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Literature and Totalitarianism – Orwell’s Speech Re-examined

Thomas Ricks, author of Churchill and Orwell, writes that George Orwell was thinking about his novel, 1984, for some time before its words met paper. Orwell delivered a speech on the BBC in 1941 that appears to be a precursor. Literature and Totalitarianism is condensed here for space reasons, but is worth reading in full.

Orwell begins with some general observations about how partisan the times had become. “Politics — in the most general sense — have invaded literature” making it difficult “to see literary merit in a book with whose conclusions you disagree.” He said that politicization is “the threat that hangs over the whole of literature in the coming age.”

We live in an age in which the autonomous individual is ceasing to exist — or perhaps one ought to say, in which the individual is ceasing to have the illusion of being autonomous. Now, in all that we say about literature, and (above all) in all that we say about criticism, we instinctively take the autonomous individual for granted. The whole of modern European literature — I am speaking of the literature of the past four hundred years — is built on the concept of intellectual honesty, or, if you like to put it that way, on Shakespeare’s maxim, ‘To thine own self be true’. The first thing that we ask of a writer is that he shall not tell lies, that he shall say what he really thinks, what he really feels… Modern literature is essentially an individual thing. It is either the truthful expression of what one man thinks and feels, or it is noting.

Having posited that the great literature of Western Civilization is premised on intellectual honesty, he warns about taking it for granted.

For this is the age of the totalitarian state, which does not and probably cannot allow the individual any freedom what ever. When one mentions totalitarianism one thinks immediately of Germany, Russia, Italy, but I think one must face the risk that this phenomenon is going to be worldwide. It is obvious that the period of free capitalism is coming to an end and that one country after another is adopting a centralized economy that one can call Socialism or state capitalism according as one prefers. With that the economic liberty of the individual, and to a great extent his liberty to do what he likes, to choose his own work, to move to and fro across the surface of the earth, comes to an end. Now, till recently the implications of this were not foreseen. It was never fully realized that the disappearance of economic liberty would have any effect on intellectual liberty. Socialism was usually thought of as a sort of moralized liberalism. The state would take charge of your economic life and set you free from the fear of poverty, unemployment and so forth, but it would have no need to interfere with your private intellectual life. Art could flourish just as it had done in the liberal-capitalist age, only a little more so, because the artist would not any longer be under economic compulsions.

Some will recall Nancy Pelosi’s enthusing over Obama Care because it “allows artists to express themselves and entrepreneurs to take risks withoutaving to worry about keeping their day jobs in order to have health care benefits.”    

Now, on the existing evidence, one must admit that these ideas have been falsified. Totalitarianism has abolished freedom of thought to an extent unheard of in any previous age. And it is important to realize that its control of thought is not only negative, but positive. It not only forbids you to express — even to think — certain thoughts, but it dictates what you shall think, it creates an ideology for you, it tries to govern your emotional life as well as setting up a code of conduct. And as far as possible it isolates you from the outside world, it shuts you up in an artificial universe in which you have no standards of comparison. The totalitarian state tries, at any rate, to control the thoughts and emotions of its subjects at least as completely as it controls their actions.

His description of present-day political correctness is eerie. Universities, with the help of the media, and special interest groups are orchestrating it in the general population. The government is not leading the parade, at least not since Barack Obama left office, although vestiges remain. Nonetheless, political correctness is real and oppressive. Celebrities, politicians, bakers, Google employees, and authors found guilty of deviation are punished by job loss and/or financial and reputation ruin.   

A Division of the American Library Association, (Library Service to Children) recently voted unanimously to strip Laura Ingalls Wilder’s* name from a major children’s book award. According to these guardians of children’s minds: “Wilder’s legacy as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness.”  It is not quite a book burning, but it’s close.

…. … The peculiarity of the totalitarian state is that though it controls thought, it does not fix it. It sets up unquestionable dogmas, and it alters them from day to day. It needs the dogmas, because it needs absolute obedience from its subjects, but cannot avoid the changes, which are dictated by the needs of power politics. It declared itself infallible, and at the same time it attacks the very concept of objective truth.

Both the demands of power politics and disdain for objective truth were on display during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Opponents engaged in a justifications bait and switch. The first objection proffered was the nominee’s alleged sexual misconduct of some 30 years ago. But lack of witnesses and evidence plus absurdity made that too weak a reed. Next, the nominee was charged with being a closet alcoholic. When that fell flatter than stale beer, a third justification surfaced — lack of judicial temperament. But that one did not sell either. Ever creative Democrat senators did not run out of ideas. They ran out of time. Kavanaugh was confirmed.

Orwell’s commitment to intellectual honesty compelled his admission that Socialism is always totalitarian. Yet, he concludes his speech by recanting, a new socialism will be invented that is not totalitarian.

I said earlier that liberal capitalism is obviously coming to an end, and therefore I may have seemed to suggest that freedom of thought is also inevitably doomed. But I do not believe this to be so, and I will simply say in conclusion that I believe the hope of literature’s survival lies in those countries in which liberalism has struck its deepest roots, the non-military countries, western Europe and the Americas, India and China. I believe — it may be no more than a pious hope — that though a collectivized economy is bound to come, those countries will know how to evolve a form of Socialism which is not totalitarian, in which freedom of thought can survive the disappearance of economic individualism. That, at any rate, is the only hope to which anyone who cares for literature can cling. Whoever feels the value of literature, whoever sees the central part it plays in the development of human history, must also see the life and death necessity of resisting totalitarianism, whether it is imposed on us from without or from within.

