The Orwell We Never Knew
by Lee Wengraf
International Socialist Review,
Big brother, double-think, thought police:
George Orwell's 1984-his bleak portrait of a futuristic, totalitarian
society-is as powerful today as ever. Though it has often been
used as a cautionary tale about the terrors of socialism, its
portrayal of government deception, Iying and thought-control has
a familiar ring in today's post 9-1 1 world. His Animal Farm and
1984 are among the best-selling political novels of all time.
Orwell's writing has come to epitomize
lessons taught in schools everywhere: Resistance is impossible,
and Orwell's Big Brother-the Soviet Union-is the unavoidable result
of fighting for a better society. Reagan-era Cold Warriors and
the U.S. education system have continually lifted up Orwell's
writings to proclaim the socialist vision dead and buried. Ex-Trotskyist,
now neoconservative, Norman Podhoretz, writing on the eve of the
year 1984, claimed Orwell as a "guiding spirit" for
his Committee for the Free World by exclaiming, "If Orwell
were alive today, he would be taking his stand with the neoconservatives
and against the left."' Podhoretz is not the only former
leftist to use what's seen as Orwell's shift to the right as a
cover for their own conservatism, such as Nation columnist and
writer Christopher Hitchens, who embraces Orwell to cover his
own rightward drift.
But George Orwell had a different vision
than these conservatives, and for that, his life and works have
something to offer the left today. Orwell became a self-described
socialist as a result of lessons learned early in life. His service
as a colonial policeman in Burma turned him into a fierce anti-imperialist
with a commitment to exposing oppression and championing the rights
of the working class. But Orwell was also a controversial and
contradictory writer who took diverse-sometimes courageous-positions
over the course of his life that have left his work open to interpretation.
He moved from firm anti-imperialist and working class politics
to become a supporter of the British Labor Party and a critic
of the left by the end of his life, including an almost obsessive
focus on Stalinism. He also became a defender of the Second World
War and a self-described "patriot."
Some on the left today have gone to the
other extreme, claiming that Orwell's case for workers' power
runs strong throughout his books, right down to 1984.3 The controversies
surrounding his life stem from the fact that Orwell was very much
a product of defeat and his own political isolation. His life
was punctuated by Stalinism, the rise of fascism in Europe, nuclear
threat and Cold War. Economic depression and working-class defeat
made their marks on Orwell's political writings, which contain
a tone of deep pessimism. As British socialist John Molyneux describes,
Orwell did not become a militant in and
of the working class movement, nor did he adopt the world outlook
of the workers' movement, i.e., Marxism. Rather he adopted the
role of the self-conscious outsider who, while investigating the
conditions of the workers and the poor (and sympathizing with
them), would retain his individual independence and detachment.
In the process he never lost his skepticism about the political
capacities of the working class.
Yet Orwell left us with one of the most
inspired accounts of workers' struggle ever written in his book
Homage to Catalonia. Moreover, despite his experiences of working-class
defeat, he held tight to a vision of an egalitarian society, and
his entire life's work reflects his efforts to see a third path,
an alternative to Soviet so-called socialism and the brutality
of capitalism. That is why, despite the right-wing uses of his
books, Orwell can be "claimed" more by the left than
Orwell becomes a socialist
Born in 1903 in India as Eric Arthur Blair
to the family of mid-level colonial administrators, Orwell started
down the same road as his family, signing up as a policeman in
Burma right out of school. His position and experiences in Burma
had a huge impact on him, and he had no illusions what purpose
he had there. He writes: "I was in the police, which is to
say that I was part of the actual machinery of despotism."
His earliest writings took sharp aim at
the hypocrisy of the British Empire and those who upheld it under
a banner of freedom and enlightenment. "How can you make
out that we are in this country for any purpose except to steal?"
his main character, Flory, declares in Burmese Days (1934).
It's so simple. The official holds the
Burman down while the businessman goes through his pockets. Do
you suppose my firm, for instance could get its timber contracts
if the country weren't in the hands of the British?... The British
Empire is simply a device for giving trade monopolies to the English.
Disgusted, Orwell returned to Europe and
threw himself into a poverty-stricken existence, living with the
homeless, working low-wage jobs and struggling to become a writer.
