23 August 2017 Blogs, Academic, Community College, Faculty, Librarian, Student/Researcher

Beyond 1984: The Socialist Politics of George Orwell

Resources to explore the political beliefs, activism and non-fiction writing of the perpetually popular dystopian novelist

By Rebecca Seward, Metadata Editor

Earlier this year, George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four* surged to the top of Amazon’s bestselling book list. The timing coincided with President Trump’s inauguration, with another uptick following Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway’s appearance on Meet the Press. During the program, she made a distinction between lying and providing “alternative facts,” a phrase that struck many, including The New York Times, as Orwellian.

“In [Nineteen Eighty Four], the term ‘newspeak’ refers to language in which independent thought, or ‘unorthodox’ political ideas, have been eliminated. ’Doublethink’ is defined as ‘reality control,’” The Times noted on January 25. This euphemistic political speech is used to deliberately obscure or distort the truth in Orwell’s novel and The Times article cited a social media trend comparing Conway’s “alternative truth” to the likes of such verbiage.

Even as Nineteen Eighty Four experienced this recent spike in demand, it has long been popular and is often required reading in English literature classrooms. While many students will have read at least one of Orwell’s novels by the time they leave school, we’re generally not as familiar with his non-fiction writing, including articles he wrote for British left-wing periodical The Tribune.

A socialist, Orwell was known for having strong – even radical – political opinions, and these are often expressed in the regular contributions he made to the publication, and elsewhere, that are critical of capitalism, fascism and social injustice.

“The Home Guard and You”

In December 1940, The Tribune published an article by Orwell titled “The Home Guard and You.” It proposed that real supporters of the socialist cause should join the Home Guard as a way of eventually creating a socialist army, which would ultimately impact the political landscape at large. “For the first time in British history,” Orwell wrote, “the Socialists have a certain amount of influence in the armed forces of the country.”

In expressing such a controversial point of view, Orwell was careful to state, “Let no one mistake me. I am not suggesting that it is the duty of Socialists to enter the Home Guard with the idea of making trouble or spreading subversive opinions. That would be both treacherous and in-effective. Any Socialist who obtains influence in the Home Guard will do it by being as good a soldier as possible…”

Orwell elaborates on the importance of sharing socialist views among the ranks and encouraging the working man to take up the cause to prevent potential “…post-war chaos in which it would be necessary to use violence to restore democracy and prevent some kind of revolutionary coup d’etat.”

Out of fear that fascism would infect the British Government as a result of the Second World War, Orwell advises fellow socialists to be prepared to fight against it. “And we shall not do that by standing outside and saying ‘This is Fascism,’” he warned. “In the last twenty years, the Left has suffered terribly for the ‘Holier than thou’ attitude which in practice has meant handing all real power to the opponent.”

Rather, Orwell pointed out, the Home Guard would “put a rifle into the workers’ hands.”

To some readers, this might seem eerily close to the Communist revolution in Russia which unfolded during the First World War, and which was satirized in Orwell’s Animal Farm, an allegory for the failings of a communist regime. As a devoted socialist, Orwell was against fascism in all forms, even when it masqueraded as communism.

For those with the subscription, the full article can be found here.

Discover comprehensive biographical information, bibliography and journal articles for George Orwell at ProQuest Literature Online.

Check out Alexander Street’s Academic Video Online collection for the documentary, George Orwell, which chronicles his developing political awareness, involvement in the Spanish Civil War and his success as a writer.

*Available from Ebook Central, along with collected works, as well as books of criticism and biographies about the author.