Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
George Orwell was not a political thinker, exactly. Sure, he wrote books like 1984 andAnimal Farm. Those books are political. Or better put, they are political thought experiments in novel form. Orwell liked to think about totalitarianism. He created fictional scenarios like 1984 in order to think through the logic of totalitarianism, to find out how it works. Orwell’s essays, too, are often about politics. He wondered if it was possible to create a decent Socialism in the aftermath of the debacle of real-life Socialism, as it existed in the Soviet Union.
The power of Orwell’s writing came from his honesty about the actions and motivations of human beings making decisions in a messy world. So maybe it is best to say that Orwell was thinking about politics without being a political scientist. He wasn’t good at looking at politics from a distanced, objective point of view in order to suss out general laws. That’s why one of his best political essays is a story about shooting an elephant in Burma. It is a story of Orwell himself.
As a young man, Orwell got a job as an imperial policeman in Burma. He was working for the British crown. This was the 1920s. The British Empire still lorded over many parts of East Asia. Orwell realized quickly that he was a symbol of oppression to most Burmese. He was harassed in the streets, especially by the young Buddhist priests who seemed to have nothing to do, “except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.” This bothered Orwell, a sensitive chap with little taste for flexing his authority as a policeman. In short, Orwell felt immensely guilty about his role as a tiny cog in the British imperial machine. The guilt made him angry and the anger tore him in two. He wrote that he was “stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible.”
Then, one day, an elephant went berserk and started smashing things up in the village.