Sixty years since the death of Orwell

January 20, 2010 at 11:40 pm (history, Jim D, literature, politics, socialism, truth)

In January 1950, his health broken by the effort of completing Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell was planning to go to a sanatorium in Switzerland. He never made it. On the night of 21 January 1950,  his tubercular lung haemorrhaged and he died alone in a London hospital bed.

Despite the Swiss pipe-dream, all the evidence suggests that Orwell knew he was dying. Shortly before his death he’d  made a new will which included detailed instructions for his funeral. It also included the request that no biography should be written. Fortunately for us, Bernard Crick (with the agreement of Orwell’s widow Sonia) eventually defied this request and in 1980 Penguin published his George Orwell: A Life. The taboo having been broken, several other Orwell biographies have followed but Crick’s remains far and away the best; it’s presently out of print, which is a scandal. On the 60th anniversary of Orwell’s death I can think of no better tribute than to quote from the closing passages of Crick’s book – which include a section from Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘Why I Write‘:

“Let a paragraph from the same essay that Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus printed at the very beginning of  The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters serve as his own epitaph at the end of his first full and unwanted biography:

“‘What I have most wanted to do throughout the last ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and I do not want, completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the suface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.’

“‘…Our prerogatives as men’ wrote Louis MacNeice, ‘Will be cancelled who knows when…?’, if we cannot radically alter our relationship with public power; but neither a transformed nor a reformed public realm will be worth having if individual creative values do not flourish, indeed fructify in abundance for the majority of people, not just the chosen or even the self-chosen few. In striving to keep a deliberate balance between public and private values, between creative work and necessary labour, between politics and culture, Orwell’s life and his writings should both guide and cheer us. He hated the power-hungry, execised intelligence and independence, and taught us again to use our language with beauty and clarity, sought for and practiced fraternity and faith in the decency, tolerance and humanity of the common man. And what is even more heartening, he was all that and yet as odd in himself and as varied in his friends as a man can be.” 


  1. Rosie said,

    Such a great loss that he didn’t last another twenty years. We missed what he would have said about Suez, McCarthyism and Vietnam. Some people try and denigrate him as heading towards being a cold war warrior but I can imagine his reaction to McCarthyism being every much as biting as his reaction to the Moscow trials and Stalin worship. We missed works on George Gissing and Evelyn Waugh.

    His two last novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were his best and he would have written more that we can’t imagine. Who would have been able to imagine anything like Animal Farm from his earlier work? Not the politics, but demonstrating them in a fable. Or the Appendix of Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Principles of Newspeak. Those are works of the imagination reaching high.

    Of course he was almost killed in the Spanish Civil War, once by a Fascist bullet and once by Stalin’s henchmen, so it was always as if he was living on borrowed time.

    His influence has been huge. You can see it in the blogosphere, not to mention some of the sharper writers of our time.

  2. Sixty years since the death of Orwell « Poumista said,

    […] years since the death of Orwell Here. Published […]

  3. shug said,

    Complex man Orwell,i always wondered why his dislike of his class.I put it down to his school boy days faging and that oppresive indoctrination to education would have skerered.

  4. shug said,

    Bugger i left out the w.

  5. red snapper said,

    Unfortunately he ended up as a spook for the British state. How many good socialists were persecuted because of him grassing on them? Fucking class traitor.

    • No More Thermidor said,

      How many good socialists were tortured and murdered by Stalin’s agents because of British Stalinists grassing on them, you cringing counter-revolutionary piece of shit?

  6. maxdunbar said,

    Absolute nonsense. The names he provided were all of convinced Stalinists and one was a Russian spy. You should be ashamed of yourself for saying such stupid things.

  7. red snapper said,

    I’m no Stalinist. But surely if necessary they should have been dealt with by the workers movement rather than collaboration with the British state who as you know is no friend of the working class and the left? Isn’t this the same excuse the “liberal imperialists” use to justify illegal wars to topple regimes that they don’t like?

  8. red snapper said,

    I see no difference between what Orwell did and the McCarthy witchunts where hundreds os “convinced stalinists” amongst others also lost their jobs and had their lives ruined. Only the scale was different. They both “named names” to the agents of the ruling class, which after all is our main enemy.

