The following essay is by Wilson Carey McWilliams, and is drawn from one of the two new collections of his writings, The Democratic Soul. More information about McWilliams, his thought, and the new books can be found here.

This reflection on George Orwell – published in 1984, for obvious reasons – remains as fresh today as it was written nearly thirty years ago. If anything, it is truer today, if only because the conditions of our age, ably captured by McWilliams’s assessment of Orwell, resemble ever more the prophetic fears of each man.

George Orwell and Ideology

By Wilson Carey McWilliams

George Orwell is paradoxical in the best sense: he is beyond doxa, outside the camps and categories of conventional political discourse. Admiring critics snip and squeeze, but Orwell will not be tailored into an ideology. An anticommunist nonpareil who never doubted that it was necessary to support the United States against the USSR, Orwell in 1948 expressed a preference for Henry Wallace, that scandal to Cold Warriors. In fact, although Orwell called himself a socialist, he scorned both socialism and capitalism as those terms are ordinarily understood, because he rejected the modern political doctrine which is the foundation of both.

Very early, Orwell developed the abiding conviction that modern civilization is shoddy and catabolic. The domination of nature—the goal of modern political philosophy—is neither liberative nor redemptive. In fact, all advances in technology and mechanical power have a dehumanizing dimension since they reduce the significance (and hence, discourage the cultivation) of human arts and powers. In 1984, Winston Smith is drawn, yearningly, to the products of craft, a leather notebook and a delicate crystal—as alien to industrial capitalism as they are to post-industrial Ingsoc.

Taken as a prediction, 1984 errs about the extent of material poverty, since Orwell portrayed the proles as an overwhelming majority. Orwell’s real concert, however, was with quality, not quantity, with the immiseration of the spirit more than the deprivation of the body: “The truly characteristic thing about modern life was…its bareness, its dinginess, its listlessness.” In those terms 1984 is almost topical. The book begins with an energy crisis in a city where advanced technology is accompanied by urban decay; the underclass proles are demoralized and the lower middle class—the lesser officials of the Party—live wretchedly, eating processed foods and drinking gin; the mass public is diverted by vulgar literature, the lottery, and the telescreen. Only the upper middle class, the Party’s elite, enjoys anything like well-being. Change the numbers who belong to each class, and Orwell’s depiction is all too descriptive of our times.

In another respect, Orwell seems, at first glance, to have missed the mark. The regime in 1984 is militantly prudish, resembling the censorialism of the Soviet Union more than our own libertine permissiveness. Yet while the Party in 1984 is moralistic in theory, in practice it produces trash—”proletarian literature” filled with astrology, sensationalism, and pornography—and it permits “mere debauchery” provided it is furtive and transient. (Evidently, there is a dreadful similarity between this portrait and the administration’s Hollywood Puritanism, Jerry Falwell yoked to Rupert Murdoch.) The Party fears intimacy more than sexuality, and it hates Eros in general because the modern goal, the mastery of nature, cannot be achieved without domin¬ion over human nature. Love, in its lower, instinctive forms as well as the higher yearnings of the soul, resists political control. Since nature is indivisible, human love and freedom are linked to physical nature in a common cause, just as, in 1984, Julia and Winston Smith retreat to a bower, like Henry and Rosamund. Orwell’s indignation at violations of the environment (in Coming Up for Air, for example) reflected a basic tenet of his teaching. No forest, no garden: what is humanly and naturally best requires cultivation, but it abhors domination and commands a measure of tolerance for the lower side of human nature.

Like Huxley, one of his teachers at Eton, Orwell recognized that sensuality is privatizing, but he did not share Huxley’s fear that hedonism would become the ruling principle of a future totalitarianism. In the first place, the pursuit of pleasure ignores the spirited side of human nature, which craves excitement, struggle, and great deeds and which, periodically, is able to enforce its demands on politics. More specifically, sensualism does not comprehend the “abstract, undirected” rage which pervades modern politics, the ressentiment that threatens to overwhelm any regime which proves unable to harness it. In 1984, the technology of law-enforcement races—too slowly—to keep pace with crime, and the debaucheries Huxley envisioned are displaced by the Two-Minute Hate.

