Orwell in Tribune

October 27, 2011 at 12:39 am (history, Jim D, labour party, literature, Orwell, socialism, trotskyism)

Orwell in Tribune: ‘As I Please’ and other writings 1943-47
edited by Paul Anderson (Methuen, £14.99)

Orwell and
Marxism:The political and cultural thinking of George Orwell
by

Philip Bounds (I. B. Tauris. £52.50)

By Richard Vinten, Times Literary Supplement (Aug 2009)

More than any other British
author of the twentieth century, George Orwell has escaped from his own time.
Every schoolchild who gets as far as GCSE English will have read at least one
Orwell novel, and the one that they are most likely to have read (Nineteen Eighty-Four) is, ostensibly at least,
not set in Orwell’s own lifetime. Orwell was fascinated by children’s literature
and some of his books have a special appeal to children (particularly, I
suspect, boys in their early teens). This means that most people read Orwell
before they have any sense of the period in which he wrote; indeed, before they
have much sense of why it might matter to understand the period in which a
writer worked.

Even the most sophisticated readers take Orwell out of
context. In 1940, Q. D. Leavis argued that Orwell’s early novels (the ones with
clear temporal settings) were “wasted effort”. Ever since then, critics have
judged him largely on his long essays, and these reinforce the impression of a
man outside his own time – big enough to interpose himself between Tolstoy and
Shakespeare at a time when his contemporaries were locked in petty Bloomsbury
disputes. His admirers think of him as an emblem of universal integrity. Central
European dissidents in the 1980s appealed to his memory, and committees of the
great and good award an Orwell Prize to writers who have made their reputations
writing about, say, Sweden since the 1970s. I doubt if a day passes when some
politician or journalist does not denounce something or other as “Orwellian”, a
word that Orwell would have hated.

Orwell did not enjoy such special
status in the eyes of his contemporaries. Much of his writing was made up of
book reviews churned out to pay the bills. The flavour of this life is captured
in a short letter that he wrote to T. S. Eliot asking whether Faber might be
interesting in commissioning him to translate Jacques Roberti’s À la Belle de Nuit, a task that apparently
required a command of low-life Paris argot. Some of his work seemed to fit into
easily identifiable patterns. Cyril Connolly had admired Orwell since meeting
him at prep school, but, in Enemies of
Promise (1938), he stitched together quotations from Orwell, Hemingway
and Christopher Isherwood into a single passage to show how indistinguishable
“colloquial” writers could be.

Both these books are designed, in part, to
put Orwell back into the context of his own times. The articles he wrote for
Tribune between 1943 and 1947 are
gathered into a single volume with an excellent introduction by Paul Anderson.
They have all been published in previous collections and some of them, such as
“The Decline of the English Murder”, are already well known, but publication of
the Tribune articles is useful because
Orwell wrote for the paper at a time when he was writing Animal Farm and thinking about Nineteen Eighty-Four. His article on Yevgeny
Zamyatin’s We, a book which is sometimes
seen as a model for Nineteen
Eighty-Four, appeared in January 1946, though any reader of the Tribune articles will conclude that Burnham’s
The Managerial Revolution was a more
important influence on Orwell’s thinking. For most of this time, large parts of
the British Left, including some of the other writers for Tribune, were pro-Soviet. More importantly,
support for the Soviet alliance was part of the official policy of both Britain
and the United States. In short, Orwell’s most famous books need to be
understood against the backdrop of Yalta rather than that of, say, the Berlin
airlift. The Tribune articles show how
intermittent anti-Americanism, suspicion of the British ruling classes and
distaste for the realpolitik of the great powers were blended with a personal
dislike of Stalinism. Orwell repeatedly drew attention to facts about the Soviet
Union that were inconvenient to the Western Allies; he wrote, for example, about
the mass rape of women in Vienna by Russian soldiers. An article of September
1944 about the Warsaw Uprising is particularly striking; in it he asked why the
British intelligentsia were so “dishonestly uncritical” of Soviet policy, but he
also suggested that Western governments were moving towards a peace settlement
that would hand much of Europe to Stalin.