  9. maxdunbar said,

    McCarthyism was an attempt to root out communist spies. It didn’t unearth a single communist spy but it destroyed the lives of many innocent people.

    Orwell was approached by his ex, Celia Kirwan, who was at that time working in the Information Research Bureau in the Foreign Office under Labour. She wanted to recruit democratic socialists (i.e. not Stalinists) and asked Orwell if he could nominate anyone.

    Orwell said: ‘Well, don’t hire X, X or X, because they are Stalin sympathisers’. It’s probable that Orwell was just naming people he had argued with in print or person, it’s not as if Stalinists were covert about their ideological commitments in the 1930s.

    The fact that you parrot the ‘illegal war’ line shows that you have the same shitty, cliched thinking on that issue as you have on McCarthyism or Orwell.

    • Lobby Ludd said,

      I think that partially qualifies your previous point about ‘convinced Stalinists’.

      My understanding is that Orwell was approached to work for the Information Research Department, a Foreign Office propaganda unit. Owing to his ill-health he declined the offer, but volunteered a list of those he considered unsuitable for such work – largely those he considered ‘crypto-Communists’ or ‘fellow travellers’ ie too sympathetic towards the Soviet Union. This was a list he had created for himself, he was not asked to create it.

      It is a rather sad end to the man. It is difficult to believe that the people on his list were unknown to the ‘secret services’, he had no special information not available to them – so why did he think his assessment had any value?

      It is doubtful that anyone suffered as a consequence of his ‘blacklist’, he was not a British McCarthy, and would have opposed such persecution.

  10. red snapper said,

    You mean the Attlee gov’t? The one who gave us the bomb, invaded Korea, joined NATO, was faithful a ally of Yankee imperialism, supported the fascists against the left in Greece and various other crimes against humanity? Oh and and at the same time threw the working class some crumbs to make sure that the Labour movement remained tied to the British state, capitalism and imperialism. I too would have supported and happily spied for the USSR at the time. Anything to undermine the ruling class.

  11. maxdunbar said,

    Thanks mate.

    That’s all we need to know.

  12. red snapper said,

    who do you mean by “we”? sounds ominous. You Special Branch/MI5 or something? Wouldn’t surprise me as you seem to be an apologist for the security forces and their dirty tricks.

  13. Rosie said,

    On the whole I’d rather be an apologist for the security forces and their dirty tricks than a stooge of Stalin and his infinitely filthier tricks.

  14. red snapper said,

    Well guess we know which side you’re on. The enemy of socialism and the working class. An apologist for imperialist mass murder from Ireland to Palestine. From Afganistan to Iraq. Ill have the KGB anytime over your fascist CIA and MI6 murdering scum.

  15. Rosie said,

    Red Snapper – you are evidently a tribute act to the kind of people Orwell wrote about over sixty years ago, the ones who thought if you supported repressive totalitarian states you were emancipating the working class:-

    The English intelligentsia, or a great part of it, had developed a nationalistic loyalty towards me USSR, and in their hearts they felt that to cast any doubt on me wisdom of Stalin was a kind of blasphemy. Events in Russia and events elsewhere were to be judged by different standards. The endless executions in me purges of 1936-8 were applauded by life-long opponents of capital punishment, and it was considered equally proper to publicise famines when they happened in India and to conceal them when they happened in me Ukraine. And if this was true before the war, the intellectual atmosphere is certainly no better now.

    . . .The English intelligentsia, or most of them, will object to this book [Animal Farm] because it traduces their Leader and (as they see it) does harm to the cause of progress.

    I do have to say though that your tribute act is a bit crude and exaggerated.

    • Lobby Ludd said,

      Reading the quote from Orwell from Rosie above reminds me why as a naive youth (I am now a naive old git) I admired him. There are certain writers, Nick Cohen is a good/bad example, who try to write like him, can’t, and so have to invent a new enemy for themselves to conquer in the failed process.

