Tag Archives: politics


In this post, Alfie Turner, who took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2015, writes about ‘Orwellian’ as a philosophical keyword.

Aged 17, I got my first paid job washing-up in my local village pub. Describing working conditions on the phone to my aunt – the anti-Semitic chef and the cohort of Slovenian dogsbodies, jumping to every foul-mouthed order, – my aunt remarked, “it sounds Orwellian!”  Later that year she gave me ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’. Being, I suspect, the only student in England to have escaped school without having ‘Animal Farm’ or ‘1984’ surreptitiously shoved down my throat, my engagement with the phrase “Orwellian” was both literary and practical. Feeling as I did, I equated it with Humanism, the human spirit of the Parisian plongeur, the Wigan miners, and the Communist and Fascist soldiers shouting insults at each other about buttered toast over the frontline trenches in the Spanish Civil War.

The shouting of propaganda tGeorge Orwell cover undermine the enemy morale had been developed into a regular technique…

Generally they shouted a set-piece, full of revolutionary sentiments which explained to the Fascist soldiers that they were merely the hirelings of international capitalism…

Sometimes, instead of shouting revolutionary slogans he simply told the Fascists how much better we were fed than they were…’Buttered toast!’–you could hear his voice echoing across the lonely valley–‘We’re just sitting down to buttered toast over here! Lovely slices of buttered toast!…It even made my mouth water, though I knew he was lying.[1]

Orwell cuts through the mirage of claim and counter-claim, using humour in the midst of war, men of one side indistinguishable from the other, finding dignity in man’s common humanity. It brought home what Orwell once said about his art –‘good prose is like a windowpane’[2]. This humanist interpretation of Orwell is in alignment with his prior appreciation of the late-Victorian humanism of James Joyce in ‘Inside the Whale’ and the ever-present influence of Aldous Huxley.

Alas, “Orwellian”, the adjective he has left us, is more complex in its usage and meanings. According to the New York Times, “Orwellian” is ‘more common than ”Kafkaesque,” ”Hemingwayesque” and ”Dickensian” put together. It even noses out the rival political reproach ”Machiavellian”, which had a 500-year head start’[3]. “Orwellian” is used because of a hegemonic Anglo-American adoration of Orwell endorsed in every school this side of Siberia. Orwell’s prophetic verdicts on Imperialism, Totalitarianism and Communism render him a genius, “Orwellian” is used less to evoke what Orwell said than for the recognisable man who said it. His readers are often labelled “Orwellians”; if we are to believe YouGov’s profile, a cohort of young middle class, right of centre males, working in the law and media, most likely to own a cat.[4]

Orwell profile

Putting this aside, the way the word has been used is somewhat more complex. To be an “Orwellian” writer is certainly a good thing, the Orwell Prize a coveted award for writers. As Polish intellectual Czeslaw Milosz said of Orwell, whose books he illegally smuggled into Poland, ‘Even those who know Orwell only by hearsay are amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have so keen a perception into its life’.[5] This ability to cut through the fog, to take on totalitarianism from outside a communist state, is at the heart of the term’s positive usage. Polemicist Christopher Hitchens wrote that ‘we commonly use the term ‘Orwellian’ in one of two ways. To describe a state of affairs as ‘Orwellian’ implies crushing tyranny, fear and conformism. To describe a piece of writing as ‘Orwellian’ is to recognize that human resistance to these terrors is unquenchable’[6]. To many “Orwellian” is about precise and simple language, derived from his novels but also some of his most famous essays. It was Orwell who made this readable style of language so easily applicable to nearly everything in the modern world, not least because he used it to describe the everyday, even precise instructions for brewing tea.

George Orwell at the BBC in 1941

George Orwell at the BBC in 1941

“Orwellian” principle usage is now as a by-word for evil. It is summoned to attack people, organisations and regimes that bear no relation to one another, other than that they are held in contempt by somebody. The Republican Party have brandished the NHS “Orwellian”, Samsung TVs are “Orwellian” and recently Bill Maher said of Isis that “this idea that we cannot even call it Islamic terrorism seems Orwellian to me”. Even Peppa Pig has been called Orwellian, some animals consulting Doctor Brown Bear, whilst others Dr Hamster the Vet, leading many to ask the appropriate Orwellian question; “are some animals more equal than others”?

