George Orwell: Buddhist Socialist?

Recently, in my Buddhism and Modern Psychology class on Coursera, we explored the neuropsychological nature of dukkha—that feeling of unsatisfactoriness, often roughly translated as “suffering,” and its cause, tanha, or “craving.”  This particular lecture presented an experiment with monkeys to show us what happens behind the neurological scenes of this experience we all know so well.  When these monkeys were given a nice bit of fruit juice, they experienced a burst of the neurotransmitter dopamine, suggesting that they were very happy to receive such a treat.

Butto the surprise of no onethis neurochemical spike quickly abated.  The satisfaction we primates receive from dopamine bursts is fleeting, and we quickly move on to our next craving.  Psychologically speaking, we are not wired for happy stasis.  It’s all about the pursuit of happiness.

Soon after I watched that Cousera lecture and in pursuit of what I thought was a wholly separate interest, I happened to stumble upon an essay by George Orwell, famed author of 1984 and Animal Farm.  What they don’t tend to tell you when you read his work in high school is that Orwell was an avowed democratic socialist.  His writings were not against socialism per se (as they are too often presented to credulous students), but against authoritarianism.  So, yep, though he had no qualms about stating his disagreements with other Leftists, Orwell was a fellow traveler.


But as far as I know, he wasn’t a Buddhist.  So it’s was striking to me that the essay I read—entitled “Can Socialists Be Happy?“—conveys precisely the same Noble Truth of Dopaminergic Dukkha preached by both the Buddha and the juice-wielding psychologists.  Here’s how Orwell puts it, with my emphasis:

It would seem that human beings are not able to describe, nor perhaps to imagine, happiness except in terms of contrast.  That is why the conception of Heaven or Utopia varies from age to age.  In pre-industrial society Heaven was described as a place of endless rest, and as being paved with gold, because the experience of the average human being was overwork and poverty.  The houris of the Muslim Paradise reflected a polygamous society where most of the women disappeared into the harems of the rich.  But these pictures of ‘eternal bliss’ always failed because as the bliss became eternal (eternity being thought of as endless time), the contrast ceased to operate.

Hey! I thought, This is just what happened with those monkeys!  Given that fruit juice appears to be at least part of what they dream of in their monkey utopias, it’s significant that as the experiment went on, the monkeys got their dopamine burst merely by anticipating the juice—with no further neurochemical reaction once the juice finally arrived.  Again, we are wired to keep craving, to have only the most fleeting satisfaction, because satisfaction tends to put an end to our striving—and that would mean death in an environment where sugars and nutrients are hard to come by.


Faced with this bit of science, we can see how some with a right-wing bent might use it to encourage us to just keep working harder: “Neurologically speaking, we can’t ever truly meet everyone’s needs, so capitalism is the only system that can work.  Keep on craving, proles!”  Others might find in the Buddha’s teaching the same old “opiate of the masses”: instead of telling poor people they’ll get pie in the sky when they die, Buddhists just try to teach them meditation so they can transcend cravings for things like, you know, health care and stuff.

So what is that ideologically unreliable Orwell chap getting at with this essay?  Here’s his takeaway:

At the risk of saying something which the editors of Tribune may not endorse, I suggest that the real objective of Socialism is not happiness.  Happiness hitherto has been a by-product, and for all we know it may always remain so.  The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood.

Oh!  Now he’s done it!  Now that bleeping bourgeois has really jumped the shark!  Human brotherhood?!  From where we stand in the polarized, cynical world of 2018, some might think that a far more utopian goal than seizing the means of production or a $15 minimum wage or whatever anyone means when they say they want “socialism.”

But I actually think he’s on to something.  Just as Orwell noted, we can’t tell you what socialism will look like, because it will need to be more than just meeting the needs of today.  In fact, we don’t claim we’ll ever be able to meet all needs, particularly as we get beyond the basics for survival.  There will still be human misery under socialism.  And people will still be imperfect.

And Calliope will still voice her craving for a walk in the hall during ten o’clock flow time.

This, however, is all compatible with “human brotherhood.”  Brothers, after all, routinely beat each other up.  They may participate in family feuds, compete against each other, or resent not being Mom’s favorite.  But they do also have a tendency to look out for each other.

And if we scale that up to a broader level, we can call that community.  Indeed, if you’d asked me what I mean by socialism even before I read Orwell’s essay, that’s what I would have told you: socialism is a return to community.

This is an idea that merits its own separate post, so I’ll hold off on a broader explanation, and instead wrap this post up with tying this back in with George Orwell’s apparent Buddhist leanings.

See, when he talks about human brotherhood and I talk about community, we might also say that we want to replace tanha—that craving for ever more juice-induced dopamine—with chanda, which one of you delightful readers brought up in the discussion of an earlier post as the answer to the question of whether Buddhism recognizes any positive desires.  According to this write-up on Buddhist economics, if tanha is the craving for pleasure, chanda is the desire for well-being; tanha is based on ignorance while chanda is based on wisdom.


