International Socialist Review Issue 32, NovemberDecember 2003
The Orwell we never knew
By LEE WENGRAF
BIG BROTHER, double-think, thought police: George Orwells 1984his bleak portrait of a futuristic, totalitarian societyis as powerful today as ever. Though it has often been used as a cautionary tale about the terrors of socialism, its portrayal of government deception, lying and thought-control has a familiar ring in todays post 9-11 world. His Animal Farm and 1984 are among the best-selling political novels of all time.
Orwells writing has come to epitomize lessons taught in schools everywhere: Resistance is impossible, and Orwells Big Brotherthe Soviet Unionis the unavoidable result of fighting for a better society. Reagan-era Cold Warriors and the U.S. education system have continually lifted up Orwells writings to proclaim the socialist vision dead and buried. Ex-Trotskyist, now neoconservative, Norman Podhoretz, writing on the eve of the year 1984, claimed Orwell as a "guiding spirit" for his Committee for the Free World by exclaiming, "If Orwell were alive today, he would be taking his stand with the neoconservatives and against the left."1 Podhoretz is not the only former leftist to use whats seen as Orwells shift to the right as a cover for their own conservatism, such as Nation columnist and writer Christopher Hitchens, who embraces Orwell to cover his own rightward drift.2
But George Orwell had a different vision than these conservatives, and for that, his life and works have something to offer the left today. Orwell became a self-described socialist as a result of lessons learned early in life. His service as a colonial policeman in Burma turned him into a fierce anti-imperialist with a commitment to exposing oppression and championing the rights of the working class. But Orwell was also a controversial and contradictory writer who took diversesometimes courageouspositions over the course of his life that have left his work open to interpretation. He moved from firm anti-imperialist and working class politics to become a supporter of the British Labor Party and a critic of the left by the end of his life, including an almost obsessive focus on Stalinism. He also became a defender of the Second World War and a self-described "patriot."
Some on the left today have gone to the other extreme, claiming that Orwells case for workers power runs strong throughout his books, right down to 1984.3 The controversies surrounding his life stem from the fact that Orwell was very much a product of defeat and his own political isolation. His life was punctuated by Stalinism, the rise of fascism in Europe, nuclear threat and Cold War. Economic depression and working-class defeat made their marks on Orwells political writings, which contain a tone of deep pessimism. As British socialist John Molyneux describes,
Orwell did not become a militant in and of the working class movement, nor did he adopt the world outlook of the workers movement, i.e., Marxism. Rather he adopted the role of the self-conscious outsider who, while investigating the conditions of the workers and the poor (and sympathizing with them), would retain his individual independence and detachment. In the process he never lost his skepticism about the political capacities of the working class.4
Yet Orwell left us with one of the most inspired accounts of workers struggle ever written in his book Homage to Catalonia. Moreover, despite his experiences of working-class defeat, he held tight to a vision of an egalitarian society, and his entire lifes work reflects his efforts to see a third path, an alternative to Soviet so-called socialism and the brutality of capitalism. That is why, despite the right-wing uses of his books, Orwell can be "claimed" more by the left than the right.
Orwell becomes a socialist
Born in 1903 in India as Eric Arthur Blair to the family of mid-level colonial administrators, Orwell started down the same road as his family, signing up as a policeman in Burma right out of school. His position and experiences in Burma had a huge impact on him, and he had no illusions what purpose he had there. He writes: "I was in the police, which is to say that I was part of the actual machinery of despotism."5
His earliest writings took sharp aim at the hypocrisy of the British Empire and those who upheld it under a banner of freedom and enlightenment. "How can you make out that we are in this country for any purpose except to steal?" his main character, Flory, declares in Burmese Days (1934).
Its so simple. The official holds the Burman down while the businessman goes through his pockets. Do you suppose my firm, for instance could get its timber contracts if the country werent in the hands of the British?
