A Good Read: Russell Baker on George Orwell.

This is a portion of the preface that appears in my copy of Animal Farm (Signet Classic Printing, 50th Anniversary Edition, April 1996):

[…] Orwell, of course, was seldom happier than when he was attacking fraud and hypocrisy and hearing the squeals of the injured.

Despite his insistence on being “political” in his work, Orwell’s career suggests his politics were the sort that real politicians detest. Why, for example, was Orwell so determined to make the case against Soviet communism at precisely the moment all proper people preferred not to hear it? Devoted socialist he may have been, but he had none of the politician’s instinct for trimming sails to the wind when it is expedient to tell people what they want to hear. Worse, he insisted on telling people precisely what they did not want to hear.

He was that political figure all politicians fear: the moralist who cannot bear to let any wrong deed go undenounced. As a politician he had the fatal defect of the totally honest man: He insisted on the truth even when the truth was most inconvenient.

There is an aloneness about Orwell, an insistence on being his own man, on not playing along with the team as a loyal politician is so often expected to do, or else. This is brilliantly illustrated in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language,” showing how politicians twist the language to distort and deceive. This amounts to an act of treason within the political trade. The man is trying to make it harder for a politician to fool enough of the proper enough of the time to gain power.

Another interesting aspect is the following, after the Baker mentions how technology was often times portrayed as being the greatest tool of the tyrant in Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

What was unpredictable was the liberating effect of technology. The Soviet Union could surround itself with walls but could not block out revolutionary radio and electronic waves, which stirred up the supposedly whipped human herd with an irresistible appetite for rock ’n’ roll, blue jeans, and other such subverters of totalitarian rule.


None of this is to say that Orwell and his fellow pessimists of the 1940s ought not to be read with the greatest respect. They should be. They show us the edge of terror on which we lived fifty years ago and help us understand why that generation was willing to spend so much treasure and take such daring risks to keep totalitarianism at bay. And in Animal Farm Orwell left us a lesson about the human contribution to political terror that will always be as up-to-date as next year’s election.

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