It was also then that he adopted the pen-name George Orwell. These
experiences produced Down and Out in Paris and London (1933),
a book that brilliantly captured the living conditions of the
poor with a devastating indictment of the rich and their willingness
to push an entire population into the poorhouse. "Why do
tramps exist at all?" asked Orwell. "Few people know
that a tramp takes to the road not because he likes it, but because
there happens to be a law compelling him to do so." And later:
"Salvation Army shelters, though clean, are far drearier
than the worst lodging houses. There is such hopelessness there."
Orwell lived as a tramp himself and writes about his friends such
as Paddy, "capable of sharing his last crust with a friend....
But the man had been broken by unemployment, homelessness and
poverty, by two years of bread and margarine. It was malnutrition
and not any native vice that had destroyed his manhood."
The rich, wrote Orwell, keep workers in
lifelong drudgery as they see the poor as "such low animals
that they would be dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer
to keep them too busy to think." Although he never became
a Marxist, Orwell gave Marx considerable credit for his insights
into the workings of a system built on profit. He wrote, "
Where your treasure is, there will your
heart be also".... It was Marx who brought it to life. And
ever since he did so the motives of politicians, priests, judges,
moralists and millionaires have been under the deepest suspicion-which,
of course, is why they hate him so much."
Orwell went on to write his famous account
of miners in northern England during the economic downturn of
the mid1930s, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). Orwell described
the intolerable conditions of coal miners working underground,
whose lives were destroyed by an accident rate equivalent to a
"In every mining family," he
writes, "they tell you tales of fathers, brothers or uncles
killed at work. ('And he fell 700 feet, and they wouldn't never
have collected t'pieces only he was wearing a new suit of oilskins,'
etc., etc.).... The place is like hell, heat, noise, confusion,
darkness, foul air, and above all unbearably cramped space."
Whole communities were thrust into permanent
unemployment while the wealthy mine owners squeezed every penny
they could through low wages and meager pensions. A famous passage
in The Road to Wigan Pier describes a blind retiree cut back to
half a pension:
Here was a man who had been half-blinded
in one of the most useful of all jobs and drawing a pension to
which he had a perfect right... Yet he could nor...demand this
pension.... He had to go to the colliery once a week at a time
named by the company, and when he got there he was kept waiting
about four hours in the cold wind. For al H know he was expected
to touch his cap and show gratitude to whoever paid him.
Socialism is urgently needed, he concluded
in Wigan Pier, either a "a socialist party" had to be
formed in Britain or "fascism is coming."
But Orwell was pessimistic about the power
of workers to organize. He is merciless in his contempt for the
company owners who destroy the lives of miners who, as Orwell
describes, produce the backbone of England's wealth. But Orwell
believed workers accepted their own oppression when the bosses
threw them on the trash heap, writing,
The tragic thing is that these opinions
percolate to the workers themselves. When I first saw unemployed
men at close quarters, what horrified me was that many were ashamed
of unemployment. I was very ignorant, but not so ignorant as to
imagine that when the loss of foreign markets pushed two million
men out of work, those two million are not any more at fault than
people ruined in an earthquake.
And later: "As for...Marxism...I
have never yet met a working man who had the faintest interest
in it.... I have yet to meet a working miner, steelworker, cotton
weaver, docker, navy or what not who was ideologically sound."
Orwell paints a harrowing picture of what workers face, but isn't
sure they can arm themselves against it.
Orwell and the Spanish Civil War
Orwell's best contribution to the revolutionary
tradition is his firsthand account of fighting fascism in the
Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia (1938). After the victory
of Spanish workers in the Revolution of 1936, Orwell joined thousands
of others in defending it from General Franco's fascist counterrevolution.
His description of revolutionary Barcelona when he arrived in
Spain in January 1937 is famous. At that time, workers' organizations
were huge, dominated by the anarchist FAI and the anarchist-led
union federation, the CNT. Orwell eventually joined a militia
at the front tied to the POUM, a left-wing organization influenced
by Trotskyism, which had 70,000 members. Arriving in Barcelona,
Orwell described the city under workers' control:
Practically every building of any size
had been seized by the workers and draped with red flags or the
red and black flag of the anarchists; every wall was scrawled
with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary
parties.... Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying it had
been collectivized. Waiters treated you as an equal. Servile speech
had disappeared.... In outward appearances it was a town in which
the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist.
