A FAIR SOCIETY? OYP THEME 2019
George Orwell is one of the world’s most influential writers, the visionary author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four and his eyewitness, non-fiction classics Down and Out in Paris in London, The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia. During his life, and through his writing, Orwell was a fierce critic of totalitarianism and advocate for social justice.
“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.”
George Orwell, Why I Write (1946)
By the time of his death in 1950, he was world-renowned as a journalist and author: for his eyewitness reporting on war (shot in the neck in Spain) and poverty (tramping in London, washing dishes in Paris, visiting pits and the poor in Wigan); for his political and cultural commentary, where he stood up to power and said the unsayable (‘If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’); and for his fiction, including two of the greatest novels ever written: Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. His clear writing and political purpose have inspired and influenced countless journalists, authors and others, of all political persuasions and none, in the generations since.
On this page, we’ll introduce some of the ideas which Orwell wrote about which could offer some inspiration for your own take on this year’s theme. You can also find links to Orwell’s own writing on The Orwell Foundation website (with thanks to the Orwell Estate and Penguin Books).
Race and Empire
“The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”
George Orwell was born Eric Blair in India in 1903, which was then part of the British Empire. He was born to a comfortable ‘lower-upper-middle class’ family and a father who served the British Empire. Orwell’s own first job was as a policeman in Burma (today’s Myanmar). Orwell resigned from service while on leave in England in 1928.
In his first novel Burmese Days and essays like ‘Shooting an Elephant’ and ‘A Hanging’, Orwell reflected on his own experiences of ‘imperialism’. Orwell argued that the British Empire was a destructive force both for the people it governed and the colonialists themselves. Orwell also wrote that after his work for the British Empire he ‘began to look more closely at his own country and saw that England also had its oppressed.’
Orwell remained a trenchant critic of the British Empire throughout his life. He also warned against the rise of nationalism and sought to examine the causes and effects of ‘nationalist’ thinking on people’s understanding of society.
‘The average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit.”
After returning to England Orwell set out to become a writer. Although he was from a comfortable background, in order to report on poverty and economic deprivation he wanted to experience it for himself as far as possible. He therefore made various expeditions ‘down and out’ in London, living as a ‘tramp’, which he described in his essay ‘The Spike’. Later, Orwell took jobs as a dishwasher in restaurants and cafes in the centre of Paris. Orwell’s non-fiction work Down and Out in Paris and London described these experiences and asked searching questions about society’s attitude to people without work or in low paid, insecure labour.
In 1936 Orwell travelled to England’s industrial heartlands in the north, whose towns and cities were experiencing great hardship following the Great Depression. In The Road to Wigan Pier, part social reportage, part political polemic, Orwell described what he had seen and learnt. As before, Orwell wanted to experience people’s living and working conditions for himself and wrote vividly about the life of coal miners and their families.
In the second part of the book, Orwell made a complex, controversial and highly-influential argument about why he thought his fellow socialists at the time were struggling to win support for their vision of a fair society. He argued that many campaigners for social justice misunderstood the emotional lives of the people they wanted to help, concentrating too much on promoting their own political doctrines and dogma. Instead, he argued in favour of ‘common decency’ and a sense of fairness. Orwell expanded on these themes in his wartime essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn‘, which argued for a ‘new form of Britishness’.
- WATCH Orwell’s Down and Out: Live, The Orwell Foundation’s dramatized live-reading of Down and Out in Paris and London, which features the testimony of people who have experienced homelessness and rough-sleeping in the UK today
- READ The Road to Wigan Pier diaries, a blog of Orwell’s personal diaries from 1936
Freedom and Totalitarianism
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Orwell is probably best known for his powerful, stark depictions of totalitarianism in his parable Animal Farm and dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. In Animal Farm, inspired by the history of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin’s dictatorship, Orwell depicted how a movement which was begun with ideas of fairness could be distorted into something very different. Nineteen Eighty-Four, his final novel, imagines a society in which the pressures of war and the power of the state have made even the idea of values like fairness impossible.