Following Donald Trump’s election in 2016, George Orwell’s 1984 soared up the Amazon best-seller list. Scores of people craved a dystopian tale of political manipulation and tyranny, searching for a vision of what the future might be under the incoming President. This is nothing new, in moments of political or social turmoil, or scandal, there is a tendency for commentators to reactivate Orwell and ask ‘what would he think?’.
In this blog, John Newsinger, author Hope Lies in the Proles, considers what the contemporary relevance of this esteemed 20th century author is, considering the tangents and trajectories of the author’s political thought.
Two recent contrasting developments have excited renewed interest in George Orwell and his ideas: on the one hand the dramatic rise of the Labour Left and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party and on the other the apparent transformation of the United States into a caricature dystopia with the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. While one can quite legitimately either take inspiration from or discover insights in Orwell’s writings, it is quite another matter to claim to know how he would have responded to contemporary events. All we can say with any confidence is that if he was alive today, he would be extremely old. He was born in June 1903, after all, and would probably not welcome being bothered for his opinion of Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump, Brexit or whatever.
The best way to approach George Orwell as a political activist and political writer is to recognise that he was ‘a work in progress’, that his ideas were constantly developing through a complex process of engagement with a changing world, an engagement mediated through his wide reading, his interaction with both individuals and organisations and his own personal prejudices. He was only forty-six when he died and yet had already lived through momentous events and seen great historic changes unfold: the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the beginning of British subordination to the United States, the triumph of Stalinism in Eastern Europe, the election of the first Labour government with a parliamentary majority, the beginning of the Cold War and Indian independence. He wrote about all of this and much more. Inevitably, there is a tendency for people studying his work to privilege, those aspects of his thinking that most comfortably fit in with their own attitudes and allegiances and I do not exempt myself from this. The way to counter this tendency, of course, is, to the best of one’s ability, to examine all of the evidence, to consider it in context and to weigh and interpret it.
Interest in George Orwell really originates with his first-hand experience of British Imperialism in Burma, where he served as an officer in the police in the early 1920s. He came home from Burma completely opposed to what he was to famously describe as the ‘Pox Britannica’ in his novel Burmese Days, consumed by guilt at having been a party to the oppression and exploitation that was at the heart of Empire and launching himself on his journey to the left. Having been the victimiser in Burma, he set out to experience life as the victim as chronicled in Down and Out in Paris and London. By the early 1930s, he was coming under the influence of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which had broken away from the Labour Party after the 1929-1931 Labour government that climaxed with the defection of both the Labour Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer to the Tories. This influence was to bear fruit in The Road to Wigan Pier, partly a work of propaganda on behalf of the miners and the unemployed and partly an idiosyncratic debate with the politics of the Left. The Road already provided clear evidence of his lack of sympathy for both the British Communist Party and the Soviet Union. This was just as well because it meant that when he attempted to join the International Brigades in order to fight in Spain, he was turned down. He was instead to serve in the ILP contingent, fighting alongside the anti-Stalinist POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) and, as far as he was concerned, seeing the working class in power in Barcelona and Socialism being put into practice on the streets and in the factories. This experience resulted in one of the great first-hand accounts of the Revolution in English, Homage to Catalonia.
Spain was the decisive experience in Orwell’s political formation. It left him with three beliefs that he was to adhere to until the end of his life. Firstly, that Socialism was a democratic classless society where the ruling class had been completely stripped of all its wealth and power. Secondly, that the ruling class would forcibly resist its dispossession although the scale and ferocity of this resistance would vary from country to country and that far from being allies in the struggle for Socialism. Finally, that the Communists had completely subordinated themselves to the brutal murderous tyranny that ruled in the Soviet Union whether one characterised it as state capitalist, totalitarian, or oligarchic collectivism.
While Orwell was to adhere to these three core beliefs for the rest of his life, how to make them operational was another matter altogether. What we see over the years after his return from Spain is Orwell continually having to engage with the problem of the ‘lesser evil’. On his return to Britain, he joined the ILP in the expectation that it would become a mass party carrying the Socialist cause forward. Instead, the Second World War completely transformed the situation. From opposing war, Orwell came to the conclusion that compared to the Nazis the British Empire was the ‘lesser evil’ and he broke with the ILP that maintained its opposition. He called for the war effort to be radicalised, for the war to become a revolutionary war, insisting that the ruling class had to be removed and that Britain had to become Socialist if Germany was to be defeated. With the Soviet Union and the United States both becoming Britain’s allies, he recognised that the British ruling class had been saved and that as far as Britain was concerned reaction had triumphed, both domestically and abroad.
Throughout all this he still operated on the ‘lesser evil’ principle, serving in the Home Guard, working as a propagandist at the BBC. Once he recognised that any prospect for revolution was gone, he threw his lot in with the Tribune newspaper, the newspaper of the Labour Left. He was to support Labour in 1945 but was initially disappointed at the newly elected government’s lack of radicalism. As far as he was concerned, it should have launched an immediate attack on the wealth and power of the ruling class, taking over the public schools, abolishing the House of Lords and purging the senior levels of the civil service, the diplomatic corps, the military and the intelligence establishments of Tories. Nationalisation of the banks, transportation, land and industry should be carried through without compensation.
In spite of all this, once again, the ‘lesser evil’ factor came into play. Orwell swallowed the official line that in the post-war world the Soviet Union constituted an imminent threat to Britain and rallied to the Labour government, dropping his criticism of its lack of domestic radicalism, remaining silent regarding its strike-breaking at home and colonial repression abroad, and shamefully involving himself with the propaganda agency the government set up to fight Communism, the Information Research Department. He made it clear that in the event of a war between the Soviet Union and the United States and its British satellite, he would support the United States. Although, right up until his death, he still remained opposed to any British McCarthyism. Privately, he made clear his disappointment with the domestic performance of the Labour government; welfarism was not Socialism, the ruling class might not like the NHS, but it did not threaten their domination of British society.
The great weakness in Orwell’s thinking is his failure to embrace women’s equality, to support the fight for women’s liberation. He was a sexist whose language on occasions was misogynistic. His ideas were changing but up until his death he remained one of those male Socialists opposed to all oppression except the oppression of women.
When examining Orwell’s work, we have to place it within the broad trajectory outlined above. In truth, it is not possible to know what he would have thought about Trump, Corbyn, Brexit and beyond, to all the other fights, protests and disputes we have attempted to enlist George Orwell in since his death. The exercise has never been very productive because we can have no idea how his politics would have developed if he had lived into the 1950s and 1960s let alone longer. One thing that Orwell never anticipated was the survival, indeed expansion of capitalism. He believed that ‘Capitalism manifestly has no future’. A conviction that proved false as the system expanded to an extent that he would have considered unimaginable and would have forced his socialist politics to grapple with this new reality.
Whilst the question of what Orwell would think if he was still alive is fruitless, this is not to say that Orwell’s writings are not relevant today. What mattered was the way that his writings from the spoke to me and others and were relevant to our modern concerns. It is this remarkable ability to write in language that still resonates about a wide range of issues that are still relevant that accounts for the remarkable interest in George Orwell, his life and writings today.
John Newsinger is Professor of Modern History at Bath Spa University. He is the author of over a dozen books, including the graphic novel 1917: Russia’s Red Year (Bookmarks, 2016), British Counterinsurgency (Palgrave, 2015), The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire (Bookmarks, 2006) and Rebel City: Larkin, Connolly and the Dublin Labour Movement (Merlin, 2003).
Hope Lies in the Proles: George Orwell and the Left is available from Pluto Press.