George Orwell on our present discontents

In a comment the other day I mentioned that I had come across a long preface to Animal Farm, George Orwell’s dystopian novel about the takeover by pigs of a farm, and what happened thereafter. It was a satire on the Soviet Union, and was much in vogue (via the Penguin edition) when I was a student. Orwell planned the book in 1937, but did not finish it until the end of 1943. He couldn’t get it published, initially, because its tone and plain reference to the USSR was at odds with the wartime alliance with ‘Uncle Joe’ and the brave Russians. And when it was published, it appeared without his intended Preface, which was not made public until the 1970s.

It was not the British Government that took a stand against his Preface. Official censorship during the war, Orwell thought, had not been particularly irksome. The cause in his case was the self-censorship of the British publishers. Orwell commented: If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. I’ll reproduce the striking paragraph that I published in my comment:

At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

The paradox, Orwell wrote, was that although you are not allowed to criticise the Soviet government, at least you are reasonably free to criticise our own. Hardly anyone will print an attack on Stalin, but it is quite safe to attack Churchill, at any rate in books and periodicals.

And more: The servility with which the greater part of the English intelligentsia have swallowed and repeated Russian propaganda from 1941 onwards would be quite astounding if it were not that they have behaved similarly on several earlier occasions. On one controversial issue after another the Russian viewpoint has been accepted without examination and then publicised with complete disregard to historical truth or intellectual decency. 

It does sound contemporary, doesn’t it? Change a word or two, and you could be talking about Australia today with, for example, ‘climate change’ being the subject rather than Soviet Russia. Let’s keep going. The English intelligentsia, or most of them, will object to this book [Animal Farm] because it traduces their Leader and (as they see it) does harm to the cause of progress. If it did the opposite they would have nothing to say against it, even if its literary faults were ten times as glaring as they are. The success of, for instance, the Left Book Club over a period of four or five years shows how willing they are to tolerate both scurrility and slipshod writing, provided that it tells them what they want to hear.

The issue, he says, is simple. Is every opinion, however unpopular — however foolish, even — entitled to a hearing? Put it in that form and nearly any English intellectual will feel that he ought to say ‘Yes’. But give it a concrete shape, and ask, ‘How about an attack on Stalin? Is that entitled to a hearing?’, and the answer more often than not will be ‘No’, In that case the current orthodoxy happens to be challenged, and so the principle of free speech lapses. Now, when one demands liberty of speech and of the press, one is not demanding absolute liberty. There always must be, or at any rate there always will be, some degree of censorship, so long as organised societies endure. 

George Orwell writes so well! I will devote a later essay here to him and to his books and essays. I think I have read all of them. And, to say it again, what he was writing about in 1943 is as sensible today as it was then. You only have to change a few of the nouns (in the above quotation, replace ‘Stalin’ by ‘the view that  climate change is really a huge worry’). Since I have written a couple of pieces about freedom of speech (here, for example), I am happy to quote him on that subject. I am well acquainted with all the arguments against freedom of thought and speech — the arguments which claim that it cannot exist, and the arguments which claim that it ought not to. I answer simply that they don’t convince me and that our civilisation over a period of four hundred years has been founded on the opposite notice… To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.

I wish I had thought of ‘the gramophone mind’. I’ve seen a few examples of it on this website.

He concludes like this. If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. The common people still vaguely subscribe to that doctrine and act on it. In our country — it is not the same in all countries: it was not so in republican France, and it is not so in the USA today — it is the liberals who fear liberty and the intellectuals who want to do dirt on the intellect: it is to draw attention to that fact that I have written this preface.

What can be done about it? He was talking about Britain, and I am talking about Australian 70 years afterwards. In many areas, not just ‘climate change’, but in the debate about what to do with respect to the threat of terror from Islamic fundamentalists, the debate about how to treat refugees, the debate about the meaning of marriage, the debate about Israel and Palestine, there is a powerful orthodoxy that is not interested in debate, but only in its own authority. Its members support one another. The gramophone mind is alive and well here.

Its reach is wide. The mass media, the universities and the single-interest groups are all of the same opinion. How could anyone oppose such far-sighted, right-thinking, progressive people? Should we not just follow their authority? The systems of public honour celebrate their leaders. Politicians learn quickly to duck for cover if they say anything that is vaguely hostile to the orthodoxy, and those who take on the challenge will not find a path to power themselves.

I salute George Orwell,  a quirky, determined and rational seeker after truth and intellectual honesty. I do not think he ever met Karl Popper, about whom I wrote some little time ago, but I think they would have enjoyed each other’s approach to knowledge. They were, neither of them, afraid of any orthodoxy.


Join the discussion 28 Comments

  • Neville says:

    Just listened to their ABC this morning about how 15 year olds in OZ are falling behind the rest of the world. Presumably this means maths, science literacy etc and the story stressed that we spend a lot more money than other countries who seem to be doing better than us.
    We’ve spent endless billions on education under Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and Turnbull and yet we are told things are much worse? I wonder what Orwell would make of this appalling result?

    • BB says:

      Neville there is an article on this in the Australian today. We spend twice as much as they do in China and the Chinese students do better. Sorry Don this is off topic.

  • David says:

    Don, if you want to construct a convincing scientific argument against AGW, I would suggest that you read a little less “Animal Farm” by George Orwell and a little more “The Law of Large Numbers” by Jakob Bernoulli.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Here you go again, David! This is an essay about political correctness, and about the foresight of someone writing more than seventy years ago on another matter whose words illuminate an issue we have today. Yes, there is a reference to AGW in it, but none of the essay would be strengthened in any way by what Bernoulli had to say. Yours is a neat example of trolling — taking the comments thread down a path that has little to do with the substance of the essay, but one which you like.

