George Orwell’s Political Views, Explained in His Own Words

Among mod­ern-day lib­er­als and con­ser­v­a­tives alike, George Orwell enjoys prac­ti­cal­ly saint­ed sta­tus. And indeed, through­out his body of work, includ­ing but cer­tain­ly not lim­it­ed to his oft-assigned nov­els Ani­mal Farm and Nine­teen Eighty-Fourone can find numer­ous implic­it­ly or explic­it­ly expressed polit­i­cal views that please either side of that divide — or, by def­i­n­i­tion, views that anger each side. The read­ers who approve of Orwell’s open advo­ca­cy for social­ism, for exam­ple, are prob­a­bly not the same ones who approve of his indict­ment of lan­guage polic­ing. To under­stand what he actu­al­ly believed, we can’t trust cur­rent inter­preters who employ his words for their own ends; we must return to the words them­selves.

Hence the struc­ture of the video above from Youtu­ber Ryan Chap­man, which offers “an overview of George Orwell’s polit­i­cal views, guid­ed by his reflec­tions on his own career.” Chap­man begins with Orwell’s essay “Why I Write,” in which the lat­ter declares that “in a peace­ful age I might have writ­ten ornate or mere­ly descrip­tive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my polit­i­cal loy­al­ties. As it is I have been forced into becom­ing a sort of pam­phle­teer.”

His awak­en­ing occurred in 1936, when he went to cov­er the Span­ish Civ­il War as a jour­nal­ist but end­ed up join­ing the fight against Fran­co, a cause that aligned neat­ly with his exist­ing pro-work­ing class and anti-author­i­tar­i­an emo­tion­al ten­den­cies.

After a bul­let in the throat took Orwell out of the war, his atten­tion shift­ed to the grand-scale hypocrisies he’d detect­ed in the Sovi­et Union. It became “of the utmost impor­tance to me that peo­ple in west­ern Europe should see the Sovi­et regime for what it real­ly was,” he writes in the pref­ace to the Ukrain­ian edi­tion of the alle­gor­i­cal satire Ani­mal Farm. “His con­cerns with the Sovi­et Union were part of a broad­er con­cern on the nature of truth and the way truth is manip­u­lat­ed in pol­i­tics,” Chap­man explains. An impor­tant part of his larg­er project as a writer was to shed light on the wide­spread “ten­den­cy to dis­tort real­i­ty accord­ing to their polit­i­cal con­vic­tions,” espe­cial­ly among the intel­lec­tu­al class­es.

“This kind of thing is fright­en­ing to me,” Orwell writes in “Look­ing Back on the Span­ish War,” “because it often gives me the feel­ing that the very con­cept of objec­tive truth is fad­ing out of the world”: a con­di­tion for the rise of ide­ol­o­gy “not only for­bids you to express — even to think — cer­tain thoughts, but it dic­tates what you shall think, it cre­ates an ide­ol­o­gy for you, it tries to gov­ern your emo­tion­al life as well as set­ting up a code of con­duct.” Such is the real­i­ty he envi­sions in Nine­teen Eighty-Foura reac­tion to the total­i­tar­i­an­ism he saw man­i­fest­ing in the USSR, Ger­many, and Italy. “But he also thought it was spread­ing in more sub­tle forms back home, in Eng­land, through social­ly enforced, unof­fi­cial polit­i­cal ortho­doxy.” No mat­ter how sup­pos­ed­ly enlight­ened the soci­ety we live in, there are things we’re for­mal­ly or infor­mal­ly not allowed to acknowl­edge; Orwell reminds us to think about why.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to George Orwell

George Orwell’s Life & Lit­er­a­ture Pre­sent­ed in a 3‑Hour Radio Doc­u­men­tary: Fea­tures Inter­views with Those Who Knew Orwell Best

George Orwell Iden­ti­fies the Main Ene­my of the Free Press: It’s the “Intel­lec­tu­al Cow­ardice” of the Press Itself

George Orwell Explains How “Newspeak” Works, the Offi­cial Lan­guage of His Total­i­tar­i­an Dystopia in 1984

George Orwell Reveals the Role & Respon­si­bil­i­ty of the Writer “In an Age of State Con­trol”

George Orwell Explains in a Reveal­ing 1944 Let­ter Why He’d Write 1984

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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