Don’t misread Orwell: 1984 supports Black Lives Matter

Don’t misread Orwell: 1984 supports Black Lives Matter
Copyright Daisy Harrison-Broninski 2020

Russell Square is a bustling and leafy area in the middle of London. It is home to many great institutions that in their own way represent British history, including the School of Oriental and African Studies, a university founded to train colonial administrators, and the British Museum, a beautiful collection of artefacts collected from around the world. Between these two institutions steeped in controversial colonial history sits Senate House, the striking building that Orwell modelled the exterior of his Ministry of Truth upon in his famous novel 1984. Its white art deco façade seems to rise endlessly into the sky, making it one of London’s most striking, and arguably austere, buildings. The proximity of these institutions to a building that plays such a key role in Orwell’s most famous work is prescient in times when 1984 is being invoked to criticise Black Lives Matter’s attempt to get the UK to recognise the legacy of colonialism, most notably in the toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol. In particular, the following quote from 1984 has been used by many on social media to criticize this act:

…every statue and street building have been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.

Those who have shared this as if it denounces the felling of statues like Colston’s have misunderstood 1984 and George Orwell. Orwell’s point is better illustrated by the fact that the statue stood for 125 years in the first place. The spaces we inhabit act as tributes to historical individuals whose true impact and role in history is often erased by foregrounding more favourable characteristics. Colston’s statue did not engage with his role in the slave trade, instead describing him as ‘virtuous and wise’. Where Orwell’s statues are “renamed” ours are recategorised so that Colston, and many others, are remembered by their virtue rather than their violence. 

This discussion has never been just about Edward Colston, or even statues. It is about why our society is so protective over the dominant, but incorrect or obscuring, narratives of history. The characters in Orwell’s two most famous fictional works, Animal Farm and 1984, are served narratives that reinforce dominating power structures through false tellings of history. This is what Orwell stood against: the protagonists of both Animal Farm and 1984 were not the people supporting the status quo but were instead subversive thinkers, in the case of Winston Smith of 1984, and revolutionaries, in the case of the animals of Animal farm.  

Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, rebelled by collecting parts of the cultural legacy cut out from the dominant narrative. The nursery rhyme line “Oranges and Lemons, ring the bells of St Clement’s” led to him learning about a history which wasn’t endorsed by the near-omnipotent Big Brother, from a small antiques shop in the proletariat area of the city. This simple fragment of history led him on a fateful journey to a showdown with authority in the infamous torture chamber Room 101. The experience of learning about history through fragments collected outside of the mainstream will be familiar to anyone who takes an interest in British colonial history, which is noticeably absent from the national curriculum and more jingoistic popular histories of Britain.  

Orwell was critical of the status quo and was no shrinking wallflower when it came to challenging power. His work is so often used to invoke the USSR and communist dictatorship, however, it is also evocative of some episodes in the history of the British Empire. A particularly famous example is the burning of documents relating to the detention of over a million Kikuyus in settlement camps in Kenya during the 1950s as a response to the threat of a small nationalist insurgency known as Mau Mau. This has left historians unable to see the incarceration from the perspective of the British government and prevented the extent of the atrocities from becoming widely known to the public until the mid-noughties. Only in 2011 did the government admit that they had continued to keep 200,000 documents secret from the public for over five decades, some of which showed that the government had covered up the systematic abuse in the internment camps. 

This nuance is lost on many. In the Daily Express Leo Mckinstrey writes

For most of us 1984 was a warning.
For radical agitators it was a blueprint.

McKinstry is right of course in saying that Orwell meant 1984 as a warning, but he is wrong that it is the ‘radical agitators’ of the left using it as a blueprint. It is not Black Lives Matter who present a threat to history; many have been very clear about their desire for a broader history curriculum and for more context to be given to British history. The people who are using 1984 as a guide are some of the politicians running our country. Our prime minister, Boris Johnson, a man famous for lying, has recently claimed ignorance over footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign that forced a major government U-turn and had have his own words quoted back to him by the leader of the opposition to remind him of his original policy about COVID-19 and care home safety. This is not to mention his unconditional support for Dominic Cummings whose trip to Durham was painted as a reasonable decision by government ministers while most of the country was shocked by the audacity with which they revised the meaning of the lockdown conditions.  