Complexity, centralization, and power

Just as technology discourages craft, the size and complexity of modern economic and social organization dwarf individuals and demand central, bureaucratic institutions capable of producing some sort of order. Where capitalism identifies the danger with the state, Orwell regarded “trustification and Fordification” as processes leading to despotism. But he was equally insistent that socialists are mistaken if they imagine that the problem can be solved by a change in the ownership of property. The evil is in the thing itself, inherent in the most trivial details of modern life. Kipling once imagined a future in which the need to regulate traffic gave rise to a bureaucratic elite armed with tyrannical power, and Orwell admired the insight. He savaged H. G. Wells’s vision of a rationalistic world state because such a regime would be hopelessly impersonal and bloodless, an apotheosis of indignity equipped with all the weapons of technology pointing toward an inescapable tyranny.

As this suggests, Orwell was inclined to accept the theoretical superiority of smaller, simpler political societies. In modern regimes, the individual is weak and alone, and totalitarian states accentuate this isolation in order to increase their control. In 1984, Orwell’s description parallels Tocqueville’s prophecy: the Party aims to cut its citizens off from one another and from their past, until, in the end, “All you care about is yourself.” Liberal capitalism is individualistic from principle; bureaucratic collectivism is individualistic from policy. In the good political society, by contrast, “men are different and do not live alone”: genuine individuality presumes a community which knows who I am and cares what I do, warm enough to engage my feelings and small enough so that my work makes a difference. Chesterton’s agrarianism attracted Orwell; his first English publication appeared in G.K.’s Weekly, and even in the 1930s, he wrote a friend that the policies advocated in Chesterton’s paper were the only real solution for Britain.

In practice, of course that sort of political society is out of the question. Other problems aside, foreign policy demands a more or less centralized, technological state. An agrarian Britain could not have resisted the Nazis, and, given the grim likelihoods of modern politics, as Orwell described them, there will always be evil empires to threaten relatively decent states.

The constraints of practice, in Orwell’s view, only make theoretical vision and moral virtue indispensable in political life. The terrible imperatives of modern politics tend to subordinate theory to practice, ends to means, morality to necessity. The competition inherent in the quest for mastery erodes all restraints on the acquisition and use of power. The more horrid our enemies, the more easily will we acquiesce in that logic, producing a fascism “not of course called Fascism.” In 1984, Eurasia really is hateful, and Oceania’s own dreadful regime has grown out of the praxis of war more than economic or political doctrine. Totalitarian ideology, in fact, is a kind of pragmatism gone mad, an extreme case of the tendency to identify what prevails historically with what is right.

Orwell’s socialism

Against historicism and relativism, Orwell maintained that human nature provides a standard by which history can be judged. Beyond that theoretical proposition, Orwell hoped for a moral force strong enough to direct and govern technological society and able, at least, to minimize the gap between modem politics and human dignity. Hence Orwell’s critique, in The Road to Wigan Pier, of those socialists who excused the Soviet
regime by pointing to its industrial progress, celebrating material power, and turning away from the moral aims and standards which, for Orwell, were the essence of the only socialism worth having. To Orwell, in fact, socialism meant a kind of natural law, human nature governing human creations, industrial and technological power ruled by politically organized morality.

In that sense, Orwell’s socialism was never “proletarian.” The advantage of the proles—in 1984 or in reality—lies in the fact that they have not yet been assimilated into the established order. This “freedom” of the proletariat, however, is a deficiency, not a virtue. As a class, Orwell’s proletariat is essentially demoralized, incapable of self-organization, and easily misled; so long as it lacks more positive defenses against the culture of modernity, it can, potentially, be incorporated into the ethos of the regime at relatively little cost.

