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By the Known Rules of Ancient Liberty: A Review of Masha Karp’s “George Orwell and Russia”


Lest I should have appeared overly critical, allow me to restate that even in this, her analysis is exceptional and that overall, George Orwell and Russia is a uniquely penetrating study of Eric Blair’s life and legacy.”

In his brilliant anti-Stalinist 1953 book The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz, who had recently defected from communist Poland, wrote the following about George Orwell’s most famous novel: 

“A few have become acquainted with Orwell’s 1984; because it is both difficult to obtain and dangerous to possess, it is known only to certain members of the Inner Party. Orwell fascinates them through his insight into details they know well, and through his use of Swiftian satire. Such a form of writing is forbidden by the New Faith because allegory, by nature manifold in meaning, would trespass beyond the prescriptions of socialist realism and the demands of the censor. Even those who know Orwell only by hearsay are amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have so keen a perception into its life. The fact that there are writers in the West who understand the functioning of the unusually constructed machine of which they themselves are a part astounds them and argues against the ‘stupidity’ of the West.”

In her recent study George Orwell and Russia, Masha Karp does not cite the above passage, even though it beautifully buttresses one of her main arguments: that Orwell understood more than most the nature and workings of Soviet totalitarianism. In fairness, though Miłosz refers to Russia, he, being a Polish dissident, is perhaps not particularly relevant to Karp, given her focus on the Soviet Union itself (rather than the Warsaw Pact). This is symbolic of both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of Karp’s book. While its focus means Karp can delve deep into her subject to produce arresting and original insights, it risks degenerating into a distorting narrowness—a trap Karp does not always manage to avoid. 

Karp delineates Orwell’s relationship with Russian communism from his earliest to his final days and examines how his work so incisively grasped the essence of Russian totalitarianism. She discusses how his work was received by the many millions who suffered under communism—including herself and her mother, as she movingly relates at the outset:

“‘Is it safe to keep this book at home overnight?’—my mother asked me, when in Leningrad of the mid-1970s my friends had given me a copy of the forbidden Nineteen Eighty-Four for a couple of days and we both were reading it. Her experience told her that searches and arrests ‘invariably happened at night’ and although it was now Brezhnev’s rather than Stalin’s time, the frightening resemblance of the bleak and cruel life in Oceania to our own was overwhelming. ‘How did he know?’ we wondered. The same question was asked by numerous other readers who were lucky to get hold of Orwell’s last novel in the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe between the 1950s and the late 1980s.”

Karp, a renowned Orwell scholar, knows whereof she speaks. Although I have my criticisms of her book, George Orwell and Russia is one of the best studies of Orwell I have ever come across. In the final chapters, Karp shows how applicable Orwell’s insights still are to President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with its descent into authoritarianism and irrationalism and its belligerence against its neighbors. 

Just as the Soviet Union had its fellow travelers and useful idiots, so does President Putin’s Russia. One of the most lamentable leftist arguments, if such it deserves to be called, is that the West is at least as bad as whatever tyranny it is combating at any given moment and, thus, has no right to claim any moral high ground. Orwell had no patience with that argument in his day and would have had no patience with those who make similar equivalences today. Karp quotes Orwell’s 1947 attack on the left’s dogmatic anti-Americanism: 

“To be anti-American nowadays is to shout with the mob. … At any given moment there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot cry which must be repeated and in the more active section of the Left the orthodoxy of the moment is anti-Americanism.”

That these lines conjure up images of Noam Chomsky, George Galloway, Glenn Greenwald, and other comrades who think President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has more to do with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion and American perfidy than Russian imperialism is a testament to how little things have changed. It is also another example of Orwell’s perceptiveness transcending his own time. Most of all, it is yet another sad demonstration of the intellectual poverty of the “anti-imperialist” left. 

