Few dead old white guys have a holier aura than George Orwell. Despite his place next to Dickens and Dostoevsky in the pantheon of Writers You Had to Read in High School, he enjoys a popularity amongst the general population that can’t be attributed (entirely) to the shortness of his books. Neither can his books’ simplicity (the lack of “thees” and “thous” and ten-syllable names) fully explain Orwell’s appeal. No, what makes him great is the universal thought bubble that has burst above the head of every teenager who’s ever picked up Animal Farm or 1984:
“Damn, this dude was right.”
Orwell was right about the badness of Stalin and he was right about the badness of the surveillance state. He was right that people are easily brainwashed, and he was right that technology is making things worse. This is where most people conclude their reading of Orwell. They walk away with a pleasant, fuzzy impression of him as honest and objective, gentle and worried, a supra-political truth-teller who just wanted folks to be nice to each other.
And so, aside from a few grumpy Stalinists, it’s hard to find anyone who truly dislikes him, though every aspect of his life has been subjected to intense posthumous scrutiny for more than fifty years. He’s venerated as a symbol of basic human decency, the kind of person who either gets “canonized or burnt at the stake,” according to his former boss at the BBC. Some people come right out and call him a “secular saint.”
Orwell’s prophecies inspire pilgrimages from the faithful and great volumes of scholarship from a priesthood of learned elders. When calamity strikes, people seek his wisdom to help them grapple with the incomprehensible. He’s as universally beloved as one can be in this snide, contentious age. Squint hard enough, and the tall, lanky Englishman starts to look a little like Jesus Christ.
He’d be very annoyed by the comparison. This was a man who once wrote that, “alcohol, tobacco, and so forth are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.” Orwell was no utopian. Rather, he was outspoken in his belief that, “[t]he essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty.” In his famous essay “Why I Write,” he is explicit about where his own loyalties lie: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” Elsewhere, he dares the reader to misunderstand him: “when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.”
Indeed, the more you read of Orwell, the more he transforms from a cuddly, bipartisan grandpa into a bare-knuckled revolutionary. He is withering in his criticism of global capitalism and liberal impotence: “We all live by robbing Asian coolies, and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that all these coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our ‘enlightenment,’ demands that the robbery shall continue.” And while he’s perhaps the world’s most famous advocate for free speech, he also shows a sensitivity to language that would surprise most readers, like when he revealed in a newspaper column that “I have recently been going through the proofs of a reprinted book of mine, cutting out the word ‘Chinaman’ wherever it appears and substituting ‘Chinese’.”
All in all, it’s Orwell’s “natural hatred of authority” that strikes you the hardest, like a sack of bricks to the teeth. So why do authority-fetishists like Hillary Clinton and Paul Joseph Watson keep gurgling his name with such slobbery enthusiasm? Though she’s a liberal plutocrat and he’s a right-wing conspiracy theorist, they share a common goal—to butcher Orwell’s reputation and wear its pelt like a cape.
First came Watson’s video, where he informed his viewers that Orwell would’ve denounced the loose collective of anti-fascist groups known as Antifa because “they are fascistic in every single way imaginable,” which makes only slightly more sense than saying Greenpeace was founded to hunt whales. Next was Clinton’s memoir, which compared the Trump administration’s duplicitous “attempt[s] to define reality” with the torture scene in “Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, when a torturer holds up four fingers and delivers electric shocks until his prisoner sees five fingers as ordered,” a feeling familiar to anyone who’s heard her talk about health care.
Clinton and Watson aren’t the first bullshit merchants to blaspheme the name of a beloved radical (or to profit from it). To millions of people, Che Guevara is just some guy on a t-shirt. Similar tactics have been used with great success on revolutionaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., whose sanitized legacy is now safely exploitable by the kinds of people he fought against his entire life. The corruption of Orwell’s memory, though, reeks with a uniquely hideous stench. They’re re-writing the history of the man who is famous for warning against re-writing history.
The de-radicalization of Orwell has a long and shameless history. For example, compare the original line from “Why I Write” (mentioned above) with its citation in Signet’s edition of Animal Farm, which has sold over twenty million copies:
If the book itself, Animal Farm, had left any doubt of the matter, Orwell dispelled it in his essay “Why I Write”: “Every line of serious work that I’ve written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against Totalitarianism….”
Notice the conspicuous omission of and for democratic socialism, which was “vaporized just like Winston Smith did it at the Ministry of Truth,” according to biographer John Rodden. This is what Rodden calls “the politics of ellipses,” a McCarthy-era practice that turned Orwell into “the patron saint who could be quoted to your purpose just like the devil can quote scripture.” He became a victim of his own unimpeachable credibility. Since everybody knew Orwell hated tyrants, anybody who praised Orwell couldn’t be a tyrant.
Of course that meant any tyrant, aspiring tyrant, or tyrant-enthusiast with an ounce of cleverness soon learned to screech Orwell’s name whenever it was convenient. Slavers quoted Orwell to disguise themselves as freedom fighters. As the years went by, some cynics even whispered that dear St. George was nothing more than a puppet meant to impress the young and stupid, that he was “anyone’s bitch,” a dusty old mannequin to be “wheeled out in support to enunciate universal truths in a voice as compelling as the ghost in Hamlet,” with “a line in there to suit every side of every argument.”
Their cynicism, as usual, was justified (but only to an extent). As long as there exist fame-craving snakepeople like Clinton and Watson, regular attempts will be made to pervert Orwell’s writings for personal or political profit. His brand capital is enormous, as douchebags say. In a time of universal deceit, he’s renowned for telling the truth. But people who’ve read Orwell’s broader work vomit in disgust every time his name is spoken by liars like Clinton and Watson.
