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Orwell and Philosophy

Martin Tyrrell on a champion of common sense.

“I think Sartre is a bag of wind and I am going to give him a good [metaphorical] boot.”

Thus George Orwell. The ‘boot’ – a hostile review of Sartre’s Portrait of the Antisemite – duly appeared in the Observer towards the end of 1948. A few months on and Orwell found Bertrand Russell’s Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits no more impressive; it made him feel that philosophy should be made illegal. Orwell wrote a great deal in a relatively short space of time, and on a great many subjects, but little else that he wrote referred directly to philosophy. I suspect that he saw it as a kind of gratuitous cleverness and he had no appetite for that. In Orwell’s writings, fiction or non-fiction, there are few good intellectuals. Where they appear, then it is usually only to spin words without meaning. At best, they are inadvertently confusing; at worst, deliberately so: Marxists, for example, or nationalists or Anglo or Roman Catholics. Or Jean-Paul Sartre.

Although Orwell made few direct references to philosophy, much of his later and better writing amounts to an attempt at working out the political consequences of what are essentially philosophical questions. When and what should we doubt? When and what should we believe? Questions like these are particularly important in Nineteen Eighty-four. In that novel, the official philosophy of the fictitious Oceanian regime is a sort of global scepticism while everyday common sense has been made a heresy. It is common sense that triggers off Winston Smith’s illfated rebellion, a rebellion against the kinds of thing that put Orwell off philosophy.

“They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold onto that! The solid world exists. Its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth’s centre.”

Later, therefore, when the novel describes the State’s attempts at ending Smith’s dissent, it details a process whereby common sense is undermined by sophistry and scepticism. The operation is supervised and, in its later stages, performed by O’Brien, the ruling Party’s agent provocateur. Re-educating Winston, he remarks:

“You are here because you have failed in humility, in self-discipline. You would not make the act of submission which is the price of sanity. You preferred to be a lunatic, a minority of one. Only the disciplined mind can see reality, Winston. You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind which can make mistakes and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is the truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.”

In Nineteen Eighty-four, then, doubt sustains the regime, while conviction has the potential to undermine it. Even in 1948, this was a novel way to depict authoritarianism. Today, it is stranger still. Conventionally, totalitarianism is never sceptical. Fascism, for example, is often claimed to be based on a bogus certainty, a view of the world as black and white rather than fashionable, agnostic grey. Orwell’s argument, however, is that fascism relies upon the exact opposite claim. It is not that the authoritarian world has too much black and white but that it has too much grey, vagueness is its style. Thus, when Orwell identified a fascist fixation with the occult, he saw it as a thoroughly appropriate obsession. After all, what could be less precise, less factual? Magic and mysticism posit knowledge as something arcane, counter-intuitive and untestable. Something for the few, not the many.

In Nineteen Eighty-four, Orwell exorcises more than ten year’s worth of this kind of epistemological worry. From the mid-1930’s, if not earlier, he had grown alarmed at how difficult it was becoming to sift reality from propaganda. During his involvement in the Spanish Civil War, for example, he had been disturbed by the way in which events were being reported, complaining that, for many correspondents, ideology was everything and fact nothing. In furtherance of ideology, things which had happened were exaggerated, understated or simply denied. And things which had not happened at all were invented. Orwell’s novel of the immediate pre-war period, Coming up for Air, scorns reports of German and Italian fascism as tall xenophobic tales. Later, after the war had begun, he grew increasingly dubious of what he heard and read from official sources, doubting, for example, the scale and significance of the Battle of Britain and, briefly, but notoriously, the Holocaust. coup de grâce:

The dilemma that underlies such doubts persists. It is not unique to George Orwell. Scepticism offers one way of resolving it by denying the possibility of fact. Denials of this kind have, most recently, been rare solid objects among the bubbles of poststructuralism and post-modernism, isms where there is neither selfhood nor ‘outside text’ and which admit to no facts, only bias, sophistry and rhetoric. Arguments of that kind would not have satisfied Orwell. We can only imagine the kind of boot he might have delivered Foucault or Derrida but it could hardly have been more forceful than Roger Scruton’s recent coup de grâce: “A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative’, is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.” In practice, even sceptics must believe in something. At the very least, they must accept the validity of their own scepticism but, invariably, they concede a great deal more than that for belief is not, in the end, optional. It is scepticism that is affectation.

