George Orwell: Facing Up To The Contradictions

THIS MONTH’S centenary of the birth of novelist and political commentator George Orwell (1903-50) has been widely commemorated in the press and media.

Michael Calderbank puts a socialist viewpoint of Orwell’s life and Keith Ellis reviews the book which many socialists see as his best work, Homage to Catalonia.

ERIC ARTHUR Blair, better known under his pseudonym George Orwell, was born in Motihari, India 100 years ago this month, his father being a lower-ranking colonial administrator in the days of the British Raj.

The young Orwell soon returned to England where he would eventually win a scholarship to Eton, before serving for nearly five years in the Indian Imperial Police, where he was mostly stationed in Burma. He became acutely aware of, and dissatisfied with, what he called his “lower-upper-middle class” origins which were so closely tied to a vision of British imperial supremacy.

This class, in recognition of their own relative subservience to the bourgeoisie proper (for whom they performed the mundane task of functionaries, or “shock-absorbers” as Orwell put it), tried to compensate for their dependency through a virulently reactionary nationalism, which allowed them to claim both class and racial superiority.

However, Orwell claims, members of this class are secretly all too well aware of the injustice and flagrant oppression which sustains their position, but are forced to cling onto such precarious privilege with only barely concealed resentment:

“I was serving with a bitterness which I probably cannot make clear… In order to hate imperialism you have to be a part of it.” This experience is dramatised in Burmese Days, which is the first in a series of novels (The Clergyman’s Daughter, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and Coming Up for Air) which are all structured around a similar class predicament, in which the hero is forced to confront his helpless complicity in a system which he deeply resents.

Thus, even when Orwell deserted his post in Burma, he still did not feel that he had ‘escaped’ from a mentality which had shaped his whole class identity.

Exasperated, he pursued a romantic identification with the down-trodden: “I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down amongst the oppressed, to become one of them and on their side against the tyrants.”

He does not mean (at this stage) to offer political solidarity with the working class, but rather attempts to disappear amongst the most de-classed and alienated elements of society (tramps, homeless, petty criminals etc.), as documented in Down and Out in Paris and London.

By contrast, the organised working-class were still a completely unknown quantity for Orwell. Tellingly, given Orwell’s background, familiarity with far-flung parts of the globe masks a deep-seated fear and ignorance of the lives of workers in England itself.

Middle-class prejudice

ORWELL, (UNLIKE many of the left’s new-found supporters amongst writers and intellectuals in the 1930’s), at least recognises how politically disabling this situation is for any socialist politics worthy of the name.

Therefore, he honestly confronts the visceral class-prejudice and disgust with which he had been instilled, prejudices which other middle-class ‘lefts’ may have had but refused to face.

His description of a visit to stay with workers in Northern industrial towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire, The Road to Wigan Pier, is like an adventure into a strange and exotic world of the unknown where the intrepid Orwell braves his fears of the horrors contained within “labyrin-thine slums and dark back kitchens with sickly, ageing people creeping round them like black beetles”.

The masochistic attempt to familiarise himself with a world that obviously felt so alien, at least allows Orwell to express his more extreme sense of discomfort, but he is forced to admit that though he can be admitted “in to” such communities, he will never be “of” them.

Perhaps it is this frustration which he vents, with much justification, at the Fabians and other fellow-travelling middle classes: bearded sandal-wearers, for whom Socialism is an edifying pursuit like yoga or health food.

Similarly, he is sharply critical of sectarian professors who apply ‘Marxist’ theory in a way that is so abstract as to bear no relation to the lives of workers. But, perhaps as a consequence of his isolated position as a professional writer, Orwell could not yet go beyond attacking such glaring hypocrisy, and directly identify with the struggles of the class.

This impasse would only be broken by tumultuous historical events: the defence of the Spanish Revolution from the fascist forces amassing under Franco was a task so urgent as to require immediate assistance from lefts across Europe.

This was a time for action, and Orwell was willing to throw himself into fighting in defence of the Spanish workers. As part of the Independent Labour Party delegation, Orwell did not join the International Brigade (under Communist leadership), but instead fought alongside the POUM militia.

In Homage to Catalonia, probably his greatest achievement, he gives a vivid depiction of meeting a fellow recruit, an Italian, and how, despite the fact that they did not share a language, they could still feel a tremendous bond of solidarity and comradeship.

He conveys, too, the sense of excitement of seeing Barcelona under de facto workers control, and the intensity of the revolutionary spirit which coursed through the city’s streets. Crucially, however, what Orwell goes on to show is the sense of utter betrayal felt at the hands of Stalin.

The Communists, instead of extending the gains of the workers and building the foundations of a socialist society, deliberately set out to sabotage the revolutionary movement by forcing the workers into a Popular Front with their mortal enemy, the capitalist class, in the name of the fight against fascism.

But far from repelling Franco, the Communists help to liquidate the most militant elements of the working class, and thus helped prepare the ground for the counter-revolution.

What is most important about Homage to Catalonia is not that it analyses events with theoretical clarity (as, for example, does Felix Morrow’s Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain) or even in literary quality, but in the integrity of Orwell’s testimony, which gives the lie to all the Stalinist falsifiers who would re-write the history of the tremendous workers’ struggle and its outright betrayal.

“Third Way”

THIS DOES not mean, though, that we can go as far as some commentators and call Orwell “a literary Trotskyist”. Even his mature politics were never based upon a Marxist understanding of society, but rather on an appeal to an ‘ordinary’ English sense of decency and common sense.

Ultimately, this empiricism is based upon a rejection of dialectics: for Orwell the working class is a historical constant, a reservoir of practical know-how and ‘down-to-earth’ honesty, not a complex, layered phenomenon subject to uneven historical development. This empiricism led him to tread an uneven political path: at best, trying to find an impossible Centrist “third way” between revolutionary socialism and timid reformism.

Debates in the Left

After returning from Spain Orwell, now no longer in the midst of concrete political struggles, was cut adrift in the pages of Tribune and Partisan Review. Here, like others, he gave rein to wild speculation about the emergence of some kind of bureaucratic, administered society which was neither capitalist nor socialist.

If this gloomy mood of disillusionment and conjecture produced some memorable literature (Animal Farm and 1984) it also opened the door to the posthumous construction of Orwell as a Cold War anti-communist: the straight-talking ‘honest Joe’ who showed that capitalist liberal democracies, though flawed, were better than dangerous socialist pipe-dreams.

This interpretation is a travesty of a writer who once noted: “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.”

That is to say, Orwell was responding to debates within the left, about how to keep the idea of a genuine socialist transformation alive. To keep Orwell’s work alive for that project, we ought not to idealise him as a spokesman for “our” side, but to face up to the contradictions in the man, the work, and the history through which he lived.