George Orwell’s politics have always been contentious. In his lifetime, he was a notable intellectual contrarian whose antipathy to received wisdom of all kinds made him admirers and enemies across the political spectrum – and since his death the argument about what he was really about politically has been vigorous (and shows no sign of ending soon).
Sixty-four years after he died and 65 and a bit after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, people from all parts of the political spectrum still want to appropriate the mantle of Orwell – from Trotskyists who emphasise his debt to the "Old Man" to conservatives who admire him as a “Tory anarchist”. On the other side, there are those who find different things with which to fault him – leftists who see him as an establishment cold warrior nark, feminists who question his attitudes to women, conservatives who see him as a delusional leftist, and so on. And that’s before you take into account the vast interpretative literature by writers without any obvious partisan axe to grind or stated political preferences – the two most interesting in the past year in my view Robert Colls’s take on Orwell’s life as a struggle with Englishness, George Orwell: English Rebel, and Peter Wilkin’s provocative essay in Political Studies putting the case for “George Orwell: The English Dissident as a Tory Anarchist” with some verve, although not I think convincingly. And then there are all those authors engaging with Orwell’s concerns with specific issues, from the theory of geopolitics to surveillance.
My purpose here is not to put a stop to all this: this one will run and run, because Orwell was a complex and in many ways contradictory character who drew on a vast range of personal experience and reading, constantly developing his ideas. He did this, moreover, not primarily by issuing political manifestos – though there are rather more of those than most people think – but by way of fiction and cultural criticism, much of it designed as provocation of real and imagined critics. In other words, he was a wind-up artist and a satirist, proud of what the great Joe Strummer (though not Orwell himself) would have described as his bullshit detector.
And people don’t read Orwell just for his politics – or even for his politics. He was an exponent of clarity and simplicity of style who will be read long after people forget the battles he fought. Like Michael Gove, I think that Animal Farm will be read in 250 years just as Robinson Crusoe is read now, by children and adults, as a gripping yarn, long after its immediate political significance becomes lost in the mists of time.
But – for all that – my argument today is that the best description of Orwell’s mature politics remains that given by the late Bernard Crick more than 30 years ago in his biography, George Orwell: A Life – and that’s “Tribune socialism”. Orwell was the paper’s literary editor from 1943 to 1945; and from 1943 to 1947 (with a couple of gaps) he contributed a column, mostly under the rubric "As I Please", that remains in my view the model of how to write.
"But what the hell is Tribune socialism?" I hear you ask. Well, Tribune was – and is – the organ of the democratic left in the Labour Party … mainly weekly but in hard times fortnightly, as it is today. And for most of its life it has been worth reading. It was set up by Stafford Cripps in 1937. In its first years it was a dull communist-fellow-traveller rag, but from 1940 – a bit too late if you ask me and if you’d asked Orwell, who claimed (I think diplomatically), in a piece he wrote for its 10th anniversary, to have been only vaguely aware of its existence before then – it found a life of its own, and ever since it has been where the democratic Labour left has fought its battles.
It’s less visible than it used to be, partly because the Labour left has declined catastrophically, partly because it’s very difficult to get small-circulation newspapers distributed, partly because of the rise of the internet. But it is still there, and I’m told a relaunch is imminent. Of course, Tribune’s politics have changed over time, but since 1940 it has always been a voice for democratic socialism – common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, egalitarianism, and a culture of freedom of expression which I’d describe as libertarian, though the word has been appropriated by radical-right free-marketeers. And that's in spite of the fact that it's difficult it is to find consistency over the years in its approach to Europe and other big issues of international relations … most importantly the cold war and Soviet communism, on which it was always a battleground between optimists who hoped for the best from every new leader or apparent thaw and pessimists who despaired that the Soviet "model" would bury all hope for democratic socialism. These arguments went on right up to the end of the cold war and still resonate today.
Whatever, for the last decade and more of his life, I believe, Orwell was a free-thinking but hardly atypical Labour libertarian leftist, and to situate him otherwise is a mistake. When he wrote, in “Why I Write” – published in the small magazine Gangrel in 1946 and read by next to nobody at the time – that “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”, he was telling the truth.
