(The Revised Orwell, p.204)”If one thinks of the artist as…an autonomous individual who owes nothing to society, then the golden age of the artist was the age of capitalism. He had then escaped the patron and had not yet been captured by the bureaucrat…. Yet it remains true that capitalism, which in many ways was kind to the artist and to the intellectual generally, is doomed and is not worth saving anyway. So you arrive at these two antithetical facts: (1) Society cannot be arranged for the benefit of artists; (2) without artists civilisation perishes. I have not yet seen this dilemma solved (there must be a solution), and it is not often that it is honestly discussed.” (George Orwell, in TRIBUNE, 1944). Quoted by Arthur M. Eckstein, “George Orwell’s Second Thoughts on Capitalism.”
The last month or so I have been surveying the wildly divergent postmortems on the life and writings of George Orwell, particularly those books that I have studied, Homage to Catalonia (1938), Animal Farm (1946) and his last novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). The three books are inseparable, for they reflect Orwell’s disgust, not only with Soviet Communism, but with dishonest journalists and others in the mass media, including those who produced Hollywood trash. Keep in mind that this media-centered diagnosis of capitalism run amok was very popular during the 1940s, after the Holocaust was finally publicized. That there could have been lurking antisemitism in the explanation that mass media was the demonic force allowing for the rise of Hitler was not broadly recognized.
Leftists (especially “the anti-Stalinist Left” and social democrats) read collectivist and workerist Orwell as one of them, while John Dos Passos, in his later years, lauded him as a force for individual free thought, flinging himself against crushing institutions that man himself had made. As the quote above suggests, Orwell had identified a structural conflict in capitalism that put him in a bind: the marketplace of ideas protected dissident artists like himself, but capitalism was, in his view, brutally imperialistic, fascistic and sadistic toward workers. The Orwell academic criticism is not as divergent in its politics as the Melville criticism, even though Melville, like Orwell, was a fierce opponent of what we now call “Doublethink,” hypocrisy, and lying in general. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/10/27/melville-orwell-doublethink/, or https://clarespark.com/2012/11/17/index-to-orwell-blogs/.)
For most Anglo-American critics, Orwell is a good “Socialist,” a “decent” fellow who sympathized with the troubles of the victims of imperialism, the poor and the working class in general, especially lauding the nuclear family with its contented working class husband, traditional submissive wife, and (quietly) rollicking children. But there are exceptions: not only Norman Podhoretz lauded Orwell’s keen opposition to Soviet Communism, I have found an inflammatory essay by the late professor W. Warren Wagar, who thought that Orwell had a devastating effect on postwar world culture. Like a few other Orwellians, Wagar seems to have thought that crypto-Nazi Orwell’s “dystopia” or “satire” was as much directed at the ultramontane Roman Catholic Church as it was at the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, or the mass media as managed by the still-capitalist British Labour Party. (Keep in mind that the Labour Party was not pure socialism/communism, but was a proponent of the mixed economy, and an outgrowth of 19th century liberal Protestant Christianity; it was most certainly not the “democratic socialism” or “ethical socialism” touted by Orwell scholars as the next big step in civilization. See https://clarespark.com/2011/07/16/disraelis-contribution-to-social-democracy/. )
Is the term “totalitarianism” old hat and imprecise? One feature of the “totalitarian” societies so reviled by 1940s and 1950s liberals or socialists like Orwell is hyper-nationalism and the cult of the Leader/Big Brother. The more alert historians have discarded the “totalitarian” label as a species of utopian perfectionism that was always unachievable; in my own writing I have stressed early childhood as the locus of “total control”, a conception that is misapplied to 20th century dictatorships. Similarly we might ask: Is nativism dead, as many Rightists claim? Or are there still numerous Americans who swallow the notion that America is not only the greatest, most perfect nation ever conceived, and is now happily relieved of the racism, antisemitism, and exclusionism that sullied the national past. And what do these words mean, in concrete reality?
I bring this up because I find authoritarian pronouncements in nearly all sectors of our political culture, but I would never call our country totalitarian, or even on its way to such an awful outcome. Rather, it is deeply fragmented, as it always was, often along sectional or regional lines. Some of us live within an ahistoric religious mentality (where the major conflict is between Good and Evil), while others live in the world of concrete institutions, that may be evaluated as fair, productive, and admirable, or, alternatively, deeply flawed and requiring reform. But whatever our current understanding, we take institutions one at a time, avoiding grandiose claims for the totality. My aim in this blog is to refine how we use political language. One of the bases of our authoritarian culture today is loose talk about prior regimes, including our own. There are persons among us who won’t do the labor of detailed history, but like to throw around big conceptions as part of their self-righteous ideologies; many believe in the devil and in the demonic as independent forces in history, apart from the actual structure and practices of specific institutions. It is they, I argue, who fail to criticize the notion of totalitarianism, a term that had clout in the 1940s and 1950s, but should be thrown out along with other outdated assessments of Germany, the Soviet Union, Italy, and Spain between the wars.