George Orwell Reveals the Role & Responsibility of the Writer “In an Age of State Control”

Image by BBC, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

What is the role of the writer in times of polit­i­cal tur­moil? Pro­fes­sion­al ath­letes get told to “shut up and play” when they speak out—as if they had no vest­ed inter­est in cur­rent events or a con­sti­tu­tion­al right to speak. But it is gen­er­al­ly assumed that writ­ers have a cen­tral part to play in pub­lic dis­course, even when they don’t explic­it­ly write about pol­i­tics. When writ­ers make con­tro­ver­sial state­ments, it sounds a lit­tle ridicu­lous to tell them to “shut up and write.”

On one view, “it is the respon­si­bil­i­ty of intel­lec­tu­als to speak the truth and to expose lies,” as Noam Chom­sky declares in “The Respon­si­bil­i­ty of Intel­lec­tu­als.” Chom­sky deplores those who com­fort­ably accept the con­sen­sus and delib­er­ate­ly dis­sem­i­nate untruths out of a “fail­ure of skep­ti­cism” and blind belief in the puri­ty of their motives. Faced with obvi­ous lies, out­rages, and oppres­sion, “intel­lec­tu­als”— jour­nal­ists, aca­d­e­mics, artists, even clergy—should “fol­low the path of integri­ty, wher­ev­er it may lead.”

One such intel­lec­tu­al, George Orwell, is often held up across the polit­i­cal spec­trum as a par­a­digm of intel­lec­tu­al integri­ty. Orwell, as you might expect, had his own thoughts on what he called “the posi­tion of the writer in an age of State con­trol.” He expressed his view in a 1948 essay titled “Writ­ers and the Leviathan.” He accords with Chom­sky in most respects, yet in the end does not endorse the view that the polit­i­cal respon­si­bil­i­ties of writ­ers are greater than any­one else. Yet Orwell also express­es sim­i­lar wari­ness about writ­ers becom­ing card­board pro­pa­gan­dists, and los­ing their cre­ative, crit­i­cal, and eth­i­cal integri­ty.

Orwell begins his argu­ment by claim­ing that writ­ers bear some respon­si­bil­i­ty for cre­at­ing the cul­ture that nur­tures pol­i­tics. “WHAT KIND of State rules over us,” he writes, “must depend part­ly on the pre­vail­ing intel­lec­tu­al atmos­phere: mean­ing, in this con­text, part­ly on the atti­tude of writ­ers and artists them­selves.” More­over, he sug­gests, it is unre­al­is­tic to expect writ­ers, or any­one for that mat­ter, not to have strong polit­i­cal opin­ions. The “spe­cial prob­lem of total­i­tar­i­an­ism” infects every­thing, even lit­er­a­ture, mak­ing “a pure­ly aes­thet­ic atti­tude,” like that of Oscar Wilde, “impos­si­ble.”

This is a polit­i­cal age. War, Fas­cism, con­cen­tra­tion camps, rub­ber trun­cheons, atom­ic bombs, etc are what we dai­ly think about, and there­fore to a great extent what we write about, even when we do not name them open­ly. We can­not help this. When you are on a sink­ing ship,
your thoughts will be about sink­ing ships. 

Sev­en­ty years after Orwell’s essay, we live in no less a “polit­i­cal age,” bur­dened by dai­ly thoughts of all the above, plus the dead­ly effects of cli­mate change and oth­er ills Orwell could not fore­see.

We also see our age reflect­ed in Orwell’s descrip­tion of the “ortho­dox­ies and ‘par­ty lines’” that plague the writer. “A mod­ern lit­er­ary intel­lec­tu­al,” he writes, “lives and writes in con­stant dread—not, indeed, of pub­lic opin­ion in the wider sense, but of pub­lic opin­ion with­in his own group…. At any giv­en moment there is a dom­i­nant ortho­doxy, to offend against which needs a thick skin and some­times means cut­ting one’s income in half for years on end.”

But integri­ty requires unortho­dox think­ing. Orwell goes on to ana­lyze a num­ber of “unre­solved con­tra­dic­tions” on the left that make a whole­sale, uncrit­i­cal embrace of its polit­i­cal ortho­doxy tan­ta­mount to “men­tal dis­hon­esty.” He takes pains to note that this phe­nom­e­non is inher­ent to every polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy: “accep­tance of ANY polit­i­cal dis­ci­pline seems to be incom­pat­i­ble with lit­er­ary integri­ty.” Here is a dilem­ma. Ignor­ing pol­i­tics is irre­spon­si­ble and impos­si­ble. But so is com­mit­ting to a par­ty line.

