According to his own last words on the subject, just before his death, Orwell was a supporter of Socialism and of the British Labour Party which had swept to power in 1945. Before then, for most of his writing career, certainly from The Road to Wigan Pier in 1937 onwards, George Orwell was an avowed proponent of socialism, although his conceptions of what that meant certainly changed over the years.
Despite his own unequivocal and often expressed views, the popularity of the Orwell “brand” has led many people to misrepresent his views since his death, and to appropriate his prestige for their own political projects. That was typified by the introduction to the most popular edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the US, which quotes him accurately as saying that all his work “was against totalitarianism,” while in a somewhat Orwellian manner cutting out his important following phrase “and for democratic socialism.” Since his death of course, other people’s ideas of socialism have also changed, and even geography has an effect. Socialism will have entirely different connotations, for example, for West Europeans, East Europeans and for Americans, as the truncated Orwell quote would suggest.
This chapter briefly traces Orwell’s political development in the context of the British socialist politics of his era and shows how at an early stage he defined himself specifically as a “democratic socialist,” thus intending to distance himself, and indeed socialism itself, from the various totalitarian tendencies that claimed, spuriously in his view, to be socialist.
Just as Orwell in some ways tried to define his socialism by exclusion, of communism for example, this chapter will rebut some the posthumous claims about his political thought that have been made in clear disregard for his own stated words. In doing so, it relies mostly on Orwell’s own writings, substantiated as they are by many contemporary accounts of colleagues and correspondents.
However, if we are rely upon Orwell’s own works they do need to be put in context for modern readers. The changes in the British Labour Party and society since he died, not to mention the clear difference between British and American domestic politics, despite recent signs of convergence, demand some explanations.
Striking Back at the Empire: Orwell and Class
Any reference point for Orwell’s politics has to be British, indeed, even more precisely, English, since that is where, despite his internationalism, he drew his political inspirations. Although it sometimes evokes comment, it was not at all anomalous that Orwell, an old Etonian scion of a family of imperial civil servants should have become a socialist. Many leaders of the Labour Party, Clement Attlee, or Hugh Gaitskell for example, came from similar and even loftier social positions. What is more surprising is the gradualness of his transition to socialism, and it may be that which kept him more firmly attached to the politics he eventually chose, as opposed to the instant conversions to Communism, and often equally instantaneous apostasy, that sometimes characterized others of his milieu.
Orwell’s political metamorphosis from his imperialist chrysalis began with his experience in the British imperial police in Burma which gave him a profound distaste for the British Empire at work, although the later literary manifestation of that dislike in Burmese Days in 1934 certainly seems to have come as a surprise to his colleagues in the force.
Not long after his return from the outposts of empire, he described himself as a “Tory Anarchist,” to the editor of the Adelphi magazine and repeated this designation several times over the years. This was not the same as being a conservative: Samuel Johnson, William Cobbett, Jonathan Swift and others have provided a respectable precedent for writers by calling themselves Tories while defending what they saw as ancient liberties.
Apart from his distaste for the effect of imperialism on subject peoples, his Burmese experience doubtless accentuated his sensitivity to the caste system at home in Britain. Although the minute gradations of the hierarchy of rank in the Raj were notorious, it was simply a more codified and explicit version of the informal but still rigidly delimited social system in Britain, as reflected in Orwell’s calibration of his own origins in the “lower upper middle-class.”
That sensitivity to the caste order of the British social hierarchy was reinforced by his excursions into the lower orders for Down and Out in Paris and London, (1933) and The Road to Wigan Pier. His excursions not only moved him to concern for how society treated its poorer sections, the plongeurs of Paris, the tramps of England and the miners of Wigan but emphasized how the British, or rather the English, caste system was not necessarily reducible to crude Marxist economic class analysis.
In the famous repartee between Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, the latter declared "The rich are different from you and me," to be robustly and famously countered by Hemingway. "Yes, they have more money." But Orwell discovered the obverse, that the poor really were different from the middle classes and that the difference between a British working class person and their upper middle class compatriots, even a “lower” upper middle class Orwell, was more deep-rooted than any mere quantitative difference in salary.
Indeed, Orwell went beyond accepting that the poor are different. He decided that they were better, in their ethics, their social cohesion, and even their patriotism. The latter concept was, of course, anathema to orthodox Marxists who held that the working class has no country. Unfortunately for dogma, twentieth century history seems to have settled this question in Orwell’s favour. But then one of the qualities of the working class in Britain, according The Road To Wigan Pier was he had yet to meet “a working miner, steel-worker, cotton weaver, docker, navvy or what not, who was ‘ideologically sound’.”