Karp sees Orwell as the great puncturer of the “Russian myth” and argues that his example is one to keep in mind as we confront Russian myths today. Far too many in the West assumed for far too many years that President Putin was a man with whom business could be done, and their reactions to his many crimes before the Ukraine invasion were fairly inconsequential. Karp is right that President Putin should have been confronted much sooner; instead, he was given a pass to crush any possibility of Russian democracy and brutalize his neighbors. (This is not to mention the barbarism he unleashed upon Syria, or his interference with democratic processes the world over, or his use of chemical weapons in Western Europe to murder dissidents.)

Orwell, the old Etonian and staunch English patriot, was a socialist and an internationalist. A polemicist, many of his skirmishes feel almost like ancient history today, but, somehow, he remains. He is evergreen. Karp’s book is a testament to what I have elsewhere described as “the enduring Orwell.” Indeed, she tells us that it “was originally conceived as an attempt to explore the nature of this miracle.” In this, and in much else, she is extraordinarily successful.

Karp’s exploration of Orwell’s early experiences with communism and socialism are among the most extensive and enlightening I have read. Her discussion of the young Eric Arthur Blair’s relationship with the ideas of Eugène Lanti (a central figure in the Esperanto movement and the lover of Orwell’s Aunt Nellie), whom he met in Paris in 1928, is particularly perceptive. Orwell both rebelled from and gravitated towards Lanti. He hated Esperanto, which later provided a model for Newspeak, yet he also learned from Lanti to be skeptical of Bolshevism: “Lanti was one of the very few people among the Western left who, in the late 1920s, was fully aware of its disastrous consequences.”

This, however, suggests a certain absolutism in Orwell’s view of the Russian Revolution. He may have been one of the greatest enemies of Stalinism, but it is very difficult to read his 1945 book Animal Farm and come away with any impression other than that Orwell greatly admired and sympathized with the initial impulses underlying the revolution.  Indeed, one of the main criticisms of Animal Farm by the Right is that it takes a quasi-Trotskyist line of the revolution being betrayed (vide Peter Hitchens’ opinion that it is a “Trotskyist fable”). This is, of course, very far from condemning revolution—let alone socialism—tout court. For a good analysis of this subject, see L.J. Hurst’s 2019 essay “Orwell and Lenin.”

On Orwell’s 1937 account of his travels into the heartland of English industrial poverty and his first long-form critique of British socialism, The Road to Wigan Pier, Karp is not only discerning in her analysis but quite original in her interpretation:

“[It] is not usually seen by Orwell scholars [for example, John Newsinger and Stephen Ingle] as a criticism of Soviet socialism…[But] [t]his does not seem to be quite the case. It is true, of course, that in 1936 Orwell wrote nothing specifically about ‘Stalinism,’ that is, about this particular stage of the Communist regime in Russia, or about ‘Soviet apparatchiks,’ but it was his knowledge of Russia, combined with his remarkable intuition, that enabled him to recognize in ‘home-grown socialists’ the wish to reserve a leading position for themselves—so similar to the Bolsheviks’ conception of a vanguard party.”

Orwell’s earlier experiences as Eric Blair are more important in understanding his political development than has often been thought. And this theme, of the dangers inherent in socialism, is later taken up in a chapter on Orwell’s understanding of that ideology, in which Karp argues rightly that Orwell was troubled by the tension between socialism and liberalism. He feared economic collectivism could all too easily lead to the extinguishing of individual liberty. 

In Wigan Pier, Orwell expressed guarded support for social housing over slums but worried about the impersonal nature of this enlightened scheme. Karp puts it thus:

“This is a perfect example of the workings of Orwell’s polemical mind, and it is clear how difficult it was for him to accept even the most progressive and reasonable initiative if he felt it to be inhuman or a restriction on personal liberty. … Socialism as a grand system of reorganizing and improving life scared him precisely by its lack of humanity and individual choice.”

Orwell was worried by the totalitarian tendencies he saw in socialism, but he could see no other solution to the world’s ills. In this, he arguably anticipated Friedrich Hayek’s 1944 attack on collectivism, The Road to Serfdom, a book which Orwell in fact reviewed somewhat favorably—though of course remaining staunchly socialist, arguing that free market tyranny was probably even worse than state tyranny. For Orwell, the vital task was to build a genuinely democratic socialist state, one in which the totalitarian possibilities inherent in some socialist ideas were rejected. If Soviet tyranny was the result of a particular evolutionary path for, there were other paths available, whose mutations were helpful rather than harmful to human liberty.