Of course, this is something we can argue about – which is why we’re here – but let’s look at the evidence.
To start at the beginning. Eric Blair was born in 1903 in India, the son of a colonial official, and was educated at a prep school in southern England and then at Eton, before taking a job in the imperial Indian police force. There is no real indication that he had much interest in politics until he dropped out of the police job and decided to become a writer, going off to Paris and slumming it in the UK – though it’s difficult to conceive of anyone deciding to do what he did without at very least a deep disaffection with the political status quo.
I’m intrigued by what made the young Eric Blair jack in respectability and take on the challenge of writing about poverty and imperialism, but unless a new tranche of letters is discovered in some Southwold attic I suspect that we’ll be in the land of speculation on this one forever. (This is another thing on which I’m in agreement with Crick, incidentally: theories of what made Orwell tick are fascinating, but I don’t really buy the story that Eric Blair created George Orwell as a strange attempt to give himself a whole new character: I think it was banal, the adoption of a pseudonym to avoid embarrassing his parents with his views, the sort of thing we all do when we assert ourselves as independent adults. Like Crick, I’m sceptical about attempts to get to the inner man in biographical writing in general – and with Orwell it’s a particular problem, because everyone who met him in the 1940s seems later to have projected on to him their own views as they developed after his death.)
You can take a different view on that, but I think we can all agree that the Orwell of Down and Out in Paris and London, Burmese Days and A Clergyman’s Daughter was a young man raging against the complacency of the English middle classes about poverty and imperialism; and it’s also clear that he was increasingly influenced in his politics by the Independent Labour Party milieu of the small-circulation review Adelphi, owned by John Middleton Murray and co-edited by Richard Rees and Max Plowman, although he was still working out exactly where he stood.
This is where there’s some controversy, of course. Was Orwell being serious when he told his Adelphi ILP friends – Rees and Jack Common – that he was a “Tory anarchist” in the early 1930s? Peter Wilkin in his recent article makes a valiant attempt to show that he was and that he remained one for the rest of his life – though he says that “this does not represent a theoretical framework; it is not an ideological response to social change”, which rather spoils his case. He goes on: “On the contrary, Tory anarchism is a stance, usually driven by artistic or literary ambitions, and a practice that reflects a certain temper that is in significant part a reaction to profound changes in Britain’s place in the world system”, in particular the decline of empire. For Wilkin, “Tory anarchism” is moral and cultural conservatism based on disdain for modern fads that undermine or underestimate the inherent common decency of the British working class, on pessimism and empiricism, on patriotism, with a penchant for satire and contrarianism.
This is a theme worth exploring, not least because there is a grand tradition from Jonathan Swift to Private Eye of just such an attitude to life, but there are real problems with it too. Wilkin’s parameters are drawn too widely: who is not a “Tory anarchist” on this rubric apart from the desiccated calculating machines of Fabian socialism, orthodox communism, free-market economics and university quality assurance administrations? OK, I’ll add the whole of the current professional political class, which has grown up over the past 40 years addicted to opinion polling and focus groups. But as Wilkin almost admits, you can be a “Tory anarchist” and at the same time be a revolutionary socialist or a Labour Party cabinet minister – as much as you can be a crusty UKIP voter in the saloon bar. On Wilkin’s definition, I’m a Tory anarchist … and so were Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot, and, I’d say, Karl Marx.
At root the problem is the notion of cultural and moral conservatism. I am a cultural and moral conservative insofar as I like books and newspapers and public libraries and real ale and long boozy lunches in Soho restaurants and the English countryside – oh, and choral music in cathedrals and people saying sorry when their feet are trodden on by accident on the London tube – and I believe people should behave decently towards one another in their intimate relationships. I don’t like most Hollywood movies and pop music, I think football and cricket have become horribly corrupted by money, I can’t stand the whole reality TV phenomenon. I worry about the surveillance state. But I’m also quite happy with quite a lot of modernity. I like the internet: Facebook, easily downloadable articles from academic journals, Sainsbury’s online shopping and (dare I say it) Amazon. I like gay rights and feminism. I’m easy about immigration … and so I could go on.
