David Smith has been investigating George Orwell and his peers for decades.
But last year, he found something special. It’s a remarkable new discovery that sheds important light on Orwell’s thought in his final years, in the period when he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, and reframes the celebrated author not as a prophet of doom and gloom, as he is often portrayed, but rather as a man of hope, who earnestly believed a small group of people could change the world.
The fascinating story of this discovery dates back, appropriately, to 1984. That’s the year that Smith, who is now a professor of sociology at the University of Kansas, published a book titled Orwell for Beginners (Writers & Readers). Smith enlisted artist Mike Mosher to draw the illustrations, and while the book’s light-hearted cover suggests it’s a sort of ‘Orwell for Dummies’, in fact, it’s a provocative and highly intellectual analysis of the changing contours of Orwell’s thought over the years.
The book originally came out at a time when Orwell’s reputation was more tenuous, Smith explains. Some scholars worried that, after 1984 had passed, Orwell might be forgotten. They were very, very wrong. When 1984 rolled around, the year that doubled as the title for Orwell’s best-known novel proved catalytic: Orwell interest exploded, and has not abated since.
But it’s today’s world, with democracy under unprecedented assault in many places and America under Trump’s presidency facing dystopic travails, which has renewed the interest in everything Orwell – not least, what he had to say about fighting authoritarianism and defending democracy. So Smith felt the time was right to revise and reissue the book, with a lengthy new “Planet Orwell” section and new art by Mosher chronicling Orwell’s impact since 1984.
While preparing “Planet Orwell”, Smith learned, from the final volume of Orwell’s Collected Works (1998), that Orwell had corresponded with a now obscure figure named Ruth Fischer in the months before Nineteen Eighty-Four appeared in 1949. He knew that Fischer had been a major leader of the German Communist Party who turned against Stalin in the ’20s, and he was struck by the friendly tone of their letters, which made him wonder if they had exchanged other, undiscovered letters as well. That led Smith to search Fischer’s archive at Harvard – and what he found there was startling: a document, written by Orwell with two famous collaborators (Arthur Koestler and Bertrand Russell), calling for the formation of a new kind of democratic rights group that would push simultaneously for human rights and world peace.
“In 1948 Koestler was writing to Fischer and said ‘Oh by the way you might be interested in this document that Orwell and Russell and I wrote’,” recalls Smith. He had found it: a copy of Orwell’s manifesto; a document only ever seen by relatively few people and forgotten for over 70 years.
“It was really an extraordinary new item because it was of very high contemporary relevance as well as relevance to the period in which it was written. But it was also one of the very few documents that Orwell ever wrote for directly political purposes, or ever wrote with collaborators,” explains Smith.
What is this manifesto, and why is it so significant to the study of Orwell and his thought?
The manifesto was written at a pivotal period in 20th century history. World War Two had just ended, but relations between the former Allied powers – the United States and Britain on the one hand; the Soviet Union on the other – were beginning to go rapidly downhill, and there was fear this would lead to conflict, possibly another war. The contours of the emerging Cold War – which would last for decades – were beginning to become clear.
Orwell and many of his friends and colleagues were in a unique position, politically speaking, to do something about this. They were all prominent left-leaning figures, and many of them had been former Communists. For people like Orwell and Koestler (a left-leaning writer and journalist who was friends with Orwell), who may once have harboured idealistic visions of the Soviet Union as a socialist state (Orwell himself was a staunch democratic socialist but never identified as a communist, unlike many of his colleagues), their experience in the Spanish Civil War, in which the Soviet Union betrayed and executed many of their friends and comrades, had disavowed them of their former Soviet allegiances. Yet they were also skeptical of the liberal-leaning capitalist democracies of the west. So they were uniquely positioned to act as intermediaries in this emerging cold war, lacking a firm ideological allegiance to either side.
As Christmas 1945 rolled around, Koestler and his second wife (then fiancée) Mamaine invited Orwell (whose wife Eileen had died in March during an operation) and his infant son to spend Christmas with them and Mamaine’s twin sister Celia in Wales. It was during that snowy Welsh Christmas that Orwell and Koestler decided they needed to do something to prevent the world from sliding into a cold war. Orwell was disillusioned with existing human rights organizations, which he considered either unreliable, ideologically slanted, or too willing to compromise their principles in the name of ‘political realism’. With their strong connections in the literary, journalistic and political community, Orwell and Koestler felt they could start a new organization, which would work to counteract the increasing levels of propaganda coming from both sides in the emerging cold war, and to spread truthful information and transparent perspectives from both sides. This organization would work toward what they called “psychological disarmament” – counteracting and de-escalating propaganda-driven ideological posturing between the two sides – and defend human rights around the world.