All this was queer and moving. There was
much I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it,
but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting
The ordinary class-division of society
had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the
money-tainted air of England.
Orwell became convinced liberation and
equality were possible in the midst of a massive upsurge in struggle,
in which, as he says, the Spanish working class was in the "saddle."
"I have seen wonderful things," he writes, "and
at last really believe in socialism." In the early days of
revolutionary Spain, Orwell thought he saw a glimpse of real socialism:
Socialism means a classless society, or
it means nothing at all. And it was here that those few months
in the militia were valuable to me. For the Spanish militias,
while they lasted, were a sort of microcosm of a classless society.
In that community where no one was on the make, where there was
a shortage of everything but no privilege and no bootlicking,
one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages
of socialism might be like. And, after all, instead of disillusioning
me it deeply attracted me. The effect was to make my desire to
see socialism established much more actual than it had been before.
But as Homage to Catalonia describes,
the potential for revolution in Spain was betrayed by the communist
dominated government and Popular Army. The government, directed
by the Soviet Union, saw workers' upheaval as a greater threat
than fascism. Orwell became convinced that the Communist Party
strategy meant destroying the gains of the revolution and that
the slogan, "the war first, the revolution afterwards, was
eye-wash.... The PSUC [communists] worked not to postpone the
Spanish Revolution but to make sure it never happened. This became
obvious as power was twisted out of working-class hands and as
revolutionaries were flung into jail."
On May 3, 1937, Assault Guards dominated
by Communist Party officials tried to take back the worker-controlled
Barcelona Telephone Exchange. Workers flooded into the streets
to join the fight. As Orwell describes,
It is probable that the emotion that brought
people into the streets was [that] the issue seemed dear enough:
On one side the CNT, on the other, the police. I have no particular
love for the idealized 'worker,' but when I see an actual flesh-and
blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman,
I do not have to ask which side I am on.
Backed by the pressures of Soviet policy,
with Britain and France clamoring to put down revolution in Spain,
the Spanish Popular Front brutally suppressed the workers' movement
and arrested, tortured and killed some of its leaders before falling
to the fascists.
The betrayal of the Spanish Revolution
by the Communist Party, and the Hitler-Stalin Pact, signed in
1939, cemented Orwell's bitter disgust with Stalinism. Adding
to his fury was his treatment at the hands of the communist dominated
left in Britain upon his return. Much of the left dismissed those
who denounced the repression by communists in Spain as "Trotsky-Fascists"
or "agents of Franco." Orwell was outraged at the wholesale
attack on thousands of workers who had fought fascism and been
injured, like himself-he was shot in the neck and nearly died-or
even killed. He was barely able to find a publisher for Homage
to Catalonia, and was cut off from the Stalinist-dominated left
On the home front: "Revolutionary
Orwell got a job as a wartime correspondent
for the BBC, despite having published Homage to Catalonia, which
at the time passed practically unnoticed. At the BBC, he was pressured
into toning down criticisms of fascism and forced to voice support
for Britain's Soviet ally on the airwaves, even while much of
his writing attacked totalitarianism in Russia. He also denounced
the hypocrisy of the British media and politicians whom he was
willing to label as war criminals along with the Germans during
the Second World War. As he wrote in his column in the Tribune,
a left-leaning newspaper tied to the British Labor Party,
I do object to the hypocrisy of accepting
force as an instrument while squealing against this or that individual
weapon, or of denouncing war while wanting to preserve the kind
of society that makes war inevitable. ln a number of 'little wars'
from about 1920 onwards the RAF [Royal Air Force] has dropped
its bombs on Afghans, Indians and Arabs who had little or no power
of hitting back.
