have left a lasting imprint
on American thought and culture.
Ullstein bild via Getty Images
Seventy-five years ago, in August 1946, George Orwell's "Animal Farm" was published in the United States.
"Animal Farm" was followed three years later by an even bigger success:
In the years since, Orwell's writing has left an indelible mark on American thought and culture.
And "Nineteen Eighty-Four" rose to the top of Amazon's best-sellers list after Donald Trump's Presidential Inauguration in 2017.
As a philosophy professor, I'm interested in the continuing relevance of Orwell's ideas, including those on totalitarianism and socialism...
George Orwell was the pen name of Eric Blair.
Born in 1903 in colonial India, Blair later moved to England, where he attended elite schools on scholarships.
After finishing school, he joined the British civil service, working in Burma, now Myanmar. At age 24, Orwell returned to England to become a writer.
During the 1930s, Orwell had modest success as an essayist, journalist and novelist. He also served as a volunteer soldier with a left-wing militia group that fought on behalf of the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War.
During the conflict, Orwell experienced how propaganda could shape political narratives through observing inaccurate reporting of events he experienced firsthand.
Orwell later summarized the purpose of his writing from roughly the Spanish Civil War onward:
Orwell did not specify in that passage what he meant by either totalitarianism or democratic socialism, but some of his other works clarify how he understood those terms.
What is totalitarianism?
For Orwell, totalitarianism was,
The totalitarian attitude is exemplified by the antagonist, O'Brien, in "Nineteen Eighty-Four."
The fictional O'Brien is a powerful government official who uses torture and manipulation to gain power over the thoughts and actions of the protagonist, Winston Smith.
Significantly, O'Brien treats his desire for power as an end in itself.
George Orwell's dystopian novel 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' ('1984')
surged to the top of Amazon.com's best-sellers list
after Donald Trump's Presidential Inauguration in 2017.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Much of Orwell's keenest insights concern what totalitarianism is incompatible with.
In his 1941 essay "The Lion and the Unicorn," Orwell writes of,
In other words,
Similarly, in his 1942 essay "Looking Back on the Spanish War," Orwell argues that totalitarianism must deny that there are neutral facts and objective truth.
It also reminds us that some of our best tools for resisting totalitarianism are to tell truths and to preserve liberty...
What is democratic socialism?
The justice he refers to goes beyond mere economic justice. It also includes social and political justice.
Orwell elaborates on what he means by socialism in "The Lion and the Unicorn."
According to him, socialism requires,
In fleshing out what he means by "approximate equality of incomes," Orwell later says in the same essay that income equality shouldn't be greater than a ratio of about 10 to 1.
In its modern-day interpretation, this suggests Orwell could find it ethical for a CEO to make 10 times more than their employees, but not to make 300 times more, as the average CEO in the United States does today...
But in describing socialism, Orwell discusses more than economic inequality. Orwell's writings indicate that his preferred conception of socialism also requires "political democracy."
Both notions of democracy seem relevant to what Orwell means by democratic socialism.
For Orwell, democratic socialism is,
I believe Orwell's description of democratic socialism and his recognition that there are various forms socialism can take remain important today given that American political dialogue about socialism often overlooks much of the nuance Orwell brings to the subject.
For example, Americans often confuse 'socialism' with 'communism.'
Orwell helps clarify the difference between these terms.
...Orwell's ideas remain as relevant now as they were 75 years ago...