Stanford professor uncovers roots of George Orwell's political language

Through a close reading of George Orwell's nonfiction prose, Stanford English Professor Alex Woloch shows how language and democratic socialism played roles in the British writer's stand against totalitarianism.

In his new book on George Orwell, Stanford English Professor Alex Woloch writes that Orwell’s anti-totalitarianism can only be understood in relation to his democratic-socialist political beliefs.

George Orwell

British writer George Orwell’s writing and democratic-socialist political beliefs are the subject of a new book by English Professor Alex Woloch. (Image credit: Eric Arthur)

And much of this is revealed in how Orwell used language, according to Woloch, a scholar of 19th- and 20th-century fiction and literary theory and the chair of the Stanford Department of English. For his book Or Orwell: Writing and Democratic Socialism, Woloch studied Orwell’s essays, journalism and documentary writing, especially a series of columns that the British writer penned for the socialist weekly Tribune. Titled “As I Please,” those columns represent a part of Orwell’s writing that scholars have never examined so closely before.

In doing so, Woloch seeks to understand Orwell’s often hard-to-pin-down political views while highlighting the “very complicated texts he crafted to express his political opinions.” If “we all have a responsibility to make political judgments,” Orwell’s work “illustrates how deeply such judgments can be informed by the craft and constraints of writing.”

Political thinking, in this light, can draw on the same resources as literary writing: irony, experiment, variety and imaginative precision, he said.

Perhaps by reading Orwell more carefully, and paying attention to his formal and linguistic subtlety, Woloch suggests, society today can create a more humane political culture.

Beyond 1984

To those readers familiar only with Animal Farm and 1984, Orwell is one of the greatest anti-communist and anti-totalitarian writers of the 20th century, Woloch noted. To others, he is an avatar of plainspoken common sense.

But Woloch rises above this stereotypical image of Orwell as “a naturally virtuous person,” by examining the author’s writing and reconciling Orwell’s ethics and political vision.

For example, Woloch said, Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write” reflects his primary political orientation. In it, Orwell famously stated: “Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.”

Woloch believes that each of the two halves of this statement must be given equal weight, and that we cannot understand Orwell’s anti-totalitarianism if we do not consider it in relation to his democratic-socialist thought.

However, a key Cold War introduction to Animal Farm in the United States simply omitted the last phrase – “for democratic socialism, as I understand it” – leaving only what Orwell was “against.” The absence of the phrase serves as a metaphor in Woloch’s book for Orwell’s own persistent engagement with the elusiveness and complexity of language, writing and form.

Between theory and politics

Woloch became interested in Orwell in part through his own political commitments and his sense that Orwell’s work speaks to contemporary political concerns. He finds it suggestive, and a little amusing, that the first serious U.S. presidential candidacy of a self-identified democratic socialist (Bernie Sanders) should occur just as his book is being published.

At the same time, the book is motivated by a set of scholarly and theoretical concerns. Much of English literary criticism in the last three decades has been dominated by different strands of deconstructive theory, which, as Woloch puts it, “can find political ideology in almost any writing.” In other words, deconstructive theory looks for the subliminal political ramifications of literature.

While this approach has been fruitful in interpreting any number of written works, it falls short when confronted with an author like Orwell. That is because Orwell’s political commitments are clear to even the most naïve reader, Woloch said. He noted, “Theory doesn’t always know what to do with a writer like Orwell.”

Woloch uses close reading and theory to get underneath the skin of Orwell’s prose, not to reveal hidden political opinions, but rather to show how Orwell’s language informs and makes possible those views.

This new turn is in part made possible by the first complete works of Orwell, published in the 1990s. The complete works, which included his prolific journalism alongside his more well-known novels and essays, made clear to scholars just how important something like the weekly “As I Please” column could be to understanding the writer.

“We want a figure like Orwell, we want that voice to comment on [the terrorist attacks in] Paris or to comment on [Donald] Trump. But my book is about the complexity of bearing witness. It’s about the complex forms of writing that a writer like Orwell would want to enable and foster,” Woloch said.

Media Contacts

Veronica Marian, Stanford Humanities Center: (650) 724-8155,
Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,