Sixty-five years ago this week, George Orwell, the famed English novelist and writer, died. There are perhaps few individuals who hold such a lofty place in the 20th century history of the English language. Orwell’s style, directness and candour continue to set the standard for many authors today. I recall when I asked a rather noted writer for comments on my own prose, that person pointed me to Orwell as a model. But it is not simply his grace or elegance that inspires the English-language writer – or which is relevant today.
Orwell has inspired additions to the English language, through many now commonly used phrases, and entirely new words. Many of those come after his keen ability to identify how power provided to institutions can be used in a negative way. Were he alive today, it is likely he’d feel quite vindicated, if distressed, by his accuracy.
But the writer was not a lofty pacifist who abjured all kinds of power. Indeed, he believed power ought to be used in the world in support of what was good. He was, one might say, a part of the British left – but while substantial parts of the British left today rail against the use of power to repel evil, Orwell took up arms.
Entirely voluntarily, he travelled to Spain to fight against fascism. One wonders if a 2015 Orwell, perhaps a more cosmopolitan one, might have been a “foreign fighter” in Syria. Perhaps rather than focusing his opposition to political extremism of left and right, a modern Orwell might have focused it on authoritarianism in the Arab world – or for that matter, religious extremism. If that had been the case, what would Animal Farm, a satire centred on a farmyard but based on what Orwell saw as Stalin’s quasi counter-revolution, have looked like? What would an Animal Farm of 2015 have tried to mimic?
Ironically, Orwell’s other famous tome, the bleakly dystopian 1984, became the subject of much media attention in Egypt, when police arrested a Cairene student for filming security services. The student had a copy of it in his bag, leading to suspicions he had been arrested at least partly due to that. The irony increased when as a result of the media attention, the book became even more popular and widely available in Cairo.
1984 imagined a totalitarian future where the securitisation of the state led to a more powerful central authority. Anyone who travelled to Syria under Bashar Al Assad before the revolutionary uprising in 2011 would find it difficult not to see traces of that – not in fiction, but in fact. Orwell’s taste of the Arab world, nonetheless, was limited to six months recovering in Morocco, after being badly wounded in Spain. One imagines if he had been alive today, he’d probably be on book tours in Dubai and writing very critically about much of the region.
His political views were neither complicated nor complex – but they were consistent. Orwell was on the British left, but he rejected Stalinism and described Russian totalitarianism as a “poisonous influence” in Britain. How many times in the last four years have political ideologies become tribes of common cause, rather than based on political principles? How many faux leftists, for example, have seen fit to promote Syria’s Mr Al Assad as somehow the “lesser evil”, or worse still, a companion of the “anti-imperialist vanguard”? Indeed, such leftists have betrayed even the leftists of Syria themselves.
Unlike many of today’s writers, whether in the Arab world or in modern Europe, Orwell did not hide his thoughts behind flamboyant language. Nor did he use his skill to curry favour with regimes or authorities that he recognised as deeply flawed. Indeed, it would have been difficult to find any regime at all that would have met with his complete approval. He lived in a continual awareness that criticism of power was necessary, even the power of one’s nation. How many writers can truly say they imbibe that one value of speaking truth to power – again, within the Arab world or beyond it?
Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC
On Twitter: @hahellyer