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.

Orwell and the working class

In July 2000 Maeve Connaughton contributed this article on George Orwell to Issue 7.

Socialism didn’t come naturally to George Orwell. As he famously described it, he came from “the lower-upper-middle class”, a “shabby-genteel family” concerned above all with “keeping up appearances”. As a boy he was warned off playing with working-class children and taught that “The lower classes smell”. “So, very early, the working class ceased to be a race of friendly and wonderful beings and became a race of enemies.” (RWP 113-19.) Even when he affected a socialist attitude in his teenage years this outlook endured:

I was both a snob and a revolutionary.… I loosely described myself as a Socialist. But I had not much grasp of what Socialism meant, and no notion that the working class were human beings. At a distance, I could agonise over their sufferings, but I still hated them and despised them when I came anywhere near them.… I seem to have spent half the time in denouncing the capitalist system and the other half in raging over the insolence of bus-conductors.

RWP 130-32

The five years he spent as an imperial policeman in Burma gave him a real hatred of oppression. He left the job, but felt the need for a fuller escape: “I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants.” The working class began to enter his consciousness, but only, he admitted, as “the symbolic victims of injustice”. His ignorance meant that he turned, not towards industrial workers, but towards “tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes.… ‘the lowest of the low’”: by living as one of them, he thought, “I should have touched bottom, and part of my guilt would drop from me”. During his time as a tramp—described in his first book Down and Out in Paris and London—he was accepted for the first time by people of another class; but he soon realised that this was not the typical life of the working class: “unfortunately you do not solve the class problem by making friends with tramps” (RWP 138-43).

Orwell’s political position was frankly confused, then, as he struggled in his early thirties to make a living as a writer. He hated exploitation, felt guilty about the part he had personally played in it, and yearned for some way of ending it. Barriers of class, prejudice, ignorance and mis­understanding stood in the way of throwing in his lot with the working class. So when his publisher commissioned him in early 1936 to write a book on poverty in the industrial north of England, it could hardly have come at a better time. As well as seeing and exposing the reality of mass unemployment, it would allow him “to see the most typical section of the English working class at close quarters. This was necessary to me as part of my approach to Socialism.” (RWP 113.)

A sort of honorary proletarian

The months Orwell spent in working-class areas of northern England left him with profound admiration and respect for the workers he met and lived with. “I have seen just enough of the working class to avoid idealising them”, he wrote, but he came away thinking their lifestyle superior to his own:

There is much in middle-class life that looks sickly and debilitating when you see it from a working-class angle.
In a working-class home—I am not thinking at the moment of the unemployed, but of comparatively prosperous homes—you breathe a warm, decent, deeply human atmosphere which it is not easy to find elsewhere. I should say that a manual worker, if he is in steady work and drawing good wages—an ‘if’ which gets bigger and bigger—has a better chance of being happy than an ‘educated’ man.

A working-class home “is a good place to be in, provided that you can be not only in it but sufficiently of it to be taken for granted” (RWP 106-8).

This was where Orwell had a problem. For all the help and kindness he received, he told his diary, “I cannot get them to treat me precisely as an equal” (CEJL I 199).

For some months I lived entirely in coal-miners’ houses. I ate my meals with the family, I washed at the kitchen sink, I shared bedrooms with miners, drank beer with them, played darts with them, talked to them by the hour together. But though I was among them, and I hope and trust I was not a nuisance, I was not one of them, and they knew it even better than I did. However much you like them, however interesting you find their conversation, there is always that accursed itch of class-difference, like the pea under the princess’s mattress.

RWP 145

The differences between him and the workers he met were real, and couldn’t be wished away: “it is no use clapping a proletarian on the back and telling him that he is as good a man as I am”; what was needed was “a complete abandonment of the upper-class and middle-class attitude to life” (RWP 150).

Orwell had abandoned the position of his own class and was committing to the position of the working class. He was too brutally honest to pretend that this transition would be painless. Most people who would have counted for middle-class back then have since been swept into the working class, and habits and lifestyles have converged to a large extent across the broad span of working people. But in the 1930s there was a huge gulf between industrial workers and the likes of Orwell. His journey to the working class was a real leap, and he was under no illusion that that leap could be avoided by a bit of slumming, or by letting on that there was no leap to be made.

