If liberty means anything at all

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

Thomas E. Ricks’ new book, Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, notes that, although the two never met, their paths ran parallel in many ways:

Significantly, both were estranged from their fathers. Orwell remembered his as “a gruff-voiced elderly man forever saying ‘Don’t’” (the source, Ricks contends, of his lifelong skepticism of authority). Churchill’s father continually and publicly expressed his disappointment in him. “A son who could survive such an upbringing would either be thoroughly damaged or, with some luck, enormously self-confident,” Ricks asserts. “Churchill was very lucky.”

Neither went to university; instead, both went off in service of the Empire. For reasons that remain obscure, the anti-authoritarian Orwell joined the Indian Imperial Police, serving in Burma; Churchill served as a cavalry officer in India. After their service (and during, in Churchill’s case), both became war correspondents. And both almost died well before they rose to greatness — a term Ricks unabashedly applies to both, although he is not unmindful of their failings and blind spots.

But Ricks wisely skims lightly over the early years of his subjects and, with Churchill, his ineffectual later years, as well, focusing instead on the “fulcrum point,” the 1930s and 1940s, when both men were frequently lonely voices in the wilderness. As authoritarianism rose across the globe, faith in democracy wavered, particularly among the intelligentsia in Britain (and the U.S.): Striking a deal with Hitler struck many as the only pragmatic possibility. On the left, many were willing to turn a blind eye to Stalin’s death squads in the service of the Revolution. Orwell and Churchill “led the way, politically and intellectually, in responding to the twin threats of fascism and communism.”

Thus both men spoke out eloquently against abuse of power; both refused to bend the facts in service of ideology; both insisted on “the need to assert that high officials might be in error — most especially when those in power believe strongly they are not.” In Orwell’s words, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”


  1. Graham says:

    I’m not entirely convinced that Churchill, or even Orwell, would have meant the same thing by “democracy” as is meant when Hillary Clinton uses the word.

  2. Patty O. says:

    It strikes me as exceedingly odd that Orwell is admired and respected across the political spectrum, that everyone is aware of his warnings regarding authoritarianism, that everyone shares his fears, and yet we live in a world where it seems nobody has ever heeded his warnings.

  3. Patty, I have long been of the opinion that the almost universal introduction of 1984 to students as an assigned reading in secondary school, long before most of them have developed the necessary life experience or political awareness to be able correlate the contents of the book with the outside world in any but the most facile manner, serves as little more than a sort of ideological inoculation against Orwell’s ideas.

    Typically, there is also little discussion of the book as a direct critique of Stalin’s regime, robbing the book of its context and of one of the best examples of a real-world society that approached the totalitarianism of the fictional Oceania.

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