BY MATTHEW HERBERT
George Orwell wasn’t fond of the year 1938.
He spent a large part of it flat on his back in Morocco, recuperating from a lung hemorrhage caused by tuberculosis. He didn’t believe in the medical theory that put him there, saying in a letter that the idea of certain climates being “good for you . . .[was] a racket run by tourist agencies and local doctors.”
Furthermore, he found Morocco boring. It was hot and dry, of course, but even the politics of the place proved arid. The French were stodgy colonial overseers who had little trouble managing the Arabs. The Arabs, Orwell thought, lacked the political development for mounting a rebellion. “There is no sign of an anti-French movement,” he reported.
Worst of all, though, Orwell couldn’t even write most of the time–he was that weak. Since publishing his first book in 1933, Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell had kept up the inhuman pace of writing one book each year, also churning out a steady flow of book reviews and the occasional essay. He also fought in the Spanish Civil War in 1937, and wrote a book about it. Oh, yes, he had a honeymoon of a year that year with his newlywed wife Eileen. She was smart, pretty and well suited to him. They were in love, and when they fled war-torn Spain, it was with the police “snapping at their heels.”
So maybe after a year like that, 1938 was bound to be a comedown.
So it certainly seemed to be. Orwell wrote to a friend in November of that year, “What with all this illness I’ve decided to count 1938 as a blank year and sort of cross it off the calendar.”
I think we’ve all had years like that. But take heart. You can never really be sure what is surging below the surface when your sea appears to be at a dead calm.
This was certainly the case for Orwell. Not only was there more moving on the surface of Orwell’s life than he let on, 1938 was the year that his boldest ideas began to take shape at the back of his mind. It was a hinge year–he consciously became a political writer and began to intuit the vastness of the threat totalitarianism posed to democracy.
In a short, forceful essay in June, Orwell announced that he had joined the International Labor Party, a socialist group but one that strictly abjured Stalinism. As a movement that was truly for the people, not a communist cabal or the moneyed interests, Orwell believed socialism alone could provide the kind of governance that “in the long run, will dare to permit freedom of speech” and thus protect his ability to write. But one can’t just cheer on the good guys, he said:
In so far as I have struggled against the system, it has been mainly by writing books which I hoped would influence the reading public. I shall continue to do that, of course, but at a moment like the present, writing books is not enough. The tempo of events is quickening; the dangers which once seemed a generation distant are staring us in the face. One has got to be actively a Socialist, not merely sympathetic to Socialism, or one plays into the hands of our always-active enemies.
No sooner had Orwell become a card-carrying party man (in June), his lung hemorrhage happened (in July), and he could neither write nor organize. He would be treated for two months in a sanitorium in Kent followed by six months’ recuperation in Morocco. The doctors ordered him to rest.
Your emotions don’t stop working when you’re laid out flat and unable to do your work, of course. For Orwell, it was precisely an emotional shift in 1938 that would change the shape and color of his thought for the rest of his life.
Orwell had always been, in a searching kind of way, an ironic, dyspeptic, occasionally bitter man. But in 1938, he found his fury. With one European democracy after another caving in to the rising threat of fascist Germany, Orwell worried in a September 1938 letter that the coming war might damage the book publishing industry. This appeared to be a narrow, professional concern, but there was more to it. Orwell was alarmed by a broader threat posed by fascism, to the kind of decent, reflective life that democracy makes possible. The kind of society where good books are written, and read. That could all just disappear.
Some of Orwell’s fellow leftists seemed to relish the coming disturbance of the peace: they actively wanted war over ordinary life. Orwell felt more cautious, though, writing:
But I personally do see a lot of things that I want to do and continue doing for another thirty years or so, and the idea that I’ve got to abandon them and either be bumped off or depart to some filthy concentration camp just infuriates me. Eileen and I have decided that if war does come the best thing will be to just stay alive and thus add to the number of sane people.
Even in a personal letter, where the author is expected to show his cards, I think it is revelatory that Orwell speaks so openly of his fear and anger. I have read all of Orwell’s surviving letters, and none of them predating this one expresses this sharp an emotion. He’s not just horrified by the prospect of being killed or interred (and he means by his fellow Englishmen, who will have turned fascist); he is infuriated.
One of the reasons Orwell felt himself to be on such a knife-edge of history was that his novel-writing, although only inching along, was starting to illuminate the full shape of the beast Europe was contending with. In December 1938 he wrote to a friend that he was eager to finish his draft novel, Coming Up For Air. Well, Orwell was always eager to finish his next book, but he was also consistently self-deprecating about its quality, usually dubbing it a failure before it even hit the presses. This time, though, he was excited, writing to his friend, that his germinating book “suddenly revealed to me a big subject which I’d never really touched before and haven’t time to work out properly now.”
