George Orwell: Anything but a saint

On the centenary of Orwell’s birth, Kevin Higgins discussed his controversial legacy in Issue 17 (November 2003).

This year’s centenary of George Orwell’s birth at Motihari in Bengal, India on 25 June 1903 has seen a marked upturn in interest in both his writing and in the man himself. Penguin have republished pretty much everything he ever wrote—both novels and non-fiction—in a series of glossy volumes, which basically add up to a collected works. There have also been two new biographies, both of which have, to varying degrees, tended to try and shift the spotlight away from George Orwell the stubborn teller of inconvenient political and social truths, and onto Eric Blair the man behind the pseudo­nym. There is certainly something to be said for this sort of approach: as someone who has read Orwell’s work voraciously over the years, I know that I certainly relished the opportunity to leaf through the grubby details of his life. But it also has its limitations.

The fact that he visited prostitutes, made throwaway comments insulting gay contemporaries such as W H Auden and didn’t like Scottish people is, of course, on one level all very interesting. On another level though, it is also completely irrelevant, doing nothing to diminish his critiques of capitalism and Stalinism in works such as Homage to Catalonia, The Road to Wigan Pier, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. I once heard someone say that everything Karl Marx had ever written could be dismissed as “rubbish” because he had throughout his life failed to properly provide for his family and (if that wasn’t bad enough) then got his housekeeper Helene Demuth pregnant. If we were to use, for example, the fact that Orwell apparently sometimes paid for sex to try and in any way diminish his achievement as a writer and political thinker, then this is the rather intellect­ually limited road we’d be heading down.

George Orwell was certainly flawed, both as a man and as a writer. When he came back to England in 1927, after a five year stint as a Colonial Policeman in Burma, and decided to ‘become a writer’ he looked like an unpromising wannabe indeed. The poet Ruth Pitter was a neighbour of his at the time:

He wrote so badly. He had to teach himself writing. He was like a cow with a musket.… I remember one story that never saw the light of day… it began “Inside the park, the crocuses were out…” Oh dear, I’m afraid we did laugh, but we knew he was kind, because he was good to our old sick cat.

Like most fledgling writers he started off by writing reams of grandiose garbage. According to Bernard Crick’s 1980 biography, George Orwell: A Life, the worst of this appears to have been a fragment of a play about a couple whose baby is dying because they can’t afford an operation she desperately needs. Despite their desperate need for money Francis, the father, refuses a job writing

advertising copy for “Pereira’s Surefire Lung Balm”… because the firm are swindling crooks, the substance is noxious, and, besides, he’s got his artistic integrity to consider. When his wife reminds him of Baby’s needs, he suggests that for her to prostitute herself would be no worse than the job she wants him to take. Then the scenario turns abruptly from naturalism to expressionism… “Everything goes dark, there is a sound like roaring waters.… the furniture is removed”; and we are in a timeless prison cell, in something like the French Revolution, with poet, poet’s wife and christian who “sits… reading a large book. He has a placard inscribed deaf around his neck.”

If a contemporary version of this early Orwell lived around the corner from me, I have no doubt that I would spend a good deal of time desperately trying to avoid him. I have known such people, and they rarely grow up to produce masterpieces!

The early Orwell’s politics were similarly unfocused and adolescent. Looking back on his earlier self from the vantage point of 1936 he has this to say in The Road to Wigan Pier:

I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed; to be one of them against their tyrants. And, chiefly because I had to think everything out in solitude, I had carried my hatred of oppression to extraordinary lengths. At that time [roughly 1928-1933] failure seemed to me to be the only virtue. Every suspicion of self-advancement, even to the extent of making a few hundreds a year, seemed to me spiritually ugly, a species of bullying.

The early Orwell’s stance could in a sense be read as the oh so predictable, immature rejection of bourgeois society by one of its more privileged members, who almost certainly only had a vague notion of what the word ‘bourgeois’ actually meant, and certainly hadn’t the faintest idea how things might actually be changed. Most such middle-class radicals end up being reabsorbed by the society they once supposedly despised. At best they become concerned journalists or perhaps panellists on The View. At worst they end their days thinking that Eoghan Harris has a point. But Orwell was clearly different. His rebellion was a serious one. It was this failure-worshipping stance that led Orwell to drift down among the tramps and winos of London and Paris. And from this milieu came the material for his first book Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. By now his writing had greatly improved from those early, laughable efforts. The plain documentary prose style for which he became famous was already visible. Orwell was nothing if not persistent. In Ruth Pitter’s words: “he had the gift, he had the courage, he had the persistence to go on in spite of failure, sickness, poverty, and opposition”.

