George Orwell’s idea of civilisation

Romantic, radical and with an eye to the past, George Orwell's idea of civilisation was multifaceted and at times paradoxical.

A statue of George Orwell by the British sculptor Martin Jennings at the BBC Broadcasting House building. Credit: William Barton / Alamy Stock Photo.
A statue of George Orwell by the British sculptor Martin Jennings at the BBC Broadcasting House building. Credit: William Barton / Alamy Stock Photo.

This essay originally appeared in ‘Civilisation: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2013.

There is no real template for a dystopia other than an underlying premise that things are going to go badly wrong and that civilisation — whatever that is — is under siege. Some of the dystopian writers of the first half of the twentieth century believed that the traditional concept of civilisation was profoundly threatened by developments in technology. Like dystopias, technological advances take many forms and one could argue that freedom, whether individual or collective, is put in jeopardy as much by a surveillance camera in a high street as by a stealth bomber creeping its way across the Afghan skies. To George Orwell, by far that century’s most influential dystopian prophet, technology was a means to an end and the end could be found in developments in international power politics. The danger lay in the rise of autocracy, whether from the right of the political spectrum or the left — Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is anti-totalitarian rather than exclusively anti-Communist — the creation of anti-democratic elites and the suborning of large amounts of the population to what was presented as a collective will, but in reality was nothing more than a kind of concentrated oligarchism.

These tendencies, Orwell believed, were exacerbated by the principle-political consequence of the Second World War. The division of the world into three ceaselessly contending landmasses — Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia — in Nineteen Eighty-Four mirrors the negotiations of the war-time Tehran conference (1943), in which the allied leaders — Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin — effectively divided up the planet into areas of influence and established the foundations of the post-war world, overriding questions of sovereignty and local self-determination in favour of the territorial bloc. The moral implications of these geographical divides were profound. The nations subsumed into them might find themselves described as parliamentary democracies or as liberty-suppressing one-party states, but at every turn their autonomy was ripe to be overridden by the demands of a collective agenda. At the same time, the fictional totalitarian society of Oceania, under the command of its all-powerful and all-seeing leader, Big Brother, refines the standard notion of autocracy to an unprecedented degree and in ways that are deeply inimical to the age-old respect for the idea of individual freedom, objective truth and shared heritage. On the one hand, the chief instrument by which the regime wields its power is language: Newspeak, the official means of communication, is determined actively to reduce the number of words in circulation, thereby robbing language of nuance and limiting the individual’s powers of self-expression. What makes the denial of choice under Big Brother so devitalising is not simply the absence of goods in shops, the sheer unavailability of things to spend money on or the closing off of every avenue of dissent, but the intellectual limitations imposed by this linguistic winnowing process. Even mental rebellions are difficult when the vocabulary in which those rebellions can be conceptualised is constantly pruned and dictionaries grow thinner by the year.

On the other hand, the Oceanian authorities have an interventionist and deeply sinister attitude to the past. Its achievements — cultural, political, spiritual — are not there to be admired, to be explored or even to be used as a yardstick for the achievements of the present, but to be plundered and falsified as a means of authenticating contemporary reality. History is constantly being manipulated to justify current misdeeds, while its visible symbols are adapted to suit present contingencies. Thus Nelson’s statue in Trafalgar Square (renamed Victory Square) is taken down from its plinth and replaced by a facsimile of Big Brother; and the nearby church of St Martin in the Fields is reinvented as a waxworks museum of military glory. Orwell’s new totalitarian landscape consequently represents a dramatic break from the past. In fact, the past has no existence other than as something to be used to buttress existing arrangements. Beyond that, it has no value and can be dispensed with. Meanwhile, two other revolutions that Orwell observed in mid-twentieth-century life are harnessed to the novel’s underlying dynamic. One is the rise of the technocrat. As a keen student of James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution (1941), Orwell believed that the people who would rise to the surface of new societies would not be military leaders and politicians but industrialists, bureaucrats and managers. The future was more likely to be administered in the board-room than on the battlefield. The other is the startling series of advances in military technology brought about by the Second World War and its implications for the way in which future conflicts might be fought. Orwell’s essay, ‘You and the Atom Bomb’, written in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of mainland Japan, notes that, in terms of the ability of elite groups to wield power, the arrival of nuclear warheads marked a dramatic shift in the power-broker’s capacity. The musket, which arguably allowed the American War of Independence to be won by the insurgent colonists, was a democratic weapon. The atom bomb was not. An autocratic regime with a silo full of warheads now found itself in possession of the ultimate military threat. Simultaneously, the atom bomb buttressed the position of all nuclear states by creating an eternal power-balance of nations, none of whom would ever, when it came to it, press the button. If this was Orwell’s prophecy of a future, late twentieth-century civilisation, then what did he imagine it was replacing?

