Can there be a political writer who has not fallen in love with George Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language”? Part of its appeal is what’s appealing about all of Orwell—its directness and honesty, its plainspokenness, its faith, against all evidence, that human affairs can be conducted morally, its sense of being on the side of ordinary people, not of the sophisticated and powerful. The only people Orwell attacks by name in “Politics and the English Language” are two celebrated academics, Harold Laski and Lancelot Hogben, not the kind of minor-grade politicians and bureaucrats who would have made easy targets.
“Politics and the English Language” begins as a lesson, and quite a good one, in how to write well (delivered in the form of an attack on people who write badly), and ends with the hope that better writing can engender a better society. What idea could be more attractive to writers than that what we do, if improved along the lines Orwell suggests, can improve not just our readers’ experience of our work, but the lives of everybody? To Orwell, the connection between the English language and politics was that the debasement of the latter requires the corruption of the former. “In our age,” he wrote—meaning, the age of the rise of totalitarianism—“there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.” But saying this generates the hope—highly qualified, as hope always was in Orwell’s work—that better, clearer language could rob bad politics of its voice, and thereby might bring it to an end.
Orwell began work on his masterpiece, 1984, not long after “Politics and the English Language” was published (the essay owes some of its resonance to the way it foreshadows Newspeak, the great literary device Orwell invented for the novel). Although “Politics and the English Language” is probably the best known of all Orwell’s essays, at the time he wrote it—for Horizon, a magazine edited by his old schoolmate Cyril Connolly—he was an extremely busy freelancer. The essay was one of more than a hundred pieces Orwell published in 1946. Even as it advocates care and precision in the use of language, it is more passionate than systematic.
To produce 1984, on the other hand, Orwell, by then a dying man, removed himself to a location about as far from the setting of the book as one can imagine: a house on the sea, at the end of miles of unpaved road, on the remote Scottish island of Jura. Newspeak is a fully worked-out system, far more horrifying than the examples Orwell gives us in “Politics and the English Language.” Its aim is to make individual, independent thought impossible by depriving the mind of the words necessary to form ideas other than those fed to it by the state. Newspeak at once radically limits and shortens the number of words available to people (so that everyone has to operate at the linguistic level of a three- or four-year-old) and turns all words denoting concepts into long, incomprehensible, bureaucratized euphemisms, devoid of meaning and unable to provoke debate or resistance. Take away words, and you have taken away mental function; take away mental function, and you have taken away the possibility of political action.
Because Newspeak is an aspect of a fully realized work of art, it has the quality of seamless, self-contained perfection that art often has: it exists literarily on terms that make it powerful and inarguable. “Politics and the English Language,” because it is farther from perfection, is more interesting to think about today. Its conceptual roughness makes possible a real consideration of Orwell’s proposition that bad language always produces bad politics (and good language can produce good politics) in a way that Newspeak does not.
The primary villain in “Politics and the English Language” is the kind of fancy, pretentious, imprecise prose that is usually purveyed by intellectuals (Orwell’s particular targets were intellectuals on the left), not the state. Nobody who has read the essay can ever use a formulation such as “not unlike” again with a clear conscience. Throughout the essay, Orwell wanders into what seems to be a blanket condemnation of all use of abstractions in political discussion. Life without “democracy,” “justice,” “science,” “class,” and “equality” is a lot more difficult to contemplate happily than life without “not unlike”—these are not, after all, terms purposely made incomprehensible in the manner of Newspeak.