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Recalling Orwell’s Timely Warning on Groupthink

Photo: George Orwell, by Cassowary Colorizations, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

George Orwell‘s novella Animal Farm (1945) was a political fable. The cleverly portrayed animals who chase off the farmer and try to run the farm as a utopia slowly begin to replicate all the attitudes and practices against which they had rebelled. The story satirizes the Soviet Union’s transition from revolution to totalitarianism under Joseph Stalin (1878–1953). In fact, the animal characters and incidents are often allusions to historical Soviet figures and events.

His Preface, “The Freedom of the Press,” was omitted from the first edition of the book, then disappeared, and was not rediscovered until 1971. From it, we learn that Orwell had considerable difficulty getting his fable published. That wasn’t principally because of wartime issues. There was a shortage of books and his was highly readable. Rather, British intellectuals of the day did not wish to hear any criticism of Stalin or allusions to his atrocities:

Obviously it is not desirable that a government department should have any power of censorship (except security censorship, which no one objects to in war time) over books which are not officially sponsored. But the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the MOI or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves…

At this moment what is demanded by the prevailing orthodoxy is an uncritical admiration of Soviet Russia. Everyone knows this, nearly everyone acts on it. Any serious criticism of the Soviet régime, any disclosure of facts which the Soviet government would prefer to keep hidden, is next door to unprintable. And this nation-wide conspiracy to flatter our ally takes place, curiously enough, against a background of genuine intellectual tolerance. For though you are not allowed to criticise the Soviet government, at least you are reasonably free to criticise our own. Hardly anyone will print an attack on Stalin, but it is quite safe to attack Churchill, at any rate in books and periodicals. And throughout five years of war, during two or three of which we were fighting for national survival, countless books, pamphlets and articles advocating a compromise peace have been published without interference. More, they have been published without exciting much disapproval. So long as the prestige of the USSR is not involved, the principle of free speech has been reasonably well upheld. There are other forbidden topics, and I shall mention some of them presently, but the prevailing attitude towards the USSR is much the most serious symptom. It is, as it were, spontaneous, and is not due to the action of any pressure group. 

A Man of the Left

Orwell, it should be said, was very much a man of the Left. But he was not a totalitarian. That combination perhaps enabled him to publish some of the most broadly appealing popular-level dissections of the evils of totalitarian rule in English.

For example, he offers us a significant insight in the passage above. The censorship he had to address was not a conspiracy or even a campaign; it was spontaneous. Every right-thinking intellectual somehow knew that a candid assessment of Soviet rule was, well, just not the done thing!…

Why not? Well, gentle reader, if you have ever encountered such an environment, you will know — or suspect anyway — that most of the people who know for sure which political views need censoring could not ably defend their opinion. Their defense is, precisely, groupthink. They don’t need to think much about it individually. And they don’t. In fact, if you challenge them on their censorship, they may act aggrieved, as if they were the victims of a calculated personal injury. It’s doubtless all the more tiresome if, as Orwell found, the groupthinkers are held up as the leading intellectuals of the day:

But now to come back to this book of mine. The reaction towards it of most English intellectuals will be quite simple: ‘It oughtn’t to have been published.’ Naturally, those reviewers who understand the art of denigration will not attack it on political grounds but on literary ones. They will say that it is a dull, silly book and a disgraceful waste of paper. This may well be true, but it is obviously not [th]e whole of the story. One does not say that a book ‘ought not to have been published’ merely because it is a bad book. After all, acres of rubbish are printed daily and no one bothers. The English intelligentsia, or most of them, will object to this book because it traduces their Leader and (as they see it) does harm to the cause of progress. If it did [th]e opposite they would have nothing to say against it, even if its literary faults were ten times as glaring as they are. The success of, for instance, the Left Book Club over a period of four or five years shows how willing they are to tolerate both scurrility and slipshod writing, provided that it tells them what they want to hear.

And he ends his Preface on a high note,

I know that the English intelligentsia have plenty of reason for their timidity and dishonesty, indeed I know by heart the arguments by which they justify themselves. But at least let us have no more nonsense about defending liberty against Fascism. If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

Orwell would doubtless be pleased that millions of people worldwide have offered a much more positive assessment of Animal Farm. Many of us might also find key points of comparison between his situation and the shrill calls for censorship that we hear so often today.

Cross-posted at Mind Matters News.