On 25 June 2013, George Orwell (1903–1950) would turn 110. He appears to have been the real prophet of totalitarianism, and far and away the most insightful writer in the West to get the very essence of the tragedy of Eastern Europe. With sound reason, then, the Russian poet, translator, and dissident Natalya Gorbanevskaya called George Orwell an honorary citizen of Eastern Europe.
A left-winger who was bound to examine his political views with his own life, Orwell was a maverick and dissenter among those who were inclined to think about themselves as mavericks and dissenters by vocation. Fiercely attacked by his fellow leftists in Great Britain as a traitor or, at best, as a fellow traveler, Orwell avoided ideological blindness and selective sensitivity so widespread among his brothers-in-arms. Like Ignazio Silone, described by Czeslaw Milosz as one of the most decent political figures in Europe, Orwell held humanity prior and superior to the doctrine, and not the other way around.
A passionate collision took place between Orwell and the left of Great Britain over the roots of a supposedly bourgeois and reactionary concept. Deracination was always favoured by the left as a sign of personal liberty and dignity, yet Orwell tried to reconcile natural patriotic feelings with other modern sensibilities, first and foremost with individual freedom, dignity, equality, and fellowship. He believed that our existential need for the roots and home, if neglected or, worse, despised, may make an awkward comeback in the form of symbolic compensation, such as a fierce attachment to the doctrine or ideology that becomes our symbolic home. Our homelessness calls for compensation which comes in the form of ideological substitutes. As Karl Marx would have had it himself, a genuine proletarian does not have home, for his home is socialism.
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In his essay “Notes on Nationalism,” Orwell drew a strict dividing line between patriotism, which he understood as identification with a way of life and all earthly forms of human attachment, and nationalism, which appeared to him as a belief that one’s group is superior and better than other groups. What results from such a divide, according to Orwell, is a carefully disguised propensity to classify human individuals as if they were communities of bees or ants. For him, patriotism is silent and defensive, nationalism is offensive and aggressive.
Far from several major forms of radical forms of nationalism and ideological zeal and fervour in general, nationalism may come in many faces. According to Orwell, the transferred or transposed forms of nationalism signify our willingness to find an object of worship which may vary from time to time. A pious Zionist may become an ardent Marxist, or the other way around, while it takes little effort to move from left-wing views to uncritical adoration of Russia, even failing to notice Russian imperialism and colonialism.
G. K. Chesterton’s love for Italy and France led him so far as to fail to notice the emergence of Mussolini and Italian fascism, whereas H. G. Wells was blinded by Russia to such an extent that he refused to see the crimes of Lenin and Stalin. That our propensity to fool and deceive ourselves is nearly limitless was closely observed with wit by a perceptive British journalist and writer who easily surpassed all British and European thinkers put together in his ability to foresee the tragedy of Europe. Orwell’s critical essays appear to have been even more original and groundbreaking than his famous satires and dystopias.
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Animal Farm has been widely celebrated in the world without paying much attention to the fact that it was the Ukrainian writer Nikolai (Mykola) Kostomarov (1817–1885) who preceded and anticipated Orwell’s vision becoming the first writer who depicted the future Russian revolution in the form of the allegory about the rebellion of animals against their masters. We would never know if Orwell knew Kostomarov’s fable, but we do know that he was perfectly aware of the Holodomor as well as the tragedy of Ukraine, since he wrote the Preface for the Ukrainian Reader in the Ukrainian edition of his celebrated social and political satire.
Neither was his masterpiece 1984 terribly original. Orwell owed much to Yevgeny Zamyatin whose novel We (1923) served as a great source of inspiration not only for his 1984 but for Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as well. Yet whereas there is not a single mention and word of credit to Zamyatin in Huxley’s work, Orwell acknowledged the genius of Zamyatin in the review he wrote for the British edition of We (incidentally, it saw the light of the day after a good deal of delay, compared to the American edition which came out much earlier).
The point was that Orwell received from Pyotr Struve the manuscript of Zamyatin’s We in French. At that time, Struve, having escaped from the Bolshevik terror, lived in Paris. The author of Down and Out in Paris and London spoke French, and it took little if any effort to fully appreciate the superb literary quality of We. In all likelihood, 1984 has become a variation on all major themes developed in We with the stroke of genius.
However influenced by Zamyatin, George Orwell, much to his credit, was quite profound in making his nuances of thought, such as petty attachment of Winston Smith to little favourite things – a seemingly bourgeois weakness for which he was severely criticized by Raymond Williams and other critics. His keen observations have become history, such as his somber vision of the death of privacy, the colonization of human sexuality, and infinite control over us through the tyranny of TV screen. For this, Orwell will long be remembered as a true prophet of our present condition.