This has been a persistent problem since Johnson became leader of his party: during the 2019 General Election an independent fact checker found that 88% of Conservative Party adverts contained lies, while the Tories rebranded their twitter as ‘Fact Check UK’, a fake fact-checking service. This enduring problem with truth from our current government recently led to an anonymous civil servant tweeting the following from a civil service twitter account:

Arrogant and offensive.
Can you imagine working with these truth twisters?

If social media existed in the universe of 1984 then Winston Smith, who was a civil servant tasked with rewriting history, would most likely have written something similar from his desk in the Ministry of Truth, given the chance. 

What many who are invoking Orwell seem to have missed is that those with power are the ones that control the narrative of history. The very nature of protest suggests that people feel they do not have enough power to influence the course of, and telling of, history. Orwell would not be surprised that his work would be used to smear protesters that Donald Trump has called ‘Anti-fascists’. He recognised that becoming part of the cultural canon was part of reinforcing the narrative of those in power; he is afterall the man who wrote that “who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past”. The crowning irony is, of course, that Orwell was a self-professed anti-fascist who went to Spain to fight alongside anarchists against the fascist armies of General Franco. This was the cognitive dissonance that Orwell sought to capture in the word doublespeak. A term in the fictional language of 1984 termed Newspeak which was designed to reduce the possibility of subversive thoughts. People are concerned that history is being re-written in front of our eyes. This is a valid concern. The phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ has always been true. However, in this epoch there are new challenges ranging from politicians who are no longer held to account for their pathologically clumsy lying such as Johnson and Trump, to the social media echo chambers that have seen fake news so successfully spread. One thing is for certain: against this backdrop it is unlikely that Black Lives Matter is the movement that will lead us into the world of 1984.


Jake Smaje works in data governance for a large INGO in the WASH sector and is the trustee of United Social Ventures, a livelihood charity in Uganda, having previously worked in a range of roles in the charity sector in Rwanda, Kenya and Bangladesh. Since completing his BA in History at the University of Leeds in 2016 with a specialism in African History, he’s held a continued interest in the political economy of the Global South.


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Philanthropy is no get-out clause for immorality

Philanthropy is no get-out clause for immorality
Illustration by Daisy Harrison-Broninski, 2020

The current zeitgeist over statues in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests should serve as a warning to contemporary ‘philanthropists’, says Jake Smaje.

At the time of writing (the 8th June, 2020), the first sentence of the infamous Edward Colston’s Wikipedia page reads, “Edward Colston was an English merchant, slave trader, Tory member of Parliament, and philanthropist”. This combination of slave trader and philanthropist seems like a strange oxymoron that has become a polarising factor in the debates about his legacy after his statue was dropped into the Bristol quay during recent Black Lives Matter protests. The ability to be both an important part of a system of oppression and remembered for your benevolence leads to questions concerning the role of philanthropy within society, and the potential motivations behind it. 

Where charity aims to alleviate a problem, philanthropy is an action that seeks to address the causes of the problem. It has a long history, but for most invokes benevolent and powerful business leaders – in the modern day, people such as Warren Buffet, George Soros and Bill Gates. All three are arguably now as famous for their philanthropy as their business ventures. However, their business is not without controversy and has human costs, costs which are often not addressed by their philanthropy. Infamously, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation attempts to maximize return on its endowment, an approach which does not address the ethical considerations of investments. This leads to glaring inconsistencies, such as the Foundation having a $2.2 million investment in a company that profits from running private prisons in the US, some of which hold migrants. The source of wealth is inextricably linked to the cause it is spent on. Despite some inconsistencies in the sources of his foundations funds I don’t doubt that Bill Gates wants to change the world. I may disagree with the philosophy and methods of his, Soros or Buffet’s philanthropy, but I believe in their intentions to have an impact. 

