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Orwell, Whose Orwell?

Guy Rundle On the centenary of his birth, the complexities and contradictions of St George need to be acknowledged, but so too does his status as a radical and revolutionary.

W.B. Yeats is said to have fainted when — at a state occasion marking his birthday — he was honoured by a thousand Irish boy scouts reciting in unison ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. The event has always stood as the example of colossally missing the point. The thought that it may now have competition is occasioned by a dip into one of the great publishing projects of the 1990s, the Collected Works of George Orwell. Volume Thirteen begins with item 1438, ‘BBC Talks Booking Form 1.9.42 Cedric Dover, Anniversaries of the Month, broadcast 8.5.42’ handwritten note: Mr Dover will be taking one of four parts in this feature’. This is one of hundreds of items of BBC paraphernalia faithfully recorded in the collected works of a man whose qualification for such an honour is due in part to the way he shaped our imagination of the cult of personality. The booking forms, rosters, payment slips presumably qualify because they contain a sentence or two that the master may have hurriedly scrawled. They are less collected works than veronicas, fragments of the hem he has touched along the way. Even the most exhausting bibliographer of any other author would hesitate to include them. But fifty years after his death, and a hundred after his birth, George Orwell has been lifted out of the category of ‘author’. He became a secular saint some time ago; in the lead up to and aftermath of the Iraq war he has become something more, a quasi-deity. Everyone appeals to him as an arbiter, ransacks him for quotes — this writer included — to buttress a point. For a long time, this side or that would claim his support: ‘if he were alive today … ’. When that became discredited, it was done in a double negative fashion: ‘we cannot know what Orwell would have thought were he alive today, but going by his writings we can say that …’ and so on. The more he is invoked as a gold standard of political decency, truthfulness and steadfastness, the emptier the gesture becomes. A writer who tried to show how the dead speech of cliché acts as a barrier to clear thinking has become the standard recourse to prop up a lazy paragraph:

It’s a toss up between George Orwell’s 1984 and the language of the Vietnam War to describe yesterday’s series of statements from the major stakeholders in Australian ‘Bernie’ magnesium.

In George Orwell’s Animal Farm the mantra was ‘two legs bad, four legs good’. In health care in Australia, the mantra now is ‘community dependence bad, corporate dependence good.’

(collected by Jonathan Pearlman, SMH)

More importantly, Orwell’s words are often quoted to advance arguments that have no relation to the original context. Thus Pamela Bone argued against the anti-war movement prior to the invasion of Iraq:

Orwell wrote: ‘the majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to taking life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point’.

In fact most of the Iraq anti-war movement weren’t pacifist, and Orwell’s writing on pacifism was largely concerned with a situation in which one’s own country was under immediate threat of invasion.

Most notorious, perhaps, was 1980s neoconservative Norman Podhoretz’s 1984 version of the ‘had Orwell been alive today’ argument, in which he suggested that Orwell would have been a neoconservative — i.e. as flaky as the one-time Trotskyist, literary self-advancer and subsequent Reaganite Podhoretz himself.

As Robert Manne pointed out recently, few of those on the Right who have invoked Orwell’s name as an opponent of totalitarianism — especially in the 1980s — have sought to mention that he remained a democratic Socialist (Orwell’s capitalisation) to his death. This aspect of his writings has received more attention recently, chiefly because socialism is no longer even faintly on the radar as an organised alternative. Christopher Hitchens’s book, Why Orwell Matters, has gone some way to correcting this, though it is mostly concerned with nominating Orwell’s true heir on the Left, and not finding far to look. Quoting Orwell even at his most vituperative and ephemeral seems to have a strange, blinding effect on the quote-wielder — it is always someone else who is in Orwell’s sights. Thus, this tail-end of a New York Post article:

‘ … Maybe George Orwell was right when he said there are some things so stupid only an intellectual can believe them.
Ronald Radosh is professor emeritus of history at CUNY and a Hudson Institute adjunct fellow.’

It would be easiest done to ignore this nonsense, were it not for the fact that Orwell is always constructed in a particular way. Even in acknowledging his socialism, commentators look to Orwell to provide a guarantee of liberalism, of the legitimacy of the West, and of the separation of the political and economic. Socialism is taken to be a piece of detail about Orwell’s life as irrelevant as someone’s support for a particular football team. Yet there is nothing in Orwell to guarantee this position. Indeed there is nothing in Orwell to guarantee any position, for his opinions wandered — as did those of many — fairly widely in the chaotic period of the late 1930s, World War II and the aftermath. What we can say, however, is that the side of Orwell that has been most comprehensively buried is that he was not merely a socialist, and not merely a democratic Socialist, but a revolutionary socialist, and remained one to the end. It is the side of Orwell that mainstream and right-wing invokers have to bury in order to use Orwell as a patron — most recently of the apparent right of the US and its allies to make war on any third-world state as it sees fit.

