1984 in 2024

George Orwell’s life and work offer insights into modern social and political issues


in Books


Like existentialism, surreal, and (sorry, Alanis Morisette) ironic, the term “Orwellian” is ubiquitous and often misused. It’s typically applied to government surveillance or totalitarianism in general. This is understandable, given that British author Eric Arthur Blair, better known by his pen name, George Orwell, is likely best known for his novel 1984, which generations of high school students have written papers about. 1984 turns 75 this year and has been adapted into movies and a TV series and referenced in songs by the likes of David Bowie and Radiohead. Orwell indeed thought a great deal about the nature of tyranny and the uses and misuses of political power, but if he’d known what his pen name would eventually be associated with, he might have wished for a different legacy. 

In his essay “Why I Write” Orwell mentions that since childhood he had “a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.” This second talent more accurately reflects what the term “Orwellian” would have meant to Orwell himself. He prided himself, above all, on having a solid bullshit detector and valued what he called “a belly-to-earth quality.” However, he had significant blind spots that went slightly beyond being a man of his time. This is discussed with a skillful balance of respect and criticism in Orwell’s Ghosts: Wisdom and Warnings for the Twenty-First Century, a new book by historian Laura Beers.  

Beers points out one significant Orwell quote, which is engraved on the statue of the novelist in front of the London headquarters of the BBC: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Very appropriate for Orwell’s lifelong commitment to free inquiry, rigorous honesty, social justice, and moral clarity. People on both the right and the left love to cite this aphorism, flattering themselves by assuming Orwell would be on their side and crediting themselves for gutsy truth-telling.  

Orwell made his belief in democratic socialism abundantly clear, even saying it was his principal motivation as a writer. He would have had little patience for how 1984 gets trotted out by the right-wing with hysterical accusations of “thought crime” while complaining about being de-platformed or even criticized, as Donald Trump Jr. and Josh Hawley both did after January 6, to cite just one example. Orwell’s sense of conservatism (one friend called him “a Tory anarchist”) was not at all about any king and country ideology as it was about nostalgia for the slightly idealized love of rural English life. He wasn’t a big fan of modernity (he liked to brag about not having a radio) but if Orwell had been around in 1968, I think he would have appreciated The Kinks’ autumnal Village Green Preservation Society. Beers adroitly points out that Orwell’s patriotism was sincere and critically so: His lengthy essay “The Lion and the Unicorn” insists on radical social change during the harrowing days of The Blitz because he believed socialism connected with essentially English values.  

Beers is right to say that, “Orwell would have been more disturbed by the mendacity of those claiming to have been canceled than he would have been by the decision of some media not to publish them.” When offering advice for how to write well, Orwell made sure to add that it was ok to break any of the rules he gives rather than “say anything outright barbarous.” Shudder to think of the kind of agita that the rampant doublethink, perpetual two-minute hates, and seething resentments of the Trump era would have given him.  

Big Brother isn’t watching (or canceling) you if you’re already on TV all the time. Simply being controversial or outspoken doesn’t mean you deserve an audience. Orwell made a point of saying that “to see what is in front of your nose requires a constant struggle” and had Winston Smith, the protagonist in 1984, say that freedom was the ability to say two plus two equals four. Evidence matters. To deserve attention, or claim you’re being silenced, there is a prerequisite —you need to be telling the truth.  

Orwell struggled to publish his magnificent Homage to Catalonia because Soviet-sympathizing leftists were wary of confronting the lies he documented about the Soviet Union’s claims during the Spanish Civil War. He also had trouble finding a publisher for Animal Farm because Britain had allied with Stalinist Russia out of necessity. Beers explains that while Orwell disagreed with his publisher’s decision not to publish Homage, he accepted that, in a democratic society, they were within their rights. This principle, especially when writing is your livelihood, is worlds apart from being ratioed online.    

Beers explains that Orwell’s avowed commitment to equality and social justice was genuine, shaped by firsthand experiences. Despite his relatively privileged background, he spent his formative years as a disgruntled policeman in Burma, learning to his horror, the harsh realities of life under the British Empire. He described this in his crucial, anguished essays “Shooting an Elephant” and “A Hanging.” Some modern readers are less sympathetic to the kind of language Orwell uses to refer to the locals, which is perfectly fair, yet many of the insights about the true nature of despotism Orwell subsequently spent a lifetime thinking about began here. He also observed firsthand the grueling life of miners in northern England and the hand-to-mouth life of the working poor in London and Paris. He almost died fighting for the Loyalist side in Spain, taking a bullet in the throat.      

I wouldn’t have called, as Beers does, writing of Down and Out in Paris and London “a self-indulgent project” by someone who “by his own admission had little actual sense of who the working class was” or accusing him of “something creepy about his tramping and skiving with the urban destitute under false pretenses as a form of social investigation.” Personally, I think it’s good for writers who are interested in politics, especially radical politics, to get their hands dirty. It’s one thing to sit with your books and ponder the struggles of the working classes, wondering why they act and vote as they do, and it’s another thing to scrounge your next meal while working long hours in the kitchen of a fancy hotel or getting arrested for vagrancy to find out how the poor die. Unlike most of the people he was writing about, Orwell had an escape hatch from his middle-class home, and he did write while living with his parents, and he could always have gone back to school and made the most of his expensive Eton education. But he didn’t.  

