In a Time of Universal Deceit — Telling the Truth Is a Revolutionary Act

George Orwell? V. G. Venturini? David Hoffman? Charlotte Despard? Antonio Gramsci? Anonymous? Apocryphal?

orwell01Dear Quote Investigator: In 1949 George Orwell described a nightmarish future in his classic dystopian novel 1984. There is a popular quotation that is supposed to be contained within this work, but it is not there. Here are three versions:

  • In a time of universal deceit — telling the truth is a revolutionary act.
  • During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.
  • Speaking the truth in times of universal deceit is a revolutionary act.

Maybe Orwell wrote this expression in an essay or another book, but I have not been able to find it. Could you explore this quote?

Quote Investigator: Several researchers have tried to find these words in George Orwell’s oeuvre and have not succeeded. Currently, there is no substantive evidence that he said or wrote this quote. The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a 1982 book titled “Partners in Ecocide: Australia’s Complicity in the Uranium Cartel” by Venturino Giorgio Venturini. The statement was presented as an epigraph enclosed within quotation marks and attributed to Orwell; however, a specific originating text was not identified. The word “universal” was omitted: 1

“In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”   G. Orwell

The next earliest citation ascribing the saying to Orwell was found by the top lexicographical researcher Barry Popik. In the year 1984 the Canadian periodical “Science Dimension” printed a letter from a reader named David Hoffman who was unhappy with an article that discussed the economics of wind energy: 2

I think George Orwell said in his book 1984 that in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. If Science Dimension is not prepared to explore the future of renewable energy technologies except in inaccurate generalizations, then maybe it should maintain its integrity by avoiding the subject altogether.

Hoffman did not place the saying between quotation marks, and he prefaced his statement with “I think”. Perhaps he was presenting his analysis of the thesis or central point of the novel 1984 instead of an exact quote. Both of the two earliest cites are from individuals connected to environmentalism, but it is not certain whether this cultural subgroup was a transmission vector.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1912 a periodical favoring women’s suffrage called “The Vote: The Organ of the Women’s Freedom League” edited by Charlotte Despard published an editorial titled “The Great Conspiracy” which criticized the political system of the United Kingdom and argued that many people were being deceived and should learn the truth. The editorial contained a statement that was thematically related to the quotation under investigation: 3

The truth! But it is just the truth that cannot be known of the multitude, for truth is revolutionary.

The exposition continued with a claim about the necessity of seeking truth:

Truth has to be sought—in tears, in sorrow, in desperate revolt; here a little and there a little gained, and when gained held against all comers for the sake of humanity and sometimes at the cost of life itself.

In 1919 the political theorist Antonio Gramsci co-wrote an article in the periodical “L’Ordine Nuovo” that contained a thematically related precursor expression: 4

But the concrete and complete solution to the problems of socialist living can only arise from communist practice: collective discussion, which sympathetically alters men’s consciousness, unifies them and inspires them to industrious enthusiasm. To tell the truth, to arrive together at the truth, is a communist and revolutionary act.

Unsigned, written by Antonio Gramsci in collaboration with Palmiro Togliatti,  L’Ordine Nuovo, 21 June 1919, Vol. 1, No. 7.

Gramsci’s pronouncement about truth reverberated down the decades. In 1968 the New York Times printed some comments by the theologian Jürgen Moltmann of the University of Tübingen in Germany that invoked Gramsci: 5

By revolution he said that he meant “a change in the very basis of a system—whether of economics, of politics, of morality, or of religion.” He added, “To take up today the search for truth will involve discovering, as Gramsci did, that ‘truth is revolutionary.'”

In 1970 a remark in the journal “Commentary” referred to the potentiality of a revolutionary act in Orwell’s novel 1984; however, the act did not involve truth-telling; it was sexual. Indeed, the plot of the book hinged on an intimate and forbidden relationship between the protagonist, Winston Smith, and a fellow worker, Julia: 6

And to Orwell’s simpleminded assertion, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, that sex could be a revolutionary act, Marcuse would counter, “Repressive desublimation!”—and with some acumen.

In 1980 the abstract of a Ph.D. Dissertation at the University of Washington contained a statement that overlapped with the target quotation, but the word “deceit” was absent: 7

It is through work on the autobiography that Wright articulated for himself the importance of language, recognizing that in a racist society speaking the truth could be a revolutionary act.

In 1982 a book published in Australia called “Partners in Ecocide” credited the saying to George Orwell. This is the earliest example of a strongly-matching expression located by QI as noted previously in this article:

“In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”   G. Orwell

Also in 1982 another partial match was printed in a book about cinema in a section about the film director Jorge Sanjines: 8

Faithful to his theory that “exposing the truth is the most revolutionary cultural act,” he proceeds to document the sterilization of Quechua Indians without their knowledge and consent and to implicate the Bolivian government in its cooperation with American agencies.

In 1984 the periodical “Science Dimension” printed a letter from David Hoffman which contained a strongly-matching phrase as noted previously in this article:

I think George Orwell said in his book 1984 that in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

In 1989 the Australian journal “Overland” printed an interview with the historian and political writer Ross Fitzgerald. The introduction indicated that Fitzgerald had employed the quotation in the past and attributed the words to Orwell: 9

To introduce Ross Fitzgerald here are some words he’s used twice now in introducing his own books. One is a George Orwell quote: “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act”.

