Jean-François Revel

Orwell and Revel – by Henri Astier

Spilling the Beans in Paris and London

by Henri Astier.

First time published in the Contemporary Review, in June 1994.

Anglo-saxon readers don’t need to be reminded who George Orwell is, but a few words of introduction might help in the case of Jean-Francois Revel.

A philosopher turned journalist, Revel has been one of France’s most influential political analysts for the past two decades. In a number of essays published in the 1970s and 1980s – notably Without Marx or Jesus (1970), The Totalitarian Temptation (1976), and How Democracies Perish (1983) – he argued that although democracy is patently superior to other forms of human organisation, Western democracies have been reluctant to acknowledge, let alone exploit, their advantages; this reluctance has led them to favour appeasement toward inherently inferior but more determined enemies.

Revel’s admirers regard him as a most eloquent advocate of freedom, others dismiss him as an obsessive reactionary whose irrelevance was proven once and for all by the fall of communism.

The parallel with Orwell was first drawn by Marie Vargas-Llosa. In a 1979 article, the Peruvian novelist credited Revel with a “courage in challenging intellectual fashion” and defending liberty “wherever it is negated or distorted” which made him “the Orwell of our time”. There are also similarities in the two men’s careers. Both started as non-political writers with left-leaning views; both were drawn to politics after travelling abroad and testifying about a historical event (the Spanish Civil War for Orwell, upheavals in the United States in the 1960s for Revel); and both, as Vargas-Llosa observed, ended up denouncing the left’s “inferiority complex” toward the communists.

The biographical parallel, of course, shouldn’t be stretched too far.
After writing best-selling essays which earned him early in life a secure place among Parisian opinion-makers, Revel became the editor of France’s biggest newsweekly, L’Express, which he left in 1981 to write more best-sellers and enjoy the perks of well-deserved punditry, complete with regular television appearances and travels all over the world. The contrast with the careworn recluse eking a living from his chicken farm and coughing his way to an early grave is striking.

Even as authors, Revel and Orwell differ. They belong to the same genus and species (writers – political), but not to the same sub-species. Orwell is a brilliant essayist, but what distinguishes him most is his ability to express ideas through tales. Since Stendhal decided that politics in a novel had the effect of “gunfire in the middle of a concert”, fiction has been neglected as a vehicle for anything but the vaguest form of social message.
But political satire – which can be defined as tracts in fiction form – has a prestigious ancestry in England, into which Orwell was able to tap. He came to the conclusion that politics had given his later works focus and value. “This is a political age”, he reflected in 1948. “War, Fascism, concentration camps, rubber truncheons, atomic bombs, etc. are what we daily think about … We cannot help this. When you are on a sinking ship, your thoughts will be about sinking ships.” It is a cliche to make much of Orwell’s admiration for Swift, but some platitudes are worth stressing: Orwell’s best works are his satires and it is doubtful that A Clergyman’s Daughter would still be in print if it hadn’t been written by the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

While Orwell used the old techniques of satire to analyse the upheavals of the century, Revel revived another style of political writing — pamphleteering. The genre had been discredited in France by the spate of right-wing tracts published in the thirties; its hallmarks – ruthless polemics and vivid imagery aimed at crushing opponents rather than winning over waverers – have been associated with the ravings of rabid anti-semites. Revel, however, combines hard-biting prose with solid common sense, encyclopaedic knowledge, hard logic and devotion to fact. The result is intellectually stimulating, as well as vastly entertaining – if you happen to agree more or less in the first place.

Although an essential ingredient of good pamphleteering is a readiness to offend, the broadside must not be personal or gratuitous. Take this passage, in The Flight from Truth, where Revel punctures the bombastic conclusions reached by a conference of Nobel Prize-winners, most of them scientists, invited to Paris by President Mitterrand in 1988, to ponder on “threats and promises at the dawn of the twenty-first century”:

“I recognize that the Paris conference was above all publicity exercise for Francois Mitterrand; as a French taxpayer, I am glad to have contributed my modest share to the travel expenses of these luminaries, who do need to be entertained … But what were the conclusions of that august assembly? First that “all forms of life must be treated as part of the basic heritage of humanity” and that the environment should be protected. Wonderful! Later, that “mankind is one, and each individual has the same rights”… The audacity and novelty of these aphorisms are positively astounding.”

