Orwell’s ideas remain relevant 75 years after the publication of “Animal Farm”
75 years ago, in August 1946, “Animal Farm” by George Orwell was released in the United States. It was a huge success, with over half a million copies sold in the first year. “Animal Farm” was followed three years later by an even greater success: Orwell’s dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.
In the years that followed, Orwell’s writing left an indelible mark on American thought and culture. Sales of “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four” surged in 2013 after whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked confidential National Security Agency documents. And “Nineteen Eighty-Four” rose to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list following Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration in 2017.
As a professor of philosophy, I am interested in the continued relevance of Orwell’s ideas, including those on totalitarianism and socialism.
George Orwell was the pseudonym of Eric Blair. Born in 1903 in colonial India, Blair later moved to England, where he attended elite schools on scholarships. After completing his studies, he joined the British civil service, working in Burma, now Myanmar. At 24, Orwell returned to England to become a writer.
During the 1930s, Orwell enjoyed modest success as an essayist, journalist, and novelist. He also served as a volunteer soldier in a left-wing militia that fought on behalf of the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War. During the conflict, Orwell discovered how propaganda could shape political narratives by observing inaccurate reporting of events he had experienced firsthand.
Orwell later summed up the purpose of his writing from around the Spanish Civil War: “Every serious line of work that I have written since 1936 has been, directly or indirectly, vs totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.
Orwell did not specify in this passage what he meant by totalitarianism or democratic socialism, but some of his other work does clarify how he understood those terms.
What is totalitarianism?
For Orwell, totalitarianism was a political order based on power and control. The totalitarian attitude is exemplified by the antagonist, O’Brien, in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. The fictional character O’Brien is a powerful government official who uses torture and manipulation to gain power over the thoughts and actions of the protagonist, Winston Smith. Significantly, O’Brien treats his desire for power as an end in itself. O’Brien represents power for the sake of power.
Much of Orwell’s most vivid ideas concern what totalitarianism is incompatible with. In his 1941 essay “The lion and the unicorn”, Orwell writes on “The totalitarian idea that there is no law, there is only power …”. In other words, laws can limit the power of a ruler. Totalitarianism seeks to erase the limits of law by the uninhibited exercise of power.
Likewise, in his 1942 essay “A Look at the Spanish Civil War”, Orwell argues that totalitarianism must deny that there are neutral facts and objective truth. Orwell identifies freedom and truth as “safeguards” against totalitarianism. The exercise of freedom and the recognition of the truth are actions incompatible with the total centralized control that totalitarianism demands.
Orwell understood that totalitarianism could be found on the political right and left. For Orwell, Nazism and Communism were both totalitarian.
Orwell’s work, in my opinion, challenges us to resist allowing leaders to engage in totalitarian behavior, regardless of their political affiliation. It also reminds us that some of our best tools to resist totalitarianism are to speak the truths and preserve freedom.
What is democratic socialism?
In his 1937 book “The Road to Wigan Pier”, Orwell writes that socialism means “justice and freedom”. The justice to which he refers goes beyond simple economic justice. It also includes social and political justice.
Orwell explains what he means by socialism in “The Lion and the Unicorn”. According to him, socialism demands “approximate equality of income (it only needs to be approximate), political democracy and the abolition of all hereditary privileges, especially in education.
Expanding on what he means by “approximate income equality,” Orwell later says in the same essay that income equality should not be greater than a ratio of about 10 to 1. In his modern interpretation, this suggests that Orwell might find it ethical for a CEO to earn 10 times more than his employees, but not 300 times more, like the average CEO in the United States does today.
But in describing socialism, Orwell argues more than just economic inequality. Orwell’s writings indicate that his preferred view of socialism also requires “political democracy”. As noted by researcher David Dwan, Orwell distinguished “two concepts of democracy”. The first concept refers to the political power held by the people. The second concerns classic liberal freedoms, such as freedom of thought. Both notions of democracy seem relevant to what Orwell means by democratic socialism. For Orwell, democratic socialism is a political order that ensures social and economic equality while preserving strong personal freedom.
I believe that Orwell’s description of democratic socialism and his recognition that there are various forms that socialism can take remains important today as America’s political dialogue on socialism often overlooks many of the nuances that Orwell brings to the subject. For example, Americans often confuse socialism with communism. Orwell helps clarify the difference between these terms.
With high levels of economic inequality, political attacks on the truth, and renewed concerns about totalitarianism, Orwell’s ideas remain as relevant today as they were 75 years ago.
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