So far, Orwell’s argument resembles that of Herbert Marcuse, but where Marcuse looked to a youthful counter-culture to provide leadership for the underclass, Orwell regarded such bohemian manifestations as part—and probably a proto-totalitarian part—of the dominant culture. As Bernard Crick argues, Orwell envisioned a proletariat led by the lower middle class because, as Orwell saw it, the middle-class code of right and wrong gave that class a limited moral autonomy. Its private virtues, decency and duty, restrain the privatizing emotions, greed and fear, which pervade modern civilization.

Orwell recognized that middle-class morality has a defensive side: decency is a consolation to which, failing more material supports, one can turn for dignity, and in that sense it is terribly vulnerable to corruption. A fragile dignity, however, is better than none at all, and Orwell observed that moral allegiances—patriotism and loyalty to one’s family, for example—are part of a positive struggle against isolation. Middle-class morality helps to sustain social relationships and to lay the foundations for Tocqueville’s cherished “art of association.” The middle class is capable of organization and indignation, and hence possesses at least the rudiments of political leadership and civic virtue.

Orwell’s prescription for a socialism manned by workers and led by the lower middle class may, as he believed, offer the best possibility for arresting the drift of postindustrial civilization. Yet as a political strategy, it is gallant but a little wistful, like Orwell’s hope during World War II of making the Home Guard into a people’s militia, as desperate as Pickett’s charge and probably as fated.

In the first place, the raw power of the proletariat seems less and less sufficient to effect radical change. Animal Farm, Orwell wrote, originated with the observation that “men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat,” and that “if only such animals became aware of their strength, we should have no power over them.” But the analogy between animal labor and human work is troubling, given the ascendancy of modern civilization over physical nature. Human beings still devour animals, but we are less and less dependent on their work. In the same way, technology seems to be making proletarian labor redundant; the working class, though not yet ingested by mass society, has received a pretty thorough chewing. In this respect, Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano seems more accurate than Animal Farm or 1984.

Not that the case is any better with the middle class. The middle-class virtues are disappearing along with the old bourgeoisie, yielding to the radical individualism of a heimlos meritocracy. Orwell had few illusions: in 1984, the only surviving representative of the old middle class proves to be a member of the Thought Police, and Orwell’s title, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, suggests a besieged fortress with an outmoded banner, brave but already faintly absurd.

Critique of the intellectuals

The declining social support for moral and political virtue helps account for Orwell’s emphasis on the political role—and, especially, on the failings—of modern intellectuals. Higher nature must substitute where lower nature falters; when right opinion can no longer rule, philosophy may be forced into politics. Not that Orwell needed much forcing; he argued that writing is inherently political, since the act of writing presumes an intent to affect some audience. The claim that writers ought to be apolitical, he noted, is itself a political position, and a dangerous one: “art for art’s sake” elevates art over morals and politics alike, and the underlying principle that good work is separable from and superior to good ends amounts to the praise of mastery for its own sake.

Orwell’s critique of intellectuality was a teaching aimed at intellectuals, intended to fit them for their political role rather than to exclude them from public life. That teaching turns on the proposition that intellectuals must accept the sovereignty of nature over will, truth over words, and ends over craft, for, as Orwell insistently argued, the great peril of the intellectuals is their implicit, though often unconscious, affinity with totalitarianism.

In part, intellectuals are dangerous simply because they have been trained and become learned in the culture and principles of modern civilization. As the coherent voice of modernity, they accept the idea that history is a standard to which we must adapt and the even more basic precept that freedom is mastery. Intellectuals, consequently, are likely to be “supercilious” about morality, relativists and positivists who regard decency as outdated and duty as irrational.