Revel’s irony is not just aimed at the celebrities regularly wined, dined and paraded by French governments. The main idea is that scientists can abuse their prestige by propounding unscientific banalities outside their field (a point also made by Orwell in a 1945 essay, entitled “What is Science?“).

No two people agree on everything — and authors write books precisely because they think they have something new to say. Establishing intellectual kinship, therefore, means sorting out values which underpin a writer’s work and might be shared by others, from the combination of obsessions, idiosyncrasies, and assumptions arising from either personal experience or the spirit of the age, which makes that writer unique.
A literary critic or biographer must stress the latter, but someone writing on intellectual trends must dwell on the former. The rest of this essay seeks to bear out Vargas-Llosa’s contention by showing that Orwell-the-satirist and Revel-the-pamphleteer stressed the same ideas and shared the same values.

Most of Orwell’s writings, including his pre-war novels, are concerned with the passing of an old civilization and the rise of mechanized barbarity. Orwell came to associate the dying order with old English values such as mild manners, toleration, and defence of the underdog. Britain is of course riddled with class snobbery and archaic humbug, he wrote in “England your England”, but its people are still able to live private lives and can expect justice to be done. They are free, but for how long? The point is, the new cult of raw power and mass hysteria can only be resisted by holding on to a fading past of cherished quaintness, as Winston Smith tries to do in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Orwell repeatedly blamed his contemporaries for ignoring the mortality of democracy, and for siding with its enemies, Nazism and communism. English right-wingers who mistook Hitler for a conservative failed to see that National Socialism “is emphatically revolutionary” and, like the other sort of socialism, is moving towards “a form of oligarchical collectivism”. As for left-wing intellectuals who opposed Hitler “only at the price of accepting Stalin”, he wrote in 1944, most are “perfectly ready for dictatorial methods, secret police, the falsification of history, etc. so long as they feel that it is on “our” side”.

Revel too makes blindness to the transience of democratic civilization a key theme – as can be expected from the author of How Democracies Perish. “Democracy”, the opening sentence proclaims with Orwellian portentousness, “may turn out to have been an historical accident, a brief parenthesis which is being closed before our very eyes”.
Although the West is reasonably healthy and rich, “Revel says, it acts as if it were sick and bankrupt. Through exercises in doublethink and self-delusion described in detail by Revel, democracies are fatally prone to questioning their own motives and giving their opponents the benefit of the doubt. Haunted by the death of Athenian democracy, Revel recalls Demosthenes’ vain attempts to convince his fellow citizens that they must resist Macedonian imperialism, instead of falling for the “peace campaigns” staged by Philip II’s proxies in Athens.

The similarity between Orwell’s warnings and Revel’s is further highlighted by a common charge levelled at them – their dire prophecies, critics say, were simply wrong. The real world of 1984 was very different from the one Winston Smith lived in. Democracies have triumphed over their Nazi and Soviet enemies, the argument goes, confounding the Cassandras obsessed with Western surrender. Even Francis Fukuyama, a liberal (in the continental sense) with much in common with Revel, includes the author of How Democracies Perish among the “deep historical pessimists” who had failed to see that communism was not invincible after all.

This line of criticism ignores the crucial distinction – made by both Orwell and Revel – between warning and prophesying. Pointing out the mortality of democracy is not the same as predicting its certain death.