      Do you have anything at all to say about George Orwell and his forgotten Preface to Animal Farm?

      • David says:

        I like this quote from the Preface

        “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

        The sort of thing a troll would write.

        Then this essay “The hanging” from Orwell’s time in the police force in Burma when he was tasked with keeping Great Britain great.

        I get the sense that “Animal Farm” could just have easily been about the British Empire.

        • gnome says:

          You have laid your finger on the strongest point of Animal Farm. It could be about any oppressive society which has a reformist movement. It could equally be about the ALP in the twentyfirst century, or any of our near northern neighbours, PNG, Indonesia or East Timor currently best fitting the model, or The Phillipines or Myanmar or…

          And the pigs will happily point out that it fits the other pigs better than it fits them because…

          (Ohhhh yes, I’m the great suspender…)

        • Don Aitkin says:

          No, David, it’s not the sort of thing a troll would write. His remark is like the Voltaire ‘quote’ about disliking what you have written but insisting on your right to publish it. It is completely consistent with the Preface to Animal Farm.

          Orwell had said everything he wanted to say about the British Empire in Burmese Days, which I have read. Had he wanted to go further with his dislike of things British he could have done so, and many of his essays touch on that. As it happened, he thought that Fascism and the Soviet system were worse.

          Perhaps you could put some time into reading Orwell, and return with some considered views, rather than penning yet another one-liner.

        • Davo says:

          You aren’t testing the principle of liberty, if all you are doing is making agreeable statements.

  • Patrick says:

    Orwell got it right.
    Political correctness amounts to suppression of free speech.
    According to the orthodoxy freedom of speech is the exclusive right of the orthodoxy.
    When applied to science, it amounts to suppression of contrary evidence and is a violation of the scientific method.

    • Doug Hurst says:

      Very True Patrick. But Orwell won in the end. His books are still read today and his observations are still valid and insightful, whereas his PC opponents are long forgotten along with their ideas. The problem is, it all took far too long and we need some way to defeat the climate orthodoxy now, not in fifty years or more.

  • Louis Hissink says:

    Gramophone-mind – love it!

  • Aert Driessen says:

    Thank you Don, I think that this is one of your finest pieces and particularly enlightening for me as one who has spent much more time in a world ruled by evidence rather than that other hemisphere where philosophy and literature dominate. I am using this opportunity to promulgate a quote from Robert Oppenheimer that I came across recently and that I think is relevant to your theme.

    ‘We do not believe any group of men adequate enough or wise enough to operate without scrutiny or without criticism. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it, that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. We know that in secrecy error undetected will flourish and subvert’ (J Robert Oppenheimer).

    Keep writing.

    • margaret says:

      Oppenheimer lived with the regret of his role in unleashing the development of the nuclear bomb. Science must be accompanied by humanity.

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        margaret, You cannot blame scientists for the end results of work they are employed to perform. How far back in time do you go…and although it smacks of the Nuremberg defence, in our societies, scientists are not compelled to work on projects that are abhorrent to them. Some doubtless saw the bomb as a route to the resolution of a conflict that was taking countless lives for no discernible reason.

        • margaret says:

          You said blame, I said he lived with regret. Where did I read that many regretful things are done by men in their twenties to forties who have their hands on the levers.

  • PeterE says:

    Thanks. I was not aware of this Orwell preface but how enlightening it is and what a penetrating observation he makes on the foolishness of mankind. The kind of censorship he cites is, of course, the perfect precursor to a ‘1984’ world. The only answer is to be as politically incorrect and as blunt as possible, wherever there is opportunity. That is why I shall be voting early and often for Donald Trump and others of his ilk.

    • Aert Driessen says:

      I agree whole-heartedly Peter. It will take someone like Trump to just wipe the slate clean so that we can start again. I hope (and think) that that is his motivation. If so he will not even want to seek a second term providing he gets that job done. Go Trump!

  • Alan Gould says:

    I was very heartened when I learned Orwell had a deep respect for the work of Evelyn Waugh and Waugh had the same for that of Orwell, despite the fact that one fought for a Trostskyite group in Catalonia, and the other defended the authority of Roman Catholicism. The uplift in my morale was to see how this pointed to the real calibre of the liberal mind, the staunchness to liberal discourse in each case, and the intelligent nerve to say so. It made stronger my attachment to both authors, both of whom I have read widely.
    My choice Orwell quote is “At 50, everyone has the face they deserve.”

  • Beautifully said!

    I think Orwell’s four books of collected essays would be among the first in my kitbag for a desert island holiday.

    Then War and Peace.

    • beththeserf says:

      In my kitbag for that desert Island, in case I’m there some time,
      Karl Popper’s ‘Open Society and Its Enemies ‘ and Shakespeare’s
      ‘The Tempest,’ a Montaigne essay or two, Jane Austin’s ‘Persuasion’ …

    • Don Aitkin says:


      I think Peter Coleman’s piece was originally in Quadrant, because I’m sure I’ve read it before. But he was not, as the Indian editor believed, the G-G of Australia, though he would have made a good one.

  • margaret says:

    I am only back to salute Orwell. I found Politics and the English Language and Why I Write tremendous reads.

  • Michael Cunningham says:

    Great post, Don. John Roskam cited it in his letter to IPA members, but didn’t include a link. You’ld appreciate Mark Steyn’s piece in the current IPA Review.

  • spangled drongo says:

    “The greatest challenge facing mankind is the challenge of distinguishing reality from fantasy, truth from propaganda.”

    Yet it is the hallowed halls of higher learning that promotes the fantasy and the propaganda.

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