Thursday, 21 January 2010
George Orwell died sixty years ago today; he was only forty-six.
He seems so fixed in time and place, it is perhaps disconcerting to realise many of his contemporaries - including some also notable in the literary and political battles of the 1930s and 1940s - were alive until fairly recently. Some are with us even today.
Of the recently departed, one can think of Hartley Shawcross (1902-2003); A. L. Rowse (1903-1997); Orwell's fellow pupil at Eton, the historian Steven Runciman (1903-2000); and Stephen Spender (1909-1995).
The leftwing poet Edward Upward, born like Orwell in 1903, died just last year.
And with us still is Orwell's friend and Tribune colleague Michael Foot (1913- ).
It would have been unlikely for the sickly George Orwell to have survived to our own times.
Nonetheless, almost every reflective person interested in liberal and democratic politics would like to think that, if Orwell were alive today, he would share their views, and endorse their concerns.
This would go for the neo-conservative urging "regime change" in "fascist" states, as well as for the radical disgusted with such latter-day "imperialism" and all the official "obfuscation" attending it.
It is probably not difficult to identify one's own supposed liberal and democratic politics - whatever they are - with those of George Orwell.
We would like to think that he too would be horrified by the very same abuses of power which we find horrific; and that he would also be bitterly scornful of those abuses of political language which we detest.
But I think Orwell would be rather disappointed with this outcome.
He would not want to be used as a convenient reinforcement of any political views which one would have anyway.
On the contrary, Orwell always sought to challenge conventional thinking about politics, especially amongst liberals and democrats.
It seems to me that, if one is to take Orwell seriously as a political influence, one should try and identify the views that one holds which Orwell would contest, the assumptions which he would seek to undermine, and the prejudices he would want to expose.
Reading Orwell should be incredibly unsettling, forcing one to consider questions such as these:-
What habits of thought and language do you have which could lead to cruelty and abuse?
When do your purported progressive opinions slide into mere justifications for inhumane treatment?
Why, like Winston Smith, do you find O'Brien so attractive and want to believe in him?
Who, for you, is the Snowball or Goldstein that you always want to blame?
How do you seek to try and limit the vocabulary and free expression of those with whom you disagree?
Are you really intellectually and morally honest?
Any supposed liberal can - and should - claim George Orwell as their champion; but reading Orwell's major novels and essays should not be a comforting experience for a reflective person.
Orwell may well have agreed with you on any given subject; but it is that moment when you realise he might not have done - and why he would not have done - which makes him the most valuable of all modern political writers.
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