Well, then what? Do we have to con­clude that it is the duty of every writer to “keep out of pol­i­tics”? Cer­tain­ly not! In any case, as I have said already, no think­ing per­son can or does gen­uine­ly keep out of pol­i­tics, in an age like the present one. I only sug­gest that we should 
draw a sharp­er dis­tinc­tion than we do at present between our polit­i­cal and our lit­er­ary loy­al­ties, and should recog­nise that a will­ing­ness to DO cer­tain dis­taste­ful but nec­es­sary things does not car­ry with it any oblig­a­tion to swal­low the beliefs that usu­al­ly go with them. When a writer engages in pol­i­tics he should do so as a cit­i­zen, as a human being, but not AS A WRITER. I do not think that he has the right, mere­ly on the score of his sen­si­bil­i­ties, to shirk the ordi­nary dirty work of pol­i­tics. Just as much as any­one else, he should be pre­pared to deliv­er lec­tures in draughty halls, to chalk pave­ments, to can­vass vot­ers, to dis­trib­ute leaflets, even to fight in civ­il wars if it seems nec­es­sary. But what­ev­er else he does in the ser­vice of his par­ty, he should nev­er write for it. He should make it clear that his writ­ing is a thing apart. And he should be able to act co-oper­a­tive­ly while, if he choos­es, com­plete­ly reject­ing the offi­cial ide­ol­o­gy. He should nev­er turn back from a train of thought because it may lead to a heresy, and he should not mind very much if his unortho­doxy is smelt out, as it prob­a­bly will be.

It might be object­ed that Orwell him­self wrote an awful lot about pol­i­tics from a def­i­nite point of view (which he defined in “Why I Write” as “against total­i­tar­i­an­ism and for demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism”). He even cit­ed “polit­i­cal pur­pose” as one of four rea­sons that seri­ous writ­ers have for writ­ing. But before accus­ing him of hypocrisy, we must read on for more nuance. “There is no rea­son,” he says, that a writer “should not write in the most crude­ly polit­i­cal way, if he wish­es to. Only he should do so as an indi­vid­ual, an out­sider, at the most an unwel­come gueril­la on the flank of a reg­u­lar army.” (His posi­tion is rem­i­nis­cent of James Bald­win’s, a polit­i­cal writer who “exco­ri­at­ed the protest nov­el.”) And if the writer finds some of that army’s posi­tions unten­able, “then the rem­e­dy is not to fal­si­fy one’s impuls­es, but to remain silent.”

Orwell’s essay char­ac­ter­izes the “almost inevitable nature of the irrup­tion of pol­i­tics into cul­ture,” argues Enzo Tra­ver­so, “Writ­ers were no longer able to shut them­selves up in a uni­verse of aes­thet­ic val­ues, shel­tered from the con­flicts that were tear­ing apart the old world.” The kind of com­part­men­tal­iza­tion he rec­om­mends might seem cyn­i­cal, but it rep­re­sents for him a prag­mat­ic third way between the “ivory tow­er” and the “par­ty machine,” a way for the writer to act eth­i­cal­ly in the world yet retain a “san­er self [who] stands aside, records the things that are done and admits their neces­si­ty, but refus­es to be deceived as to their true nature” and thus become a par­ty mouth­piece, rather than an artist and crit­i­cal thinker.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

George Orwell Cre­ates a List of the Four Essen­tial Rea­sons Writ­ers Write

George Orwell Explains in a Reveal­ing 1944 Let­ter Why He’d Write 1984

George Orwell Reviews Sal­vador Dali’s Auto­bi­og­ra­phy: “Dali is a Good Draughts­man and a Dis­gust­ing Human Being” (1944)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Gerald says:

    I think the issue is that many (per­haps most?) peo­ple instinc­tu­al­ly reject the idea that pol­i­tics have to be inject­ed into every facet of life. After all, most of life is lived on the micro, not the macro, lev­el. That is why many peo­ple — and I would have to include myself here — would pre­fer ath­letes, musi­cians, nov­el­ists, CEOs, etc. to just “shut up” and do what peo­ple are pay­ing them to do (not to men­tion that they often sound inane when they ven­ture out of their domains of exper­tise).

  • BH says:

    Be expert or remain silent? One is wor­thy of con­sid­er­a­tion only in the nar­row realm with­in which one is remu­ner­at­ed? What a drea­ry sta­t­ic hell for a human per­son to desire to dwell

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