Sean Ledwith looks at the ongoing debate concerning the legacy of a writer whose relationship with the left was always ambiguous
'I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we're really talking about peace.'
- George Bush Jnr, 2002
Radio 4 is currently broadcasting a series of programmes to mark the anniversary of George Orwell's birth in 1903. They provide a great opportunity to catch up with adaptations of the work of one of the most iconic figures of the twentieth century British left.
They also give a chance to revisit the ongoing debate concerning the legacy of a writer whose relationship with the left was always ambiguous. For some, his two best known works, Animal Farm and 1984, represent devastating assaults on the politics of Leninism. Neoconservative commentator Norman Podhoretz wrote in 2004:
‘I believe he would have been a neoconservative if he were alive today. I would even suggest that he was a forerunner of neo-conservatism...’
Others on the left have looked to Homage to Catalonia as one of the most inspiring accounts ever written of the possibility of workers' power, a perception that led HG Wells to refer to Orwell as a ‘Trotskyist with big feet’.
The elusive nature of Orwell’s politics is no doubt part of his appeal to a broad strand of readers over the decades since his death in 1950. The attempted appropriation of his legacy by the right, however, needs to be resisted regularly so the left can clearly claim him as one of their own, who is still relevant to the challenges of the movement in the 21st century.
Shadow of empire
Orwell (originally named Eric Blair) was born in India into what he famously described ‘as the lower-upper-middle class’.
This dislocated sense of identity would become a feature of his personality and partly explains his later reluctance to align himself unreservedly with a political organisation. His father was a middle-ranking colonial administrator in the civil service of the British Raj. The shadow of the British Empire fell over his life from the start and would remain a source of his hatred of oppression to the end. He was sent to boarding school in England, aged 8, and there encountered another manifestation of egregious authority in the form of sadistic teachers. He later described enduring corporal punishment at the hands of the headmaster:
‘he read me a short but pompous lecture, then seized me by the scruff of the neck, twisted me over and began beating me with the riding-crop.’
He followed the conventional educational path of the English elite to Eton, but afterwards chose to serve as a colonial policeman in Burma, rather than progress to university. It was in this role that his inchoate dislike of authority burgeoned into antipathy of the imperial structure. He encountered the brazen racism and discrimination inflicted on the population by the British overlords. He movingly recounted the psychological impact of participating in the execution of a Burmese prisoner:
‘It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.’
The road to socialism
The Burma experience fuelled his anti-imperialism but he struggled to identify a clear channel for his politics after his return from that country in 1927. His empathy for the oppressed had firmly taken root, however, and expressed itself in his journalistic accounts of their situation as the Great Depression hit in the 1930s. Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and Road to Wigan Pier (1937) are both searing accounts of the exploitation endured by both the underclass and working class. Orwell believed it was necessary to undergo first-hand the experiences of the downtrodden in order to fully appreciate the nature of their plight. 'I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed; to be one of them and on their side against the tyrants', he wrote.
This conviction led him to spend time among the homeless in Paris, miners in Lancashire and other groups at the cutting edge of capitalist exploitation. The experiences contributed to the growing attraction of socialist ideas for Orwell. Reflecting on these experiences, he later wrote:
'the most important part of Marx’s theory is contained in the saying: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."...And ever since he did so the motives of politicians, priests, judges, moralists and millionaires have been under the deepest suspicion - which, of course, is why they hate him so much.'
A worthy cause
The decisive experience of his life was his participation in the Spanish Revolution in 1936-37. Orwell's socialism was still undefined at this point but he immediately recognised the struggle to prevent the fascist takeover of Spain as a worthy cause and one that required not just moral support but actual military assistance. He made the perilous journey through the frontlines and ended up in Barcelona, one of the strongholds of the far left. His description of what he found there in Homage to Catalonia (1938) is one of the most vivid accounts ever written of what a society in revolutionary flux feels like:
'It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle... every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle... every church had been gutted...... Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the eye and treated you as an equal...everyone called everyone else 'comrade' or 'thou'.... Almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. Down the Ramblas... the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night.'
Little wonder that Paul Foot said one reading of the book instantly converted him to socialism.
The high hopes of the revolution, however, were to be scuppered by both the relentless fascist advance, and also the machinations of the Stalinist forces that sought to ambush the far left. Orwell had found himself drawn to the semi-trotskyist POUM, a militia that Trotsky had attempted to turn towards ideas of workers' democracy. This group was ruthlessly purged by the pro-Stalin Spanish Communist Party, triggering the disillusionment with the USSR that would become a feature of Orwell's two best known novels.
He had been shot through the neck in combat and was lucky to escape Spain as both the fascists and Stalinists closed in on those regarded as subversive. Orwell's critique of Russia's role in the Spanish Civil War made him a toxic brand on the British left at a time when Stalin was regarded with adulation by many in both the Labour and Communist Parties. Victor Gollancz, who had published Orwell's previous work, turned down 'Homage' as he regarded it as insulting to the Russian leadership.
The experience of witnessing popular militias fighting fascism in Spain led Orwell to back the British government in World War Two. He thought measure such as the creation of the Home Guard were embryonic versions of the POUM and could become the basis of a revolutionary movement. He also believed the appointment of Labour left-wingers such as Stafford Cripps to the wartime coalition were a sign of an imminent shift to the left in the conduct of the war. In 1941, he wrote:
‘The war and the revolution are inseparable. We cannot establish anything that a western nation would regard as Socialism without defeating Hitler; on the hand we cannot defeat Hitler while we remain economically and socially in the nineteenth century.’