Enough of me, though. The point is that the same ambiguity about “progress” is felt by a lot of people in any advanced capitalist society – and was felt by Orwell in the 1930s and 1940s, as it was by Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, by John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos … and by Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot. If he was a “cultural and moral conservative” who regretted much that had been lost, got married in church and was intolerant of the cant of the day, he was also an enthusiast for the modern. There’s plenty of evidence for this. He was as engaged as anyone with the modernist literature of his time (Joseph Conrad, D H Lawrence, T S Eliot, James Joyce, Henry Miller and so on). His novels should be considered part of the modernist canon, if such a thing exists any more. He reviewed film as it became part of everyday life. He worked as an international radio broadcaster in the early 1940s (though he hated the BBC bureaucracy) when radio was newer as a mass medium than the internet is today. He was, in other words, a man who was “with it”, as they used to say, a follower of fashion even if he wasn’t altogether impressed by what he was following.
But let’s move on from “Tory anarchist”. It’s clear from Orwell’s earliest published work that he identified with the left – though by no means uncritically or unambiguously. And I’d say, with the benefit of hindsight, that his engagement with the wretched of the earth (the exploited poor of the colonies and the casual and itinerant labourers of the imperialist homelands, Marx’s lumpen proletariat) was remarkable. It indicates a commitment that was different in crucial respects from that of many other leftist writers of his time. Orwell’s sympathies were with the marginalised and excluded to a much greater extent than most others even in his political milieu.
If he’d died in 1935, however, he would have been forgotten or at best a minor cult figure for left-wing enthusiasts for modernist realist fiction and reportage, one of several writers who, influenced by Marxism and far-left ethical socialism – and by Swift and Dickens and Gissing and the American muck-rakers (as well as by Conrad and Lawrence, Kipling, Eliot and Pound) – tried to tell how capitalism and imperialism exploited the proletariat and the peasant masses in the colonies, a footnote to Jack London and Upton Sinclair. What changed that, what made Orwell different, were two things: his experience researching The Road to Wigan Pier, where he first confronted (albeit tentatively) the idea that a lot of the left was utterly useless at best and that some of it represented a threat to proletarian emancipation; and, most importantly, Spain.
The Road to Wigan Pier was Orwell’s first big-selling book, a soaraway success for Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club; and Spain was a crucial watershed in Orwell’s politics. He went out as an independent-minded but not particularly critical united fronter – all socialists should get together and fight fascism, a bog-standard position whatever his quirks – and returned convinced by his experience that the Soviet Union and its communist clients were not just unreliable allies but enemies of the revolutionary socialist and anti-fascist cause. He started off despairing at the anarchists’ and radical leftists’ lack of serious military organisation – while he admired the social revolution that was taking place in Catalonia, he considered leaving the POUM militia he had joined as an ILP sympathiser (though not actually a member) for the communist-controlled International Brigades. He ended up in horror at the communists’ suppression of the revolution (from which he escaped by the skin of his teeth). Homage to Catalonia, rejected by Gollancz for telling awkward truths, was the result.
All the same, Orwell was in the middle and late 1930s a fairly orthodox ILPer – which means that he was a revolutionary socialist attracted by Trotskyism and by an anarchism that was anything but Tory. He even joined the ILP after returning from Spain, though he didn’t participate in much of its activity, partly because he spent a long time recuperating in Morocco from TB and the bullet wound he’d received in Spain. He was against British rearmament to counter Nazi Germany (which would give the British bourgeoisie the means to attack the workers) and still a sceptical supporter of an international alliance between Britain and the Soviet Union against Hitler despite his Spanish experience.
But his affiliation to the ILP lasted only until the Hitler-Stalin pact of summer 1939. His account of the breach is too good to be true – he claimed to have had a dream that coincided with pact, after which he realised that his only option was to fight for Britain – but the breach was certainly for real. Like quite a few others on the far left, he was disgusted by the Soviet betrayal and appalled by the ILP’s official position of pacifism once war began, though he remained personally friendly with many former ILP comrades.
I’m not attempting here to downplay contradictory currents in Orwell’s thinking in the 1930s. Along with his affiliation to the ILP went deep pessimism and a sense of the absurdity – and worse – of the machinations of the far left. But I don’t think his basic political alignment can be written off as mere eccentricity or something he subsequently disavowed. With John Newsinger, I think it’s pretty much clear that he was a revolutionary leftist throughout the latter half of the 1930s.
