Issue 85 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Winter 1999 Copyright © International Socialism
The millennium will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of George Orwell, critic, novelist, essayist and polemicist, and one of the best loved and most frequently quoted British authors of the century. The political consciousness pervading his writing makes him a touchstone for a wide range of readers and 'one of the major literary protagonists in the Cold War era'.1 His last two novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four, are acknowledged as modern classics, while his experience of working class life in Down and Out in London and Paris and The Road to Wigan Pier, and of revolutionary struggle betrayed in Homage To Catalonia, continue to inform and inspire generations of socialists.
Orwell's writing was the source of as much controversy during his life as it was when left and right fought over his literary corpse after his death. The right claimed him for themselves, 'embracing him as an emotional conservative who had given terrible warning of the totalitarian logic inherent in the socialist cause',2 while the Stalinist dominated left were willing to give away the man H G Wells once described as the 'Trotskyist with big feet'.3 Nineteen Eighty Four, Orwell's final novel and a satire of Stalinist Russia, has been defined as 'the "canonical text" of conservative anti-Communism, as "the key imaginative manifesto of the Cold War" and gives Orwell the dubious honour of having "invented...a complete poetics of political invective".'4 Isaac Deutscher, Marxist historian, famed anti-Stalinist and biographer of both Trotsky and Stalin, weighed into the debate, dismissing Orwell as 'a "simple minded anarchist" for whom any movement "forfeited its raison d'etre the moment it acquired a raison d'etat".'5 The 1970 publication of Orwell's miscellaneous writing under the title The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters provided a context for Orwell's best known books and put the Stalinists and right wingers on the back foot as a new generation of socialists, unfettered by loyalty to the Communist Party, broke through the claims and counter-claims. And in 1980 Bernard Crick's exhaustively researched biography, George Orwell: A Life, lifted Orwell out of the quagmire of malice and misinformation and placed him firmly on the left, albeit as a Tribune socialist grown shy of revolutionary politics. However, even this mild reclamation of Orwell for the reformist left proved too much for adherents to the Communist tradition. Their reaction plumbed new depths with the publication in 1984 of Inside The Myth: Orwell--Views from the Left, a collection of essays attacking Orwell, edited by Christopher Norris and published by Lawrence and Wishart, a book which Newsinger calls 'an unholy alliance of feminists, cultural theorists and old fashioned Stalinists, dedicated to reversing his influence'.6
Orwell's Politics by John Newsinger moves the debate a critical step further. Taking the end of the Cold War as 'an ideal context for a reassessment' of Orwell's political ideas,7 Newsinger gives us a map of Orwell's intellectual terrain, and deftly orientates the reader around the key Orwellian debates. He examines how Orwell's politics developed in a changing world, and extracts a throughline strung like a piano wire through volatile circumstances, warring ideologies and intellectual sleight of hand in the century that promised workers in the saddle. Newsinger's thesis is that, although Orwell's politics shifted throughout his lifetime, the one constant was his unwavering socialism. What detractors--and even some admirers--have missed is that he never ceased to write from within the left, attacking the betrayal of the revolution rather than the revolution itself.