At the same time, he did make too much of the difference. True, the snobbery he was reared with had to be eradicated, he had to see and treat workers as equals. But there was no need to abandon the harmless aspects of his middle-class heritage. To understand the world from a working-class point of view and to fight accordingly—this was essential. But drinking tea from a saucer or eating peas with a knife had nothing to do with the essence of the working-class struggle. The unemployed miner who showed him round Sheffield, who accepted him in spite of his background, had a sounder attitude: “he told me at the very start I was a bourgeois and remarked on my ‘public school twang’. However, I think he was disposed to treat me as a sort of honorary proletarian” (CEJL I 221).

Middle-class versus working-class socialism

Orwell’s agonising over the issue was not entirely personal. Many socialists of a similar background to his own, he felt, only stood with the working class in the abstract: “most middle-class Socialists, while theoretically pining for a classless society, cling like glue to their miserable fragments of social prestige”. Their adherence to socialism didn’t stop them preferring the company and manners of their own class to that of the workers. At the root of this was their conception of socialism itself: “The truth is that to many people, calling themselves Socialists, revolution does not mean a movement of the masses with which they hope to associate themselves; it means a set of reforms which ‘we’, the clever ones, are going to impose upon ‘them’, the Lower Orders.” (RWP 162, 167.)

Orwell’s attack on middle-class socialists in The Road to Wigan Pier, where he damned them all as cranks, went way over the top. And anyway, the lessening of the gap in the meantime has left elitist left-wingers with less of a height from which to look down their nose. But such creatures do exist: the ‘socialist’ whose contribution to the cause is attending a fundraising cocktail party for Ruairí Quinn; who counts the silver after the man has come to fix the washing machine; who wants to bestow blessings from on high upon an ignorant proletariat. Even on the real left, a far more benign version of the problem sometimes manifests itself. Differences of income, education, status lead to differences of attitude which are no less real for being unconscious. Who can deny the persistence of the type of thing Orwell heard from participants at a socialist summer school: “working-class people were annoyed by patronizing airs put on by some of the others” (CEJL I 244)?

However, Orwell didn’t hold out much of a prospect for working-class socialism either. While he wrote that the working-class socialist “is one of the finest types of man we have” (RWP 152), he was none too impressed with the “sheeplike crowd” at a left-wing social: “I suppose these people represented a fair cross-section of the more revolutionary element in Wigan. If so, God help us.” (CEJL I 207.) Socialist theory meant nothing to the workers:

Socialism in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the middle class.… a working man, so long as he remains a genuine working man, is seldom or never a Socialist in the complete, logically consistent sense.… To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night, Socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about.… no genuine working man grasps the deeper implications of Socialism.

A working-class socialist, like a working-class Catholic, had no under­standing of the doctrine, “but he has the heart of the matter in him” (RWP 161-4, 206).

All this was meant as a compliment. For the intellectual, Orwell is saying, socialism is only a theoretical proposition for a rational re­arrangement of society; for the worker, it is a heartfelt commitment to justice and freedom. But what about the workers who believed in socialism heart and soul, but also had a theoretical foundation to underpin it? Most of the workers who showed Orwell round were socialist activists, who took a conscious part in trying to change their conditions, and had read their Marx and other left-wing literature. Orwell wrote that he was “surprised by the amount of Communist feeling here” (CEJL I 201), which can only be put down to a mixture of ignorance and preconception. And so he was left with a dichotomy between “the warm-hearted unthinking Socialist, the typical working-class Socialist” on the one hand, and “the intellectual, book-trained Socialist” on the other (RWP 169). The warm-hearted, thinking working-class socialist doesn’t appear to have existed for him.

Working-class suffering and working-class consciousness do meet up, however, at one point in Orwell’s journey. He sees a young woman trying to unblock a drainpipe, a woman whose face has

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.