What, though about the 1940s? In my view there are three phases, two of them wartime and the final one postwar.
The first was the period from 1939 to 1941, when Orwell settled accounts with the 1930s left, in particular the Communist Party. Even if you take sceptically his account of how his eyes were opened by the Hitler-Stalin pact, there’s no doubt that the event propelled him into a radical change of political position: the pact was another watershed, almost as important as Spain. From 1939-40, he was a socialist patriot, a supporter of the war effort – and someone who saw the war as a means of effecting revolutionary socialist change in Britain, seeing the Home Guard as a nascent revolutionary militia. He was not alone in this. His friend Tosco Fyvel took a similar point of view; so did Tom Wintringham, who had been an International Brigades commander in the Spanish civil war and had subsequently broken with the CP; so did Aneurin Bevan; so too did Francis Williams, former editor of the Daily Herald and later to be Clement Attlee’s press secretary and later still a grand Labour panjandrum in the House of Lords. I wouldn’t say that this patriotic revolutionary left swept all before it in 1940-41, but the political attitude of Orwell’s contributions to Gollancz’s collection of essays against the Hitler-Stalin pact, Betrayal of the Left (published in early 1941), undoubtedly caught something of a mood. This is when Orwell started to write for Tribune – mainly reviews, but also a ringing defence of the revolutionary potential of the Home Guard – under the editorship of Raymond Postgate, though the relationship cooled a little after Postgate attacked Orwell’s contributions to Betrayal of the Left, soon after which Postgate was fired by Aneurin Bevan and replaced by himself as editor, though actually the work was done by Jon Kimche, a former ILPer who had worked with Orwell in a Hampstead bookshop in the 1930s.
The second phase was from some time in 1941, when Orwell’s sense of the revolutionary possibilities in Britain waned, until the beginning of the cold war. I don’t think there was a particular turning point, rather a series of events. The anti-Soviet temper of the left weakened after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union; and Orwell himself got a job at the BBC, working as a propagandist for its India service. He gave that up in 1943 to join Tribune as literary editor, however, and for the next 18 months, while writing Animal Farm, he was employed by the paper, edited by Kimche with Bevan playing the role of political director. Orwell’s contributions to Tribune, notably the “As I Please” columns, generally steered clear of mainstream politics – but he wrote plenty on British politics both for other publications in the UK (the Observer, the Manchester Evening News and various little magazines) and for Partisan Review in the US, and his sympathies are very clear. He was engaged in a string of arguments with former Trotskyist, pacifist and anarchist friends, but actually he was getting remarkably mainstream Labour left. He was an admirer of Bevan (as well as a colleague) and was intrigued by the possibilities opened up by Common Wealth, the radical left party led by the former Liberal popular frontist Richard Acland, in which J B Priestley and Wintringham played major roles (at least at the beginning) and which won a string of by-elections fighting on an austere egalitarian socialist ticket against the parties of the wartime coalition. In 1945, after a brief spell as an Observer foreign correspondent and after the tragic death of his wife Eileen, he actively campaigned for Labour in the run-up to the party’s extraordinary landslide.
Of course, Orwell continued to be influenced by all sorts outside the narrow confines of the British left. He was a voracious consumer of small magazines and pamphlets, and it’s clear that he took very seriously the pessimistic visions of recently Trotskyist American writers such as James Burnham and Dwight Macdonald, the right-libertarian polemics of Friedrich von Hayek and a lot more besides. Burnham is particularly important: The Book in Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein, draws heavily on Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, which Orwell had reviewed at length and very critically in one of his greatest political essays, “Second Thoughts on James Burnham", published in Humphrey Slater’s Polemic in 1946. But I don’t think he was alone in this on the Labour left at the time; and I don’t think he wavered in his identification with the Labour left or at least that large part of it that was critical of Stalinism – Burnham’s book was a best-seller like Thomas Piketty’s today. Plenty of Labour leftists appreciated Trotsky and Trotskyist-influenced writers while remaining utterly immune to the charms of Trotskyist sect politics.