Orwell, in fact, explicitly rejected the idea that totalitarianism would inevitably wipe out freedom. In an essay on James Burnham’s seminal analysis of the modern state, The Managerial Revolution, Orwell accepted that the advent of a new elite of planners and engineers meant that a centralized society was arising and that “capitalism is obviously doomed”; but he resisted Burnham’s idea that freedom would necessarily vanish in the process, with managers forming an almighty class ruling a small number of oligarchical superstates. In other words, Orwell did not see the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four as the most likely outcome. Burnham, he wrote, is guilty of the common illusion that present trends (in this case towards ever greater concentration of power) are irresistible. This illusion, Orwell goes on, leads Burnham to neglect “the advantages, military as well as social, enjoyed by a democratic country”.

The main purpose of Nineteen Eighty-Four is not to show the shape of things to come, but to expose the logic of power worship (which Orwell elsewhere calls “the new religion of Europe”). In order to survive, a totalitarian state must try to get inside people’s minds, and control their deepest thoughts and feelings. Whether or not Orwell believed that this attempt was doomed matters little – although one may doubt that a man who thought power-driven technocrats would soon be able to control reality itself could have the energy to spend his last years writing about it. The question is whether totalitarianism must be actively resisted or whether we should be content to let the forces of history take care of its destruction. Orwell believed the latter.

The same is true of Revel, who never said that the USSR was bound to win or that the West is unfit for survival. On the contrary, he wrote over and over again that communism was a basket-case from the start. His point is that a civilisation is not protected by its mere superiority, but by concrete actions to take advantage of it. In the short term, a lost cause can imprison, maim, kill, and gobble up half of Europe. “History concerns particular individuals, not abstract processes”, Revel wrote in 1992. For the Chinese students crushed in June 1989 and millions of victims of repression since then, he goes on, the triumph of democracy as the ultimate stage in human government is not a glaring reality. “It is wrong to reply that someday it might be, because it will be for other men, and this is precisely the odious proof through the future which was used and is still used to justify so many totalitarian atrocities.”

Orwell and Revel focused on the power struggles affecting millions of men and women in their own time. They did not regard the outcome of these struggles as foregone conclusions, which is why they wrote fighting books, rather than cold analyses of long-term historical trends. The point was to try to influence the result; Nineteen Eighty-Four was indeed not a true prophecy, but it provided many Western readers with insights into life under totalitarianism; Revel was alarmist, but he contributed more to discrediting communism than those who, after the event, casually view its downfall as a matter of historical necessity.

Some may object that, politically, Orwell and Revel are poles apart.
It is disingenuous, the argument goes, to infer any deep sympathy from a purely negative common point. Only in a century which has bred monsters like the USSR can they appear as fighting on the same side.

This objection rests on the premise that Orwell and Revel embody two radically opposed lines of resistance to communism – from the left (Orwell) and from the right (Revel). The point is well taken, but only as far as it goes. Revel is a strong advocate of capitalism. He has always questioned the concept of a “mixed economy”, or middle course between a centrally-run and a market-based system. “In any mixed economy one element must prevail”, he wrote, “which means that there is no such thing as a truly mixed economy”. A key idea in Without Marx or Jesus is that the aims of socialism (equality, justice, freedom, solidarity, etc.) cannot be served by smothering private enterprise.

Orwell, on the other hand, felt that the profit motive had no place in the world of brotherhood he was dreaming of. He defined himself as a “democratic socialist”, opposed to both collectivism and laissez-faire. In a review of The Road to Serfdom (1944), Orwell blamed Hayek for ignoring that “free” competition “means for the great mass of the people a tyranny probably worse . . . than that of the state”.

All this is true, but should not lead to the conclusion that Revel and Orwell objected to communism for fundamentally different reasons. First, their views on the merits of private enterprise were probably shaped by the times in which they lived. In the 1930s and 1940s, equating capitalism with dole queues may have come more naturally to an honest observer than it does after decades which brought growth and social progress in most places where freeish markets have been set up and shortages and oppression elsewhere. Admittedly, it is dishonest to co-opt Orwell posthumously into the Adam Smith fan club by speculating on how he would have analysed the emergence of Asian “tigers” or debt reduction schemes in Latin America; but the point is, neither he nor Revel has based his case against communism primarily on technical, economic grounds.

