George Orwell and the Future



Orwell’s own writing was profoundly concerned with social change, the relationship between past, present and future, and what this means for the individual. His most celebrated and revisited work Nineteen Eighty-Four presented a chilling dystopian vision of the future which still unsettles and provokes today. But this dark vision was rooted in his belief that a better, more equal world was achievable, a belief which inspired him to make the journeys, both imaginative and real, which produced classics like The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia, as well as essays like The Lion and the Unicorn, which looked forward to the recreation of England after the Second World War.

All ‘favourable’ Utopias seem to be alike in postulating perfection while being unable to suggest happiness… It would seem that human beings are not able to describe, nor perhaps to imagine, happiness except in terms of contrast.

(‘Can Socialists Be Happy?’, 1943)



George Orwell wrote because he wanted to change the world. In 1946, Looking back on his journey to becoming a writer, Orwell claimed that his main motivation was ‘political purpose’. Orwell defined ‘political purpose’, in the widest possible sense as a ‘desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after’. Today, Orwell’s desire to push the world in a certain direction has inspired writers and campaigners across the world, whether in politics, journalism or civil society, as well as countless individual readers.

But it was also the turbulent times he lived in which made George Orwell the writer he was. Orwell was writing during two of the most momentous decades of the twentieth century, the nineteen-thirties and the nineteen-forties, when the kind of society people should strive after were fiercely contested. As conflict spiralled around the globe, powerful ideologies like fascism, communism and socialism reshaped politics, and scientific and technological progress opened up new scope for human action, writers and commentators believed that the world was on the brink of a disorientating multitude of possible futures.



What George Orwell wrote was a direct result of the actions he took. His investigations into homelessness in London and Paris, and the life of the labouring poor in the north of England, made him a fierce critic of inequality. In 1936 George Orwell went to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War as part of the ‘International Brigade’, socialists from across the world who were committed to supporting the Republican government: what he learnt about the activities of the Soviet-backed Communist Party in Spain led him to write Homage to Catalonia.  He returned to England (only just escaping with his life) and in the 1940s took part in the Second World War, working for the BBC to promote the British view of the war in India, which was then part of the British Empire.

If his experience in the 1930s made Orwell a political writer (he once said that ‘every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or directly, against totalitarians and for democratic socialism, as I understand it’) it was his experience of ‘total war’ in the 1940s convinced him that revolutionary change was possible in the United Kingdom, and argument which he made in his essay, ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ (subtitled ‘Socialism and the English Genius’).



Although a committed socialist, George Orwell was often sceptical of the motivations behind grand claims to transform society. In many of his essays, Orwell asked perceptive questions of the utopian visions which many of his fellow reformers, inspired by rapid technological advances and optimistic visions of human nature, were caught up in. “All ‘favourable’ Utopias,” Orwell wrote, “seem to be alike in postulating perfection while being unable to suggest happiness.” What, Orwell wanted to know, would the future really be like when it came?

As the dark visions of revolutions ‘gone wrong’ in Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) suggest, Orwell was not confident that change is always for the better. Yet these novels were also born out of a conviction that the futures they described did not have to happen, if ordinary people were vigilant and defended the values they believed in. Orwell described Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its dark vision of a bureaucratic state, the denial of objective truth and crushing of individual freedom as a ‘warning’. “The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one,” he said when Nineteen Eighty-Four was published. “Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.”

READ: Dorian Lynskey, ‘1984 at 70’

WATCH: 1984 Live: Dramatized live reading of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, featuring actors and members of the public alongside prominent writers, journalists and broadcasters who, like Orwell, have grappled with issues of free speech, history and propaganda.