At a 1995 Tory conference John Major attacked Blair, suggesting ‘Labour has been reading 1984…the brainchild of another public-school-educated Socialist’.[7] In the light of the Iraq war, it is interesting to reflect on Major’s prophetic words. Orwell’s ‘1984’ mantra that “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Power” has echoes in George Bush’s claim that “I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace.”[8] The “Orwellian” nightmare cast by the shadows of ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ has a clear political saliency that persists today; recent evocations of Orwell regarding WikiLeaks and the NSA revelations are a case in point.

“Orwellian”, born out of Orwell’s thinking, is rooted in 20th century philosophy, but there is a dualism in Orwell’s theoretical ideas and views as a political activist. For example, he had a life-long contempt for intellectuals, calling Sartre ‘a bag of wind and I am going to give him a good boot’[9]. However, he saw politics as ubiquitous, infecting all other aspects of life. Writing to Orwell in 1949, Huxley observed that ‘1984’ ‘hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution — the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology’[10]. Orwell believed that literature and philosophy were inseparable; ‘no one, now, could devote himself to literature as single-mindedly as Joyce and Henry James’[11]. But it is his activism that marks him apart, unable to watch the 20th century unfold as a passive spectator. Having read Nietzsche’s “master slave relationship”, he reappraised his own position as a colonial officer in Burma, and, as related in ‘Burmese Days’, duly quit to become a full-time writer.

“Orwellian” also carries with it a cynicism and hatred about a stultifying Edwardian class structure into which he was born. At Eton he ‘had to supress his distrust and dislike of the poor, his revulsion from the ‘coloured’ masses who teemed throughout the empire, his suspicion of Jews, his awkwardness with women and his anti-intellectualism’[12]. But he could not abide the establishment that underpinned such attitudes, rebelling and then abandoning his class. Orwellian” as the ultimate “outsider” was a precursor to the “Angry Young Men” of the 1950s and 60s, and possibly to the punks of the 1980s.

“Orwellian” is not static, its meaning and inferences changing, and no more so than since the collapse of Communism. Where once it conjured up a futuristic “Orwellian” nightmare, now it is used to describe dystopic times gone by.  The term’s first use, by Mary McCarthy’s 1950 ‘On the Contrary’, was in the context of ‘the Orwellian future’[13]. After 1992, it has been used, much like “Nazism” or “Stalinism”, to recall foregone perils. Ironically, Orwell himself, through the “Orwellian” prism, has become synonymous with the totalitarian regimes he once satirised.

Given its indefinable meaning, “Orwellian” has curiously always said more about its user than about itself. For example, Hitchens used it to justify his support for the Iraq war, ironically evoking Orwell who was famous for exposing the horrors of war. Another irony was the evocation of Orwell in the final edition of the News of the World, brought to a demise by the “Big Brother is listening” phone-hacking scandal. It quotes Orwell on the final page: ‘The wife is already asleep in the armchair and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose and open the News of the World’[14]. Here, as the Telegraph points out, the editor cut the end of the quotation, which read ‘In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about? Naturally, about a murder’. [15]

We have hijacked Orwell’s name to lend legitimacy to our own, often controversial, views. But I don’t think Orwell would have been much surprised. For him, language is merely ‘an instrument, which we shape for our own purposes’[16] and the abuse of Orwell, for financial profit, political point scoring, or waging war, is the greatest ‘Orwellian” crime of all. I rest my case here:

Suggested Further Reading:

George Orwell: A Life in Pictures Full Documentary

Orwell Essays

Why Orwell Matters: Lecture

The Road to Nineteen Eighty-Four

George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London (London, Penguin, 2001)


[1] George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (London, Penguin, 1962), p. 42-43.

[2] George Orwell, Why I Write, (London, Penguin, 2004) p. 10.

