The Optimism of George Orwell


Upon receiving the manuscript of what would be George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, publisher Frederic Warburg considered the novel the most “depressing” and “pessimistic” thing he ever read. Many Orwell scholars, sharing this view, attributed the novel’s bleakness to Orwell dying by inches during the composition of the novel.

But despite the novel’s depiction of a broken Winston Smith, Orwell’s hopes never wavered, which must have been considerable when viewing the world of 1948-49. The Soviets had Eastern Europe and an atomic bomb. China would soon go Communist. Time was running out, but Orwell didn’t rule out that the English could be awakened:

“The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against (italics mine), could triumph anywhere.”

This wake-up call was no easy task. As far back as 1938, Orwell was complaining about the British being a “sleep walking people” and only Hitler’s bombs would wake them up. Orwell was equally critical of the working class (his ray of hope in Nineteen Eighty-Four). During the Spanish Civil War, he noted that the British working class spent more money on football than contributing to their comrades in Spain. But he had hope that the working class, who he compared to “stupid plant that keeps growing” would never give up.

Orwell based his socialism on moral principles rather than any empirical ones. But his focus on such Edwardian qualities as decency, fair play, and conscience put him at odds with a movement that dismissed such notions as “bourgeoise illusions.” Lionel Trilling astutely noted that Orwell treasured such notions because he saw them as “coming in handy as revolutionary principles.”

Orwell wanted the working class in the saddle because he thought they alone among the British classes possessed these qualities. But he was not entirely dismissive of the upper classes. “One of the ways the British upper classes is morally sound is that are willing to get themselves killed in wartime,” he stated. Rather than denounce them as class enemies in need of purging, he saw them simply as stupid (he called Neville Chamberlain “a hole in the air” rather than the Communist line that the prime minister was a Nazi collaborator). Orwell had enough patriotic solidarity to simply label the upper classes as the wrong family members in control.

Orwell predicted that World War II would create the conditions for Britain turning socialist. He based this on the populace becoming aware that the only way to win the war was through a planned economy rather than a capitalism that had been selling military aid to the fascists right up to the eve of war. Orwell would be proven wrong since it was the capitalist industrial might of the United States that would turn the tide. He was, however, a flexible thinker who later admitted that his predictions had been wrong and that countries were drifting into Stalinism, not democratic socialism.

Still, Orwell was not without hope. He feared the spread of Stalinism to his own country but also saw that the headquarters of totalitarianism was not so mighty as broadcast. Eerily prescient, he saw hope even in the Soviet Union:

“It is too early to say in just what way the Russian regime will destroy itself. But at any rate, the Russian regime will either democratize itself or perish. Slavery cannot endure simply because it is not a stable basis for constructing a society.”

Orwell put this prediction into his supposedly gloomy novel by having Winston Smith, tortured, broken, tell O’Brien that “something will defeat you…hate cannot endure.” And Winston was proven right, for that Goldstein’s book appears unedited at the end of the novel, hinting that it was now published in Airstrip one, shows that Big Brother might have either democratized or perished.

Ironically, the Soviet Union perished through democratization, but it would be Orwell’s hated capitalism that would bring this about. Reagan imploded the Soviet Union by engaging them in a costly arms race that their economy could not keep up with.

Today, such novels as The Handmaid’s Tale (in which the female protagonist escapes the regime) and Hunger Games (in which the girl and her boyfriend are both allowed to survive rather than fight to the death) are classified as more hopeful depictions of the future than Orwell’s. But Winston took everything that Big Brother could throw at him and still retained some hope that the working class would defeat the regime. So too did Orwell in the face of such conditions that prompted Whittaker Chambers to declare that he was on the losing side by choosing anti-communism.

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.

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