The British Empire is simply a device for giving trade monopolies to the English.6
Disgusted, Orwell returned to Europe and threw himself into a poverty-stricken existence, living with the homeless, working low-wage jobs and struggling to become a writer. It was also then that he adopted the pen-name George Orwell. These experiences produced Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), a book that brilliantly captured the living conditions of the poor with a devastating indictment of the rich and their willingness to push an entire population into the poorhouse. "Why do tramps exist at all?" asked Orwell. "Few people know that a tramp takes to the road not because he likes it, but because there happens to be a law compelling him to do so."7 And later: "Salvation Army shelters, though clean, are far drearier than the worst lodging houses. There is such hopelessness there."8 Orwell lived as a tramp himself and writes about his friends such as Paddy, "capable of sharing his last crust with a friend.
But the man had been broken by unemployment, homelessness and poverty, by two years of bread and margarine. It was malnutrition and not any native vice that had destroyed his manhood."9
The rich, wrote Orwell, keep workers in lifelong drudgery as they see the poor as "such low animals that they would be dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them too busy to think."10 Although he never became a Marxist, Orwell gave Marx considerable credit for his insights into the workings of a system built on profit. He wrote, "
Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also"
. It was Marx who brought it to life. And ever since he did so the motives of politicians, priests, judges, moralists and millionaires have been under the deepest suspicionwhich, of course, is why they hate him so much.11
Orwell went on to write his famous account of miners in northern England during the economic downturn of the mid-1930s, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). Orwell described the intolerable conditions of coal miners working underground, whose lives were destroyed by an accident rate equivalent to a minor war.
"In every mining family," he writes, "they tell you tales of fathers, brothers or uncles killed at work. (And he fell 700 feet, and they wouldnt never have collected tpieces only he was wearing a new suit of oilskins, etc., etc.).... The place is like hell, heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and above all, unbearably cramped space."12
Whole communities were thrust into permanent unemployment while the wealthy mine owners squeezed every penny they could through low wages and meager pensions. A famous passage in The Road to Wigan Pier describes a blind retiree cut back to half a pension:
Here was a man who had been half-blinded in one of the most useful of all jobs and drawing a pension to which he had a perfect right... Yet he could not...demand this pension.... He had to go to the colliery once a week at a time named by the company, and when he got there he was kept waiting about four hours in the cold wind. For all I know he was expected to touch his cap and show gratitude to whoever paid him.13
Socialism is urgently needed, he concluded in Wigan Pier; either a "a socialist party" had to be formed in Britain or "fascism is coming."14
But Orwell was pessimistic about the power of workers to organize. He is merciless in his contempt for the company owners who destroy the lives of miners who, as Orwell describes, produce the backbone of Englands wealth. But Orwell believed workers accepted their own oppression when the bosses threw them on the trash heap, writing,
The tragic thing is that these opinions percolate to the workers themselves. When I first saw unemployed men at close quarters, what horrified me was that many were ashamed of unemployment. I was very ignorant, but not so ignorant as to imagine that when the loss of foreign markets pushed two million men out of work, those two million are not any more at fault than people ruined in an earthquake.15
And later: "As for
Marxism...I have never yet met a working man who had the faintest interest in it
. I have yet to meet a working miner, steelworker, cotton weaver, docker, navvy or what not who was ideologically sound."16 Orwell paints a harrowing picture of what workers face, but isnt sure they can arm themselves against it.
Orwell and the Spanish Civil War
Orwells best contribution to the revolutionary tradition is his firsthand account of fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia (1938). After the victory of Spanish workers in the Revolution of 1936, Orwell joined thousands of others in defending it from General Francos fascist counter-revolution. His description of revolutionary Barcelona when he arrived in Spain in January 1937 is famous. At that time, workers organizations were huge, dominated by the anarchist FAI and the anarchist-led union federation, the CNT. Orwell eventually joined a militia at the front tied to the POUM, a left-wing organization influenced by Trotskyism, which had 70,000 members. Arriving in Barcelona, Orwell described the city under workers control:
Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and draped with red flags or the red and black flag of the anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties.... Every shop and café had an inscription saying it had been collectivized. Waiters treated you as an equal. Servile speech had disappeared.... In outward appearances it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist.