A Hopeful Orwell
“The moment was pretty significant,” explains Smith. “In that brief moment, Orwell, with his collaborators, was trying to think through a way to prevent a cold war from happening. The hot war had just ended, and there was a clear danger that a cold war might ensue. And it was just fascinating to see Orwell trying to take practical steps to slow or stop the cold war. It was interesting to see that he was hopeful that a small group of people — to begin with just Koestler and Orwell — would want to put their shoulders against the wheel and actually try to have an impact on world politics. You could easily think that was a vain hope, or naïve, but it’s interesting to see Orwell, who is so often painted as a prophet of doom, in a very constructive and optimistic mood. He thought it was worth the attempt to try to avert further enmity between the victorious powers of World War Two.”
Orwell and Koestler began planning their initiative during that Christmas in Wales in 1945. Orwell returned to London and drafted the group’s manifesto in early January 1946. Koestler then reached out to Bertrand Russell – the internationally famous and Nobel Prize-winning British philosopher, anti-war activist and writer — and the three worked together to refine Orwell’s manifesto. Over the next several months, the trio began reaching out to others – among them American writers Edmund Wilson and Dwight Macdonald, Scottish politician and British Labour MP Jennie Lee, French politician and writer Andre Malraux, Italian writer Ignazio Silone – with the hope of recruiting them as signatories to the manifesto and eventually convening a meeting to found a new organization dedicated to defending international human rights.
So what happened to Orwell’s initiative? It appears that world politics outpaced the small group’s organizing, and as a consequence their own political opinions began to diverge. It was important to Orwell that the group remain neutral, and not take sides between the two emerging world powers.
“It was quite clear that Orwell wanted to maintain a sort of benevolent neutrality, and not be harshly hostile to any of the powers but to encourage them to forge a working relationship,” says Smith.
Orwell, Koestler and many of the others were strongly anti-Stalinist, but didn’t yet extend this into the broader anti-Russian attitude which characterized the Cold War. However, as 1946 unfolded and the Cold War began to heat up, Russell became more and more staunchly anti-Russian (at one point he even advocated an American pre-emptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union before that country developed nuclear weapons of its own). Koestler gradually drifted in the same pro-West, anti-Russian direction, as did some of their other colleagues. The common ground the organizers shared, as well as the broader opportunities for neutral intervention and de-escalation of the cold war, receded. Russell and Koestler became outspoken anti-Communists. Orwell, for his part, wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four as a warning of what might happen if democratic rights were eroded and the world were to rigidify into rival blocs.
The discovery of the manifesto is important for many reasons, says Smith, not the least of which is that he feels there’s a direct continuity between Orwell’s initiative around the manifesto and his subsequent writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four as a political novel.
Understanding Orwell’s Manifesto
Smith, who reproduces the entirety of Orwell’s manifesto in Orwell Illustrated, notes that one of its significant aspects is that it was a working manifesto.
“It’s a practical document. The viewpoint is that the other human rights organizations which were then active were either corrupt in one way or another, or had proven to have a vision that was too limited, from the standpoint of Orwell and Koestler particularly. So they wanted to have a truly international human rights organization that would defend human rights everywhere – east and west – with vigour but also with impartiality. So on one level it’s simply a very practical document. The intent was to recruit people to become signatories and to found an organization,” says Smith.
Another important aspect of it is the attempt made by Orwell to bridge liberal conceptions of democratic rights as civil rights, with the sort of economic rights that are fundamental to socialism. This represented a major broadening of how human rights were defined.
“During the past fifty years it has become apparent that the Nineteenth Century conception of liberty and democracy was insufficient,” writes Orwell in the Manifesto. “Without equality of opportunity and a reasonable degree of equality of income, democratic rights have little value… Both Communists and Fascists have reiterated that liberty without social security is valueless, and it has been forgotten that without liberty there can be no security.”
The attempt to develop a conception of human rights that bridged the gaps between east and west, liberalism and communism, are clear throughout the document. The main function of the State, writes Orwell in the Manifesto, ought to be: “(1) To guarantee the newborn citizen his equality of chance. (2) To protect him against economic exploitation by individuals or groups. (3) To protect him against the fettering or misappropriation of his creative faculties and achievement. (4) To fulfill these tasks with maximum efficiency and minimum of interference.”