The anti-Soviet camp included many bedfellows – Trotskyists, Socialists, Christian Democrats, Royalists, Fascists, and many people with no particular ideological commitment, but who felt that the USSR was a nasty place. All these opposed Moscow with various degrees of intensity and for different reasons; but the ultimate distinction among them was between those who did so on principle and those who didn’t. Revel and Orwell did, and the precepts of political morality they raised were the same. They are the tenets of liberal democracy set forth by Enlightenment thinkers – governments derive their legitimacy from the people, they must respect freedom of the press, of assembly, etc. – and later put into practice, in a piecemeal but effective way, in North America and Europe. For Orwell these principles are traditionally English. Here is a country, he writes in “England your England”, where “the liberty of the individual is still believed in, almost as in the nineteenth century”. During the war, he hoped that “the liberal tradition will be strong enough within the Anglo-American section of the world to make life tolerable and even offer some hope of progress”.

Orwell’s attachment to Enlightenment liberalism is particularly obvious in his insistence on the rule of law.
Liberty, Orwell wrote, can only survive in countries like England, where “the totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as law, there is only power, has never taken root”. The Oceanian Society in Nineteen Eighty-Four is tyrannical not because its rules are too strict but because it is not governed by a clear set of rules. Orwell’s most explicit refutation of the “anarchist utopia” is found in a passage from the article “Politics vs Literature” which could have been written by Montesquieu or Madison: ‘In a society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law”.

Looking for liberal values in Revel’s work is like trying to focus on sexual themes in the Marquis de Sade.
Every page is so fraught with the stuff, one is not sure where to begin. Revel, for instance, constantly upholds individual rights over state might. This leads him to debunk the notion of national sovereignty, and blame the United Nations and other international bodies for neglecting the declarations of human rights that grace their charters. The principle of non-intervention in the affairs of other states, Revel wrote, “in effect sanctifies among nations the reign of pure force and the law of the jungle”. The Totalitarian Temptation is not just a refutation of communism: it points to the nation-state as the other major obstacle on the ‘way to a better world order. This is also a major theme in Democracy Against Itself (1992), which stresses a moral duty of international intervention on humanitarian grounds: tyrants must not be given a free hand within their own borders.

A related Revelian theme is the need to control state power domestically. If unchecked, all governments tend to use their monopoly on force for its own sake.
Revel has repeatedly criticized the French constitution: the president’s powers, he holds, are not balanced by proper safeguards against arbitrariness; Parliament is mostly a talk-shop where important issues are not discussed and the judiciary cowers under the overextended wing of the executive. French ‘presidentocracy’, he argues in L’absolutisme inefficace (1992), leads to paralysis and mob rule. “Dismissing constitutional checks and balances, which cannot resist it or deflect its course, the presidential pachyderm is spurred only by forces that stand outside institutions – the media and the street.”

To retort that French presidents derive their legitimacy from direct mandate misses the point.

Revel’s definition of freedom, like Orwell’s, is typically liberal: the way power is exercised (in an absolute way or otherwise), matters more than the way it is derived (by popular vote or otherwise). “What determines the amount of liberty in a society”, he writes, “is the number of individuals who feel relatively autonomous, and the number of fields where they can operate according to their own initiative”.
Of course, he says, the ideal is for individual rights to be combined with democracy, i.e. popular mandate. But democracy, either direct or elective, is not in itself a guarantee that the individual sphere will be respected (witness ancient Greece); and societies whose leaders are not chosen democratically (such as imperial Rome) can preserve the rights of individuals and local bodies.

But doesn’t the emphasis on such rights reveal a smug Western bias? Isn’t it indecent for people living comfortably in the North to lecture those starving in the South about “the sanctity of the individual” and other luxuries? Surely, private values are irrelevant to societies based on community solidarity. This line of criticism boils down to the charge of “cultural absolutism” – which, incidentally, is more likely to be raised in North America or Europe than in cultures which do not worship “relativism” as absolutely as Western intellectuals do.