Orwell gets a life
George Orwell was the name adopted by Eric Blair, the Eton educated son of a government official overseeing the opium trade. Born in India, Blair returned to the east to serve as an imperial policeman in Burma. He was by no means a socialist at this point. Conservative MP Christopher Hollis observed, following his visit to Burma in 1925, that Blair exhibited 'no trace of liberal opinions' and felt a particular loathing for Buddhist monks.8 However, something was eating away at his conscience. In the opening chapter, entitled 'Pox Britannia', Newsinger charts Blair's changing attitude to the dirty job of maintaining order and breaking strikes. Prisons overflowed and villages were burnt to the ground. He returned to England in 1928 and later expressed his growing disgust with imperialism in fictional form in his first novel, Burmese Days, as well as in numerous articles and letters. His atonement was to put himself through the ordeals described in Down and Out in London and Paris, working as a dishwasher in a Paris hotel, and as a hop picker in Kent when he wasn't living as a tramp. In The Road to Wigan Pier, written in 1936, before he fought in Spain, and published in 1937, he stated his opposition to 'every form of man's dominion over man. I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against the tyrants.' It is this determination to side with the oppressed that Newsinger sees setting Orwell on the road to socialism.9
Five years in Burma had transformed Eric Blair into 'George Orwell', a man who 'hated the imperialism I was serving with a bitterness which I probably cannot make clear'.10 Step by step Newsinger shows us the developing line of Orwell's politics initially fuelled by that loathing. In one of his later 'As I Please' columns in Tribune,11 Orwell was to connect the ruling classes' need for racism with their justification for imperialism. Satirising the British colonialists' absurd claims to racial superiority, he settled on the pith helmet as an 'emblem of imperialism' as it protected the supposedly thinner skull of the white master from the sun, whereas, we assume, Asiatic natives could happily fry while labouring like animals, their tiny brains protected by thick, simian, cranial bone.
Although Orwell acquired a small degree of fame with his first books, it was his experiences in Spain when he fought against Franco's fascists in the civil war, and the publication of his account of them in Homage To Catalonia and numerous articles, that put the revolutionary socialist cat among the Communist apparatchik pigeons. What he personally witnessed in Spain, above all else, turned Orwell against the Soviet Union and the international Communist movement, paradoxically driving him deeper into revolutionary socialism at the same time as he was being turned into a pariah among the left.
When Franco attempted the military coup on 17 and 18 July 1936, it had been held off only by a spontaneous uprising of the working class in many towns and cities. The Republican government remained paralysed. An armed working class took power in many Republican areas, and was particularly strong in Catalonia whose chief city was Barcelona. In his book The Spanish Cockpit, favourably reviewed by Orwell, Franz Borkenau describes revolutionary Barcelona. He notes the absence of any bourgeoisie or their agents, the police, who were replaced by armed workers' militias: 'Practically all the factory owners, we were told, had either fled or been killed, and their factories taken over by the workers'.12 And all the churches had been burnt. It was so promising that Trotsky commented that in 'its political and cultural level, the Spanish proletariat stood on the first day of the revolution, not below, but above the Russian proletariat at the beginning of 1917'.13 As Newsinger points out, 'Whether this revolution should be continued or reversed was to be the great political debate within the Republican camp, a debate finally settled by the Communists with police, torture chambers and execution squads'.14
The ensuing split among the anti-fascist forces broke down roughly along three lines. The first--Largo Caballero of the Socialist Party left wing, the socialist organisations, and the anarchists (FAI) and their trade union confederation, the CNT--took the initially dominant position that the revolution should be put on hold while Republican forces defeated the fascists. Caballero did not want the Republic overthrown by a workers' state but they agreed that once the military was crushed the revolution would continue. Adopting this attitude left the leaders of these organisations increasingly incapable of resisting the pressure they came under from the second group.
The second line was the deliberate slamming of the revolutionary process into reverse, liquidating all the revolutionary gains of July 1936, and re-establishing the bourgeois state. This was the policy adopted by the Republican middle class, but more surprisingly, this was also the line taken by the Spanish Communist Party, the Catalan Communists (PSUC) and supported by the Russian military-political machine. Communist policy in the 1930s was to unite left and centre parties as a Popular Front against right wing movements, which inevitably meant diluting the revolutionary content of their politics. Although the revolutionaries and the bourgeoisie were fighting against the same thing, ie fascism, they were fighting for mutually exclusive goals, ie capitalism and socialism. 'It is a combination,' wrote Orwell, 'with about as much vitality, and about as much right to exist, as a pig with two heads or some other Barnum and Bailey monstrosity'.15 Orwell eventually realised, along with many others, that Russia was seeking a compromise with international capital in the form of an alliance with Britain and France. Russian foreign policy interests took precedence over supporting left wing movements in Europe: the revolution was marked for death.
