To be corrupted by totalitarianism one does not have to live in a totalitarian country. The mere prevalence of certain ideas can spread a kind of poison that makes one subject after another impossible for open discussion.
One of Orwell’s essays collected in the volume In Front of Your Nose 1945-1950 is The Prevention of Literature. It is far too long for a modern readership but a few paras can be extracted to convey the flavour. The starting point is a meeting of the communist-organized PEN, an international writers’ association. The occasion was the 300th birthday of Milton’s classic essay on freedom of speech, written during the English Civil War.
The first of the four speakers did talk about freedom of the press, but only in India, where it was assumed to be suppressed by the English. The second hinted in vague and general terms that freedom was a good thing. The third attacked laws relating to pornography. The fourth spent most of his time defending the Russian purges of the 1930s.
Writing as an anti-communist socialist Orwell saw free speech under threat from capitalist press monopolies on one side and intellectual fellow-travellers on the other. His main concern was the corruption of all kinds of writing from literature to the press by the power and influence of communist-inspired intellectuals and commentators.
Much of the first part of the essay is about the proliferation of fake news as a calculated and deliberate tactic in the revolutionary class war. He thought the situation was precarious (hence the vision of 1984, published in 1948) because he didn’t see the threat to free speech coming from the ignorant and passive masses but from large sections of the educated and energetic talking and writing classes.
He was speaking to our condition, 75 years in advance although he was lucky because he didn’t have to anticipate London bobbies breaking into his house on account of something that he wrote.
Our own society is still, broadly speaking, liberal. To exercise your right of free speech you have to fight against economic pressure and against strong sections of public opinion, but not, as yet, against a secret police force. You can say or print almost anything so long as you are willing to do it in a hole-and-corner way. But what is sinister, as I said at the beginning of this essay, is that the conscious enemies of liberty are those to whom liberty ought to mean most. The big public do not care about the matter one way or the other. They are not in favour of persecuting the heretic, and they will not exert themselves to defend him. They are at once too sane and too stupid to acquire the totalitarian outlook. The direct, conscious attack on intellectual decency comes from the intellectuals themselves.
A society becomes totalitarian when its structure becomes flagrantly artificial: that is, when its ruling class has lost its function but succeeds in clinging to power by force or fraud. Such a society, no matter how long it persists, can never afford to become either tolerant or intellectually stable. It can never permit either the truthful recording of facts or the emotional sincerity that literary creation demands. But to be corrupted by totalitarianism one does not have to live in a totalitarian country. The mere prevalence of certain ideas can spread a kind of poison that makes one subject after another impossible for literary purposes.
Liberty Quote – In a Country where Clamour always intimidates and faction often oppresses the Government, the regulations of Commerce are commonly dictated by those who are most interested to deceive and impose upon the Public — Adam Smith