Karp, then, is correct that Orwell’s critique of socialism, even as he advocated it, was much deeper and broader than the superficial, if amusing, disdain he expressed for middle class socialists in Wigan Pier: “One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.” Karp is also correct that this deeper critique appeared much earlier than Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and that it is a mistake to dismiss Orwell’s Wigan Pier criticisms as callow and shallow.

D.J. Taylor in his magnificent new biography of Orwell captured the tension between individual freedom and economic collectivism with reference to Orwell’s 1946 essay about the recently re-released 1876 American novel Helen’s Babies

“Having established the novel’s centrality to his own early life, Orwell then moves off into wider cultural territory to examine the ‘false map of the world’ that the books read in childhood create in the reader’s mind and his own literature-derived childhood vision of transatlantic life before concluding with a paean to nineteenth-century America, ‘a rich, empty country which lay outside the mainstream of world events and in which the twin nightmares that beset nearly every modern man, the nightmare of unemployment and the nightmare of State interference, had hardly come into being.’ The social arrangements taking root on the American East Coast in the years before the Civil War might have been based on the free market, but this was ‘capitalist civilisation at its best.’ And here, you feel, one of the fundamental tensions in Orwell’s work is laid bare. He wants a more equal society, in which basic human wants are attended to as of right. At the same time he pines for ‘freedom,’ open spaces and individual liberty, while suspecting that one of the consequences of a more equal, state-run society will be that liberty’s disappearance.”

This nod to American liberty reminds one of Orwell’s ambiguity about the United States: Somewhat aghast at the pernicious effects of American popular culture on England, Orwell clearly admired America (or at least a particular ideal of America) as the home of the free. Whether Orwell, or his conception of socialism, ever reconciled his liberal commitments to his socialist convictions is an open question (and perhaps quite a pressing one). 

Then again, Karp underestimates the appeal of socialism to Orwell, reducing it to a vague, emotional desire for a better and fairer future rather than a concrete political commitment, as when she says “he could not abandon…his hope for a better future of mankind, which his time had taught him to call socialism…” This is somewhat evasive and misleading. Orwell’s “time” could have taught him many things, and he overcame many of the prejudices taught in his time. Socialism for Orwell was not just “hope for a better future” (many ideologies offered that) but, rather, a genuine intellectual and philosophical commitment.

Still, Karp’s view contains some truth, for Orwell did see socialism as an essentially humanist idea. But her desire to cast Orwell as a half-hearted, well-meaning, but slightly deluded votary of socialism means she does not delve much into Orwell’s actual political philosophy. This is a shame, for, as Stephen Ingle’s illuminating—if somewhat dated—1993 study George Orwell: A Political Life argues, Orwell’s socialism, or “Orwellism” as Ingle has it, consists of much more than fluffy sentimentality. (Still, all this raises a very good question: Was Orwell more a liberal than a socialist, or vice versa?)

To the very end, Orwell was a committed socialist and radical. When leftists claimed Nineteen Eighty-Four was an attack on socialism, and many on the Right claimed it as a vindication of their anti-socialism, Orwell, even as he lay dying, vehemently denied such interpretations. Karp’s discussion of the posthumous influence of Orwell’s work is exemplary, but here I have to note that when she looks at the old neoconservative Norman Podhoretz’s attempted appropriation of Orwell, she fails to mention his dishonesty in claiming Orwell for a proto-pro-American Cold Warrior (and thus goes some way to backing up that false impression herself, albeit probably unintentionally). Podhoretz’s citation of Orwell on Europe after the Second World War mendaciously left out, among other things, Orwell’s expressed desire for “a socialist United States of Europe,” free from both American and Soviet domination (this mendacity was exposed by Christopher Hitchens and never recognized—or apologized for—by Podhoretz). Karp quotes Orwell on a socialist Europe elsewhere, but the omission in the context of discussing Podhoretz seems symptomatic of her relentless focus on Russian tyranny. 

