How the Right Gets George Orwell Wrong

Free-market zealots like Friedrich Hayek and others on the Right love claiming George Orwell as their own. That requires ignoring Orwell’s entire body of work defending democratic socialism — and denouncing the right-wing worldview of figures like Hayek.

A still from the 1984 film adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. (20th Century Fox)

Just past the midpoint of Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel of an authoritarian society, protagonists Winston and Julia make their way through a text purportedly authored by the fabled dissident Emmanuel Goldstein entitled “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism,” which details the origins, organization, and ideology of the totalitarian society Oceania. Within the book itself, the question of the Goldstein manuscript’s authenticity and provenance is never really resolved. Is the account it offers reliable, or is it merely an invented backstory contrived to obfuscate the truth? Why has the enigmatic inner-party official O’Brien given the text to outer-party functionaries Winston and Julia in the first place? What do its latter chapters — referenced though never actually read by Winston before his arrest — contain? Is Goldstein a phantom created by the party’s propagandists, or a flesh-and-blood, Leon Trotsky–like figure agitating for revolution somewhere beyond the panoptic gaze of its telescreens?

Later in the story, a cryptic exchange between Winston and O’Brien obscures things as much as it clarifies them:

“You have read it?” said Winston.

“I wrote it. That is to say, I collaborated in writing it. No book is produced individually, as you know.”

“Is it true, what it says?”

“As description, yes. The programme it sets forth is nonsense. . . .”

Notwithstanding its status within the narrative, it’s reasonable to extrapolate that Orwell intended the text of the Goldstein manuscript as a broader commentary on the question of totalitarianism. To an even greater extent than the rest of the novel, it therefore doubles as an interesting Rorschach test, alternatively recounting the story of an elite counterrevolution against popular democracy or offering a warning about where the socialist version of democracy will inevitably lead. Thanks to its rather ambiguous construction, Orwell’s fictional treatise serves up ample fodder for a variety of interpretations.

From its text, we learn that the state ideology of Oceania is officially socialist and that the party has come to power using socialist rhetoric. “INGSOC,” on the other hand, is merely one of several totalitarian doctrines in the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four, each of which “grew out of older movements” and pay lip service to their respective ideologies, despite being functionally the same.

“By the fourth decade of the twentieth-century,” Orwell writes in the Goldstein manuscript, “all the main currents of political thought [had become] authoritarian. The earthly paradise had been discredited at exactly the moment when it became realizable. Every new political theory, by whatever name it called itself, led back to hierarchy and regimentation.” Brought together “by the barren world of monopoly industry and centralized government,” the ruling caste of each totalitarian superstate consists of technocrats less motivated by avarice or individual self-interest than the pursuit of power and control as ends in themselves.

The internet era has predictably yielded a deluge of bad writing on Orwell, much of it consisting of intellectually lazy attempts at appropriation from the Right. Some conservatives who cite Nineteen Eighty-Four, in fact, appear to do so in genuine ignorance of its author’s socialist convictions.

Recent examples include Donald Trump Jr declaring of his dad’s suspension from Twitter on January 6, 2021: “We are living in Orwell’s 1984. Free speech no longer exists in America. It died with big tech and what’s left is only there for a chosen few.” Elsewhere, Missouri senator Josh Hawley, in protest at the cancellation of his book contract by Simon & Schuster, similarly invoked Orwell while complaining of a “Left looking to cancel everyone they don’t approve of.”

In the vernacular of the contemporary right, the adjective “Orwellian” has become a floating signifier for left authoritarianism — and, by extension, is now regularly shoehorned into right-wing grievances of every kind.

Misconceptions about Orwell, however, ultimately have a deeper lineage in the conservative imagination going all the way back to one of its foundational modern intellectuals, Friedrich Hayek. In a volume of essays paying tribute to the influential Austrian philosopher and economist, no less than William F. Buckley wrote of “an age swooning with passion for a centralized direction of social happiness and economic plenitude” that would “lead us down the road to serfdom, into that amnestic void toward which, Orwell intuited, evil men were for evil purposes expressly bent on taking us.”