To the charge of “absolutism”, Revel and Orwell give the same replies: first, universal standards are valid because humans share a number of basic needs. In all societies, most people seek to achieve status for themselves and their families, and expect to be treated justly, etc. A Hutu from Burundi values life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as much as any resident of Massachusetts.
Human rights, Revel writes, are not demands arising from prosperity:

“The right not to be arrested … exiled, enslaved or robbed of your property; … not to be condemned without trial; put to death or jailed because of your opinions; … to leave your country or any other country freely; the right to free association or peaceful assembly, or, conversely, the right not to be forced to join an association to earn a living — all these can be put into effect immediately, anywhere. They are not linked to any level of economic development. They do not assume any bank loan.” (Democracy Against Itself.)

The idea that only Westerners cherish individual rights because they can afford to is akin to an attitude denounced by Orwell in a famous passage in The Road to Wigan Pier.
From his passing train, Orwell glimpses the hopeless expression on the face of a woman unblocking a drain-pipe in her dirty backyard:

“It struck me that we are mistaken when we say “It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us” and that people bred in the slums can imagine only the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She … understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.”

The need stressed here is perhaps less universal than those listed by Revel – for many human beings, there may be worse fates than living in a poor Merseyside tenement.

But both passages raise the same point: people, whether male or female, rich or poor, black or white, generally aspire to human dignity. True, this is an elastic concept (a Westerner may find life without running water degrading), but nowhere, at any time, has it included the routine acceptance of persecutions and hardship at the hand of a brutal authority.

Another point is simply that the stress on universal values is NOT “absolutist”. Revel observes that true relativism, as it was pioneered by Plato, Aristotle and Enlightenment philosophers:

“…did not imply that all customs were equivalent, but that all should be impartially judged, including ours. We must not be more lenient towards ourselves than we are towards others, but we must not be more lenient towards others than we are towards ourselves either … When Montaigne castigated the crimes committed by Europeans during the conquest of the New World, he did so in the name of a universal principle to which, in his eyes, the Indians themselves were to be held.” (The Flight from Truth.)

Relativism, Revel writes, has come to mean the opposite of impartial judgement. It holds that others should not be held to Western standards; but since “cultural judgementalism” is fine when it comes to showing what is wrong with us, modern relativism means that Westerners should refrain from criticizing any culture but their own.

Orwell too denounced this tendency to accept from abroad forms of bigotry which are condemned at home. After quoting an excerpt of Sean O’Casey’s autobiography which is brimming with nationalist sentimentality, Orwell points out that:

“…if one substitutes ‘Britannia’ for ‘Cathleen ni Houlihan’ in these and similar passages … they can be seen at a glance for the bombast that they are. But why is it that the worst extremes of jingoism and racialism have to be tolerated when they come from an Irishman? Why is a statement like “my country right or wrong” reprehensible if applied to England and worthy of respect if applied to Ireland (or for that matter to India)?”

Revel and Orwell based their stand against totalitarianism on the premise that all human beings share basic expectations, and that all regimes can be judged on this basis. Few writers have so consistently stressed private values over collective ones and rejected the assumption — fashionable until the 1980’s – that people are what society makes them. The recognition that we all belong to a group, Revel wrote, should not obscure the “only verifiable fact in the history of mankind: everything we go through ultimately takes the form of an individual experience”.

All this, one may say, is now unexceptionable. Collectivism has been discredited as a political model; in the social sciences, Michel Foucault’s dictum that “Man is dead” has ceased to mean anything much. At a time when individual rights are seen as the cornerstone of democracy, shouldn’t liberal old-hats like Orwell or Revel be thanked for services rendered and consigned to the museum of political prehistory?

