George Orwell was born one hundred years from the day I write these words. Novelist, soldier, journalist, literary critic and political commentator, Orwell, alone out of the English intellectuals who were his contemporaries, has managed to remain a potent figure in our intellectual life. Almost from the first moment after the 9/11 attacks Orwell’s words were being hurled about like so many hand grenades across the ramparts. Rightists and leftists of all denominations accused their enemies of being Big Brother, of speaking in doublespeak, of engaging in what has come to be known – in perhaps the greatest compliment an intellectual can receive – “Orwellian” behavior.
“Orwellian” is a tricky term, as indeed were Orwell’s own politics, but it generally refers to acts of totalitarian-style thought control, the twisting of language for political purposes, or a disturbing lack of regard for the principles of free thought and expression. It is not generally considered to be a compliment.
What Orwell himself would have thought of all this is a question which much vexes his many admirers and few detractors. One of the most appealing aspects of Orwell’s work is his lack of dogmatism. He is refreshingly, almost liberatingly contemptuous of political orthodoxies. He insisted, no matter which movements or ideologies had his personal sympathies, on thinking for himself. He could be as violently critical of his own allies and acolytes as he could his enemies. He was that rarest of intellectual figures: a staunch ideologue who was nonetheless capable of extraordinary honesty and self-reflection. This capacity, however, did not render him ineffectual, he did not seek a muddle-headed “middle ground” or “third way”, he understood that in great battles of ideas one was beholden, morally required, to take sides. He simply believed that the side one chose ought to face the same scrutiny as the side one did not. This seemingly obvious scenario has proven itself to be of near insurmountable difficulty for Orwell’s successors.
This commitment to intellectual honesty rested on Orwell’s rock-solid belief in objective truth. Totalitarianism horrified him not merely because of its physical cruelties, but because it sought to destroy the soul as well as the body. As opposed to mere dictatorship or monarchial rule – or even the plutocratic democracy he believed his native Britain to be – totalitarianism sought not only to rule the state but also to rule reality itself. Orwell, who was at heart an artist, a lover of great writing and great ideas, and he understood the terrible danger faced by the artist, by the thinker, in a totalitarian state.
This instinctive, guttural hatred of totalitarianism is the reason why Orwell’s politics have proven so confounding to so many. Certainly he was a man of the Left, there can be no denying this, but his true dedication was to the cause of human decency. Not the facile, self-serving decency so often cited by polemicists of Right and Left, but that difficult, imperfect decency carved out by those aware of the imperfections of life and the human animal. He believed there was no excuse, ideological, religious, or otherwise, for cruelty, barbarism and oppression. He despised communism and Nazism alike because he saw (and was one of the first to see) that they were twins, squabbling relatives that could not get along only because they were so alike in every fundamental way. He disliked established wealth, privilege and aristocracy because he saw the arbitrary injustices which were their result, but he distrusted and ultimately rejected revolution because he was so fully (and indeed personally) aware of the tyranny to which it would inevitably lead. He was in every way that Tory Anarchist which he delighted in calling himself. He was not a theorist, he was a critic, and an unsparing one, both of his adversaries and of himself. And it is for this quality most of all that those who love Orwell hold him so close to our hearts. We love him because he had that rarest of qualities in an intellectual: he refused to lie to himself.
More than anything else, this is the secret of Orwell’s enduring legacy. Unlike nearly all the intellectual giants of the 20th century, who at one point or another embraced totalitarianism in its Right or Left form, Orwell refused to erase or to explain away evil in the name of ideology. Even to the point of claiming that Truth itself does not, cannot exist. Orwell saw the beginnings of this rejection of Truth, of the falsification of reality for the purposes of political and intellectual control. He battled against it relentlessly; he refused to accept that objective, rational truth was an illusion. Today, the battle he inaugurated rages more violently than he could have imagined. To paraphrase Nietzsche, Truth has ceased to exist if only because educated people no longer believe in it. It is possible to view our whole intellectual life today is a battle between the Orwellians and the totalitarians. A war between those who believe that Truth must triumph over power and those who believe that truth is merely a bourgeoisie concoction. To those of us in the former camp, we may draw comfort from the fact that the man who helped inaugurate this battle is now such an icon that his very name has entered the English language which he wielded as such an artful and effective weapon.