RWP 15

The us and them of this passage are coming together: the socialist from a middle-class background looks at a worker contending with poverty, and realises that the two of them are at one on the matter. Orwell saw this incident while walking along a back alley near the beginning of his stay in the north, but in The Road to Wigan Pier he sets a different scene: he sees the woman from the train as he is returning south. What he takes away with him is the potential of an alliance with the working class, but also a mindfulness of his status as an outsider.

The air of equality

That alliance was finally forged—albeit temporarily—in Spain, where Orwell went at the end of 1936 to fight Franco. His description of revolu­tionary Barcelona is justly celebrated: “It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle.” People treated each other as equals, as comrades, and the ruling class seemed to have disappeared. The situation was “queer and moving” to Orwell: “There was much in it I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognised it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.” (HC 2‑3.)

As a soldier in a revolutionary militia he was on terms of equality with workers, living, working and fighting together with them in a way that prefigured a socialist community:

one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism. One had breathed the air of equality.… 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 boot-licking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like.

HC 83-4

The personal comradeship he established with workers broke down the old barriers that had haunted him. He paid tribute to the “essential decency” of the Catalan working class, “their straightforwardness and generosity”. Amid the confusing infighting on the anti-fascist side, a new-found instinct led him in the right direction: “I have no particular love for the idealised ‘worker’ as he appears in the bourgeois Communist’s mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.” (HC 10, 104.)

He came back a different person, confirmed in his socialism. “I have seen wonderful things”, he told a friend, “& at last really believe in Socialism, which I never did before.” (CEJL I 301.) The experience made “my desire to see Socialism established much more actual” (HC 84). Orwell finally believed in socialism fully when he finally became a part of the working class in revolution.

Workers and theorists

It would be fair to describe Orwell’s politics in this period as revolutionary socialist. Although this was no longer the case a couple of years later, he retained a resolute opposition to the Stalinist perversion of socialism, and clung to the idea that socialism was about freedom for the working class. He traced these two divergent conceptions of socialism to two divergent elements of the socialist movement: “the word ‘Socialism’ means some­thing quite different to a working man from what it means to a middle-class Marxist” (CEJL I 371).

He saw this distinction in the membership of the British Communist Party. The socialism of its middle-class leadership “amounts simply to nationalism and leader-worship in their most vulgar forms, transferred to the U.S.S.R.” Stalinism provided them with a religion to believe in after their traditional middle-class values had disintegrated. On the other hand, “it is possible to respect” the working-class Communists, who “cannot always be rigidly faithful to the ‘line’” (CEJL II 175). These rank-and-file members supported the party “without necessarily understanding its policies” (CEJL I 563).

Again, Orwell is with the real socialism of the workers against the fake socialism of the intellectuals, but this working-class socialism is premised on political ignorance. He is prepared to welcome workers’ rule, but sees such rule being based on morality instead of political analysis:

My chief hope for the future is that the common people have never parted company with their moral code. I have never met a genuine working man who accepted Marxism, for instance. I have never had the slightest fear of a dictatorship of the proletariat, if it could happen, and certain things I saw in the Spanish war confirmed me in this. But I admit to having a perfect horror of a dictatorship of theorists, as in Russia or Germany.

CEJL I 583

While placing his hope in the workers, he sees their fight as an un­conscious one. “The struggle of the working class is like the growth of a plant”, he wrote: “The plant is blind and stupid, but it knows enough to keep pushing upwards towards the light” (CEJL II 299).

Spain had brought Orwell face to face with even more politically-conscious workers. He had no excuse for denying that working-class socialists and socialist theory could go together. But the heated political arguments in the trenches appear to be the one aspect of the Spanish revolution that left him cold—until Stalinist repression left him with no choice but to come to grips with them. Orwell was never one for the theory of socialism: it was good enough for him that the world was wrong, and that socialism could put it right. The argument that theoretical work was needed to achieve that didn’t convince him—perhaps because it often came from those who had abandoned that necessary commitment to justice. When he adopted a faith in socialism, and in the capacity of the working class to achieve it, he seems to have transposed his own anti-theoretical, ethical approach to them.