      When you think how shit certain writers can be, despite their great love of the Orwell, then you begin to doubt that the man himself was that good. Orwell wrote about the “English intelligentsia”, was that another dishonest generalisation, like Cohen’s ‘left’? I hope not, but why not name names and confront arguments rather than address an undefined group and their imputed weaknesses?

      I am a great fan of George Orwell’s writing, but am not happy with the company

      • Rosie said,

        Orwell was a great one for self-confident generalisations. “Thinking people” was one. If he was a blogger you’d be shouting out for evidence and links. As far as his inheritors are concerned eg Cohen, they’re lesser beings. Hitchens is about the best of his descendants, and he is a more literary writer – his stuff’s full of quotes and allusions and quips.

        As for Cohen’s subject matter, some of the Left’s easy pass to Islamism is a much smaller matter than the useful idiots of Orwell’s generation. Anyway, a writer isn’t responsible for his fans trying to write in his way and not bringing it off.

  16. maxdunbar said,

    Lionel Trilling said that the amazing thing about Orwell was that he wasn’t a genius. He achieved so much more through intellectual honesty and clarity than he did through his own talent.

  17. Matt said,

    Max is spot on about how it’s nonsense to call Orwell a ‘cold war’ spy as red snapper does in trying to smear him. While I certainly wouldn’t have done what he did, to compare it to either McCarthyism or Stalinism is ridiculous. As Celia Kirwan points out in the article Rosie linked to above:

    “And, of course, everybody thinks that these people were going to be shot at dawn. The only thing that was going to happen to them was that they wouldn’t be asked to write for the Information Research Department.”

    Unlike the real victims of McCarthyite and Stalinist purges, the people on Orwell’s list went on to enjoy long academic, literary and political careers without any persecution from the British ruling-class they were supposedly working to bring down.

  18. Geoff Collier said,

    I was surprised that there was so little mention of the Orwell anniversary. In fact this is all I’ve seen so I have to praise the SS for covering it. I wrote a dissertation last year on him but gave up trying to talk about it once I realised that hardly anyone is interested in Orwell nowadays.

    Anyway, the key point in understanding Orwell is to see him as a socialist without a political compass who was repelled by the experience of stalinism in Spain. That repulsion coloured his entire political activity thereafter. With the non-stalinist marxist left being fairly irrelevant. he graduated to what he saw as the only part of the left that could effectively oppose stalinism – the right wing of the Labour Party. It was they who established the Information Research Department. Orwell wished to collaborate to promote socialist but anti-stalinist writing, justas he thought he had been doing for over a decade. As it turns out, the only effect of his collaboration was to save them the cost of about 30 postage stamps.

  19. johng said,

    Then again Orwell’s undying and bitter hatred of imperialism is something which would discomfort not a few commentators here. I was reading one of his articles denouncing the failure to offer India freedom in exchange for support for the war against Hitler just the other day.

  20. Matt said,

    Johng, as an AWL member and an admirer of Orwell I actually think the sections on the war and the British Empire in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ are politically his weakest writing. He explicitly argues against granting India full independence – as opposed to Dominion status – during the war (or indeed ‘within five or ten years’) on the grounds that “India not only cannot defend itself, it is hardly even capable of feeding itself…if the British marched out of India the Japanese and other powers would immediately march in”

    There are I think a number of problems with his attitude here and your apparent approval of it.

    1. he is implicitly arguing that whatever its faults British imperialism is still better than Japanese imperialism in Asia which presumably is to be condemned as especially brutal, militaristic etc. I think that’s a racist argument, do you?

    2. he thinks it’s automatic that India once granted Dominion status would join the Allied war effort. Why should it? Would it not make more sense for it to follow the Irish Free State’s example and declare neutrality?

    3. the line about India being “hardly even capable of feeding itself” is particularly ironic given it was the Allied war effort that led directly to at least a million and a half people starving to death in the Bengal famine of 1943.

  21. maxdunbar said,


    So have we praised the British Empire in any posts at Shiraz?

    I don’t recall seeing anything like that – do you have a link?