Hayek himself seems to have shared something like the same view, seeing in Nineteen Eighty-Four an affirmation of his famous thesis in The Road to Serfdom (1944) that the likes of economic planning and nationalization of industry represent the beginnings of an inevitable march toward totalitarianism. Speaking to the Mont Pèlerin Society in the early 1980s, he even remarked that “[Orwell] has contributed much more, than The Road to Serfdom has in its original form, to cause the reaction to totalitarianism of which the history of this Society is of course a very important element.”

“A Tyranny Probably Worse”

The most obvious rejoinder to Hayek’s interpretation, and others like it, is simply Orwell’s own words. In a 1949 letter to Francis A. Henson of the United Auto Workers, the author explained his intentions in Nineteen Eighty-Four and explicitly rejected the claim it had been written as a critique of socialism:

My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable and which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism. I do not believe that the kind of society I described necessarily will arrive, but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences. The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.

Several years earlier, Orwell had in fact engaged Hayek’s ideas directly in a review of The Road to Serfdom published by the Observer newspaper on April 9, 1944. Written with characteristic concision, he summarized the book’s principle claim as follows:

Professor Hayek’s thesis is that Socialism inevitably leads to despotism, and that in Germany the Nazis were able to succeed because the Socialists had already done most of their work for them, especially the intellectual work of weakening the desire for liberty. By bringing the whole of life under the control of the State, Socialism necessarily gives power to an inner ring of bureaucrats, who in almost every case will be men who want power for its own sake and will stick at nothing in order to retain it.

George Orwell’s review of The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek, in the Observer of April 9, 1944.

Frustratingly, Orwell refrained from offering any further commentary on Hayek’s absurd characterization of socialism’s influence in Nazi Germany. Rather generously, he even granted that “in the negative part of Professor Hayek’s thesis there is a great deal of truth.” “Collectivism,” Orwell continued, “is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamed of.”

As to Hayek’s normative prescriptions, however, he was visibly unconvinced:

Professor Hayek is also probably right in saying that in this country the intellectuals are more totalitarian-minded than the common people. But he does not see, or will not admit, that a return to “free” competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the State. The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them. Professor Hayek denies that free capitalism necessarily leads to monopoly, but in practice that is where it has led, and since the vast majority of people would far rather have State regimentation than slumps and unemployment, the drift towards collectivism is bound to continue if popular opinion has any say in the matter.

The conclusion of the review makes evident Orwell’s dual anxiety about the dangers posed by either an overbearing state or an all-pervasive capitalist marketplace. He also, critically, departs from the core of Hayek’s thesis in the Road to Serfdom by endorsing the notion of economic planning:

Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war. There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.

Taken on its own, Orwell’s call for a politics reoriented around basic morality might be criticized for its vagueness. In context, though, his conclusion is explicitly a declaration of support for democratic socialism.

Orwell was certainly under no illusions that the mere fact of state ownership is synonymous with democracy or human flourishing. Collectivism — as he rightly observed in both his review and communicated in his fiction — is not inherently democratic and, as the history of the twentieth century attests, the centralized state can indeed be a formidable instrument of oppression. But Orwell equally recognized the violent and anti-democratic features of capitalism — features he associated with war, social deprivation and, finally, the inevitable concentration of power among a small handful of elites.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four and elsewhere, the problem for Orwell is not the state as such but whether its ethos is meaningfully democratic. Unlike Hayek, he saw no necessary contradiction between a national government assuming ownership of coal production and a state managed by the same government respecting civil liberties or freedom of the press. Had he believed otherwise, it is doubtful he would have canvassed for the Labour Party in 1945 — whose manifesto ironically drew inspiration from the very document that had first motivated an anxious Hayek to write The Road to Serfdom.