‘Some things are true, even though the Daily Telegraph says they are true,’ Orwell wrote of the British Tory newspaper’s reporting of the Spanish Civil War. (It works for the local version too.) The quote serves for much of Orwell’s reputation. He is returned to as a teacher and exemplar because, while he got more wrong than most are willing to admit, he got all the big things right. A scholarship boy at Eton, he perversely chose colonial service — the Burma Imperial Police — and quit, eventually, when he ‘realised the empire was largely a racket’. He went to the other extreme and tried to become a novelist in Paris, in the traditional bohemian manner. Poverty touched him, but he also sought it out, there and in England. Fairly rapidly his adventurous streak seems to have transmuted into a radical political outlook and to a literary style that derived from those values — plain and exact without being neutral. Orwell was not the only writer to actually fight in Spain — he paid tribute to the communist poet John Cornford who was killed in the war — but he was one of the few of the London literary crowd not to take the option of ambulance driving, or simple journalism. Shot through the neck and only just avoiding arrest after the government suppression of non-Communist militias, he opposed a European conflict right up to the moment of its declaration, when he swung behind it and argued for waging total and uncompromising war.

By this time he had not only created a distinctive literary persona, he had also re-invented himself as a certain type of character. Malcolm Muggeridge — if anything an even more unsparing, even cynical, observer of the era — mocked, first fondly and then less so, Orwell’s adventures as a tramp, or as a hop picker. Cyril Connolly noted that, when at a pub, Orwell would insist on drinking pints rather than halves because that was how workers drank — not realising that the preference changed from district to district and even from pub to pub.

Nor was his political judgement infallible — especially in the time between the end of the Spanish war and the German invasion of Poland. For that period Orwell was practically a Trotskyist in his international outlook, believing that the coming war was a higher stage of imperialism and that the Left should do all in its power to try and hold it off. This position, though more principled than the peregrinations of the Communist party in the era of the Nazi–Soviet pact, was obtuse to the situation of the time. Orwellphiles have attempted to grant him retrospectively an attitude to the war that at the time was held only by Churchill — that Nazism represented a unique evil that could not be dealt with by existing political categories. Moreover, Orwell’s writings in the midst of war often blasted other leftists for holding the same position. In a verse exchange with the pacifist-anarchist poet Alex Comfort (later the author of The Joy of Sex) Orwell characterised the pacifist Left thus:

Pretend the war began in ’39
Don’t mention China, Ethiopia, Spain
… in short pretend the war is
Simply a racket got up by the Tories.
(2138)(All numerical references are to item numbers in the twenty-volume collected works.)

It seems fair to say that some of the energy and aggressiveness of his writings during the war came not only from the outer circumstances, but also from inner compulsion. Orwell’s father had been in the Indian colonial police as an Opium Officer (his official rank) and thus part of the force charged with the smooth running of the largest drug-pushing operation in history, the British opium trade to China. Orwell had no need, after Eton, to go into a similar line. Indeed, given the lowering esteem in which imperial service was held by the 1920s, joining the Burma police was a gesture both of homage and defiance of the hopes of his parents. There is a touch of Boys Own about the venture, as there is a touch of package bohemianism about his paris adventure.

In each incarnation Orwell strove for an identity he did not have and fell short of it — but in each case the falling-short produced the original perspective. ‘Shooting an Elephant’ and ‘A Hanging’ both capture the inherent racism of imperialism, but the former essay also captures its strange, twilit, pantomimic existence at a time when its pretence of being a moral and civilising mission could not be sustained, yet nor could Britain relinquish the economic power the colonies guaranteed. Down and Out in Paris and London was the opposite to the psychologistic, character-driven novels typical of the lost generation lodged in Paris — the concern with the concrete details of poverty, and the material conditions which made ‘Paris’ possible more or less effaces the narrator entirely. The Road to Wigan Pier is, as many have charged, a partial representation of Northern mining communities — Orwell’s portrayal of his lodgings (allegedly carefully selected for their filth), with the cockroaches beneath the furniture and the immensly fat, sofa-bound, landlady wiping her mouth with strips of newspaper, is more expressionist than realist, a word picture equivalent of a George Grosz drawing. Yet it sets the stage for one of the most well-known moments of all his works:

The train bore me away, through the monstrous scenery of slag-heaps, chimneys, piled scrap-iron, foul canals, paths of cindery mud criss-crossed by the prints of clogs. This was March, but the weather had been horribly cold and everywhere there were mounds of blackened snow. As we moved slowly through the outskirts of the town we passed row after row of little grey slum houses running at right angles to the embankment. At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her — her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that ‘It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us’, and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her — understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.