  22. johng said,

    Well, undying was probably exaggerated. Orwell was often inconsistant,and argued quite contrary positions just a year before (at the time of the stafford cripps failure in his writings in the Observer, was the piece I was reading). His switch to a kind of patriotic popular frontism in the Lion and the Unicorn contrast greatly with some of his political writings in the first two years of war (where his position is pretty close to anarchism). The focus on imperialism if you go through all of his work is quite striking though, and outside of that one book make him an unlikely figure for support Eustonites. Obviously he had a Jim Denham moment. On the whole he greatly detested imperialism, in particular the British variant, and wrote rather wonderfully about it. As it happens his position on Japanese Imperialism was shared by Nehru (although not Gandhi) as well, of course, as the Communist Party (both in Britain and in India).

    • Rosie said,

      Anti-imperialism, British variety was what got Orwell going in the first place. His early work, the novel Burmese Days and the essay Shooting an Elephant, are about imperialism. There are a lot of references and short pieces scattered throughout his work about British imperialism, which he calls a swindle and a racket. “The European peoples, and especially the British, have owed their high standard of life to direct or indirect exploitation of the coloured peoples. This relationship has never been made clear by official Socialist propaganda” and goes on to say that the colonies must become republics on a complete equality it with the European peoples” and foretells “bitter, complex struggles,” which is true enough. (from an essay Towards European Unity).

      I don’t think that his best work deals with imperialism. When he makes strong, original points and is writing at the height of his powers in the great essays like Politics and the English Language or The Art of Donald McGill the subject is not imperialism. However, that is not to say that he wouldn’t have written something big on the subject – he died just when the British Empire was starting to fall to pieces.

  23. Red Maria said,

    @ Rosie and Max: Can either of you guys do a post on Stalin just for me? Uncle Joe fascinates me. He took evil to new depths of … well … evil. You know he was fascinated by Ivan Grozny, which figures. But even Grozny felt remorse for his actions, paying a convent a small fortune to have Mass said for his soul, something still done to this day. But Koba never felt anything for his victims.

    Everyone and I mean everyone should read this book: This I cannot forget, by Anna Larina.

    Anna Larina was Bukharin’s widow. I think it was Chris Harman who met her before she died in 1999 to which all I can say is wow. It must have been like meeting a saint and living link with history.

    I disagree with Geoff Collier that people aren’t interested in Orwell these days. On the contrary he’s still a big name and crowd puller. My friend Paul Anderson had a book published on Orwell in Tribune. It’s very good. Orwell was a quite outstanding writer. Down and Out in Paris and London is an excellent read.

    • Rosie said,

      You flatter me if you think I could write anything worth reading about Koba the Dread. I don’t find that kind of paranoia that can lead you to a stupid destructiveness particularly interesting. Saddam Hussein was a big admirer of him and imitated his ways of terror. What I find interesting is that people who live in countries where they don’t fear their own governments will murder them and their families find such ruthlessness rather attractive and will find excuses for it.

      Yeah, I disagree with Geoff Collier. Orwell’s still quoted, people talk about “room 101” and “Big Brother is watching you” and “all xes are equal but some are more equal”. Blogs have quotations from him on their top banners. I’ve just read an essay by Clive James where he says “any substantial publication has a would-be George Orwell rippling the keys in every second cubicle”. I don’t know if he’s taught at schools or universities. Animal Farm was a set text in schools wasn’t it?

  24. johng said,

    I don’t know about Bukharin’s widow, but Bukharin himself was certainly not a saint. He was described as the ‘hammer of the Trotskyists’ and took full part in Stalin’s purge of the left opposition.

  25. Lobby Ludd said,

    Red Maria said:

    “I disagree with Geoff Collier that people aren’t interested in Orwell these days. On the contrary he’s still a big name and crowd puller.”

    Yeah, I saw him only yesterday, tried to get his autograph. Couldn’t get close enough, some bloke said he’d never seen Observer readers go so mental.

  26. Red Maria said,

    JohnG: eggs, omelettes etc. He paid the ultimate price for it, I suppose.

    Lobby Ludd 🙂

  27. Rosie said,

    There is an Orwell Society at Eton.

    I suppose because Orwell was a pupil there, though a lazy one. God! how he would have hated a privileged smoothy like Cameron.

    I got that snipped from an article on Koestler:-

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