Some animals are more equal than others?

Orwell’s classic fable Animal Farm (1945) is relevant here, as it is essen­tially the story of a workers’ revolution betrayed by its leaders. Why, exactly, are the leaders, the pigs, able to subvert the animals’ revolution, setting up a tyranny of their own in place of the old tyranny of the humans? T S Eliot gave one answer when rejecting the book on behalf of his publishers, an answer that enjoys some currency much further to his left: “Your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm.”, he wrote. “What was needed (someone might argue) was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.” (Shelden 403.)

At first sight this reading seems plausible. After all, right from the beginning, even before the revolution, “The work of teaching and organising the others fell naturally upon the pigs, who were generally recognised as being the cleverest of the animals.” The faithful horses “had great difficulty in thinking anything out for themselves, but having once accepted the pigs as their teachers they absorbed everything that they were told, and passed it on to the other animals by simple arguments” (AF 9-11). So, on the face of it, the educated leaders have to do the thinking on behalf of their stupid followers.

But before leaping to denounce a libel on the working class, readers would do well to remind themselves that Orwell is writing a satire. He tells the tale in a deliberate tone of naive, deadpan innocence: every betrayal of the pigs is related as they themselves would relate it, in a sort of official report. When the pigs keep the milk to themselves, when they drive out Snowball, when they start to trade with humans, the book tells us that the animals at first thought something was up, but soon saw that such measures were of course necessary. To claim that this pig’s-eye view is Orwell’s view—that to him some animals are indeed more equal than others—is like reading A Modest Proposal and concluding that Jonathan Swift favoured the eating of children.

This is clear, for instance, from the matter of animal literacy. The pigs learned to read and write perfectly before the revolution; the horses managed a few letters of the alphabet, but couldn’t form words; and most of the animals couldn’t get beyond the letter A. This is not because the pigs are naturally gifted and the other animals (by implication, the working class) naturally thick. Socialists shouldn’t need telling that illiteracy results from a deficient educational system, not a lack of intelligence. That the pigs cultivated the ignorance of the other animals can be seen from the ironical observation that, despite their illiteracy, “The reading and writing classes, however, were a great success.” (AF 20.)

The revolution that fails in Animal Farm is not actually a revolution of the working class for freedom, the thing Orwell hoped for, but the thing Orwell feared: a revolution of leaders who care nothing for justice, and use the workers to bring themselves to power. From the word go, the pigs are in the driving seat:

The pigs did not actually work, but directed and supervised the others. With their superior knowledge it was natural that they should assume the leadership.… It was always the pigs who put forward the resolu­tions.… It had come to be accepted that the pigs, who were manifestly cleverer than the other animals, should decide all questions of farm policy.

AF 17, 19, 31

The other animals had accepted the pigs as their natural superiors, and that was their undoing. In the same way, Orwell is saying, the workers should rely on themselves and be wary of all leaders. He even spelt it out:

I meant the moral to be that revolutions only effect a radical improve­ment when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job.… What I was trying to say was, ‘You can’t have a revolution unless you make it for yourself; there is no such thing as a benevolent dictatorship.’

Shelden 407

However, the chances of a revolution made by the masses themselves is lessened by a belief, such as Orwell’s, that it would be based on morality without theory. Repeatedly, the animals twig that things have gone wrong; what they lack is the framework to conceptualise their feelings:

Several of them would have protested if they could have found the right arguments.… Once again the animals were conscious of a vague un­easiness.… If she [Clover, the horse] could have spoken her thoughts, it would have been to say that this was not what they had aimed at when they had set themselves years ago to work for the overthrow of the human race.… Such were her thoughts, though she lacked the words to express them.

AF 36, 43, 58-9

This lack of theory leaves a vacuum that treacherous leaders can fill; the way to stop them is for the workers to fill it themselves.

Hope in the proles?

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is also the story of a failed rebellion, Winston Smith’s rebellion against Big Brother and the Party. He seems to put his trust in the working class. “If there is hope,” he says several times, “it lies in the proles.” (NEF 72.) But the proles, to him, are a herd of unthinking animals:

They needed only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies.… people who had never learned to think but who were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world. If there was hope, it lay in the proles!… Out of those mighty loins a race of conscious beings must one day come.

