“But every now and again, it is worth looking at his own vision of an ideal society. Interestingly, this is where this sharp-eyed critic comes across as short-sighted.”
eorge Orwell’s name has been thrown around a lot this year. Of course, this has been true of every year since the author died in January of 1950. Only the Founding Fathers of the United States and perhaps Jesus Christ are cited more frequently or in support of such a wide variety of causes. No other political writer has such a diverse following holding his banner aloft.
We all know what Orwell opposed: totalitarianism, censorship, and muddled thinking masked by equally muddled writing. He is best known to us today as the prophet of political doom. He has a lot to teach us about clear thinking, regardless of our political views. But every now and again, it is worth looking at his own vision of an ideal society. Interestingly, this is where this sharp-eyed critic comes across as short-sighted.
George Orwell—the pen name of Eric Blair—was a democratic socialist. “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.” This he wrote in his 1946 essay Why I Write. However, he was not born a democratic socialist. And even after he had evolved into one, he retained many idiosyncratic views that left him on the fringe of the mainstream socialist movement.
Blair began writing in earnest after he left his job with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma in 1927, disgusted that he had allowed himself to became part of the machinery of imperialist oppression. He spent several years living with the poor in both Britain and France before he gained some literary success with Down and Out in Paris in London. Published in 1933, it introduced his now-famous pseudonym.
Although Orwell saw problems, he had no strong opinions on solutions. “I had at that time no interest in Socialism or any other economic theory,” he wrote later. As late as May of 1935, he continued to call himself a “Tory anarchist.” While going to borrow some money from a friend, he found himself at a socialist meeting and ended up arguing with the socialists for three hours. He noted later of this meeting: “…a South Wales miner who told me—quite good-naturedly—that if he were dictator, he would have me shot immediately.”
In January of 1936 his publisher, Victor Gollancz, sent him to observe conditions in the Depression-ravaged north of England and write about what he saw. The result was The Road to Wigan Pier, a book which both deeply impressed but also concerned the conventionally left-wing Gollancz. This work also set the tone for Orwell’s future writing. After describing the danger of the mines and the poverty of the slums, Orwell was convinced that “everyone who uses his brain knows that Socialism, as a world-system and wholeheartedly applied, is a way out.” Gollancz and his Left Book Club heartily approved. But Britain was not socialist because the socialist movement, filled with “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England” could not connect with the working and lower middle classes. Many of Orwell’s socialist readers were not amused with this description of themselves.
Orwell did not stay around to respond to his critics; he was then fighting with the POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) militia in the trenches of northern Spain. In revolutionary Barcelona, Orwell was, for the first time, “in a town where the working class was in the saddle.” As he wrote in his 1938 book Homage to Catalonia:
“Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal.”
The revolution in Barcelona was crushed, not by nationalists, but by the republican government and communists backed by the Soviet Union. The POUM was outlawed, and Orwell was forced to flee. Because Homage to Catalonia exposed the depths of left-wing infighting, it was seen as hugely damaging to the anti-fascist cause. As a result, Gollancz would not publish it. In the end, it was taken up by Secker & Warburg, a publisher sympathetic to the plight of left-wing dissidents, but it was never commercially successful in Orwell’s lifetime. By the time the Second World War broke out, Orwell’s evolution to democratic socialism via Wigan and Barcelona was largely complete.
The Lion and the Unicorn
We can learn much about Orwell’s political views from the pages of The Road to Wigan Pier, Homage to Catalonia, and many of his essays published during the 1940s. But he is at his most frank in The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, which was published by Secker & Warburg during the darkest days of the war in February of 1941. Orwell argued that the war had demonstrated that private capitalism “does not work” (emphasis his). Like the paddle steamer, it had been shown to be obsolete. An unplanned economy could not defeat a planned one, and socialism and fascism were the two pathways out of the abyss.
Orwell thought that none of the existing options were suitable for Britain. Fascism, which he despised, was merely “a form of capitalism that borrows from Socialism just such features as will make it efficient for war purposes.” Socialism was represented by the Labour Party and the Marxists, both also flawed. Labour had degenerated into a “permanent opposition” of “timid reformism,” led by men who wanted to “go on and on, drawing their salaries and periodically swapping jobs with the Conservatives.” Furthermore, as Labour’s base lay in the trade unions, its success depended upon the standard of living of the British worker, which, in turn, rested on the exploitation of Britain’s colonial subjects. This made the Labour Party incapable of confronting the imperialist “racket” that had deeply concerned Orwell since he had actually been part of it. Marxism, in turn, was “a German theory interpreted by Russians and unsuccessfully transplanted to England.”
If there was to be a socialist England, there would need to be an English socialism. Orwell, therefore, begins The Lion and the Unicorn with a lengthy and poetic description of England, called “England Your England.” In The Road to Wigan Pier, he had slammed his fellow socialists for their high-minded contempt for the ordinary, patriotic, and un-intellectual working class people on which their security and prosperity depended. Here, he argued that only through a proper understanding of England, “a land where the bus conductors are good-tempered and the policemen carry no revolvers,” could they develop a form of socialism appropriate for the English.