It seems to me we could also say that capitalism runs on tanha, and socialism will require a reorientation toward chanda.  At first glance, this may seem to suggest that socialism is as distant and difficult as Buddhist enlightenment is for most of us.  But I actually think that getting to Orwell’s ideal of human brotherhood, and my idea of community, won’t take an enlightened monk or the New Soviet Man at all.  If chanda is already compatible with broadly shared American values—and in my upcoming post on community, I’ll argue that it is—then we don’t have to change hearts; we merely have to change policy.  And while that’s a pretty big “merely,” it is relatively much easier than getting all of humanity to reach Nirvana.

One thing’s for sure: when 21st century psychologists, 20th century democratic socialists, and and 6th century BC spiritual teachers are all pointing in a similar direction, that’s a promising path to follow.  Stay tuned and we’ll follow it further.


Image credits: sasint, studioessen, and happymom33 on Pixabay, with special thanks to Calliope, resident dukkhat.

15 thoughts on “George Orwell: Buddhist Socialist?

    1. Tolstoy is someone whose work and life I wish I knew more about…he’s been on my to-be-read list for ages but I haven’t gotten there yet. Was he another (perhaps unrealized) Buddhist socialist?


  1. This is the same reason I’m suspicious of Fully Automated Luxury Communism. This thing was supposed to be about the end of exploitation and oppression, not sci-fi fantasies. I have a creeping suspicion a lot of the FALC proponents want colonies on Mars more than they want human liberation and if it came to a choice between the two, it would probably be oppression on Mars. Although to be fair those fantasies have been with socialism from the beginning and reached spectacular proportions in the Russian Revolution.

    There is a theory that people need to develop their aerobic, oxytocin and parasympathetic systems before they can safely develop and enjoy the anaerobic, dopamine and sympathetic systems. And even then the systems should stay balanced and not be allowed to tilt toward the latter (with a few exceptions when maximum performance at a specific task is required). I’ve seen this basic idea in both physical training and sacred sexuality (and probably in several more areas if I was willing to stretch the metaphor).

    When I mentioned previously the thermodynamics of revolution and enlightenment, what you’re talking about here is what I’d think of as isothermal revolution. Nothing much seems to change but everything changes, and people barely break a sweat, or even get particularly emotional, doing it. It talks its time, is very calm, but by the end things are unrecognisable. It sounds very Zen. 🙂 However if you try and do it the nice way this is what usually happens

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” is a thing I’m hearing talked about more and more, and originally parsed it as self-mockery, but now I don’t know what to make of it. I mean, if it’s just shorthand for all undesirable work finally being automated, then great, but considering so much of the undesirable work is so-called “women’s work,” i.e. social/emotional labor that requires a high level of intelligence, handling complexity, and precisely a human connection, I find FALC idea minimally intriguing. (They did claim to have “baby-sitting robots” at Expo 2005, but for me, they only served to drive home that this is a task that can never, ever be automated. See also: MIT’s Sherry Turkle’s switch from having hope that robots could help lonely old people in nursing homes to being horrified by the actuality of robots being foisted off on old people in nursing homes by their over-busy progeny.) Speaking of oppression on Mars…that’s where I see Elon Musk’s car launching stunt heading. I hope I’m wrong.

      (I should probably share with you the same thing that I’ve shared with Max: I tend not to watch video clips. I see this one is only 31 seconds long, but I’m at a cafe without headphones so it would distract the people around me…. But even if I weren’t, I always have some other excuse. I don’t understand why so many people see the ability of our technology to handle video to be such a step up. I find that it has made communication less efficient. I recognize that might just be a peculiarity of my weird brain and mine alone, but it’s the brain I’m working with…. But I haven’t even watched many of the Dabrowski videos yet, even though I should. Forgive me! Feel free to continue to share clips, of course, as others following the discussion aren’t viewing this from my brain and no doubt enjoy them.)

      So, not having watched the clip but assuming it all descends into violence and oppression…I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case, but to answer that, I’d have to…basically write the blog post that I’m working on in another window at this moment! So I’m looking forward to your thoughts on that one. 🙂

      Meanwhile, offline, I have been slowly absorbing information about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems into which your comment has assimilated and fueled new connections between neurons. Hooray!


    2. I agree completely and the term “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” ignited a cascade of associations in my head. Futurologists present two greatly diverging pictures of the world in which future generations will live. One is the fully computerized urban paradise where robots do all the dirty work and humans enjoy an easy, hedonistic life. The other is a harrowing dystopia, with a post-industrial society at the level of the Middle Ages or earlier at best, and human extinction due to starvation in a nuclear winter at worst.

      The later prediction seems much more plausible to me.

      Where shall the energy for a computerized urban paradise come? People phantasize about thorium reactors or fusion energy, but if humans cannot even handle properly the comparatively benign technical challenges and dangers of todays nuclear reactors, how will they ever be able to tame thorium reactors and fusion energy?

      Every other week there are reports of tritium leaks at nuclear power plants or Hanford workers contamination, why is this not fixed yet? Todays technology cannot even keep the Metro systems in Baltimore, New York and other places running smoothly.