A world in which it is wrong to murder
an individual civilian and right to drop a thousand tons of high
explosive on a residential area does sometimes make me wonder
whether this earth of ours is not a loony bin made use of by some
He also urged the building of socialism,
seeing the end of capitalism as the only solution to the economic
misery facing Britain and the threat of fascism from Europe. Although
he was never active in a socialist organization, he joined the
International Labor Party in 1938, declaring, "The only regime
which, in the long run, will dare to permit freedom of speech
is a socialist regime." His blueprint for socialism included
the immediate appropriation of factories and other means of production,
collectivized planning of the economy and confiscation of all
land from the rich. He loudly denounced those who feared "that
hated, dreaded thing, a world of free and equal human beings."
Initially, he held a firm antiwar position,
saying he saw no reason to defend the British and French empires
because they were "in essence nothing but mechanisms for
exploiting colored labor. How can we 'fight fascism' except by
bolstering up a far vaster injustice?... What we always forget
is that the overwhelming bulk of the British proletariat does
not live in Britain, but in Asia and Africa."
Unfortunately, he later made an about-face;
he became a self-described "revolutionary patriot,"
arguing that British capitalism was the lesser of two evils, but
that only socialism could defeat Hitler. Orwell's problem was
that he insisted English socialism would have to be built on patriotism.
Economic crisis led him to believe that revolution was around
the corner. Yet since it was revolutionary patriotism that he
championed, he defended "the impulse to defend one's country
and to make it a place worth living in." He urged people
to join the British Home Guard, and called pacifist groups "pro-Hitler
organizations." When workers' revolution did not materialize
by the end of the war, Orwell sunk into despair, writing in the
American Partisan Review, "I wanted to think that the class
distinctions and imperialist exploitation of which I am ashamed
would not return."
Orwell had come to see working-class defeats
since the Russian Revolution partly the fault of the working class
itself and-he is partly right here-the lack of genuine internationalism.
Time after time, in country after country,
the organized working-class movements have been crushed by open,
illegal violence, and their comrades abroad, linked to them in
theoretical solidarity, have simply looked on and done nothing....
Who can believe in the class-conscious international proletariat
after the events of the past 10 years? To the British working
class after the massacre of their comrades in Vienna, Berlin,
Madrid or wherever it might be, they seemed less interesting and
less important than yesterday's football match.
Meanwhile, Orwell wrote steadily against
totalitarianism. He was one of the earliest and bravest anti-Stalinist
writers. "Destroying the Soviet myth" was key before
genuine socialism could be built, and this idea was the driving
force behind virtually everything Orwell wrote in the last decade
of his life. Orwell was almost fixated on the impact communism
had on the left intellectuals of the day and thoroughly believed
they were particularly susceptible to totalitarianism, evidenced
by their blind support for the Stalinist Soviet Union.
Animal Farm and 1984: Failed revolutions
It was in this context-discontent with
the left and the working class and outrage with totalitarianism-that
Orwell wrote Animal Farm and 1984. But 1984 in particular is as
much about the horrors of British capitalism and the nuclear arms
race as it is about Stalin's Russia. As he describes so well in
"Capitalism and Communism: Two Paths to Slavery": "Capitalism
leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets and war. Collectivism
leads to concentration camps, leader worship and war. There is
no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined
with the freedom of the intellect." And in "The Coming
Age of Superpowers": "More or less with the acquiescence
of all of us, the world is splitting up into the two or three
huge super-states.... And if the world does settle down into this
pattern, it is likely that these vast states will be permanently
at war with one another, though it will not necessarily be a very
intensive or bloody kind of war." This is the backdrop to
his last two major books.
Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949) are
parables of failed revolutions, tragic tales that betray Orwell's
pessimism of the possibility for resistance. The meaning of both
novels has been fiercely debated by both the left and the right.
Orwell finished Animal Farm in 1944 and
he was happiest with the results of that book. It was designed
to be a biting satire of the Russian Revolution and its betrayal,
and "the belief that Russia is a socialist country."
He believed it worked beautifully as a political allegory, and
also as a straightforward fable. And certainly, Animal Farm is
beautifully written, with sympathetic animal characters and wonderful
political symbolism: old Major, the wise pig representing Marx;
Snowball, representing Trotsky; Boxer, the steady, plodding cart-horse
symbolizing the exploited working class. Finally, Napoleon, the
Stalin figure and possibly Lenin, who drives Snowball from Animal
Farm after the revolution, and who ultimately reconciles with
the humans, defeating the revolution and issuing the famous Stalinesque
proclamation, "All animals are equal but some are more equal
than others." Certainly there is much to love in Animal Farm
as a novel.
