The politics of George Orwell
These are a comrade’s speaking notes for a talk they did recently in Canberra on George Orwell. If comrades or others have suitable talking notes they would like published, let me know and I’ll see if they are appropriate for putting up on this blog.
George Orwell was a British writer, born in 1903 in India, died in 1950 from tuberculosis.
He wrote several classic political novels, including 1984 and Animal Farm and a book about his experience in the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia. I am going to focus on these three books.
Who has read these novels?
He never described himself as a Marxist, but as a democratic socialist. He wrote in 1941 that he wanted a socialism different from that of Marx and Russia, more suited to England. He was briefly a member of the Independent Labour Party, but left it when the Second World War started because of their anti-war position. He wrote for the Left Labour paper Tribune. In the 40s he said he supported Labour, but did not have illusions in them, worried that too much restraint would make them the same as the Conservatives.
On the other hand he supported the Spanish revolution, and opposed the Communist Party betrayal of that revolution, seeing it as a class war and coming down on the side of the working class.
Orwell played a crucial role in rejecting Stalinism from the left, in a period when Stalinism and socialism were seen as being the same thing by millions of socialists world wide.
Yet his novels are also claimed by the Right as supporting their view that socialism will not work, that human nature will lead to any revolution failing because those in power will be corrupted.
For example, Andrew Bolt, Victorian journalist and Right winger, says that Orwell was one of the greatest influences on him.
Even though Orwell did not say that Russia was socialist, the common view that Russia was socialist, the parallels between Russia and the story in Animal Farm and the horrible world in 1984, lead to his books being read as supporting the view that capitalism is the only option.
Many people unfamiliar with an alternative idea of socialism, read his novels and, even though they may not like capitalism, conclude that nothing can be done.
Homage to Catalonia described Orwell’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War.
In 1936, when Franco had tried to overthrow a mildly Left wing Government in Spain, the Spanish people had risen against him. Their resistance was accompanied by a revolutionary outbreak. Land was seized by the peasants; many factories and most of the transport was seized by the trade unions.
Orwell travelled to Spain and described what it felt like when he first arrived in Barcelona:
‘It was the first time I had been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flags of the anarchists. Every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties…Every shop and café had an inscription saying it had been collectivised. Waiters treated you as an equal. Servile speech had disappeared…in outward appearances it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist… I recognised it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.’
Orwell went to Spain to write about it, but quickly joined the militias to fight for democracy and against the Fascists because in his words ‘at that time, and in that atmosphere, it seemed the only conceivable thing to do’. His experiences opened his eyes to the potential of the working class and revolution, and also to the politics of the Communist Party and Russia.
The soldiers fighting against the Fascists were organised according to the different political groups. More by chance than by design, Orwell joined the militia of the POUM, the United Group of Marxists with politics aligned with Trotsky, rather than the Communist International Brigades. After fighting for several months, most of which involved a freezing standoff in the mountains, Orwell returned to Barcelona just before the Government sent three truck-loads of armed police (the Civil Guards) to take over the Telephone Exchange, which was operated mainly by Anarchist workers. The Anarchists responded and there was a week of street fighting between the Communists and police on one side and the Anarchists and POUM on the other. Orwell spent 3 days on top of a building across the road from the POUM headquarters, defending it.
He then knew which side he was on – I could not join any Communist controlled unit. Sooner or later it might mean being used against the Spanish working class, and if I had to use my rifle I would use it on the side of the working class and not against them.
He then went back to the front and was shot in the neck. After he came out of hospital, the POUM had been declared illegal and its members and the people associated with it were being arrested, put in prison and in some cases shot. Orwell spent several days in hiding, and in bravely trying to help some of his comrades get out, before leaving the country.
Orwell’s book Homage to Catalonia was an unflinching expose of what was happening in Spain.
He explained what all the different parties were doing, he countered the lies and accusations, defending the Trotskyists who were accused of plotting with Franco.
The Communist Party was representing the interests of Russia, which argued that revolution at this stage would be fatal, but also did not want a revolution in Spain because Russia had a military alliance with France, and France would not want a revolutionary neighbour. The Communists were doing everything they could to roll back the gains of the revolution, and to do that they were attacking the POUM, accusing them of being disguised Fascists, Trotskyists and traitors.
He dealt with the argument being put by the Republicans and Stalinists that it was necessary to beat the Fascists first, and put the revolution on hold, even though this was what he had thought at first. He now agreed with the POUM line ‘We must go forward or we shall go back.’ [He argued that by calling for support for Revolutionary Spain, there could be an appeal for revolutionary support from other countries and for action behind Franco’s lines such as in Morocco.]