Orwell never reached such a conclusion because, ultimately, what concerned him was not whether scepticism might be tenable but that a nominal, affected scepticism might have political consequences, one such being that if, officially, everything is lies, then lies are not a problem. If everything is a lie, then any statement is ultimately just a noise that is either beneficial or detrimental to this or that side in a conflict. In Nineteen Eighty-four, the Party again and again demonstrates this kind of cynicism. More recently, in Katie Roiphe’s The Morning After, when one student’s claim to have been been raped by her tutor is shown to be false, some campus feminists refuse to be deterred, describing this and other discredited survivor stories as “fictions in the service of a political truth”.

Orwell, who had seen many such fictions, initially believed that they would not endure, that they would come up against the liberal tradition and/or what he felt to be the the inexorability of truth. It is not clear what he meant by either of these expressions but the inexorability of truth might relate to a simile he used in a letter to his friend Brenda Salkeld in the early 1930s: “An idea is like a tune… it goes through the ages remaining the same”. As for the liberal tradition, four years before he reviewed Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, Orwell had already sensed the Hayekian argument that economic freedom and intellectual freedom might be closely correlated, lose the former and, soon, the latter would be lost as well. Orwell was often a stern critic of liberalism which, in his time, still retained something of Victorian laissez faire but he nonetheless appreciated the need for socialism to build upon rather than reject in toto its achievements. In particular, he enthused at the diverse periodicals to be had from a relatively free market in publishing and opposed state subsidies to writers on the grounds that “the best and least exacting patron [is] the general public”. Above all, however, he advocated liberal individualism over collectivism believing the latter to be inherently totalitarian.

Individualism, like all the best truths, has the advantage of being self-evidently true. Collectivism,on the other hand, is based on myths: the ‘imagined community’ for one, and the self-justifying, fable histories Orwell attacked in his Notes on Nationalism. Bewildered by existentialism, what most irked Orwell about Sartre was his seeming denial of individuality. In Portrait of the Antisemite, for instance, there is only ‘the worker’, ‘the Jew’ and ‘the petty bourgeois’ (“that goat upon whom all our sins are laid”). Aside from a relatively brief, wartime lapse, Orwell was throughout an individualist so much so that, when he came to list his reasons for becoming a writer, he put “sheer egoism” at the top. In addition, and much more controversially, his review of Mein Kampf sees in Hitler more than a little of the tragic Orwellian hero, the small man embarked upon a doomed revolt.

Whatever Orwell really meant by the inexorability of the truth and the liberal tradition, by the time he came to write Nineteen Eighty-four, he seems to have been less than sure of either. He had by then experienced official and unofficial propaganda as both a consumer and a producer. His own account of the Spanish war – Homage to Catalonia – was, for example, no less partisan and ideological than the efforts he condemned, while the early part of the Second World War was, for Orwell, spent as a salaried propagandist on the Home Front producing manifestoes for an English national socialism he would later disown and BBC broadcasts aimed at keeping India docile.

One of the more interesting books on Orwell in recent years, WJ West’s The Larger Evils (Canongate, 1992), proposes that it was this latter experience in particular which found its way into Nineteen Eighty-four. At the wartime BBC, West claims, Orwell saw at first hand the manufacture and manipulation of information by a corporation working closely with the State: the edited or doctored speeches, the scripted or semi-scripted interviews, the constant scrutiny and censorship. His fear was that this apparatus would be retained in peacetime so that propaganda would gradually crowd out fact. Nineteen Eighty-four builds upon that fear, depicting a world in which there is only official propaganda and where, ultimately, it is the propagandists who triumph over common sense.

Ironically, then, though Orwell was no sceptic, Nineteen Eighty-four has provided a useful illustration for every shade of scepticism from academic to anorak by depicting a situation in which it is becoming impossible to think a single dissenting thought or, thanks to Newspeak, to utter one subversive word. In the end, however, it is only fiction. Real world Oceanias are scarce on the ground. We do not live in one. Today’s political propaganda is slickly Orwellian while the same, dishonest techniques that Orwell so disliked on radio have been refined for television. “All television lies”, Matthew Parris recently commented, “It lies persistently, instinctively and by habit… A culture of mendacity surrounds the medium…” But I doubt that he will stop appearing on it just as I doubt that television will stop bringing information to places it would not otherwise have gone or that people will stop disbelieving advertisements and party political broadcasts almost on principle. In the end, propaganda and officialdom have their limits. Contra Noam Chomsky and Vance Packard, consent is not readily manufactured, while the hidden persuaders are neither particularly hidden nor particularly persuasive. There are easier things to bend than minds. The truth might not be as inexorable as Orwell thought but neither are lies.

© Dr M. Tyrrell 1996

Martin Tyrrell’s book on George Orwell will be published as soon as he manages to finish it and a publisher agrees to publish it.


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