Orwell also uses Animal Farm to condemn
working-class exploitation. As he says at the beginning of Animal
Farm, the lives of the animals are "miserable, laborious
and short." Major, the old Marx-pig, goes on to say:
We are born, we are given just so much
food as will keep the breath in our bodies, and those of us who
are capable of it are forced to work to the last atom of our strength;
and the very instant that our usefulness has come to an end we
are slaughtered with hideous cruelty. No animal in England is
free. Is this simply a part of the order of nature? Is it because
this land of ours is so poor that it cannot afford a decent life
to those who dwell upon it? No, comrades, a thousand times no!
The animals of Animal Farm wage a successful
revolution from below against the humans in the "Battle of
the Cowshed." But a group of pigs led by Napoleon ultimately
destroy the egalitarianism at Animal Farm, putting themselves
in power as a new ruling class and returning the rest to a life
of exploited drudgery. Clearly, Orwell is condemning the rise
of Stalinism. But what of the alternative? And here Orwell has
been criticized by the left for his bleak portrait. On the one
hand, Orwell says that the class system is not the natural order
of things, at the same time, he emphasizes that it is the pigs
who are inherently superior and who inevitably rise to the top
of society. In other words, all revolutions end in tyranny.
By the novel's end, the ruling-class pigs
and the humans have banded together at the top of the new order.
"Animal Farm" is once again "Manor Farm,"
the pigs walk on two legs and have become indistinguishable from
their former human exploiters. In the chilling conclusion, Orwell
describes pigs and humans feasting together, while the other animals
gaze from outside. "Twelve voices were shouting in anger,
and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to
the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to
man, and from man to pig again; but already it was impossible
to say which was which."
Socialists have also raised some interesting
questions about what Orwell seems to be saying about Lenin and
the rise of Stalinism. In fact, Orwell has suggested elsewhere
that Trotsky and Lenin are partly responsible for the rise of
totalitarianism in Russia and that Bolshevism itself contained
elements of authoritarianism. Molyneux, the British socialist,
has written a compelling article with a very close reading of
the plot and characters of Animal Farm, and concludes that Orwell
equates Lenin with Stalin (morphed into the single Napoleon character).
Molyneux argues that Orwell gives no way to understand the reasons
for the revolution's failure except human nature (as opposed to
insufficient material conditions). All this leaves the book with
the reactionary message at the heart of it-that all revolutions
1984 is Orwell's most famous book. The
heart of the debates on Orwell from both right and left revolve
around this work. Whereas the right has grasped hold of it as
a convenient tool to hammer the left about socialism, some on
the left have held it up as a piece of Trotskyist, anti-Stalinist
fiction. Orwell himself intended a powerful warning against totalitarianism
in both Britain and the Soviet Union. The controversies are not
clear-cut, and 1984 is only a partly successful novel.
The lead character in 1984 is Winston
Smith, living in futuristic, totalitarian Oceania, a superpower
alternately at permanent war with the world's other two powers,
Eurasia and Eastasia. Winston lives under the constant surveillance
of Big Brother and the Thought Police, for any word or thought
against the system. He works in the propaganda department, the
Ministry of Truth, rewriting the past. From the Ministry comes
one of the most famous of all Orwellian slogans in which Orwell
brilliantly captures the "doublethink" of totalitarian
mind-control: "War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance
Orwell's description of Winston's questioning
of his condition and his growing resistance to it gives the novel
its power. Winston asks:
How could you tell how much of it was
lies? It might be true that the average human being was better
off now than he had been before the revolution. The only evidence
to the contrary was the mute protest in your own, the instinctive
feeling that the conditions you lived in were intolerable and
that at some other time they must have been different.
In his secret diary, Winston scribbles,
"I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY." But his
courage is growing: He continues, in another famous quote, "Freedom
is the freedom to say two plus two make four. If that is granted,
all else follows "
Winston longs to rebel but feels powerless
until he and his lover, Julia, find the fabled underground resistance,
the Brotherhood. Winston and Julia believe they can evade complete
control. Winston says, "If they could make me stop loving
you, that would be the real betrayal." Julia replies: "That's
the one thing they can't do. They can't get inside you."
