Liberty, Equality & Humbug: Orwell’s Political Ideals, by David Dwan

A useful critical study shows that George Orwell had a capacity for forcefully expressing views that contradict each other, says Andrew Palmer

October 25, 2018
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George Orwell looms large in our culture, but he is something of an outsider in the literary canon, attracting far less critical attention than the likes of Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot. There’s a feeling that his works speak for themselves, that there’s not much to add. David Dwan shows us otherwise in this cogent, knowledgeable study by placing Orwell’s fiction and essays in the wider context of evolving political thought. We gain a new awareness of his philosophical heft, but also an overwhelming sense of his inconsistency. This is the chief takeaway of the work: Orwell’s capacity for forcefully expressing views that contradict each other.

Orwell was capable, in Dwan’s useful phrase, of extraordinary “ideological pivots”. To be fair, these were sometimes prompted by developments in politics. So, after the Spanish Civil War, he proclaimed that there was little difference between fascism and “so-called democracy”; then, during the Second World War, he spun around and attacked those intellectuals for whom “democracy and fascism are the same thing”.

But sometimes Orwell’s position on an issue shifts willy-nilly. So nationalism is both an “evil religion” that overwhelms reason and a powerful form of solidarity. Modern machines are both devices that ease the burden of manual labour and contraptions that dehumanise us, destroy our creativity and disconnect us from the natural world. One minute, a human being is “primarily a bag for putting food into”, the next Orwell attacks those hedonists for whom “man is…a kind of walking stomach”. He believed that art should be above politics, but also that his own writing was stronger when enlivened by political purpose. Dwan captures his capacity for ambivalence in his reading of the essay “A Hanging”, where compassion for the condemned prisoner shifts into a less admirable solidarity with those who have the job of hanging him.

There’s a term for this quality of thought, and Orwell invented it: doublethink. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, he defines it as the ability “to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them”. In the world of the novel, this is the malign mechanism by which the Party controls the people, but Orwell’s version of the condition is potentially constructive. True enough, his contradictoriness may simply reveal a thinker in a hopeless muddle, but it may equally suggest a mind that is constantly receptive and always ready to reconsider. No politician can afford that kind of inconsistency, but we might celebrate the fact that the novelist can.

Dwan wisely suggests that Orwell was attracted to the novel as a form because it provided “a home for his uncertainties, allowing them to take refuge in its…plurality of voices”. But he doesn’t explore the corollary that the essay as a form is less well-suited to such “plurality”, because it is single-voiced. Indeed, he quotes from novels, essays, radio broadcasts, private letters and diary entries without distinguishing between them, which feels like a missed opportunity. Even so, this is a powerful study of Orwell’s thought and intellectual shape-shifting that leaves us asking: is Orwell’s form of doublethink no bad thing? I came away in two minds.

Andrew Palmer is principal lecturer in modern literature at Canterbury Christ Church University and co-author, with Sally Minogue, of The Remembered Dead: Poetry, Memory and the First World War (2018).


Liberty, Equality & Humbug: Orwell’s Political Ideals
By David Dwan
Oxford University Press, 320pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780198738527
Published 25 October 2018

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