Orwell and today’s left

January 21, 2013 at 11:08 am (apologists and collaborators, AWL, class, communalism, From the archives, Galloway, history, internationalism, Jim D, literature, Orwell, socialism, stalinism, Stop The War, SWP, trotskyism, truth)

Today is ‘Orwell Day’, the 63rd anniversary of the author’s death (additionally, he was born 110 years ago this June 25th) . To mark the occasion (even though ‘Orwell Day’ seems to be largely a stunt by Penguin Books), we publish below a ten year-old article from the AWL’s paper Solidarity. It was written just as the SWP was cosying up to George Galloway (then still – just – a Labour MP), and had discovered the supposedly “progressive” nature of Islamism. The dreadful abomination that would be ‘Respect’ was about to come into being…

Author: Sean Matgamna

“Revolutionary ardour in the struggle for socialism is inseparable from intellectual ardour in the struggle for truth”.
Leon Trotsky, “Trotskyism and the PSOP”

“There is not the slightest doubt, for instance, about the behaviour of the Japanese in China. Nor is there much doubt about the long tale of Fascist outrages during the last ten years in Europe. They happened even though Lord Halifax said they happened. The raping and butchering in Chinese cities, the tortures in the cellars of the Gestapo, the elderly Jewish professors flung into cesspools, the machine-gunning of refugees along the Spanish roads – they all happened, and they did not happen any the less because the Daily Telegraph has suddenly found out about them when it is five years too late”.

George Orwell, Looking Back On The Spanish War, 1942

The centenary of George Orwell’s birth is being widely celebrated in the bourgeois media. To these professional liars, Orwell, the man who told awkward and untimely truths, is a hero!

Apart from a few unteachable pickled-in-the-lies old Stalinists, most people who think of themselves as being of the left, for example the Socialist Workers Party, also see Orwell as a hero.

It wasn’t always so. When he was alive, Orwell, who died in 1950, was regarded by the dominant forces ‘on the left’ of the 1930s and 40s as a “right-winger”, a crank, an “anti-Soviet renegade”, an agent or a “dupe” of fascism, and an all-round enemy.

The only exceptions in Britain then were those whose ideas were informed by Trotsky’s writings on Stalinist Russia, the Stalinist “Communist” International, the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9, and other related questions.

Numerically those were few. The largest group was the declining Independent Labour Party, which Orwell joined in the mid-1930s. Then there were the organised Trotskyists, in the 1930s a handful of them. Their maximum number, in the mid 1940s, was never more than about 400.

The Trotskyists were shunned, hounded, persecuted, and where possible suppressed by the “left” of that time. They were the targets of the approach advocated in, for example, a witch-hunting wartime pamphlet of the Communist Party (the CPGB) entitled “Clear Out Hitler’s Agents”. Its message was: “Treat a Trotskyist as you would a fascist”.

Orwell was regarded as an enemy of “the left” because he shared some of the Trotskyists’ ideas. Orwell, like the Trotskyists, did not believe that an honest and serious person could be guided in politics, or in his attitude to the conventional left, by WB Yeats’ injunction: “Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams”.

Socialists “dream” about a world transformed. We do not spin consoling dreams about the world we live in. If we cannot bear to define that world as it actually is, then we will never manage to transform it. Our “socialism” will for us be only a consoling quasi-religion.

Orwell, like the Trotskyists, trampled with large hobnailed boots on the self-poisoning fantasies, dreams and sacred myths of that left.

On Spain, for example.

In July 1936 the fascist-minded generals revolted against the newly-elected Popular Front government, unleashing a terrible civil war. Spain became the great cause of the “anti-fascist” left, as indeed it should.

But the very “anti-fascist” Stalinist movement was wholly controlled and in part financed from Moscow by people whose main concern was to convince the Paris and London governments that their “communism” posed no threat to capitalism, and that they could control the working class for them, and, “for a consideration,” would. They wanted imperialist allies against Hitler’s Germany. These “anti-fascists” suppressed the workers who had seized power in Catalonia and set up a Stalinist-bourgeois police state in the anti-fascist Republican areas.

They, not the fascist armies which by March 1939 controlled all of Spain, suppressed the revolutionary Spanish labour movement.

Throughout the world, the Stalinist press, and most of the socialist and liberal press, which at that point saw the Stalinists as allies against fascism, suppressed news of what was actually happening in the real Spain.

They substituted heroic half-truths and myths about the “anti-fascist struggle” there. To do anything else, the “knowing” people said, would be to “undermine the anti-fascist fight” and “play into the hands of” the Spanish fascists and, ultimately, of Hitler.

