“The road from Mandalay to Wigan is a long one and the reasons for taking it aren’t immediately clear”: A World-System Biography of George Orwell

Brendan McQuade


George Orwell is one the best known and highly regarded writers of the twentieth century. In his adjective form—Orwellian—he has become a “Sartrean ‘singular universal,’ an individual whose “singular” experiences express the “universal” character of a historical moment. Orwell is a literary representation of the unease felt in the disenchanted, alienated, anomic world of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This towering cultural legacy obscures a more complex and interesting legacy. This world-system biography explains his contemporary relevance by retracing  the road from Mandalay to Wigan that transformed Eric Blair, a disappointing-Etonian-turned-imperial-policeman, into George Orwell, a contradictory and complex socialist and, later, literary icon. Orwell’s contradictory class position—between both ruling class and working class and nation and empire—and resultantly tense relationship to nationalism, empire, and the Left  makes his work a particularly powerful exposition of the tension between comsopolitianism and radicalism, between the abstract concerns of intellectuals and the complex demands of local political action. Viewed in full, Orwell represents the “traumatic kernel” of our age of cynicism: the historic failure and inability of the left to find a revolutionary path forward between the “timid reformism” of social democrats and “comfortable martyrdom” of anachronistic and self-satisfied radicals.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5195/jwsr.2015.7


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