If the Tribune articles tell us mainly about Orwell
after 1943, Philip Bounds sets him against the fast-changing political backdrop
to his whole writing career. In the mid 1930s, the Communist International
turned away from “class against class” tactics to encourage Popular Front
alliances of anti-Fascist forces. This position changed with the
Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, then changed again with the German
invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. These gyrations produced odd
consequences in Britain, a country in which there was not a large Communist
party (though there were some significant figures who, as Orwell put it,
believed in the Russian “mythos” ) and in which the most important leaders of
the Labour Party were not tempted by an anti-Fascist alliance with the
Communists. The Popular Front was supported by an odd coalition that ranged from
Stafford Cripps to the Duchess of Atholl.

Orwell opposed the Popular
Front, or, at least, he was rude about its English supporters. During the
Spanish Civil War he fought with the non-Stalinist POUM rather than the
International Brigade (joined by most Communists). He reversed his position
overnight in 1939: he claimed to have dreamt of war and then come downstairs to
see the newspaper reports of the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact. He supported the war
against Hitler and became an eloquent defender of patriotism though he also
thought, at least in 1940 and 1941, that the British war effort might be
combined with a revolutionary transformation of British society. His position
was sometimes close to that of Trotskyists and he quoted the Trotskyite slogan
“the war and the revolution are inseparable” with approval in 1941. Orwell’s
interest in Trotsky, however, seems to have been rooted in a sympathy for
outsiders and in the sense that, to quote his friend Malcolm Muggeridge,
“Trotsky blows the gaff” on the Soviet Union. Orwell did not believe that Russia
would necessarily have been less repressive if ruled by Trotsky rather than
Stalin. He was not much interested in Marxist theory and his remark, apropos of
T. S. Eliot, that Anglo-Catholicism was the “ecclesiastical equivalent of
Trotskyism”, was probably designed to annoy Trotskyites as much as
Anglo-Catholics.

Bounds covers all of Orwell’s writing – the early
autobiographical novels and exercises in fictionalized autobiography as well as
the better-known works – and tries to trace the themes that run through them
all. In particular, he argues that, for all of his anti-Soviet talk, Orwell was
influenced by Communist or fellow-travelling writers. This influence was masked
by his general cussedness and by a capacity for annexing the ideas of authors he
had once denounced; for example, he wrote a savage review of The Novel Today (1936) by the Communist Philip
Henderson. However, Orwell’s remarks about modernism in his essay “Inside the
Whale” (1940) seem to owe something to Henderson’s assault on literature that
avoids “the urgent problems of the moment”. Orwell even transports the same
rather laboured joke from Punch – about the young man who tells his aunt “My
dear, one doesn’t write about anything; one just writes” – from his 1936 review
to his 1940 essay. The changes in Communist strategy made Orwell’s relations
with its cultural commentators all the more complicated. Sometimes he seemed to
draw on ideas expressed by Communist writers during the “class against class”
period to attack the Popular Front, and then to draw on the Popular Front’s
discovery of national culture to attack Communists after the Molotov–Ribbentrop
pact.

Bounds’s book is wide-ranging, stimulating and well written. I was
not, however, entirely convinced by its arguments. This is partly because it is
hard to prove influence. Bounds himself frequently admits that we cannot be sure
that Orwell read a particular author whose ideas seem, in some respects, to run
parallel to his own. Some Marxist authors whom Orwell had read seem not to have
influenced him very much. He reviewed Christopher Hill’s The English Revolution 1640, though he himself
did not go in for the celebration of seventeenth-century radicalism that was so
common among English left-wingers – rather unconvincingly, Bounds attributes
this to the belief that Orwell’s readers were likely to be “culturally ambitious
members of the lower middle class”.

