George Orwell enjoys an extremely high reputation as a political thinker and commentator, perhaps almost to the extent that he is considered the gold standard for political commentators. That not much higher praise that could be bestowed on a writer than to be called “this generation’s Orwell.” Andrew Sullivan, in the weeks following 9/11, praised Orwell and used some of his words to beat down left wing pacifists. Others have also invoked his name and tried to appropriate his prestige to their camp.
Given this high reputation, when I happened upon a volume of his collected essays and letters (Volume 2, 1940-43) at the library, I decided to pick it up. After reading most of it, I can certainly see why Andrew Sullivan found it so congenial, although in saying that it’s not praise of Sullivan but a critique of Orwell. Even so, there’s certainly something strange about Sullivan and other warbloggers (who tend to have a libertarian or conservative lean to their politics) trumpeting Orwell, who held opinions so far left that they wouldn’t even be on the scale in American politics.
Before getting into a discussion of Orwell’s writings, it’s worth asking what he did to deserve his brilliant reputation as a writer and thinker. It can be boiled down to a few major points. First, and most importantly, there was his denunciation of both the communists and the Nazis and unacceptable, totalitarian tyrannies. This was a remarkably rare insight in the 30’s—most thinkers saw the future as a conflict between the two systems and chose one (depending on whether they were leftist or rightist), remaining blind to its faults. The concurrent rise of both systems was not an accident, as for each the presence of the other provided an excuse for their own actions. The opposition of the two served to radicalize thought in Europe, much more so than would have been possible had only one of the ideologies been present.
Anyway, Orwell was able to get this question, really the big question of the interwar period, correct. And once the war started, while he was very critical of the British government, he did not let the proximity of its small flaws blind him to the much greater flaws of the far away Nazi empire. And he was very critical of left wing thinkers and pacifists who were morally blind on this point. (It’s this facet of his writing that Sullivan particularly enjoyed, and indeed many of his sentences could just as easily have been written about the situation in the West in 2002 as in England in 1941.)
Lastly, Orwell also backed up his words with actions, and fought in the early years of the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. He was not merely a talking head, but someone who was willing to take action.
So he was one of a select few thinkers who got the big questions right during this critical period. It is this fact, combined with his independence of thought and willingness to break ranks with the orthodoxies of both sides, which really established his reputation. Not only was he right, but he was able to write and present these opinions in his remarkably powerful and lasting works 1984 and Animal Farm. Add in the fact that he was an excellent writer of essays and occasional pieces and he certainly deserves a high reputation. But, as I’ll argue in the next piece, he was hardly a seer when it came to politics, and while he got some big questions right, he got some others wildly wrong. So that to a large extent, the praise he receives is based on a rather selective reading of his numerous works.
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