George Bolling, the novels’ antagonist, felt war coming. So did everyone else in England. But it was the concomitant seismic shift in world politics that alarmed and demoralized Bolling (and Orwell, of course). Contending with fascism on a world scale was going to do as-yet unknown harm to the culture of democracy. One night Bolling attends a noisy political rally where the speaker says, like it or not, England would have to fight fire with fire when it came to German fascism. The only option was ruin and capitualtion. Bolling reflects:
But it isn’t the war that matters, it’s the after-war. The world we’re going down into, the kind of hate-world, slogan-world. The coloured shirts, the barbed wire, the rubber truncheons. The secret cells where the electric light burns night and day, and the detectives watching you while you sleep. And the processions and the posters with enormous faces, and the crowds of a million people all cheering for the Leader till they deafen themselves into thinking that they really worship him, and all the time, underneath, they hate him so that they want to puke. It’s all going to happen. Or isn’t it?
With the benefit of hindsight, we know this was not just a big idea Orwell was starting to evolve in Morocco in 1938. It was the big idea, the one that would make him Orwell. Once large governments start using advanced technology and the instruments of mass culture to control their nations, they could glimpse the possibility of becoming permanent regimes. If you can get the people to believe anything, you can rule forever. This is the glowing nuclear core of political power in the twentieth century.
In a review of Bertrand Russell’s 1938 book Power: A New Social Analysis, Orwell again evokes a collective downward political movement, toward deeps that would submerge and immobilize the human spirit. He is criticizing Russell’s “pious hope” that, bad as Hitler seems, all tyrannies have come and gone, and Hitler’s will too. Orwell writes:
Underlying this is the idea that common sense always wins in the end. And yet the peculiar horror of the present moment is that we cannot be sure that this is so. It is quite possible that we are descending into an age in which two and two will make five when the Leader says so. Mr. Russell points out that the huge system of organised lying upon which the dictators depend keeps their followers out of contact with reality and therefore tends to put them at a disadvantage as against those who know the facts. This is true so far as it goes, but it does not prove that the slave society at which the dictators are aiming will be unstable. It is quite easy to imagine a state in which the ruling caste deceive their followers without deceiving themselves. Dare anyone be sure that something of the kind is not already coming into existence?
I generally dislike the device of asking “What would the long-gone notable X say” about this or that current affair. It militates against fresh thinking. But I must admit that I couldn’t get Orwell out of my head on January 6th while watching the MAGA insurrectionists attack police officers with the staffs of Blue Live Matter flags. Anyone can say two plus two equals five when the Leader orders them to: these people were acting it out with their very bodies–they were fighting like hell to show they believed it.
This is a new turn, which not even Orwell anticipated. With all due respect to those harmed by the MAGA cult’s violence, the violence itself is not MAGA’s most horrifying feature. It is how easily replicable the cult’s basis of power–the collective lie–is. When Orwell was just coming to grips with the outlines of dictatorial power in 1938, he was right to observe that strongmen relied on “huge systems of organised lying” imposed from the top-down. Today, though, those systems are self-organizing, bottom up. Orwell wrote in the passage above that the subjects of totalitarianism were at a disadvantage because their rulers still believed in facts, but now there has been a slave revolt of sorts that upsets this truth. The people are outpacing their rulers in the frenzy to make and believe in increasingly outrageous lies. See the small but hateful presence of a MAGA-Q-Anon caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives. Those are the people.
While Orwell didn’t exactly see this disaster coming in 1938, once again, he intuited the conditions that would make it possible. In one of his last writings that year–a book review about the USSR–he again raised a warning that, for the first time in history dictators could contemplate staying in power forever. He expanded:
In the past every tyranny was sooner or later overthrown, or at least resisted, because of “human nature”, which as a matter of course desired liberty. But we cannot be at all certain that “human nature” is constant. It may be just as possible to produce a breed of men who do not wish for liberty as to produce a breed of hornless cows. . . . Mass suggestion is a science of the last twenty years, and we do not yet know how successful it will be.
The really horrifying turn of the twentieth century was the prospect, first realized in Soviet Russia, that a government could bring its people to believe, with all their being, in obvious untruths. The unprecedented part, of course, was not the forceful propagation of untruths. In his book review, Orwell points out that the Inquisition had already done that. What was new was the idea that an authoritarian regime could create a mass constituency that was culturally encoded to believe its lies, with vigor. As elementary genetics tells us, once you create a new variant of a species, its genes are as good a candidate as any others to compete for survival. The desire to believe in lies, although it appears grotesque, can propagate itself; has propagated itself. These genes expressed themselves in a flash of hideous strength on January 6th at the seat of our government. Now they are in the seat of our government.
Orwell saw the roots of all this in 1938. It was not a year for crossing off the calendar after all.