All this was queer and moving. There was much I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.17
The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England.18
Orwell became convinced liberation and equality were possible in the midst of a massive upsurge in struggle, in which, as he says, the Spanish working class was in the "saddle." "I have seen wonderful things," he writes, "and at last really believe in socialism."19 In the early days of revolutionary Spain, Orwell thought he saw a glimpse of real socialism:
Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all. And it was here that those few months in the militia were valuable to me. For the Spanish militias, while they lasted, were a sort of microcosm of a classless society. In that community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no bootlicking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages of socialism might be like. And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me. The effect was to make my desire to see socialism established much more actual than it had been before.20
But as Homage to Catalonia describes, the potential for revolution in Spain was betrayed by the communist dominated government and Popular Army. The government, directed by the Soviet Union, saw workers upheaval as a greater threat than fascism. Orwell became convinced that the Communist Party strategy meant destroying the gains of the revolution and that the slogan, "the war first, the revolution afterwards, was eye-wash.... The PSUC [communists] worked not to postpone the Spanish Revolution but to make sure it never happened. This became obvious as power was twisted out of working-class hands and as revolutionaries were flung into jail."21
On May 3, 1937, Assault Guards dominated by Communist Party officials tried to take back the worker-controlled Barcelona Telephone Exchange. Workers flooded into the streets to join the fight. As Orwell describes,
It is probable that the emotion that brought people into the streets was [that] the issue seemed clear enough: On one side the CNT, on the other, the police. I have no particular love for the idealized worker, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask which side I am on.22
Backed by the pressures of Soviet policy, with Britain and France clamoring to put down revolution in Spain, the Spanish Popular Front brutally suppressed the workers movement and arrested, tortured and killed some of its leaders before falling to the fascists.
The betrayal of the Spanish Revolution by the Communist Party, and the Hitler-Stalin Pact, signed in 1939, cemented Orwells bitter disgust with Stalinism. Adding to his fury was his treatment at the hands of the communist dominated left in Britain upon his return. Much of the left dismissed those who denounced the repression by communists in Spain as "Trotsky-Fascists" or "agents of Franco." Orwell was outraged at the wholesale attack on thousands of workers who had fought fascism and been injured, like himselfhe was shot in the neck and nearly diedor even killed. He was barely able to find a publisher for Homage to Catalonia, and was cut off from the Stalinist-dominated left in Britain.
On the home front: "Revolutionary patriotism"
Orwell got a job as a wartime correspondent for the BBC, despite having published Homage to Catalonia, which at the time passed practically unnoticed. At the BBC, he was pressured into toning down criticisms of fascism and forced to voice support for Britains Soviet ally on the airwaves, even while much of his writing attacked totalitarianism in Russia. He also denounced the hypocrisy of the British media and politicians whom he was willing to label as war criminals along with the Germans during the Second World War. As he wrote in his column in the Tribune, a left-leaning newspaper tied to the British Labor Party,
I do object to the hypocrisy of accepting force as an instrument while squealing against this or that individual weapon, or of denouncing war while wanting to preserve the kind of society that makes war inevitable. In a number of little wars from about 1920 onwards the RAF [Royal Air Force] has dropped its bombs on Afghans, Indians and Arabs who had little or no power of hitting back.23
A world in which it is wrong to murder an individual civilian and right to drop a thousand tons of high explosive on a residential area does sometimes make me wonder whether this earth of ours is not a loony bin made use of by some other planet.24
He also urged the building of socialism, seeing the end of capitalism as the only solution to the economic misery facing Britain and the threat of fascism from Europe. Although he was never active in a socialist organization, he joined the International Labor Party in 1938, declaring, "The only regime which, in the long run, will dare to permit freedom of speech is a socialist regime."25 His blueprint for socialism included the immediate appropriation of factories and other means of production, collectivized planning of the economy and confiscation of all land from the rich. He loudly denounced those who feared "that hated, dreaded thing, a world of free and equal human beings."26
Initially, he held a firm antiwar position, saying he saw no reason to defend the British and French empires because they were "in essence nothing but mechanisms for exploiting colored labor. How can we fight fascism except by bolstering up a far vaster injustice?... What we always forget is that the overwhelming bulk of the British proletariat does not live in Britain, but in Asia and Africa."27
Unfortunately, he later made an about-face; he became a self-described "revolutionary patriot," arguing that British capitalism was the lesser of two evils, but that only socialism could defeat Hitler. Orwells problem was that he insisted English socialism would have to be built on patriotism. Economic crisis led him to believe that revolution was around the corner. Yet since it was revolutionary patriotism that he championed, he defended "the impulse to defend ones country and to make it a place worth living in."28 He urged people to join the British Home Guard, and called pacifist groups "pro-Hitler organizations." When workers revolution did not materialize by the end of the war, Orwell sunk into despair, writing in the American Partisan Review, "I wanted to think that the class distinctions and imperialist exploitation of which I am ashamed would not return."29
Orwell had come to see working-class defeats since the Russian Revolution partly the fault of the working class itself andhe is partly right herethe lack of genuine internationalism.
