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Orwell & the Right

[1]2,583 words

Whenever a conservative or Right-winger accuses Leftists of acting like the Party from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the unerring refrain from the Leftist chorus is “Don’t you know George Orwell was a socialist!” The implication is that, especially in these politically polarized times, Orwell is the property of the Left. He wore their uniform, and so Right-wingers are, by invoking his name, committing a kind of theft.

Orwell’s best-known writings, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, are dark satires of that exact attitude: A man’s thoughts ought to belong to a political faction, and that political faction has some sort of right to them. It is a childish argument that no one with critical thoughts in his head who took in either Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four without immediately rejecting the principles Orwell was trying to get across could honestly make, but it raises interesting questions. Why is it that most of the contemporary admirers of Orwell, a self-described socialist who fought for the Trotskyist Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification in the Spanish Civil War, are on the Right? And who was Orwell, this Leftist so beloved by conservatives? What did Orwell really believe, and why have his writings, especially Nineteen Eighty-Four, had such an impact on so many?

The most obvious answer to the first question is that Orwell was anti-authoritarian. In 1900, when most of Europe was ruled by monarchies, Rightists tended to have a strong authoritarian streak and Leftists were attracted to anarchist and libertarian ideas. While many of these radicals were savage and destructive Emma Goldmans eager to tear society into shreds, others, from intellectual leaders such as Peter Kropotkin and William Morris to humble American laborers who set out to form utopian communities, were genuine idealists. To anyone unfavorable to the contemporary regime, especially if they had an alternative vision of a (in their judgement) better society, anti-authoritarianism has a natural appeal. And if men act not in the way one thinks they ought to, society, and therefore the ruling elite that set the standards for belief and behavior, are the obvious villains.

Hostility to a particular elite naturally universalizes as a distrust of authority in general. In the nineteenth century, Leftist intellectuals were drawn to the Rousseauian idea of man’s natural virtue. Engels thought that the abolition of the property-based family would lead to the triumph of monogamous couplings based on love and a natural end to the vices of adultery and promiscuity. Kropotkin dreamed that, through the abolition of wages, all would willingly work four hours a day for the greater good and could freely take from the common pool while taking no more than they needed.

Modern conservatives have no visions so fantastical, but have a similar relationship to their rulers as did the nineteenth-century Leftists. Since the early twentieth century, when Leftist and labor movements started winning political reforms, conservatives have expressed skepticism towards government and especially its worth as a tool for positively reforming society. In the post-war era, with opposition to the goals of Leftist social engineering themselves growing more publicly unacceptable, conservatives have shifted from fighting Leftist goals to fighting Leftist means; their enemy is no longer egalitarianism, but the top-down government interference in society Leftists seek to achieve egalitarianism. Libertarianism has dominated post-war conservatism in the Anglosphere, and the dominant theme in Orwell’s books is anti-authoritarianism. In Nineteen Eighty-Four the principal antagonist is Big Brother, a personification of the government itself. Though he is presented to the people of Oceania as a real man and their leader, it is quite clear to the reader that, whatever the reality or unreality of the man within the world of the novel, Big Brother is in practice a symbol.

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This might explain why reverence for Orwell is mostly a conservative phenomenon now, but there are deeper reasons for Orwell’s appeal to the Right and his largely ambivalent reception on today’s Left, despite their loud insistence that “Orwell was a socialist!” and thus one of them. Orwell is among John Derbyshire’s favorite authors, and far more extreme figures like William Luther Pierce and James Mason made almost constant reference to him; he clearly had a great influence on them despite his own anti-fascist convictions. Both of the latter were strongly opposed to the anti-authoritarian counterculture of the 1960s, so there is something in Orwell beyond distrust of authority that spoke to them and many others on the Right.