But they are wrong. Winston and Julia are set up. They are arrested
and tortured in the infamous Room 101, and are broken in mind
and spirit. Winston, by the book's end, betrays Julia and declares
his love for Big Brother. The portrait Orwell paints of these
horrors is unbelievably compelling.
The element of hope in 1984 that both
Winston and some readers cling to is the "proles," the
working class. His refrain throughout the novel of "if there
is a hope it lies in the proles" is a gesture to resistance.
But Orwell can't really believe that because he slams that door
shut whenever it is opened, showing the proles without class consciousness
or willingness to fight. They stumble along like beer-drinking
animals, or as Orwell describes, ants "which can see small
objects but not large ones." Winston Smith describes a seemingly
insoluble paradox: "Until they become conscious they will
never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become
conscious." This view completely dismisses any idea that
the working class is a force for change. As left-wing literary
critic Paul O'Flinn puts it, "1984 is, sure enough, a warning
about the future but at the same time it seeks to throttle the
only forces that might stop the warning being realized."
The futility of revolt is underlined by the fact that resistance
leader Goldstein, modeled by Orwell on the Russian revolutionary
Leon Trotsky, is revealed to be, along with the whole resistance
movement, a mythical invention of Big Brother. Winston's torture
and defeat are absolute. "Always, at every moment, there
will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an
enemy who is helpless," says Winston's torturer, O'Brien.
"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping
on a human face-forever."
That is not to say that Orwell's warning
was not compelling. It was, and remains, urgent. O'Flinn's description
of Orwell's time, written in the year 1984, could be a description
of our own:
War or the threat of war provides both
atmosphere and the justification for a variety of government strategies-encroachment
on civil liberties, manic surveillance of the population, a climate
of fear and jingoism that makes mild dissent seem gross treachery-strategies
designed to disarm and destroy internal opposition rather than
the external enemy.
But the contradictions in 1984 are too
great to withstand the red-bashing it's been borrowed for since,
or to avoid leaving readers with bleak pessimism. No matter how
unintentioned, Orwell's own contradictions set it in motion. His
publisher even claimed that the book was worth "a cool million
votes to the Conservative Party." Right-wingers have drooled
over the book, with fascists such as Wyndham Lewis describing
it as "a first-rate political document," which "led
the wavering lefties out of the pink mists of Left Land into clear
daylight." Other right-wingers have tried a different strategy
with Orwell, which is to simply edit out all the nasty bits where
he takes a stand against capitalism. For general consumption,
1984 is either written off as politics, not art, or is put on
a pedestal and neatly repackaged for digestion as "literature"
in universities. "Students are being asked," writes
O'Flinn, "to process a highly ideological text through a
set of grinders that mince up its overt politics and reduce the
lot to bland, gray pap which people in even partial possession
of their senses wouldn't swallow if they didn't need the qualifications
which passing [exams] will bring."
The Stalinist left has severely criticized
Orwell, and 1984 in particular. Isaac Deutscher, one of the "fathers
of the New Left," slammed Orwell as a "simple-minded
anarchist," a viciousness explained by the fact that Deutscher
believed the Soviet Union was a workers' state and the invasions
of Eastern Europe were progressive. Others have used Orwell's
supposed rejection of the left to excuse their own retreat from
it, like well-known former Marxists Christopher Hitchens and Raymond
Orwell was dying from tuberculosis when
the controversy surrounding 1984 erupted. He took some steps to
rescue it from the right, declaring, "My recent novel is
NOT intended as an attack on socialism."
The danger lies in the structure imposed
on socialist and liberal capitalist communities by the necessity
to prepare for total war with the USSR and the new weapons, of
which the atom bomb is the most powerful.... But danger lies also
in the totalitarian outlook of intellectuals of all colors. The
moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a
simple one "Don't let it happen. It depends on you.