(Some of the earliest to appreciate Animal Farm were—and how this resonates today—Ukrainian socialist dissidents and refugees languishing in the rubble of post-war Europe. This at a time when the Western powers were fawning over their chum Stalin! In fact, in 1946, American soldiers actually handed over copies of the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm to the Red Army to be destroyed. To be clear, this is an aside and not a comment on Karp, for she does discuss the story of Animal Farm’s Ukrainian translation—and very astutely, too.)

As I said before, this focus is a great strength of Karp’s book, but also a great weakness. At times, it distorts Orwell’s actual politics and art. Karp is right that the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four was primarily inspired by Soviet Russia, but this downplays its more universal significance. Orwell himself made clear that the novel was not an attack on socialism or solely directed at Russia. It was also an assault on totalitarianism in general:

“My novel Nineteen Eighty-four is not intended as an attack on socialism, or on the British Labor party, but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable, and which have already been partly realized in Communism and fascism. I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it would arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences. The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere. [My emphases, “Nineteen Eighty-four” aside. Note also that various versions of this statement were made by Orwell but all tended toward the same point.]”

Although Karp understandably focuses on how Orwell can help us understand President Putin’s tyranny and imperialism, in doing so she rather detracts from the universality of Orwell’s work. China, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Burma (or Myanmar), the United States—all of these places and many more have seen Orwell’s spirit invoked by dissidents against the establishment. In her focus on the post-Cold War descent of Russia into Putinism, she restricts herself by not going much further afield than Russia and Europe. A fuller understanding of Russian imperialism must consider how Putin’s methods were brutally refined in Syria. As Big Brother knew well, tyrannies are kept strong by exporting violence against enemies abroad.

Lest I should have appeared overly critical, allow me to restate that even in this, her analysis is exceptional and that overall, George Orwell and Russia is a uniquely penetrating study of Eric Blair’s life and legacy. There are many other excellent parts of the book: Karp’s discussion of Orwell’s relationship with and indebtedness to the brilliant sociologist Franz Borkenau; her investigation of Orwell’s time in Spain and of the last great Orwell mystery—his missing Spanish papers, purloined by Stalinist agents; her examination of Orwell’s anti-Soviet activism, including her compelling interpretation of his (in)famous list of communist fellow travelers; her analysis of how Orwell’s writings were disseminated in the communist world during his life and after; and her discussion of how Orwell’s literary-sociological theory of totalitarianism so perfectly mapped onto the actual tyrannies of his day and ours. 

The central paradox of Karp’s book is that it is so brilliantly insightful and yet the very focus that enables her insight sometimes leads to a narrowness which precludes it from shining as brightly as it could. She sometimes hedges, but that does not really alter the feeling I had upon closing the book that its narrowness of focus was overwhelming—and that it at times distorted a truer understanding of Orwell. Nonetheless, George Orwell and Russia truly shines. That I have a few disagreements with it is merely evidence of how stimulating it is. 

I asked above whether Orwell should be considered more of a socialist or a liberal, and Karp ends with a quote from Orwell to the effect that, so long as “the liberal tradition” survives in some part of the world, totalitarianism can never truly triumph. Karp is defiant in the face of resurgent Russian tyranny and optimistically reminds us that, sorely bruised as it may be, the liberal tradition lives on. Even as President Putin’s bombs fall upon Ukraine, that great country ought to reinvigorate in us the ideals of that noble and ancient tradition. 

One of Orwell’s favorite lines was John Milton’s “By the known rules of ancient liberty”. Orwell was one of the finest upholders of these rules, and one reason for his enduring relevance lies in how he can help us understand and combat modern totalitarianism. He exposed and opposed the Russian myths of then and can help us do so now. Karp’s fine study of Orwell is an addition to the canon of the liberal tradition, as well as a testament to the brilliance of one of that tradition’s most famous sons.

Daniel James Sharp edits the Freethinker and is an independent writer, who has published in various outlets. He also writes on Substack and is currently working on a book about Christopher Hitchens for Pitchstone Publishing

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