Neither Revel nor Orwell, it is important to note, focused on a purely military or even political threat. They are much more than “cold war” thinkers. Both use the word “totalitarian” to refer not just to tyrannical superpowers in Europe, but also to anti-liberal tendencies inside the human mind.
Orwell’s emphasis on precise language was bound up with his defence of freedom. In a reply to a 1946 article by the Marxist physicist J. D. Bernall – an assault both on Orwell’s ideas and on clear English – Orwell drew attention to “the connection between totalitarian habits of thought and the corruption of language”. This connection is explored at length in the essay “Politics and the English Language” and in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Likewise, in The New Censorship (an answer to the latter-day Bernals who blasted The Totalitarian Temptation without discussing its ideas) Revel warns against “the creation of a totalitarian mentality”. The adjective is not bandied about as a vague term of political abuse (in the way that, say, “fascist” is often used); it refers to specific mental reflexes which, according to Revel and Orwell, undermine democracy.

The most basic of these is our ability to ignore facts which we find uncomfortable. The idea which underpins all of Revel’s works is this: we use our minds to perform all kinds of functions besides seeking knowledge – buttressing faith, helping us feel better about ourselves, finding solace, asserting authority, making friends, influencing people, etc. Many of these functions are perfectly respectable, but they are useless when we try to see and understand the world as it is.

For one thing, the ability of the mind to discard reality makes rational discussion extremely difficult.
In an early book, La Cabale des dévôts, Revel exposed what he called “devotion”, or “argument through consequences”:
We often judge other people’s ideas not on the strength of the logic and evidence presented, but by first looking at the conclusions. What matters is not whether what we hear is true or false, but whether it supports the right cause or the wrong one.
Intellectual debate tends not to be about proving our opponents wrong, but bludgeoning them with moral reproof.
The supremacy of “devotion”, Revel says, is evident in the common dismissal of science as an inferior form of knowledge.
Poets or mystics, we are told, are not just better at turning out odes or writing sermons – they have access to a wisdom which is higher than that of scientists, who are notoriously prone to putting mankind at risk by playing Dr. Frankenstein. At the core of this disparagement of science is an age-old tendency to value faith over observation: just because we believe something to be true, means it is true. Immediate “consciousness” can be a more reliable guide to understanding the world than the patient compiling and checking of facts.

The point that such ideas, despite their enduring trendiness, are in fact retrograde is the unifying theme of Revel’s philosophical books, Pourquoi les philosophes, Histoire de la philosophie occidentale, and Descartes inutile et incertain.
Greek philosophy, Revel argues, developed along two lines: one tradition, pioneered by Ionian thinkers, was dedicated to observing the natural world and understanding it through cumulative knowledge.
The other was based on the debasing of tangible reality and on the search for a “deeper” truth. This tradition, which in Greece found its most eloquent advocate in Plato, turned the clocks back to a stage where mythical thinking prevailed.

According to Revel, the struggle between these trends continued within western philosophy until the empiricists defected to found science as a separate branch of human activity, leaving the philosophical field to the spiritualists.
Incidentally, Revel argues that Descartes, who is presented as a founding father of rationalism, is in fact a quintessential metaphysician: his arguments are purely deductive — particular details are derived from a general principle posited as self-evident – and rest on the existence of God. In abandoning the painstaking search for truth, modern philosophy has become as much of a dead-end as medieval scholasticism.

More is at stake than the corruption of intellectual debate and the sinking of philosophy into futility. Revel’s political books highlight the wider threats posed by our readiness to ignore reality – variously called “will to believe”, “fear of knowing”, or “resistance to information”. During the “Cold War”, he points out in How Democracies Perish, some Western opinion was quick to take Moscow’s peacefulness for granted and to blame any rise in tensions on American “aggressiveness”, seeking refuge in an ideal world where there was no enemy. As sweet dreams were treated as truth, hard facts were dismissed as fantasy: those who pointed to massive evidence of Soviet aggression were derided as obsessive cold-warriors.