Although some liberals made reference to Orwell during the Trump years, these were mostly meaningless, such as suggesting that Trump was an Orwellian tyrant while also believing that Julian Assange ought to be treated as an enemy of the state for spreading distrust of the authorities, and that deciding on facts and suppressing contrary ideas as misinformation is the purview of the government. This speaks only to a personal lack of self-awareness and shows a total want of critical thinking. The only intellectually serious Leftist to frequently cite Orwell is Noam Chomsky.

Chomsky reached his peak of popularity in the 2000s as a critic of the American government, and this was mostly because at the time Leftists felt locked out of power by the ascendant neoconservative hegemony of the Bush years. Orwell briefly enjoyed popularity on the Left at the time and was frequently cited in opposition to the PATRIOT Act and other neoconservative assaults on civil liberties, but afterwards, all but a minority of the Left (the latter of which came to center on the more anti-establishment wing of the Bernie Sanders movement) returned to cheerleading for the American security state — as they had in the Clinton years — during the Obama and Trump administrations. Hence, Chomsky’s popularity has fallen, as have Leftist references to Orwell.

There is something deeper in Orwell than distrust of authority for its own sake. Unstated but implicit in Orwell’s work is a Rousseauian understanding of man as naturally good. In Nineteen Eighty-Four the protagonist, Winston Smith, concludes while watching an old working-class (called “proles” in the lingo of Orwell’s dystopia) woman washing her clothes through a window that hope lies in the lower sections of society, which are least corrupted by the Party. In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell writes:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Orwell clearly believed that the totalitarianism he opposed was not in accord with human nature, and came unnaturally. He sees it not as the natural state of man, and identifies the language that defends it as necessarily equally unnatural. Nineteen Eighty-Four was published three years later and expands on many of the same themes in detail through fiction. As men’s thoughts are naturally hostile to the Party and the order it has imposed, language itself must be corrupted to unnaturally alter their thoughts. The Party’s attitude towards sex is another example of how Orwell, through his fiction, creates a dichotomy between the natural, healthy, and virtuous inherent nature of man and the corrupting influences of a totalitarian social order, and it is maybe the most poignant in the novel.

The Anti-Sex League must not be misunderstood as repersentation of tradional prudishness; it is clearly stated to be an initiative of the Party, and something novel:

The aim of the Party was not merely to prevent men and women from forming loyalties which it might not be able to control. Its real, undeclared purpose was to remove all pleasure from the sexual act. Not love so much as eroticism was the enemy, inside marriage as well as outside it. All marriages between Party members had to be approved by a committee appointed for the purpose, and — though the principle was never clearly
stated — permission was always refused if the couple concerned gave the impression of being physically attracted to one another. The only recognized purpose of marriage was to beget children for the service of the Party. Sexual intercourse was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema. This again was never put into plain words, but in an indirect way it was rubbed into every Party member from childhood onwards. There were even organizations such as the Junior Anti-Sex League, which advocated complete celibacy for both sexes. All children were to be begotten by artificial insemination (artsem, it was called in Newspeak) and brought up in public institutions. This, Winston was aware, was not meant altogether seriously, but somehow it fitted in with the general ideology of the Party. The Party was trying to kill the sex instinct, or, if it could not be killed, then to distort it and dirty it. He did not know why this was so, but it seemed natural that it should be so. And as far as the women were concerned, the Party’s efforts were largely successful.

Nor should Orwell’s presentation of his villains be misunderstood as advocacy of free love. The healthy alternative to the Party’s anti-sexual ideology  is presented to the reader in his relationship with Julia. Winston’s ultimate act of rebellion is loving another person over Big Brother, forming a natural and healthy bond over the false, artificial, and sick bonds Oceania’s citizens feel for Big Brother. The climax of the book comes when the Party finally strips him of his love for Julia, the one natural, human feeling he had experienced in spite of them. While Orwell was in favor of socialist political reforms, it cannot be overstated that the final victory of the Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four is social engineering overcoming Winston’s human nature. The true evil of the Party is in separating man from his nature.