Most of Orwell’s contemporaries and subsequent critics see The Road to Wigan Pier as his personal road to a socialist Damascus. It was there that he discovered that poverty and squalor were the fate, not only of the tramps and what Marx had once unkindly called the lumpenproletariat, who had fallen through the gaps in the floor of society. He found that the miners of Wigan and the dockers of Liverpool, workers whose toil kept the whole British economic enterprise going, were trapped in hopelessness if unemployed, and dire insecurity even if they had a breadwinner working.
His research came as a revelation to him and to many of his readers. Before the Second World War and the social reforms in its wake, British society was much more stratified even than now. Workers and their children were rarely likely to get beyond elementary school, and even the autodidacts among them rarely had the leisure or opportunity to develop the literary skills that would allow the middle class reader a glimpse through the class curtain. Orwell had gone beyond the event horizon for most of the middle class of Britain. With an outsider’s senses, for example, of smell, he had gone to a different social planet – and discovered intelligent life there.
His experience completed his conversion from “Tory anarchist” to convinced Socialist, but it should be remembered that within the Broad Church of British Labour, there has always been room for Tory Anarchists and similar eccentrics, and he clearly did not rid himself of all his prejudices and eccentricities.
For example, he gratuitously added a Blimpish growl against other middle class socialists to The Road to Wigan Pier, “vegetarians with wilting beards, Bolshevik commissars (half gangster half gramophone), of earnest ladies in sandals.., escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics…) There is an element of exorcism in the exercise, since his own chosen life-style, keeping goats, running small holdings, fervent chain-smoking and ritualistic tea making, made him eminently parodiable in his own terms.
For example, it is difficult to believe, looking at the perennial scruffiness of his attire in all his contemporary photographs, that he ordered his clothes custom-made from his tailor! He may have been affecting an insouciance to distance himself from his origins. Even at the end of his life, in the hospitals, he was comparing, unfavourably, the middle class accents of visitors with the regional dialects of the staff.
There was also a Dickensian element in his outlook, which is not surprising in view of his own deep appreciation for the novelist. Just as Dickens actually made the trade union officials in Hard Times almost a culpable as Gradgrind the capitalist, Orwell’s phobias included the labour leaders who had come up in the world, and he did not seem to relate strongly to the trade unions, the cooperative movement, and the other genuinely working class bodies that made up much of the Labour Party’s base in Britain.
Indeed, the class struggle, in its more mundane form, of strikes and go-slows, do not enter Orwell’s works, whether essays or novels, in any significant way. While in Nineteen Eighty-Four Winston Smith thought the only hope lay with the Proles, it is noticeable that they were not joining unions or striking! Even allowing for the fact that strikes were relatively rare and unions relatively weak after the defeat of the General Strike in 1926, one suspect that for Orwell, the English Proles were almost an equivalent of the Russian peasantry for Tolstoy, a moral force more than the socio-political unit of traditional Marxism.
The Independent Labour Party
When he did get involved in politics, Orwell chose to join a distinctively British body, the Independent Labour Party, which was towards the left and indeed the revolutionary flank of the British Labour Movement, but which had many distinctive approaches that Orwell shared. He was not as lonely a figure as an American socialist with similar ideas may have been, not least since socialism was in the mainstream in Britain.
The ILP had left the Labour Party earlier in 1932, but still had a wide, albeit shrinking base, members of parliament, and indeed still had many close connections and sympathizers inside the Labour Party itself and the unions. Although the ILP considered itself revolutionary, it was by no means Leninist and was open and non-dogmatic in its beliefs, with a mixture of pragmatic belief in improving the lot of people now and a firm belief that things could and should get much better – without being too specific about the form that future society would take.
It held what it called a “Third Way” position between Leninism and Labour Party right’s reformism, which is, of course, not to be confused with Tony Blair’s and Bill Clinton’s later appropriation of that title.
The ILP believed that socialism could be brought about by an elected Labour Party, which could suppress counter-revolution “by ordinary legal power backed by a Labour organization, and could thus effect the revolutionary change to socialism.”
Indeed the ILP’s identification of a distinctively “British Road to Socialism,” backed by the power of mass organizations, was later usurped by the Communist Party of Great Britain itself, even down to the name, after the Second World War.
The ILP’s indigenous, non-dogmatic but robust politics is clearly one of the sources that Orwell was drawing on, when he declared, “England is the only European country where internal politics are conducted in a more or less humane and decent manner.” He claimed, along with the ILP, that it “would be possible to abolish poverty without destroying liberty,” and its people were “more capable than most people of making revolutionary changes without bloodshed.” The emphasis of the ILP was just this, the abolition of poverty in the course of a makeover of society made possible by mass support.