English socialism faced two barriers—the existing ruling class, the “Blimps” who had “done the wrong thing with an unerring instinct ever since 1931,” and the “irresponsible carping” of left-wing intellectuals “who have never been and never expect to be in a position of power.” The war, Orwell argued, had significantly undermined the influence of both, because both had failed to make themselves useful to the war effort. He described their failings in the second part of the essay, “Shopkeepers at War.”
Like many, Orwell blamed the military disasters of 1940 on the ossified British officer class, and he was enraged that Britain’s political and military leaders had been able to escape to their country houses while the poor had been bombed out of their homes. At the same time that factory workers were being asked to put up with longer hours, there were advertisements like this one: “Butler. One in family, eight in staff” that were “appearing in the press.” Similarly, the left-wing intellectuals were more interested in peace at any cost than defeating Hitler. At the time Orwell was writing, Germany and the Soviet Union still had a non-aggression pact, and, as a result, the world’s communist parties were lukewarm when it came to the war, despite spending most of the 1930s warning about the dangers of fascist aggression. This hollowness disgusted Orwell.
The failings of the Blimps and left-wing intellectuals created the opportunity for an English Revolution, the subject of the third party of the essay. “Revolution does not mean red flags and street fighting, it means a fundamental shift of power,” Orwell wrote simply. “Whether it happens with or without bloodshed is largely an accident of time and place.” Orwell was, undoubtedly, ready to fight, and he saw the Home Guard, in which he served, as a potential revolutionary army. “That rifle hanging on the wall of the working-class flat or laborer’s cottage is the symbol of democracy,” he had written in Tribune. “It is our job to see that it stays there,” he continued.
The goal of the revolution would not just be common ownership of the means of production but, also, political democracy and the dismantling of the class system. He laid down a six-point program for English socialism:
- The nationalization of land, mines, railways, banks, and major industries. Small business and farming could continue, but there would be limits of the private ownership of land in the country (maybe fifteen acres) and no private ownership of land in the cities. The landholding class would disappear and its members forced to work for a living.
- Limitation of incomes, aiming to keep the highest income no more than ten times the lowest.
- Reform of the education system along democratic lines. In Orwell’s opinion, the elite schools were partly a training in class prejudice and partly a sort of tax that the middle classes paid to the upper class in return for the right to enter certain professions.
- Immediate Dominion status for India, with power to secede when the war is over.
- Formation of an Imperial General Council, in which the colored peoples are to be represented. The longer-term plan would be to transform the British Empire into a confederation of democratic socialist states.
- Declaration of formal alliance with China, Abyssinia, and all other victims of the fascist powers. The alliance with China, at least, would come to pass with Japan’s attack on the British Empire in December of 1941.
English socialism, Orwell wrote, would not be doctrinaire, nor even logical. It would get rid of the House of Lords but might keep the monarchy, “the judge in his ridiculous horsehair wig,” and “the lion and the unicorn on the soldier’s cap-buttons.”
Orwell in Retrospect
George Orwell was a very orthodox left-wing socialist in some ways. For example, he is far more concerned with bad systems than with bad people. His villains are amoral and greedy men (or pigs), who become dangerous only because their worst instincts are given free rein through some unjust and exploitative order. U Po Kyin in Burmese Days. Napoleon in Animal Farm. O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Otherwise, they are non-entities, and defeating them individually would be pointless. Orwell viewed capitalism as such a system.
But he was also decidedly unorthodox. Few socialists today are as dismissive of Marxism as he was. And his natural anti-intellectualism, distaste for social deviancy, and fierce anti-Stalinism have made him surprisingly attractive to the very conservatives he felt were ruining Britain in his lifetime.
As it turned out, Orwell was wrong as often as he was right. The western Allies won the war without abandoning capitalism, which was, if anything, in a better position than it had been during the Depression. However, he remained convinced that it was done for. “Capitalism itself has manifestly no future,” he wrote in Toward European Unity in 1947. The Labour Party won a decisive election victory in 1945 and implemented many of the policies Orwell supported, including nationalizing the coal industry. This softened his anti-Labour line, and he happily described himself as a Labour supporter during the final years of his life.
One does not need to agree with Orwell’s political views to get much out of his writing, and his books and essays (particularly, I have argued before, Notes on Nationalism) have valuable lessons for everyone. With that said, anyone approaching Orwell has a significant advantage if he does understand the author’s politics.
George Orwell could be as short-sighted and prone to rash judgement as any other pundit. But he was unusually aware of his own limitations and failings, and his willingness to criticize consistently those with whom he was in furious agreement makes him exceptional. It is easy to invoke his name but difficult to follow his example.
Adam Wakeling is an Australian author and historian whose most recent book is A House of Commons for a Den of Thieves: Australia’s Journey from Penal Colony to Democracy. He can be found on Twitter @AdamMWakeling