A BIOGRAPHY of George Orwell reminds us -- if we need reminding -- that the doomsday world he imagined is approaching: 1984 will be upon us before Ronald Reagan has left the White House. It will be odd, living through the actual year, for Orwell has so set his imagination on that date that it seems already a pre-formed reality, compared to which the events of mere history are bound to be something of a letdown.

That dire date, and words like newspeak and double-think , and the pigs' commandment in Animal Farm : "All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others" -- these have become part of our consciousness, and have made Orwell's reputation permanent and secure. Yet the exact nature of the reputation is difficult to define. Orwell wrote one of the most powerful novels of his time, yet he was not a great novelist, and he had no importance in the history of modernism. He wrote about politics, yet he was not a profound, or even a consistent political thinker. He cared about prose style, and attacked the misuse of language, yet he was capable of writing as badly and as misleadingly as the writers whom he attacked.

Politics were at the center of Orwell's adult life -- not theoretical politics, but a politics of feelings, deeply and passionately felt because they came out of his own experience. Orwell had learned about imperialism by being an imperialist policeman in Burma, about poverty by living with the poor in Paris, London and the industrial Midlands of England, about fascism by fighting against Franco in Spain. From these experiences he derived the few plain-man's beliefs that were the foundations of his political thought and action: a belief in the objectivity of truth (2 and 2 will always made 4), in the essential decency of ordinary people, in the importance of plain, honest speech, and in the right of every individual to a life of human dignity.

Truth, decency, honesty and dignity are moral concepts; but Orwell saw that in the modern world they are also necessarily political issues. And so, though he was a moralist and a preacher by nature, the field that he chose to preach in was the field of politics. He called himself a socialist, but he was a highly unorthodox one who made more conventional leftists, from Fabians to Stalinists, nervous. But then, no great writer has ever been orthodox, in politics or religion or anything else: orthodoxy is the enemy of the imagination.

About politics Orwell had really only two things to say, and he said them again and again: that ordinary human beings suffer unjustly and unnecessarily, and that political power is a source of much of that suffering. In his novels these two principles provide the essential conflict -- between human decency, which is never powerful, and power, which is never decent. If these principles are true, and in conflict, then the ultimate political goal must be the transfer of power from those who have it and use it unhumanely, to those who are decent (like the proles in Nineteen Eighty-Four); and in his nonfiction books and essays Orwell argued that socialism was the way to do that. But in his heart, and in his imagination, he knew that this would probably never happen, and that if it did, the gaining of power would simply make the decent men inhuman, like those they had replaced.

The novels are therefore darker versions of the human situation than the documentary books are. No decent person succeeds in any of the novels; the system is always stronger than the individual, and the best an individual can hope for is a compromise -- going back to selling advertising or insurance in the earlier novels, betraying a revolution or a loved woman in the late ones.

Critics who would like Orwell to have been a better socialist-novelist than he was have complained that his novels got progressively more despairing as he grew older, and that at the end he had simply become a doctrinaire anti-communist, giving aid and comfort to the Cold Warriors of the Dulles years, and discouraging the decent people whom he should have been heartening. But I think such critics are wrong; what changed was not Orwell, but history. He had never been sympathetic to communism. Partly this was on principle: how could a man who believed in individual freedom and the honest use of language approve of the Communist Party? But partly it was for historical reasons: in Spain Orwell had fought among anarchists, and had later seen how the Communists suppressed and destroyed his comrades; he had followed the Moscow purge trials of the late '30s; and he had lived through the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact on 1939. He understood, before most of his contemporaries did, that Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were simply two kinds of totalitarianism, and he wrote his last books against that brutality, and not against one form of it or another.

The story of Orwell is essentially the story of the growth of his political vision: how a good, sensitive, rather naive man was exposed, partly by chance and partly by choice, to the injustices of his time; how he worked to find forms for his political feelings, subordinating everything else in his life -- friendship, marriage, money, fame -- to that search; and how he succeeded brilliantly twice, with Animal Farm and Nineteen Eight-Four, and then, at the moment of his success, died.

The problem for the biographer in this story is that the relation between the life and the works was an unusually close one, but neither explains the other: rather it seems that Orwell created both his works and his life, for the sake of his principles. (I can think of only one other modern writer of whom this might be said -- Hemingway.) There is a danger in such cases of mythologizing the facts into an heroic fable, making Orwell's life the Myth of the Liberal Hero or, if you're farther to the Left, the Tragedy of the Despairing Revolutionary.

Bernard Crick has avoided this danger by keeping his distance from his subject, and by refusing to construct large theories of Orwell's mind and motives: he is willing to accept inconsistencies as human, to consider that the obvious reason for an act might be the true one, and to leave questions unanswered when there are no facts available. His book is a detailed, low-key narrative, making much use of records, letters and the testimony of Orwell's friends -- a book of particulars, rather than of speculations. It is neither hagiography nor psycho-drama; but what it loses in those dubious direction it gains in credibility, and it will surely be the standard biography of Orwell for a long time.

I come away from Crick's book more than ever convinced of Orwell's importance -- not as an artist, but simply as an example of a man fiercely engaged with the moral issues of his time. His thinking was not always logical or systematic, for, as Crick makes clear, his mind was full of contradictions: on the one hand he believed in the necessity of revolution, in state planning and an organized industrial working class; but on the other hand he had a deep love for the past, for his country, for rural like, and for individual freedom. Out of those contradictions you can't, perhaps, make a very good socialist; but you can make a good man. The things that he valued are valuable; and the struggle to resolve the contradictions that they imply is worth the making.

Orwell was a man who spoke his mind, and we must cherish him for that. But he did more: he also spoke his imagination. Surely the single most valuable thing that he did was to imagine the plausible nightmare of totalitarianism that is Ninteen Eighty-Four. He was anxious that we should get the message of that terrifying last book right -- so anxious that he wrote it out a few months before his death. It was not a book of despairing prophecy, but a warning: "The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation, " he wrote, " is a simple one. Don't let it happen. It depends on you." That moral is as urgent now as it was 30 years ago when Orwell wrote it. One can only hope that the decent people he believed in are still reading it, and getting it right.