There is, however, another type of philanthropist…

There is, however, another type of philanthropist, the type who consciously uses philanthropy to offset the immoral source of their wealth. A contemporary example is the Sackler family, whose company Purdue Pharma has been sued for their role in promoting opioid treatments that have led to the opioid epidemic in the United States. The family’s company continued to aggressively market opioids, such as Oxycontine, after admitting in court that they had misrepresented its addictive qualities. However, their name is still memorialised in institutions throughout the world, such as the Sackler library at the University of Oxford. While many institutions, such as The National Portrait Gallery and The Tate galleries, will not accept donations from the family, others will allow them to whitewash their name through association to famous and prestigious institutions. Academic libraries seem to be a fashionable choice for dubious philanthropy, another example being The University of Leeds naming their recently completed library the Laidlaw Library after the tax exile and donor Irvine Laidlaw. This association of one’s name with an institution is a way of creating a legacy, intertwining your name with its prestigious history.

Another way to ‘philanthropise’ your brand is to attach your name to a particular event. Jeff Bezos donated $100,000,000 to US food banks in response to the COVID-19 crisis, a seemingly eye wateringly large amount of money. It becomes a tiny sum when you consider that his estimated net worth increased by $32 billion between January and May of this year as a direct result of COVID-19 increasing the value of Amazon. He profited from COVID-19 and people’s isolation while getting reputational credit for a donation that, while huge, is small against the scale of the misery and fear that has recently spread across the globe. This is to say nothing of Amazon’s tax avoidance, lack of workplace safety, union busting and unfair trading practises against small businesses. Does $100,000,000 coming from the CEO of a corporation which has benefitted from a global crisis to the tune of $32,000,000,000 really allow them to purchase the term philanthropist? 

More than a just hobby of the wealthy, philanthropy becomes a branding exercise curated by PR executives. 

If you are part of the world’s ultra-wealthy class, philanthropy becomes an important tool in maintaining your personal brand. If you pay for a prestigious building at a top university, associate your name with the relief of an ongoing crisis or create an organisation which combines your name with some words that signify your virtue, such as The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, then you can become a philanthropist lauded for your generosity with little investigation into how and why you became so powerful and wealthy in the first place. More than a just hobby of the wealthy, philanthropy becomes a branding exercise curated by PR executives. 

It seems that what is missing is a step that addresses motivation, that signifies an actual desire to change the world. If the Sackler family wanted to improve the livelihoods of people across the world they could withdraw OxyContin or recommend new guidance on its prescription, Laidlaw could pay his taxes and Jeff Bezos could change the business practises of Amazon. Instead, they memorialize their philanthropy in high profile spaces, while continuing damaging business practises elsewhere in their empires. Soros, Buffet and Gates should not be absolved of criticism, but their philanthropy is of an altogether different nature, and is often invested in social and technological innovations designed to address the root causes of problems. Alleged ‘philanthropy’ such as the Sacklers’, Laidlaw’s, or, historically, Colston’s, is instead just an act of PR set across a backdrop of immoral profiteering. 

The current tearing-down of statues should serve as a warning to contemporary ‘philanthropists’

Philanthropy should not absolve immoral legacies from criticism. This encourages insubstantial acts of philanthropy as an exercise in branding. The current tearing-down of statues should serve as a warning to contemporary ‘philanthropists’ hoping to capitalise on this. The plaque on Colston’s statue commemorated his philanthropy reading, ‘’Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city AD 1895’’. For critics who feign worry about historical erasure as statues fall, I suggest a plaque should be placed above where Coulston rested at the bottom of the Bristol quay that reads ‘’Sunk here by the citizens of Bristol was one of Bristol’s wiliest sons, whose attempt at virtue failed to hide his atrocities AD 2020’’. This may just be the antidote needed to the dubious philanthropists of the future, and the present.


Jake Smaje works in data governance for a large INGO in the WASH sector and is the trustee of United Social Ventures, a livelihood charity in Uganda, having previously worked in a range of roles in the charity sector in Rwanda, Kenya and Bangladesh. Since completing his BA in History at the University of Leeds in 2016 with a specialism in African History, he’s held a continued interest in the political economy of the Global South.


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