Wednesday, February 20, 2013

1984 And Orwell's Attachment To Socialism

Most people, including most of those who have read Orwell's masterwork and have grasped its overwhelming importance, are unaware of some of the salient facts about it and its author.

George Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair, began and ended his political journey as a socialist. As a journalist and radio personality he promoted what he called "democratic socialism" as an alternative preferable both to capitalism and communism. Yet he never found a real-world example of the system for which he claimed superiority. The socialist states actualized in reality appalled him one and all. His novels Animal Farm and 1984 are unsparing depictions of the totalitarian natures of such states.

But as I've said so many times in these pages, obvious means overlooked.

Orwell's original title for 1984 was 1948. It was a reaction to English socialism -- "Ingsoc" in Newspeak -- as it had crept upon Orwell's homeland over the nightmare years of the Twentieth Century. The culmination of the trend arrived in 1945, when Clement Attlee succeeded Winston Churchill as England's prime minister, and really went to work fastening the socialist hag onto the Sceptered Isle.

Attlee is little known to Americans of our time. Among the policies his government imposed upon England were widespread nationalizations, rigid wage and price controls, and government oversight of all changes of employment: full-throated socialism of the Hitlerine or Mussolinian variety. Englishmen were torn asunder by Attlee's policies. Many liked his massive expansions of the welfare state, as many always will, but few were happy with the explosion of taxation or the need for government approval for every decision an Englishman might make when he ventured beyond his doorstep.

Academics, both of his time and of ours, celebrated Attlee and his socialist program. But then, academics have always been fans of "rule by the best and the brightest." There's a moral in there, somewhere.

Orwell wrote 1984 out of horror at what he saw arising from Attlee's socialist vision. The outrageous invasions of property and enterprise; the relentless centralization of authority; the reduction of individual autonomy to a farce and individual conscience to an afterthought...these things affected Orwell much as they had C. S. Lewis, another brilliant Englishman who began his political quest as a fan of socialism.

What Orwell never quite grasped, despite his recognition of the horrors of socialism as it manifested in the real world, is that it doesn't scale up.

A family household is -- indeed, must be -- socialist in character, with decision-making reserved to one or two adults and the various other members receiving what they need as they need it, without regard for their ability to contribute materially to the family. A somewhat larger community, on the order of a village of a few hundred souls, can function in a quasi-socialist fashion about a few things, such as mutual aid and recovery from calamities. But as the number of persons involved increases, the scope over which centralized authority can be beneficial and tolerable shrinks in inverse relation. Attempts to impose centralized control over large numbers invariably occasion totalitarian measures: State control of information flow, pervasive State propaganda, massive taxation and expropriation, secret police, "re-education" camps, and psychiatric commitment or outright imprisonment for political dissidents.

There is not and can never be a free and prosperous socialist nation.

Orwell deserves honor for his magnificent novels, and for his forthrightness about the need for clarity and precision in speech and writing. But his refusal to let go of socialism, in light of the nightmare visions he created in Animal Farm and 1984 should sound an ear-splitting siren of warning to those who share that posture:

None so blind
As those
Who will not see.

Tragically, such persons insist routinely and stridently that theirs is the only true vision of a good society...and they are everywhere.

Beware them.

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