George Orwell, one of the most revered, celebrated, ubiquitous, over-egged, over-parodied and overrated of all the twentieth century writers. Invoking Orwell in an online argument, as a friend pointed out, is the new ‘but what about Hitler?’. Painfully English, expensively educated and universally respected, Orwell has become a powerful signifier of Reasonable, Sensible Soft-Left Politics which has proved irresistible to commentators and politicians across the political spectrum. Orwell has become what is known in Laclau and Mouffe’s Discourse Theory as a ‘floating signifier’: an empty concept only given meaning when it is anchored by other ideological assumptions or ‘nodal points’. In other words, Orwell’s name conjures ideas of objectivity, anti-authoritarianism and sensible dissent. Invokers of Orwell can therefore claim these traits as their own and deny them to their political opponents. In an era of political flux and fluidity, when the technocratic liberal centre is beset by challengers on both sides, returning to Orwell appears to many as a return to sanity. From far-right to centre left, Orwell has been instrumentalized to bash the contemporary, transformational left for supposedly betraying its old values and endorsing authoritarianism, doctrinairism and ‘loony leftism’. Relatedly, Orwell is a shield used to hide behind for deserters of the left seeking to avoid the criticism of their old comrades. Perhaps after wading through the public discourse on Orwell and recognising his many, many faults (anti-feminism, homophobia, racism, his Orwellian ‘snitch list’of leftists he gave the Ministry of Information etc.), we can review whether there’s anything worth salvaging.
In the age of Trump, Orwell scholars are clamouring to make the writer relevant once again. Orwell’s totalitarian dystopia Nineteen-Eighty Four, it is said, provides a stark warning of what is now called the ‘post-truth era’. Orwell scholars, seizing their moment in the sun, put historical and literary accuracy aside and pressed home the comparisons between a totalitarian dystopia and Trump’s nascent administration. Commentators in the US followed suit, one in the Washington Post claimed Trump’s administration has meant America has gone ‘full Orwell’. A few flagrant lies were apparently enough to render our society Oceania under Ingsoc, allowing some of the most duplicitous politicians in history (Tony Blair etc.) off the hook. The public relations and advertising industry, which indeed influenced Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, also get off scot free in this reading. Trump’s erstwhile opponent, Hillary Clinton couldn’t help but jump aboard. Her new book, What Happened, is an attempt to write the history of the election before anyone else can. ‘Attempting to define reality’, she writes, ‘is a core feature of authoritarianism’. Yet as Clinton well knows —and Orwell emphasized— liberal democratic governments also seek to bend reality to their own material and ideological ends (see The Iraq War and, in Orwell’s time, The British Empire). She continued:
‘The goal [of Trumpian politics] is to make you question logic and reason and to sow mistrust toward exactly people we need to rely on: our leaders, the press, experts, who seek to guide public policy based on evidence…’
It’s harder to imagine a worse or more bizarre misreading of Orwell’s work than: ‘leaders, the press and experts should be trusted’. The implicit assumption of the ‘post-truth’ thesis is that Western politics was based entirely on truth before 2016. It goes without saying that this notion would be entirely foreign to Orwell.
Orwell the signifier has also been instrumentalized by Trump’s supporters on the far-right. Paul Joseph Watson, lips-tickle of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, online alt-right troll and general stain on humanity, tried to bash antifascism using the shield of Orwell. Watson perhaps forgot that Orwell joined a Marxist militia to fight the Franco-led fascists in the Spanish Civil War, a chapter in his life recounted in A Homage to Catalonia. In these memoirs, Orwell explains why he signed up to fight:
‘When I joined the militia I had promised myself to kill one Fascist — after all, if each of us killed one they would soon be extinct.’
Attempting to somehow separate Orwell, the anti-fascist solider, from contemporary antifascist organizations required Watson to go down the route of fudging and misreading, selecting quotes from dodgy quote websites to dupe his Alt-Right YouTube fans. In insisting that Orwell would have defended the fascists right to free speech, Watson demonstrated he hadn’t read the passage in Orwell’s proposed preface to Animal Farm, ‘The Freedom of the Press’, where he explains his position on this:
‘Now, when one demands liberty of speech and of the press, one is not demanding absolute liberty. There always must be, or at any rate there always will be, some degree of censorship, so long as organised societies endure.’
Most reprehensibly, in the aftermath of the Charlottesville neo-Nazi and KKK march — which resulted in the death of an anti-fascist counter-protestor, Heather Heyer — Watson denied that fascists were present at all. Perhaps he missed the hundreds of neo-Nazis who sought to terrorize the locals by chanting ‘blood and soil’ (a well-known Nazi slogan) on their nightime, torch-lit march.
