flies in the face of
all that is woke and regressive today.
That is what frightened him about the
totalitarianism of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia - these regimes
wanted to control the very linguistic substance of thought itself.
Because words, language
are under threat once more...!
Authoritarian dictatorships, in which power was wielded unaccountably and arbitrarily, had existed before, of course. But what made the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century different was the extent to which they demanded every individual's complete subservience to the state.
They sought to abolish
the very basis of individual freedom and autonomy. They wanted to
use dictatorial powers to socially engineer the human soul itself,
changing and shaping how people think and behave.
They were effectively dismantling those areas of social and political life in which people were able to freely and spontaneously associate. The spaces, that is, in which local and national culture develops free of the state and officialdom.
These cultural spaces were always tremendously important to Orwell.
As he put it in his 1941 essay, 'England Your England':
Totalitarianism may have reached its horrifying zenith in Nazi Germany and Stalin's USSR.
But Orwell was worried about its effect in the West, too.
Orwell could see this mindset flourishing among Britain's intellectual elite, from the eugenics and top-down socialism of Fabians, like Sidney and Beatrice Webb and HG Wells, to the broader technocratic impulses of the intelligentsia in general.
This threatened the everyday freedom of people who wanted, as Orwell put it,
Edmond O'Brien as Winston Smith
and Jan Sterling as Julia,
in an adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
03 June 1955
In the aftermath of the Second World War, this new intellectual elite started to gain ascendancy.
It was effectively a clerisy - a cultural and ruling elite defined by its academic achievements. It had been forged through higher education and academia rather than through traditional forms of privilege and wealth, such as public schools.
Orwell was naturally predisposed against this emergent clerisy.
The hostility was mutual...
Indeed, it accounts for the disdain that many academics and their fellow travelers continue to display towards Orwell today.
The importance of words
Nowadays we are all too familiar with this university-educated ruling caste, and its desire to control words and meaning.
Just think, for example, of the way in which,
...a process Orwell saw beginning with the Stalinist practice of calling Spanish democratic revolutionaries 'Trotsky-fascists' (which he documented in Homage to Catalonia - 1938).
Or think of the way in which our cultural and educational elites have transformed the very meanings of the words 'man' and 'woman', divesting them of any connection to biological reality.
Orwell would not have been surprised by this development.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, he shows how the totalitarian state and its intellectuals will try to suppress real facts, and even natural laws, if they diverge from their worldview.
Through exerting power over ideas, they seek to shape reality.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the totalitarian regime tries to subject history to similar manipulation.
As anti-hero Winston Smith tells his lover, Julia:
As Orwell wrote elsewhere,
This totalitarian approach to history is dominant today, from the New York Times' 1619 Project to statue-toppling.
History is something to be erased or conjured up or reshaped as a moral lesson for today. It is used to demonstrate the rectitude of the contemporary establishment.
But it is language that is central to Orwell's analysis of this form of intellectual manipulation and thought-control.
Take 'Ingsoc', the philosophy that the regime follows and enforces through the linguistic system of Newspeak.
As Syme, who is working on a Newspeak dictionary, tells Winston Smith:
The parallels between Orwell's nightmarish vision of totalitarianism and the totalitarian mindset of today, in which language is policed and controlled, should not be overstated.
In the dystopia of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the project of eliminating freedom and dissent, as in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, was backed up by a brutal, murderous secret police.
There is little of that in our societies today:
Orwell's concern that words could be erased or their meaning altered, and thought controlled, is not being realized in an openly dictatorial manner.
No, it's being achieved through a creeping cultural and intellectual conformism.
The intellectual turn against freedom
But then that was always Orwell's worry - that intellectuals giving up on freedom would allow a Big Brother Britain to flourish.
As he saw it in The Prevention of Literature (1946), the biggest danger to freedom of speech and thought came not from the threat of dictatorship (which was receding by then) but from intellectuals giving up on freedom, or worse, seeing it as an obstacle to the realization of their worldview.
Interestingly, his concerns about an intellectual betrayal of freedom were reinforced by a 1944 meeting of the anti-censorship organization, English PEN.
Attending an event to mark the 300th anniversary of Milton's Areopagitica, Milton's famous 1644 speech making the case for the 'Liberty of Unlicenc'd Printing', Orwell noted that many of the left-wing intellectuals present were unwilling to criticize Soviet Russia or wartime censorship.
Indeed, they had become profoundly indifferent or hostile to the question of political liberty and press freedom.
Orwell was concerned by the increasing popularity among influential left-wing intellectuals of,
The exercise of freedom of speech and thought, the willingness to speak truth to power, was even then becoming seen as something to be frowned upon, a selfish, even elitist act.
An individual speaking freely and honestly, wrote Orwell, is,
These are insights which have stood the test of time.
This is possibly one of the greatest lies of our age.
We all have the capacity to speak, write, think and argue. We might not, as individuals or small groups, have the platforms of a press baron or the BBC.
But it is only through our freedom to speak freely that we can challenge those with greater power.
Orwell is everywhere today.
But his value and importance to us lies in his defense of freedom, especially the freedom to speak and write.
His outstanding 1946 essay, 'Politics and the English Language', can actually be read as a freedom manual. It is a guide on how to use words and language to fight back.
Of course, it is attacked today as an expression of privilege and of bigotry.
Author and commentator Will Self cited 'Politics and the English Language' in a 2014 BBC Radio 4 show as proof that Orwell was an 'authoritarian elitist'.
Lionel Trilling, another writer and thinker, made a similar point to Self, but in a far more insightful, enlightening way. '[Orwell] liberates us', he wrote in 1952:
Orwell should be a figure for us, too - in our battle to restore the democracy of the mind and resist the totalitarian mindset of today. But this will require having the courage of our convictions and our words, as he so often did himself.
As he put it in The Prevention of Literature,
That Orwell did precisely that was a testament to his belief in the public just as much as his belief in himself.
He sets an example and a challenge to us all.