Arguing against these positions were many individual anarchists and a small independent revolutionary party called the POUM, translated as the United Marxist Workers' Party, whose general secretary, Andreas Nin, was a former secretary to Trotsky. They believed that if the war was to be won the revolution had to be completed through the overthrow of the bourgeois state together with the continuation of the process of expropriation.
These, then, were the circumstances of Orwell's arrival in Catalonia to fight the fascists.
Orwell in Spain
Orwell's arrival in Barcelona, the reddest of Spanish cities, was, according to Crick, an accident.16 Turned down for the International Brigade by the British Communist Party, Orwell eventually travelled to Spain under the auspices of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in December 1936. Once in Barcelona, he signed up to the ILP affiliated POUM militia as 'Eric Blair: grocer'. He enthused over the tell tale signs of workers at least superficially in charge--or 'in the saddle'--finding them 'startling and overwhelming'. Newsinger describes it thus:
The thrill wore off once he hit the front line. Orwell was dismayed by the conditions. As he says often in Homage To Catalonia, it wasn't so much the squalid state of the muddy trenches and drenched dugouts, or the terrifying abundance of rats, or the infestations of lice, or the human excrement caked everywhere that lowered his spirits--that was just war. It was the incessant boredom while waiting for action, the inadequate training, and the antiquated weaponry with which they were meant to fight the fascists stationed within eyesight that he found frustrating. His sympathies were by no means set when he arrived: he initially thought the Communists were right to concentrate on fighting Franco by building a more disciplined army. However, what kept him fighting for the POUM--even regretting later that he didn't join--was the realisation that the Communist line was effectively a counter-revolutionary one. It didn't merely stop the revolution in its tracks. It actually meant putting back the clock.
Orwell was deeply engaged in the debate around what to do about the revolution, siding with the most revolutionary line--to take the revolution forward. He thought it a mistake that the Republican government had been left in nominal control and was critical that, 'in spite of various changes in personnel, every subsequent government has been of approximately the same bourgeois-reformist character.' He explained that at first it didn't seem to matter, because the government was 'almost powerless'. The bourgeoisie were lying low, even disguising themselves as workers. But then, as power was grabbed by the 'Communists and right wing Socialists' and used in the interest of the Popular Front, 'the government was able to reassert itself, the bourgeoisie came out of hiding and the old division of society into rich and poor reappeared, not much modified'.18 One by one the different parties composing the government were edged out by the Communists. Once Russia began to supply arms, a grateful Communist led Government came to heel and the success of the Spanish Communist Party was assured. Orwell explains how the Catalan Communists, the PSUC, were then able to recover power through 'a policy of pinpricks':
He returned to Barcelona to find it just another bourgeois city, unrecognisable from the vibrant centre of workers' control he had seen only a few months earlier.
Trotsky had by now split with the POUM over their refusal to break away from the far greater numbers of anarchists and 'build their party as the revolutionary leadership of the Spanish working class... Instead, they hoped to persuade and influence the anarchists, who were the decisive force in Catalonia, into completing the revolution'.20 Following a police attack on the CNT controlled telephone exchange in Barcelona on 3 May, working class Barcelona took to the barricades in defence of their rapidly eroding bastions of power. Unfortunately, both the POUM and CNT leaders vacillated instead of going on the offensive, giving the counter-revolutionary forces the upper hand. In a perverse twist of logic, the Communists accused Trotsky of leading the POUM alongside the fascists in a conspiracy against the Popular Front, his living several thousand miles away in Mexico and not being in touch with the Spanish comrades notwithstanding. The POUM was similarly slandered, firstly, as being 'objectively pro-fascist' because it was contradicting the Communist line to abandon the revolution, and then accused of actually fighting alongside the fascists, of sabotage and treason under Trotsky's orders. The official term for the POUM was 'Trotsky-Fascist', a libel that was repeated in newspapers across the world and used in support of the Moscow Show Trials. The Daily Worker called the ILP volunteers in Spain, many of whom were killed or wounded fighting fascism, a 'stain on the honour of the British working class'.21 The propaganda war was vicious, the body count high and rising. Many were tortured by the dreaded secret police, languished in jail or were executed. Andreas Nin, a leading member of the POUM, was reportedly skinned alive. All were hounded by the Communists.