“When people talk about human rights in the more traditional way, they’re talking about the various kind of civil liberties that governments either ensure or violate,” explains Smith. “And civil liberties in that sense were definitely part of what Orwell and Koestler wanted to protect. But they were digging deeper, and they had a concept of a kind of social right as well.”
One of the concepts Orwell and Koestler were also trying to promote, but which generated disagreements with Russell, was the idea of ‘psychological disarmament’. Russell in fact insisted those sections of the manifesto be deleted, yet both Orwell and Koestler would return to the idea in other iterations of their writing. They were concerned by the rise of ideological propaganda and what might be referred to today as ‘false news’ – the deliberate attempt by states to use false information to malign or undermine other states, and to influence their own citizens. It’s a point that bears particular resonance for the present-day, notes Smith.
“That strikes me as being particularly significant in a moment when we’re seeing a great deal of disinformation sent across national lines and globally,” says Smith. “The whole intent of the concept of psychological disarmament was to have the opposite of psychological warfare… that very admirable wish for full global exchange of ideas and transparency, in 2018, looks like in some respects the photo-negative of what we’re seeing globally, where we’re seeing state actors disseminating radically false information for the purpose of confusing people and actually sullying democratic possibilities.”
As Orwell and Koestler struggled to figure out how to practically implement psychological disarmament, they came up with some creative ideas. There were the obvious calls to relax censorship and ensure the availability of publications from competing world powers in each other’s territories and libraries. But they also called on the rival powers’ news agencies – Reuters in the west, TASS in the Soviet Union – to share daily news summaries with each other for publication in their respective newspapers, allowing readers access to news and perspectives from both competing powers; the better, perhaps, to allow individuals to read between the lines and develop an understanding of each power’s position and concerns.
Against Political Realism
Something Orwell, in particular, was determined to confront was the notion of ‘political realism’; a concept which continues to dominate political discourse today.
“[T]he majority of people are largely uninterested in and even unaware of their democratic rights, while a considerable section of the intelligentsia has set itself almost consciously to break down the desire for liberty and to hold totalitarian methods up to admiration,” states the manifesto. “Over considerable portions of the earth not merely democracy but the last traces of legality in our sense of the word have simply vanished. But instead of this fact awakening the traditional indignation of the western peoples, the normal reaction is either apathy or a certain admiration for what it has become usual to call political realism.”
In their appeal to colleagues to join this initiative, Orwell and his co-authors reiterate the need to avoid the descent into despair which they considered ‘political realism’ to be.
“We are sending you this rough draft to hear your reactions and suggestions,” they write. “There is only one type of reaction that we are not anxious to hear: the answer that it is too late, that the evil has gone too far and can no longer be stopped by the methods visualised here.
“”Too late” is the motto of escape into destruction.”
“Something that’s a thread throughout many of Orwell’s writings is the sharp critique of what he called ‘realism,’ explains Smith. “A lot of people made excuses for human rights abuses for exploitation of all kinds by saying that in view of the world as it presently exists, nothing else is possible and we can’t apply the standards of the perfect future to the present. There’s a slogan that’s popular now that says don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good, and that slogan ran very much against the grain of Orwell’s way of thinking.
“His feeling was that there are certain moral principles that you just can’t compromise. You can’t allow children to be abused. You can’t allow anybody who is weak and vulnerable to be treated viciously. As soon as you are on the slippery slope of so-called realism, before long you’re apologizing for the abuse of countless people. Orwell says it’s a simple proposition: the goal of humane politics is to promote humane politics, and you can’t do that by temporarily excusing or forgiving or turning a blind eye to grave violations of human dignity and democratic rights.”
A Manifesto of Current Significance
Orwell’s manifesto was written over 70 years ago, yet much of it sounds like it was written yesterday, and with present-day global concerns in mind. There’s much here for contemporary readers and activists alike.
“The extremity of the present moment is making not only Orwell but the whole concept of the Orwellian, more directly relevant,” says Smith. “It’s making the concept of human rights that he was putting forward probably more directly relevant than it’s been since his lifetime, or the official end of the cold war.”
