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Reflecting on George Orwell in the 21st Century

24 Jun 2020

Nia Brace

Reflecting on George Orwell in the 21st Century

On the anniversary of what would have been George Orwell’s 117th birthday, it is important to reflect on the complicated legacy he has left to politics and literature. While Orwell may be a controversial figure in the left-wing sphere, he has undoubtedly had a lasting impact on our political culture. His works offer an accessible introduction to political fiction and too self-aware critiques of totalitarianism which we have seen become increasingly relevant with time, and which can offer us new perspectives on current political situations.

Orwell’s continually changing political stance has resulted in present-day speculation of where he would stand if he were alive today, with some suggesting he would be a fan of neoconservatism. Admittedly, Orwell has faced criticism as a figure of the Left, primarily for writing a list of names of public figures who sympathised with Stalin’s Russia. This has led to him being labelled an enemy of the Left for his criticism of left-wing ideology in his most famous novels, despite the fact that he declared that they were always intended as criticisms of Stalinism and totalitarianism of both the far right and left, and not of socialism.

Orwell came from a middle-class background and studied at Eton before joining the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. Later on, he reflected on his role in British Imperialism and oppression, which also led him to reflect on oppression in Britain. In the essay Why I Write, Orwell outlined a fundamental reason for his writing as a political purpose. He believed that all writing is influenced by political bias, and the idea that art should not be political is in itself a political belief. His experience fighting alongside the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War shaped his development as a political writer, leading him to state that all of his writing from 1936 onwards was “against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism”.

He made many journeys and stays around London, as well as the North of England, Paris and Spain, in order to experience the everyday life of people living there. These forays are chronicled in works such as Down and Out in Paris and London, Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia. These works give an atmospheric insight into the life and struggles of the working class, those living in poverty in cities and the countryside, and life during war. However, while he does use his privilege to shed light on experiences different from his own, these works can occasionally give a sense of poverty tourism on Orwell’s part as someone who is clearly not accustomed to the situations he encounters, and occasionally satirises aspects of the lives of those he meets.

Both 1984 and Animal Farm have been misinterpreted in a plethora of different ways. They offer an accessible perspective on totalitarianism as a whole, and as a possible consequence of a bastardised form of socialism. The Party at the centre of 1984 purposefully uses tactics of both Nazism and Stalinism, with no policies explicitly stated. While these works have often been co-opted by right-wing critics as a means of rejecting communism, Orwell stated that all of his serious works were “directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism”. This quote has been misused by those trying to frame these works as anti-socialist, with the latter part removed, and 1984 has been claimed by numerous groups as an embodiment of what they believe to be the enemy. Even almost immediately after its publication,1984 was used by the CIA as anti-communist propaganda, resulting in Orwell having to write a letter to the people of America explaining his intentions in the novel.

The impact of 1984 on culture is evident in the remnants of its vocabulary in the English language, with terms such as big brother, the thought police and room 101 having become commonplace. The pervasiveness of 1984’s influence on political discussion is so widespread that it has become a punchline in some instances. However, without rehashing the obvious and frequently discussed examples, 1984’s continuing relevance is blatant in an age where ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ have become legitimate terms and misinformation has become a targeted political tool. While lies and backtracking have always been present in politics, the increasing role of the internet in political campaigns and the spread of information have intensified our awareness and ability to identify these issues. Despite this, it has also made it easier for information to be twisted and faked. The number of perspectives we can receive reality from have multiplied infinitely, and we find ourselves under surveillance more commonly than is comfortable. With over fifty years having passed since Orwell’s death, his works continue to offer new meaning to our developing political world. His perennial popularity is for good reason.