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Samizdata quote of the day

Crudely put, George Orwell is anyone’s bitch. Whatever the topic, whatever the political position, he can be wheeled out in support to enunciate universal truths in a voice as compelling as the ghost in Hamlet.

Alastair Harper

30 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • chuck

    I think Orwell was remarkable in the same way that a talking dog would be remarkable. He was a left wing intellectual who nevertheless admired courage, honesty, and clear prose and who despised cant and propaganda. He strikes me as having had a mix of Victorian ethics and modern sensibilities. It is that combination that makes him unique, not his insights and writing. There were others as intelligent and perceptive, some arguably more so, but they were not members of the Left.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    As much as my adolescent self found 1984 to be life-changing, I realised a few years later that it was a massive rip-off of Zamyatin’s “We”, Huxley’s “Brave New World” and CS Lewis’s “That Hideous Strength”. Between the three of them, there isn’t much in the way of an original idea in 1984.

    Indeed, Orwell had reviewed “That Hideous Strength” for a newspaper a year or two previously and had complained that, although he liked the story he found the Christian elements off putting. So, he apparently decided to re-write it with all of the Christian elements, and indeed any elements of hope, removed…..

    It’s also a victim of its own success. Because it is such a cultural trope, if any government wants to illegalise certain thoughts, they are always very careful not to call this thought crime. Hate Crime is a popular alternative.

    Ironically, for all of Orwell’s obsession with clear language, his book is probably one of the biggest drivers away from clear language that modern politics has known.

  • JV, having not read the other books, I’ll take your word on the first part of your comment. But the second is simply unfair. The obfuscators will obfuscate, no matter what. To blame Orwell that his using a clear language forced the various statists to change their semantics, is like blaming me that by locking my front door I made the burglar come in through the window.

  • And I think that Chucks comments just about sums it up for me. A person can be wrong in their ideology and beliefs, but as long as he is honest, he at least stands a chance of picking the right side when it really matters. I think that Orwell did pick the right side at least some of the times, if not always. And I really would not dismiss the importance and the positive influence of “1984”, even considering some unoriginality and other flaws.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I’m not blaming Orwell for the statists obfuscation Alisa, I’m just making the observation that it is a driver away from clear language. Another thing that isn’t Orwell’s fault is that 1984 has become something of a catchment for criticism of the government. Eventually you’ll end up making reference to thought police, memory holes, always having been at war with Eastasia or something similar – and because this is such a cliché, and because the novel is necessarily hyperbolic, generally speaking you’ll be considered to have lost the argument. Orwell of course wrote a well known essay cautioning against the use of cliché’s in political discourse, but his novel was so broad in its spearing of expansionist government, he (presumably unintentionally) make it very, very hard to talk about these things without occasionally making reference to it.

    Again, none of that is Orwell’s fault. It is what it is. 1984 causes quite a few problems for those who want to be able discuss limits on the power of the state. I’m sure it also provides opportunities. I don’t know if it is a net win or not though. I’m leaning toward it causing more rhetorical problems than it alleviates.

  • Fair enough, JV. Still, the novel is not nearly as hyperbolic as someone who grew up in the West may think. Not at all. Sure, it depicts an extreme situation (fictional, but one that has more than several real-life versions). Extreme cases are useful, for several reasons. Of course one has to be careful not to fall into resorting to extreme cases exclusively, and I guess your point may be taken as that too many people in fact have been doing just that. Which is a fair point, but it is still not an argument against the use of extreme cases in arguments and discussions. So I’d say that overall the book has been and probably will continue to be a very useful tool for the case of liberty, and that there’s no tool in the world that cannot be misused or even abused. The book is no exception.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes – a man who understood where socialism led, was horrified by where socialism led and yet REMAINED a socialist.

    A man trapped in a terrible mental contradiction – X leads to Y (must lead to Y), I am disgusted by Y, but I support X.

    Not good.

    Perhaps Mr Blair (“George Orwell”) thought there was some way that socialism would not lead to the nightmare he (honestly) detested.

    But, if so, he never made any effort to describe an alternative route (or destination) for socialism.

  • Dom

    “A man who understood where socialism led, was horrified by where socialism led and yet REMAINED a socialist.”

    That’s what always confused me about Orwell, although it does point to the religious aspect of socialist faith. Another thing, why does 1984 not mention taxation? Did he not see that government control begins with it’s ownership of production?

  • Laird Minor

    I completely disagree, JV. Orwell created many terms (such as “thought police”) and concepts (“we have always been at war with Eastasia”) that are so useful that they have become tropes. If you use them everyone knows exactly what you’re referring to. And that makes discourse about the dangers of Big Government easier, not more difficult.

    But I do agree with Paul Marks’ comment about Orwell’s intellectual schizophrenia. (And, FWIW, like Orwell I found the overt Christianity in “That Hideous Strength” to be off-putting, too. But of course if you’re going to read CS Lewis that’s what you’re going to get. No secret there.)

  • Richard Thomas

    Brave New World is definitely worth a read FWIW.

  • Jake Haye

    Perhaps Orwell’s own conflicted state provided his inspiration for the term ‘doublethink’.