Time after time, in country after country, the organized working-class movements have been crushed by open, illegal violence, and their comrades abroad, linked to them in theoretical solidarity, have simply looked on and done nothing.... Who can believe in the class-conscious international proletariat after the events of the past 10 years? To the British working class after the massacre of their comrades in Vienna, Berlin, Madrid or wherever it might be, they seemed less interesting and less important than yesterdays football match.30
Meanwhile, Orwell wrote steadily against totalitarianism. He was one of the earliest and bravest anti-Stalinist writers. "Destroying the Soviet myth" was key before genuine socialism could be built, and this idea was the driving force behind virtually everything Orwell wrote in the last decade of his life.31 Orwell was almost fixated on the impact communism had on the left intellectuals of the day and thoroughly believed they were particularly susceptible to totalitarianism, evidenced by their blind support for the Stalinist Soviet Union.
Animal Farm and 1984: Failed revolutions
It was in this contextdiscontent with the left and the working class and outrage with totalitarianismthat Orwell wrote Animal Farm and 1984. But 1984 in particular is as much about the horrors of British capitalism and the nuclear arms race as it is about Stalins Russia. As he describes so well in "Capitalism and Communism: Two Paths to Slavery": "Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship and war. There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect."32 And in "The Coming Age of Superpowers": "More or less with the acquiescence of all of us, the world is splitting up into the two or three huge super-states.... And if the world does settle down into this pattern, it is likely that these vast states will be permanently at war with one another, though it will not necessarily be a very intensive or bloody kind of war."33 This is the backdrop to his last two major books.
Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949) are parables of failed revolutions, tragic tales that betray Orwells pessimism of the possibility for resistance. The meaning of both novels has been fiercely debated by both the left and the right.
Orwell finished Animal Farm in 1944 and he was happiest with the results of that book. It was designed to be a biting satire of the Russian Revolution and its betrayal, and "the belief that Russia is a socialist country."34 He believed it worked beautifully as a political allegory, and also as a straightforward fable. And certainly, Animal Farm is beautifully written, with sympathetic animal characters and wonderful political symbolism: old Major, the wise pig representing Marx; Snowball, representing Trotsky; Boxer, the steady, plodding cart-horse symbolizing the exploited working class. Finally, Napoleon, the Stalin figure and possibly Lenin, who drives Snowball from Animal Farm after the revolution, and who ultimately reconciles with the humans, defeating the revolution and issuing the famous Stalinesque proclamation, "All animals are equal but some are more equal than others."35 Certainly there is much to love in Animal Farm as a novel.
