George Orwell is often presented as a critic of any thoroughgoing attempt to change the world. Yet he was a socialist and a fighter against inequality, exploitation and oppression.
Orwell’s major writings – Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four – all address the question of whether it is possible to build a fundamentally different society. Orwell’s politics developed and shifted during a tumultuous period in world history – an era of war and revolution. To understand his works, we have to understand the times in which he wrote them.
Orwell was born into a middle class family of colonial administrators. He attended Eton, Britain’s most exclusive private school, before joining the Indian Imperial Police, stationed in Burma (Myanmar) in the early 1920s. The experience radically shaped his world view. Orwell was exposed to the ugliest and most brutal aspects of the system. “For five years I had been part of an oppressive system, and it had left me with a bad conscience”, he wrote in The road to Wigan Pier in 1936. “I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants.”
Orwell returned to Europe in 1925 and worked in low wage jobs, living, observing and recording the conditions and experiences of the working poor. Down and out in Paris and London, written in 1933, is a powerful indictment of the way the rich thrive by pushing the vast majority downwards into poverty, drudgery and unemployment.
Orwell concluded that a socialist party had to be formed in Britain and capitalism overthrown. His socialism was rooted deeply in moral outrage. But he remained uncertain about whether exploited workers had the capacity to understand the need for a new world.
“The first thing that must strike any outside observer is that socialism in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the middle classes … so far as my experience goes, no genuine working man grasps the larger implications of Socialism”, he wrote in 1936. The question was to be settled for Orwell in the space of year. Not in London or Paris, but in Barcelona in the heat of revolution.
On 17 July, the fascist general Francisco Franco launched a military coup to put an end to a seven-year worker and peasant revolt that had challenged the running of Spanish capitalism. The Spanish workers, aware of the fate of their comrades in Germany and Italy, were not prepared to go quietly. Their rallying cry became: “Better Vienna than Berlin!” (In Berlin Nazism had triumphed without a fight, while in Vienna workers armed themselves and resisted fascism to the last.)
Immediately, Franco was halted. His army was defeated in two-thirds of Spain. With the old Republican government crippled and the army in revolt, workers were in power across sections of Spain. Orwell travelled to the country to assist in the fight against fascism. He arrived in Barcelona just after Christmas. The scenes did away with his uncertainties about the capacity of workers to transform the world.
“It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle”, he later wrote. “Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags … Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivised and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal … I recognised it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”
Barcelona completely transformed Orwell’s understanding of socialism. At first hand he experienced the political maturity, courage and profound ability of workers to create a new society. Orwell had seen workers’ power and was not about to turn his back on it. He resolved to stay in Spain and join a working class militia.
Orwell’s sojourn in revolutionary militancy in Spain, his commitment to socialism, is an awkward fact for many of his conservative biographers. Robert Colls, for instance, decries Orwell’s role in the revolution as a flight of fancy, condescendingly stating that he “might have spent a little less time responding to his own experiences, and a little more time thinking about the art of the politically possible”.
Initially, Orwell had little understanding of or interest in the political differences between the groups fighting in Spain. But he would soon learn that the fate of the struggle hung on the debates between the working class organisations central to the resistance.
Orwell joined the POUM in early 1937. The organisation identified as Trotskyist and argued that the way to win the war against Franco was to complete the social revolution that was already under way. It would be possible to defeat fascism only if workers were aware that they were fighting for their complete liberation from all forms of exploitation.
The counter-argument came from the Stalinist Communist Party, which argued that the war needed to be won first, and that workers could make a revolution only after fascism had been defeated. Workers needed to keep Spanish capitalists on side, and this meant avoiding anything that would scare them off – such as taking control of production or arming themselves in the streets. The number one imperative for the Stalinists was therefore to put this revolutionary situation to an end as quickly as possible.
When Orwell arrived back in Barcelona from the front in May, the Communist Party was attempting to do just this. As troops tried to take back the worker-controlled Barcelona Telephone Exchange, workers rose up to defend themselves. Tragically, the other workers’ organisations, particularly the anarchist CNT and the POUM, refused to give a lead to the uprising. After days of fighting, workers began to take down the barricades, opening the way for a wave of repression. Orwell escaped across the border to France just as other members of the POUM were being rounded up by Stalinist secret police.
Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky had said that at the beginning of the revolution: “In its specific gravity in the country’s economic life, in its political and cultural level, the Spanish working class stood on the first day of the revolution not below but above the Russian workers at the beginning of 1917.” Now, a great workers’ revolution was crushed under the heel of fascism and Stalinism. A great hope vanished.
Orwell’s impassioned account of the war, Homage to Catalonia, written upon his return to Britain, was an attempt to expose the betrayals of Stalinism – this theme became a particular obsession for him in the years to come. Criticism came at a cost. The British left was dominated by Stalinism, and finding a publisher for the book proved very difficult.
Nonetheless, having witnessed a different kind of society, his determination to see socialism in Britain was intensified. Orwell planned to oppose the Second World War on internationalist grounds, and even made preparations to build an underground organisation to undertake “illegal anti-war activities”.