The frame of George Orwell was also used in left of centre think pieces to mock and derail Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the Left in general. Pseudo-woke Telegraph writer Michael Deacon mocked Jeremy Corbyn for being ‘bearded’, ‘vegetarian’ and the type of socialist that Orwell claimed drove the working-class away from socialism. This was of course a selective reading of Orwell but also Orwell at his most wrongheaded. There are far better reasons why the 20th century working class did not opt for socialism: class consciousness, ideology, the public relation industry, nationalism, socialism being bought off by social democracy and the failure of Soviet Communism etc.. While it would be spiteful to mention, Corbyn did best amongst those who were the most deprived at the recent general election, making Deacon look petty and smug. Others suggested that Corbyn was a crusty, old crank who is stuck in the past. That is, he is too much like Orwell. As the Labour Party develops policy on alternative models of ownership and automation, while continuing to garner the support of young people, the centre-left Orwell fans look to be wrong again.
Those of the same centre-left ilk have also misread Orwell in order to weaponise him for their anti-socialist agenda. Socialist revolution, for Blairite Robert Webb (Jeremy from the Peep Show):
‘… ends in death camps, gulags, repression and murder. In brief, and I say this with the greatest respect, please read some fucking Orwell.’
Of course, Orwell never said this, he repeatedly emphasized his commitment to anti-capitalism. Indeed, part of the reason he went to Barcelona to fight fascism was to defend the 1936 socialist revolution. Plus, Animal Farm is as much pro-Trotsky as it is anti-Stalin: Trotsky’s ideas are presented as progressive and innovative through the character of Snowball and the metaphor of the windmill. ‘Read some Effing Orwell’ has since become the catchphrase of Twitter sensation Simon Hedges, the parodied embodiment of the Reasonable, Sensible Soft-Left Politics that Orwell’s name so often evokes. It communicates a basic premise, ‘stop asking for so much’, ‘things are basically okay the way they are’. This belies the radical germ embedded in Orwell’s work and life. Orwell explained he joined the Independent Labour Party because he was committed to abolishing capitalism: socialism to him meant more than setting up Sure Start centres. The summoning of Orwell to bash the ‘loony left’ who ask for too much change is therefore obnoxious and ludicrous.
Relatedly, Orwell has been used as a shield to hide behind for those who have deserted their leftist comrades. Despite years of being a pivotal figure on the anti-war, anti-imperialist left, Christopher Hitchens supported the War on Terror and drew on Orwell in support of his decision. It was only after supporting the Iraq war and deserting comrades in the field, like Edward Said and Noam Chomsky, that he wrote about Why Orwell Matters. Less importantly, Nick Cohen, who likes nothing better than sticking it to the contemporary left, is constantly evoking Orwell — ‘Orwell would have hated you!!!!!’— is in his barely comprehensible drunken rants to defend his back from critics on the left and the right.
Orwell would not have been unable to grasp the idea that his name had become a very fluid political concept in its own right. In a rather problematic yet celebrated essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, Orwell himself demonstrates that he was aware of how concepts like ‘democracy’, ‘science’, ‘equality’ could be rendered meaningless by ideological point-scoring. Nonetheless, he did not live long enough to see his own name become a floating signifier in 21st century online arguments. Perhaps, after commenting on the commentary on Orwell we might see if there is anything left we can recover.
Firstly though, it’s worth dispensing with the common image of Orwell as a Sensible left-wing sage. One of the reasons Orwell has come to embody the objective, anti-authoritarian, common sense writer is because his work was instrumentalized by the capitalist west in the Cold War. Research from 2000 elucidates how CIA agents even bought the film rights to Animal Farm from Orwell’s widow in order to alter the ending, tone down the anti-capitalism and intensify the anti-Soviet Communism. Furthermore, the idea that Orwell would be uncomfortable with his work becoming propaganda belies the fact that he worked as a ‘propagandist’ at the BBC in the 1940s and criticised British wartime propaganda for not being convincing enough. His commitment to truth and justice is also made questionable by his infamous ‘cryto-communist’ list which he handed to the British security services. The list includes former Labour leader Michael Foot and Paul Robeson, who was, in a blatant show of racism, referred to as ‘anti-white’. Others were included on the spurious —and inexcusable— basis that they were Jewish or homosexual. Add to this his anti-feminism (see the portrayal of women through Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four), his hatred of left-wing academic work and it might be hard to see why Orwell matters.
And yet, despite all its flaws, Nineteen Eighty-Four is the seminal portrayal of the totalitarian dystopia. Animal Farm offers an accessible allegorical take on the Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet Union under Stalin. Homage to Catalonia is a canonical anti-fascist text which provides an inspiring and moving account of socialist Barcelona which Orwell described as ‘a workers state… a state of affairs worth fighting for.’ Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier, while not without their faults, document working class life in the mode of what has since become known as cultural studies. Burmese Days might be interpreted as incomplete, problematic and proto-anti-imperialism. Maybe, in an era of neo-colonial resource grabs, rising white nationalism and authoritarianism, plus an incurious, conformist and wrongheaded pundit class, this stuff could be useful. But please don’t go round telling everyone to read some effing Orwell.