Orwell also uses Animal Farm to condemn working-class exploitation. As he says at the beginning of Animal Farm, the lives of the animals are "miserable, laborious and short." Major, the old Marx-pig, goes on to say:
We are born, we are given just so much food as will keep the breath in our bodies, and those of us who are capable of it are forced to work to the last atom of our strength; and the very instant that our usefulness has come to an end we are slaughtered with hideous cruelty. No animal in England is free. Is this simply a part of the order of nature? Is it because this land of ours is so poor that it cannot afford a decent life to those who dwell upon it? No, comrades, a thousand times no!36
The animals of Animal Farm wage a successful revolution from below against the humans in the "Battle of the Cowshed." But a group of pigs led by Napoleon ultimately destroy the egalitarianism at Animal Farm, putting themselves in power as a new ruling class and returning the rest to a life of exploited drudgery. Clearly, Orwell is condemning the rise of Stalinism. But what of the alternative? And here Orwell has been criticized by the left for his bleak portrait. On the one hand, Orwell says that the class system is not the natural order of things, at the same time, he emphasizes that it is the pigs who are inherently superior and who inevitably rise to the top of society. In other words, all revolutions end in tyranny.
By the novels end, the ruling-class pigs and the humans have banded together at the top of the new order. "Animal Farm" is once again "Manor Farm," the pigs walk on two legs and have become indistinguishable from their former human exploiters. In the chilling conclusion, Orwell describes pigs and humans feasting together, while the other animals gaze from outside. "Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."37
Socialists have also raised some interesting questions about what Orwell seems to be saying about Lenin and the rise of Stalinism. In fact, Orwell has suggested elsewhere that Trotsky and Lenin are partly responsible for the rise of totalitarianism in Russia and that Bolshevism itself contained elements of authoritarianism. Molyneux, the British socialist, has written a compelling article with a very close reading of the plot and characters of Animal Farm, and concludes that Orwell equates Lenin with Stalin (morphed into the single Napoleon character).38 Molyneux argues that Orwell gives no way to understand the reasons for the revolutions failure except human nature (as opposed to insufficient material conditions). All this leaves the book with the reactionary message at the heart of itthat all revolutions fail.39
1984 is Orwells most famous book. The heart of the debates on Orwell from both right and left revolve around this work. Whereas the right has grasped hold of it as a convenient tool to hammer the left about socialism, some on the left have held it up as a piece of Trotskyist, anti-Stalinist fiction.40 Orwell himself intended a powerful warning against totalitarianism in both Britain and the Soviet Union. The controversies are not clear-cut, and 1984 is only a partly successful novel.
The lead character in 1984 is Winston Smith, living in futuristic, totalitarian Oceania, a superpower alternately at permanent war with the worlds other two powers, Eurasia and Eastasia. Winston lives under the constant surveillance of Big Brother and the Thought Police, for any word or thought against the system. He works in the propaganda department, the Ministry of Truth, rewriting the past. From the Ministry comes one of the most famous of all Orwellian slogans in which Orwell brilliantly captures the "doublethink" of totalitarian mind-control: "War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength."
Orwells description of Winstons questioning of his condition and his growing resistance to it gives the novel its power. Winston asks:
How could you tell how much of it was lies? It might be true that the average human being was better off now than he had been before the revolution. The only evidence to the contrary was the mute protest in your own, the instinctive feeling that the conditions you lived in were intolerable and that at some other time they must have been different.41
In his secret diary, Winston scribbles, "I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY."42 But his courage is growing: He continues, in another famous quote, "Freedom is the freedom to say two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows."43
Winston longs to rebel but feels powerless until he and his lover, Julia, find the fabled underground resistance, the Brotherhood. Winston and Julia believe they can evade complete control. Winston says, "If they could make me stop loving you, that would be the real betrayal." Julia replies: "Thats the one thing they cant do. They cant get inside you."44 But they are wrong. Winston and Julia are set up. They are arrested and tortured in the infamous Room 101, and are broken in mind and spirit. Winston, by the books end, betrays Julia and declares his love for Big Brother. The portrait Orwell paints of these horrors is unbelievably compelling.
