Orwell and socialism

June 7, 2009 at 9:01 pm (history, Jim D, left, literature, socialism, stalinism, truth)

On the 60th anniversary of his masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, I’m raising a glass of single malt (Jura of course) and toasting George Orwell, the most honest writer of the last century.

Completing Nineteen Eighty-Four on the cold, damp and remote Scottish island of Jura and then having to type it up himself because his handwriting was virtually illegible, prevented Orwell from getting his tuberculosis treated and led directly to his death. Questions have been asked ever since about how his politics would have evolved had he lived. It’s been suggested that his outspoken anti Stalinism would have led him into the camp of the cold warriors (as it did his friend Arther Koestler), but most of the people who argue that are the kind of people who hated Orwell and lied about him when he was  alive.

Orwell bent over backwards to make it clear where he stood. In his last public statement he told an American trade union: “My novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is not intended as an attack on socialism, or on the British Labour Party…I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw those ideas out to their logical consequences.”

Elsewhere he stated (in 1946): “Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism as I understand it.”

Certainly, the now infamous “list” of real and imagined communist (ie Stalinist) sympathisers he drew up for his friend Celia Kirwan who worked for the Foreign Office, is difficult to defend and leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. But it should be kept in proportion: it was not a list of people to be blacklisted or suppressed, but a list of people Orwell thought unsuitable to work for the Information Research Department that had just been set up by the new Labour government.

Orwell, like many leftists of his day had some pretty backward views on women and gays and said some dodgy things about Jews. He also opposed the creation of Israel. But for all his faults, he remained a man of the left to the end, and the sheer honesty and decency still marks out his writing (the essays and journalism perhaps even more than the novels) as something quite exceptional that every socialist should read and re-read again and again for intellectual hygiene and for the sheer pleasure of of his simple, powerful prose.

Sean Matgamna wrote about “the man who told the left unpalatable truths” on the centenary of Orwell’s birth.

In 1969 the late Peter Sedgwick wrote “George Orwell: International Socialist?” in International Socialism. Like Matgamna, Sedgwick was in no doubt that Orwell was on our side.

10 Comments

  1. Rosie said,

    In 1948 Orwell wrote:-

    “The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians.”

    Liberty can be shackled from either wing. I can’t see him regarding McCarthyism with anything but disdain.

    Orwell had a wide green streak. If he had lived his proper life span I imagine he would have picked up on green politics though he would have been exaperated with new ageism as he was with the sandal wearers, vegetarians and fruit juice drinkers of his time.

    BTW Jura is not that cold. It doesn’t get snow and it’s on the Gulf Stream. There are semi-tropical plants growing in some places. It’s not like the north east of Scotland.

    The worst of the house he lived in Jura was the difficulty of getting to a doctor’s. I visited the place once and there’s a 4 mile rough track from the sealed road to the house – possible in a four wheel drive but not in an ordinary car. Going along it you could imagine it seriously shaking his dodgy lungs.

  2. Maps said,

    Hi Jim,

    Orwell’s a writer everyone should read, and Ninety Eighty Four remains one of my favourite novels, but the image of the blunt truth teller that he created (very artfully) has been made untenable – not by the machinations of evil Stalinists, but by the labours of generations of scholars.

    Even Orwell’s supposedly documentary works, like the haunting essays Shooting an Elephant and Such, Such Were the Joys or the books The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, are complex mixtures of fact and fiction. You don’t even have to believe biographers and literary historians – just consult Orwell’s own posthumously-published work. If you read the journal which Orwell kept during his research for Wigan Pier, for instance, and then compare it to the text of the finished book, you will see that there is a yawning gap between the two versions of Orwell’s journey north, and that key passages in the finished book – the unforgettable details about the house were Orwell boarded, or the image of the woman poking a stick up a drainpipe – came from the writer’s imagination.

    There are also revealing discrepancies between reality and fiction which show how determined Orwell was to project a certain image of himself – read, for instance, Orwell’s description of his journey down a mine, and then consider that he actually passed out down that mine, and had to be carried out!

    Sometimes Orwell’s distortions are politically significant – for instance, he totally misrepresents a public meeting he attended in the north, to make it seem like the miners who dominated the meeting were politically rather naive or disinterested and in danger of turning fascist. In reality, the meeting was full of politically conscious ILP members!

    The point is that Orwell was more complex than he wanted us to believe, and there is no excuse not to realise that now, when so much of his writing is available and so much scholarly work has been done on the man. Personally, I find Orwell more rather than less interesting because of his flaws and contradiction and tendency to fabricate. Saints are rather dull!

  3. Dr Paul said,

    Unfortunately the collection I assembled of left-wing essays on Orwell, George Orwell: Enigmatic Socialist, is out of print, but anyone wanting a PDF of my essay in it, ‘”I Know How But I Don’t Know Why”: George Orwell’s Conception of Totalitarianism’, can contact me at trusscott.foundation [at] blueyonder.co.uk.

  4. George Orwell Rules said,

    I second that toast. I think George Orwell is one the finest authors of the 20Th century, and this controversy about him stealing the plot from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s book We gets under my skin.

  5. Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism as I understand it. « Poumista said,

    […] as I understand it. I missed this excellent post by Jim Denham in my last Orwellia round-up: Orwell and socialism. Highly recommended. Published […]

  6. Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism as I understand it. « Poumista said,

    […] as I understand it. I missed this excellent post by Jim Denham in my last Orwellia round-up: Orwell and socialism. Highly […]

  7. VIGENCIA Y URGENCIA DE UN CLÁSICO: 1984 said,

    […] era un socialista convencido, e insistía en que Mil novecientos ochenta y cuatro no debía entenderse como un ataque al […]

  8. alvaro said,

    Orwell was very naive then … Precisely socialism brings that. One cannot separate economical freedom from the rest of freedoms.
    In 1984 we also see how the Govt is constantly changing the prices of all products, is interfering market without stop. Like today, Govt does not stop altering market.
    We see how that Big Brother is dropping propagandistic messages, like today leftists do, setting a new moral in which being gay is good, and if you do not accept it you are punished, you are “reactionary”,”backward thinker” …
    The lefist PC language is that “Police of Thought”…
    etc ..

  9. alvaro said,

    It’s surprising that Orwell describes a socialist economy, and however he says that 1984 was not an attack against socialism !!! Then? Why did not he described totalitarianism using a free market economy? Because inside free market economy that simply cannot happen. Totalitarianism goes hand in hand with socialism.
    That “democratical socialism” is a fallacy. When socialism gets the power inside a democratic system, it does not stop attacking democracy from the power. It does not stop deforming democratical institutions. It does not stop making clients that will always vote for socialism, getting money in subsidies. It does not stop attacking property and individual freedoms. It does not consent people to smoke inside their property !!! inside his own restaurant !! …
    Does Orwell believe that that totalitarian system is not result from the removal of economical freedom? … If so, he’s very naive !!
    We saw in that post, the “Police of Thought” in action: “Orwell, like many leftists of his day had some pretty backward views on women and gays and said some dodgy things about Jews” … why? Because today, the Police of Thought has set being gay officially good, like many other matters.

  10. Fundación Burke » Blog Archive » 1984: vigencia y urgencia de un clásico said,

    […] era un socialista convencido, e insistía en que Mil novecientos ochenta y cuatro no debía entenderse como un ataque al […]

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