While some commentators have inferred that Orwell was repudiating the Labour Party by suggesting that it was converging with the Conservatives, if read in context, Orwell was actually celebrating such convergence as a distinctively British and implicitly better way of doing things. He elaborated “Thus, no Conservative government will ever revert to what would have been called conservatism in the nineteenth century. No Socialist government will massacre the propertied class, nor even expropriate them without compensation.”
It was ILP leaders like Fenner Brockway who introduced him to Secker and Warburg for publication of Homage to Catalonia in 1938, and later Animal Farm in 1945 when the more communist-inclined Victor Gollancz demurred at Orwell’s political direction. Showing the same humanistic approach that Orwell certainly shared, and in a way anticipating the theme of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the ILP’s leader, James Maxton MP, in his last major speech in 1945, repudiated statist versions of socialism, declaring, “We must not allow ourselves to become ants in an anthill.” In that he could draw upon the support of a vociferous co-operative movement whose political representatives in the inter war years had also warned of the dangers to workers of state control.
Orwell’s ILP connection explains how he could consider himself to be a revolutionary, while strongly spurning “foreign” ideologies such as the various forms of Leninism.
The Spanish Disconnection
Orwell had initially alienated the communists and many others of the more rigid left with his excoriation of them in the Road to Wigan Pier, but what really sundered any vestigial comradely feelings with them was undoubtedly the publication of Homage to Catalonia in 1938, and its exposure of the behaviour of the Soviets, their agents and supporters in Spain during the Civil War.
While he joined the militia of the Spanish sister party of the ILP, the POUM, in Catalonia at the end of 1936, it would appear that he was initially somewhat innocent of the sectarianism of the left and would at one point have happily joined the Communist- dominated International Brigades, because they were on a more active front near Madrid.
However, he was already on the Communist Party’s blacklist, with Comintern agents tracking him, as he became aware when the Communist-dominated Spanish Republican forces moved against the POUM and Anarchists in Barcelona. The Soviet line was that the POUM was Trotskyist, and commentators have often accepted that at its face value, although its leader, Andreas Nin had had strong disagreements with Trotsky. Regardless of whether or not it was Trotskyist, it certainly was not, despite what the Communist press declared, in league with the Fascists.
Orwell’s shock at the blatant lies of pro-Soviet writers was compounded by the perils of his own flight across the frontier, just ahead of the KGB, and the fate of several of his colleagues who did not make it. The vegetarians and escaped Quakers that he had inveighed against in the Road to Wigan Pier may have seemed an impediment to the onward march of socialism, but his Spanish experience persuaded him that the Soviet Union and its supporters were outright enemies. The experience exposed Orwell to the concepts for which he later coined the memorable phrases “doublethink” and “duckspeak.”
Critics debate whether Orwell was actually well versed in Marxism, but several very close to him say that he had read Marx extensively. What may fool people is that like those around the ILP or Tribune, Orwell would have instinctively revolted against the idea of using the specific Marxist dialect, which sounded so foreign to native English speakers
World War Two and Orwell’s Politics
After Catalonia, the Soviet Pact with Nazi Germany in 1939 would not have surprised him as much as it did more trusting souls on the Left, but both the Pact, and the way that some intellectuals in Britain turned on a sixpence to match Moscow’s new love affair with the former Nazi enemy provided rich material for both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, not to mention a steady stream of war time commentaries.
As a result Orwell invited many on the Left to the ultimate in thoughtcrime. As befits one who fought against both, he came to “the old, true and unpalatable conclusion that a Communist and a Fascist are somewhat nearer to one another than either is to a democrat” Although this essential identity of totalitarianism despite its rhetorical colours was the constant theme of Orwell’s well-argued work for the last decade of his life, this was still a shocking concept to many who had adopted the slogan “No enemies on the Left!” during the late thirties. That was when Moscow had decided that democratic socialists were no longer the “Social-Fascists” of 1933, but essential partners in the Popular Front period. Many of them kept up kept up that belief even as Stalin decided he had no enemies in Berlin.
The mainstream Labour Party was broadly in favour of the war effort, despite a large pacifist element. Some ILP leaders, such as Maxton, continued to oppose the “imperialist” war with Germany without, however, ever subscribing to the Soviet embrace of their new Nazi ally –which caused a rapid realignment of the far left. The British Communist Party had promptly followed Moscow’s lead and declared it to be an imperialist war, a position held more consistently by people like Maxton and the tiny Trotskyist movement who remained antiwar even after the Soviet Union had involuntarily joined the war when Hitler attacked it.