Orwell’s return to his socialist roots demonstrates the power of the socialist dream. For the first time in American history a major political party now openly advocates it. According to a 2018 Gallup Poll 51% of 18-29 year old Americans view socialism positively. If today’s dreamers still think that socialism will deliver a better, more egalitarian world, they are ignorant of history, and tragically misled.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) provided a glimpse of the socialist future when she told a gathering at the 92nd Street Y in New York:

“We have to have total clarity about what we do, when it comes to everything — a woman’s right to choose, gay marriage … whether it’s about immigration, whether it’s about gun safety, whether it’s about climate … I think that we owe the American people to be there for them, for their financial security, respecting the dignity and worth of every person in our country, and if there’s some collateral damage for some others who do not share our view, well, so be it, but it shouldn’t be our original purpose.   

Collateral damage is a military term to describe unintentional or incidental damage to non-combatant casualties and non-combatant property. Should the Democrat Party regain power, the damage will, at least initially, be directed to those Hillary Clinton called deplorables.

It is a given in politics that the party in power strives to hold on to it and the other party tries to take it back. In America, the peaceful transfer of power is accomplished by elections. The so-called “Resistance,” the use of organized mobs to challenge election results, is something new. The name, taken from the WWII French Resistance to a Nazi installed puppet government, is an effort to inherit legitimacy.

The radical left controls the Democrat Party. It has adopted the tactics of violence and intimidation for which the left is known. Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Cal) is urging fellow Democrats to search out members of the Trump administration and drive them from restaurants, filling stations and other public places. In this cell phone age, these depredations can be viewed almost daily on the evening news.

The tactics are the same, only locations and victims vary. Among them at this writing: nominee and now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and his family, Senator Lindsey Graham, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his wife, Senator Jeff Flake, Minnesota State representative Sarah Anderson and Minnesota GOP candidate Shane Mekeland, but stay tuned.

The radical left emphasizes America’s shortcomings and promises a better more secure life under socialism than the system ratified in 1787. The current socialist message echoes Orwell’s pious hope. This time will be different from all the other times. 

George Orwell was correct about controlled economies and totalitarianism.  But wrong to think socialism can ever be anything but what it is.    

* Author of Little House on the Prairie books on which the popular television series was based.


1 Ann Herzer { 10.28.18 at 9:34 am }

Marcia was an editorial writer for a local newspaper in Phoenix, AZ. I think I read every editorial she wrote. This article should read by everyone in my opinion.

It appears to me that we have too much attempted control on both sides of the political spectrum. Ann Herzer


2 herbert r richmond { 10.28.18 at 11:40 am }

Excellent article, the empowered Progressive Left uses every tactic in Collectivism to gain power and control over America.


Marcia Reply:

I think we are seeing just how desperate they have become by blatant efforts in Florida to subvert an election outcome and a threatening mob outside the home of a Fox News commentator. Thank you for your comment.


3 Barbara Morris { 10.28.18 at 12:51 pm }

Ann, thank you so much for forwarding this to me.


4 Marcia { 11.09.18 at 10:17 am }

Hello Barbara, a voice from the past. Nice to hear from you after so many years. Thanks for your comment.


5 herbert r richmond { 11.09.18 at 1:28 pm }

Thanks for the reply, yes the Socialist Left is trying to promote their favored candidate by any means necessary. I am building an extensive library with almost 75 books, few examples, ‘Collectivism’ by Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, ‘The Great Delusion’ by John J. Mearsheimer. ‘The Black Book of Communism’ by various authors and ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’ by Scholar Select–Arendt, Hannah 1906-1975.


Marcia Reply:

If you don’t already have it you might want to add Harvest of Sorrow by Robert Conquest. It’s not new but one of the best. I have reread The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis many times over the years and it continues to be the most prescient and accurate explanation of what happened to education in this country. Thank you for responding and for the books you mentioned. You contributed to my already overcrowded book shelves.


6 herbert r richmond { 11.09.18 at 3:14 pm }

Thanks again, I will check out both of those books, also I have ‘The Diversity Delusion’ by Heather MacDonald. ‘Liberal Bolshevism(America did not defeat Communism, she adopted it) by Alexander G.Markovsky and ‘The Virtue of Nationalism’ by Yoram Hazony. God Bless You!


7 herbert r richmond { 11.09.18 at 4:04 pm }

Just ordered those two books, they will be of valuable use for my increasing knowledge base of the Totalitarian State, do appreciate you!


Marcia Reply:

Thank you for reminding me, two of those books have been on my list for some time and will look up the third. And thanks for all your comments.


herbert r richmond Reply:

There are two more very good reference books ‘TAKEDOWN’ From Communists to Progressives, How the Left has sabotaged Family and marriage by Paul Kengor, Ph.D. and ‘Collectivism’ A study of the leading social questions of the day, by Paul Leroy-Beaulieu.


Marcia Reply:

Paul Kengor is a favorite of mine. I reviewed one of his books on this blog. Don’t know how I missed this one.

8 herbert r richmond { 11.16.18 at 3:55 pm }

I wonder if you have ever listened to Janice Fiamengo Files on you tube? She is a professor out of Ottawa, who is against Feminism, she is very good.


9 herbert r richmond { 11.19.18 at 1:08 pm }

Also on the same level of radical feminism, I have ‘Scum Manifesto’, by Valerie Solanas, the woman who shot Andy Warhol, also just to have reference material I ordered Betty Freidan, author of ‘The Feminine Mystique and founder of NOW, in addition I ordered ‘Sexual Politics’ by Kate Millett. I believe in knowing thy enemy and their tactics, we are in a battle for the soul of America.


Marcia Reply:

Do you subscribe to Claremount Review of Books? The Fall issue hss some excellent reviews/articles on these topics and more. It is a great resource. I was infamiliar with youtube files you mentioned and will look them up. Thanks.


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