You had to take sides and respect and defend the official truths of your “side”. You had to accept an entirely negative definition of what was “anti-fascist” and therefore “working-class”, “progressive”, “left”. You could not afford to concern yourself much with what the “anti-fascists”, whether bourgeois liberals or totalitarianising Stalinists, positively were, in their own right and what they were actually doing.

This was the time of the Popular Fronts, when the Communist Parties sought allies on the right. The Stalinists set the pace and tone here, and their social-democratic and liberal fellow-travellers acted as outriders and enforcers for them. Trotsky called these Stalinising “Liberals” “the priests of half-truth”.

In Britain, for example, the Liberal News Chronicle (which was twinned with a London evening paper, The Star) had fallen under Stalinist influence – its correspondent in Spain was Arthur Koestler, then a Stalinist – and seconded the lies of the Communist Party’s Daily Worker. So did such Stalinist-influenced labour papers as the then very influential New Statesman, and Tribune, which at its start in 1937, was a Stalinist-Popular Front paper.

When Orwell, who went to Spain politically naive, came back disabused of illusions about the “official” left and tried to break the “left front” of lying in the cause of “anti-fascism”, he found he could not get the truth past the “anti-fascist” and leftist “priests of half-truth”.

These were days of the Left Book Club (LBC). Published by Victor Gollancz – under an editorial committee of Stalinists and pro-Stalinists – the LBC was churning out large editions of its orange-jacketed volumes. One measure of that time was that Fate of a Revolution, an account of the USSR by Victor Serge, the old communist who had been in the USSR until 1936, was published in Britain by a rather feeble competitor of the Left Book Club, the Right Book Club, which also published such honest eye-witness left-wing accounts of the USSR as the American journalist Eugene Lyons’ Assignment In Utopia.

Orwell described the situation like this:

“The Spanish war has probably produced a richer crop of lies than any event since the Great War of 1914-18, but I honestly doubt, in spite of all those hecatombs of nuns who have been raped and crucified before the eyes of Daily Mail reporters, whether it is the pro-Fascist newspapers that have done the most harm. It is the left-wing papers, the News Chronicle and the Daily Worker, with their far subtler methods of distortion, that have prevented the British public from grasping the real nature of the struggle. The fact which these papers have so carefully obscured is that the Spanish government (including the semi-autonomous Catalan government) is far more afraid of the [working-class] revolution than of the fascists…

The New Statesman, having previously refused an article of mine on the suppression of the POUM [quasi-Trotskyists, allied to the ILP] on the ground that it would ’cause trouble’, also refused to print the review as it ‘controverted editorial policy’, or in other words blew the gaff on the Communist Party… Whatever you do don’t believe a word you read in the News Chronicle or Daily Worker. The only daily paper I have seen in which a gleam of truth sometimes gets through is the [Daily] Express…”

It was the same with many things other than the Spanish Civil War. Orwell found himself like the “undersocialised” boy in Hans Andersen’s story who noticed that the Emperor, whose clothes everyone else wholeheartedly admired, was in fact naked.

Today we look back with respect and some gratitude to the Orwells and pioneer Trotskyists, and with contempt and revulsion on the broad “left” of that time. The untimely truths which Orwell and the Trotskyists told about Spain, the USSR, etc., are today commonplaces understood by most people who think of themselves as ‘left’.

In Orwell’s case, the pattern is not too far from what the Irish socialist-republican James Connolly wrote of the pioneer Republican Wolfe Tone on the centenary of the Republican rising of 1798 in which Tone lost his life: “Apostles of freedom are ever crucified when living, and idolised when safely dead”. Their once inconvenient ideas come to be “received” wisdom for the sort of people who most likely would, when they lived, have been among the persecutors of those ideas’ pioneers.

Orwell was made of less malleable stuff. He registered what he saw, thought about it honestly, and reported it accurately, believing with Karl Marx that the truth is a great revolutionary force.

Right now, the ideas of Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty are unpopular with most of the left on many contemporary questions – for example, on the attitude socialists should take to a Labour MP who acted for many years as a political agent (paid or unpaid makes little difference) for the quasi-fascist dictatorship in Iraq – people who for decades did in Iraq what the fascists Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War did when they won that war. We are so much at odds with the conventional left that it is no exaggeration to say: if the SWP and its political satellites like the ISG, the CPGB, WP, etc are left, then we aren’t. And the other way around.

It would be foolish to claim that because our ideas are unpopular with the contemporary mainstream left, therefore they are correct. The opposite claim, however, can safely be made. Today, as in Orwell’s time, we have a mainstream pseudo-left that has lost its way. For most practical purposes, it is not a “left”, still less a Marxist “left”, at all.

