The Paul Richards column
George Orwell (1903-50), whose real name, as everyone knows, was Eric Blair, led an extraordinary life, from imperial policeman in Burma to infantryman in the Spanish Civil War, from MI5 informer to assassin, trained to kill collaborators in the event of a Nazi invasion. He left behind some of the greatest writing of the twentieth century, and succeeded in his life’s mission to elevate political writing into an art form. His socialism was shaped by life-changing events, rather than academic study. Like the prime minister, he was an old Etonian, but he never went to university. His education was in the parade grounds of Mandalay, the hotel kitchens of Paris, the back streets of Wigan, the blood-soaked gutters of revolutionary Barcelona, and the air-raid shelters of London in the Blitz.
Orwell developed a faith and confidence in the working-class people he met, the decency of their values and their capacity to make a better world. His great socialist manifesto The Lion and the Unicorn stands as a clarion call for democracy, freedom and a less selfish, more egalitarian society. England was ‘a family with the wrong members in control’; the war against Nazism had made socialism a necessity:
“We cannot win the war without introducing Socialism, nor establish Socialism without winning the war. At such a time it is possible, as it was not in the peaceful years, to be both revolutionary and realistic. A Socialist movement which can swing the mass of the people behind it, drive the pro-Fascists out of positions of control, wipe out the grosser injustices and let the working class see that they have something to fight for, win over the middle classes instead of antagonizing them, produce a workable imperial policy instead of a mixture of humbug and Utopianism, bring patriotism and intelligence into partnership – for the first time, a movement of such a kind becomes possible.”
Orwell was instinctively distrusting of authority, elites and governments. A private education will do that to a chap. At St Cyprian’s prep school in Eastbourne he suffered terrible privations and violence, described in Such, Such Were the Joys. Across the road from the school was Summerdown Camp, a vast army camp on the side of a hill for wounded soldiers from the trenches of the First World War. What the daily sight of these men in their distinctive blue uniforms, with limbs missing and other horrific wounds, did to the young Eric Blair we can only imagine. His socialism was heretical. It did not conform into the Marxism of the communists, or the reformism of the Labour Party, although he canvassed for Labour in the 1945 general election. He defied labels, and was too independent-minded to fit neatly into any party, sect or faction (although he joined the Independent Labour Party). He called himself ‘a Tory anarchist’ until the mid-1930s. After that, experience made him a democratic socialist.
He wrote to his old St Cyprian’s schoolfriend Cyril Connolly from revolutionary Barcelona on 8 June 1937: ‘I have seen wonderful things and at last really believe in Socialism, which I never did before.’ He believed that ‘during times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act’. He only just got out of Spain alive, before the communists could arrest, and probably shoot, him for being a ‘Trotskyist’. Poverty, squalor and dirt both repelled and fascinated him. His first experience of it was as a plongeur in the Paris hotel kitchens and a homeless tramp in the East End of London. Orwell idealised the working class. In The Road to Wigan Pier he wrote:
“It is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp., and the poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants – all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.”
He was an early Tribunite, like Nye Bevan, but wrote his As I Please column on everything from how to make the perfect cup of tea to what constituted the ideal pub. Sometimes he wrote on such subjects to deliberately annoy humourless lefties. He advised others how to write: ‘Never use a long word if a short word will do; never use the passive when you can use the active; have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?’
Orwell was a man of the left, yet could see right through Stalin, unlike so many of his contemporaries. His distrust of Stalinism turned to outright hostility when he saw the communists turn on the socialists and anarchists in the Spanish Civil War, preferring to shoot deviants from Soviet communism than the fascists. He was shot through the throat by a fascist sniper and invalided home. When the Second World War broke out Orwell signed up to the Home Guard. Far from being one of ‘Dad’s Army’ he was preparing (along with Michael Foot amongst hundreds of others) to form an underground guerrilla army which would attack the Germans behind their lines, and shoot collaborators. The main proponent of a British ‘home guard’ after Dunkirk was a communist Tom Wintringham, who had commanded the British battalion of the International Brigade in Spain. Like Wintringham, Orwell had seen armed revolution first-hand, and was ready to take up arms in the British revolution if necessary.
Orwell’s two last, and greatest, works are Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four. Animal Farm is a fable of revolution betrayed, on the tendency of self-appointed political leaders to aggregate their power and end up the same as, or worse than, the oppressors they’ve overthrown. (‘The creatures outside 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.’) The farm was based on one in Willingdon, then a village near Eastbourne, which Orwell had known as a schoolboy at St Cyprian’s. You can visit it today, and have a cup of tea surrounded by Orwell memorabilia.
If Animal Farm was a ‘fairy story’, as its subtitle suggests, then Nineteen Eighty-four is a nightmare: ‘If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’ It was seized upon by Cold Warriors as anti-Soviet propaganda. But it is a savage satire on all authoritarianism, of left or right. It was as much about the cold harsh austerity of post-war London in 1948 (Orwell simply transposed the last two digits of the date) as some dystopian future.
Orwell’s socialism was humane and practical, in an era of dogma and ideology. He was anti-doctrine; he described the socialist idea in childlike terms:
“The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all co-operate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.”
In 1945 the writer (and rapist) Arthur Koestler, pacifist Bertrand Russell, publisher Victor Gollancz and George Orwell attempted to establish a ‘League for the Dignity and Rights of Man’. They failed, although some of the ideas surfaced twenty years later with the foundation of Amnesty International. Orwell, a brilliant writer but shambolic organiser, drafted a manifesto for the new league. He wrote that the main functions of the state should be:
1. To guarantee the newborn citizen his equality of chance.
2. To protect him against economic exploitation by individuals or groups.
3. To protect him against the fettering or misappropriation of his creative faculties and achievements.
4. To fulfil these tasks with maximum efficiency and a minimum of interference.
This provides as good a definition as any of the state in a socialist society. It is not the overarching state, but the enabling state, helping the individual to get on in life, to be creative and fulfilled, but with the maximum of efficiency and minimum of interference.
Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick suggests:
“Orwell genuinely believed, no mere platitude or rhetoric this, in the innate decency (the word he is fond of) of ordinary people. True values are not to be created nor old values ‘transfigured’ by the revolution, or in a new revolutionary consciousness; they exist already in the decency, fraternity, mutual aid, sociability, tolerance and scepticism towards authority of the working class – values which have survived the competitive individualism and reduction of everything to money values, engendered by capitalism, which has almost swallowed the middle classes . . . Decency is not an empty word, but is part of the moral values of socialism that are embedded in working class culture.”
He had a faith in the capacity of ‘ordinary’ people which few Labour politicians have ever managed, preferring to have faith in themselves. His writings remain relevant, not just as literature, but as political works which can inspire us today.
Next week: Michael Young
Labour’s Revival is out now.