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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Orwell Was Right

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, June 1, 2003


George Orwell: A Brief Life

Orwell’s real name was Eric Blair, and he was born in India on June 25, 1903, where his parents were both members of the English Civil Service, and his father an official in the Opium Service. At the age of three, he returned home to England with his mother. His family was what he called “lower-upper middle class” that is “upper-middle class without money” He studied hard for a scholarship to Eton, but, once accepted, did little work there, and he would write later about his horrible experiences in the British public school (what we would call private school) system. White most of his school friends at Eton went on to higher studies at Cambridge, Orwell (or Blair, as he still was) enlisted in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. Almost immediately upon arrival in Burma, Blair was horrified both by the squalor in which many of the people lived, as well as by the oppression they faced at the hands of their British colonialists. He also grew increasingly uncomfortable with his own role as a representative of the colonial authority. He stuck it out in Burma for five years, but resigned his commission in 1927, and returned to England.

There, he began to write under the pen name “George Orwell”. His first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933, told of his time spent time among the tramps of England, trying to find out whether the British treated their own poor any better than they did the Burmese and the Indians. (He thought, on the whole, they did, though not by much.) Orwell’s next book, and his first published novel, Burmese Days (released in 1934) reflected his frustrations as a member of the Imperial Police, and his own increasingly anti-imperialist, pro-socialist leanings. A year later, Orwell published The Road to Wigan Pier, a somewhat clinical but moving account of living among the unemployed in west-central England. Two other novels (neither terribly well received) would follow: A Clergyman’s Daughter in 1935 and Keep the Aspidistra Flying in 1936.

In 1938, Orwell went to Spain to fight for the Loyalists of the Spanish Republic against the fascist dictator Franco. While he had never intended to report or write about his experiences there, his produced a noteworthy non-fiction account of his experiences, Homage to Catalonia in 1938. While Homage to Catalonia sold very badly at the time but is now seen as a one of the classic descriptions of the war in Spain, especially as a shrewd polemic against Stalin’s attempt to dominate both the Spanish Republic and the whole of the international left-wing movement. His experiences in Spain also moved Orwell closer to pacificism, and back in England, while struggling to eek out a living as a novelist and essayist, he became active in the politics of the left-wing (but staunchly anti-Stalinist) Independent Labour Party (ILP).

However, with World War Two on the horizon, and the spectre of fascism threatening even England, Orwell abandoned the philosophy of pacificism and put himself solidly behind the anti-fascist cause. In 1941, he wrote a grand polemic, The Lion and the Unicorn (1941), in which he argued that the defeat of fascism in Europe could well usher forth a great social revolution in the West. In his work, too, Orwell sought to rescue patriotism from nationalism, and to show that patriotism could be a radical, even revolutionary force, and not just a conservative or reactionary one. Because of the severe case of tuberculosis he had contracted in Spain, Orwell was not accepted for military service, and instead spent two years in the BBC's Far Eastern Service before becoming literary editor of Tribune, a post he would hold until the end of the war.

Early in the war, Orwell had conceived a grand design for a three-volume novel of social analysis and warning, which would deal with the decay of the old order, the betrayal of the revolution and the consequences of English totalitarianism. This design was never realized, but in 1945, Orwell published with his post-war masterpiece Animal Farm. Animal Farm, which Orwell said was his only attempt ever to write a work in the form of an allegory, is the story of a revolution betrayed; more specifically, the story of how a group of animals fighting for liberty and equality is betrayed by power-hungry (Stalinist) pigs.

Orwell’s final work, and perhaps his most famous, is 1984. It was written as Orwell’s health was deteriorating rapidly, and he sensed that his remaining time was limited. He completed his work in 1948 (hence the title—with the “48” reversed to “84”), and it was published the next year, in 1949, just a few months before Orwell’s untimely death from tuberculosis at the age of 46. In 1984, Orwell presents a savage, Swiftian satiric warning of what could happen if power was pursued for its own sake. With uncanny accuracy, Orwell pointed out how technology would come to dominate political life; how the world would devolve into a few omnipotent power blocs; and of the difficulty of maintaining one’s humanity in a world grown cold and alienated. He was also an early advocate of a united Europe—an unflinching defender of socialist values against ideologues on both left and right—and the first person to use the term “cold war” in describing the nuclear rivalry between East and West in the post-war period.

The Sermon by Rev. Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz

Words are funny things, and you never know how people are going to take the things you say (or write).

Of course, sometimes the “problem” is just that the people to whom you are speaking aren’t really listening. I remember once, at a somewhat earlier point in my ministerial career, ushering forth with a passionate condemnation of capital punishment, including all the reasons I thought the death penalty was unjust and immoral. And in the receiving line after the service, I can remember one older gentleman coming up to me and saying, “I completely agree. I think we should fry them all, too!”.

Then, the other night at our Evensong gathering, we were discussing various short readings on death and dying and the afterlife, including one by a writer named Jean Stafford in which she says, “If there is whistling in the Great Beyond, I think I’ll kill myself.” Which I took as evidence that this particular writer hated whistling—but from which a couple of those present that night inferred the exact opposite: No, they said, it meant she loved whistling—so much so that she would be willing to kill herself so that she could die sooner and experience it! We were pretty evenly divided on that particular issue.

