The great bulk of this book is a reprint of the 1984 publication Orwell for Beginners. I must confess I never read it at the time and only now appreciate what a great book I missed out on. It was an outstanding introduction of George Orwell’s politics that has certainly stood the test of time, and the artwork is tremendous. The reprint is accompanied by a 60-plus page update entitled “Planet Orwell”.
Why reprint and update the book now? The answer is that for many people Orwell is increasingly relevant. Revelations about the extent of government surveillance and the proclamation of “alternative facts” have led people to look to Orwell for an explanation of what exactly is going on.
As David Smith points out, the Snowden revelations saw sales of Nineteen Eighty Four rise by 5,771 percent in 2013 and by 2017 it topped the Amazon bestseller list.
One development Orwell never foresaw was the rise of corporate surveillance, the voluntary acquiescence of hundreds of millions of people in the collection of data concerning every aspect of their lives by private companies, and its exploitation for both marketing and political purposes. This surely involves Nineteen Eighty Four being combined with Huxley’s Brave New World to produce a hybrid organic dystopia whose trajectory is still unfolding.
In the “Planet Orwell” section there is an interesting if somewhat misleading account of his cooperation with Arthur Koestler and of their proposed international league in defence of human rights after the Second World War. This is accompanied by the first ever publication of Orwell’s draft manifesto for the proposed organisation — something of a publishing coup! Nevertheless, “Planet Orwell” is a bit of a missed opportunity.
Orwell’s sexism should certainly have been confronted. Some account of his opposition to Zionism would have been useful. He regarded it as an instance of European colonialism with Zionist settlers forcibly displacing the Palestinians.
And then there is his attitude towards the Clement Attlee Labour government, which really required more exploration.
Orwell went from disappointment at the Labour government’s lack of radicalism to a grim acceptance that despite its strikebreaking and the regime of austerity it imposed on the working class it had to be supported as the best that could be hoped for at the time.
For Orwell the fact that the Labour government posed no real threat to the British capitalist class was proven by the fact that they never tried to forcibly remove it. One of the great lessons of history was that the capitalist class would always forcibly resist any threat to their wealth and power. This was a lesson he had learned in Spain and that had been taught by the rise of fascism more generally. It is a lesson well worth remembering today.