It makes no difference that the ABCs of Trotsky’s politics, and not, as in the 1930s and 40s, of Stalin’s, form the received truths of our left. “Tradition” in politics is only as good as those who try to give it current relevance and life. And in fact in today’s “Trotskisant” but eclectic and incoherent left, much of the Stalinist politics against which Orwell and the Trotskyists fought in the 1930s has been revived.

Popular frontism, for example. But, above all, negativism in self-definition.

Not now “anti-fascism”, but “anti-imperialism”. Never mind what a given political current, or a given regime in a given country, is “in itself”. If it is in conflict with “imperialism”, or targeted by imperialism, then nothing else matters. It is in the “camp” of the left. It is in “our” camp; “on our side”. Let it be!

In this way ideas against which the Trotskyists in Trotsky’s time, and Orwell, counterposed independent working-class politics have again become dominant on the left. Today’s left is swamped and waterlogged with the politics and the prejudices that went into the making of 1930s’ Stalinism.

It is shrouded in the vapours given off by various “anti-imperialist” chauvinisms (Catholic-Irish national-chauvinism, anti-Jewish Arab and Muslim chauvinism, etc). Even narrow British nationalism: purely negative opposition to the British ruling class and its governments, saying no when they say yes and yes when they say no, has for 30 years and more made the British left into boneheaded “little Britishers” opposed to the unification of Europe.

Solidarity has devoted much space to the pro-Iraqi politics of many on the anti-war left. It was not enough for them to oppose Britain and the USA, as we did. To feel whole, they needed to embrace the quasi-fascist Iraqi regime and the reactionary Islamic opponents of Bush’s and Blair’s war, notably the Muslim Brotherhood (MAB). Thereby they crossed the line separating working class from populist, cross-class politics. Is there a precedent for this? Yes.

In 1938 Maurice Thorez, the leader of French Stalinism, offered to extend the hand of Popular Front friendship all the way to “patriotic fascists”-to French fascists who were not bought or hypnotised by Nazi Germany and would in the coming war defend France. He did not manage to realise such a Popular Front. During the recent anti-war movement, the major forces on the British left realised something very close to it. They established a Popular Front with the Islamic near-equivalent of Thorez’ “patriotic fascists”, the ultra-reactionary Muslim Brotherhood.

Like Orwell and the Trotskyists of the 1930s, Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty have been howled down and are shunned by ‘the left’ for our opposition to such practices. As well as outright hostility, we have met with incomprehension, from good-willed people who unknowingly let their attitudes and ideas here be shaped by pressure of the “norms” on these matters established by the dominant “left”.

For ourselves, we have great difficulty understanding how people who call themselves socialists can accept as a comrade someone who has, as a government minister put it in the House of Commons recently, acted as a “mouthpiece” for the quasi-fascist Iraqi regime, and who on his own admission was financed by Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and a Ba’thist businessman.

Orwell, and the Trotskyists of the 1930s and 40s, are better examples for serious socialists to follow than their equivalent of our conventional ‘left’.

He found the philistines, like the editor of the New Statesman, Kingsley Martin, bowing down to the “left public opinion” created by the Stalinists and their fellow-travellers. He found himself trying to gain foot-room for the truth in the pestilential swamp of lies and corruption created by the Stalinists and those who, for their own reasons, tolerated them.

He was confronted by a world in which the Labour ‘leftists’ who let the Stalinists influence their thinking, like Aneurin Bevan and Stafford Cripps, advocated an alliance of the working class with Liberals and “progressive Tories” in a Popular Front. As Trotsky pointed out, they were in real political terms to the right of Labour right-wingers like Herbert Morrison. The Labour right rejected the Popular Front and wanted a Labour government.

Just so today when the left gives credence to Saddam Hussein, the butcher of Iraqi workers and Kurds, allies with the MAB, the advocates of an authoritarian clerical regime in all Islamic countries, and sees no reason to distance itself politically from Saddam Hussein’s admirer George Galloway. This pseudo-left is in basic class terms to the right of decent-minded reformist. anti-conventional left, workers, including Islamic workers in Britain and elsewhere.

It would, as above, be foolish to claim that because our ideas are unpopular on the “left”, therefore they are right. But those who follow “left-wing” fashion, and don’t dare question the “left consensus” will almost certainly go wrong. That is the point about George Orwell and the Trotskyists of his time.

