Orwell is as likely to go down in history as an essayist as he is as a novelist. The clarity of his style is matched only by the clarity of his thought. Orwell’s belief in using language correctly, in order to transmit ideas, rather than to obscure them, is as essential to his idea of freedom as is democracy. He thought that the English language was in a bad way and set about to correct it in ‘Politics & the English Language.’ “The English language,” says Orwell,” becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts…. Modern English is full of bad habits…If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration.” Lazy language – pretentious diction, meaningless words, and cliché - was a mask for lazy thinking. He would have been aghast at the abundance of modern jargon or the ‘spin’ put on news stories by politicians today, both of which is to either hide up the paucity of genuine ideas or to mislead the public. For Orwell, to speak, and just as importantly, to write, clearly are important for the political process. These ideas were, of course, to feed into his novel, 1984, with its use of Double Speak, to say one thing while thinking another. We recognise these words and phrases all too well: People’s Democracies for Communist dictatorship; pacification for mass murder and terror; We, the people for We, the ruling elite; and Protecting democracy for Defending our financial interests.
When people think of Orwell, they remember him as an anti-Communist and a defender of liberal democracy. This is most certainly correct, but it should also be remembered that he was also a socialist, and a socialist of the old school. In The Lion & The Unicorn, originally published as a pamphlet in the style of Paine or Cobbett, he attacks both the class system of England and its capitalist economic system. He thought that the “inefficiency of private capitalism has been proved all over Europe” and that World War II has “turned Socialism from a text-book word into a realisable policy.” As a socialist, he thought that socialists had to make “our words take physical shape.” He advocated a 6 point plan that would transform England into a socialist country, which included “Nationalisation of land, mines, railways, banks and major industries” and the “Limitation of incomes, on such a scale that the highest tax-free income in Britain does not exceed the lowest by more than ten to one.” One gets the impression that Orwell and Castro would have found a broad area of agreement. For Orwell, freedom, democracy, and socialism, were not incompatible, but were tightly bound together. He went to fight in the Spanish Civil War for the democratic republic, but fought alongside Marxists, Trotskiests, and Anarchists. Calling himself a “democratic socialist” was no contradiction to Orwell.
However, it should be remembered that these essays cover the 1930s and 40s. The world was a different place then. The political landscape has changed. If Orwell were alive now, what would his political opinions be? Who knows? You might as well ask what would Thomas Paine’s political beliefs be if he were alive today. Anyone who hazards a guess, and there have been many, usually transposes their own political beliefs onto Orwell. Only one thing is certain: Orwell was a man of his time. These essays, as do his books, reflect this. This is why he will be remembered. To read Orwell is to capture a moment in history, articulated by a man who was deeply involved in the political life of his time, in much the same way as Paine, Hazlett, or Cobbett was. One comes to Orwell and breaths the political atmosphere of the age, and takes from him what is relevant to one’s own self. What that will be will vary from one person to another. For my own part, it is satisfying to read someone who believes as passionately in socialism as he does in democracy, and argues for both with the same conviction; who believes in physical courage in fighting against injustice, -“manliness”, if you will; who saw through the myth of British Imperialism; who saw through the horrible snobbishness of the English class system; and who believed in clarity in one’s own words in order to reveal the clarity in one’s own thoughts – and to demand that clarity from others