battling the Nazis. It was patriotism. It was the patriotism that the Left so despised, that spirited Great Britain in its struggle against fascism and ultimately achieved victory. “Similarly,” Orwell writes in the same breath, “why are the Russians fighting like tigers against the German invasion? In part, perhaps, for some half-remembered ideal of Utopian Socialism, but chiefly in defense of Holy Russia.” Looking at human nature instead of the technically possible, “The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions.” Orwell saw clearly what others could not. It was oft-derided patriotism that stood up to the totalitarian threat in World War II—not the promise of socialism, not the progress of democracy, not the twisted lies of historical narratives written by those very intellectuals who despised patriotism and constructed World War II historiography in political terms because that’s the only world they knew. It was romantic man, not scientific man, that defeated Nazism.
There is a lesson here for conservative critics of “Woke Activism.” Ironically, the success of technologist liberalism has all but destroyed the Romantic Conservatism that has always been the true heart of any discernible conservative philosophy. (This is what makes Roger Scruton, for instance, a real conservative—because he was, as any student of his knows, a romantic; Edmund Burke, too, though a Whig, was a romantic: He makes aesthetic and emotional arguments of the heart against the French Revolution and in defense of English society.) Contemporary conservative critics who deride passion, feeling, and emotion and instead parrot the empty canard of “facts don’t care about your feelings” or “F— your emotions” either do not see themselves ironically engaged in the same emotional energy that moves their lives, or have fallen prey to the mathematical progressive utopian view of Mr. Gradgrind from Charles Dickens’s 1854 novel Hard Times: “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.”
In a stroke of irony, it is emotional pathology, not a commitment to facts or “objective truth,” that also motivates the same intellectuals who deride popular patriotic passion from the unwashed masses. Their group feeling, no longer tied to love of hearth and home, but now to party or ideology, leads them to promote the party line at all costs. “I saw newspapers in London,” Orwell writes when reflecting on the Spanish Civil War, “retelling these lies and eager intellectuals build emotional superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines.’” Precisely because this is what moves and guides the media, intellectuals, and writers, “believe nothing, or next to nothing, of what you read about internal affairs on the Government side. It is all, from whatever source, party propaganda—that is to say, lies.”
It is unsurprising, then, that the danger of Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the event that terrifies O’Brien and Big Brother, is not facts but the eroticism of Winston and Julia. This is also implicit throughout much of our dystopian and science-fiction fantasy literature and filmography. In Star Wars, it is love, the love of heroes, man and woman, and father and son that bring down the dreary technological galactic empire: “The Dark Side” of Technology threatened by love. It is acts of love that result in sacrificial heroes who martyr themselves for their families, their sons and daughters, to have a life of love ahead of them. It is the love of Reese for Sarah Connor in Terminator that transcends space and time to bring them together against the specter of technological holocaust. Avatar, the most spectacular blockbuster of Romanticism (as I have written elsewhere) this century, plays on this exact subconscious mode of thought. The same is true of Interstellar, that other grand space epic that does not promote technology or science as savior (in fact, “science” is the enemy) but sees an act of fatherly/sentimental love as the soteriological impulse that brings about the happy resolution.
But unlike our soteriological imagination in film (which is deeply influenced by the Augustinian hope that love will save us from the despair of life in the civitas terrena), Orwell’s cynicism prevents him from necessarily seeing the romantic passions as salvific even though he predated the great oasis of science-fiction and science-fiction fantasy that carries on the spirit of Orwell’s insights. Just as Orwell praises the passions, he also subtly critiques them—just like he criticizes technology despite seeing its potentially positives, as they are often employed for death, destruction, totalitarianism. Winston and Julia elope in love. This gets them arrested. It eventually leads to Winston’s downfall. To love automatically makes one an enemy of the scientific state, whether utopian or dystopian. To love makes one dangerous because love is that pre-scientific (or unscientific) passion that can cascade the soul toward supposed superstition and barbarism that scientism cannot permit to exist if the scientific utopia is to be consummated.
I fell in love with George Orwell because he spoke to my liberal-libertarian tendencies in high school. I am still in love with Orwell today not because of the politics which spoke to me as a teenager but, rather, because I am a romantic, and he gets the romantic heart essentially correct. I love. I drink. I pray. I hike. I read classics. I love poetry. I adore horses. I have even been to the wild highlands of Virginia not far from my present apartment to walk with the wild ponies by my side. I love horse racing, especially the Kentucky Derby which can bring me to tears. I smoke cigars. My heart leaps and my blood pumps upon hearing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I shed tears. I own a portrait of Napoleon. I have a bust of the god Eros. I am a romantic.
Orwell understood that there is a romantic side to all of us, a romantic side that makes life worth living. It is not just scientific progress and the promise of a better future that constitutes human existence—though we tell ourselves this lie in the wake of the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions that also unleashed the cruelest totalitarianisms that make the so-called absolutist kings of old turn their heads away in shame and embarrassment. In fact, I would contend that technological progress hardly motivates people in life at all. It is spending time with loved ones around an open fire on Christmas evening rather than “the dreariness of spending Christmas evening in sitting—like the family or Arnold Bennett’s superefficient hero in his novel The Card—round a gilded radiator” that makes life worthwhile. It is also that delicious cup of tea, that bitter tea, with the fresh aroma rising into one’s nostrils, that makes life meaningful. “Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter,” Orwell writes. We might say that Orwell would also agree that life is meant to be bitter as well.
That is the romantic secret that Orwell seemed acutely aware of while others, especially “intellectuals” (and especially his kindred left-wing intellectuals), were not. Even though Orwell did not embrace romanticism and remained the gadfly of technological utopians and the critic of technological totalitarians despite sharing their general techno-egalitarian hope, throughout his voluminous writings anyone who is faintly educated in (or sympathetic to) the romantic tradition detects the spirit of romanticism in Orwell.
But those of us who are romantic find an ally in Orwell. Although he was not one of us, he knew that technological utopianism—Left, Right, or Center—is the end of humanity precisely because it is anti-romantic in its essence. All technological liberals and socialists of the past (and the present) deride the romantic passions. In short, they hate being human with all the bitterness that comes with it. By contrast, I love being human, with all the bitterness and heroic struggles that come with that spark of divinity.
Paul Krause is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and contributed to The College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He can be found on Twitter @paul_jkrause