The element of hope in 1984 that both Winston and some readers cling to is the "proles," the working class. His refrain throughout the novel of "if there is a hope it lies in the proles" is a gesture to resistance. But Orwell cant really believe that because he slams that door shut whenever it is opened, showing the proles without class consciousness or willingness to fight. They stumble along like beer-drinking animals, or as Orwell describes, ants "which can see small objects but not large ones."45 Winston Smith describes a seemingly insoluble paradox: "Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious."46 This view completely dismisses any idea that the working class is a force for change. As left-wing literary critic Paul OFlinn puts it, "1984 is, sure enough, a warning about the future but at the same time it seeks to throttle the only forces that might stop the warning being realized."47 The futility of revolt is underlined by the fact that resistance leader Goldstein, modelled by Orwell on the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, is revealed to be, along with the whole resistance movement, a mythical invention of Big Brother.48 Winstons torture and defeat are absolute. "Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless,"says Winstons torturer, OBrien. "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human faceforever."49
That is not to say that Orwells warning was not compelling. It was, and remains, urgent. OFlinns description of Orwells time, written in the year 1984, could be a description of our own:
War or the threat of war provides both atmosphere and the justification for a variety of government strategiesencroachment on civil liberties, manic surveillance of the population, a climate of fear and jingoism that makes mild dissent seem gross treacherystrategies designed to disarm and destroy internal opposition rather than the external enemy.50
But the contradictions in 1984 are too great to withstand the red-bashing its been borrowed for since, or to avoid leaving readers with bleak pessimism. No matter how unintentioned, Orwells own contradictions set it in motion. His publisher even claimed that the book was worth "a cool million votes to the Conservative Party."51 Right-wingers have drooled over the book, with fascists such as Wyndham Lewis describing it as "a first-rate political document," which "led the wavering lefties out of the pink mists of Left Land into clear daylight."52 Other right-wingers have tried a different strategy with Orwell, which is to simply edit out all the nasty bits where he takes a stand against capitalism. For general consumption, 1984 is either written off as politics, not art, or is put on a pedestal and neatly repackaged for digestion as "literature" in universities. "Students are being asked," writes OFlinn, "to process a highly ideological text through a set of grinders that mince up its overt politics and reduce the lot to bland, gray pap which people in even partial possession of their senses wouldnt swallow if they didnt need the qualifications which passing [exams] will bring."53
The Stalinist left has severely criticized Orwell, and 1984 in particular. Isaac Deutscher, one of the "fathers of the New Left," slammed Orwell as a "simple-minded anarchist,"54 a viciousness explained by the fact that Deutscher believed the Soviet Union was a workers state and the invasions of Eastern Europe were progressive. Others have used Orwells supposed rejection of the left to excuse their own retreat from it, like well-known former Marxists Christopher Hitchens and Raymond Williams.
Orwell was dying from tuberculosis when the controversy surrounding 1984 erupted. He took some steps to rescue it from the right, declaring, "My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on socialism."55
The danger lies in the structure imposed on socialist and liberal capitalist communities by the necessity to prepare for total war with the USSR and the new weapons, of which the atom bomb is the most powerful.... But danger lies also in the totalitarian outlook of intellectuals of all colors. The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: "Dont let it happen. It depends on you."56
Even in his best political writing, and his sharp exposés of aspects of capitalism, Orwell was never sure whether a real alternative was possible. Whatever Orwells intentions, his most famous books undoubtedly reflect these frustrations and despair. Writing as an isolated intellectual removed from day-to-day struggle, (with the notable exception of his participation in the Spanish Civil War), Orwell never regained the hope for workers power he experienced while in Spain. Orwell entered the left in 1927
as Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he became a socialist in the same year of 1937 that the Moscow trials purged the last of the old Bolsheviks; and he died in 1950, three years before Stalin. In other words, his career as a socialist writer coincides quite precisely with a generation of defeat for revolutionary socialism.... Alternative hopes, the glimmers of future possibilities within that generation were not things that, during the writing of 1984, Orwell was is touch with.57
Orwell did have some contact with Trotskyists in Britain and abroad such as Russian revolutionary Victor Serge, and worked on the American Partisan Review with Trotskyist Dwight Macdonald whose support of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism influenced Orwell and 1984.58 But the anti-Stalinist left at that time was too small, and the defeats too severe, leaving Orwell without a political or organizational framework to anchor his inspiration and fierce anti-Stalinism from the time of his return from Spain.