Orwell narrowly escaped but he had gained a whole new perspective. While convalescing from a fascist bullet in the throat, Orwell wrote to Cyril Connolly, telling him, 'I have seen wonderful things and at last really believe in Socialism, which I never did before'.22 Although from his earlier publication The Road to Wigan Pier it was clear that he was at least intellectually committed to socialism, it was Spain that gave his socialism an emotional bedrock and dictated the course his socialism would take. Having witnessed the destruction of the revolution in Spain, and lost comrades in the Communist persecution of the POUM, that course would never lead to Moscow. In the preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm he wrote:
He returned to Britain to find that his association with POUM and his hostility to the Communists had left him alienated and marginalised in left circles. It was all but impossible to challenge the Communist version of events. His own publisher, Victor Gollancz, who controlled the Left Book Club with its massive readership, declined to publish Homage To Catalonia despite the success of The Road to Wigan Pier but Orwell refused to be gagged. His may have been a lone voice, but it was also a loud and clear one powered by a will to make itself heard through a torrent of articles and reviews.
Revolutionary patriotism and the Second World War
The Spanish Civil War was a pivotal point in Orwell's political development and the lessons learnt there coloured his politics for the rest of his life. The Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939--effectively carving Eastern Europe up between Germany and Russia--was another seismic world event that was to shake up his outlook and that of many Communists. Until that point Orwell had taken the ILP line of pacifism and internationalism but the pact reversed his position. He became staunchly pro-war, arguing in Tribune, the American literary journal Partisan Review, and his wartime broadcasts for the BBC that 'this war is a race between the consolidation of Hitler's empire and the growth of democratic consciousness'.24
Newsinger stresses the importance of the wartime Searchlight series of books, a platform for left writers to discuss 'war aims for a better future', co-edited by Orwell, and sees 'the whole series as a political intervention by Orwell at a time when he believed socialist revolution both imminently possible and urgently necessary'.25 Orwell's own contribution, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, the first of the series, propounded the view that patriotism was a material reality that overshadowed class hatred and internationalism. Orwell argued that the British working class had never acted internationally, citing the generally cool response to Franco's rise to power as an example, and so could not be relied upon to further the revolution alone. He dismissed the idea of an 'old fashioned' proletarian revolution in England and contended that any English socialist revolution would have to include the expanding middle class of professionals, higher paid skilled workers, media producers and technicians. These people, he insisted, were kept down by the ruling class and the system of private capitalism. 'Capitalism, he proclaimed, "simply does not work...cannot deliver the goods" and would have to be replaced by socialism if England was to defeat Hitler'.26 Newsinger makes allowances for Orwell's patriotic excesses as a product of the times and as something he questioned towards the end of the war. For Newsinger, the core problem was that The Lion and the Unicorn was predicated on a faulty premise--that England in 1940-1941 was ripe for revolution. There were no signs of power moving into workers' hands even as late as 1942.