It is another Orwellism that has attracted much criticism, yet it is hard to see how it is less than totally honest. Orwell never disguises the inequality of the moment — he is on a train back to London and the literary life, the woman is stuck in a backstreet of Wigan — and it is this asymmetry that gives full force to the moment of recognition. Its piercing power comes from the fact that he does not disguise his own position — as someone coming out of a set of middle-class political prejudices. Socialism is humanism: the universal and identical needs of human beings in a modern society for a meaningful life, and the immense denial and wastage of that by capitalism.

None of these positions or values were abandoned by Orwell in the compromises demanded by World War II, or in the intensified struggle with Stalinism. Yet it has been elided, largely due to the way in which World War II has been reconstructed in historical memory as a crusade against the Holocaust. Time and again Orwell is portrayed as someone who rediscovered a simple patriotism when the war began, but this is a massive distortion by omission.

For Orwell, the war necessarily had to be a revolutionary one, and the Left had to both take part in the defence of Britain and simultaneously achieve a transformation of the power structure. Indeed, for the first two years of the war, Orwell believed that Britain could not win without a revolution: that the high officers of the Conservative Party, the leaders of business and the aristocratic establishment, were so stupid (he repeatedly referred, as a gold standard of asininity, to Tory politicians cheering when news that Mussolini’s planes had bombed British ships bringing aid to the Spanish republican government) that only a revolutionary government would have the determination to win the war.

Soon I think we will see Red Guards billeted in the Ritz and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Churchill leading them.
(Diary, 1940)

In 1940, in the weeks post-Dunkirk, he took part in an ‘arm the people’ movement which argued that the government should distribute a massive supply of cheap arms — Sten guns and grenades — to every adult in the population. With other Spanish war veterans he attempted an entryist takeover of the newly formed Home Guard, which they hoped to turn into a guerrilla force which could carry on once the invasion had occurred. Orwell suspected, rightly, that it was precisely because the government feared a popular revolt that no arms were distributed and people such as Orwell were excluded from the forces.

Orwell was frustrated by the failure of large sections of the Left to seize the opportunity of active participation in the war. The British Communist party was actively defeatist until the German invasion of the USSR, and the more free-wheeling bohemian-left circles in which Orwell moved espoused a variety of pacifist, Ghandian and quietist positions. Yet elsewhere he acknowledged the points that some on the Left were making — that it was close to farcical to fight a war on the theme of democracy whilst pressing into its service the subject peoples of the British empire.

Once again the full complexity of this debate has been lost, due to a widespread revisionism concerning imperial history. Whilst earlier histories of the empire have judged it excessively with twenty–twenty moral hindsight, the work of recent historians such as Niall Ferguson and David Cannadine have swung to the other extreme, seeing it once more in nineteenth century terms as a civilising mission and marginalising its cultural destructiveness, racial humiliation and economic exploitation. Such historians are bound to emerge at a time when a new imperial vision needs legitimation and it is all the more ironic that Orwell is pressed into their service. In fact much of Orwell’s free writing in 1941 and 1942, in the form of book reviews, was given over to pointing out that the question of the empire — and above all India — was crucial to making the war a just one, and that an immediate formal declaration of India’s independence was both morally and strategically necessary.

It is therefore the grossest intellectual dishonesty to use the arguments that Orwell marshalled in a debate about whether one should fight for the survival of one’s people, to defend unilateral attacks on countries half a world away. That is not to say that Orwell would have necessarily been against the invasion of Iraq — merely to say that to present his writings as unequivocal argument in favour of such adventures can only be done successfully by ignoring most of what he said and did. This is particularly true of his attitude to parliamentary democracy, revolution and the USSR, where the greatest distortions take place. Orwell’s anti-Stalinism (or anti-Leninism to be more exact) is often presented as an abandonment of commitment to revolution or even as a post-political pessimism. In part this is due to the fact that 1984’s pessimistic message — which is intended as a satirical jolt to the system — has survived in the public imagination, while the optimistic and more immediate journalist output that surrounded it has not. At other times Orwell’s repeated commitment to ‘democratic Socialism’ has been taken as an endorsement of the parliamentary path of the British Labour Party.

