Orwell on Socialism and Happiness

“All efforts to describe permanent happiness… have been failures.” That is the opinion of  George Orwell in his perceptive essay “Can Socialists Be Happy?” (Tribune, 1943). He adds that Utopias “seem to be alike in postulating perfection while being unable to suggest happiness.” The socialist author was enough of a realist to question the smug assumption that bliss is achieved through altered economic or political arrangements. And he touches on a psychological fact. Happiness is not a state of continual pleasure (or absence of pain, for that matter).

Referencing Dickens’ Christmas Carol Orwell says, “The Cratchits are able to enjoy Christmas precisely because it only comes once a year…. Their happiness is convincing just because it is described as incomplete.” Of course there are theological implications to all this, which Orwell would have disagreed with. But suffice it say that he is right in stating that worldly beatitude is not the normal human condition. I would, nevertheless, venture a step further. Bob Cratchit can enjoy his goose, pudding and gin punch only in the knowledge he’s lived an essentially blameless life; whereas Scrooge, for all his miserly wealth, is clearly unhappy.

Real happiness is not disconnected with physical contentment, but is ultimately an intellectual condition shaped by our long-term moral choices, which prepares us for something enduring that we can only partially glimpse in this life. As Orwell says, we can readily relate to Dante’s Inferno and find it much more interesting than his Paradiso. But that is because our notion of joy, while often profound and sincere, is still very sporadic and limited (almost two-dimensional on might say) compared to its real potential as described by St. Paul. I agree with Orwell that

One often has to aim at objectives which one can only very dimly see. At this moment, for instance, the world is at war and wants peace. Yet the world has no experience of peace, and never has had, unless the Noble Savage once existed.

There remain these persistent innate dreams of a better future, of peace and brotherhood, that seem to point to something. Why is that? With Orwell we may well wonder. At the same time, we can agree whatever the primal source, such visions can never be fulfilled through ideological short-cuts to salvation.

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