As I Please: Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. 3
by George Orwell (1943-1945)
I believe I’ve stated elsewhere that I would read Orwell write about paint drying. After this I think I’d have to recant that sentiment, as a lot of these reviews and “As I Please” columns seemed rather trivial, especially given the era in which they were written. I still love the man, the thinker and the writer, but I was disappointed by how little he addressed incredibly significant historical moments such as D-Day, Hiroshima/Nagasaki and the end of the war. I can’t imagine he wouldn’t have fascinating thoughts on the topics, and I was eagerly anticipating reading about them. To be fair, a significant part of this disappointment is certainly due to reading Noam Chomsky before this, a guy who only writes about important things.
Still, saying an Orwell book is disappointing, for me, is like saying that not all of Beethoven’s symphonies were masterpieces. That’s just how much I unabashedly love the guy. You still have the pristine clarity of thought, the overwhelming emphasis on reason and objectivity, and even the occasional humility — for instance, when he had to admit that all of his wildly utopian predictions at the beginning of the war about England undergoing a revolution were embarrassing even to him (something I pointed out in my review of the last volume). He still offers fascinating insight into the ground-level politics of WWII, what with its battling factions and ideologies.
The overarching theme of these pieces is Orwell’s humanism and democratic socialism, which he takes pains to defend against conservatism, totalitarianism, communism (i.e., Stalinism), fascism and even Trotskyism (dogmatic anti-Stalin socialism). It leaves me wanting to check out the final installment of the series, In Front of Your Nose: 1945-1950. All that’s left now is to note some highlights:
In the last analysis our only claim to victory is that if we win the war we shall tell less lies about it than our adversaries. The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits “atrocities” but that it attacks the concept of objective truth: it claims to control the past as well as the future. . . There is some hope, therefore, that the liberal habit of mind, which thinks of truth as something outside yourself, something to be discovered, and not as something you can make up as you go along, will survive. 88
That really shows the origin of a large portion of his 1984ideas. Then:
An argument that Socialists ought to be prepared to meet. . . is the alleged immutability of “human nature.” Socialists are accused — I think without justification — of assuming that Man is perfectible, and it is then pointed out that human history is in fact one long tale of greed, robbery and oppression. . .
The proper answer, it seems to me, is that this argument belongs to the Stone Age. It presupposes that material goods will always be desperately scarce. The power hunger of human beings does indeed present a serious problem, but there is no reason for thinking that the greed for mere wealth is a permanent human characteristic. We are selfish in economic matters because we all live in terror of poverty. But when a commodity is not scarce, no one tries to grab more than his fair share of it. No one tries to make a corner in air, for instance. . . Or, again, water. In this country we are not troubled by lack of water. . . Yet in dried-up countries like North Africa, what jealousies, what hatreds, what appalling crimes the lack of water can cause! So also with any other kind of goods. If they were made plentiful, as they so easily might be, there is no reason to think that the supposed acquisitive instincts of the human being could not be bred out in a couple of generations. And after all, if human nature never changes, why is it that we not only don’t practice cannibalism any longer, but don’t even want to? 189-90
I am no lover of the V2 [bomb], especially at this moment when the house still seems to be rocking from a recent explosion, but what depresses me about these things it the way they set people talking about the next war. Every time one goes off I hear gloomy references to “next time”, and the reflection: “I suppose they’ll be able to shoot them across the Atlantic by that time”. But if you ask who will be fighting whom when this universally expected war breaks out, you get no clear answer. It is just war in the abstract — the notion that human beings could ever behave sanely having apparently faded out of many people’s memories. 280
Or again it can be argued that no unbiased outlook is possible, that all creeds and causes involve the same lies, follies and barbarities; and this is often advanced as a reason for keeping out of politics altogether. I do not accept this argument, if only because in the modern world no one describable as an intellectual can keep out of politics in the sense of not caring about them. I think one must engage in politics — using the word in a wide sense — and that one must have preferences: that is, one must recognize that some causes are objectively better than others, even if they are advanced by equally bad means. As for the nationalistic loves and hatreds that I have spoken of, they are part of the make-up of most of us, whether we like it or not. Whether it is possible to get rid of them I do not know, but I do believe that it is possible to struggle against them, and that this is essentially a moral effort. 380
The great need of the moment is to make people aware of what is happening and why, and to persuade them that Socialism is a better way of life but not necessarily, in its first stages, a more comfortable one. I have no doubt they would accept this if it were put to them in the right way: but at present nothing of the kind is being attempted. 398