A fresh view of George Orwell

Honoring the reissue of several works, a reevaluation of "Politics and the English Language"

Topics: The New Inquiry, literature, George Orwell, Politics, Language, ,

A fresh view of George Orwell
This piece was originally posted on The New Inquiry. Follow TNI at @newinquiry and subscribe to TNI Magazine

A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.  It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

It’s hardly as though his profile needed a boost, but what the hell. George Orwell’s publisher Penguin recently declared the inaugural “George Orwell Day” on January 21, the anniversary of his death. Organized in conjunction with the Media Standards Trust, a London-based NGO which runs the prestigious Orwell Prize for political journalism, the commemoration would be an opportunity to reflect on the life and work of one of the 20th century’s most influential political writers. And, of course, to buy his books: To mark the happy, possibly superfluous occasion, Penguin has reissued several of Orwell’s political works, with attractive new jackets designed by David Pearson. Orwell’s 1945 essay Politics and the English Language is perhaps the least known of the five reissues (the others are the novels and 1984, and the memoirs Homage to Catalonia, Down and Out in Paris and London). It is, however, arguably the most significant from the point of view of the work of the Media Standards Trust, and its publication as a discrete volume — at 26 pages it is more a pamphlet than a book, but it does have its own ISBN number — does full justice to its importance as Orwell’s major statement on literary style in political writing.

The New Inquiry

The essay is an investigation of what Orwell called the “special connexion between politics and the debasement of language.” Using as his point of departure five short representative extracts from various contemporary political publications, Orwell decried a creeping invasion of the political vernacular by insidious waffle. Meaning and clarity, he complained, were giving way to hot air and opacity, contributing to a general impoverishment of British political culture. His polemic is censorious yet witty, offsetting a surly, jaded disaffection — the man, one feels, has seen too much — with a disarmingly brisk and easy turn of phrase. Politics and the English Language rails with suitably understated flair against pretentious diction, verbal false limbs, jargon, archaisms, meaningless words and journalistic clichés, culminating in a six-point checklist for avoiding bad prose:



Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

This was about more than just style as a thing in itself. Orwell was writing in defense not of a pedantically rigid standard English, but of honesty and sincerity in politics. “The great enemy of clear language,” he explains, “is insincerity.” When a political commentator willfully obfuscates, it is because he is trying to get you to swallow something unpalatable; in a sincere exchange there would be no need for it. Writing in the wake of the political crises of the 1930s and with Europe devastated by war, the implication was clear: Ordinary people had suffered because their political culture had been steeped in dishonesty.

It is a hugely powerful and persuasive argument, not to mention perpetually relevant, but it needs to be qualified. By and large, political circumstances shape discourse and not the other way around. If the various luminaries of the public sphere were often to be seen and heard talking rubbish in 1930s, it was as much a reflection of the political chaos of that decade as a cause of it. Many a critical thinker interrogating the relationship between media and power has tended to overstate the influence of journalism and public opinion in determining political outcomes.

Seventy years on, many of the clichés that so grated on Orwell are either obsolete or in a state of permanent retreat: the millenarian Marxist jargon of the 1930s has been largely relegated to a sideshow; Latin and Greek expressions are much less prevalent than they once were; editors and readers alike are generally less tolerant of verbose prose and convoluted sentence structures. The language of political commentary is far simpler today, and yet we are seemingly no nearer to rehabilitating political journalism. Indeed, its stock has perhaps never been lower. Writing in the New Statesman in 1980, the late Edward Said traced a line from Orwell’s much celebrated plain-English sensibility to the complacently cozy relationship between journalism and power in the late 20th century:

The plain reportorial style coerces history, process, knowledge itself into mere events being observed. Out of this style has grown the eyewitness, seemingly opinion-less politics — along with its strength and weakness — of contemporary Western journalism. Is it not intrinsically the case that such a style is far more insidiously unfair, so much more subtly dissembling of its affiliations with power, than any avowedly political rhetoric? And more ironically still, aren’t its obsessive fantasies about indoctrination and propaganda likely to promote exactly that “value-free” technocracy against which one might expect plainness and truth to protest?

The essential promise of Politics and the English Language was that “if you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy.” Does this ring true in 2013? From the US State Department’s carefully-worded missives to the tightly-constructed soundbites of Whitehall [Britain’s counterpart to the White House], our contemporary political discourse is replete with evidence that it is perfectly possible to obfuscate by plain speaking, and journalism is right in the thick of it. What does it mean, if not deference to an orthodoxy, to call torture “harsh tactics”, to call privatisation “modernization”, or tothe author use the term “rendered” (to denote the transfer of detainees for torture abroad) without quotation marks? A coded language of obfuscation by euphemism just about eludes the letter — though not by any means the spirit — of Orwell’s proscriptions. If the verbal currency of daily exchange is superficially more straightforward than it was in the 1930s and 40s, the art of bullshitting is nonetheless alive and well. Every single consultant on David Cameron’s PR team will have cut their teeth on Orwell at some point in their political education; they will only craft their spin all the more judiciously for having read Politics and the English Language.The game, in short, has moved on.