Even in his best political writing, and
his sharp exposes of aspects of capitalism, Orwell was never sure
whether a real alternative was possible. Whatever Orwell's intentions,
his most famous books undoubtedly reflect these frustrations and
despair. Writing as an isolated intellectual removed from day-to-day
struggle, (with the notable exception of his participation in
the Spanish Civil War), Orwell never regained the hope for workers'
power he experienced while in Spain. Orwell entered the left in
as Trotsky was expelled from the Communist
Party of the Soviet Union, he became a socialist in the same year
of 1937 that the Moscow trials purged the last of the old Bolsheviks;
and he died in 1950, three years before Stalin. In other words,
his career as a socialist writer coincides quite precisely with
a generation of defeat for revolutionary socialism.... Alternative
hopes, the glimmers of future possibilities within that generation
were not things that, during the writing of l984, Orwell was is
Orwell did have some contact with Trotskyists
in Britain and abroad such as Russian revolutionary Victor Serge,
and worked on the American Partisan Review with Trotskyist Dwight
MacDonald whose support of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism
influenced Orwell and 1984. But the antiStalinist left at that
time was too small, and the defeats too severe, leaving Orwell
without a political or organizational framework to anchor his
inspiration and fierce anti-Stalinism from the time of his return
In that context, we can understand where
his politics led him. It also explains, but does not excuse, actions
he committed in his final months of life. Recent documents show
that in 1949 Orwell supplied the names of left-wing writers and
artists to the British Information Research Department, in charge
of producing anti-Communist propaganda. Orwell justified the list
by saying that he named "Soviet sympathizers" who "should
not be trusted" to work for the British government. A list
of over 130 was found in Orwell's papers, and included well-known
figures such as George Bernard Shaw, Charlie Chaplin and John
Steinbeck. Although Orwell spoke out against the early blacklists
faced by the British left, his confusion and demoralization led
him to cooperate with the British state to combat the "Soviet
threat." Until his death Orwell continued to argue that a
socialist Europe was necessary, but increasingly unlikely.
Orwell considered himself both a political
writer and an artist. He was very interested in language, and
wrote sharp, dear novels not only because he believed straightforward
writing was the most effective, but also because he liked the
style best. It is popular among some critics left and right to
dismiss Orwell as a second-rate writer, but part of that is because
Orwell was never willing to separate being an artist from being
political. He said,
What I have most wanted to do throughout
the past 10 years is to make political writing into an art. My
starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of
injustice.... I cannot say with certainty which of my motives
are the strongest but I know which of them deserve to be followed.
And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably
where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books,
sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.
Orwell's brilliance as a writer lies in
his skill at transforming language into art. "Orwell is the
writer most responsible for diffusing the modern view of political
language as an active accomplice of tyranny," went a recent
New York Times commentary. As he wrote in 'Politics and the English
Language,' 'Political language...is designed to make lies sound
truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of
solidity to pure wind."
Orwell's legacy must be seen in light
of his overall efforts and vision, one of inspiring work denouncing
capitalism in all its forms and above all giving voice to one
of the most important workers' revolutions of the 20th century.
His writing was a product of his commitment to equality and an
end to injustice, set against the shadow of Stalinism and war
that loomed over much of life. As one writer says,
What we can say with complete confidence
is that Orwell, with all his faults and weaknesses, was an enemy
of injustice and inequality, that he believed democracy in Britain
was perverted by power and influence of the rich, that he championed
civil liberties, that he opposed the exploitation of 'the so-called
Third World, that he opposed tyranny and was an enemy of the class
system. Moreover he thought it a duty to fight against these evils,
to try and help create a better, never a perfect, but a better
Or as Orwell himself put it,
First I spent five years in an unsuitable
profession (the Indian Imperial Police, in Burma), and then I
underwent poverty and the sense of failure. This increased my
natural hatred of authority and made me for the first time fully
aware of the existence of the working classes, and the job in
Burma had given me some understanding of the nature of imperialism:
but these experiences were not enough to give me an accurate political
orientation. Then came Hitler, the Spanish Civil War, etc....
The Spanish War and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and
thereafter I knew where I stood. 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
Orwell's legacy is our legacy, no matter
how hard the right tries to claim him.
Lee Wengraf is active in the International
Socialist Organization in New York City.