Beers is more approving of his time spent working on The Road to Wigan Pier, which took a frank and thorough look at the lives of coal miners in Manchester. “A grim read, it cannot be classed as voyeurism or poverty porn . . . their lives were not entirely bleak, and Orwell never pretended that they were.” Orwell had a journalistic eye for “the ways in which culture and desire impacted consumer choice.” Beers makes an insightful parallel about how “obesity in the West is increasingly linked with income and perceived by many to be a sign of moral failing.” What gets misunderstood, then and now, is that when you’re broke, it’s generally harder to have the things you want, so you tend to avail yourself of unhealthy, inexpensive treats because it’s the only indulgence you can afford.   

Orwell once said that no biography is to be trusted unless it reveals something shameful about its subject. In that tough-minded spirit, Beers refuses to ignore Orwell’s stunted understanding of gender politics in his life and his fiction. There’s a glaring contrast between the strident champion for social justice and the myopic sexist who didn’t extend the same passion to gender equality. He once added “feminists” to his list of “cranks” and had some interactions with women that were wince-inducing, to say the least.  

In his fiction, there’s the brooding malcontent Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying who reacts callously to his long-suffering girlfriend getting pregnant (“We’ll have to get married, I suppose” he mutters) because he refused to wear a condom. Beers argues that Orwell tried “to articulate the view that abortion is beyond the pale, unjustifiable regardless of how this stance might jeopardize the possibility of liberation from capitalist toil.” Orwell was usually sensitive to how working people were denied agency, especially over their own bodies, yet the way this applied to women was an ugly blind spot. 

Gordon is by no means the only male character in Orwell’s books who doesn’t take women seriously. Beers remarks on the “troubling attitude towards sexual power that repeatedly recurs in his writing.” The main character in Burmese Days calls his Burmese concubine a “prostitute” and kicks her out after he’s satisfied. I had forgotten how Winston in 1984 has disturbingly violent sexual fantasies about Julia, and even tells her about them; they get passed over rather quickly. It could be argued that this sadism is the result of a mind warped by omnipresent totalitarianism, yet he scoffs at Julia’s sexual rebelliousness against the puritanical state: “You’re only a rebel from the waist downwards.” Which doesn’t speak well of him or his creator. Beers soberly remarks that “a clear appreciation of Orwell’s gender politics helps us to approach his constructive proposals for social democratic reform with a clear eye.” 

A historian friend once told me that history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it rhymes. When you look at the massive levels of economic inequality, the growing popularity of authoritarians worldwide, and the seething discontent bubbling through the zeitgeist, it sure seems like the threats that concerned Orwell in his troubled time have by no means receded. Despite his blind spots, Beers suggests that Orwell offers valuable insights: “If the left takes him as a writer who was determined to chart a political path that would achieve meaningful social equality without sacrificing personal liberty.” 

 At its best, Orwell’s work reminds us that this doesn’t have to be a zero-sum choice. You can and should find points of common humanity, something that unfortunately gets scoffed at quite a bit these days. It’s very common for people to make the most out of their differences and assume that no one else can possibly understand them, which might, in fact, be a more narcissistic and repressive mentality than it seems.  

If you’ve ever found yourself moved by someone else’s experiences, thoughts, or observations, which often come from an entirely different background from your own, then it might indeed be possible to find some point of mutual understanding between you and your fellow humans. Otherwise, we’re all condemned to eternal solipsism, and it’s not hard to see how this becomes a trap door toward personal and political disaster. I liked how Beers cited a lowly scrivener Orwell wrote about named Bozo who might not have had much but read voraciously and insisted that he was free within his own mind, if nowhere else.   

There’s a part in “Why I Write” which I think might reveal something a little more personal than Orwell intended. He notices that at about the age of 30 most people give up their sense of being a real individual at all and get buried in everyday drudgery. Considering his politics, you can bet that Orwell would say that the demands of capitalism play a big part in that. But there are also “gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end.” Of course, one doesn’t need to be a writer or a creative person, or even particularly gifted, to do this. That’s where the willfulness comes in.   

It’s important to remember how one critic praised Orwell by saying that he was not a genius, which is right in line with him aesthetically and politically: Orwell was only an ordinary person at heart and deeply believed in the ability of everyday people to think and feel for themselves, trusting that they can reason about the facts of life accurately and productively. If Orwell, who died in agony from tuberculosis at a mere 46, not long after finishing 1984, used whatever energy he had left to fight against social injustice and push for the creation of a more just world, then maybe you can too. He once said, “So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and useless scraps of information.” Which might be the most Orwellian thing of all.•


Matt Hanson lives in New Orleans and is contributing editor at The Arts Fuse and American Purpose. His work has also appeared in The American Prospect, The Baffler, The Daily Beast, The Guardian, LARB, The Millions, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. He Tweets at: @MattHansonAF. He can usually be found in the nearest available used book store.