Why I Write

Why I Write

Forget for a second about 1984 and Animal Farm.

In just 100 pages this book captures the core of Orwell's political thought and writing style.

You'll find his most famous essays, "Why I Write," "The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius," and "Politics and the English Language."

Orwell is an Englishman, he’s prose is pungent, always extremely elegant. You can feel everything he writes is driven by a sincere interest in challenging the status quo, changing the perspective of how people think, and possibly transforming English society.

Political Thought

Orwell is a social democrat – If you believe there is such thing as social democracy. His yearning for equality is tangible on every page. Not only equality before the law he wants, but economic equality. He wants economic planning as well as national ownership of the means of production.

But he doesn’t want any dictatorship of the proletariat. He wants socialism without authoritarianism. He wants equality without conformism. And he thinks this is possible. But it is possible in England only, thanks to the special character of the English people.

English manners and the different kind of patriotism will render impossible for dictatorships to thrive in there. Englishmen and women are individualist and “the power-worship which the new religion of Europe, and which has infected the English intelligentsia, has never touched the common people.” They have always lived “to some extent against the existent order.”

This optimistism towards English attitudes guarantees socialism will not soon transform into authoritarianism there. He’s optimistic that the moment will come when the leaders of democratic socialism will appear. This will happen “when the psychological need for them exists.”

And now you understand the goal of his writing. Orwell is engaged in shifting English consciences toward that need, toward feeling the psychological necessity of having those kinds of leaders.

George Orwell (1903-1950)

He’s a genuine social democrat who thinks there is a common good, but rulers tend to do their interests instead. England is “a family with the wrong members in control,” he writes.

From an economic perspective, Orwell despairs that England is divided. English character wouldn't be altered if people were economically equal because “The nation is bound together by an invisible chain.” Rich and poor are reading the same books, going to the same sport matches and listening to the same radio programs. Clothes start to be similar as well. And you increasingly see “people of indeterminate social class.”

So, if economics is not a divisive trait anymore, why should people be economically unequal?

His aversion to class privileges was so profound that he perceived war as a positive force for two reasons:

  1. It would have leveled the economic field;
  2. It demonstrated “that private capitalism…does not work” as it wasn't able to provide essential goods and furniture.
"The lady in the Rolls-Royce car is more damaging to morale than a fleet of Goering’s bombing planes”
1900s Rolls-Royce

At the same time, Orwell is an individualist. He's not that socialist who praises totalitarian equality and acclaims conformism and homogeneity. He doesn’t advocate the loss of individuality. He doesn’t want people to identify with a whole body. He values all those tiny differences that you can find among UK areas. People who live there feel themselves different from one another, actually! This is reflected

"by the fact that we call our islands by no less than 6 different names, England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles, the United Kingdom and, in very exalted moments, Albion.”
“The vastness of England swallows you up, and you lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single identifiable character. Are there really such things as nations? Are we not 46 million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos!”

Language and Politics

Beside his political engagement, you can't think of Orwell without thinking about the corruption of language. In this little book Orwell provides an antohology of how writers and politicians conceal themsleves and their actual intents behind words.

"If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought"

On the one side, Orwell makes tons of fun about writers and their writing styles. He dedicates pages and pages to those second-hand phrases that were becoming increasingly popular among writers and politicians. Completely empty sentences. Words that don’t mean anything. Nouns and adjectives packed together and delivered, whose meaning remains obscure.

Beside the crazy sentences writers use (such as a development to be expected in the near future, cul de sac, or epoch-making), he identifies a dangerous category of words. He calls it, the "meaningless words" - probably words you use everyday. Among them freedom, democracy, socialism, and justice. They are dangerous because are often used in a consciously dishonest way. Politicians use these words to confuse listeners and readers and ultimately make them agree with what they're preaching. In this way, politicians are able to defend the indefensible. These words are meaningless because they have been so corrupted, misued, and over-used that are now but empty words.

On the other side, you can feel a little of melancholy in Orwell's assessment here. His belief that people may no longer wish to invest time and energy in writing, in choosing the right words. There seems to be a reluctance to contemplate the precise, transparent, and straightforward choice of words. Many hide behind extravagant metaphors and stylistic exercises, which ultimately leave the reader either perplexed or deceived.

My Take Today

Orwell is a genius. The way he writes about politics is personal, engaging, and political of course. In the eyes of the reader, he is never patronizing, he’s clear, empathic, and sincere. Orwell never conceals his political leaning.

This is probably the reason why you’d like reading this book. No matter your part of the political spectrum, Orwell is always a good reading choice.

You will find it difficult to argue against him when he discusses politics and the society to come. Even if he throws bombs and grenades against capitalism, you really don’t feel in the mood of dismantling his arguments one by one.

(And I won’t. It’s just a bit difficult for me to understand how abolishing economic differences, way of dressing, cars, etc. you will be able to avoid conformism as well. People think differently also when they have the possibility of seeing different things around them. Different levels of wealth, cars, suits.)

You realize that at the end of the day, his political leaning does not matter so much. Reading this book by Orwell gives you the chance to reconcile with ideas you may dislike or even hate.

His fight for clarity is a fight for democratizing writing and reading, I think. For letting everyone understand.

It’s a fight for sincerity. The thing Orwell was best at.


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