He described how the Russians could dictate terms because they were the only ones supplying arms to the Government. How every reshuffle of the Government was a move towards the Right, first expelling the POUM, then the anarchist CNT.
Every change was said to be needed to win the war, but ‘in every case, needless to say, it appeared that the thing demanded by military necessity was the surrender of something that the workers had won for themselves in 1936.’
‘Direct power had been gradually manoeuvred out of the hands of the syndicates, and the general movement was away from working-class control and towards centralised control, leading on to State capitalism, or, possibly, towards the reintroduction of private capitalism.’
‘The process of collectivization was checked, the local committees were got rid of, the workers patrols were abolished and the pre-war police forces were restored, and various key industries which had been under the control of the trade unions were taken over by the Government. The seizure of the Barcelona Telephone Exchange, which led to the May fighting, was one incident in this process. Finally, the workers’ militias, based on the trade unions, were gradually broken up and redistributed among the new Popular Army, a ‘non-political’ army, with a different pay rate, a privileged officer-caste. The main purpose of the change was to make sure that the Anarchists did not possess an army of their own.’
In contrast with what he saw when he first arrived in Barcelona, inequality was reappearing – the rich and wealthy were reappearing in the hotels and eating enormous meals in the restaurants, while for the working class food prices had jumped enormously and bread was scarce.
After Spain Orwell wrote ‘I have seen wonderful things and at last really believe in Socialism, which I never did before.’
One had breathed the air of equality. Party-hacks are busy proving that Socialism means no more than a planned state-capitalism. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it is the idea of equality; a classless society. And it was here that those few months in the militia were valuable to me. For the Spanish militias were a microcosm of a classless society. It deeply attracted me. The effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual.
Animal Farm was written in 1943 and 1944 but published after the Second World War.
It told the tale of animals who, after the farmer Mr Jones was drunk and failed to feed them, threw the farmer off the farm and started running it themselves.
The book follows the history of the Russian Revolution – the animals have to fight off an attack from other farmers, one pig, Snowball, representing Trotsky, leads the defence of the farm and the animals win. But then Napoleon, the pig representing Stalin, starts arguing against Snowballs ideas and eventually Snowball is driven off the farm. From then on, the other pigs blame everything that goes wrong on Snowball. The animals try to build a windmill, representing the push to build industry, but it is blown down in a storm – Snowball is blamed.
Many school essays are written about who the different characters are – Napoleon trains the dogs to protect him – they are the KGB, another pig, Squealer, is always telling lies, rewriting history and applauding Napoleon as the Leader – that is the Propaganda department.
The cart-horse Boxer is the working class – his strength is vital, but Orwell portrays him as unintelligent – he can’t learn to read. Whenever things get difficult he says – I will work harder. He gets up earlier than everyone else to help build the windmill. He says that Napoleon is always right.
Whenever things get difficult or confusing, the animals are asked, well, you wouldn’t want Mr Jones to come back. Oh no, of course not. To drown out any argument, the sheep start chanting “Four legs good, two legs bad.”
The animals write seven commandments on the wall of the barn – including All animals are equal, No animal shall kill any other animal and no animal shall sleep in a bed.
But when the pigs and dogs kill animals who confess to sabotage and collaborating with Snowball, representing the Moscow show trials, the line becomes No animal shall kill any other animal without cause.
When the pigs start sleeping in the beds in the house, the slogan becomes No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets.
When Boxer the cart-horse breaks down from working too hard, he is sent to the slaughterhouse but the animals are told that he was sent to the hospital. What a powerful image of the betrayal of the working class.
‘The luxuries of which they had dreamt, the stalls with electric light and hot and cold water, and the three day week, were no longer talked about. Napoleon had denounced such ideas as contrary to the spirit of Animalism, read Communism. The truest happiness, he said, lay in working hard and living frugally.’
When the pigs start walking on two legs, and carrying whips, the sheep had been taught to chant “Four legs good, two legs better.”
The slogans on the barn had been deleted except for one, which now read:
All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.
In the final pages, the nearby farmers come to visit and inspect the farm. The humans and pigs have a big feast and make speeches. The farmers say:
‘The lower animals on Animal Farm did more work and received less food than any animals in the country.
Between pigs and human beings there was not, and there need not be, any clash of interests whatever. Was not the labour problem the same everywhere?’
Napoleon responded: ‘Their sole wish was to live at peace and in normal business relations with their neighbours.’
And the animals looking in through the window ‘looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.’
So to draw out the point, impossible to see a difference between the capitalists and the ruling elite in Russia.
Nor surprising then that Animal Farm was on a list of forbidden books in the Eastern Bloc until 1989.
