George Orwell on the prevention of telling the truth

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

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8 Responses to George Orwell on the prevention of telling the truth

  1. Catcalling Inebriate

    Interesting point. What is the class orientation of power in Australia? Is it is the sad state of universities, filled with fake intellectuals, fattened by massive expansion of scale and untroubled by any accountable measures of outcome? Is it in the centralised culture of political parties, with petty fiefdoms run by minor warlords who trade in perks and jobs and the minor corruption of administrative fiat? Is it the inert bureaucracy, which has drifted from any sense of professional expertise toward central agency politics and political rhetoric? Is it the club of finance, which has elevated asset trading to high priesthood and allowed “investment” bankers – once the scavengers of corporate life – to become influential? Is it the comfortable CEO club, whose annual contracts today are a life’s work in 1980s terms? Or is it the inbred company director school, all queuing to help each other pass from trough to trough with least mud on shoes?
    All seem to have been drifting along in highly comfortable sense of superiority, until about now. Now we have a serious problem or two. And all are pointing fingers and hiding, avoiding any possibility they might be responsible to act.
    It should turn out well!

  2. Hay Stockard

    Socialists use 1984 as a training manual. Orwell has a lot to answer for.

  3. pat

    the irony is all the MSM mentioned push the “climate” (and covid) narratives, almost as obsessively as the Beeb/Guardian…but, for XR, it’s not enough…the propaganda must be TOTAL. note the little concern for spreading the virus:

    5 Sept: Chelmsford Weekly: Priti Patel condemns Extinction Rebellion protest at newspaper printing house
    By Ellis Whitehouse
    Ministers and MPs have criticised environmental protesters for targeting two News Corporation printing presses and delaying the delivery of Saturday newspapers.
    More than 100 Extinction Rebellion (XR) protesters used vehicles and bamboo lock-ons to block roads outside the Newsprinters printing works at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, and Knowsley, near Liverpool on Friday night.
    By Saturday morning, police said some 63 people had been arrested…

    The Newsprinters presses publish the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp’s titles including The Sun, The Times, The Sun on Sunday and The Sunday Times, as well as The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, and the London Evening Standard…

    Patel: “This attack on our free press, society and democracy is completely unacceptable.”…
    Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick tweeted: “A good day to #buyanewspaper. A free press matters to all of us who value a free society. They mustn’t be silenced by an intolerant minority.”

    Responding to Ms Patel’s criticism, the environmental campaign group accused the press of stirring “division and hate”…

    Newsprinters condemned the protests as an “attack on all of the free press” which had affected workers going about their jobs, and others such as newsagents who face a “financial penalty”…
    “Coverage in many of the newspapers printed here is polluting national debate on climate change, immigration policy, the rights and treatment of minority groups, and on dozens of other issues,” the group said…

    XR protesters also held a smaller demonstration near Motherwell aimed at disrupting the distribution of Saturday’s Scottish Sun newspaper…

    The Met Police said risk assessments explaining how XR activists were minimising the possibility of Covid-19 transmission at a planned march in Westminster “did not meet the required standard”…

    already done in the Byron Bay region…TWICE:

    Activists block Murdoch newspapers from distribution
    EchonetDaily (Byron Bay/Northern Rivers) – 27 Feb 2020
    Activists have taken the fight to the front gates of the News Corp printing press in Murarrie, Queensland last night demanding that ‘News Corp tell the truth about the climate and ecological crisis,’ said a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion (XR)…
    ‘Media monopolies are anti-democratic. Corporations like News Corp have unjustified influence over elections and media narratives; supporting the elite,’ said Jarrah, 22 year-old psychology student who locked on to a barrel to blockade the printing press last night.
    Clancy, 18 year-old law and science student locked her arm into a barrel to block delivery trucks…

    Stop the presses! Activists call out Murdoch’s manure machine
    EchonetDaily – 29 Jan 2020
    A group of Extinction Rebellion activists have, quite literally, ‘called bullshit’ on the Murdoch media empire’s reporting of climate change…
    There is also a nation-wide campaign pushing for Australians to cancel their subscriptions to News Ltd publications and other offerings including Foxtel…
    Another activist, primary educator Greg Thomas, said Australia was not on track to meet its obligations under the Paris agreement, and the media needed to hold governments and corporations accountable…

    the usual glam XR pics feature by BBC, including, as usual, ones provided by XR:

    5 Sept: BBC: Extinction Rebellion protesters block newspaper printing presses
    Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the action by demonstrators across the country was “unacceptable”…
    XR has accused the newspapers and their owners of “failure to report on the climate and ecological emergency” and “polluting national debate” on dozens of social issues…

    Extinction Rebellion has planned 10 days of action and is calling on the government to do more to act on climate change.
    In an updated statement following the latest protest, a spokesman said: “We are in an emergency of unprecedented scale and the papers we have targeted are not reflecting the scale and urgency of what is happening to our planet…

    On Thursday, more than 300 people were arrested during protests in central London…
    Meanwhile, climate change protesters have been warned they risk large fines if they fail to comply with coronavirus rules banning gatherings of more than 30 people…

  4. Rafe Champion

    The totalitarian training manual was written long before 1948. Orwell wrote the book as a warning.

    But libertarians never enlisted in numbers on the culture front.

  5. Hay Stockard

    Well aware of that. However Socialists have no self awareness and lack irony. They are also carbuncles on the backside of humanity, the humourless thumdermongs.

  6. Bruce of Newcastle

    “What is truth” said a guy once.
    Almost two thousand years ago.
    Evil is banal, and not very inventive.

  7. vlad

    “What is truth” said a guy once.

    He didn’t stay for the answer as Bacon said.

    Quid est veritas?

    Anagram: Est vir qui adest.

    (It’s the man who is here.)

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