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Does Orwell still matter?

Does Orwell still matter? With Nineteen Eighty-Four celebrating its diamond jubilee, and the seventy-fifth anniversary of George Orwell’s untimely death quickly approaching, the question “Does Orwell still matter?” is timely. Familiar answers abound: he anticipated the surveillance technology that we struggle to restrain; the threats to freedom and democracy he identified remain at large; his ideal of windowpane-like political writing is still aspirational. But the familiar answers are also suspicious: our condition of continual surveillance was hardly imposed by the thought police given we freely embrace its technology; Orwell is hardly the only author to worry about the survival of Western values; the clear prose he admired has been exploited by nefarious actors. If Orwell still matters, he probably matters for different reasons. One reason is hinted at, not in his novels, but his reporting.

In “Why I Write,” Orwell affirmed that “Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” His 1937 The Road to Wigan Pier is part commentary on England’s industrial North, part critique of his fellow socialists: it included attacks on “cranks”—progressives that Orwell thought had lost touch with common humanity—and Marxists who seemed to have no idea how to talk to actual human beings. “The fact is that Socialism,” he wrote, “in the form in which it is now presented, appeals chiefly to unsatisfactory or even inhuman types.” He knew just how unappealingly it could be presented. Having been harangued by a militant Communist propagandist, Orwell replied “Look here, I’m a bourgeois, and my family are bourgeois,” adding “If you talk about them like that again I’ll punch your head.”

Orwell’s pugilistic response expresses understandable anger to having one’s family threatened, but it also reveals an important insight. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he repeatedly suggested that abandoning a core self-conception amounts to death: he explained that “to abolish class-distinctions means abolishing a part of yourself,” that he was being compelled to “alter myself so completely that at the end I should hardly be recognizable as the same person,” and that while “you have got to drop your snobbishness… it is fatal to pretend to drop it before you are really ready to do so.” Such talk might seem hyperbolic, but a legion of philosophers contend that radical disruption of psychological continuity disrupts personal identity. Orwell’s preferred, less hostile strategy appealed instead to native English patriotism to recruit potential allies, one that his first wife, Eileen, understood when she explained that his short book, The Lion and the Unicorn, was his attempt at “explaining how to be a Socialist though Tory.” It did not demand the seriously difficult task of abandoning one’s self-conception, but instead culled existing sentiments to overcome class differences.

If Orwell’s preferred strategy seems obvious, consider how bad the American Left sometimes seems at this sort of thing. Frequent appeals to the value of diversity and equity have produced furious contrary reactions. Talk of “building back better” is pragmatic but seems to have fallen flat. Consider too a 22 May 2023 statement from Class Unity, a caucus within the Democratic Socialists of America, titled “Class politics, not identity politics” which contends that:

Neoliberalism seeks to separate us into a vast number of groups according to factors such as race, gender, religion, and country or region of origin. Divided, we cannot advance our collective interests as working people. Liberal politics embraces this division and creates a political landscape where every group fights for “its” interests… A true socialist politics

allows working people to transcend this atomization and join with each other not on the basis of who we are, but of what we do. And what the working class does is work, because otherwise we starve. It is only by organizing around our shared class interests and strategically withdrawing our labor that we can challenge capitalism.

The call to transcend atomized self-conceptions might be sincere, but it is bound to feel divisive, like a demand to abolish part of oneself. Could appealing sincerely to American patriotism work better? What if jargon-filled statements of principles were dropped in favor of “We’re Better than This” or “Out of Many, One: For Real This Time”? What if the American Left created propaganda incorporating images of insurrectionists pulling down the American flag from the United States Capitol? Might that better engage working-class and middle-class voters?

Orwell’s strategy might seem odd given he is so often read as the honest champion of telling uncomfortable truths. But he spent “two wasted years” producing war-time propaganda for the BBC and he told his fellow socialists that “we need intelligent”—that is, better—“propaganda.” Orwell still matters because he showed us how to turn our political tribalism on its head, never quite losing faith in the decency of human beings.

Featured Image by Ilse Orsel via Unsplash, public domain.

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