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100 years of George Orwell - a thinker and writer of great influence

By Robert Manne - posted Thursday, 3 July 2003

Orwell's dream of liberty and equality still has the power to move, writes Robert Manne. But a century after his birth it remains illusory.

Last Wednesday the world celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of George Orwell, the man I regard as the greatest political writer of the 20th century.

I first encountered Orwell in the late 1960s. My political identity at that time had been shaped by the shock delivered by the knowledge that, in the decade before I was born, the Nazis had systematically set about the murder of my family and my people. Because of Nazism, my politics were of the left.


It was Orwell who complicated my political identity. For it was he who explained most straightforwardly the implications of the Stalinist catastrophe. A passage from a letter he wrote in 1939 transformed my political outlook.

"The thing that frightens me about the modern intelligentsia," Orwell wrote, "is their inability to see that human society must be based on human decency ... there is something wrong with a regime that needs a pyramid of corpses every few years."

Being an anti-communist did not mean for Orwell the severing of a connection with the left. What he knew was the grotesqueness of any socialism that did not begin with a complete repudiation of the "Soviet myth". Towards the end of his life Orwell explained: "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism."

During the Cold War, because of his anti-communism, Orwell was regarded with deep suspicion by the left. While the right lionised him, they somehow managed not to notice that he was a revolutionary socialist.

Since the end of the Cold War, Orwell's influence has, if anything, grown. No year passes without new editions of his books or new critical biographies. On the surface this seems odd. Since the Soviet collapse, Orwell's warnings about totalitarianism have lost their relevance. Virtually no one any longer genuinely believes in socialism, democratic or otherwise. Orwell's nightmare has lifted. His great hope has faded. Yet of all the political writers of the last century it is he who has endured the best. There is no other writer whose opinions about the present age we would now be more eager to hear.

Why? It is not enough to talk about the lucidity of his mind or the entire absence in him of cant. Some deeper explanation seems required.


Since the French Revolution all Western societies have been haunted by its two great ideals - liberty and equality. In my opinion, of all recent writers no one was more faithful to the spirit of these ideals than George Orwell. It was because of his love of liberty and equality, which shine through every page he wrote, that his influence has managed to outlive the particular nightmares and dreams to which he devoted his life.

Orwell's serious political thinking began with his involvement on the anti-fascist side in the Spanish Civil War. What Orwell experienced were the brutal attempts by the pro-communist forces to crush their Republican opponents, the Anarchists and Trotskyists.

From this experience all his subsequent political writing flowed. Through the power of his political imagination, Orwell's fleeting experience of the suppression behind Republican lines in Spain led him to an understanding of the atmosphere of the totalitarian state.

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This article was first published in The Age on 30 June 2003.

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About the Author

Professor Robert Manne is professor of politics at La Trobe University.

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La Trobe University
My own private Orwell
Orwell up close (Time Magazine)
Politics and the English Language
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