Phase three, 1945-50 is where it starts to get much more difficult, for two reasons.
First, Orwell was from 1945 quite detached in many ways from orthodox political engagement. There were the columns for Tribune until 1947 and other journalism; there was Animal Farm; there was Nineteen Eighty Four; there were various campaigns to which he contributed. But he was ill, and he spent most of his time when not in sanitoriums in the remote Scottish island of Jura.
Secondly, there’s much more ambiguity to his political interventions. This was partly because the most important of them were two great works of satire that were and remain open to infinite interpretations, but it was also because Orwell, like everyone else at the time, was faced with a massively changed world in which old certainties had evaporated. In Britain, Labour had won a landslide majority and was engaging in implementation of a socialist programme of nationalisation and creation of a welfare state – which would have been unthinkable before in his lifetime. It was doing so, moreover, technocratically and joylessly, in conditions of extreme austerity (if you think things have been tough since the 2008 crisis, think what Britain was like after being effectively bankrupted by fighting nearly six years of total war) and in the face of an effective collapse in Britain’s role as a world power. The UK was giving up as lead player in the Mediterranean and mandate holder in Palestine, ruler of the Indian subcontinent and as the main world financial centre. Meanwhile, both the US and the Soviet Union were on the march: the US as the only country until 1949 with the atom bomb, the only major economy that had done well out of the war (to the extent that it was able to impose the rules for the workings of international capitalism), with global military commitments; the Soviet Union as the new master of central Europe, and from 1949 the second power with the atom bomb and the apparent hegemon in China.
We’re talking world-historical events here, and Orwell was trying to make sense of them. And though he was pretty sure about some things, he wasn’t about others – and he got some things right and some things wrong. Which of course is what all the arguments are really about today: how Orwell called the early years of the cold war. Did he sell out his principles? Or was he the greatest sage of the era? Or maybe both or neither?
I'm not going to engage with detailed critique of Nineteen Eighty-Four here, because I don't have time. But ... although the cold war is supposed to have ended 25 years ago, and in some ways it did, it remains in place in other ways. Our understandings of its early years are mediated through nearly 70 years of hindsight, and hardly anyone who was a participant in the politics of the time is still alive. It is very hard to get to grips with what it was actually like to live through the late 1940s. I’m no time traveller, but I do think it’s worth remembering that at any time in history no one knows what’s going to happen next. When Orwell died, in January 1950, the Soviet bomb was four months old, the People’s Republic of China three months old. Alger Hiss had yet to be convicted of espionage, Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenbergs were yet to be arrested, McCarthyism yet to begin. The Korean war was still in the future and so was the Congress for Cultural Freedom – as was the 1953 East German workers’ uprising, the death of Stalin, Suez, the Hungarian revolution, the Cuban revolution, the Berlin wall, Vietnam etc etc.
OK, it’s a statement of the obvious, but sometimes the obvious matters … and here it matters because Orwell died before the democratic left consensus in support of the west in the cold war came into question except from communists and fellow-travellers. I’m simplifying somewhat here, but until 1951 – when it looked as if the Americans might be prepared to escalate the Korean war into an all-out global nuclear conflict – there really wasn’t very much dissent from the cold war in the west from the non-communist left. Orwell was certainly one of the most consistent and effective anti-communist voices on the left, but apart from a brief period in 1946-47, when he poured scorn on what he saw as utopian demands from the Labour left for a “third way” foreign policy (which he rightly saw as doomed by events), there was very little to separate him from what Tribune was saying about the immediate need to resist Soviet expansionism in eastern Europe and support the creation of a transatlantic anti-communist alliance. It’s true that he had a much more pessimistic – and I’d say realistic – view than most of what was wrong with Soviet communism (it wasn’t enough to hope for a replacement of Stalin and democratic elections), but the biggest difference he had with his friends on the paper was over their support for the creation of the state of Israel, which he saw as colonialism of a new kind. (This, incidentally, seems to me to have played a major role in his falling out with Fyvel and Kimche, who were both ardent Zionists.) It’s notable that there was no point at which Orwell dissociated himself from Tribune: he remained a reader and supporter of the paper, as far as anyone knows, until his death.