The three years that followed saw him produce a novel each year, Burmese Days (1934), A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). The most significant of these for us is probably Burmese Days, a damning anti-imperialist indictment of British colonial rule in Burma: something Orwell knew from the inside having spent five years working as a policeman for the British regime there. All of these novels deal with issues important to Orwell: repression, snobbery, hypo­crisy, the worship of money and the frustration of artistic ambitions.

My personal favourite is Keep the Aspidistra Flying: his grim but often hilarious portrait of Gordon Comstock, a down-at-heel poet forever beset by financial embarrassment and sexual frustration. Comstock is obsessed with not being ruled by the “Money God”, and so leaves a well-paying job writing slogans for an advertising agency, and gets a badly-paying job in a bookshop. At least that way he has some hope of retaining his integrity. In the end, though, his girlfriend Dorothy becomes pregnant, and Comstock leaves the bohemian life behind; surrendering himself entirely to a future of Money, Marriage and Aspidistra Plants, all the things he previously spat venom at. Orwell’s portrait of Gordon Comstock is perhaps the last we see of his early, unfocussed radicalism. Keep the Aspidistra Flying was published in January 1936. By December of that year the Spanish civil war had broken out, and Orwell was in Barcelona fighting against the forces of General Franco as a member of the POUM militia.

Just after he’d finished Keep the Aspidistra Flying Orwell was commiss­ioned by Victor Gollancz of the Stalinist-leaning Left Book Club to write a book of documentary non-fiction about the condition of the unemployed in the industrial north of England. Gollancz offered him an advance of £500, huge money for the time. This was the coincidence which finally pushed George Orwell to become the overtly political writer we have come to know. Years later his friend, Richard Rees, recalled: “There was such an extraordinary change both in his writing and, in a way also, in his attitude after he’d been to the North and written that book. I mean, it was almost as if there’d been a kind of fire smouldering in him all his life which suddenly broke into flame at that time.”

Of course, events external to Orwell’s day-to-day life played their part too. 1936 was the year when the political and economic crisis of the 1930s really began to seriously gather speed as it hurtled towards disaster and the second world war. In March of that year the German army moved into the previously demilitarised Rhineland: the first serious violation by Hitler of the Versailles Treaty. In May Italy invaded Abyssinia and Mussolini declared that a new Roman Empire had been established. In July General Franco’s forces rose up and tried to overthrow the Republican government in Spain. When they didn’t achieve the easy victory they’d expected, the Civil War began. In October Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts were beaten off the streets by anti-fascists at Cable Street as they tried to march through the predominantly Jewish areas of the East End of London. And in December the abdication of Edward VIII did its bit to heighten the sense of crisis.

When he asked Orwell to write the book that would become The Road to Wigan Pier, Victor Gollancz hoped Orwell would produce a book some­thing like Down and Out in Paris and London, except that this time the focus would be industrial workers (both employed and unemployed) and their families, rather than tramps. What Orwell actually produced was a book of two very distinct halves: the first of which provides us with some of the best portraits to be found of working class life in 1930s England. For the first time Orwell begins to see working class people as human beings fully conscious of their own position at the bottom of society. He recalls watching a young woman trying to unblock a drain with a stick: “I thought how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling in the gutter in a back-alley in Wigan, in the bitter cold, prodding a stick up a blocked drain. At that moment she looked and caught my eye, and her expression was as desolate as I have ever seen; it struck me that she was thinking just the same thing I was.” Elsewhere, though, his view of working class life is just a little sentimental:

In a working-class home—I am not thinking at the moment of the unemployed, but of comparatively prosperous homes—you breath a warm, decent, deeply human atmosphere which is not so easy to find elsewhere.… on winter evenings when the fire glows in the open range and dances mirrored in the steel fender, when Father, in his shirt-sleeves, sits in the rocking chair at one side of the fire reading the racing finals, and Mother sits the other with her sewing, and the children with a pennorth of mint humbugs, and the dog lolls roasting himself on the mat.

The picture Orwell paints of this happy, simple life is so idyllic that it sounds almost like something from a speech by Ronald Reagan or Éamon de Valera. I have to confess that whenever I actually come across people as apparently wholesome as this, I tend to suspect that they either have bodies buried under the patio, or that Father (God bless him) will in the fullness of time be escorted into the back of a police van with a bag over his head, having been caught bouncing the little ones on his knee just a little too vigorously.