Emphasizing Orwell’s roots on the
Left means playing down his links to writers on the Right. Anthony Powell, a
friend of Orwell, does not feature in this book at all. Bounds suggests that
Orwell’s interest in conservative writers – notably Rudyard Kipling – sprang
partly from a desire to answer a certain kind of Communist attack on them.
Orwell wanted to show the peculiarity of English conservatism and to distinguish
it from Fascism. He certainly underlined the difference between Kipling and
Wodehouse and Fascists. However, there were times when he argued that Fascism
itself might assume a particularly English form. In any case, he admired many
right-wing writers – including, for example, Louis-Ferdinand Céline – for
reasons that cut across his politics.

Bounds’s careful researches into
relatively minor English Marxists can sometimes obscure the importance of the
two most important left-wingers with whom Orwell was associated: John Strachey
and Victor Gollancz. Neither of these men was a member of the Communist party,
though both were close to it at times. Strachey’s The Coming Crisis (1932) presented a Marxist
analysis, but Strachey, like Orwell, also admired the work of some authors on
the Right: he described The Waste Land
as “the most important poem produced in English in our day”. Gollancz was a
publisher and founder, along with Strachey and Stafford Cripps, of the Left Book
Club, and it is tempting to present him as a kind of antiOrwell: devious, shrewd
about money, politically conformist and an intellectual who was not intelligent.
Orwell himself thought privately that Gollancz was “very enterprising about left
stuff and . . . not too bright”. However, relations between the two men were
sometimes closer than Orwell cared to admit. Gollancz published Orwell’s first
book, Down and Out in Paris and London
(1933), and, according to one account, it was he who chose “Orwell” as Eric
Blair’s pen name (the alternatives were “Kenneth Miles” and “H. Lewis Allways”).
It is true that Gollancz, or the Left Book Club, turned down Homage to Catalonia and Animal Farm, for fear of offending Communists,
but the Left Book Club did publish The Road to
Wigan Pier, though with an introduction by Gollancz himself in which he
said that he had noted at least a hundred points with which he disagreed. It is
also important to remember that there was a period, from September 1939 until
the summer of 1941, when Orwell, Gollancz and Strachey were united by common
distaste for what they called the Communist Party’s “betrayal of the
left”.

Should we see Orwell as primarily a political writer? He certainly
came to see himself as one. In 1946, he wrote: “Every line of serious work that
I have written since 1936 has been written . . . against totalitarianism and for
democratic Socialism . . . it is where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote
lifeless books”. However, not all his early work was “lifeless”, and his later
books are not entirely animated by politics. Throughout his career, Orwell saw
that literature might be an end in itself. As a twenty-year-old policeman in
Burma, during his brief attempt to flee from his destiny as a writer, he had
read War and Peace and been seduced by
its characters: “people about whom one would gladly go on reading for ever”. He
had begun the 1940s hoping to produce a three-volume family saga. Would he have
returned to this apparently unpolitical work if he had believed that he would
have time to finish it?

The fact that Orwell was very ill for much of the
period when he wrote his most famous works, and that he died in January 1950 a
few months after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, raises all sorts of
questions. His most savage critics see his last works as reflecting the despair
of a dying man – but, for my money, Burmese
Days (1934) is the most despairing of his works. And how would he have
reacted to the Cold War, and to seeing his own books used as weapons in that
war? Perhaps most importantly, how would an author who had defined himself in
terms of failure and obscurity have reacted to wealth and fame?

H/t: Paul Anderson, Gauche

1 Comment

  1. Orwell, Tribune, etc « Poumista said,

    [...] Orwell in Tribune Orwell in Tribune: ‘As I Please’ and other writings 1943-47 edited by Paul Anderson (Methuen, £14.99) Orwell and Marxism:The political and cultural thinking of George Orwell by Philip Bounds (I. B. Tauris. £52.50) [...]

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