In “Why I Write,” Orwell declares “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.”  A curious claim.  I’ve read 1984 at least ten times and Animal Farm at least five times, plus much of his other work.   Orwell’s attack on totalitarianism is blatant, trenchant, and thorough.  His defense of democratic socialism, in contrast, is practically invisible.  So despite his self-image, Orwell ends up being history’s greatest critic of totalitarianism – and not much else.

And he was the best at what he did.  Orwell didn’t merely expose totalitarianism as a system based on brutality, lies, and dehumanization.  He dug deep, and exposed its root: irrationality.  1984 is a grand illustration of Voltaire’s aphorism that “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”  Yes, totalitarians often claim the mantle of “reason” – and their traditionalist and religious critics are happy it hand to to them.   But the heart of totalitarianism is fanatical belief in a mountain of absurdities.  Their distinctive empirical claims are plainly false, and their distinctive arguments are either riddled with errors or so meaningless they’re “not even false.”  And the low quality of totalitarian thought is hardly surprising, because they use terror to silence their critics instead of patiently hearing them out.

Though Orwell is the greatest critic of totalitarianism, he made a few major mistakes.  First and foremost, he casually accepted the socialist critique of capitalism.  If he looked at the world, he would have noticed that the world’s most capitalist countries were near the pinnacle of human civilization.  Instead, he placed his faith in empty socialist promises of a brighter future.  Orwell also casually accepted the Leninist theory of imperialism: The idea that countries fight over colonies because they desperately need to off-load the fruits of domestic “overproduction.”  Yet due to the gravity model, the European powers’ best customers were always other European countries.  That’s why they were able to hastily release their colonies after World War II.  Given his keen insight into political psychology, Orwell should have defaulted to the simple story that war is the triumph of nationalistic emotion over capitalist calculation.  A great missed opportunity!

P.S. Please place any remaining thoughts on Orwell’s book-within-a-book in the comments, and I’ll respond Thursday.