Article by Bruno Waterfield.
Totalitarian regimes set about breaking up clubs, trade unions and other voluntary associations. They were effectively dismantling those areas of social and political life in which people were able to freely and spontaneously associate. The spaces, that is, in which local and national culture develops free of the state and officialdom. These cultural spaces were always tremendously important to Orwell. As he put it in his 1941 essay, ‘England Your England’: ‘All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official – the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the “nice cup of tea”.’
He was also worried about what he saw as Britain’s leftwing ‘Europeanised intelligentsia’, which, like the Communist Parties of Western Europe, seemed to worship state power, particularly in the supranational form of the USSR. And he was concerned above all about the emergence of the totalitarian mindset, and the attempt to re-engineer the deep structures of mind and feeling that lie at the heart of autonomy and liberty.
Orwell could see this mindset flourishing among Britain’s intellectual elite, from the eugenics and top-down socialism of Fabians, like Sidney and Beatrice Webb and HG Wells, to the broader technocratic impulses of the intelligentsia in general. They wanted to remake people ‘for their own good’, or for the benefit of the race or state power.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, this new intellectual elite started to gain ascendancy. It was effectively a clerisy – a cultural and ruling elite defined by its academic achievements. It had been forged through higher education and academia rather than through traditional forms of privilege and wealth, such as public schools.
Orwell was naturally predisposed against this emergent clerisy. He may have attended Eton, but that’s where Orwell’s education stopped. He was not part of the clerisy’s world. He was not an academic writer, nor did he position himself as such. On the contrary, he saw himself as a popular writer, addressing a broad, non-university-educated audience.
Nowadays we are all too familiar with this university-educated ruling caste, and its desire to control words and meaning. . . . [T]hink of the way in which our cultural and educational elites have transformed the very meanings of the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’, divesting them of any connection to biological reality. Orwell would not have been surprised by this development. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, he shows how the totalitarian state and its intellectuals will try to suppress real facts, and even natural laws, if they diverge from their worldview.
This totalitarian approach to history is dominant today, from the New York Times’ 1619 Project to statue-toppling. History is something to be erased or conjured up or reshaped as a moral lesson for today. It is used to demonstrate the rectitude of the contemporary establishment.
But then that was always Orwell’s worry – that intellectuals giving up on freedom would allow a Big Brother Britain to flourish. As he saw it in The Prevention of Literature (1946), the biggest danger to freedom of speech and thought came not from the threat of dictatorship (which was receding by then) but from intellectuals giving up on freedom, or worse, seeing it as an obstacle to the realisation of their worldview.
Orwell was concerned by the increasing popularity among influential left-wing intellectuals of ‘the much more tenable and dangerous proposition that freedom is undesirable and that intellectual honesty is a form of anti-social selfishness’. The exercise of freedom of speech and thought, the willingness to speak truth to power, was even then becoming seen as something to be frowned upon, a selfish, even elitist act.
Lionel Trilling, another writer and thinker, made a similar point to Self, but in a far more insightful, enlightening way. ‘[Orwell] liberates us’, he wrote in 1952:
‘He tells us that we can understand our political and social life merely by looking around us, he frees us from the need for the inside dope. He implies that our job is not to be intellectual, certainly not to be intellectual in this fashion or that, but merely to be intelligent according to our lights – he restores the old sense of the democracy of the mind, releasing us from the belief that the mind can work only in a technical, professional way and that it must work competitively. He has the effect of making us believe that we may become full members of the society of thinking men. That is why he is a figure for us.’
Orwell should be a figure for us, too – in our battle to restore the democracy of the mind and resist the totalitarian mindset of today. But this will require having the courage of our convictions and our words, as he so often did himself. As he put it in The Prevention of Literature, ‘To write in plain vigorous language one has to think fearlessly’. That Orwell did precisely that was a testament to his belief in the public just as much as his belief in himself. He sets an example and a challenge to us all.