If Liberty Means Anything At All It Means the Right To Tell People What They Do Not Want To Hear

George Orwell? Eric Arthur Blair? Bernard Crick? Sonia Orwell? Norman Lear? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: George Orwell apparently once made a fascinating comment about the essence of liberty. Here are two versions:

  1. Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
  2. If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

Would you please help me to determine the correct phrasing and to locate a solid citation?

Quote Investigator: George Orwell (pseudonym of Eric Arthur Blair) had great difficulty finding a publisher willing to release his famous fable “Animal Farm” because of its caustic allegory. He prepared a germane preface on the topic of freedom of the press. Yet, when he finally succeeded in finding a publisher, and the work was issued in 1945 by Secker and Warburg of London, the preface was not included.

The preface was rediscovered in May 1971 among some books owned by Roger Senhouse, the former partner of publisher Fred Warburg, and it was placed into the Orwell Archive at University College London. 1 Next, the preface was published in “TLS: The Times Literary Supplement” of London in September 1972. The following passage was included. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 2

I know that the English intelligentsia have plenty of reason for their timidity and dishonesty, indeed I know by heart the arguments by which they justify themselves. But at least let us have no more nonsense about defending liberty against Fascism. If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. The common people still vaguely subscribe to that doctrine and act on it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Paul Potts was Orwell’s friend, and he offered to help print “Animal Farm” when Orwell was struggling to find a publisher. Potts knew about the existence of the preface, and he referred to it in 1960 before it was rediscovered in 1971. The mention occurred in an essay titled “Quixote on a Bicycle” which appeared in the 1960 collection “Dante Called You Beatrice”: 3

He had an awful job getting Animal Farm, the first book that really made him famous, published at all. It was right at the height of the Anglo-Stalin friendship. Many publishers turned it down on the grounds that it was not an auspicious moment to bring out such a book . . .

At one point I became the publisher of Animal Farm — which only means that we were going to bring it out ourselves. Orwell was going to pay the printer, using the paper quota to which the Whitman Press was entitled because of the broadsheets and pamphlets I had published before the war . . .

He had, however, talked about adding a preface to it on the freedom of the press . . . That essay on the freedom of the press was not needed as Secker & Warburg, at the last minute, accepted the book.

On September 15, 1972 the “TLS” printed Orwell’s essay and also printed a companion article by Bernard Crick who later became Orwell’s biographer. Crick asserted that there was “no reasonable doubt by stylistic comparison” that the essay was from Orwell, and Crick thanked Mrs. Sonia Orwell for permission to publish it. Crick mentioned other items of evidence supporting the authenticity of the preface. For example, there was space reserved for a preface in the proof sheets of the first edition of “Animal Farm”: 4

The proof sheets of Animal Farm are in the Orwell Collection. They are page proofs corrected in Roger Senhouse’s hand. They have eight numbered pages left blank before Chapter One so that, when the book was finally published, all the pages had to be renumbered. So it looks as if it went through the press waiting for a preface that never came, either because he had not written it, or because he wrote it, probably in the spring of 1945, but then decided or was persuaded not to use it.

On September 24, 1972 columnist James Reston of “The New York Times” mentioned the preface and reprinted the quotation. Ellipses below have been copied from the newspaper text: 5

It has just now been disclosed by the Times Literary Supplement (London) that George Orwell wrote a preface to “Animal Farm” on “The Freedom of the Press,“ which has never been published until this month.

In that preface, Orwell was defending his right to publish unpopular or unorthodox ideas — specifically his anti-Soviet ideas during the last World War when the Soviet Union was an ally—that may be relevant to the current controversy in the United States about politics and a free press.

“Tolerance and decency are deeply rooted in England,” he wrote, “but they are not indestructible, and they have to be kept alive partly by conscious effort…. If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear….”

In October 1972 “The Globe and Mail” of Toronto, Canada printed the quotation: 6

Orwell, who had long felt that the Stalin regime was evil, prophesied that the British affection for the U.S.S.R. would not last. And of course he was right; it barely survived the end of the war. But he predicted that some other orthodoxy would replace it.