Orwell undoubtably supported Labour, but always as the beginning of an answer to the social question, rather than its endpoint. It is inevitable that opinion hacks in the stables of Murdoch or Conrad Black would present Orwell as a supporter of the status quo, but it is clear from his writings that he believed the idea of ‘capitalist democracy’ to be ultimately oxymoronic (though by no means equivalent to totalitarianism). In his 1944 review of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom he notes:

Professor Hayek is also probably right in saying that in this country the intellectuals are more totalitarian-minded than the common people. But he does not see or will not admit that a return to ‘free’ competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible than that of the State. (2451).

Essentially Orwell’s economic analysis, and much of his political analysis, were Marxist. This is rarely recognised, because he often attacked the beliefs of ‘Marxists’. Yet what he was overwhelmingly criticising, above and beyond the political acts of Stalinism, was the narrow and inflexible doctrines of Second International Marxism — the strict reduction of ideology and superstructure to base economic explanations. In his writings on nationalism he assailed Marxism for its failure to recognise love of country as something more than mere duping by a jingo press, yet in his writings on subjects as diverse as Boys’ Weekly comics, seaside postcards and PG Wodehouse he was groping towards a materialist theory of culture not dissimilar to that of Gramsci. Indeed in one 1941 article written for the Left Book Club’s Left News — the omission of which from the 1968 four volume Collected Journalism has substantially distorted our political view of Orwell — he describes his political project as ‘communist’:

It is not claimed by Socialists that the change-over to a collectivist economy will make human life happier, easier or even freer immediately. On the contrary, the transition may make life very nearly unbearable for a long period, perhaps for hundreds of years. There is a certain goal we have got to reach — cannot help reaching, ultimately — and the way to it may lead through some dreadful places. What socialists of, I should say, nearly all schools believe is that the destiny and therefore the true happiness of man lies in a society of pure communism that is to say a society in which all human beings are more or less equal, in which economic motives have ceased to operate, in which men are governed by love and curiosity and not by greed and fear. This is our destiny and there is no escaping it; but how we reach it and how soon depends on ourselves. Socialism — centralised ownership of the means of production plus political democracy — is the necessary next step towards communism, just as capitalism was the necessary next step after feudalism. It is not in itself the final objective and I think we ought to guard against assuming that as a system to live under it will be greatly preferable to democratic capitalism. (782)

This passage (written at the same time as Orwell was formulating some of the images of totalitarianism that would appear in 1984) is not merely Marxist–Leninist, it skirts close to Stalinism — save for the genuinely whacky idea that people would put up with this state of affairs in a politically democratic context. It is scarcely the sort of idea of socialism one would want to hold on to. But it is important as a testament to the fact that Orwell’s politics were elsewhere and more idiosyncratic than contemporary writers purport to find them.

This is equally the case with his view of violence and revolution. Orwell was no Fanon or Sorel — he did not believe that violence had a cleansing or liberating aspect to it, per se. But nor did the mere presence of parliamentary institutions in Western societies remove, for him, the very present possibility that a revolution would have to be a violent one:

It is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free. Revolution does not mean red flags and street fighting, it means a fundamental shift of power. Whether it happens with or without bloodshed is largely an accident of time and place. (The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, 763).

This foregrounding of violent revolution — there are a dozen other examples — is increasingly attributed to a propensity within Orwell for violence, even a sadistic streak. There is some truth in this. In the early days of the war he noted in his diary ‘Hitler is rumoured to be coming to Versailles. Why not mine the place and blow it up while he is there?’ This gives the unmistakeable impression that he would get equal satisfaction from the destruction of Versailles and of Hitler. But while, as I suggested earlier, much of his originality derived from inner conflict, it would be a mistake to over-extend this. That it is done is a way of dealing with the anomalies in Orwell’s writings which would prevent him from being taken as the patron saint of Murdoch-era ‘democracy’. This, for example, from his exchange with Alex Comfort:

But you don’t hoot at Stalin — that’s not done
Only at Churchill; I’ve no wish to praise him
I’d gladly shoot him once the war is won
Or now if there was someone to replace him.

The passage can seem confusing, and not only because Orwell and Churchill are now taken to be virtually identical anti-totalitarian visionaries. History has elided Churchill’s violent racism — brutal and remarkable even for the era — which had him comparing the machine-gunning of Sudanese people to a luncheon party, and delighting in the experimental use of mustard gas on (who else) Iraqi arabs. The support that Orwell urged the Left to give him was always provisional and as the passage shows — there seems no reason to read it other than literally — always contemplating a coming revolutionary clash in which a certain measure of ruthlessness would be required. In a review of a novel about the Paris commune he notes:

Although the Commune did kill a certain number of people and was led by ruthless men who were ready for terrorism and political espionage, it seems if anything to have erred on the side of mildness. It failed to sequestrate the Bank of France and never made proper use of its hostages. (774.)

