Thirty-three years ago while traveling across parts of Canada, I spent a few muggy summer days in Winnipeg, a city that struck me as being a down and out place. It was coincidence that in a downtown book-store I came across an 840 page collection of George Orwell (1903-1950) writings. The volume started with Orwell’s personal documentary “Down and Out in Paris and London”. Ever since then, this book has been my favourite collection of short stories and other writings by the incomparable George Orwell. It always struck me as regrettable that most everyone I have talked to about Orwell, knows him only for his famous fable “Animal farm” and perhaps also for the his utopian story “1984”, which was written in 1948. This is regrettable, as Orwell’s primary literary quality as political writer, remains frequently unknown or under-appreciated. Likewise, it is intellectually tragic that many people, especially students (shame on all those pitiful curricula developers who ignore Orwell), have never heard of George Orwell at all.
The George Orwell volume I obtained was published in London by Secker & Warburg in association with Octopus books in 1980. The volume starts with three of Orwell’s eye-witness documentaries, as already mentioned “Down and Out”, followed by “The Road to Wigan Pier” and “Homage to Catalonia”. Only starting on page 361 is the wide selection of Orwell’s “Essays and Journalism” presented. They are presented chronologically, according to four distinct writing periods for Orwell. Each period covers a political epoch so to speak: 1931 to 1940 the years leading up to and the beginning of World War II, the peak War years from 1940 to 1943 when no war outcome could be foreseen, the final war years 1944 to 1945 and the post War period of 1945 to 1949.
Without doubt, Orwell is one of the most discussed political authors of the 20th century, and for good reason. Orwell’s lines of thought extend to today’s political world and his intellectual honesty and integrity are unquestionable.
Orwell remains astonishingly contemporary and remains of critical importance when selecting a capable literary, or rather a journalistic methodology for understanding contemporary global politics. In many ways it is tragic that his writing and commitment to democratic ideals is as necessary today as it was in is time. It had, for a brief historical instance, seemed that the Cold War had ended; empires were dissolving and global citizenship was emerging. Perhaps, the optimists amongst those of us of the multitude of global civil society democrats were too eager to see capitalist globalization give way to the ideals of the global commons (1). Today, as we filter through the daily news from the Middle East, Central Africa , Central America and from Eastern Europe to the Far East, these hopes seem to be placed on indefinite hold.
It is often said that ‘we never learn from history’. Sadly, more and more people may not even have heard of that saying, let only know much of history (we are supposed to live in the moment, consume while it lasts and don’t ask question of how things were why they are as they are now, and how they could be, if only we knew a little more, well, of how we got here in the first place, politically speaking). After the First World War (1914-1918, years in brackets as some may not know !!) ‘Never again’ soon gave way to the rise of fascism and World War Ii (1939-1945). The United Nations were soon transformed into a political contest between the Cold War powers, but doing what they could to prevent or at least contain political fires.
The end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall (built in 1961-1989) promised to see a “Peace dividend’ shared around the world, but wars in what is now the former- Yugoslavia and in the Congo (former Zaire) did not materialize.
Wars on Terror followed, seemingly never-ending and igniting new violence and conflict zones in their aftermath. What started as an ‘Arab Spring’ has mutated into today’s’ ongoing upheavals throughout an entire region, spread out across continents. Truly, one step forward and more than two steps back. The only human constants throughout time it seems to me are love and music and the hopes, dreams and promises they trigger: individually and collectively. As John Lennon (1940-1980) sang in ‘Imagine”: “You may call me a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”.
As a non-conformist writer, Orwell provided depth and literary quality in his essays and journalism, often in a form that resembles fictional short stories. He understood that in the struggle to dominate the political sphere, language is a powerful tool. Still today in a globalized world, language in the public sphere, in the mainstreamed and fully commercialised media, has been dramatically stripped of its potential to be a partner of truth. Sounds and images occupy the foreground of political communication; social media throw random bits of mostly useless information at the screen-addicted users, while language fragments serve to reinforce carefully crafted and technically produced, interest-laden corporate/political messages.
In 1945 Orwell wrote:
“Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind”.
In Orwell’s time, the fight against fascism dominated all spheres of life. A fight Orwell partook in not through his writing alone, but also as a combatant against the fascist forces in Spain in the mid-1930s. Many of the writings in the 1981 volume of collected works provide plain language accounts of political struggles such as the one in Spain.
Orwell provides insightful and well articulated views on topics as diverse as the wrongs of colonialism, the decay of language to yes, some political thoughts on the common toad. In today’s world of omnipresent globalization and associated multitudes of political struggles, there is no doubt that George Orwell remains an important voice: his collected works ring out loud, still today.
The literary exploration in 2002 of “Why Orwell Matters” by the late Christopher Hitchens, provides an authoritative account of the principles that guided George Orwell in his writings. In his book, Hitchens steps out beyond the confines of academic literary criticism by uncovering how Orwell’s lines of thought extend to today’s political world.
He offers a fair assessment of Orwell the historic writer as well a relevant intellectual tool for political analysis and action today. Hitchens superbly demonstrated how a broad reading of Orwell’s’ work can provide the bedrock of journalistic skills for today’s progressive, non-conformist writers. The fusion of depth and quality, accompanied by personal and professional integrity is what seems to elude most contemporary mainstream political reporting. Although objectivity is an ideal abstraction, good political writing always attempts to approximate the ideal. In his essays and journalism Orwell did precisely that, by keeping the ideal of democracy in clear site. Orwell never caved in, even
“…in an epoch of extreme yet cynically fluctuating factional loyalism, he managed both to be a consistent and adamant foe of both Hitler and Stalin…”
The messages from faraway and nameless semi-desserts that reach us in the ‘free world’s evening news, during the intermissions of the countless reality shows we are fed, are construed by a propaganda machinery serving Empire. Inside the imploding countries and dissolving boundaries of legitimacy and accountability (2), violence in the name of an imagined divinity is providing a vague and fleeting sense of power to all too many people disenchanted with developmental standstill and political corruption, and who are in want of an escape from life in dead-end allies. It hardly matters which of these messages are consumed: both kinds dehumanise the senders as well as the audience. Challenging such messages becomes a central task for all upright democrats. Political writing in the tradition of Orwell can serve as today’s flag-bearer for freedom of thought for an informed democratic citizenry. It is easy to agree with Hitchens that what matters is “how you think”, as exemplified by Orwell in his work.
In our world of omnipresent capitalist globalization and multitudes of political struggles, far from all with the realization of the historic democratic project dear to them, there is no doubt that George Orwell matters today: very possibly, more so now than ever.
- Back in 2005, a reflection of this enthusiasm is the online interview in Newtopiamagazine conducted with Michael Hardt, the co-author of ‘Multitude’.
- For a working definition of the term see:
Article Written by Glenn Brigaldino
Glenn Brigaldino is an independent political analyst living above the 49th parallel. He was a contributor to the 2002-2005 Newtopia Magazine venture and remains loosely affiliated with the new project.
In the early 1980s he was an active member in the German Green party, until it became absorbed in the political mainstream. As a specialist in international cooperation, he has worked for aid and relief organizations in Africa, Europe and elsewhere.