      It is pathetic.

      Who will be able to enjoy “Fully Automated Luxury Communism”? Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and their fellow billionaires? The people in Puerto Rico, lacking electricity and safe drinking water, surrounded by trash heaps? The half million homeless in US, the people in trailer park villages, the slum dwellers in Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore? They all are citizens of the richest nation on earth.

      And what about the inhabitants of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, who are on the receiving end of US most advanced technologies? How did US technological progress improve their lives?

      Will they appreciate the fully automated luxury drone strikes?

      Sorry about the diatribe.

      Trump and Bolton will make everything right again.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Why not “human sisterhood”? Orwell was not a feminist, there are consternating stories how he treated women. He would have been a target of MeToo. But he was a good writer and clever enough to detect existing flaws and predict dangerous developments in society.

    “Human brotherhood” (or sisterhood) implies compassion, sympathy, tolerance, grace, mercy, honesty, and empathy towards ones sisters and brothers. It implies cooperation instead of competition, sharing instead of wealth accumulation, generosity and altruism instead of greed, selflessness instead of individualism and egoism.

    Isn’t a sisterhood or brotherhood a social commune? A commune where everyone cares about everyone else? Where all together feel as one? Where the collective wellbeing is more important than personal gains? Where kindness, grace, goodwill, amity, understanding, peace, harmony, and love reign?

    Love is the key and the greatest healer. One shouldn’t be afraid to make this the most important word in ones vocabulary.

    A social commune as it is characterized here is the antithesis to capitalism, which is based on competition, exploitation, egoism, greed, dishonesty, inequality.

    Inequality? Is equality incompatible with capitalism? Yes, because competition and wealth accumulation will create winners and losers.

    Dishonesty? Is honesty incompatible with capitalism? Yes, because a successful business has to lie about the real value of its goods and services (Apple, Microsoft for example). Overpricing is the key to high profits, profits are the key to expanding the business and defeating competitors.

    One could go through all other terms, which characterize capitalism, and it will come out that they all are antonyms of kindness, grace, goodwill, amity, understanding, peace, harmony, love, and related words.

    So, just pile up the words for notions, emotions, behaviors, which characterize a sisterhood / brotherhood and build a second pile with the antonyms, which constitute also the pile of words characterizing capitalism.

    This is statistical semantics.

    By this exercise one will get an idea which way ones own life, the family, ones circle of friends, the neighborhood, the village, the town, the whole society should go.

    Brain plasticity fortunately allows us to change behaviors, customs, habits, even hardwired instincts and impulses. It is hard and takes a long time. It would be easier to engrave the virtues of sisterhood / brotherhood from earliest childhood on and to make them the basis of education. Many idealistic, committed parents and teachers do this already. There have to be more.

    This is the only way, changing social, political, economic structures alone will achieve nothing.

    Btw.: 84,000 meditators worldwide took part in the 2nd Global Meditation. On March 24th the 3rd Global Meditation will happen and the organizers hope, that 150,000 meditators will take part. (Mato’s personal link)
    More infos at

    I like the idea. I didn’t like the music, I prefer to listen to my own musical creations, especially the cat songs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, I wondered if anyone would call out the sexist language! I struggled with that but, obviously, left it as it is. I of course can’t speak for Orwell and you’re absolutely correct in your assessment of him. (I’m reading a biography of him right now.) I can, though, speak for my ultimate editorial decision to use his language. I thought about somehow trying to twist this to “siblinghood” going forward, but that just seemed awkward, and there’s also something to be said for letting people (especially those in the post title) speak in their own words, however flawed those words are. There’s also something to be said to changing it to sisterhood as you did, and I would have in a different context…but in this case, I wanted to introduce my own term, “community,” which I prefer to brother-, sister-, or siblinghood for many reasons.

      Of course, I agree with what you have to say here. In particular, this point strikes me as key:

      Isn’t a sisterhood or brotherhood a social commune? A commune where everyone cares about everyone else? Where all together feel as one?

      Yes, basically! Though it doesn’t even have to be as rosy as you say. I mean, people also are awful to their siblings; the values you describe might be too much for cynical people to ever hope for…and yet, even if the cynics are generally right, I think “socialism as community” is still a reachable goal, and moreover one that we can convince people to see as reachable, even if people also can be crabby, selfish, hateful, and short-sighted. We are social creatures and that kept our species alive and thriving, even given crabby selfishness.

      But to say more would repeat the post I’m writing in a separate tab right now! So more on that soon.

      Oh, and I just signed up to be one of the million meditators. Intriguing!


    1. Hah! I like that. Though I don’t think that Facebook actually provides brotherhood or community, but just a simulacrum of it. One that tricks you into craving more via its manipulation of dopamine despite its failure to deliver real community!

      More on that in future posts. 🙂


  3. Something I forgot to say before – the paragraph with “keep on craving, proles!” is the funniest and most concise summary of the recent misuses of spirituality I’ve ever seen.

    Liked by 1 person

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