Whoever Is Winning at the Moment Will Always Seem To Be Invincible

George Orwell? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The naïve extrapolation of current events leads to faulty predictions. Apparently, the influential English novelist and essayist George Orwell made a point of this type regarding the overestimation of victors in recent battles. Too often people view ruthless contemporary winners as invincible and are unable to recognize flaws. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1946 George Orwell published an article titled “Second Thoughts on James Burnham” in the periodical “Polemic”. The essay was reprinted in volume 4 of “George Orwell: The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Power worship blurs political judgement because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible. If the Japanese have conquered south Asia, then they will keep south Asia for ever, if the Germans have captured Tobruk, they will infallibly capture Cairo; if the Russians are in Berlin, it will not be long before they are in London: and so on. This habit of mind leads also to the belief that things will happen more quickly, completely, and catastrophically than they ever do in practice.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1970 “The International Thesaurus of Quotations” included an entry for the remark. The accompanying citation pointed to a 1950 collection which reprinted Orwell’s essay: 2

Power-worship blurs political judgment because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.

GEORGE ORWELL, “Second Thoughts on James Burnham,” Shooting an Elephant (1950).

In 1993 “The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations” printed the same passage and citation as the 1970 reference. 3

In 2003 “The Big Book of Business Quotations” also printed the same information. 4

In conclusion, George Orwell penned this statement for a 1946 essay, and he deserves credit for it. This insightful notion is not completely novel, and QI suspects that precursor expressions probably exist.

Image Notes: Public domain image of a chess board with pieces depicting a checkmate from pxel_photographer at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Peter Suber whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1968, George Orwell: The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Volume 4: In Front of Your Nose 1945-1950, Edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, Essay: James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution, Citation note located at end of essay: “Second Thoughts on James Burnham, Polemic, No. 3, May 1946”, Start Page 160, Quote Page 174, A Harvest/HBJ Book: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1970, The International Thesaurus of Quotations, Compiled by Rhoda Thomas Tripp, Topic: Power, Quote Page 495, Thomas Y. Crowell, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1993, The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, Edited by Robert Andrews, Topic: Power, Quote Page 720, Columbia University Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 2003, The Big Book of Business Quotations, Topic: Power, Quote Page 296, Column 2, Basic Books: A Member of the Perseus Books Group, New York. (Verified with scans)