Remembering George Orwell, the Socialist

Orwell’s dystopian vision of a nightmare world in ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’ co-existed with his passionate belief in 'Democratic Socialism', but we tend to forget this fact quite often.

To most readers, George Orwell (June 25, 1903- January 21, 1950) remains the author of Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm, Stalinism’s most trenchant critic and champion of liberal democracy. Essentially, this view is not wrong, except that his most-read fiction provides us with only a fragmented perspective on Orwell’s moral and intellectual universe. The popular view, however, is carefully nurtured and widely propagated for a reason.

Consider, for example, these words that you would read in the introduction to the 1950s’ Signet edition of Animal Farm: “If the book itself had left any doubt of the matter (of Orwell’s artistic intentions), Orwell dispelled it in his essay ‘Why I Write’: Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against Totalitarianism….”

This seems to make sense. ‘Why I Write‘, published a year after Animal Farm, was some kind of a statement of literary intent – a writer’s manifesto, if you like. And, anti-totalitarianism is without a doubt one of Animal Farm’s major themes. But is it the only theme, as the Signet introduction would have us believe? There’s the rub. Animal Farm is not only a statement, indeed a very angry statement, against totalitarianism: equally, it is a passionate statement for the equality of all men also. And the sentence ‘quoted’ from ‘Why I Write’ actually reads like this:

“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” ( italics Orwell’s).

In this selective quoting from an Orwell text by the Signet editor is implicit what was once memorably called “the politics of ellipsis”, a familiar Cold War stratagem of the McCarthy era. And, in case you did not notice, the ‘quotation’ spells totalitarianism with a capital T while the original does not: instead, Orwell had used a capital S for Socialism, as was his wont. This editorial sleight-of-hand assumes significance in light of the fact that Animal Farm has been a more-or-less permanent fixture in the school literature curriculum in the UK and the US since the 1950s. It sold well over 20 million copies in these two countries alone.

The fact of the matter is, George Orwell was a socialist above everything else, a clear-eyed, committed socialist. And it was in his socialism that his deep distrust of all dictators and megalomaniacs was firmly anchored. His engagement with socialism was not only emotional. It was a sharply articulated intellectual engagement also, as we will see presently. If you look once more at the sentence we quoted above, you will find Orwell identifying the year 1936 as some kind of watershed in his career – 1936 was the year of the Spanish Civil War, the war that for many of its contemporaries was as pure and compelling a cause to fight for as few other things in history have ever been. Orwell himself fought in the Civil War, not until its bitter end, but till a sniper’s bullet that nearly killed him caught him on his throat and incapacitated him.

He had not, unlike many others, come to Spain as a member of the International Brigade, but – as he wrote later – “with some notion of writing newspaper articles” about the war. “But I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do”. He happens to talk about that atmosphere himself, and it will be worth our while going over his description of it:

“When one came (to Barcelona) straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was somewhat startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle……. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ’well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for”.

And again, although practically everything was in short supply in the Barcelona of December 1936, Orwell found it remarkable how “so far as one could judge the people were contented and hopeful. There was no unemployment and the price of living was still extremely low; you saw very few conspicuously destitute people ….. Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine”.

The excerpts above are from Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s account of the Spanish Civil War as he saw it. Perhaps not many of Orwell’s readers read Homage or count it among his major works, and they are apt to do the same in regard to his journalistic writings also.

George Orwell
Animal Farm

The truth, however, is that for a proper reading of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four, one needs to have some familiarity with Orwell’s non-fictional and journalistic writing, and with the kind of person he happened to be. Barely a year before he started writing Animal Farm, Orwell declined an invitation from the Duchess of Atholl to speak at the ‘British League for European Freedom’ because he “could not associate with a Conservative body that defended Democracy in England but had nothing to say about British Imperialism”. He went on in the same letter to say, presumably leaving that noble lady quite scandalised, that he “belong(ed) to the Left and must work inside it, however much I hate Russian totalitarianism and its poisonous influence in this country”.

At another place, Orwell speaks with loathing of “the truly frightening spectacle of Conservative MPs (in the English Parliament) wildly cheering the news that British ships, bringing food to the Spanish Republican government, had been bombed by Italian aeroplanes”. And this is why Orwell thought the British government was so ambivalent towards fascism in the years leading to the Second World War: “The British ruling class were not altogether wrong in thinking that Fascism were on their side. It is a fact that any rich man, unless he is a Jew, has less to fear from Fascism than either Communism or democratic Socialism”. One imagines that a clearer articulation of Orwell’s politics is not necessary.