Orwell started to speak of a third way between the 'timid reformism' of the Labour Party and 'the 19th century doctrine of class war' of the Communists and Trotskyists. 'This third way, between reform and revolution, would, he believed, make it possible to carry through a socialist transformation of Britain that would nevertheless leave intact what he considered to be the essential qualities and character of the British national culture,' writes Newsinger, who adds:
Commentators have suggested that Orwell moved away from revolution towards despair or reformist Tribune socialism some time towards the end of 1942, but Newsinger shows him pursuing another route. Certainly, faced with the reality that there would be no revolution in war-time Britain, Orwell reached an accommodation with British Labourism. However, when assessing this period, Newsinger points out, what is often overlooked is the absence of a British equivalent of the American literary journal, Partisan Review, for which Orwell wrote the 'London Letters' series of articles between 1941 and 1946. While the Communist line may have dominated British left politics, it had no such clear run in America. Originally committed to the viewpoint of 'the revolutionary working class' and to 'defence of the Soviet Union',28 the Partisan Review, like Orwell, emerged from the fallout of 1936-1937 with a hostility to Stalinism and a broad sympathy for Trotsky's ideas. This certainly qualifies Orwell as a 'literary Trotskyist', 'a creative writer and commentator broadly influenced by Trotskyist ideas'.29 Newsinger also lists the catalogue of numerous Trotskyist pamphlets in Orwell's archive to show that he had more than a passing acquaintance with Trotsky's politics: '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'.30
From 1941 Orwell fought for a 'revolutionary patriotic' line in the anti-war Partisan Review against the 'revolutionary defeatist' editorial line.31 For Orwell and many others on the left the fate of the war was inextricably bound up with the success of the revolution and the two were inseparable. The crisis of the war came to a head in the early summer of 1942 when it seemed possible that the left Labour politician Stafford Cripps would provide significant leadership. By the end of the summer the Conservatives had won power and the longed for growth in popular consciousness failed to materialise. In January 1943 Orwell wrote in Partisan Review that the 'crisis is over and the forces of reaction have won hands down'.32 He later apologised in his December 1944 'London Letter' for his 'many mistaken predictions', and went into a lengthy self critical analysis of his 'very great error'. The war had been won but the peace was lost. The survival of the ruling class had ended any hope of socialism:
What Newsinger crucially detects in this article is:
Skewering the Soviet myth
The accusation that he had abandoned socialism altogether intensified with the publication of Animal Farm. This allegorical fable, which Orwell wrote in response to Stalin's dissolution of the Comintern in 1943, earned him much enmity and a deliberate distortion of his very clear warning that Stalin was 'genuinely aiming at a closer tie up with the USA and Britain'.35 The growing Russophile feeling in Britain since the Nazi invasion of Russia finished the Hitler-Stalin pact in June 1941 gave an added urgency to Orwell's objective. Animal Farm was finally published by Warburg in 1945 at the outset of the Cold War. Newsinger explains:
Orwell's original intention was that Animal Farm should be an attack on the 1943 Tehran Conference and its aim that Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill should carve the world up between them. When their alliance broke down the book was interpreted as an attack on revolution and socialism. Orwell later clarified his position, writing, 'I meant the moral to be that revolutions are only 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'.37 Although Orwell placed responsibility for Stalin firmly with the Bolsheviks, even extending his criticism to Lenin and Trotsky, Newsinger is clear that he did not oppose revolution itself, having called for exactly that on numerous occasions over many years: 'All revolutions are failures,' he quotes Orwell's famous epigram, 'but they are not always the same failure'.38
His last novel, the disturbing dystopian vision of the future, Nineteen Eighty Four, written in 1948, was influenced by the Trotskyist critique of the Soviet Union. Originally written to attack both Fascist and Communist tyranny, the defeat of Nazism allowed Orwell to focus on the totalitarianism of the Russian state and the slavishness of the left intelligentsia that allowed the myth of Soviet 'socialism' to take hold. For Orwell it was the managerial class, of which the intelligentsia was one section, who would make the revolution alongside the working class, but who would also be repelled by the Soviet myth. He was appealing to them, warning what it would be like to be 'rigidly policed and controlled by an omnipotent terroristic apparatus that aspires to thought-control'.39 He dissects the mentality of this 'middling' group and recounts Winston Smith's failed rebellion against Big Brother.
