Any writer dead for 70 years who has two popular TV shows which directly reference his work – Big Brother and Room 101 – must be of some importance both to national and international culture, writes Dave Kellaway. Just think of how many more of his words or phrases have passed into the English language: four legs good, two legs bad, two and two make five, doublethink, newspeak, 1984, cold war and even Orwellian! Many school students would have read Animal Farm and 1984 since it is officially on the curriculum. Set texts most teachers have no problem with.
Now Orwellmania is in full swing, marking the 70th anniversary of his death. On Radio 4 we have been able to listen to his novels – his words are now out of copyright which makes them even more accessible – and to discussions about his political and literary impact. A new biography by Richard Bradford has just appeared.
Orwell’s greatest contribution is his brilliant dissection of both fascist and Stalinist totalitarian regimes through Animal Farm and 1984 along with Homage to Catalonia on his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. He was one of the very few writers who was ready to openly criticise the Stalinist regime in Moscow in the 1930s or 40s apart from very small Trotskyist groups.
The publisher, Victor Gollancz turned down Animal Farm precisely because he did not want to stand up to the hegemony of the Stalinists and their fellow travellers amongst the intelligentsia at that time. This hegemony extended way into the Labour Party and continued into the 1950s and beyond. But of course Orwell’s legacy is much greater than his honourable testimony of Stalinist crimes in Spain and his refusal to accept the repressive, anti-democratic regime as socialist.
Orwell left Eton and went directly into the Imperial Police force in what was then known as Burma (today’s Myanmar). As a young man of barely 20 he was in charge of law and order over a large area and thousands of people. His first-hand experience of colonial rule led him to a firm anti-imperialist attitude that he never really abandoned (though at the time of the struggle for Indian independence he was inclined to argue for some intermediary solution}.
Hardly any other white English writers at the time wrote such blistering anti-colonial polemics in both non-fictional essays (Shooting an Elephant, A Hanging) and his novel, Burmese Days. Forster’s Passage to India perhaps comes nearest but in a more subtle, understated way.
Burmese Days has a credible, lively plot and manages to portray a range of racist colonialist attitudes during the Raj – from the official line of the commissioner trying to open up the British club to ‘non-whites’ to the outright thugs who think the natives need a good hiding. At the same time a central character is somewhat of an orientalist, appreciating aspects of local culture and critical of what the empire is doing but within strict limits.
The gradations of class from the aristocratic to the lower class policeman and their psychology are captured well. The colonial official has to put on a show, a self-assured mask at all times and never speak honestly about reality. Although Orwell is not at his strongest on gender, the other branch of the plot about the middle class lady with few means who is looking for a suitable husband exposes the narrower horizons allowed to women. He also portrays the overlap between colonialism and sexism in the relationship of the main character with a local Burmese woman.
Given his radicalisation against colonialism, Orwell returned to Britain to give up his commission which meant abandoning a solid income and status and irritating his family. Throughout his life he was never worried that much about material comforts or an easy time. He committed himself in flesh and blood and would leave jobs or homes to follow his projects. So in order to understand class inequality and poverty he worked in Paris as a dishwasher in posh restaurants. He disguised himself as a vagrant so that he could lodge in cheap lodging houses and went to live for months in a coal mining community in Wigan. These experiences formed the basis of Down and Out in London and Paris and the Road to Wigan Pier.
Again, apart from one of his heroes, Jack London, not many writers were doing this sort of in depth, participant journalism. Paradoxically he was supposedly not that great at small chat and mixing with ordinary people. It was reported that one of his contacts in Wigan was told by the pub landlord “not to bring that bugger in here”. Thankfully, good writing and analysis does not depend on being the life and soul of the party.
Orwell did a bit of teaching here or there in private schools since he could not live just from his writing but the next big turn in his life was his decision to go to Spain to fight with the left republic against Franco’s fascists. He had recently joined the ILP (Independent Labour Party) which was a substantial organisation (15,000 members and 4 MPs) to the left of the Labour Party. Since the ILP had some contacts with the POUM, an anti-Stalinist group influenced by the Trotskyists, Orwell ended up fighting with them.
This led to one of key testimonies in the English language of an important aspect of the Spanish Civil war – the way in which the Spanish Communist Party and Russian agents physically eliminated this group on their left. At one point in Barcelona, the people influenced by the POUM and the anarchists had taken over the city in a form of workers control. The Stalinists were against radicalising the movement in this way and killed the POUM leader, Andres Nin and many others.
Apart from his reportage of the revolutionary atmosphere in Barcelona “human beings were trying to behave like human beings and not as some cogs in a capitalist machine” (p 10) Orwell was able to nail the lies spread by the British Communist Party in the Daily Worker (forerunner of the Morning Star) about a supposed POUM fascist uprising against the Republic.
Ever the empiricist and rigorous observer Orwell conveys the reality of the war, the long periods of boredom and obsessing about food and hygiene combined with short, intense periods of savagery. He is wounded, a bullet missing his vital organs by millimetres and having the luck of finding transport back to a decent hospital. As he himself noted, if he had not been invalided out he may have ended up at least as a prisoner or worse. There is a record of Orwell denounced as a Trotskyist in the national archives in the Spanish state.
Blue Labour before his time…?
Commentators such as the Blue Labour theoretician Maurice Glassman, and Nick Cohen, a red-baiting journalist on the Observer, try to claim Orwell for a rightist, patriotic Labour position. Both made comments with this implication on the recent BBC radio 4 programme Orwell in 5 words (available on BBC sounds). They base their reading on texts like the Lion and the Unicorn (Socialism and English Genius), Inside the Whale and My country Right or Left written in 1940 and 1941.