[3] Geoffrey Nunberg, Simpler Terms; If It’s ‘Orwellian It’s Probably Not, Accessed at: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/22/weekinreview/simpler-terms-if-it-s-orwellian-it-s-probably-not.html, (22, 6, 2003).

[4] YouGov, Readers of George Orwell, Accessed at: https://yougov.co.uk/profiler#/George_Orwell/demographics.

[5]  Czeslaw Milosz, Quotes about 1984, Accessed at: http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/nineteen-eighty-four.

[6]  Christopher Hitchens, Why Orwell Matters, (USA, Basic Books, 2002), p. 5.

[7]  Christopher Hitchens, Why Orwell Matters, (USA, Basic Books, 2002), p. 117.

[8] George w. Bush, Quotes, Accesed at: http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/50967-i-just-want-you-to-know-that-when-we-talk.

[9] George Orwell, Letter, Accessed at: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2011/12/bag-of-wind.html.

[10] Aldous Huxley, Letter, Accessed at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2111440/Aldous-Huxley-letter-George-Orwell-1984-sheds-light-different-ideas.html.

[11] George Orwell, Essays, (Penguin, London, 2000), p. 454.

[12] Christopher Hitchens, Why Orwell Matters, (USA, Basic Books, 2002), p. 9.

[13] Mary McCarthy, On the Contrary, (New York, Farrar Straus and Cudahy, 1961), p. 187.

[14] Michael Deacon, George Orwell would be proud of how his words were twisted, Accessed at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/phone-hacking/8630799/George-Orwell-would-be-proud-of-how-his-words-were-twisted.html, (11, 8, 2011).

[15] Ibid.

[16] George Orwell, Essays, (London, Penguin, 2000), p. 348.


Hannah Askari took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2015. In this post she writes about ‘Individualism’ as a philosophical keyword.

Image from http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/8940211/in-defence-of-individualism/

Image from http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/8940211/in-defence-of-individualism/

Individualism (a)

‘The habit of being independent and self-reliant; behaviour characterized by the pursuit of one’s own goals without reference to others; free and independent individual action or thought.’[1]

I began my research with a simple Google of ‘individualism.’ It resulted, interestingly, with the discovery of a website titled Individualism. After a few more searches I found that this website has wholeheartedly embraced social media and also has a Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and a Facebook page. The website describes itself, rather paradoxically, as ‘a collective dedicated to celebrating men’s style.’ It’s a place where you (and the rest of the internet world) can find tips and tricks on how to express your individuality aesthetically. For myself, this online faction exemplifies what ‘individualism’ means today in the twenty-first century.

To be ‘individual’ can today often compliment a person with a unique fashion sense or eccentricity; something the website is adhering to. However, ‘individualism’ is still also a word with a range of connotations. It is a political philosophy that puts the individual’s moral worth at its centre. Left-wing commentator, columnist and author Owen Jones complains about the promotion of ‘dog-eat-dog individualism’[2] of contemporary Tories as a replacement for strong working-class values such as community and solidarity. In this sense, to be ‘individual’ is often associated with selfishness, egotism and greed; adjectives that most would agree is not particularly desirable.

Nonetheless, the political and aesthetic ideal of ‘individualism’ actually has a much longer history.

Oscar Wilde, is arguably one of the primary figures when thinking about aesthetic individualism. His flamboyant philosophy justified his colourful persona; which is articulated through fictional characters in his literature and essays. Wilde believed in the value that ‘aesthetics are higher than ethics’[3]; he believed the superior aim in life was to be able to ‘discern the beauty of a thing.’[4] His philosophy was an attack on the old-fashioned Victorian values of altruism. He, and other anti-altruists ‘wanted to create a new moral language and a new kind of ethics’[5]; one which focused on art and the individual. Although Wilde’s philosophy of aestheticism was not totally new or original, it did allow a real distancing from Victorian tradition. Wilde’s provocative interpretations are exemplified in De Profundis in which he writes of Christ that:

People have tried to make him out an ordinary philanthropist, or ranked him as an altruist with the unscientific and sentimental. But he was really neither one nor the other[6]

Ultimately, Wilde puts forward Christ as ‘the most supreme of individualists’[7] and proposes that one should be helpful and charitable to others, not for their benefit but for one’s own self-fulfilment.