Orwell’s background, it cannot be often enough stressed, was that of a thoroughly conventional upper-bourgeois Englishman — born, as he put it with characteristic precision, into ‘the lower-upper-middle-class’, educated at an elite school (Eton) in the company of boys who were to distinguish themselves in all quarters of politics and the arts, and with experience of imperial service. Although he claimed to have forgotten every word of Greek, he was ever taught and did not believe in God, the formative influences on him were Hellenic and Judaeo-Christian and he never lost his respect for either of these cultures and the moral values that they inculcated. One clinching demonstration of these affiliations is his request to be buried according to the rites of the Anglican church. Another is his belief not only that certain opinions were ‘blasphemous’, but also that this term could stretch beyond its traditional orbit of offence given to religious observance. Three months before his death in January 1950, he wrote a rather peculiar letter to his friend Malcolm Muggeridge from his hospital bed, complaining about a magazine advertisement he had seen for a brand of socks which featured a picture of Zeus beneath the slogan: ‘Fit for the gods’. ‘I think you will agree that it is, in a way, really blasphemous,’ he noted. And if his moral viewpoint came pretty much unmediated from the opinions handed down in Eton College chapel and its classes in classical literature, then, despite an enduring interest in the lives of ordinary people and the impact of radical pamphleteering, his view of history was a traditional one of mighty deeds and battlefield-bestriding colossi, invested at its core with a tremendous romanticism. There is a significant passage in his early novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter, published in 1935, in which its heroine, Dorothy Hare, ends up teaching in a dreadful private school in the west London suburbs, where the children are so starved of basic information that they scarcely know whether the earth goes round the sun or vice versa. Halfway through her account of the stupendous levels of ignorance on display, the point of view wavers a little, Dorothy’s voice recedes and Orwell’s takes over: History was the hardest thing to teach them. Dorothy had not realised till now how hard it is for children who come from poor homes to have even a conception of what history means. Every upper-class person, however ill-informed, grows up with some notion of history; he can visualise a Roman centurion; an eighteenth-century nobleman; the terms Antiquity, Renaissance, Industrial Revolution evoke some meaning, even if a confused one, in his mind. But these children came from bookless homes and from parents who would have laughed at the notion that the past has any meaning for the present. They had never heard of Robin Hood, never played at Cavaliers and Roundheads, never wondered who built the English churches or what Fid.Def. on a penny stands for.

You may note the significance of these four examples: a much-romanticised English outlaw whom centuries of mythologising have divorced from any kind of historical reality; the opposing sides in the English Civil War; the enduring architectural face of English Christianity; and the sixteenth-century royal title, Defender of the Faith, authenticates the idea of a state church. That invocation of the English Civil War offers a particularly emphatic glance at Orwell’s historical romanticism. Orwell was a paid-up democratic socialist, a member of the British Independent Labour Party, asked to stand for parliament in the 1945 general election that ushered in a socialist government, a man who fought for a republican militia during the Spanish Civil War and took a bullet through the throat. Yet he once remarked that, had he been forced to take sides in the English Civil War, he would have been a monarch-supporting Cavalier rather than a Roundhead because the latter were ‘such dreary people’. Style, you see, would always conquer niggling utilitarian efficiency. This conventional, indeed Victorian, view of civilisation was important to Orwell not only on its own terms but, as the 1930s wore on, for the bulwark — an increasingly frail impediment — it offered against the new political systems that were taking its place. In Coming Up For Air, the last of the four novels he wrote before the onset of the Second World War — in this case, published only a few months before it began — which are full of terrifying intimations of what is to come, there is a scene in which Orwell’s hero, George Bowling, pays a visit to a friend of his named Porteous, who turns out to be a retired classics master. There is something incongruous about this encounter, for Bowling is an insurance agent and nothing in his background or previous career offers any clue as to how he and Porteous might have struck up an acquaintance. The suspicion is that Porteous — detached, unworldly, not only disengaged from the political process but contemptuous of its ephemerality — is there to make a figurative rather than a fictional point. All his talk is, as Bowling puts it: ‘about things that happened centuries ago. Whatever you start off with it always comes back to statues and poetry and the Greeks and Romans. If you mention the Queen Mary, he’d start telling you about Phoenician triremes.’ And what does Porteous think of power politics, of continental dictators, lofted torches on glass-strewn streets and columns of marching men? What, in particular, does he think of Hitler? ‘I see no reason for paying any attention to him,’ he remarks. ‘A mere adventurer. These people come and go.’ Bowling, despite his respect for Porteous’s learning, isn’t so sure. ‘I think you’ve got it wrong,’ he tells his friend. ‘Old Hitler’s something different. So’s Joe Stalin. They aren’t like these chaps in the old days who crucified people and chopped their heads off and so forth, just for the fun of it. They’re after something new — something that’s never been heard of before.’ What they are after — and here the passage reveals itself as a prelude to Nineteen Eighty-Four — is the pursuit of power for power’s sake; not as a means to an end (utility, revenge, martial supremacy), but because this pursuit is seen as the only valid objective of life. Ultimately, Bowling concludes that Porteous is ‘dead’ – spiritually, that is, rather than physically — and that the chief problem of the 1930s is that ‘all the decent people are paralysed. Dead men and live gorillas. Doesn’t seem to be anything between.’