The second part of The Road to Wigan Pier is a hilarious, if at times slightly cranky portrayal of the organised left of the time. On his way to attend the Independent Labour Party Summer School at Letchworth, Orwell spots two other likely attenders:

both about sixty, both very short, pink and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple. Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on the top of the bus. The man next to me, a commercial traveller I should say, glanced at me, and then, back at them again, and murmured, ‘Socialists’.

Orwell seems to have enjoyed the company of those working-class activists he met in the North of England. But he quite clearly detested those on the left he saw as middle-class trendies or frauds of any type:

‘Socialism’ calls up, on the one hand, a picture of aeroplanes, tractors and huge glittering factories of glass and concrete; on the other, a picture of vegetarians with wilting beards, of Bolshevik commissars (half gangster, half gramophone), of earnest ladies in sandals, shock-haired Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers. Socialism, at least in this island, does not smell any longer of revolution and the overthrow of tyrants; it smells of crankiness, machine-worship and the stupid cult of Russia. Unless you remove that smell, and very rapidly, Fascism may win.

Despite his scathing portrayal of much of the left, Orwell himself was nevertheless moving sharply to the left politically. In early December he put the finishing touches to The Road to Wigan Pier and made arrangements to travel to Spain, where the civil war was now raging. He arrived in Barcelona on 22 December and was greatly impressed by what he saw:

The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing.… Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flags of the Anarchists… Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivised and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Seňor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ and ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud’ instead of ‘Buenos dias’.

His experience in Spain would lead Orwell to write what is arguably his best book, Homage to Catalonia. But during his time there, Orwell was more than merely another literary tourist: he fought and was shot and badly injured. It was Orwell’s personal experience of the role played by the Stalinists in undermining and ultimately sabotaging this revolution that turned his fairly vague suspicions about ‘the cult of Russia’ into an implacable hostility towards Stalinism, which he retained for the rest of his life. During the Russian-backed crackdown on ‘Trotsky-Fascist Fifth Columnists’ in June 1937 he himself was forced to go on the run, sleeping rough on the streets of Barcelona for several nights, to avoid being rounded up because of his membership of the anti-Stalinist POUM militia. His friend George Kopp was imprisoned and tortured by the Stalinists. The torture with rats of Winston Smith in Room 101 in Nineteen Eighty-Four is apparently partly based on Kopp’s treatment at their hands. And yet despite this tragic outcome Orwell left Spain inspired with an impatient, nagging hope:

For months past we had been telling ourselves that ‘when we get out of Spain’ we would go somewhere beside the Mediterranean and be quiet for a little while and perhaps do a little fishing… It sounds like lunacy but the thing that both of us wanted was to be back in Spain. I have recorded some of the outward events, but I suppose I have failed to convey more than a little of what those months in Spain mean to me.… the mountain dawns stretching away into inconceivable distances, the frosty crackle of bullets, the roar and glare of bombs; the clear cold light of the Barcelona mornings, and the stamp of boots in the barrack yard, back in December when people still believed in the revolution…

I think it is fair to say that Orwell left Spain a convinced revolutionary socialist. Indeed he spent the next couple of years waiting for a revolution, which in the end didn’t come. His next novel Coming Up For Air (1939) is a portrait of George Bowling, “a fat insurance salesman worn down by a loveless marriage, the expense of a family, children who despise him”. Bowling is exactly the sort of beleaguered Mr Average that Orwell thought the left needed to appeal to if it was ever to successfully take power in Britain. The coalminers and the cranks would never be enough. A win on the horses inspires Bowling to leave home one day and try to recapture something of his youth:

Of course, his journey is doomed—the small town [where Bowling grew up] had been engulfed by suburbia and his woodland paradise infested with fruit juice drinking, nudist vegetarians, and Garden City cranks.… Katie, his childhood sweetheart is now a worn-out, middle-aged drab and the secret pool, the symbolic centre of his childhood fantasy, turned into a rubbish dump. The horrors of the mass society have overwhelmed the holy places and Doomsday threatens in the form of Hitler, Stalin and their streamlined battalions.… George returns to his bourgeois prison to face again his nagging wife and unlovable children.

Orwell had clearly moved a long way since the days when he believed that salvation could only be found down among penniless tramps. He was now thinking in concrete terms about how society might actually be changed, and socialism made to appeal to both the working and middle classes.