  • GoneWithTheWind

    So too, the bible.

  • Brian Swisher

    Re: Orwell’s schizophrenia…he was still pretty young when he died (47). One wonders if, had he lived long enough, he might have evolved away from the socialist belief.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Jaded Voluntaryist: Having read all four books, I see very little in common between them, except a general theme of dystopianism.

    We is satirical, written for a Soviet audience.

    Brave New World is also sort of satirical; the envisioned future is not overtly bleak. Also, I’m not sure what it’s directed at. It’s a lot more speculative.

    That Hideous Strength is fantastical and mystical. It is an attack on a way of thinking; a warning about a class of people. The key parts are the internal monologues the protagonist and of several of the villains; especially the latter, which is completely missing in the others. Incidentally there is no explicit Christianity in it at all.

    1984 is a work of horror. It is meant hammer home to a British audience the real quality of life in a totalitarian state.

    As for Orwell: I can’t see how he could be quoted in support of monarchy, religion, racialism, censorship, nationalism, imperialism, or capitalism. He might be quotable against some opposing tendency, but that’s not the same thing.

    As to those who complain that Orwell remained a socialist in spite of seeing the horrors that socialism led to in the USSR: this is somewhat like an atheist criticizing Ian Paisley for denouncing the Catholic Church and remaining a Christian.

    Socialism always fails, but it comes in different varieties which fail in different ways; and not all the failures are catastrophic.

  • …this is somewhat like an atheist criticizing Ian Paisley for denouncing the Catholic Church and remaining a Christian.

    I lol’ed on that one.

    But from certain atheist perspectives, that is not necessarily an unreasonable thing to do if you regard them as all equally preposterous, likening them to a pair of lunatics arguing over who has the better invisible imaginary friend 😀

  • Joseph W

    Brave New World is also sort of satirical; the envisioned future is not overtly bleak. Also, I’m not sure what it’s directed at. It’s a lot more speculative.

    I felt quite sure when I read it that it is primarily an attack on Utilitarianism. “So the proper goal for mankind is maximum happiness? Well, here’s a society designed to maximize happiness. And don’t you hate it?”

  • Julie near Chicago

    Thoughts whose connection may be too subtle to exist at all *g*:

    1. I believe Hobsbawm said that eventually he came to the conviction that socialism (or Communism, forget which) could not work and would lead inevitably to dreadful messes, but that he could not bring himself to abandon the Left and give up “the Dream.”

    2. I read Brave New World 50 or more years ago, and found it rather boring SF, as we thought it was at the time, and not very exciting even if it was a mere Cautionary Tale with whose basic point I was in some sympathy. I never did get around to We, which was said by somebody in the ’80’s also to be SF. I agree: 1984 is a horror story and as such too good to re-read, even for me, an unreconstructed re-reader; but I was revolted by the Perelandra trilogy, all of it. To me it was a different kind of horror story, in which Ransome himself somehow exudes the profoundest, the foundational, obscenity (which is the ultimate example of Evil’s complete removal of decency from humans’ very Nature, and of Good from the world in general). Which, of course, might have been precisely Dr. Lewis’s point.

    I didn’t really see that it necessarily had anything to do with Christianity. That same kind of profound obscenity can exist in metaphysical Reality even to an atheist (vide Miss Rand). To me it was a tour de force of art in depicting profound (again!) Perversity: the illustration of how Evil imitates the Good and eventually makes the exploration of Evil and the enjoyment of it the ultimate Good.

    Anyway, the trilogy made me physically queasy. And it gave me the feeling that I and all that is in any way good in the Universe, including a good deal of Christianity, were being shat upon. Indeed, perhaps that was the intent, “tour de force” indeed; but too physically sickening (literally) to ever read again.

    Interestingly, my Honey, an atheistic Jew, said it had the same effect on him.

    3. Prof. Lewis and Christianity: On the other hand, I thought The Chronicles of Narnia was a reasonably good (enjoyable) fantasy novel. Neither Lewis’s real nor Narnia’s allegorical (if it was intended as an allegory) illustration of the central journey of a Christian’s life as such, including his meeting of Christ upon the road. For me, Christianity in Narnia, if present, constituted no bar to enjoyment–but then, that wasn’t my take-away anyhow. That’s not to say I would rate it anywhere near the likes of LoTR, even after the best part is over and the Company has gotten past Caradhras.

    4. And that’s all the Lewis work I’ve read. Tried The Screwtape Letters a couple of times, couldn’t get into it.

    I very much enjoyed the movie Shadowlands, however. And I thought Anthony Hopkins was wonderful as Dr. Lewis.

  • RAB

    Orwell was a bag of contradictions, but learnt from his mistakes, or mistaken ideas perhaps. Unlike Hobsbawm, and others of his ilk…


    I did his Essays for A Level. There was a lot of good stuff there covering a wide range. not just Politics. He was a journalist first and formost after all. I always felt though that with books like “The Road to Wigan Pier” that given his class and background (Eton), he was just a phonecall away, if he needed to be, from being whisked out of the privations he was putting himself through going undercover with the British Working Classes, to a slap up dinner at the Ritz. However accurate and scrupilous his observations and critique, he knew that he was but an observer who could escape to a better place, while those he observed could not.