Orwell’s criticism, however, does not stop with a particular school or “new class” of intellectuals. Like Karl Mannheim’s “total conception of ideology,” Orwell’s critique of intellectuality is catholic: it begins with the proposition that intellectuals are dangerous as such since they yearn to make their thought rule the world. Intellectuals are the more to be feared because they are often more single-minded than any other human beings; they are sometimes indifferent to money and material comfort, and they are adroit at self-deception, able to spin out justifications of their hope for dominion which identify the right with the necessary, the noble with the advantageous.

That, after all, is what ideology does, and ideology is tempting because modern politics exaggerates the tension between means and ends into an enormous disparity between risks and results. Political goals are always ambiguous; even so villainous an enemy as the Nazis could not be defeated without increasing the power of the Soviet Union. Political results must be judged on the balance, and political gains are ordinarily very marginal. But technology and mass organization greatly increase the risks of political action; just as it may be necessary to risk total war in order to prevent some limited defeat in foreign policy, in domestic life it may be necessary to endanger liberty rather gravely if we are to improve the collection of taxes. More and more, Orwell observed, politics leaves us only the choice between acting like “a devil or a lunatic.” Abstention is not allowed: those who would not run the demonic risk of war with Hitler necessarily chose the lunatic risk of attempting to coexist with him. Ideology rationalizes, excuses, and, paradoxically, depoliticizes politics. The truth about modern politics—that it is mad, evil, and inescapable—is the strongest political imperative for those who can endure it.

Truth and freedom

Orwell virtually made a creed out of unwelcome truth. Modern political philosophy argues that liberty exists when people can say and do as they please. Against that view, Orwell argued that “Liberty is telling people what they do not want to hear,” and I suspect that he was referring to the freedom of the hearers as well as that of the speaker. “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows.” Truth, not will or pleasure, is the foundation of freedom. I am free only when I act in accordance with my nature. To attempt to overcome one’s own nature, as Orwell remarked in relation to Gandhi, is in the most fundamental sense an act of self-denial, possibly saintly but not free. To be oneself is to be limited and mortal and to know loss, but that painful freedom is inseparable from the things that make life worth living: “that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life…is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.”

The pillars of “Reality Control” in 1984—Newspeak, Doublethink, and the Mutability of the Past—reflect that worst temptation of the intellectuals, the denial of any objective reality, the effort to master nature through thought, sparing human beings the pain and frustration of unwelcome truth. Of course, reality will persist, whatever we think about it: hence doublethink, the Party’s combination of knowing and not knowing, for the Party demands a conscious will not to know capable of directing the apparatus of “not knowing” as part of the systematic effort to escape from the self and anything that might remind one of its nature. There is a grotesque altruism in the Party: it sets out to eliminate our consciousness of finitude and mortality, taking us back to Eden by eliminating knowledge, striving to overcome memory so as to achieve a timeless present in which death is not foreknown and nothing is lost because nothing is remembered.

The modern, radically subjective idea of freedom ends with the Thought Police and Room 101:

For two hundred years we had sawed and sawed and sawed at the branch we were sitting on. And in the end…our efforts were rewarded and down we came. But unfortunately, there had been a little mistake. The thing at the bottom was not a bed of roses after all, it was a cesspool full of barbed wire.

Orwell enjoyed celebrity, but he cultivated unfashionability. He hoped to lead a parade, if only a small one, but only if he could march to the beat of his very different drum. And for his teaching and example, he deserves to have his memory kept free from “the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”

(Originally published as “George Orwell and Ideology,” Freedom at Issue, No. 77, March-April 1984)

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. Loaded with fruitful ideas.

    For one, it contains one of the more interesting critiques of the type of world-power status that pomocons like myself (see my “I miss civilization” piece over at Postmodern Conservative) defend for the U.S.–the idea that in opposing a centralized socialist threat you inevitably become somewhat like that threat.

    But my favorite passage is this: “So far, Orwell’s argument resembles that of Herbert Marcuse, but where Marcuse looked to a youthful counter-culture to provide leadership for the underclass, Orwell regarded such bohemian manifestations as part—and probably a proto-totalitarian part—of the dominant culture.”

Comments are closed.