The two novels that followed before his premature death from TB in 1950 are what transformed him from a medium-sized 1930s figure into a literary superstar, whose books will no doubt still be read two hundred years from now. Animal Farm (1945) is an ingenious Swiftian satire on the Russian Revolution betrayed. Orwell has been accused by some of jumping on the Cold War bandwagon, and of allowing his work to be used by reactionaries and warmongers to attack the socialism which he himself believed in. It’s important to remember, though, that when Orwell was writing and trying to find a publisher for Animal Farm, the second world war was still on, and Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union were still allies. Orwell actually found it incredibly difficult to find a publisher for what was seen at the time as another trouble-making book by him. So the charge of opportunism really doesn’t stick. Later Disney (with a little help from the CIA) purchased the film rights to the book and famously removed the last scene in which the animals peer in the window at the pigs and the humans having dinner together, and cannot see any difference between them. Orwell’s message that the Stalinist bureaucracy (represented by pigs) and the capitalist class (represented by the humans) were as bad as each other was no doubt a little inconvenient for the American cold war propagandists who hijacked his work. The manner in which life-long Soviet apparatchiks such as Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin managed to trans­form themselves into advocates of the gangster capitalism now prevalent in Russia shows that he was of course right: in the last analysis there was very little difference between them and the capitalist class in the west. They would do anything to hang onto their positions, up to and including the complete restoration of capitalism.

His last major work was Nineteen Eighty-Four, a deeply pessimistic portrait of a totalitarian society, resembling those that then existed in eastern Europe. By the time he wrote this book, Orwell had moved away from the near Marxist stance of Homage to Catalonia. His revolutionary moment had passed. And of course world events had moved on too. The second world war was over, and Britain now had a Labour government which Orwell basically supported. It was this Labour government—a government far to the left of that of Tony Blair—which created the National Health Service and the welfare state. By the time Orwell died in 1950, the political situation was completely different to that of 1936, the year he went to fight in Spain. Orwell had an instinctive rather than a theoretical attitude to politics. His contempt for theoreticians—“shock-haired Marxists chewing polysyllables”—led him to spend a lot of time reacting against other people’s ideas rather than coming up with credible ideas of his own.

The worst example of this is his stance in relation to World War II. In September 1938, during the Czechoslovakia crisis, Orwell published a short article in New Leader, the paper of the ILP, in which he stated: “We repudiate… all appeals to the people to support a war which would, in fact, maintain and extend imperialist possessions and interest, whatever the incidental occasion.” At the time the Stalinist parties where promoting the Popular Front policy. ‘Democracy not Fascism’ was the slogan, and they were desperate to build an alliance against Nazi Germany between the Soviet Union and western powers, such as Britain and France. When the war actually came both Orwell and the Stalinists did a complete about-turn. The Hitler-Stalin pact was signed and the Soviet Union stayed out of the war until it was attacked itself in 1941. The Communist Parties attacked the war as ‘imperialist’, just as Orwell had in his New Leader article. Orwell, on the other hand, strongly supported the war effort and vehemently attacked the anti-imperialist, anti-war point of view, which he himself had still supported as late as August 1939. He never properly explained this about-turn. A likely explanation is that, by then, his hatred of the Stalinists was so intense that when he heard them saying one thing, he would, if at all possible, say the opposite.

His hatred of all things Soviet was also his motivation when, on 2 May 1949, he sent a list of suspected Communists and fellow-travellers to the British intelligence services. The list included both literary figures such as Stephen Spender and J B Priestley, and left-wing Labour MPs such as Ian Mikardo and Tom Driberg. A number of the people named by Orwell were outed not just as suspected Communist sympathisers but also as homo­sexuals. Given that homosexual acts between men were still illegal in Britain, and would remain so for another twenty years, this was a partic­ularly disgusting thing to have done. Orwell handed MI5 material which they would no doubt use to blackmail left-wingers and socialists. There is no excuse for this. Despite his many faults, though, Orwell is a writer whose work will always be of interest to socialists, indeed to thinking people everywhere. Yes, he was often cranky, often wrong. But his dogged pursuit of some of the awkward questions of his time led him to produce two of the master­pieces of socialist literature, Homage to Catalonia and Animal Farm. And the bravery he showed in opposing Stalinism—not when it was weak and collapsing but at the height of its power—cannot be lightly dismissed. If this Orwell lived around the corner from me, he would be welcome to come around for a cup of tea anytime. No doubt we would argue. But such is life.