While the ILP’s position of revolutionary opposition to the war was also initially reflected by Orwell, he and many others soon moved to strong, albeit highly conditional support for the British war effort. He rapidly lost his earlier pessimistic fear that it would bring about a form of fascism in Britain, deciding instead that the social changes and pressures of total war on the home front presented, not so much the opportunity, but more the indispensability of revolution. He had joined the Home Guard, the equivalent of the old militia, and the possibilities of an armed and trained populace excited him.
In the course of the Second World War, the British government would seize control of the economy and direct it towards the war effort to an extent far beyond anything that even Nazi Germany managed. Of course, it was all done in the name of victory, but when the scaremongers warned that socialism would mean draconian rationing and taxation, wartime Britain already had them both, unchallenged by the rich. The war about a large element of social and economic levelling, indicating what was possible in peacetime.
At the same time, with Orwell’s customary tendency to see the skull beneath the skin, his experience of war time Britain, the shortages, the rationing, the bureaucratic regulation also provided the backdrop for Nineteen Eight-Four. He had already detected this in the siege mentality of the Soviets and the bellicosity of the Nazis, but the direct experience in Britain was a chilling evocation of the possibilities inherent in war hysteria and the numbing effect of war’s deprivations. It could happen here after all.
His time at the BBC, where he produced programmes for India in 1941, tempered any tendency to euphoria. His not always successful attempts to get radical and nationalist Indian guests on the programme showed that the old imperialist establishment was far from dead and his direct experience of ideological control of the content, much magnified, became a crucial component of Nineteen Eighty Four.
Then as the war went on, the social unity, and the enforced egalitarianism that it entailed brought him to explicit support for the Labour Party or at least its left wing, where many had drifted from the ILP.
The Labour left mostly organized around Tribune, the independent weekly newspaper which Orwell joined as literary editor after leaving the BBC in 1943. He wrote some of his most memorable essays, including the As I Please columns, for it. It was an accurate title. His colleagues did not always share all his views, but it is a reflection of the eclectic nature of the Labour Party that, unlike in the more Leninist sectarian milieu, there was no hint of censorship. Orwell had a found an appropriate journalistic home at last.
He retained his old school and class connections and their contacts with decision-makers and his new Labour party connections added more as people connected with Tribune or the ILP joined both the wartime coalition cabinet and the post-war Labour government. His editor, Aneurin Bevan, not only joined the cabinet, he was instrumental in setting up the National Health Service.
Although we are unsure whether or not Orwell actually joined the Labour Party, he certainly canvassed for it in the May 1945 election that returned the self-declared socialist party to power with a massive majority. As we have seen, right up to his death, as we know in his attempts to correct American misapprehensions about the purpose of Nineteen Eighty-Four, he described himself a supporter of the Party and the government.
In the heat of the war and even after, many on the Left were prepared to overlook the Soviet German pact, not least as the Red Army for several years rolled back the Axis forces in a way that the Western Allies did not.
Orwell’s incisively unforgiving attitude to the Soviet Union made him an uncomfortable partner for some of the Labour left, who while deploring Communism as it was practiced in Eastern Europe were equally, or more, concerned about the growing tendency for London and Washington to realign against their former Soviet Ally.
For example, Michael Foot, a colleague and subsequent editor of Tribune and leader of the Labour Party, while speaking admiringly of Orwell, still mischaracterizes him as a Trotskyist because of his firm anti-Soviet attitudes compared with the more ambivalent attitude that others had to the Soviet Ally. The real Trotskyists, as Orwell was discovering from his correspondence with Partisan Review in the USA, where they were relatively much stronger than in the Britain, consistently opposed the war.
Even before the 1945 election he had warned, “There is the impending showdown with Russia which people at the top of the Labour Party no doubt realize to be unavoidable.” He left no doubt which side he would put himself on. “In case of war breaking out, if one were compelled to choose between Russia and America, I would always choose America,” he told his former publisher Victor Gollancz warning that “In international politics . . . you must be prepared to practice appeasement indefinitely, or at some point you must be ready to fight.” However, he kept a sense of proportion, for example, curbing Bertrand Russell’s initial enthusiasm for a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Russia.