The last two quotes are from the 1940 essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’ – by far Orwell’s most serious attempt at articulating the need for social and political change in England. And his effort was not only to etch the contours of the kind of society he thought desirable, but also to flesh it out. The first half deals with what contemporary English society looked like, with the many fault lines standing out prominently across its surface. “There is no question about the inequality of wealth in England. It is grosser than in any European country, and you have only to look down the nearest street to see it. Economically, England is certainly two nations, if not three or four”. And about the nature of the English ruling classes: “They could not struggle against Nazism or fascism, because they could not understand them…. To understand Fascism they would have to study the theory of Socialism, which would have forced them to realize that the economic system by which they lived was unjust, inefficient and out-of-date….. After years of aggression and massacres (by the Nazis/Fascists), they have grasped only one fact, that Hitler and Mussolini were hostile to Communism. Therefore, it was argued, they must be friendly to the British dividend-drawer”. And again, “What this war has demonstrated is that private capitalism – that is, an economic system in which land, factories, mines and transport are owned privately and operated solely for profit – does not work. It cannot deliver the goods”.

After this, Orwell sets out his programme for the establishment of a socialist order. He begins by defining socialism, his definition pretty much approximating to the famous ‘Clause 4’ of the constitution of the British Labour Party, namely, a society whose economic foundation is built on a ‘common ownership of the means of production’. “Crudely, the State, representing the whole nation, owns everything, and everyone is a State employee. This does not mean that people are stripped of all private possessions such as clothes and furniture, but it does mean that all productive goods such as land, mines, ships and machinery are the property of the State. The State is the sole large-scale producer”.

George Orwell
Nineteen Eighty-four

Orwell shows a remarkably clear understanding of the dynamics of the productive forces under different societal models: “.. Unlike capitalism, it (Socialism) can solve the problems of production and consumption. At normal times, a capitalist economy can never consume all that it produces, so that there is always a wasted surplus …. and always unemployment. In time of war, on the other hand, it has difficulty in producing all that it needs, because nothing is produced unless someone sees his way to making a profit out of it. …… In a Socialist economy these problems do not exist. The State simply calculates what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them”.

In simple, un-cluttered prose, this sums up the contradictions between productive forces and relations of production inherent in the capitalist system, as a Marxist would see them.

As for the Socialist programme proper, here are the six legs on which Orwell expects it to stand in England’s case:

Nationalization of land, mines, railways, banks, major industries.

Limitation of incomes, so that the highest tax-free income never exceeds the lowest by more than ten to one.

Democratic reforms in the educational system.

Immediate Dominion status for India, with power to secede after the war.

Formation of an Imperial General Council, in which the colonies are to be represented.

A formal alliance with China, Abyssinia ( Ethiopia) and all other victims of the Fascist powers.

Orwell’s six-point programme is solid common sense. But noteworthy here is his recognition that an imperialist power could not aspire to become a socialist society without first disbanding its empire. It is also striking how Orwell could pare away the woolly sentimentality sticking to the idea of socialism and propose a programme of socialist transformation in such simple terms.

Written in 1940, in the shadow of the World War, the essay makes the point that “the war and the revolution are inseparable”, that “we cannot win the war without introducing Socialism, nor establish Socialism without winning the war”. One can argue that things eventually did not turn out in quite the way Orwell had predicted, but such an argument need not detain us here. What is important is that, for Orwell, it was socialism that was fascism’s strongest antidote, a way of life that you had to embrace if you were to fight fascism in right earnest.

The values that inform Orwell’s best writing are the simple, uncomplicated values of decency, compassion and faith in the innate goodness of ordinary men. He gravitated towards socialism – ‘democratic Socialism’, in his words – because he believed that only socialism was compatible with these values in their true sense. He never abandoned the idea of socialism because of disenchantment with Stalin’s Russia, much as he hated Stalinism. His commitment to the idea of socialism was, thus, not so much ideological as organic, moral.

It is small wonder, then, that the Signet edition of Animal Farm felt the need for the ellipsis that we encountered above. Orwell’s Socialism (as he would always spell the word) in its unexpurgated form would have clearly made him a persona non grata in the US, at any rate in the US of Joseph McCarthy.

Anjan Basu freelances as a literary critic, commentator and translator of poetry. He can be reached at As Day is Breaking is Basu’s book of translations from the Gyanpith award-winning poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay.

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