Monday, 30 October 2017

The Prevention of Literature by George Orwell.

The Prevention of Literature is an essay by George Orwell, first published in Polemic in January 1946, in which he considers the freedom of literature in the context of communism.

It begins with a description of Orwell's first meeting with the P.E.N. club (now known as PEN International, it's an association for writers) on the 300th anniversary of Milton's Aeropagitica. Orwell writes,
There were four speakers on the platform. One of them delivered a speech which did deal with the freedom of the press, but only in relation to India; another said, hesitantly, and in very general terms, that liberty was a good thing; a third delivered an attack on the laws relating to obscenity in literature. The fourth devoted most of his speech to a defense of the Russian purges. Of the speeches from the body of the hall, some reverted to the question of obscenity and the laws that deal with it, others were simply eulogies of Soviet Russia. Moral liberty — the liberty to discuss sex questions frankly in print — seemed to be generally approved, but political liberty was not mentioned. Out of this concourse of several hundred people, perhaps half of whom were directly connected with the writing trade, there was not a single one who could point out that freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticise and oppose. Significantly, no speaker quoted from the pamphlet which was ostensibly being commemorated. Nor was there any mention of the various books which have been ‘killed’ in England and the United States during the war. In its net effect the meeting was a demonstration in favour of censorship.
Orwell notes his lack of surprise, arguing that intellectual liberty is attacked from two corners: "On the one side are its theoretical enemies, the apologists of totalitarianism, and on the other its immediate, practical enemies, monopoly and bureaucracy." A journalist is also up against something more passive:
The sort of things that are working against him are the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly on radio and the films, the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books, making it necessary for nearly every writer to earn part of his living by hackwork, the encroachment of official bodies like the M.O.I. and the British Council, which help the writer to keep alive but also waste his time and dictate his opinions, and the continuous war atmosphere of the past ten years, whose distorting effects no one has been able to escape. 
His concern, he goes on, is the oppression of writers by those who ought to be supporting them, and -
What is really at issue is the right to report contemporary events truthfully, or as truthfully as is consistent with the ignorance, bias and self-deception from which every observer necessarily suffers. In saying this I may seem to be saying that straightforward ‘reportage’ is the only branch of literature that matters: but I will try to show later that at every literary level, and probably in every one of the arts, the same issue arises in more or less subtilised forms.
One common theme in this debate Orwell argues is "discipline versus individualism". He goes on to state that those who would prevent intellectual freedom argue that there is a "truth" and those who do not subscribe to that truth are fools. Turning to communism,
In Communist literature the attack on intellectual liberty is usually masked by oratory about ‘petty-bourgeois individualism’, ‘the illusions of nineteenth-century liberalism’, etc., and backed up by words of abuse such as ‘romantic’ and ‘sentimental’, which, since they do not have any agreed meaning, are difficult to answer. In this way the controversy is manoeuvred away from its real issue.
Once, Orwell writes, a writer had to defend themselves against extreme right wing views; now (or then, 1946) it was against communism - "One ought not to exaggerate the direct influence of the small English Communist Party, but there can be no question about the poisonous effect of the Russian mythos on English intellectual life." He gives an example,
Let me give just one instance out of the hundreds that could be cited. When Germany collapsed, it was found that very large numbers of Soviet Russians — mostly, no doubt, from non-political motives — had changed sides and were fighting for the Germans. Also, a small but not negligible portion of the Russian prisoners and displaced persons refused to go back to the U.S.S.R., and some of them, at least, were repatriated against their will. These facts, known to many journalists on the spot, went almost unmentioned in the British press, while at the same time Russophile publicists in England continued to justify the purges and deportations of 1936-38 by claiming that the U.S.S.R. ‘had no quislings’. The fog of lies and misinformation that surrounds such subjects as the Ukraine famine, the Spanish civil war, Russian policy in Poland, and so forth, is not due entirely to conscious dishonesty, but any writer or journalist who is fully sympathetic for the U.S.S.R. — sympathetic, that is, in the way the Russians themselves would want him to be — does have to acquiesce in deliberate falsification on important issues. 
Such lying and distortion belongs to a totalitarian state or those wishing to establish a totalitarian state. He goes on,
From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned. A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened. 
He adds that in this state "only one opinion is permissible at any given moment." And this is not limited to the press, nor to historians, but to literature, as it demands 'self-censorship' at the very least, especially, Orwell highlights, prose.

From here Orwell imagines how art and literature would appear in a totalitarian regime, and interestingly makes a point about Disney as a metaphor for what might be:
The Disney films, for instance, are produced by what is essentially a factory process, the work being done partly mechanically and partly by teams of artists who have to subordinate their individual style. Radio features are commonly written by tired hacks to whom the subject and the manner of treatment are dictated beforehand: even so, what they write is merely a kind of raw material to be chopped into shape by producers and censors.
As it stands (again, in 1946), he argues, a totalitarian regime has not truly existed: "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." If one did literature would be doomed and, as Orwell concludes, "Any writer or journalist who denies that fact — and nearly all the current praise of the Soviet Union contains or implies such a denial — is, in effect, demanding his own destruction."

This is essay is so dense I felt quite exhausted having read it! It's a particularly interesting one not just for the subject matter but also because we can see Orwell's thoughts that would, three years later, lead to Nineteen Eighty-Four. As ever, I wish Orwell was still around: much of this essay made the current state of things a little clearer: we in the West seem to live with definite (though often ill-defined) beliefs and are reluctant to engage with the 'other side'. Furthermore, speaking on the UK, post-Brexit referendum we're seeing some very alarming behaviour from the right wing in its attempts to quash the opposition's arguments - I'm thinking of the Daily Mail's latest witch-hunt for 'remainer' academics (this is on top of their "Enemies of the people" article from earlier in the year: with the best will in the world it is impossible to respect that publication). We are not in a totalitarian regime, but to see the attempt to suppress freedom of thought is alarming, and in 1946, this is not limited to the right wing press. It is far easier to think in terms of black and white, but in finding the truth and being of some use to the debate, one must at least try. With so much hyperbole, 'fake news', and aggression, it becomes ever more difficult even to stomach looking at the 'other side' of the press, much less find the truth in it. But that is so often the case with our 'own side'. Being informed in this day and age is a hard task, but we must. In The Prevention of Literature Orwell serves a good reminder of why.

And that was my 44th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Later in the week (because somehow I managed to forget to do it last week!) - Miss Julia by August Strindberg.


  1. I must get hold of the complete essay, but from the parts that you have mentioned, it seems as relevant today as it was in 1930s. Many of the democracy's of the world, including mine are choosing governments, espousing far right views which are very unnerving . This seems to be extending to press and even define the very narrative of the event, sometime turning the whole matter on its head to present a wholly inaccurate or invalid presentation of the matter!

    1. The far right thing is very alarming. I was talking about it earlier - it's a bit premature to think about our next General Election (2022) but if it goes the way it's going, the Conservatives have no chance of getting stray Labour people on their side so they'll be trying to appeal to UKIP and the far right voters to maintain power, which will make it worse. It's horrible. Horrible horrible atmosphere here and elsewhere. Very worrying. I only hope if the Conservatives try to extend their power they'll go for the liberal vote.

  2. yes, an essay with current application, in the US as well as GB.... Orwell possessed amazing perception of political realities and was more able than most of the writers of the day to extrapolate the consequences of what he recognized as baneful in his world into the future world in which we live... we in America are living in the culture of fakery that he described... tx for this excellent and timely post...

    1. Glad you liked it :) As ever, Orwell nails it!


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