As this argument confirms, Orwell was a man out of his time. As he once put it in a poem about his predicament and, by extension, the predicament of every other twentieth-century man who really only wanted a quiet life: ‘I wasn’t born for an age like this. Was Smith? Was Jones? Were you?’ Neither is Winston Smith, the ground-down but rebellious hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four, a novel whose working title was The Last Man in Europe. The juxtaposition of this intensely conservative background with the radicalism of his politics created an abiding inner conflict. Here, essentially, was a progressive who was, as one of his friends put it, ‘steeped in the worst illusions of 1910’, a man who could harangue the incoming (and reformist) Attlee government of 1945 for not instantly abolishing the House of Lords while putting his newly-adopted son’s name down for a public school and insisting, in a book review written in 1948, that Eton has the great virtue of ‘a tolerant and civilised atmosphere, which gives each boy a fair chance of developing his own individuality’. As a conservative in everything but politics — not quite, perhaps, the paradox it sounds and certainly a time-honoured feature of the British political system — Orwell’s outlook on the post-war world became steadily more pessimistic. His retreat to Jura, a remote island in the Inner Hebrides where Nineteen Eighty-Four was written and where he incubated his final illness, seems largely to have been undertaken because he believed that, in Scotland, his son might be far enough away from London to survive a nuclear attack. On the other hand, he also believed that ‘civilisation’ could, in ideal conditions, reconfigure itself to benefit the whole of humanity rather than a tiny cadre of bureaucratic fixers. This future society would, necessarily, be socialist — the experience of being in Barcelona in January 1937, not long after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, when he believed he had witnessed a genuine socialist community, informed his view of left-wing politics for the rest of his life. But he was aware that the age of small-scale communitarian life was over. This was his argument against early twentieth-century writers such as GK Chesterton, who advocated a kind of backward-looking medievalism built on a self-consciously old-fashioned rural and communal life.

Interestingly, he was an early advocate of something that looks very like a European Community — a kind of democratic socialist Europe where, as he put it, ‘people are relatively free and happy and where the main motive in life is not the pursuit of money or power’. The essay, ‘Toward European Unity’, published in the American periodical Partisan Review in 1947, wonders where some kind of democratic socialism can be induced to put down roots and decides that ’the only area in which it could conceivably be made to work, in any near future, is Western Europe’.

Apart from Australia and New Zealand, the tradition of democratic socialism can only be said to exist, and even then precariously, in ‘Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, the Low Countries, France, Britain, Spain and Italy’. How was this ideal to be obtained? There were three obstacles to any kind of European unity, Orwell diagnosed, and they were Russian hostility, American hostility and imperialism. For Britain, for whom the retreat from empire remained a key political topic for the next decade and a half, imperialism was perhaps the greatest obstacle of all. Orwell had pointed out as early as 1939, in an essay called ‘Not Counting Niggers’, that no future Western society could be genuinely fair unless it acknowledged that its living standards relied on the imperialist exploitation of cheap third-world labour. In a world where the average British labourer earned over £80 a year and the average Indian coolie £7, ‘There can be no real reconstruction that would not lead to, at least, a temporary drop in the English standard of life’ — a drop which it would be unrealistic for any politician to propose. This, as he put it, ‘is another way of saying that the majority of left-wing politicians and publicists are people who earn their living by demanding something that they don’t genuinely want’. Meanwhile, there was the whole question of giving all social classes a share in these new social arrangements. ‘If there is hope,’ he wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four, ‘it lies in the proles’, the submerged underclass of Oceania’s cities who are beyond the clutch of the party and take no interest in its political arrangements. But this, the history of twentieth-century left-wing political movements suggests, is a contentious claim. Looking at the legislative history of latetwentieth-century Britain, for example, if not that some of continental Europe, one might argue that if there was hope it lay not in the proles but in the radical middle classes, and that they, not organised labour, or organised labour’s tribunes, were the real saviours of civilisation. Certainly, most of the major achievements of the 1964–70 Wilson administration were engineered by middle-class university graduates. The British social historian, David Kynaston, has recently published the latest instalment of his history of the post-war era, entitled Modernity Britain, which covers the years 1957–59, the period in which the concept of consumer materialism came into its own and the British Labour Party, with its emphasis on communal will, civic spirit and solidarity, started to tug adrift from an electorate that wanted cars, cookers and fridges. As Kynaston argues, a genuine and authentic popular culture coming up from below began to be replaced by an Americanised mass-market culture imposed from above. What would Orwell have thought of this? He says somewhere that it is pointless to criticise ordinary people for their materialism, given how long they have subsisted in conditions of squalor and neglect. At the same time, he maintained that the chief problem of the mid-twentieth century was that most Western Europeans had jettisoned their belief in a Christian value-system without finding anything to put in its place.

Ultimately an autocratic society can only succeed if its leaders have no interest in what may happen to them after they die. You have a feeling that Orwell’s view of the ‘civilisation’ of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries would have concentrated not so much on more money and better houses, but on the development of an authentic secular morality.


D. J. Taylor