The Cost of the Truth
By Matt McKeown
Honesty is not always welcome, in either the halls of power or the salons of culture; but there can be no art worth making without it.
Orwell seems to be experiencing a piece of singular bad luck nowadays: he is popular. For an author who wishes principally to entertain, that is no misfortune, but for one who wants to make a serious point to his readers, popularity is an almost invincible armor against any such point piercing its way home. In the service of contemporary rhetoric, Orwell’s premises, even merely his titles, are tossed to and fro by journalists and politicians and whatever “influencers” are; nothing could more nearly ensure that nobody reads a word of him.
This is an irony that would probably have amused Orwell himself, who—like his famous acquaintance, G. K. Chesterton—was fond of paradoxes. He embodied some himself: a committed atheist and critic of Christianity, he attended Anglican services his whole life and could quote much of the Book of Common Prayer from memory; an avowed and active socialist, he was a bitter opponent of the Soviet Union and had a low opinion of most of contemporary left-wing politics. Part of this seems to have sprung merely from his temperament, which was reported by friends and acquaintances to have been argumentative from childhood. But he was also, like many artists, ill-suited to the service of any political party for its own sake, because he cared more about the truth than expediency.
Born in British India in 1903 and educated in England, Orwell’s real name was Eric Arthur Blair. He disliked the name, due to its association with a preachy Victorian schoolboys’ novel, and adopted the nom de plume of George Orwell based on one of his favorite landmarks, the River Orwell in Suffolk. He began his writing career in the early 1920s, working privately on fiction while supporting himself with more journalistic pieces largely concerned with poverty; he also spent a few years teaching.
In 1936, however, came perhaps the most formative experience of Orwell’s life. Wracked by want, corruption, and internal strife, Spain descended into civil war: a coalition of extreme right-wing parties, the Nationalists, staged a revolt against the center-left government of the Second Spanish Republic. The rebels received support from fascist powers like Germany, Italy, and Portugal, while the Loyalist side was backed by the USSR and Mexico; in addition, foreigners came to Spain to fight on both sides, most of them for the Loyalists (some of them in defiance of their own countries’ official neutrality and even of laws making it a crime to join the war). The US ambassador to Spain at the time later referred to the conflict as a “dress rehearsal” for World War Two. Orwell, like Hemingway, enlisted with the Loyalists, and considered joining the International Brigades, which were organized by the Soviets. However, he quickly became appalled by the conduct of the Communist Party in Spain, which not only committed atrocities in its war effort against the Nationalists (atrocities which the Nationalists were more than happy to return), but also attacked fellow elements of the coalition that refused its control and spread lies about them in the Loyalist press. By the following year, Orwell, who was recuperating from a near-fatal bullet to the throat at the time, was forced to flee for England as the Loyalist party he had served with were branded traitors by the Soviet-led faction.
Though this did not shake his socialist convictions—indeed, if anything, he was more firmly and explicitly a democratic socialist after the Spanish Civil War than before it—it did, as one might expect, convince him that the Communist Party, the USSR, and above all Stalin, were untrustworthy and corrupt, and had to be opposed at any cost. This was not the standard narrative of British Marxists at the time; a more typical outlook was that there were only two sides, the Party and the capitalist class, and that loyalty to the Party therefore must come first. But Orwell was nothing if not independent-minded, and he would not forsake his duty to tell the truth. Though less well-known than his two celebrated novels, his Homage to Catalonia was published in 1938, the year before the war ended, and recounted his disillusioning experiences there.
His opposition to authoritarianism, whether it dressed itself in Marxist pretexts or not, is most famously embodied in his novel 1984—a novel which, as alluded to above, has been doomed to popularity. It is easy to see the influence of both his hatred for Stalinist politics and his frustration with the internecine chaos of the Loyalists in the constant propaganda shifts of the infamous “Ministry of Truth,” and the odd, distinctly Soviet tone of the “Newspeak” that it promulgates as a means of controlling thought. 1984 does also serve as a broader commentary on authoritarianism in general: the mechanisms of domination are much the same, regardless of the ideology their wielders profess. (1984 is often contrasted with Aldous Huxley’s slightly earlier dystopia, Brave New World, which depicts a state that achieves total control through conditioning, rather than domination.)
In Animal Farm, however, Orwell offers an allegorical history of the Soviet Union particularly. Not only do the broad outlines of revolution degenerating into a new tyranny correspond to the Russian Civil War and the regimes of Lenin and Stalin; the various animals correspond in roles, behavior, and even speech to specific figures in Soviet history, like Snowball, an idealistic pig, standing for Leon Trotsky, or Boxer the hardworking horse for Alexey Stakhanov. For this reason, Animal Farm was not well-received when he first tried to have it published (he completed it in 1944): its obvious criticism of Stalin and the USSR generally flew in the face of highbrow sentiment, which had become accustomed to thinking of the USSR primarily as an Allied power in the fight against Hitler, and had willingly swept Stalin’s crimes under the rug in consequence. Orwell’s loathing for this dishonesty, however, was vindicated after the novel came out in 1945 and achieved great commercial success, as World War Two gave way to the Cold War. The book has remained controversial since, with restrictions and even bans (usually later reversed) in several US school districts on the one hand, and incorporation into standard curricula in others, as well as awards and honors from sources like the Encyclopedia Britannica and Random House.
Orwell died of tuberculosis in 1950, at the age of just 46. If, as Bacon said, truth is the daughter of time and not of authority, Orwell laid ahold of that at a younger age than many, and dedicated his brief life to it more brilliantly than most. Perhaps—if we are lucky—his real intellectual legacy will ultimately triumph over his fashionability, and truth will be more treasured than slogans.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
Matt McKeown is a staff writer for CLT and a proud uncle to seven nephews. He lives in Baltimore.