In that context, we can understand where his politics led him. It also explains, but does not excuse, actions he committed in his final months of life. Recent documents show that in 1949 Orwell supplied the names of left-wing writers and artists to the British Information Research Department, in charge of producing anti-Communist propaganda. Orwell justified the list by saying that he named "Soviet sympathizers" who "should not be trusted" to work for the British government.59 A list of over 130 was found in Orwells papers, and included well-known figures such as George Bernard Shaw, Charlie Chaplin and John Steinbeck.60 Although Orwell spoke out against the early blacklists faced by the British left, his confusion and demoralization led him to cooperate with the British state to combat the "Soviet threat." Until his death, Orwell continued to argue that a socialist Europe was necessary, but increasingly unlikely.
Orwell considered himself both a political writer and an artist. He was very interested in language, and wrote sharp, clear novels not only because he believed straightforward writing was the most effective, but also because he liked the style best. It is popular among some critics left and right to dismiss Orwell as a second-rate writer, but part of that is because Orwell was never willing to separate being an artist from being political. He said,
What I have most wanted to do throughout the past 10 years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice.... I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.61
Orwells brilliance as a writer lies in his skill at transforming language into art. "Orwell is the writer most responsible for diffusing the modern view of political language as an active accomplice of tyranny," went a recent New York Times commentary. As he wrote in Politics and the English Language, Political language
is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."62
Orwells legacy must be seen in light of his overall efforts and vision, one of inspiring work denouncing capitalism in all its forms and above all giving voice to one of the most important workers revolutions of the 20th century. His writing was a product of his commitment to equality and an end to injustice, set against the shadow of Stalinism and war that loomed over much of life. As one writer says,
What we can say with complete confidence is that Orwell, with all his faults and weaknesses, was an enemy of injustice and inequality, that he believed democracy in Britain was perverted by power and influence of the rich, that he championed civil liberties, that he opposed the exploitation of the so-called Third World, that he opposed tyranny and was an enemy of the class system. Moreover he thought it a duty to fight against these evils, to try and help create a better, never a perfect, but a better world.63
Or as Orwell himself put it,
First I spent five years in an unsuitable profession (the Indian Imperial Police, in Burma), and then I underwent poverty and the sense of failure. This increased my natural hatred of authority and made me for the first time fully aware of the existence of the working classes, and the job in Burma had given me some understanding of the nature of imperialism: but these experiences were not enough to give me an accurate political orientation. Then came Hitler, the Spanish Civil War, etc.... The Spanish War and other events in 193637 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.64
Orwells legacy is our legacy, no matter how hard the right tries to claim him.
Thanks to Peter DiLeo, Shaun Harkin, Aaron Hess, Danny Katch and Brian Yanity for feedback and assistance.
Lee Wengraf is active in the International Socialist Organization in New York city
1 Norman Podhoretz, "If Orwell were alive today," Harpers, January 1983.
2 Christopher Hitchens, Why Orwell Matters (New York: Atlantic Books, 2002).
3 Peter Sedgewick, "George Orwell, international socialist," International Socialism 1:37, JuneJuly 1969; Paul N. Siegel, "George Orwells 1984: A worldwide "managerial revolution?" in Revolution and the Twentieth Century Novel: Essays on Malraux, Silone, Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, and others (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1979); Paul Foot, "Orwell centenary: The Cold War controversy," Socialist Review, July 2003.
4 John Molyneux, "Animal Farm revisited," International Socialism Journal 44, Autumn 1989, p. 110.
5 George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1961), p. 126.
6 George Orwell, Burmese Days (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1974), Chapter 3. For more on Orwells experiences in Burma, see his short essay, "A hanging," (1931) The Orwell Reader: Fiction, Essays, and Reportage (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1984), pp. 913.
7 George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London (New York: Harvest Books/Harcourt Brace & Company, 1961), p. 201.