The root source of the corruption of the “left” in Orwell’s time was the Stalinist ruling class in Russia which presented itself as “communist” and argued that the defence of their interests was the proper first concern of workers all over the world. Siding with the Russian “workers’ state” exerted a malign, corrupting and disorienting influence on the left for many decades, including the Trotskyist left who “critically” “defended the Soviet Union”.

But the USSR is long gone, and those who are the most corrupted now, the SWP, were once distinguished by their refusal to have illusions in the USSR or to see themselves as in the USSR’s “camp”. They were proud to define themselves as “Third Campists”, people working to develop the “camp” of the working class and oppressed peoples against both the US and USSR-led “camps”.

Today we have the SWP purveying the sort of politics which the Stalinists, the quasi-Stalinists, and the worst of the kitsch Trotskyists once purveyed about the USSR “workers’ state”.

As with the “anti-fascist” degenerates of George Orwell’s time who forgot all about class politics and working-class self-interest, defining themselves only negatively by what they were against-fascism, and, fundamentally, German fascism-and could therefore ally even with French anti-German fascists, so with the “anti-imperialism” of today.

There is, however, an important difference, and it is not the 1930s Popular Frontists who come out worse in the comparison. The Stalinists in the 1930s believed that the USSR was evolving towards socialism and that, in the long run, all their dirty dealings, in the interests of the USSR – as defined by its rulers – would serve the cause of progress and socialism. They were defined negatively as “anti-fascists” in practical politics, but not only negatively. By serving the USSR they served socialism. Or so they thought.

The SWP believes no such thing about those in whose camp it has rushed to place itself in the last 15 years-the Islamic fundamentalists in Iran (against Iraq); Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war; Slobodan Milosevic’s genocidal primitive Serbian imperialism in Kosova (1999); the Taliban in Afghanistan; the Muslim fundamentalists and Saddam Hussein in the recent war.

The left today is entirely negative. It has no “historical perspectives”, no idea of and seemingly no concern with historical progress, no belief that those like Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic with whom it allies “against imperialism” can, if they survive, help the cause of humanity, of socialism or of the working class.

For a whole vast range of the world they are – to put it in the basic ideas of the Communist Manifesto – “reactionary socialists”. They recoil against those forces in the world today-the capitalist bourgeois democracies-which are pushing forward the conditions out of struggle against which the working class can advance to socialism. They ally against them with regimes flatly reactionary both for their own peoples and for neighbouring peoples (Kosovars in the case of Milosevic, Kurds in the case of Saddam Hussein).

This is a left that has, in its blinkered negativism, turned the norms of socialist working-class politics inside out, back to front, upside down. No wonder it has stumbled into such long-discredited Stalinist patterns as Popular Frontism.

The example of Orwell, and of Trotsky and the Trotskyists of the 1930s and 40s, is therefore of great importance today to those who want the post-Stalinist left to go forward, not, as most of it has in Britain, to collapse in a heap on the poisoned ground of Stalinism. For ourselves we subscribe to and will continue to try to live up to Trotsky’s guiding principle: “Revolutionary ardour… is inescapable from intellectual ardour in the struggle for truth.”

[This article was an Editorial in Solidarity in July 2003.]

8 Comments

  1. chris brennan said,

    Catholic Irish national chauvinism is a lot less of a worry to me than great British chauvinism, the usual position of the erstwhile Orwellites of the AWL.

  2. Jim Denham said,

    …and your point is, Chris?

  3. George Orwell: A History of Novels « A Cultural World said,

    [...] Orwell and today’s left (shirazsocialist.wordpress.com) [...]

  4. chris brennan said,

    I’d love to read the AWL website and find a searing critique of British and Israeli Imperialism that did not place so many caveats about why the backward Muslims must be punished that is condones mass murder from 30k feet.

  5. Jim Denham said,

    “…why the backward Muslims must be punished that is condones mass murder from 30k feet.”

    And I’d love to see an actual quote from you, chris, justifying that statement. By the way, I think you’ll find you’ve got your slanders muddled up: the “mass murder from 30k feet” stuff usually refers to the NATO attacks on those great friends of Muslim people, Milosevic and the Serbian forces in Bosnia and Kosovo.

  6. George Orwell: A History of Novels | A.Soul.Fluorescent said,

    [...] Orwell and today’s left (shirazsocialist.wordpress.com) [...]

  7. Michael Moran said,

    haha, again, NATO is progressive for defending sme Muslims, hence NATO is progressive. Genius

  8. George Orwell: A History of Novels | Dani's Trekking Bookshelf said,

    […] Orwell and today’s left (shirazsocialist.wordpress.com) […]

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