Oscar Wilde flamboyancy in picture form. Image from http://www.oscarwildeinamerica.org/features/the-modern-messiah.html

Oscar Wilde: flamboyancy in picture form. Image from http://www.oscarwildeinamerica.org/features/the-modern-messiah.html

Degeneration theorist, Max Nordau, said that Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic individualism was only ‘a purely anti-socialistic, ego-maniacal recklessness and hysterical longing to make a sensation.’[8] Understandably for the conventional Victorian, Wilde was the incarnation of the signs of a troubling modern culture in the 1890s.

In the 1890s, English philosopher G.E. Moore was inspired by Oscar Wilde, and began to compare the importance of altruism and egoism as ethical moralities. He was asking himself questions such as ‘are we selfish?’ and ‘do we love ourselves best?’[9] His 1903 publication Principia Ethica, settles that:

Egoism is undoubtedly superior to altruism as a doctrine of means; in the immense majority of cases the best thing we can do is to aim at securing some good in which we are concerned, since for that very reason we are more likely to secure it.[10]

Principia Ethica is an innovative philosophical enquiry into what it is that constitutes ‘good’. For the forward thinking Bloomsbury Group it became a sort of Bible and laid the philosophical groundwork of their aesthetic principles. For both Moore and those of the Bloomsbury Group, the ethical ‘good’ was embodied by the importance of individual relationships and personal life. Moore furthered Wilde’s belief that detection of beauty ‘is the finest point to which we can arrive,’[11] defining beautiful as ‘that of which the admiring contemplation is good in itself.’[12] For G.E. Moore, it was in the goodness of art and beauty in which one found moral meanings, not in philanthropy and thinking of others.

Individualism (b)

‘The principle or theory that individuals should be allowed to act freely and independently in economic and social matters without collective or state interference.’[13]

Anarchist-feminist Dora Marsden worked for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU ) but became motivated to express her individualism. She was known for her involvement in serious political demonstrations; which eventually led to a formal break from the WSPU. She established her own magazine near the end of 1911: The Freewoman: A Weekly Feminist Review. She wished to advocate a feminism which dealt with more than just suffrage; a ‘third-wave way before her time.

Dora Marsden being arrested for her suffragette activism in Manchester 1909. Image from Greater Manchester Police Museum

Dora Marsden being arrested for her suffragette activism in Manchester 1909. Image from Greater Manchester Police Museum

It was Max Stirner’s The Ego and his Own, which offered a philosophy dedicated to individualism that influenced Marsden even further. Stirner argues self-mastery is only able to exist when the individual is free from all obligations, only then than the individual be sure that they are never used by others for their ends but only by the individual for the individual’s own ends. Stirner believed that a platform concerned with the welfare of groups would ruin those exceptional individuals.

It was this concept of the individual (and the lack of funding) for The Freewoman, which drove Dora Marsden to create The New Freewoman: An Individualist Review; It followed that:

The New Freewoman is not for the advancement of Woman, but for the empowering of individuals—men and women; it is not to set women free, but to demonstrate the fact that “freeing” is the individual’s affair and must be done first-hand[14]

The New Freewoman was a short-lived publication and by January 1914 it had morphed into The Egoist: An Individualist Review. The Egoist became one of the primary magazines of modernism, and was home to a number of influential literary artists, such as Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, T. S. Eliot. Moreover, James Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was printed as a serial in The Egoist.

Marsden’s transformation to Stirnian individualism can actually be seen as a natural development. It all began as a protest against the Pankhursts’ methods and rejected the idea that the women’s movement was dependent on the sacrifice of individualism. Her magazines are a satisfying evidence for her changing and evolving perspective; firstly as a supporter of democratic suffrage and then an advocate of anarchistic individualism.