Talking to Trotskyists
By the end of the war in 1945, however, he had disavowed this naive understanding of the conflict. The cynical manoeuvrings of the Big Three powers at the Tehran and Yalta conferences confirmed Orwell’s belief that the USSR was acting as just another imperialist power and had abandoned any pretence of being a force for liberation. The contacts he made with supporters of Trotsky in Spain led him to continue his interest in their critical analysis of Stalin’s regime. He was impressed by the work of the American Trotskyist, Dwight MacDonald, that Russia had evolved a bureaucratic ruling class that was as exploitative as its Western counterparts. A few years later, Tony Cliff, would adopt a similar perspective to produce a definitive analysis of the class nature of the USSR.
‘Clearly Orwell had a familiarity with Trotskyist politics that academic commentators on his work have singularly lacked, with the result that they have missed the extent to which much of his own political writing was a debate with the politics of the revolutionary left’.
Trotsky’s critique of Stalinism was a major influence on the two books for which Orwell is best known, Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949). The former is a fantasy-based allegory of the October Revolution in which an animal rebellion against a cruel farmer mirrors the characters and events of the revolution. Critics on the right have argued that the conclusion of the novel, in which the rebellious pigs copy the cruel methods of the farmer, indicates that Orwell had come to regard revolutions as futile. Orwell himself explicitly stated this would be a misreading of the book:
'I meant the moral to be that revolutions only effect a radical improvement when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job. ‘
This is consistent with Trotsky’s analysis that the Russian Revolution was fully justified in its overthrow of the tsarist autocracy and that bureaucratic distortion is a possibility but not an inevitable outcome. Likewise, the novel is unambiguous in its depiction of the animal rebellion as a necessary and heroic act. The character of Old Major, aka Karl Marx, provides the animals with a coherent and moving call to arms.
Written a few years later, 1984 has also been used by some to try to argue both that Orwell had abandoned his socialist convictions and that revolutions only lead to despotism. The omnipotent totalitarian state depicted in the novel is usually regarded as a straightforward attack on the USSR and therefore an implicit defence of Western capitalism. Only the simple-minded ideologues of the cold war, however, could argue that a critic of Stalin must therefore be cheerleader for the West. Orwell’s contacts with the far left had enabled him to understand that it was possible to defend a vision of socialism without being blind to the defects of the USSR. Many post-war critics on the left still saw Stalin as a guardian of the revolution and therefore denounced Orwell as a traitor. As the Stalinist regimes crumbled in the 1990s, it was possible again to see Orwell’s dystopian vision in the novel as being based on a socialist critique of Russian state capitalism.
Right-wing attempts to co-opt 1984 also fail to see the novel as containing implied criticisms of Western capitalism. Orwell had spent part of World War Two working in the propaganda section of the BBC. He witnessed at first-hand the way bourgeois democracies try to portray their enemies as sub-humans who need to be eradicated. This would become the basis of the 'two-minutes hate' events depicted in the novel. The book also foresees how Western powers would use the 'Soviet threat' as a means of controlling their own people:
'It does not matter whether the war is actually happening, and, since no decisive victory is possible, it does not matter whether the war is going badly. All that is needed is that a state of war should exist.'
Orwell in our time
Since Orwell's death in 1950, of course, this imaginary threat has become redundant and therefore the West has moved onto 'Islamism' as the new enemy in the 21st century that requires ‘perpetual war’. Orwell's focus on the cynical manipulation of language by bosses foreshadows how in our era, management apparatchiks in countless workplaces exhort those beneath them to 'future proof', 'work smarter', 'push the envelope' and other assorted linguistic contortions as a pretext for exploitation. Likewise, capitalist politicians today use words such as ‘efficiency’ and ‘reform’ as a smokescreen for austerity and privatisation.
We should not be blind to Orwell's deficiencies and blunders. As Terry Eagleton has noted, these include:
'his insulting equation of Second World War pacifism with pro-Fascism, his patrician nostalgia for Anglo-India, his absurd assertion that it is "the people whose hearts have never leapt at the sight of a Union Jack who will flinch from revolution when the time comes".'
Orwell also infamously handed over the names of left-wing 'subversives' to the British security services towards the end of his life; an act of folly he acknowledged before his death.
Scepticism and hope
A balanced assessment of Orwell from a left perspective today should recognise that many potential supporters of the movement share his scepticism about previous attempts to construct socialist societies, but also possess the same intuitive belief that a better world must be possible. Engaging with Orwell's legacy is a valuable way of reaching out to this vast audience. Contrary to the misreading of his work, his message is far from pessimistic. One of Orwell’s last comments on his most famous work stated:
'It has been suggested by some of the reviewers of Nineteen Eighty-Four that it is the author’s view that this, or something like this, is what will happen inside the next forty years in the Western world. This is not correct. I think that, allowing for the book being after all a parody, something like Nineteen Eighty-Four could happen. The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: Don’t let it happen. It depends on you'.
Sean Ledwith is Lecturer in Philosophy and Politics at York College. He is a member of UCU, York People's Assembly and Counterfire. He has also written contributions for Marx and Philosophy Review of Books.
More articles from this author
- PolyluxMarx: An Illustrated Workbook for Studying Marx’s Capital
- Militarised racism and the Ferguson rebellion
- Can Hamas Liberate Palestine?
- 1934: American workers in revolt
- Do not go gentle: The politics of Dylan Thomas
- A people’s history of the World Cup
- The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame