Orwell’s “Complete Reversal” on Capitalism

George Orwell (1903-1950) was a socialist writer who had tried very hard to make a neat separation between economic freedom and political freedom. He thought you could control the production of the body without controlling production of the mind. But, ultimately, he changed his mind. He was an idealist, a communist. He came to see that Marxists were not believers in utopia, but merely power-seekers who did and said whatever needed to gain power – then use it!

Orwell’s far left publisher, Victor Gollancz, accused Orwell of being too pessimistic about the future of the totalitarian state in “Inside the Whale,” an essay in which he uses the story of Jonah inside the whale as an image of accepting the world without trying to change it. Orwell responded to Gollancz’s concern on January 4, 1940: “You are perhaps right in thinking I am over pessimistic. It is quite possible that freedom of thought etc. may survive in an economically totalitarian society. We can’t tell until a collectivized economy has been tried out in a western country (13).” orwell

Orwell saw capitalism as a system in which wealthier people exploit workers. So he didn’t have a high view of economic freedom and, thus, didn’t see why economic freedom would be necessary in a free society.

But Orwell changed his mind a year later. In his BBC radio talked “Literature and Totalitarianism,” Orwell argued that literature would be impossible in the future totalitarian world. In his talk he admitted the inescapable tie between economic and political freedom. “It was never It was never fully realised that the disappearance of economic liberty would have any effect on intellectual liberty. Socialism was usually thought of as a sort of moralised liberalism. The state would take charge of your economic life, and set you free from the fear of poverty . . . but it would have no need to interfere with your private intellectual life. . . . Now, on the existing evidence, one must admit that these ideas have been falsified (15).”

Writing in the conservative academic quarterly journal Modern Age, Arthur Eckstein called this an “astonishing passage” and a “complete reversal” from Orwell’s earlier denial of the necessity for economic liberty. Eckstein chastised Orwell for never being honest enough to return to this inescapable idea in his later writings. “The implications of this view of the social impact of capitalist economics made Orwell the socialist very uncomfortable, challenging his most cherished ideals about how a ‘just’ society should look.” (16)

Eckstein is right: Orwell should have developed the implications of this insight– regardless of the soft feelings of his socialist buddies or his own attachments to vague socialist utopianism. Nevertheless, Orwell recognized the dead-end of the totalitarian state and painted an unforgettable picture in his book Nineteen Eighty-Four, published shortly before his death. He was very much a liberal in his writing, rather than a socialist. He believed strongly in freedom of thoughts. Here is the way Orwell set up the fundamental conflict of civilization: “(1) Society cannot be arranged for the benefit of artists; (2) without artists civilization perishes” (p 18). Orwell offered no solution to this dilemma. He didn’t offer socialism as a solution.

Eckstein, Arthur. “1984 and George Orwell’s Other View of Capitalism.” Modern Age, March 1985. Pp. 11-19.


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