The CIA wanted to use Animal Farm as an anti-Communist weapon, and when Orwell died they bought the films rights from his widow. They made it into a cartoon in the 1950s, but changed the ending so that it was not also seen as an anti-capitalist story, by only having the pigs in the final scene. The CIA and the British secret propaganda agency ensured that Animal Farm was published throughout the world.
Although the book is claimed by the conservatives as a warning of where revolutions inevitably lead, the book endorses the initial revolutionary act, and the degeneration into totalitarianism is criticised as a betrayal of socialism.
Orwell wrote of his intentions:
‘I meant the moral to be that revolutions are only a radical improvement when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job.
The turning point of the story was supposed to be when the pigs kept the milk and apples for themselves. (Kronstadt). If the other animals had had the sense to put their foot down then, it would have been all right. … What I was trying to say was ‘You can’t have a revolution unless you make it for yourself, there is no such thing as a benevolent dictatorship.”
Orwell was arguing that whatever the experience in Russia, there was no inevitability that workers would make the same mistake elsewhere. What happened in Russia would not necessarily happen in Britain.
He wrote in the preface of the Ukrainian edition: ‘
“nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of socialism as the belief that Russia is a socialist country and that every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imitated.
for the past ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the socialist movement.’
It is a book written from the perspective of the left, not against revolution, but against its corruption.
Now we can criticise Orwell’s depiction of the animals as being too stupid, too easily lead astray. And a similar sense comes from some of his other writings too, But he certainly continued to believe in socialism.
He does not give enough emphasis to the economic causes of the failure of the Russian revolution, the tiny size of the working class, the backwardness of the economy, the devastating effects of the civil war on both the economy and on the working class and the failure of revolutions in other countries which could have helped Russia.
Then we come to Orwell’s most famous work, 1984, published in 1949, originally conceived as an attack on the totalitarianism of both the Fascist and Stalinist variety, influenced by the Trotskyist critique of the Soviet Union. It was a warning to the left of what totalitarianism could look like in Britain.
In the book Winston Smith is a low-ranking member of the ruling Party in London, in the nation of Oceania. Everywhere Winston goes, even his own home, the Party watches him through telescreens; everywhere he looks he sees the face of the Party’s seemingly all-knowing leader, Big Brother. The Party controls everything in Oceania, even the people’s history and language. Even thinking rebellious thoughts is illegal.
‘Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.’
Oceania is a superpower at permanent war with one or the other of the world’s other two powers, Eurasia and Eastasia.
‘At this moment, Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. … Officially the change of partners had never happened.’
He works in the propaganda department, the Ministry of Truth, where he is rewriting the past to fit the needs of the Party. From the Ministry comes one of the most famous of all Orwellian slogans in which Orwell brilliantly captures the “doublethink” of totalitarian mind-control: “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.”
Winston tries to rebel but is ultimately betrayed, brain washed and broken.
The main element of hope to rid the world of this monstrous dictatorship, to which Winston clings, is in the working class, the proletariat, called the ‘the proles’ in the book. Smith reiterates time and time again throughout the book, that ‘if there is hope, it lies in the proles.’
Apart from generating many reality TV shows, 1984 warns about the power and misuse of propaganda, about the stripping away of civil liberties, about electronic surveillance. The shifting allegiances in the never ending war repeat what happened during the Second World War, when first Russia was hated, and then applauded. The ongoing war economy is similar to the Cold War.
The main reason why the right were able to take advantage of 1984 was because at the time the left in Britain and the U.S. was so dominated by Stalinists of various shades who insisted against all criticism that the USSR was socialist, so that any attack on Soviet Communism was seen to be an attack on socialism itself. The problem was not any alleged ‘conservatism’ on the part of Orwell, but rather the left’s continued endorsement of Stalinism.
Once again, we can look at what Orwell said he intended in the book:\
‘My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on socialism…The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: “Don’t let it happen. It depends on you”.
Far from renouncing his ties with socialism at this time, he took every opportunity to publicly restate it, writing in 1946:
‘The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. 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.’
I will finish with the words of George Orwell, the last words on the question, was George Orwell anti socialist. The words of Winston Smith looking out upon a prole woman:
‘It was curious to think that the sky was the same for everybody, in Eurasia and Eastasia as well as here. And the people under the sky were also very much the same – everywhere, all over the world, hundreds of thousands, millions of people just like this, people ignorant of one another’s existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same – people who had never learned to think but who were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overrun the world. If there was hope, it lay with the proles!… The future belonged to the proles…The proles were immortal, you could not doubt it when you looked at that valiant figure in the yard. In the end their awakening would come.’