Here’s why: because Orwell is the kind of revolutionary who actually seems like a guy you’d like to be around. He is human: complex, self-critical, and imperfect. He speaks the people’s language, not the People’s Language. He is the symbol of a left that could win, a left that is defined not by its benevolent tech behemoths or diverse corporate boardrooms or slightly-less brutal cops, but by its vision of the world that is genuinely different, a human-sized world where notions of right and wrong are more permissive than they are now (though traditions are still respected), where common sense is once again common (just less racist, sexist, or classist), where ordinary people can work decent jobs and have decent houses and live decent lives. He is perhaps the only thinker, living or dead, whose work could receive a fair hearing from everyone from libertarians to socialists to libertarian socialists. He shows us how to persuade people thoughtfully and lovingly… and how to recognize when there’s no choice but to run for the barricades. His thoughts exist in the quiet, unoccupied spaces that modern society seeks to banish from our minds. Rediscovering how to think like Orwell is the first step toward thinking both critically and kindly, which is itself the first step toward healing this battered world we live in.
These days she sees the story differently. Orwell’s novel is “a handbook for now,” she told me, and its central message is, “as young black kids are saying, ‘Stay woke.’ It’s about staying awake, staying rebellious, staying human. We’re in a power struggle to hold on to fact, to say, ‘This is a lie.’ If we keep doing that, we can defeat this.”
…Orwell’s 1984, dark as it is, prefers to regard the human spirit—its capacity to love—as rather a large thing that can endure much. This is perhaps why the book is finding a place in so many American homes. Yes, it is a warning, just as it was in 1949, but it also offers an example and a glint of light.
If there is hope, it lies in the prose.
While I wouldn’t go as far as Kristian Niemietz, I’d agree that Orwell is probably not destined to be remembered for much beyond 1984 and Animal Farm, and I say this after having recently read the four volumes of his collected essays, journalism and letters, much of which is still worth reading. Dead in 1950, his whole adult life was dominated by the importance of communism and fascism, which makes much of his output seem unfortunately dated by now. (Yes, I know, the media are endlessly hyping the idea that we’re living through the second Weimar era, but that tells us more about their jaded boredom and novelty-seeking than anything else.) And yes, there is quite a bit of special pleading in Orwell’s writing about the possibility of a “true” socialism that would somehow avoid the inevitable tyranny. I can forgive that in him, given his early expiration and his writing talent. But it’s just plain embarrassing to see Slater, who has both sixty-seven subsequent years of history to learn from and none of Orwell’s redeeming facility with the written word to fall back on, desperately grasping at the possibility of an imaginary socialism that has only ever been embodied in isolated individuals, fever dreams of Catalonia notwithstanding. “Current Affairs, publishing mawkish left-wing bodice-rippers that even Spiked would hesitate to touch, since 2015.”
The truly interesting thought is whether Orwell’s intellectual integrity would have survived disillusionment had he lived long enough to see what became of the socialist experiment. I suspect it might have, but then again, we have a contemporary example in Freddie deBoer of someone who undeniably has the integrity to clearly see the failings of his ideological comrades while still clinging to a strange faith in political miracles, so who knows?