George Orwell, the Socialist

George Orwell is a complex figure. When Orwell is taught in schools, however, he is almost invariably presented quite simply, as an opponent of socialism.

Let us look at some of the quotes from the George Orwell they don’t teach about in school, on the other hand:

For some years past I have managed to make the capitalist class pay me several pounds a week for writing books against capitalism. But I do not delude myself that this state of affairs is going to last forever … the only régime which, in the long run, will dare to permit freedom of speech is a Socialist régime.

(From Orwell’s 1938 article “Why I Joined the Independent Labour Party”)

Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.

(From Orwell’s 1946 article “Why I Write”)

When Orwell is presented in schools, he is correctly presented as an opponent of the USSR, but virtually never mentioned is the fact that he was a socialist. His anti-Soviet stance is supposed to imply tacit support for the Western capitalist-imperialist system; by studying Orwell’s critiques of the Soviet Union, while excluding his critiques of the West, schools only further ingrain the deep-seated sentiment (that is to say propaganda) in US education and culture that the infinitely benevolent, freedom-loving West is always on the side of the celestial Good in the manichean battle between Good and Evil.

Schools prefer propagating binary ideological thinking: “Orwell was opposed to Soviet ‘totalitarianism,’ therefore he was not a ‘socialist,’ therefore he was a capitalist, therefore he supported the capitalist West,” the unspoken logic habitually goes. Orwell’s opposition to capitalism is almost never presented, nor is his advocacy of (democratic) socialism.

This is a man who fought in the Spanish Revolution and saw the beauties of truly democratic socialism working first-hand — before it was crushed by Spanish fascism, thanks in no small part to the complete inaction (and even indirect, especially corporate, support for fascism) of the rest of the capitalist West.

Owell biographer John Newsinger writes:

…the other crucial dimension to Orwell’s socialism was his recognition that the Soviet Union was not socialist. Unlike many on the left, instead of abandoning socialism once he discovered the full horror of Stalinist rule in the Soviet Union, Orwell abandoned the Soviet Union and instead remained a socialist — indeed he became more committed to the socialist cause than ever.

Far from Perfect

This by no means Orwell was a perfect (or even necessarily admirable) figure. On the contrary, there are huge problems with Orwell, especially later in life, when he became a reactionary — voluntarily serving as an “informer” for the British government, turning in Soviet sympathizers.

But, although his crimes are inexcusable, that is ultimately irrelevant here. My point is merely that Orwell’s socialism is almost always ignored — and most conveniently, at that.

In regards to the infamous “Orwell’s List,” in the next paragraph of the aforecited article, Newsinger writes

In 1948 the Labour government established a propaganda organisation, the Information Research Department (IRD), supposedly to counter Communist propaganda and advocate the cause of democratic socialism. In practice, it was to become an important tool of British imperialism in the Cold War, carrying out black propaganda at home and abroad. Shortly before his death Orwell became one of a number on the non-Communist left recruited to help the organisation. He provided it with his notorious list of people he believed could not be relied on to help fight Communism. This was a terrible mistake on his part, deriving in equal measure from his hostility to Stalinism and his illusions in the Labour government. What it certainly does not amount to, however, is an abandonment of the socialist cause or transformation into a footsoldier in the Cold War. Indeed, Orwell made clear on a number of occasions his opposition to any British McCarthyism, to any bans and proscriptions on Communist Party members (they certainly did not reciprocate this) and any notion of a preventive war. If he had lived long enough to realise what the IRD was actually about there can be no doubt that he would have broken with it.

Taking issue with this argument in his provocatively titled article “St. George’s List“, printed in the December 1998 issue of The Nation, Alexander Cockburn writes:

Orwell’s defenders claim that he was only making sure the wrong sort of person wasn’t hired by the Foreign Office to write essays on the British ways of life. But Orwell made it clear to the IRD he was identifying people who were “unreliable” and who, worming their way into organizations like the British Labor Party, “might be able to do enormous mischief.” Loyalty was the issue, and it’s plain enough from his annotations that Orwell thought that Jews, blacks, and homosexuals had an inherent tropism towards treachery to the values protected by the coalition of patriots including himself and the IRD. G.D.H. Cole, Orwell noted, was “shallow,” a “sympathizer” and also a “diabetic.”

There seems to be general agreement by Orwell’s fans left and right, to skate gently over these Orwellian suspicions of Jews, homosexuals, and blacks, also the extreme ignorance of his assessments, reminiscent of police intelligence files the world over. Of Paul Robeson Orwell wrote, “very antiwhite. [Henry] Wallace supporter.” Only a person who instinctively thought all blacks were anti-white could have written this piece of stupidity. One of Robeson’s indisputable features, consequent upon his intellectual disposition and his connections with the Communists, was that he was most emphatically not “very anti-white,” Ask the Welsh coal miners for whom Robeson campaigned.

If any other postwar intellectual was suddenly found to have written mini-diatribes about blacks, homosexuals, and Jews, we can safely assume that subsequent commentary would not have been forgiving. There was certainly no forgiveness for Mencken. But Orwell gets a pass. “Deutscher [Polish Jew],” “Driberg, Tom. English Jew,” “Chaplin, Charles (Jewish?).” No denunciations from the normally sensitive Norman Podhoretz.

When someone becomes a saint, everything is mustered as testimony to his holiness. So it is with St. George and his list. Thus, in 1998, when the list became an issue, we have fresh endorsement of all the cold war constructs as they were shaped in the immediate postwar years, when the cold war coalition from right to left signed on to fanatical anti-Communism. The IRD, disabled in the seventies by a Labor Foreign Minister on the grounds it was a sinkhole of rightwing nuts, would have been pleased.

Orwell’s Animal Farm is a powerful fable, though as I’ve noted, in my experience, the effect of the fable has mostly been to deride the utopian impulse.

I am writing this not to try to redeem or “claim” Orwell in any way. Orwell’s racism and heterosexism (although by no means limited to him at this time; both, especially the latter, were widespread even among some avowed leftists — not that this serves as any sort of excuse) are inexcusable and should be vociferously condemned. Even more vociferously should we condemn his complicity with the British government in its draconian (most ironically, one might even say “totalitarian”) repression of the left.

In writing this, I merely hope to dispel the insidious myth that Orwell’s books are right-wing manifestos about the dangers of socialism overall, and to point out that Orwell’s books are in fact very explicitly condemnations of a specific kind of system that called itself socialist but was, in his view, hardly anything of the sort.

I write this to demonstrate that those who opposed (or still oppose, after the fact) the socialism of the USSR were not suddenly ergo capitalists — in fact, some of the most strident critics of the USSR were driven to their heated criticisms precisely because they were committed socialists and argued that the Soviet empire was tarnishing socialism’s beautiful name and legacy.

Socialism is incredibly diverse, and Orwell — the figure many right-wingers quote regularly and religiously, never truly understanding his work — was an avowed socialist until the day he died.