Likewise, domestic policies are often guided by beliefs which fly in the face of basic evidence. La Grace de l’Etat exposes the idea trumpeted by French socialists in the early 1980s that the country’s problems were due to private ownership of banks and big industrial groups. “Devotion” ruled supreme: those who pointed out that nationalisations and massive reflation had never reduced unemployment were condemned as “right-wingers”, a rebuff summed up in an ironical formula – “facts are reactionary”.

In book after book, editorial after editorial, Revel has denounced the ambition of governments of all political hues to ignore well-known economic principles, in a vain attempt to legislate prosperity.

The Flight from Truth is Revel’s most thorough expose of modern wishful thinking and “devotion”.
“The tragedy of our societies, he argues, is not that we lack the data we need to make informed choices, but that we choose to ignore them. True, technology and science are thriving, and we have learned to think rationally on specific projects, like building planes or setting up unit-trust funds. But outside our speciality, we are as prone to superstition and illogical thinking as Neolithic men.” “When they have a choice, Revel writes, people today are no more nor less rational than they were in times defined as pre-scientific.”

Revel goes through a catalogue of conventional half-truths, cosy hypocrisies and downright lies which pervade public life in developed societies. These are conveyed by church and civic leaders, politicians, journalists, etc. – but the so-called “opinion makers” are in fact slaves to men’s primaeval preference for mental comfort over knowledge; they tell us what we want to hear. The Flight from Truth is a powerful, dark book, but its aim is not to present man as a compulsive liar. It exhorts us to open our eyes, and make better use of our capacity for taking in reality. “This is important to democratic civilization, Revel says, because freedom thrives as much on truth and honesty as tyranny does on lying and cheating.”

No theme is more Orwellian than the flight from truth. In “Why I Write”, Orwell explained that he knew at an early age that he had “a power of facing unpleasant facts” which set him apart from most people.

This capacity for deriving his convictions from his observations rather than the reverse is perhaps Orwell’s trademark as a writer. The human mind left on its own, he always reminds us, is a malleable thing, capable of holding two contradictory beliefs at once, or adjusting its memories to its own warped purposes. “We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proven wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right”, Orwell wrote. “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”

Orwell too warned against the political consequences of the bendable nature of our minds.
In his nightmare world, a fully fledged totalitarian regime traps people inside an almighty mind that answers to nothing but its own dictates.
This extreme form of idealism – in which truth is forever recreated by an abstract, collective consciousness – is most explicitly stated by O’Brien, Winston Smith’s torturer in Nineteen Eighty-Four:

You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you.
But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind … only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal.

Orwell’s emphasis on concrete observation is also bound up with his attachment to honest discussion. He tirelessly exposed the argument that one should refrain from attacking ‘X’ (the goodies) because this ‘objectively’ helps ‘Y’ (the baddies). This common argument – which is in essence what Revel calls devotion – is “only a short step to arguing that the suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty of a journalist”, Orwell wrote.
“It is a tempting manoeuvre and I have used it myself more than once, but it is dishonest”.
What’s more, it doesn’t work: “if you lie to people, their reaction is all the more violent when the truth leaks out, as it is apt to do in the end”.

Like Revel, Orwell defended “a conception of right and wrong, and of intellectual decency, which has been responsible for all true progress for centuries past, and without which the very continuance of civilised life is by no means certain”.
And like Revel, Orwell did not think that the battle was lost: he found comfort in the fact that in England, at least, “such concepts as justice, liberty and objective truth are still believed in”. The relevance of this message has not passed with the Cold War: it is as enduring as man’s tendency to sacrifice factual observation to self-righteous belief.
Indeed, we live in a time when intellectuals of themselves actively defend devotion. The old sophism that there is no such thing as truth is held up as a novel idea; among journalists, whose very job it is to inform, the cliche that “objectivity does not exist” is still an article of faith; on American campuses, racial separatism and censorship increasingly prevail over neutral standards and open discussion.
In an age like this, Orwell and Revel’s insistence on the reality principle as the basis of tolerance and freedom is as valid as ever.

Henri Astier