The publication of Animal Farm, in 1945 “that anti-Soviet Farrago” as it was described in the communist Daily Worker, compounded his many sins with the Moscow-inclined left, whose vitriol level rose along with its phenomenal sales. What disgruntled Orwell more than their predictable attacks were the people on both the left and the right who agreed with the fable’s core message of a revolution gone bad, but felt it inexpedient to publish it during a war in which the USSR was an ally. Their determined efforts to thwart the satire’s publication provided yet more inspiration for the world of tightly controlled information in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In recent years, the release of government documents showed that Orwell had provided a list to the British government of people that he thought the government’s “Information Research Department.” should not employ. For many people on both sides of the Atlantic, this has conjured up Un-American Activities Committee hearings and McCarthyite purges and dismissals, and some saw it as a vindication of their long-time questioning of Orwell’s socialism.
However, that begs far too many questions. The Labour government elected in 1945 had set up the IRD specifically to subsidize publications that championed “social-democracy as a successful alternative to Communism.”
Not one of those on Orwell’s “List” lost their jobs, were imprisoned, or can provably be said to have had any resulting impediments to their chosen careers, except possibly missing freelance assignments from a government department that they presumably disagreed with anyway!
Indeed, in 1948, just a little before, Orwell had written to his anarchist friend George Woodcock suggesting that their organization, the Freedom Defence Association, consider action against blacklisting. He explained, “It’s not easy to have a clear position, because, if one admits the right of governments to govern, one must admit their right to choose suitable agents, & I think any organization has the right to protect itself against infiltration methods. But at the same time, the way in which the government seems to be going to work is vaguely disquieting.”
Indeed, he went on point out that the communists were victims of the type of measures that they had themselves been calling for against fascists, while he himself more consistently lamented a general public indifference to freedom of speech.
Despite his uncomfortable anti-Sovietism, he never forgot that “one defeats the fanatic by not being fanatic oneself, but on the contrary by using one’s intelligence,” and did not apply double standards. He opposed the blacklisting and repressive action against individual fascists and communists alike, hewing to a higher, inexpedient, standard of civil liberties.
Orwell’s memorable final books ensured that he is remembered more for what he was against, totalitarianism, that what he was for, which as he often asserted, was democratic socialism. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eight- Four, as the Cold War chilled down all over the world, led to Orwell’s adoption by many conservatives in Europe and America, thus confirming for many of the communist-influenced left the dark suspicions they already had about Orwell’s political positions.
His death in 1950 not long after the publication of Nineteen Eighteen-Four froze Orwell’s political development in the coldest days of the Cold War and presented a stationary target for those of his opponents whose Manichaean world view considered any criticisms of the Soviet Union, especially those as trenchant as Orwell’s, as giving aid and comfort to the “real” enemy – “Western Imperialism.”
While his vision of socialism definitely excluded the Bolshevik model, it was an empirical and pragmatic version. He wrote during the war “Socialists don’t claim to be able to make the world perfect: they claim to be able to make it better,” - a view that would have been entirely in harmony with the broad church that the Labour Party represented.
“Better” could apply ethically as much as financially. For example, in 1941, as he wrestled with the reality of a capitalist British government that had more controls on industry, labour and even food, clothes and furniture, than any other Western nation had ever tolerated – and still basically retained a free society, he warned, “I think we ought to guard against assuming that as a system to live under, socialism will be greatly preferable to democratic capitalism.”
He was not suggesting that socialism was less ethical, or even less efficient, than capitalism, but he consistently maintained that relative British prosperity under capitalism depended on the unsustainable and unethical exploitation of the subject peoples of the Empire. It typified his political approach, which combined a strong empirical and pragmatic streak with what a later Labour Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, was to say about his approach to foreign policy, that it should have “an ethical dimension.”
There is no doubt that his experience of working for Tribune, and with people like Michael Foot and Aneurin Bevan helped consolidate his support for the Labour Party. Along with the left around Tribune, he cavilled at the Labour leadership’s occasionally overcautious attitude to social change – even as he agreed with its staunch anti-Sovietism.
However the post war social democratic consensus in Britain ensured that Orwell and his works became not only part of the popular consciousness, but also a generally accepted part of political discourse. For democratic socialists, Orwell has become an icon, someone who could reconcile a concern for social justice with a concern for civil rights, and indeed who saw that there was no possibility of one without the other. When conservative Prime Minister John Major quoted Orwell in an election speech, there were guffaws from those, mostly Labour supporters who compared the writer’s socialism with the prime ministers recidivist conservatism, but the quotation bespeaks a popularity. The fact that Orwell is so often misappropriated is a tribute to his popular stature, but also to the failure of his misappropriators to read what he wrote so clearly and eloquently about his beliefs.
Despite the posthumous claims by conservatives and communists alike that Orwell had abandoned socialism by the end of his life, none of his colleagues at Tribune or in the Labour Party and ILP, has ever disagreed with the continuing force of Orwell’s self- assessment, “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."
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