For all the differences between ideological groups in the political identity survey, they had one thing in common: for all of them, George Orwell was the most read writer.
Perhaps this is partly because he was one of only two writers on the survey list who is most famous as a novelist (though he was a very fine essayist as well), and not even the greatest treatise writers can absorb readers in the way novelists can. But clearly it is not simply the fact of being a novelist – the other novelist, Ayn Rand, came fifth even among libertarians.
Orwell’s cross-ideological appeal is presumably some mix of his skills as a stylist and observer of life, and the capacity of people from all political backgrounds to find something that appeals to their beliefs.
As James Wood wrote recently in The New Yorker, Orwell remained a socialist, though as Wood argues one who was far clearer on what he wanted to get rid of (the deprivations and humiliations of poverty, the British upper class) than the detail of how this would be achieved. These dislikes resonate for Wood, as I expect they do for others.
Those on the right have always liked Orwell’s powerful novelistic attacks on communism. Indeed, that Orwell was a socialist doesn’t stop some people on the right claiming him as one of their own. Norman Podhoretz, a prominent first-generation neoconservative, argued in the early 1980s that Orwell would have been one of them if he had lived (the essay is in this book).
Though of course unprovable, Podhoretz’s argument wasn’t entirely ridiculous. Most of the first generation neocons were ex-leftists who, like Orwell, were strong anti-communists and who, like Orwell, had an aversion to the left intelligentsia. (“The mentality of the English left-wing intelligentsia can be studied in half a dozen weekly and monthly papers. The immediately striking thing about all these papers is their generally negative, querulous attitude, their complete lack at all times of any constructive suggestion” as Orwell wrote in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’.)
Or maybe Orwell would have ended up like his fan Christopher Hitchens, lining up with the right on key issues while not making the full ideological switch. (We can imagine what Orwell, advocate of clear writing, would have made of the way the academic left tortures the English language.)
Whatever Orwell would have become politically, his popularity persists even with those in the survey too young to remember the communist domination of eastern Europe and the passionate disputes between anti-communists and the ‘anti-anti-communists’, the leftists who claimed to oppose totalitarianism but could never bring themselves to take a firm stance against the USSR and for the West. Orwell is again the most read thinker for the 24 and under group in the survey, and only 7 percentage points below the other groups (and with time to catch up).
If you haven’t yet read Orwell, I recommend you do. Animal Farm, 1984, and the Penguin essays are the places to start.