“If liberty means anything at all,” he wrote, “it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

In 1975 the Associated Press wrote a piece about popular television sitcom creator Norman Lear who highlighted the quotation: 7

In Norman Lear’s office, where success lives, there is a place of honor on the wall for a quotation from George Orwell: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

In 1987 the statement appeared in “Pearls of Wisdom: A Harvest of Quotations from All Ages”: 8

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
George Orwell

Also, in 1987 “The Wit and Wisdom of the 20th Century: A Dictionary of Quotations” included an entry for a compressed version of the quotation. Strangely, the citation in the reference pointed to Orwell’s 1937 work “The Road to Wigan Pier”. 9 QI has examined this book and has been unable to find the quotation in its pages: 10

Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
George Orwell, THE ROAD TO WIGAN PIER 1937

In 1998 “The Penguin Thesaurus of Quotations” included the following entry: 11

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
[George Orwell, 1903-50. ‘The Freedom of the Press’, proposed preface to Animal Farm]

In conclusion, evidence indicates that George Orwell wrote a preface to “Animal Farm” circa 1945. The preface was rediscovered in 1971 and published in “TLS: The Times Literary Supplement” in 1972. The memorable quotation about liberty appeared within the preface. The compressed variant quotation with the word “freedom” probably evolved from the quotation with the word “liberty”. Currently, there is no substantive evidence that the variant was penned by Orwell.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person who was confused by the citation pointing to “The Road to Wigan Pier”. This inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1972 September 15, TLS: The Times Literary Supplement, How the essay came to be written by Bernard Crick, (Crick discusses the essay titled “The freedom of the press” that appeared in the same issue of TLS immediately before his piece. Crick explains why he believes that the essay was written by George Orwell) Start Page 1039, Quote Page 1039, London, England. (The Times Literary Supplement in Gale Primary Sources)
  2. 1972 September 15, TLS: The Times Literary Supplement, The freedom of the press by George Orwell, (Essay that was originally intended to appear as the preface of the August 1945 edition of “Animal Farm”; it did not appear in the book; the typescript was acquired by the Orwell Archive of University College London and printed in TLS), Start Page 1037, Quote age 1039, Column 5, London, England. (The Times Literary Supplement in Gale Primary Sources)
  3. 1984, Orwell Remembered, Edited by Audrey Coppard and Bernard Crick, Chapter: Quixote on a Bicycle by Paul Potts, (Reprinted from “Dante Called You Beatrice” (1960)), Start Page 248, Quote Page 252, Facts On File Publications, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1972 September 15, TLS: The Times Literary Supplement, How the essay came to be written by Bernard Crick, Start Page 1039, Quote Page 1039, London, England. (The Times Literary Supplement in Gale Primary Sources)
  5. 1972 September 24, The New York Times, Orwell, America and the Press by James Reston, Quote Page E13, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)
  6. 1972 October 3, The Globe and Mail, Orwell in anger by William French, Quote Page 16, Column 3, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (ProQuest)
  7. 1975 April 6, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Section: TV Week, Norman Lear’s TV: A Celebration of Life by Linda Deutsch (Associated Press), Quote Page 38, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)
  8. 1987 Copyright, Pearls of Wisdom: A Harvest of Quotations from All Ages, Compiled by Jerome Agel and Walter D. Glanze, Quote Page 129, Perennial Library: Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1987, The Wit and Wisdom of the 20th Century: A Dictionary of Quotations, Compiled by Frank S. Pepper, Topic: Freedom, Quote Page 152, Column 2, Peter Bedrick Books, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  10. 1958 (1937 Original Publication), The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell, With a Foreword by Victor Gollancz, (QI was unable to locate the quotation), A Harvest Book: Harcourt Brace & Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  11. 1998, The Penguin Thesaurus of Quotations, Edited by M. J. Cohen, Topic: Liberty, Quote Page 292, Column 1, Penguin Books, London and New York. (Verified with scans)