Does Orwell Matter?

I just finished listening to “an intriguing discussion”: concerning how relevant “George Orwell”: remains today. I don’t know a lot about the man other than familiarity with a couple of his most famous books, but the discussion was intriguing enough that I’m now planning to do some reading both about the man and of his actual works.

It’s evident from even a short survey of his life (i.e. wikipedia) that he was wrong about a great number of things. For instance, his lifelong political views were not only leftist, but quite socialist; he was somewhat of a latecomer in opposing Nazism in the late 1930s; and he opposed the creation of an independent Jewish state. Nevertheless he is frequently quoted and cited for support by both left and right.

The easiest answer to this paradox is first, that he was _mostly_ right about some of the most important issues of his era. The three epochal issues the discussion mentions are 1) colonialism/imperialism, 2) fascism and 3) Stalinism. Still, the commentators point out that he was not completely right even on those issues. Concerning the first, his opposition of colonialism on the grounds of economic determinism is now widely considered fallacious; on the second, his opposition to fascism while apparently strongly felt was late in coming and otherwise unnotable; and on the third he was apparently more opposed to Stalinist totalitarianism than to communist ideology. Thus, even though he is widely considered right on all these issues he was often right for the wrong reasons.

Accordingly, if only for his positions on these issues Orwell would likely be of little note today; however, the commentators convincingly argue that his insights regarding human nature and the nature of totalitarianism were profoundly, penetratingly, timelessly correct, issues he confronted in those of his works that remain most well-known today, _1984_ and _Animal Farm_. Indeed, the panelists pointed out the uncanny resemblance of the states described in those works to the operation of modern totalitarian states such as North Korea.

The title of the segment, _’Does Orwell matter?’_, refers to the vogue of invoking his name in the current political climate, particularly in reference to some of the ‘big questions’ of _this_ age, such as Iraq (the panel discussion took place just a couple weeks after the fall of Baghdad). The entire panel seemed to agree that seeing current events through an Orwellian lens was likely to be unproductive–as they noted he was certainly not right about everything. Regardless, we can still gain insight and understanding from his deepest, most universal ideas.

Overall the discussion was fascinating. It was a quick (25 minutes) window into a subject that I had been interested in before but had never really taken the time to explore. If anyone else gets around to listening to/watching/reading the discussion I’d like to know what you think of it. Also, you may be interested in catching some more of his more penetrating quotes listed “here”:

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