So it was that I noticed soon after the title of this sermon went to press that it could be taken “wrong”—that is, that it could be taken in a way in which I did not intend it. For in expressing my view that “Orwell Was Right”—I am not saying, in spite of what some critics and politicians have observed over the years since his death in 1950—that he was a man of the “right”, politically speaking. A clearer (though not as lyrical, perhaps) title might have been “Orwell Was Correct” (though that in itself smacks of “politically correct”, which he certainly never was in his own time, and certainly would not always [or even often] be in ours). A truer title, as far as politics is concerned, would be, I think, “Orwell [openly avowed socialist that he was throughout his adult years] Was Left”—meaning “left of center”, a liberal—nay, a radical, politically speaking.

But he was also a man disowned by the political left through much of his life, and through many of the years that have come since.

Orwell defies labels of the conventional sort—and indeed, he disavowed their use while he was alive. He was a man of deeply held principles, but not a man of ideology—indeed, he was distinctly anti-ideological. He wanted people to think for themselves, to come up with their own values based upon their own experience, and not to rely upon the crutch of ideology (or “group think” as he called it in 1984) to do their thinking for them.

I said earlier that he was not always “politically correct”, and that was because he believed in speaking genuinely what was on his mind and in his heart at a particular time, and not always weighing it according to the wants of the particular audience to which he was speaking. “Liberty is telling people what they do not want to hear,” he once said. Tell people the truth openly and unafraid, he said, and you would be beholden to no one—but you might not have many friends, either. Such an attitude identifies him to posterity as a man of great integrity—unlike so many of the intellectuals of his day he never sold out either to Communism or to fascism. But his humanity also is clearly reflected in his human fallibility, and we wince (as much as for Orwell as for ourselves perhaps) when we read some of his thoughts on feminism and homosexuality—or even his screeds against vegetarianism-- where his “truth telling” borders on cussedness, and his “insights” seem stubbornly tied to the mores and myopia of his times.

He was also a man of great contradictions, Orwell was:

A man born into the very bastion of Imperial colonialism, he railed against colonialism and helped to bring it down.

A man born to at least modest privilege, he eschewed privilege, and found solidarity among the “down and out” of his nation, and the world. A world-known celebrity, to his final days he lived a life of extreme simplicity, barely eking out a reasonable living.

A first-rate intellectual, a truly original thinker, he decided early on to write for the common folk, and to employ “plain language” so that he could be understood by all.

A man of the left, he protested against the evils of Stalinism and Communism like a jilted lover, and in Animal Farm produced perhaps the definitive anti-Bolshevik tract of all time.

A man of peace, who abhorred violence, he left the comforts of home to fight for the republican cause in Spain, and back at home when his homeland was threatened, he unstintingly used his talents in its service.

One biographer characterized Orwell as the “wintry conscience of a generation”. So it was that he could be a cold and aloof man at times, who never had good luck with women and never excelled in inter-personal relationships, yet his work often centers on the inherent dignity of humanity and the illimitable fire of the human spirit.

Orwell once said, “…above all, I wanted to make political writing into an art.” As Sir Bernard Clark has written, “His provocations, sometimes perverse and extreme, were always deliberately intended to challenge his readers—to make them think, or even to think twice.”

Orwell described himself once as a “Tory anarchist”, and he was quintessentially English in his love of the countryside and in his Protestant conscience and work ethic. But these values, rather than binding him to a placid complacency in accepting things the way they were, released in him a deep concern for the plight of the poor and the marginalized, and a deep anger at the failures of a social code which did not adequately meet human needs.

He was an Etonian who despised the establishment, and so people have often had a hard time knowing what to make of him. So it was that in 1993, the Conservative Prime Minister of Great Britain, John Major, could wax eloquent about Orwell’s “Englishness” and his praise of “old maids bicycling to communion through the morning mist”—but in the very next year, deride Orwell as just “another public-school-educated Socialist”, like his opponent with whom Orwell (or, Blair, as he was back then) shared the same last name.

But then again, much of the political right has always exhibited a kind of schizophrenia like Mr. Major’s when it came to Orwell. As Christopher Hitchins has written in his book Why Orwell Matters:

“It is true that on the face of it that Orwell was one of the founding fathers of anti-Communism; that he had a strong patriotic sense and a very potent instinct for what we might call elementary right and wrong [what we might call, in our own day, ‘traditional values’]; that he despised government and bureaucracy and was a stout individualist; that he distrusted intellectuals and academics and reposed a faith in popular wisdom; that he upheld a somewhat traditional orthodoxy in sexual and moral matters, looked down on homosexuals and abhorred abortions; and that he seems to have been ad advocate for private ownership of guns. He also preferred the country to the town and poems that rhymed.”