In Big Brother's world, the primary antagonist of the Party is 'Emmanuel Goldstein', once part of the Party's leadership, but subsequently expelled for a dizzying variety of crimes and betrayals. Goldstein is either the Party's greatest enemy, or else simply a bogeyman created by the Party as a focus for the society's fears, and as bait to lure potential rebels into showing their hands. The mysterious figure of Goldstein, object of the 'three minute hate' sessions, is a hybrid of Trotsky and the martyred Andreas Nin.40 Goldstein's secret book at the heart of the story--entitled The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism--was drawn from the Workers Party in America and their debates in the pages of Partisan Review, which argued that the Soviet Union was a bureaucratic collectivist society, rather than capitalist or socialist. Newsinger takes great pains to distance Orwell from James Burnham's The Managerial Revolution (which another Blair and his Third Way mentor seem to have swallowed wholesale), which claimed that the managerial class was the new ruling class, and locates, instead, Nineteen Eighty Four's chief political influence in the writings of American Trotskyist Dwight Macdonald. For Macdonald, who debated fiercely with Burnham in Partisan Review, 'the bourgeoisie have been replaced by a new ruling class, the bureaucracy; capitalism has yielded to bureaucratic collectivism'.41 In Russia and Germany, he insisted, supreme power lay with the political bureaucrats who directed the lowly managerial class to do their bidding. This is the world, recreated as Oceania with O'Brien as the personification of the ruling bureaucracy, inhabited by Winston Smith and his fellow managerial drones. Tony Cliff later made a crucial contribution to this debate, advancing the theory of state capitalism--that the Russian bureaucratic ruling class needed to accumulate capital in order to compete with the superpowers rather than out of a simple lust for power.42 The novel was also a fictional account of the nuclear stalemate Orwell dreaded, leading to 'the division of the world among two or three vast superstates, unable to conquer one another and unable to be overthrown by any internal rebellion'.43 At the end of a pessimistic view of the future Winston Smith reaches the conclusion that hope for social transformation ultimately lies with the 'proles' when they realise their own massive potential. Winston the individual is broken, finally agreeing with Big Brother that two plus two does indeed make five.
Nineteen Eighty Four was immediately seized upon by the right to attack socialism which was equated with Stalinist Russia. In refusing to recognise that the Soviet Union was not socialist, the left found themselves wide open to these attacks. The most schizoid reaction must be Raymond Williams's dismissal of Orwell as an 'ex-socialist' in the same breath as he was apologising for Mao's Cultural Revolution, and Pol Pot and the Cambodian Khmer Rouge campaign: 'The revolutionary movement has to impose the harshest discipline on itself and over relatively innocent people in order not to be broken down and defeated'.44 Orwell was never able to complete his defence of the book--that it was never intended as an attack on socialism or the British Labour Party--due to his illness from TB and his early death in 1950.
The fight over Orwell continues. He has been (mis)quoted by Thatcher, John Major, Rupert Murdoch and a bizarre raft of conservatives. Even recently centre-left columnist and Marx's biographer Francis Wheen invoked Orwell in The Guardian to justify the bombing of former Yugoslavia.45 Comparing the tiny Balkan state of Serbia with Germany, which was the world's second most powerful industrial country at the outbreak of World War Two, and the petty nationalist dictator Slobodan Milosevic with Hitler, who represented the ideological last stand of capitalism in crisis, Wheen quotes Orwell on Hitler after the Hitler-Stalin pact and adds: 'Orwell would, I'd guess, be contemptuous of those who blame Nato for the horrific exodus from Kosovo.' Orwell believed in calling all sides of a conflict to account for their actions, and it would indeed be interesting to know if he would have had as much faith in the judgement and motives of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation as Wheen. What we do know is that, on the subject of the left and war, Orwell had this to say:
But then, as Bernard Crick has cautioned and Newsinger reminds us, all we can say with any degree of certainty is that if George Orwell was alive today, he'd be very old.47