NEF 73, 229-30

He sees the proles as rebellion-fodder, not human beings, as explosive material to blow up the system, suppliers of brawn not brain.

Winston’s own contact with the proles is non-existent, unless we count his distasteful encounter with a prostitute. When he hears an argument in the street, he imagines the revolution dawning, only to dismiss it as a meaningless row over a shortage of pots. He goes on what is virtually an anthropological field trip to the prole part of town, and gets talking to an old man. The man remembers the things that interest him—including a socialist meeting, and his anger at upper-class arrogance—but Winston is disappointed, because the man has failed to fill in his preconceived verbal questionnaire for him.

Winston never understands that dissatisfaction over shortages could lead on to something bigger, or that the reminiscences of the old man might contain germs of class-consciousness.

even when they became discontented, as they sometimes did, their discontent led nowhere, because, being without general ideas, they could only focus it on petty specific grievances. The larger evils in­variably escaped their notice.… They were like the ant, which can see small objects but not large ones.

NEF 75, 96-7

Instead of taking the present position and attitude of the proles as his starting point, he demands that they should adopt his own starting point— and dismisses them when they don’t. His belief in them is only theoretical: “if there was hope, it lay in the proles.… When you put it in words it sounded reasonable: it was when you looked at the human beings passing you on the pavement that it became an act of faith.” (NEF 89.)

A facile but stubborn trend in Orwell criticism insists on identifying the author with his central characters. Not only does this overlook the fact that Orwell was a writer; in the case of Nineteen Eighty-Four it stands in the way of understanding his politics. Orwell’s scepticism over the theoretical potential of the working class is an awful long way away from Winston’s patronising view of the proles as noble savages. His attitude is that of the type of middle-class intellectual Orwell had been criticising for years: “Nationalistic loyalty towards the proletariat, and most vicious theoretical hatred of the bourgeoisie, can and often do co-exist with ordinary snob­bishness” (CEJL III 424). For one brief moment it occurs to Winston that the proles are human beings, but—a bit like Orwell as a teenager—his feeling for them never gets the better of his contempt for them. Because hope really does lie in the proles themselves, and not in those who would lead them by the nose, it is little wonder that he ends up loving Big Brother.

Worth fighting for

The underlying feature of Orwell’s socialism—both its good and its bad sides—is that he understood the indissoluble link between socialism and the working class. For him, socialism was a movement of the workers to create a decent and free life for themselves, or it was nothing. This is why he saw his own journey to socialism as a journey to the working class, why he was determined to get to know them and their lives, why he un­necessarily agonised over the barriers between him and them. This is why his involvement in the Spanish revolution, when the workers were briefly in the saddle, influenced him so profoundly. This is why he fought with all his might against those who saw socialism as something other than the liberation of the working class.

The big shortcoming of Orwell’s socialism is his opposition to theory. His unwillingness to see socialist theory among workers had nothing to do with underestimating the mental capacities of the working class, and everything to do with underestimating the need for theory in the fight for socialism. He had seen and heard so many on the left propounding socialist theory in opposition to the ideas of justice and equality, that it never occurred to him that a socialist theory could support the ideas of justice and equality. Without such a theory, his socialism could only be revolu­tionary as long as revolution seemed an immediate prospect. When revolution did present itself, as it did in Spain, he embraced it with open arms. For those working to elaborate and spread a theory of workers’ revolution fifty years after his death, Orwell’s reaction to Barcelona can apply to our opinion of his socialism. There is much in it we cannot understand, in some ways we cannot even like it, but we should recognise it immediately as a kind of socialism worth fighting for.

AF             George Orwell, Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (Penguin 1989)
CEJL         The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, four volumes (Penguin 1970)
HC             George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (Penguin 1989)
NEF           George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (Penguin 1989)
RWP          George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (Penguin 1989)
Shelden   Michael Shelden, Orwell: The Authorised Biography (Heinemann 1991)