In 1994 a psychological study of the novel 1984 referred to a revolutionary act in the text. But, as in the 1970 citation, the revolutionary act was the liaison: 10

His “love affair” is the maximum private love possible between two individuals in 1984, and even that is only possible as a revolutionary act, and must end in torture and death.

In 1999 the Usenet newsgroup alt.books.george-orwell transmitted a message from a participant who noted that bumper stickers with the quotation were being sold: 11

Just back from Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley, where saw the following for sale:
Bumpersticker with Orwell quote — IIRC, “In an age of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

In 2008 the journal “Modern Language Studies” printed a book review that ascribed a version of the quotation to Orwell: 12

George Orwell’s celebrated line, “speaking the truth in times of universal deceit is a revolutionary act,” has special significance for Americans today.

In conclusion, based on current evidence George Orwell probably did not employ this saying. The quote was attributed to Orwell in its earliest known appearance in 1982. The expression evolved into a handful of variants, but the ascription to Orwell was preserved. The origin is unclear, but it is possible that the statement began as a proposed summary of Orwell’s position, and it was later incorrectly converted into a quotation. This article represents a snapshot of what is known, and QI hopes that other researchers will be able to build on this information in the future.

(Thanks to Martha Bridegam whose inquiry via twitter about this saying provided the impetus for QI to construct this question and perform this investigation. She also noted the existence of bumper stickers with the quotation in her 1999 Usenet message. Thanks also to Charles who uses the twitter handle @orwellguy and expressed an interest in the saying. Great thanks to John McChesney-Young for obtaining information about the 1982 “Partners in Ecocide” and 1989 “Overland” citations. Special thanks to Barry Popik for his pioneering research. Also great thanks to Victor Steinbok for his efforts.)

Notes:

  1. 1982, Partners in Ecocide: Australia’s Complicity in the Uranium Cartel by V. G. Venturini (Venturino Giorgio Venturini), (Epigraph facing the title page), Rigmarole Book Publishers, Clifton Hill, Australia. (Verified with scans; thanks to John McChesney-Young and the University of California, Berkeley library system)
  2. 1984/1 [Number 1 of 6 issues in 1984], Science Dimension, Letters, (Letter from David Hoffman, Renewable Energy News, Ottawa, Ont.), Quote Page 5, Column 1 and 2, Published by National Research Council Canada, Ottawa, Canada. (Found by Barry Popik in the Google Books database; located and verified on paper by QI)
  3. 1912 June 29, The Vote: The Organ of the Women’s Freedom League, Edited by Charlotte Despard, The Great Conspiracy, Quote Page 174, Column 2, The Minerva Publishing Co., London. (Google News Archive; within the archive the metadata for this periodical uses the label “The Globe’ instead of “The Vote”)
  4. 1977, Antonio Gramsci: Selections from Political Writings (1910-1920): With Additional Texts by Bordiga and Tasca, Selected and edited by Quintin Hoare, (Translated by John Mathews), Quote Page 68, International Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1968 August 9, Christian Science Monitor, Theologian defines revolution by Louis Garinger, Quote Page 17, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  6. 1970 December, Commentary, Volume 50, Issue 6, The Counter-Culture and Its Apologists: 3: Lysergic Götterdämmerung by David L. Bromwich, Quote Page 58 and 59, Published by American Jewish Committee, New York.
  7. 1980, The Problem of Freedom in Richard Wright’s Fiction by Elizabeth June Ciner, University of Washington, (Ph.D. Thesis Dissertation Abstract), (Accessed March 18, 2012 in ProQuest database of abstracts) (ProQuest Dissertations and Theses)
  8. 1982, Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetics of Liberation by Teshome H. Gabriel,               (Studies in Cinema, Number 21), Quote Page 21, UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1989 August, Overland, Number 115, The Perils of Writing Contemporary Political History in Queensland: An Interview with Phil Dickie and Ross Fitzgerald, Interview conducted by Laurie Müller, Start Page 6, Quote Page 6, Column 1, S. Murray-Smith, Melbourne, Australia. (Verified with scans; thanks to John McChesney-Young and the University of California, Berkeley library system)
  10. 1994, George Orwell’s Guide Through Hell: A Psychological Study of 1984 by Robert Plank, Second Edition, (The Milford Series: Popular Writers of Today, Volume 41), Quote Page 104, Borgo Press, San Bernardino, California.
  11. 1999 July 25, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: alt.books.george-orwell, From: Martha Bridegam at sirius.com, Subject: Greeting cards & bumperstickers. (Google Groups Search; Accessed February 24, 2013) link
  12. 2008 Summer, Modern Language Studies, Volume 38, Number 1, Review by Adam Pacton of the book: Killed Cartoons: Casualties from the War on Free Expression by David Wallis, Start Page 85, Quote Page 85, Column 1, Published by Modern Language Studies. (JSTOR) link