As BBC Radio Four and Penguin books launch a celebration of George Orwell, Simon Basketter looks at the politics of one of the finest writers on the left
George Orwell wrote, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
But Orwell was an exception to his own rule. He was the finest writer the British left has produced and used his skills to ruthlessly expose his enemies.
Whether arguing, “Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.” Or, that a liberal is “a power worshipper without power,” there are few people with a finer turn of phrase.
Born Eric Arthur Blair at Motihara in Bengal on 25 June 1903, Orwell was the son of a high ranking civil servant in the opium department of the British government of India.
Orwell notes, “To me in early boyhood, to nearly all children of families like mine ‘common people’ seemed almost subhuman. When I was 14 or 15 I was an odious little snob.”
The repressive institutions of the British establishment radicalised Orwell.
Blair was sent to Eton, but rather than go on to Oxford he aided the British empire by joining the Burmese police. He repeatedly emphasised that he “hated the imperialism I was serving with a bitterness which I probably cannot make clear”.
When he returned from Burma in 1927 he at once threw himself into a vagrant existence among the poorest people in London and Paris.
He turned his back on a life of privilege and chose for his companions tramps, hop-pickers and revolutionaries. Out of a commitment to journalism, and no shortage of guilt, he dived into the lives of the poor.
Orwell was an opponent of political oppression. He risked his life fighting fascism and narrowly escaped death at the hands of Stalin’s agents in Spain.
He was clear in his opposition to “every form of man’s dominion over man”. He said he wanted “to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against the tyrants”.
This determination to side with the oppressed set Orwell on the road to socialism.
But his class background shaped his vision of “honest” workers versus “dishonest” middle class socialists.
The class that Orwell was so piercing in his criticism of was also his own class—and he carried much of its baggage. He developed a sometimes
shallow and patronising view of the dignity of labour in place of the prejudices he was born into.
Orwell focused on the supposed “moral superiority of workers” instead of their economic power. In his classic book, Ninety Eighty Four, he offers:
“If there was hope, it must lie in the proles... Everywhere stood the same solid unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and child-bearing, toiling from birth till death and still singing… You were the dead; theirs was the future. But you could share in that future if you kept alive the mind.”
One quirk of this view was that Orwell detested those who theorised about situations without having experienced them. “In order to hate imperialism, you have got to be part of it,” he wrote, which is plainly daft.
He believed theory is middle class while experience is working class. This involved ignoring working class intellectuals and focusing instead on the weaknesses of the “middle class left”.
Orwell tells us that the sight of a man pilfering food on a ship “taught me more than I could have learned from half a dozen socialist pamphlets”. But as Marxist critic Terry Eagleton points out, “Seeing a man pilfering food will tell you nothing about the causes of poverty.”
Nonetheless Orwell was overtly biased on the side of the oppressed. Every page of his journalism and most of his novels are readable, and often funny, even when wrong.
During the Spanish Civil War that began in 1936, the key event of Orwell’s political life, he was both a socialist and a revolutionary. This experience is recorded in his classic Homage to Catalonia (see box).
Orwell later moved away from the revolution he had participated in. But that revolution and its betrayal by Stalinism shaped his politics and his writing for the rest of his life.
As defeat followed defeat for the revolutionary movements in 1930s Europe, Orwell’s explicit politics become vaguer. Rather than seeing Stalinism as the enemy of the Bolshevism, a product of its defeat, Orwell said responsibility for the horrendous dictatorship lay firmly with the Bolsheviks themselves.
Orwell is a contested figure. Communists began denouncing him in the 1930s and never stopped. The US right promoted him during the height of the Cold War–including an animated movie of Animal Farm funded by the CIA.
Ninety Eighty Four and Animal Farm are still offered as an explanation of what is wrong with socialism.
Orwell died in 1950 but during the 1970s his writings were revisited by sections of the left, partially due to publication of essays and journalism that provided a context for the books.
In the 1980s, during the dark days of Thatcher’s Britain, many turned to 1984 for an explanation of the seemingly all powerful state.
But in recent years Orwell’s proud patriotism—and the revelation that he handed names of subversives to the state—saw pro-war liberals ennobling him as the height of “brave” pro-establishment thought.