From these scattered bones, Hitchens states, “one could fairly readily (if a trifle hastily) reconstruct the skeleton of a rather gruff English Home Counties Tory.” What is remarkable is that, in fact, Orwell emerged from his life perhaps the antithesis of that. Perhaps the main thrust of all his writings—the golden thread that ties them all together-- perhaps the most often repeated statement in all of Orwell’s writings, according to Hitchens, is his longing for “A society of free and equal human beings.”— hardly the clarion call of an establishment-bound Neanderthal. Whenever forces of state or nation or church or society threatened that ideal—or ignored it—or betrayed it—Orwell was there, brandishing his pen like a sword.

As he points out in his delightful essay “Why Socialists Can’t Be Happy”, utopias are not possible in human history, nor should they be. “Take away all the folly and scoundrelism [of life],” Orwell wrote, “and all you have left, apparently, is a tepid sort of existence, hardly worth living.”

But the imperfectability of human beings (and the societies they build) does not mean that there aren’t goals worth seeking, and things worth living (and even dying) for. Orwell goes on:

“The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood. This is widely felt to be the case, though it is not usually said, or not said loudly enough. Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another. And they want that world as a first step. Where they go from there is not so certain, and the attempt to foresee it in detail merely confuses the issue… This Christmas Day, thousands of men will be bleeding to death in the Russian snows, or drowning in icy waters, or blowing one another to pieces on swampy islands of the Pacific; homeless children will be scrabbling for food among the wreckage of German cities. To make that kind of thing impossible is a good objective.”

But it was no Utopian vision which Orwell presented, much less an ideological one. Indeed, the frighteningly prescient society Orwell presents in 1984¸ with its uncannily accurate portrait of Big Brother and a technologically-dominated society, and three superpowers constantly jockeying for ultimate power, is actually a dystopia—a looking glass image of a “perfect society” gone madly awry—a clear reflection both of the mad and bloodied “workers’ paradise” of Stalinism and of the dangers inherent in the dehumanization of modern, technological society.

“Who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past,” Orwell wrote in 1984. His is a call to see beyond the mass thought and mindless jingoism of our own national myths and glimpse the truth of history, and glimpse, too, the bonds that strengthen our genuine humanity and our human brotherhood and sisterhood.

He calls upon us still, this century after his birth, this half century after his death, to question relentlessly those who rule over us, and to guard with all our strength our innate ability to think for ourselves and our innate responsibility to live in our own truth.

One wonders what he would make of the absurdity of our own leaders, with their nonsensical assertions that the only way to guarantee freedom is to truncate it, and that the only way to guarantee the “security” of our homeland is by cultivating an atmosphere of fear, and hatred, and mistrust.

As Orwell lay dying, he rushed to finish the concluding chapters of 1984, a book that would serve both as his masterpiece and his testament to the generations that would follow. It was, indeed, the product of his all-too-short, but oh-so-rich life. It spoke of all that Orwell had learned of terror and conformism in Spain; what he learned about servility and sadism at school and in the Burma police; what he learned about squalor and degradation in Down and Out and The Road to Wigan Pier. There are no happy endings in 1984, as there is, in spite of our hope and our hard work, there are no guaranteed happy ending to history.

But there is, even in the bleakness of 1984, the indomitable human spirit, surviving in spite of everything, inspiring one another with the light in their eyes, the barest smile on their lips, and the coded knowing that we are not alone—that we are joined in an invisible web that would yet live in truth, which yet yearns for justice, in spite of the selfishness and greed of the men who rule over us, and the evil of the times in which we live.

Orwell might agree, I think, that the critical problem our world faces today is the problem of dehumanization. In the Communist world, the individual is crushed under foot by the government. But in the capitalist world, we are threatened by a different kind of tyranny—a technological tyranny which is subtly and surely undermining our very humanness. In spite of all their outward differences, and in spite of their outward antipathy, there is a common denominator between Soviet Communism and American monopoly capitalism. This is the way that both systems ride roughshod over the human spirit, and deny the supremacy of the human soul. In Communism, the individual is subjugated to the will of the Party; in monopoly capitalism, the individual is subjugated to the will of the corporation. In both, the place of the soul is denied, and the machine—whether human or mechanized—reigns triumphant.

Perhaps it is Orwell, this acknowledged unbeliever, this avowed agnostic, who can call us back to the deepest ideals of our faith. “We cannot create a decent society apart from decent people,” Orwell hope. Perhaps it is in our simple decency, our very humanity, that our greatest hope lies.

George Orwell was not some myopic, maladjusted malcontent who saw no future for modern humanity. He was, rather, a very practical and well-adjusted and gifted man who grasped some of the grave dangers inherent in history. His 1984 does not present an irrevocable portrait of what the future must be like. It is, rather, a stern warning of what the future may be like. No Big Brother controls our future—not yet, at least. In spite of the machinations of men like John Ashcroft, no Big Brother watches our every move—not yet, at least. No, our future is still in our own hands.

Even though we are living in a new century, a new millennium, 1984 is not here. Not yet. Not if we are careful. Not if we remain true to our deepest and most genuine ideals.

 


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