When George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” was first published in 1945, Britain and the United States were still allied with Stalin’s Soviet Union. To write nasty things about the regime in Moscow was not politically correct.
For that very reason, four publishers turned the book down before Orwell found one willing to take a chance on it. A novel about a farm rebellion in which the animals overthrow the humans in the name of “equality,” only to degenerate into a bloody tyranny, was aimed at the Soviet “workers’ paradise.”
Orwell is remembered today primarily for “Animal Farm” and his dystopian nightmare, “1984.” Both depict societies — a four-legged one and a two-legged one — in which truth and freedom are shackled by concentrated power, cynically sprinkled with good intentions and promises that everybody will be equal.
George Orwell, to his credit, was a friend of freedom of speech and an unrelenting foe of censorship. He would shudder if you accused him of being a communist. But if you called him a socialist, he might thank you and then issue objections to the authoritarian things socialists like to do.
This is not far removed from declaring, “I don’t like COVID but I’m fine with its Delta variant.”
Orwell never fully understood that concentrating power for any reason is inherently dangerous. It is seductive and corrupting. It is not rendered harmless by majority vote or by the grandiloquent rhetoric of its practitioners.
All the way to his death from tuberculosis at age 46 in 1950, Orwell never disavowed a personal affection for “democratic socialism.” He failed to see that in practice, the second word (socialism) will always be at war with the first (democratic) — because that’s what concentrated power does.
How often must we watch socialists come to power by the democratic process and then hang on to power by undemocratic means? Latin American history is full of such examples, from Venezuela to Nicaragua. In Europe, the national socialist Adolf Hitler competed in elections until he got to the top and decided that elections were a nuisance.
Here in the U.S., it’s not a coincidence that the same “democratic socialists” who call for income equality and lots of “free stuff” from the government are also allied with the cancel culture that seeks to shut people up.
Orwell was naïve in this regard, but I prefer to view him as a work in progress, as a man of basic honesty and integrity who was bound to put two and two together sooner or later. He was simply too honest and too smart to remain a socialist of any kind forever.
If he had lived another 30 years, he would have seen democratic socialism cripple his own Britain into the status of “sick man of Europe,” necessitating the Thatcher revolution that partially undid it.
In hoping that a socialist society could be free and democratic and remain so, he was a wishful thinker who just needed a little more time to grow up and get real.
Orwell once wrote, “Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.” Anybody who can write that is well on his way to rejecting socialism.
(Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education. His most recent book is “Was Jesus a Socialist?” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)