Literature is our shared heritage. Books and authors do not belong to anyone in particular — they are free to be read, enjoyed, and interpreted by all. Nevertheless, every avid reader knows what it feels like to stake a claim on a work or body of literature, then writhe at its misappropriation or misuse. For the Left, few authors inspire this response as much as George Orwell, a self-professed democratic socialist whose books are routinely used to undermine the political vision he quite literally fought for.
To be on the Left and to love Orwell means enduring opportunistic attempts to commandeer his work for reactionary purposes. For the past seventy-five years, the Right has enjoyed robbing the grave of one of the Left’s great artists. But it’s hard to greet the news, for example, that Orwell has turned up on reading lists compiled by Ben Shapiro and Prager University without indignation.
Of course, Orwell is by no means an uncontroversial figure among socialists. His opposition to Stalinism was commendable, but shortly before he died, he went so far as to create a list for Britain’s Information Research Department of writers and cultural figures he viewed as too soft on communism to warrant employment in the agency. Still, that same year Orwell himself lay on his deathbed writing to American publications to defend his last novel, Nineteen Eighty-four, from its hijacking by budding Cold Warriors who were reading it as an attack on socialist ideas. Had Orwell lived past the age of forty-six, one can imagine that his stout defense of the novel, and his ongoing and ironclad commitment to democratic socialism, might have reshaped his legacy.
But the Prager University book club discussion about Nineteen Eighty-four makes the tenth-grade public school classroom where I first read the book look as sophisticated as the Michel Foucault–Noam Chomsky debate. Dave Rubin and Michael Knowles offer some banal surface-level analysis and praise Orwell’s ability to think and write clearly, but they show no curiosity about the foundations of his thought. For the Prager boys, Nineteen Eighty-four is about freedom and “what it means to be human.” Quite right — but Orwell was not, as they claim, an “individualist” in the libertarian sense of the term. This is the crux of the Right’s failure to grasp the whole Orwell. His work certainly concerns itself with individual flourishing and society’s attempts to constrain it, but Orwell reaffirmed his devotion to democratic socialism and collectivism at every possible turn and in no uncertain terms.
Rubin eagerly makes the connection between Nineteen Eighty-Four’s description of the totalitarian government censoring and rewriting books to the trend, supposedly exclusive to the Left, of political correctness. He identifies it as “anti-human to be so against thought.” Perhaps so, but his hypocrisy is glaring: Rubin has praised the political maneuvering of Florida governor Ron DeSantis and his own effort to ban books. Whatever Orwell would have thought of “cancel culture,” he would no doubt be vehemently opposed to DeSantis’s efforts to suppress socialist ideas in Florida’s public schools.
Shapiro tries to gloss over Orwell’s stated political commitments by claiming that the author “didn’t understand socialism on an economic level.” This criticism is confusing, as Orwell was not an economist — his novels are works of art that speak to the political dimensions of the human condition, not Marxist treatises on the functioning of markets. Dismissing Orwell’s politics on the grounds that his work neglects to offer a unified economic theory of public ownership is like claiming that Sally Rooney is not a leftist because her novels don’t comprehensively explicate the labor theory of value.
That said, there’s plenty of evidence in Orwell’s work of the sophistication of his political and economic thinking. Orwell was an apologetic novelist: he famously hated at least two of his books, Keep the Aspidistra Flying and A Clergyman’s Daughter, and considered ceasing their republication. They are not what I would call pleasant reads, nor is Nineteen Eighty-four, but they are better than their author thought and are worthwhile books, especially for those of us on the Left. In them Orwell is positively consumed by economic issues (he rarely isn’t). His characters fret over their pocketbooks throughout, and Orwell makes clear that, though it would not guarantee total happiness, their psychological and physical distress would be greatly alleviated if it weren’t for the woes brought about by their debts and low incomes. This is a point the Right fails to understand: money can’t buy you happiness, but it can certainly help with the copay at your next doctor’s appointment, leaving you with a little more freedom to attend to matters of the spirit.
In his excellent essay “Can Socialists Be Happy?” Orwell outlines aspects of his vision of socialism. For him, there is no ultimate utopia. Total happiness and a resolution to all conflicts is not the end goal of socialism. “What are we aiming at,” he asks, “if not a society in which charity would be unnecessary?” He goes on to describe a world where people need not endlessly suffer with untreated tuberculous legs and where Ebenezer Scrooge’s unearned income is unimaginable. If Nineteen Eighty-four is prescient, Orwell’s nonfiction essays are just as timeless: he might as well be writing about the scourge of American health care and twenty-first-century income inequality.
The crown jewels in the left canon of Orwell’s oeuvre are his book-length journalistic efforts: Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, and Homage to Catalonia. The latter of these Noam Chomsky claims is his masterpiece and is for sure one of the most remarkable works of war reporting ever written. Down and Out is a rewarding read that makes strong arguments for the improvement of the lives of poor and working-class residents of both its eponymous cities. Wigan Pier excoriates middle-class liberals in mid-’30s Britain as it confronts the reader with the dreadful conditions of Britain’s Northern industrial workers.
Orwell was deeply critical of many elements of the Left. At the same time as he called for the state to oversee production and distribution of foodstuffs, he warned against how such power could be abused. Those criticisms are a gift to contemporary democratic socialists as we seek to build a movement that avoids repeating the errors of the past, but they have also made it easier for the Right to seize his legacy. Yet it is Orwell’s complexity and attention to political contradictions that make his legacy worth fighting for.
Again, Orwell is not an easy author to read. Nineteen Eighty-Four is bleak. His early novels are overwrought. And if, like me, you dare to read his diaries, be prepared for hundreds of pages detailing the dismal weather and the monotony of his English garden. There are many contradictions in his body of work, but one thing is clear: he never wavered in his adherence to the principles of democratic socialism.
Orwell was not an individualist in the libertarian sense; far from it. “The real objective of Socialism,” he wrote in his essay on happiness, “is human brotherhood.” Anyone with siblings knows that sometimes you have to wrestle with them, to yell at them, to take their toys to show them their proper use. His criticisms of various elements of the Left were a family matter. When reactionaries try to loot our family inheritance, we have no choice but to lay claim to his legacy.