The transformation of the journal under Marsden's editorship. Image from http://modjourn.org/

The transformation of the journal under Marsden’s editorship. Image from http://modjourn.org/

Nevertheless it was not Dora Marsden who Russell Brand called the ‘icon of individualism.’[15] That instead is Margaret Thatcher, of course! Thatcher is often criticised for having ‘implanted the gene of greed in the British soul’[16], epitomised by the onslaught of the ‘yuppie’ culture. Aspiration became the thirst for a bigger ‘thing’ like a car, or house.

Following Thatcher’s death in 2013 there was a surge of discussion around her infamous quote:

There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.[17]

Thatcher, like many before her, saw individualism as an important aspect of life. Unfortunately her premiership has, and still does, create fierce debate. When David Cameron won the Conservative Party leadership in 2005 he stated that ‘there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.’[18] He wanted to distance himself from the controversy which surrounds Thatcher who is still associated with a selfish and uncaring individualism.

Oscar Wilde once said that individualism ‘seeks to disturb the monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine.’[19] We are closer today than ever before to turning man into a machine and individualism is under threat. How interesting would it be to ‘do’ an Oscar Wilde, a Dora Marsden, even a Margaret Thatcher, let the individual loose and disturb … absolutely everything?

Further reading:

Dixon, T The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain, (Oxford: Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 2008)

Clarke, B. Dora Marsden And Early Modernism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).

Wilde, O. et al., The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Brown, S. L. The Politics Of Individualism (Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1993).

Meiksins Wood, E. Mind and Politics: An Approach to the Meaning of Liberal and Socialist Individualism. (University of California Press, 1972)


Clarke, B. Dora Marsden And Early Modernism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).

Dixon, T. The Invention Of Altruism (Oxford University Press, 2008)

Jones, O. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, (London: Verso, 2011)

Wilde, O. et al, The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)


BBC News

The Guardian

Margaret Thatcher Foundation

Oxford English Dictionary

Modernist Journals Project

The Spectator

The Spectator Archive, 1828-2008


[1] [1] Oed.com, ‘Individualism, N. : Oxford English Dictionary’, 2015, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/94635?redirectedFrom=individualism&.

[2] Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, (London: Verso, 2011) p. 71.

[3] Oscar Wilde et al, The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Vol. 4 p. 204. All sentiments are put forward by Gilbert in ‘The Critic as Artist’ first published in Intentions (1891)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Thomas Dixon, The Invention Of Altruism (Oxford University Press, 2008). p. 322

[6] Oscar Wilde et al. (2000) vol. 2, p. 176.

[7] Wilde et al. p. 176

[8] Max Nordau, Degeneration, (University of Nebraska Press 1993) p. 319. In Thomas Dixon, The Invention of Altruism, p. 333.

[9] Apostles papers given by Moore on 26 Feb. 1898 and 4 Feb. 1899. In Dixon 2008, p. 354

[10] G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, (Cambridge University Press, 1993) p. 216 in Ibid.

[11] Oscar Wilde et al. (2000) p. 204.

[12] G. E. Moore (1993) p. 249

[13] Oed.com, ‘Individualism, N.: Oxford English Dictionary’, 2015, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/94635?redirectedFrom=individualism&.

[14] ‘Views and Comments’, The New Freewoman: An Individualist Review, (July 1st 1913), vol.1 no. 2., p. 25 http://library.brown.edu/pdfs/1303305900625129.pdf

[15] Russell Brand, ‘Russell Brand On Margaret Thatcher’, The Guardian, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/apr/09/russell-brand-margaret-thatcher.

[16] Simon Kelner, ‘Mrs Thatcher implanted the gene of greed in Britain’, The Independent, 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/mrs-thatcher-implanted-the-gene-of-greed-in-britain-8565716.html

[17] Interview for Woman’s Own, 1987. http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689 [last accesses 06/03/2015]

[18] David Cameron, ‘BBC NEWS | UK | UK Politics | In Full: Cameron Victory Speech’, News.Bbc.Co.Uk, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4504722.stm.

[19] Oscar Wilde et al., p. 260