THE BLOG
11/08/2012 11:42 pm ET | Updated Jan 08, 2013

Orwell's Advice on How to Write in Revolutionary Times

"You can't be neutral on a moving train." Howard Zinn said it, and George Orwell would have agreed.

In 1946, Orwell wrote in the essay, "Why I Write": "In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer." Pamphleteers, of course, cried out for a cause. Thomas Paine's pamphleteering -- citing enlightenment ideals to justify independence from the British -- helped launch the American Revolution.

America is at a crossroads. We are experiencing tensions, familiar to historians, between the haves and have-nots, and their respective allies. I would not say we are in a "class war," given that billionaires Buffett and Soros argue they should be paying more in taxes to help the poor. As I've written before, for Big Think, America is in a war of values. We are a country politically divided between those who believe in the ideals of the enlightenment that inspired our Founding Fathers, and those who preach greed as a value. Luckily, the evolving manifestations of the dreams of our Founding Fathers are still very much alive.

But we have a president stuck in the swamp of Washington who, among many other grave mistakes, failed us when it came to much needed leadership to aggressively confront climate change. We live in extreme times and no single person, no single government is going to save us. We're the leaders we've been waiting for.

In his essay, Orwell described the age in which he lived as "tumultuous, revolutionary" -- just like ours. Ever since he was little, Orwell dreamed of becoming a writer, but he didn't find success until he aligned his dream with the moral leadership the world back then needed. He wrote, "And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally."

For most of his career, Orwell was considered a fringe writer, a political "pamphleteer" of the Left, and also very much critical of the liberal establishment. He most famously confronted liberals about their hero worship of Stalin.

To expose the horrors of Stalin's terrorist regime -- the state sanctioned mass murder of millions of Ukrainians in the terror famine known as Holodomor, the show trials and countless political assassinations, the hellish Gulag -- Orwell wrote Animal Farm, the book that, just before his death, would make him world famous.

"Animal Farm was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole," he explained in Why I Write. "I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write."

That book was 1984. Orwell wrote it in a passionate frenzy. Soon after, as he lay dying from tuberculosis at the young age of 46, he protested that he still had more books in him.

It's up to you to continue writing for him. There's too much at stake for you not to.

This Saturday, November 10th at 7:30 p.m., at the Ukrainian Museum in the East Village, I will be giving a talk on the inspiring true story of Orwell working by letter to publish Animal Farm in Ukrainian with a group of Soviet refugees, stranded in a displaced persons camp in Germany. This special refugee camp edition of Animal Farm is extremely rare -- most copies were seized and destroyed as anti-Stalin propaganda by U.S. and Soviet soldiers managing the refugee camps after World War II. Miraculously, my mother's family immigrated to New York with a copy. Come to the Ukrainian Museum this Saturday for the talk and wine reception to learn more about this inspiring true story.