In other words, if I am reading the phrase ‘proper use of’ correctly, it did not threaten to kill, or kill, enough of them. Such passages never appear in the writings of Orwell’s conservative American and Australian fans — indeed they would be sufficient, in the post 9.11 climate, to land him in indefinite and virtually incommunicado detention now mandated to ASIO.

This obscured Orwell — Orwell the revolutionary — flows naturally into Orwell’s complex relationship to the USSR, which has been subjected to a process of genuine doublethink. Orwell was a genuine critic of fellow-travellers who simply dealt with any adverse news about the USSR by a process of mental denial. But he was not, as he is often portrayed, a ‘Third-wayer’ (in the genuine sense of that term), still less an anti-communist of the Norman Podhoretz type. His explicit attacks on the USSR were overwhelmingly in private correspondence. As he noted in a 1946 letter to the Duchess of Atholl, he would ‘never join a group’ that criticised the USSR openly without saying anything about British imperialism. ‘I belong to the Left’ and must work behind the scenes.
And still more forthrightly in one of his London Letters, published in the Partisan Review:

I think the USSR is the dynamo of world Socialism as long as people believe in it. I think if the USSR were conquered by some foreign country the working class everywhere would lose heart for the time being at least. I think the fact that the Germans have failed to conquer Russia gives prestige to the idea of socialism. For that reason I wouldn’t want to see the USSR destroyed and think it ought to be defended. But I want people to become disillusioned about it and to realise that they must build their own socialist movement without Russian interference. (2545).

Most importantly it was this strategy of indirect criticism that was partly responsible for his use, in Animal Farm, of the fable form. It was sufficiently clear for any intelligent person to understand, but sufficiently general that it could not be easily enrolled in the anti-communist movement that was starting up in the late 1940s. Even the vicissitudes of its publication are falsely rendered.

It is portrayed as having been silenced by left-wing publishers who would not handle it. In fact it was offered to — and refused — by only one (Gollancz). The majority of refusals were from commercial publishers, or from those who could be associated with the political Right (such as T.S. Eliot at Faber and Faber). Thus are political mythologies made.

It would be the ultimate silliness to re-enter the game of body-snatching George Orwell on behalf of the Left, despite the ample evidence that he was a more radical and revolutionary figure than is often suggested. For every quote noted above, one can find, somewhere in the collected works, a contradictory one. The compass-spinning circumstances of the war, the squalid behaviour of official communism and his own personal conflicts played a part. One even suspects that Orwell’s TB had the same role in some of his rhetoric as Marx’s boils did in his famous irascibility. There are more moments than his fans would suggest when his arguments carried him away. ‘No true revolutionary has ever been an internationalist’ he stated in The Lion and the Unicorn; even granting his point about the Left’s failure to understand nationalism, it is a manifestly false statement. Other judgements mark him as a man bound by a mindset not merely pre-war, but Edwardian — his view of the roles of men and women is often presented as being of its time, but it was actually backward and hypocritical. In thinking about the end of imperialism he argued that India would probably never acquire a genuine freedom, doomed as it was to being a peasant agricultural country — an understanding, or lack thereof, of development that conceded far more to the arguments of imperialists than was necessary. The 1968 four-volume Collected Journalism gave the impression of a writer whose every published word was polished and poised. The Collected Works gives a more accurate picture of the messiness and confusion that political writing entails. The works that survive, survive on their own terms as pieces of writing; yet it is always the most contingent stuff — the heated debates on pacifism, fellow-travelling and the like — that the right ransacks for its use.

If Orwell matters to us as other than the author of two great political satires and a score or so of the best long and short pieces of English non-fiction of the twentieth century, it is as example. It is not only his physical courage in Spain, for example, that deserves attention — the courage of a writer is not worth more than that of the thousands of virtually anonymous volunteers for the Republic; it is the fact that his commitment continued long after it had become clear how the whole thing was playing out. Indeed, his commitment to trying to build civility — beyond the forthrightness of political debate — is sometimes no less than amazing: in a letter from the late 1930s, for example, he recommends to an anthology editor the work of Roy Campbell. Campbell had also been a Spanish civil war volunteer — for Franco. These are virtues that Orwell combined with a commitment not merely to democracy, not merely to socialism, but to revolution. It is as such that he should be remembered, and defended from those who would use him as a weapon for empire, rather than against it.