  • I’m in the middle of reading Christopher Hitchens’ Why Orwell Matters, wherein he seeks to correct misrepresentations of Orwell from the Left and the Right. One reason Orwell distinguished between socialism and Stalinism might be that Stalin’s agents arrested and executed some of the socialists fighting on the Republican side in Spain–a fate narrowly avoided by Orwell himself, as Soviet military archives revealed in the early 90s. As for his alleged hypocrisy towards the English underclass and colonial subjects, Hitchens asserts that Orwell, good reporter he, refused to romanticize the victims he was covering, while insisting that they were indeed victims. I very much doubt that we have outgrown Orwell, or that people trying to make sense of the political scene will be wise to dispense with him anytime soon.

  • Tedd

    Hitchens also said something to the effect that Orwell was a rare (unique?) example of an intellectual who opposed colonialism, communism, and fascism, thus getting all three major questions of the 20th century right.

  • Julie near Chicago

    The problem with Hitchens is that he came at least halfway into the Light, but that didn’t stop the rest of him from preferring the Left.

    And that List of Three doesn’t include the foundational Social Questions at all: What is the social conduct proper to Man? What is a person entitled to expect and insist upon in the way of other people’s display of respect for his human existence and human autonomy? And what is he entitled to do about it when it’s not forthcoming from another? And, is it the laws of Government that create and entitle men to expect that kind of respect, or would the insistence that it be be honored still be valid if there were no Governments — and (here’s the bridgework) how would it be proper to enforce the expectation?

    I do agree that those three issues are important, but not “THE” important issues of the 1900’s. We can learn that two of Orwell’s Three Political Systems, communism and fashion, seem not to produce societies good to live in, just by observing the goings-on in Communistic and Fascistic countries; Colonialism is, dare I say it, not quite so easy to disparage without exception.

    But having observed and noted the empirical results that we call “history,” we can’t really form categorical conclusions as to their desirability, or its reverse, until we have a sturdy, logical, and largely-complete theory of the social component of moral philosophy. And it’s these issues of moral philosophy that are the greatest ones in the 1900’s, as in every century before, and the present one as well.

    Or so I see it.

  • Philip Scott Thomas

    Julie –

    “communism and fashion“?

    What, like where Diana Vreeland is Empress? 🙂

  • Julie near Chicago

    PST, I do consider that one of my more, um, interesting observations.

    So join me in laughing it up for all it’s worth (quite a lot, I think.) Perhaps I’ve actually become invested [sic] by the ghost of Mrs. Malaprop….

    Maybe I should begin a career as a sitcom writer. I think it would be hardly any work at all, if I can come up with wonders like that one without even trying. :>)))!!! And it’s nice to know one is good for something in this world!

    Anyhow, here are some, lifted for your entertainment from Wikipedia:

    “Former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley referred to a tandem bicycle as a “tantrum bicycle” and made mention of “Alcoholics Unanimous” (Alcoholics Anonymous).[17]

    “In August 2013, Australian politician Tony Abbott addressed an audience of Liberal Party members, stating “No one, however smart, however well educated, however experienced is the suppository of all wisdom”.[18]”

    By the way, I’m not convinced that Ms. Vreeland would be entirely comfortable making her home in the midst of Comrade Stalin’s Watchers….

    . . .

    Anyway, I stand by it. If one overlooks certain excesses, Comrade Leader’s gulags (and more direct and straightford inducements to belief) distinctly aimed to maximize the fashionista intellectual cachet (however purely imaginary) of Communism.

    Hard to believe … hard to believe.

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Orwell wrote a fairly positive review of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom shortly after it came out. Maybe there might have been a more substantial understanding of why socialism goes wrong had he lived a bit longer.

  • Dom, sorry, but I am missing your point: the ownership of production by the government eliminates the need for taxation, IIUC.

  • Indeed, Brian Swisher.

  • Fraser Orr

    I always thought the most interesting part of 1984 was one of the least discussed parts, being the nature of belief. (Spoiler alert if you haven’t read it…) When Winston and Julia were arrested and taken to the Ministry of Truth it would have been pretty easy to take em out back and shoot them. However, the party needed them to actually believe. They expended considerable resources to do so. And in the end in Room 101 when Winston says “do it to Julia” he actually meant it, he actually believed it.

    It is one thing for the government to take your stuff, but quite another for them to take your soul.

  • Nick (BTF) Gray

    Alisa, the government may, theoretically,own the farm land, but the most crops might be grown on private patches, as happened in the USSR. If that happens, the government can still get you through taxation. All is explained. Communism was inspired by Rousseau, a Frenchman. Blame The French!

  • Nick (BTF) Gray

    Dom, he was probably a socialist because of the class system in Britain. He may have thought that it needed changing, but the conservatives wouldn’t do it, so that left the socialists. He may have thought of himself as a mild socialist, and the communists as extremists.

  • Tedd

    It is one thing for the government to take your stuff, but quite another for them to take your soul.

    First they came for my stuff, and I did nothing.