Orwell shares his belief in the natural virtue of man with Kropotkin, Morris, and other nineteenth-century socialists, and in a different sense than those on the modern, post-Christian right such as Derbyshire, Pierce, and Mason, but in no sense the same as with most modern Leftists. In the nineteenth century Christianity informed the Right’s understanding, as well as that of nearly all ordinary people and even many egalitarian radicals. In the Christian worldview, man is innately tainted by sin and needs. In the Catholic and Orthodox understanding, the loving guidance of a firm, hierarchical church is needed, and in the Protestant view a strong personal relationship with God and conviction in Christianity, to protect and raise him above his own basal nature. Rousseau turned this entirely on its head by proclaiming the natural virtue of man and the corrupting influence of society. This same view was held by the idealistic socialists of the nineteenth century.

Though obviously anarchism was never implemented as national policy anywhere in the world during the twentieth century (unless one counts small enclaves formed in the midst of civil wars in Ukraine and Spain), many Leftist reforms were, and though some of them, such as the welfare state, have arguably led to improvements in living standards, none of them ever managed to pull the hidden goodness of man to the surface as Rousseau might have imagined. As the Left has failed to uncover the true nobility of man, and worse, has found it even more elusive as their goals have moved away from economic equality and towards universal brotherhood among men — something explicit even in early Leftist writings, but often tempered by a concern for racial preservation, a scientific understanding of sex, and subordinated to economic egalitarianism –, it has been mostly replaced with an understanding of man not so different from the Christian one it originally opposed. Even the term “original sin” is used when explaining the Leftist
understanding of racism and slavery’s significance.

Though both the modern Left and Orwell are egalitarians (Orwell was a socialist), Orwell saw man as too divorced from his nature, while the modern Left sees man (or at least white man) as inherently racist and sexist, stained by original sin. Like Orwell’s villains, they want to “fix” man. The obvious similarity between the Party’s agenda in Nineteen Eighty-Four and today’s Left is not lost on their conservative opponents, and plays a bigger role in Orwell’s popularity on the Right than his anti-authoritarianism.

The post-Christian, anti-egalitarian Right has a different idea of virtue than a socialist like Orwell, but like Orwell, Morris, and Kropotkin, they share the belief that man is naturally virtuous. They are differentiated from Rousseau by their belief that, rather than being hidden behind the corrupting influences of society and in need of emancipation, man’s true nature is already apparent and good as it is, and from the socialists by their belief that this nature is already reflected in inegalitarian societies. John Derbyshire is a secular conservative informed by biological science rather than religion. While most conservatives are either not intellectually serious enough or too cowardly to attack Leftist ends and not merely their means, Derbyshire contests the idea that equality is achievable or even necessarily desirable. A conservative, he is content with man as he is, and sees no need to redeem him through either supernatural or policy means.

Pierce and Mason are much more radical; they are National Socialists. Unlike Derbyshire, they are not necessarily content with man as he is, and want to continue man’s natural biological development. But they understand man’s nature not as an obstacle to his further development, but as the product of millions of years of evolution and imbued with the instincts and drives to survive and continue to advance. Both these men express a religious veneration of nature and look to it for meaning. Any attempt to change man’s nature away from its natural form and ends and towards different ends — ends decided upon by man instead of nature and in opposition to nature — is the highest sacrilege for them. All three felt Orwell’s stories of tyrants corrupting man’s virtuous nature in a much deeper way than merely relating to their anti-authoritarianism.

For the mainstream conservatives who contest only the Left’s means, Orwell’s socialism is not an obstacle at all, but rather make his stories easier to swallow because his villains are not motivated by egalitarianism, but by power itself. Orwell never criticizes the ends of egalitarianism in any of his works, because he agreed with them, though he believed them to be fully aligned with human nature. Conservatives can read and cite Orwell without ever running afoul of post-war egalitarianism. Had Orwell been a conservative in the 1940s, his novels would have been anti-egalitarian and conservatives would not cite them in polite society today.

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