Even if you have no particular fondness for Antifa, you can’t help laugh at Watson’s claim that Orwell would’ve detested their violent tactics on principle. He’s talking about a guy who once published a popular essay arguing “only a revolution can save England,” which meant, “the London gutters will have to run with blood.” Orwell’s opinion of that? “All right, let them, if it is necessary.” He concludes that paragraph by looking forward to the day “when the red militias are billeted in the Ritz.” Watson might be able to convince himself that the same Orwell who wrote those words would be horrified by a few rowdy leftists in black hoodies, but the degree of cognitive dissonance required to do so would drive most people insane.
The same goes for Clinton and her straight-faced warning that “[a]ttempting to define reality is a core feature of authoritarianism,” made only days after she instructed her millions of followers to sign up for a website whose purpose is to stockpile all the facts you need to know, tag each one with a number, and then spit them out in a format optimized for viral sharing on social media. If any politician has ever mastered the art of truly believing that two and two make five, it’s Hillary Clinton. Logic is pliable. The truth depends on whom she’s running against at the moment. The fact that she sometimes attracts unfair criticism means that all criticism of her is unfair. Flip through her memoir and it’s obvious that her real fear isn’t authoritarianism, it’s authoritarianism with someone else’s face on the posters. She writes about Julian Assange being a “hypocrite” who is nice to “Putin, one of the most repressive and least transparent autocrats in the world.” Yet as Glenn Greenwald pointed out, Clinton described Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and his wife as “friends of my family,” despite his history of “disappearing and torturing dissidents, police killings, and persecution of LGBT people.” (She also approved large weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia, supported and defended the Honduran military coup, and embraced Henry Kissinger, acts that would have horrified Orwell.) In fact, Clinton seemed to think that the lesson of 1984 was that we should trust authority more rather than less, saying that one “goal” of Orwellian manipulation was “to sow mistrust towards exactly the people we need to rely on: our leaders, the press, experts who seek to guide public policy based on evidence, ourselves.”
Watson could record a hundred more YouTube videos, and Clinton could give another hundred interviews (please Christ, no), but they still couldn’t make a convincing case that Orwell would support militarized police or hereditary political dynasties. His full body of work is available for free online, and anyone with an ounce of curiosity can easily see for themselves what Orwell thought about everything from race relations to nuclear war to the rising price of cigarettes. Even the briefest peek beneath the surface reveals that Orwell, far from being a “both extremes are bad” proto-centrist, was in reality a dedicated socialist who fought against everything the Clintons and Watsons of the world represent.
Still, while alerting people to the presence of an Orwell oasis is one thing, it’s quite another to get them to drink from the watering-hole. Competition for our time and attention is fierce. Why should people be interested in the deeper work of a writer famous for his fairy stories and science fiction?
Here’s why: because Orwell is the kind of revolutionary who actually seems like a guy you’d like to be around. He is human: complex, self-critical, and imperfect. He speaks the people’s language, not the People’s Language. He is the symbol of a left that could win, a left that is defined not by its benevolent tech behemoths or diverse corporate boardrooms or slightly-less brutal cops, but by its vision of the world that is genuinely different, a human-sized world where notions of right and wrong are more permissive than they are now (though traditions are still respected), where common sense is once again common (just less racist, sexist, or classist), where ordinary people can work decent jobs and have decent houses and live decent lives. He is perhaps the only thinker, living or dead, whose work could receive a fair hearing from everyone from libertarians to socialists to libertarian socialists. He shows us how to persuade people thoughtfully and lovingly… and how to recognize when there’s no choice but to run for the barricades. His thoughts exist in the quiet, unoccupied spaces that modern society seeks to banish from our minds. Rediscovering how to think like Orwell is the first step toward thinking both critically and kindly, which is itself the first step toward healing this battered world we live in.
George Orwell is popular because of the way he wrote about the police state, but he’s beloved for the way he wrote about toads. His words are tender and curious, cheeky and sober, and hopeful above all: “How many times have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t.” Later, he asks his most important question: “if we kill all pleasure in the actual process of life, what sort of future are we preparing for ourselves?”
Back in 1936 when Orwell arrived in Barcelona to join the Spanish workers’ revolution, he caught a glimpse of the sort of future he wanted to live in. He’d landed in a society where “the working class was in the saddle” and “the revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. ” Wrote Orwell, “[t]here was much in it I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.” The feeling is instantly familiar and intensely bittersweet to anyone who’s ever dreamed about living in a better kind of world.
Today, you can see the faintest outlines of that better world beginning to take shape. Look closely and you’ll notice Orwell’s fingerprints everywhere. In Europe, millions of Catalans are demanding independence once again, in defiance of state censorship and oppression. In the Middle East, the revolutionary state of Rojava is attempting the first large-scale experiment in workers’ control since anarchist Spain. Even the United States, the mightiest fortress of capitalism, is beginning to show cracks. If we can overthrow the masters who keep us poor and sick, what else might we be capable of?
Creating a new world without Clintons and Watsons will not be easy. They have wealth and power, and they will fight to keep it. But we’re fighting for something more. We’re fighting “not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because [we] want a world in which human beings love each other instead of swindling and murdering one another.” We’re fighting for good books and full bellies and shoes on children’s feet. We’re fighting for our families, our friends, and all the quiet green places of the earth.
Will we win? I hope with all my heart that we do. But to borrow a phrase from Orwell, “there are occasions when it pays better to fight and be beaten than not to fight at all.”