Nor did the fastidious formal honesty of Orwell’s prose fully safeguard him against those ‘follies of orthodoxy.’ His own political lexicon was punctuated with clichés, problematic assumptions and authorial conceits, some of which carried far-reaching implications. At the less contentious end of the spectrum is the ambiguous role of what Said called Orwell’s “tourism among the dogs” — the sojourn into poverty that would be Down and Out in Paris and London — where “the off-stage presence of home and the possibility of a phone call for money to [his] Aunt Nellie constitute the narrator’s bad faith when he was a plongeur in Paris or a tramp in England.” Orwell was by no means the first middle-class writer to “slum it” for his art, but one suspects he would have been quicker than most to pour scorn and derision — on grounds of sincerity, honesty and perhaps even fundamental decency — on any contemporary who had beaten him to the idea.

More troublesome is the undifferentiated rendering of “the masses” of “proles” in Orwell’s political writing, most forcefully highlighted by the Marxist critic Raymond Williams in a series of essays on 1984. It is a moot point whether “the masses” constitutes a cliché for our purposes — the term had certainly been in the lexicon for well over a century, more than long enough for Orwell to have been used to seeing it in print. For Williams, the son of a railwayman, there was something downright offensive in Orwell’s idealization of the brawny working man. Inflected with an anthropologist’s tone of inquiry, Orwell’s language betrayed a romanticism as crudely reductive as any Soviet propaganda, incurring a stinging rebuke from Williams:

It needs to be said, however bitterly, that if the tyranny of 1984 ever finally comes, one of the major elements of the ideological preparation will have been just this way of seeing “the masses” … the eight-five percent who are proles.  And nobody who belongs to this majority or who knows them as people will give a damn whether the figure on the other side of the street sees them as animals to be subjected or as unthinking creatures out of whose mighty loins the future will come.

Was it too much to expect Eton-educated Orwell not to think that way about the working classes? As Williams has suggested, an absence of organic social connections may go some way to explaining not only his tendency to represent “the proles” in idealized and generic terms, but also, more generally, the singular contrarian impulse that prompted Orwell to throw his weight around with such indiscriminate abandon. For here was a man whose political identity was fraught with contradictions: An exile by choice from his social class, he was on the left but not, as it were, of it.

Of the five short extracts offered up by Orwell at the start of the essay to exemplify the “mental vices” that were degrading the English language, three are written by academics (including Professor Harold Laski and Professor Lancelot Hogben) and two are gleaned from leftwing publications (a communist pamphlet and a letter in the Labour weekly, Tribune). For all his learning Orwell was never a scholar; for all his socialist rhetoric he never formally affiliated himself with the labor movement. Could it be that Orwell’s trenchant polemicizing on the subject of language was merely of a piece with that general propensity for populism and misanthropy with which he routinely filled the void of his aloofness — ranking alongside his ludicrous attacks on vegetarians, homosexuals and leftists?

On the other hand, perhaps those petulant outbursts prove nothing at all except that you can take the boy out of the elite school — an awfully long way out; all the way to Spain and back — but he will remain in some important respects a chauvinistic oaf. Either way, Orwell’s frequent descents into eloquent boorishness, so tediously aped in our own time by the late Christopher Hitchens, are difficult to reconcile with his platitudes about decency and the abhorrence of “anything outright barbarous.”

Shortly before his death in 1950, the author of 1984 supplied the Foreign Office with a list of public figures whom he suspected to be communist sympathizers and fellow-travellers — “cryptos”, in the language of the time.  In his explanatory annotations, an ailing Orwell revealed a quasi-Nietzschean revulsion at the “sentimentalism” of his opponents on the left — a charge so conveniently nebulous it would have been the envy of many a KGB officer. One alleged “crypto” was highlighted for his “tendency towards homosexuality”; Paul Robeson, the black singer and antifascist, friend of the Spanish Republic and the Welsh miners, was preposterously denounced as “very anti-white.”

The irony of the anti-totalitarian intellectual turning informer would not have been lost on Orwell, but neither would it necessarily have bothered him. This episode — somewhere between a vanity project, a grim joke and something altogether more serious — only came to light several decades later with the declassification of his government files. Its significance consists in what it tells us about how Orwell saw himself and his work in the wider scheme of things. Clearly his antipathy towards the police state was a strictly contingent and flexible position. His sense of the moral responsibility of the intellectual — of the importance of not submitting oneself to orthodoxy — evidently had its limits. None of which would have mattered very much, except that he had made such a great song and dance about sincerity and objectivity.

Eric Arthur Blair died much too soon, aged just 46, at the hands of tuberculosis. It is in some ways a blessing that he did not live to endure some of the leftist writing that has, since the 1960s, been churned out by the acolytes of Jean-Paul Sartre and the discipline of psychoanalysis. From Alain Badiou in France to Judith Butler in the United States, an esteemed coterie of radical thinkers have redefined prolixity with a veritable mint of flaky coinages — tenuous Latinizations, grotesque compound words and hideously self-referential jargon — squalidly ensconced in some of the most constipated dirge that ever passed for syntax. Death, you see, is not all bad.

The New Inquiry is an online journal of social and cultural criticism. Every month,TNI releases a subscription-based magazine for $2, available for download in both PDF and e-reader formats. Support TNI and subscribe for $2 here.  

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