Hayek’s own understanding of freedom, which remains influential on the Right to this day, was very different. In reviewing The Road to Serfdom, Orwell had been adamant that market tyranny was “probably worse . . . than that of the State” and further impressed that welfarism and public ownership would likely continue to expand “if popular opinion has any say in the matter.” Economic freedom, as he saw it, could potentially be enhanced by economic planning so long as intellectual freedom was protected. Hayek, for his part, was so dogmatic in his admiration for markets that he once defended the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet by arguing it remained preferable to even democratic encroachment on property rights:

As long term institutions, I am totally against dictatorships. But a dictatorship may be a necessary system for a transitional period. . . . Personally I prefer a liberal dictatorship to democratic government devoid of liberalism. My personal impression — and this is valid for South America — is that in Chile, for example, we will witness a transition from a dictatorial government to a liberal government.

Orwell and Freedom

Running throughout much of Orwell’s published writing is a deep mistrust of overly centralized power in any form. In certain respects, the anti-fascism that inspired his participation in the Spanish Civil War ran parallel to his anti-Stalinism and espoused belief — expressed in the preface of one 1947 edition of Animal Farm — that “nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of Socialism as the belief that Russia is a socialist country.”

He was rightly concerned about the enforcement of orthodoxy by the state, but just as worried about the threat posed by capitalist monopoly to freedom of conscience and speech, once writing in the pages of Tribune: “Technically, there is great [press] freedom, but the fact that most of the press is owned by a few people [means that it] operates in much the same way as state censorship.” In the same article, he also wrote that the police “have generally shown a tendency to side with those whom they regarded as the defenders of private property.” Contra Hayek, this was not intended as a compliment.

Contradictions can certainly be found in Orwell, and ample terrain exists from which to criticize him.

The internationalism and anti-colonialism of texts like Homage to Catalonia and Shooting an Elephant are obviously in tension with his writings defending patriotism and his long-standing fascination with Englishness. Though the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is lushly imagined and described, its essentialist conception of power could also be questioned in detail. Do ruling classes really pursue domination for its own sake? Can the authoritarian lust for regimentation and social control ultimately be separated from ideology? Was its author excessively deterministic in his understanding of language and technology?

As the Polish Marxist writer and historian Isaac Deutscher quite fairly wrote in 1955:

In [the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four] it is the collective cruelty of the party . . . that torments Oceania. Totalitarian society is ruled by a disembodied sadism. . . . In Orwell’s party the whole bears no relation to the parts. The party is not a social body actuated by any interest or purpose. It is a phantom-like emanation of all that is foul in human nature. It is the metaphysical, mad and triumphant, Ghost of Evil.

At the end of his life, the author’s ferociously anti-communist instincts enabled him to enter into an odious collaboration with the British state (despite its security apparatus having monitored him for decades). As historian Scott Poole explains:

In the final months of [Orwell’s] life, he . . . made the fateful decision to write up a list of thirty-five names of Stalinist sympathizers and bourgeois liberal apologists for Stalin’s “show trials.” It should be noted that Orwell hoped the British government would use this primarily for propaganda; this was not the type of “list” so familiar in the House Un-American Activities Committee witch hunts in the United States. Still, it was an indefensible decision for a dying man who himself had a hefty MI5 file that detailed his “communist” activities and associates.

Notwithstanding these issues and questions, the Right’s abiding misconceptions about Orwell are instructive about its wider blind spots toward the Left and, ultimately, its fatally flawed understanding of human freedom. With few exceptions, the modern conservative views markets and property rights not only as bulwarks of liberty but, in many cases, has come to value them more than popular democracy.

In the Hayekian sense, “economic freedom” means the freedom of those with money and capital to impose their wills on others and satisfy their desires, big and small, absent any constraint. For Orwell, it implied something radically different, and in no way at odds with the welfare state or democratic control of industry.

Ironically, though also revealingly, the long-standing effort to appropriate Orwell for the Right has occasionally been aided by practices that are nothing short of Orwellian. A 1954 film adaptation of Animal Farm, which recast the story as an anti-socialist parable and rewrote revolutionary proxy characters Snowball and Old Major to make them less sympathetic, was financed by the Central Intelligence Agency. To this day, the introduction to the most popular American edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four quotes the late Orwell’s now famous declaration that “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism.”

Omitted are the words that originally followed: “. . . and for democratic socialism.”