None of this is to overlook the much-discussed question of the list of Soviet-sympathetic writers and artists Orwell handed over in 1949 to Celia Kirwan, a friend, maybe a former girlfriend, who had asked his advice on who should and who should not be asked to write by the Foreign Office propaganda outfit for which she worked, the newly established Information Research Department. This has been a big issue for the past 15 years, and the canard that it was a blacklist has now entered popular mythology. What actually happened was rather more mundane. With his friend Richard Rees, Orwell in the 1940s compiled a notebook listing people prominent in literary and political circles, mainly in Britain and the US, who they thought might be “crypto-communists” (secret members of the Communist Party) or “fellow-travellers” (non-members of the CP who publicly defended Stalin’s Russia). There were – are – 135 names in this notebook, and most were published in a volume of Peter Davison’s edition of Orwell’s Collected Works in the 1990s. There are four important factual points here:
- This was a speculative list two friends put together for their own amusement. It was not intended for wider circulation, let alone publication.
- Although some of the names in the notebook have notes appended that identify them as probable covert CP members or even Soviet agents, far more are defined as merely naïve, dishonest, sentimental or silly in their attitudes to the Soviet Union and the CP.
- Orwell and Rees were largely accurate in their assessments. Nearly everyone in the notebook had expressed gushing admiration for Stalinist Russia or participated in CP-run campaigns.
- The list in the notebook was not the list Orwell gave to Kirwan. The IRD list contained only “about 35” names, according to Orwell, and a definitive version is yet to be published.
Handing over the shorter list to the IRD is more controversial – but I still don’t think that it amounted to more than an error of judgment. The purpose of the list was to advise the Foreign Office about whom not to hire to write articles, pamphlets and books for a new outfit that had been set up by the Labour government to counter Soviet propaganda abroad with arguments for democratic socialism. Now, it’s perfectly possible to argue that the IRD should never have been set up on the grounds that a democracy should have no recourse to propaganda – and there is a strong case for believing that in later years its role in spreading rumour and disinformation was reprehensible. But in 1949, the idea of the IRD did not seem at all shady. There was good reason to fear Stalin’s intentions in Europe. The Soviet Union had ruthlessly suppressed nascent democracies in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, imposing pliant puppet dictatorships and imprisoning democratic socialists. West Berlin was under Soviet military blockade, and it seemed to many that Stalin was preparing for all-out war.
Orwell was by no means alone on the left in thinking a British socialist propaganda effort justified. If there is a case against Orwell’s action, it is that he did not know to what use his list would be put by the state. That was certainly a risk – but in the circumstances of the time, it was an understandable one to take for a Tribune socialist.
So, to sum up: Bernard Crick is right: Orwell was for the last decade of his life a Tribune socialist, and there’s little to suggest that he was having second thoughts even on his deathbed.
But what does it matter today? Well, in some ways not a lot. The Orwell who advocated a planned economy and pored over Trotskyist and anarchist polemics against Stalinism and supported the Attlee government is in some respects a figure of historical interest who does not speak to our time, however much we admire his style, or his contrarianism, or various other aspects of his political engagements. The democratic socialism for which Orwell stood now seems a marginal current in British politics, at least as it is portrayed in the media – and it would take an extraordinary leap of faith to consider it likely in the near future to be adopted explicitly by the Labour Party leadership, which is still beholden, as it has been for 20 years or more, to broadly neoliberal economics and a concern for the interests of big business and “aspirational” middle-class voters.
But … it’s not far off the common sense of much of the British public, or indeed of the Labour Party on the ground. Last month I stood for Labour in a solidly Tory council ward in Ipswich in the local elections and lost – but in Ipswich and in most of the country Labour fought those elections on a prospectus that would have been recognised by Orwell and by Crick as democratic socialist. We gave no quarter to the xenophobia of UKIP, we argued for public provision of services, we made it clear that we were egalitarians. Maybe I’m just over-optimistic, but I think Labour’s bullshit years are ending, though it looks like being a long-drawn-out process. … and I think Orwell’s – and Crick’s – enthusiasm for a different world controlled by the people rather than by giant corporations and authoritarian states has life in it yet, though only if people realise that it can only be achieved through a revitalisation of boring old social democracy.