“I don’t mean to oversell the significance [of the document] but it reflects a very humane impulse, a wish for a genuine kind of international harmony that would be promoted by defense of democratic rights and the free exchange of ideas. And there’s just a touch of freshness and directness to the way that Orwell framed it that makes it just very much on point. A lot of things are being said right now by a lot of people that are parallel to what Orwell said. His argument was very simple, and in some ways a step beyond the usual discourse.”
Despite his contemporary image, Orwell never lost hope, says Smith – even once it became clear the Cold War was settling down to stay. He may have become less hopeful, says Smith, but he never gave up.
“Orwell was happy to call himself a utopian because he believed that it was possible to push for utopian goals in the present, and have some real effect,” says Smith.
It was for this reason that he grew concerned at the initial public reaction to Nineteen Eighty-Four, which began generating discussion in the months before he died (the book’s publication “was electric” says Smith). Orwell was worried that people were misinterpreting his book. He didn’t intend to say that the dystopic future depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four was a prediction he felt was going to happen. Nor did he intend the book to be read as a critique of socialism.
“He said that his intent was not to predict the future that Nineteen Eighty-Four represented, but to warn about it as a possibility,” explains Smith. “And he said that his warning was intended in a hopeful spirit, even though he saw the dire possibilities that the present trends could produce.
“Even though he was less hopeful about the possibility of averting the cold war, he wanted to touch a nerve by writing a novel in a way that he couldn’t by just writing essays… Orwell’s intent was in some ways just the same as his intent in the manifesto. Rather than simply calling for an equal chance for every child and full defence of democratic rights, he decided to look through the other side of the lens and show what could happen if equality from birth isn’t guaranteed, and if it in fact turns into inequality, and what a society that radically denies democratic rights might look like. He knew that was a danger when he wrote the manifesto. He still knew it was a danger when he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Nineteen Eighty-Four was intended to alarm the reading public about this danger in a vivid way that would jolt people.”
It is, perhaps, a fortuitous twist of fate that a writer who saw his hopes for democratic socialist change and for world peace dashed at the end of World War Two, and who worried on his deathbed that what was arguably his greatest political novel was being thoroughly misinterpreted, has seized the public imagination around the globe with renewed vigour the way Orwell has. His writing, his warnings, his ideas are more widely disseminated than ever, and the invocation of his very name – Orwellian – is a condemnation from which governments and politicians recoil. As Orwell’s era recedes further into history, the problems he grappled with rise ever more prominently into focus, and if anything his influence continues to grow.
“I think Orwell is emerging as the best remembered writer of the twentieth century,” says Smith. “Some of the literary authors of the twentieth century – Proust, Joyce, many others – were superior writers of fiction in purely literary terms. But you don’t have headline writers turning to the phrase Proustian when something happens globally. Orwellian as a term and as a reference to the vision in Nineteen Eighty-Four really has encircled the globe.”
Of course, the consequence of popularity is also frequent misinterpretation. Orwell has become a kind of “global signifier”, says Smith, who adds that the meaning of both Orwell and ‘Orwellian’ has become very plastic. People of varying backgrounds are drawn to Orwell for different reasons, and associate different ideas with him. Smith isn’t troubled by this plurality of meanings associated with Orwell. But he does encourage people to who are interested in him to take the time to read him – especially the essays which, he says, “are a marvel to behold”.
Orwell wrote to Fischer from the sanatorium where, ill with the tuberculosis that would kill him in 1950, he was overseeing the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). He also wrote to compliment her on her massive historical study, Stalin and German Communism (1948), and she returned the compliment, praising his book on the Spanish Civil War, and visited him in the sanatorium just months before his death. It’s thanks to this late-blooming friendship between Fischer and Orwell that Smith was able to track down the fascinating new document.
The manifesto found in Fischer’s archives is an important new contribution to Orwell’s body of work, and one whose words echo an ominous warning to the present. Orwell’s warnings against uncritical admiration of political ideologies, against hero-worship and the elevation of leaders, and against political realism, all ring even louder today than they did in 1946.
“Meanwhile, the gradual decay of democratic sentiment, of human decency and the desire for liberty goes on, and if ultimately some autocratic regime were to establish itself in this country, in France or in the United States… the resistance to it would be much weaker because of the work that had been done beforehand by the theoretical apologists of the totalitarian type of “realism,” warns Orwell in the Manifesto.
Against which one can only reply, as did Orwell: “‘Too late’ is the motto of escape into destruction.”