Here Orwell does dubiously present a sort of English exceptionalism where a common decency appears to transcend class barriers to help a transition to democratic socialism. He has not suddenly fallen in love with the ruling class, its violence and stupidity, but he thinks by transforming the war effort against fascism into a progressive English socialist movement (without its foreign Marxist influence) you can win over the middle classes and some of the sons of the bourgeoisie linked to the mobilisation of the trade unions and the Labour party. Unlike the limited programmes proposed by the Communist Parties, this new government would nationalise big industry, establish a classless education system and radically limit income differentials.
To understand why he arrived at these positions we need to understand the context. At that time the Stalin-Hitler pact was still active which meant the CP and its fellow travellers were saying there was no difference between capitalist liberal democracy and fascism and therefore we did not take sides between the British state and Hitler. This overlapped with the appeasement of big sectors of the ruling class. For Orwell this meant the so-called internationalist left were actually nationalists who were supporting the Russian national state against the interests of working people.
Despite his illusions in English exceptionalism and the way all the new technical workers and managers were likely to join the struggle for socialism he still talked about ‘not winning the war without socialism, nor establish socialism without winning the war’ (p332 Essays, Everyman). At one stage he talked rather bizarrely about changing the Home Guard into a sort of people’s militia.
Elsewhere he maintained that some bloodshed may still be necessary to secure socialism. Later on after the war Orwell argued powerfully for a United Socialist States of Europe (p 1241 Essays op cit.) so he wasnnot really someone who supported a ‘socialism in one country’ model or even a two stage approach i.e. constructing an alliance with the bourgeoisie over democratic demands before considering socialist measures.
Yes you can take chunks from Orwell’s writing to suggest he was keen on linking nationalism and socialist struggle and some of the stuff about exceptionalism and decency is a little silly but you need to look at the context and what else he was saying.
Besides this a lot of Orwell’s observations about national culture e.g. the Donald McGill saucy postcards, Making a cup of tea are rather brilliant, have nothing to do with progressive patriotism and foreshadow the later development of Marxist influenced cultural studies (cf. Stuart Hall ).
A rich complex legacy for the left
Orwell in some ways became close to what Gramsci would call an organic intellectual, someone who is both a theorist and an activist embedded in the labour movement. He was never involved as an organiser or a leader in a political movement but he did approximate to an organic intellectual in several ways.
First, he was not a university academic. His socialist analysis and writing arose from his direct experience in Burma or Spain or from careful participant research among ordinary people. Even his great anti-totalitarian novels arose from direct experience and debate with either fascists or Stalinists. Secondly his writings are mostly incredibly accessible so a mass audience could read them. Famously he wrote a small essay giving some rules for writing clearly and directly (Six rules for writing Horizon 1946). Thirdly he wrote for magazines of the Labour mmovement like Tribune that had an audience among the left of the workers movement. He ended up as a Clause 4 social democrat and he wanted his ideas discussed in the movement.
As a person he was fascinating in his contradictions. For example, some of his most vicious prose is written against the public school system but in some ways parts of that ideology never left him – a respect for military prowess (against pacifists), an acknowledgement that these public school men would die for their country unlike a lot of the pacifist intelligentsia and a certain fondness for high Anglicanism. He took advantage of his public school contacts throughout his career.
While he stood up for the little guy against the big state and the corporations he was an enthusiast for the benefits of the big state planning during the war and identified the managerial revolution (cf. James Burnham) as a basis for generating a new future. He was quite optimistic about the strength of English decency and values but at the same time was pessimistic about the rise of totalitarianism.
His critique of capitalism was typically social democratic insofar as it focussed on the cruelty, stupidity, inefficiency and hedonism of the individuals rather than explaining the mechanisms of exploitation in any systematic way. He never built on his experience of Barcelona to articulate a workers self-management alternative to social democracy.
He subscribed to the idea that working people in developed countries derived privileges from colonialism which would be a big obstacle to them supporting a socialist alternative. He thought you could not have world socialism without workers in rich countries taking a cut in their living standards. This fits neatly with his own appetite for living austerely. He wrote 1984 in Jura in the Hebrides while trying to grow his own vegetables. While defending individuals against tyranny his unfortunate use of homophobic terms like pansy – often used to criticise his hated intelligentsia who were not ready to fight – could have been a legacy of the experiences of his public school but it did not prevent him being friends with people like Stephen Spender.
Finally, there is the contradiction between his critique of tyranny and his passing of the names of communists to the International Research Department – an anti-communist propaganda unit of the foreign office. In mitigation, he was encouraged to do so in the last months of his life when he was vulnerable and probably still infatuated by Celia Kirwan, the woman from the department who asked him. According to Timothy Garton Ash, apart from one person, people did not suffer any consequences in terms of their career. Many other sincere anti-Stalinists, including Trotskyists, did slide over into anti-communism during the Cold War and did far worse.
Orwell’s death at 47 meant that he was not faced with the choice of committing further betrayals of this type. Apart from his novels and most famous novels there are a large number of essays and his diaries that are well worth reading. He is never boring.
** A great introduction to two of his best works, Burmese Days and Homage to Catalonia can be found in the exhibition of award winning photo journalist Julio Etchart’s photos and texts at the Rich Mix Cinema 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, London E1 6LA until February 2. The images can be seen here.
He has gone back to the original locations of the two books produced some stunning photos to which he has added extracts from the texts. For example the British Colonial club in Burma is still standing and is now a school. You can also see a copy of Orwell’s press card.
Julio has written a moving letter to Orwell that is on display. which talks of their common vocations to document injustice and social reality. There was also a showing of the last film version of 1984 with John Hurt and Richard Burton at which the links between the book and the fake news of Trump were discussed by the audience.