8 Ibid., p. 155.
9 Ibid., p. 153.
10 Ibid., p. 120.
11 George Orwell, "As I please," Tribune, February 25, 1944. Orwells "As I please"was a recurring column in the Tribune.
12 The Road to Wigan Pier, p. 48.
13 Ibid., p. 52.
14 Ibid., p. 191.
15 Ibid., p. 79.
16 Quoted in Newsinger, pp. 1525.
17 George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), pp. 45.
18 Ibid., p. 104.
19 Letter written to Cyril Connolly while convalescing from a fascist bullet in the throat. Quoted in Anna Chen, "George Orwell: A literary Trotskyist? A review of John Newsinger, Orwells Politics," International Socialism 85, Winter 1999, p. 137.
20 Homage to Catalonia, pp. 104-105.
21 Ibid., p. 67.
22 Ibid., p. 124.
23 George Orwell, "As I please."
25 Orwell, "Why I joined the Independent Labour Party," Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 1, 19201940 (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1968), p. 337.
26 Quoted in Newsinger, p. 86.
27 Quoted in Newsinger, p. 87. Also see Orwells essay "The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English genius," and "England Your England," where he outlines his thoughts on patriotism and socialism: "Patriotism and intelligence will have to come together again. It is the fact that we are fighting a war, and a very peculiar kind of war, that may make this possible," in The Orwell Reader, p. 268.
28 Quoted in Newsinger, p. 88.
29 Quoted in Newsinger, p. 96.
30 George Orwell, "Looking back on the Spanish war," in A Collection of Essays (New York: Harvest Books/Harcourt Brace & Company, 1970), p. 201.
31 From Orwells preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm, quoted in Newsinger, p. 110.
32 George Orwell, "Review: The Road to Serfdom, by F.A. Hayek, The Mirror of the Past, by K. Zilliacus," Observer, April 9, 1944.
33 "As I please."
34 Quoted in Molyneux, p. 112.
35 Orwell, Animal Farm (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1964), p. 123.
36 Ibid., p. 18.
37 Ibid., p. 128.
38 Molyneux, p. 105.
39 Ibid., pp. 109111.
40 Siegel, pp. 164166.
41 George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Signet Classics, 1961), p. 63.
42 Ibid., p. 68.
43 Ibid., p. 69.
44 Ibid., p. 137.
45 Ibid., p. 79.
46 Ibid., p. 61.
47 Paul OFlinn, "Rereading Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1984," International Socialism 2:23, Spring, 1984, p. 83.
48 Ibid., p. 82.
49 1984, p. 220.
50 OFlinn, p. 84.
51 Quoted in OFlinn, p. 78.
52 Quoted in OFlinn, p. 87.
53 OFlinn, p. 90.
54 Quoted in Newsinger, p. 123.
55 Quoted in OFlinn, p. 79.
56 Quoted in OFlinn, p. 78.
57 OFlinn, p. 95. Also see OFlinn, "Animal Farm, 1984 and socialist revolution," in Them and Us in Literature (London: Pluto Press, 1975), on how "[Orwells] life as a socialist matches almost exactly the era of Stalinist domination and frustration of revolutionary hopes."
58 Newsinger, p. 126; Chen, pp. 139140. Also, Orwell on Macdonalds later journal, Politics, and the war, in "As I please," Tribune, June 16, 1944.
59 Richard Norton-Taylor and Seumas Milne, "Orwell offered writers blacklist to anti-Soviet propaganda unit," Guardian (UK), July 11, 1996.
60 Michael Shelden and Philip Johnston, "Socialist icon who became big brother," Electronic Telegraph, June 22, 1998; also see Christopher Hitchens Why Orwell Matters for an uncritical defense of Orwells giving names to Cold War blacklisters.
61 Orwell, "Why I write" (1947) in The Orwell Reader, p. 394.
62 Geoffrey Nunberg, "In simpler terms: If its Orwellian, its probably not," The New York Times, June 22, 2003.
63 Newsinger, p. 158.
64 "Why I write," p. 394.