Based on his experience of the ease with which the Spanish capitalist class and the Republicans opened up to Franco, Orwell was convinced that the working class was the only force that would put up sustained opposition to fascism. He said in 1941: “The feeling of all true socialists is at bottom reducible to the ‘Trotskyist’ slogan: ‘The war and the revolution are inseparable’. We cannot beat Hitler without passing through revolution, nor consolidate our revolution without beating Hitler.”
When workers’ revolution failed to materialise at the end of the war, Orwell collapsed into despair, writing in 1945: “I wanted to think that the class distinctions and imperialist exploitation of which I was ashamed would not return.” It was in this period of disillusionment that Orwell produced his two best known works.
Animal Farm is a biting satire of the tragic defeat of the Russian revolution. It’s also a deeply humanistic text, with sympathetic characters: Old Major, the wise pig representing Marx; Snowball representing Leon Trotsky; Boxer, the sturdy farm horse standing in for the exploited Russian working class; and finally Napoleon, the representative of Stalin, who betrays the revolution, reconciles with the old rulers, and raises the slogan “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
The most common interpretation of Animal Farm is that it is a warning against any attempts to change the world. But rather than being a defence of the status quo, Animal Farm contains in allegorical form a damning critique of capitalist exploitation, as Old Major explains:
“We are born, we are given just so much food as will keep the breath in our bodies, and those of us who are capable are forced to work to the last atom of our strength, and the very instant that our usefulness has come to an end we are slaughtered with hideous cruelty.”
Orwell himself answered the question of whether Animal Farm was intended as an anti-revolutionary text in a letter to Dwight Macdonald, a former Trotskyist: “I did mean it to have a wider application … What I was trying to say was, “You can’t have a revolution unless you make it for yourself; there is no such thing as a benevolent dictatorship.”
Nonetheless, in some respects Animal Farm falls well short of its stated intentions. Rather than presenting a radical alternative to Stalinist dictatorship, the book offers no substantial analysis of how the revolution was defeated, leaving the reader with no answer to the devastation of Soviet betrayals.
Orwell failed to identify the material limitations faced by Russian workers as they took control of society. Economic crisis gathered as the First World War took its toll. Besieged by commercial blockade and the might of 14 foreign armies, the industrial working class that made the revolution sharply diminished in size and political enthusiasm. The Bolshevik party grew into a massive bureaucratic apparatus, compelled to stand in for a working class too defeated to wield power directly.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is Orwell’s best-known work, and the meaning of the book is fiercely contested. It was intended by Orwell as a critique of bureaucracy and totalitarianism in both Britain and the Soviet Union. Indeed, increasingly it is becoming identified not with Stalinism, but with the surveillance state in the post-9/11 world.
The novel’s protagonist is Winston Smith, who lives under the watch of Big Brother and the thought police in a totalitarian state. What gives the novel its power is Winston’s growing consciousness and rejection of the existing state of affairs, summed up by the note he scrawls in his diary: “Freedom is the freedom to say two plus two equals four. If that is granted all else follows”.
Orwell gestures to potential resistance, with the refrain: “If there is hope, it lies with the proles.” Yet as he quietly opens this door, he shuts it quickly. Rather than being a source of resistance, of strength, cunning and self-sacrifice, as the Spanish workers appear in Homage to Catalonia, the working class in Nineteen Eighty-Four appears purely passive. The “proles” are described by Orwell as “like the ant which can see small objects but not large ones” and “people who had never learned to think”.
The sense of futility and abject despair deepens when the resistance movement that Winston dedicates himself to turns out to be a fabrication, an invention of Big Brother. Winston is captured, is tortured into submission and recants his oppositional views, declaring his undying love for Big Brother. His defeat is absolute.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is in many respects the most profound expression of Orwell’s pessimism. “If you want a picture of the future”, Winston’s torturer tells him at the climax of the book, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever”.
By the time of his death in 1950, Orwell had abandoned any hope for revolutionary change in the near future and had accommodated to the ruling Labour government as a “lesser evil”. But he never abandoned his visceral hatred of inequality and exploitation.
How did Orwell shift from putting his life on the line for socialism in Spain, to later falling into extreme pessimism? There were a number of factors.
First, Orwell’s embrace of socialist politics coincided with a period of horrific defeat for the working class internationally. The Trotskyist opposition was in the late 1920s imprisoned or exiled from the Soviet Union, and the gains of the Russian Revolution were being erased as a brutal dictatorship was consolidated. German and Italian workers were crushed under the heel of fascism, which annihilated their organisations and left their leaders languishing in concentration camps. This period, which the writer Victor Serge referred to as “midnight in the century”, was one of despair for the left internationally.
Second, Cold War hysteria divided politics into the two equally barbarous camps of Soviet totalitarianism and Western capitalism. Orwell’s opposition to Stalinism was fuelled by the conviction that the fraudulent socialism in Russia must be exposed in order to fight for the genuine article. However, lacking faith that the working class movement in both England and Russia provided an alternative to Stalinist dictatorship and British liberal capitalism, he increasingly threw his lot in with the latter as a lesser evil.
Compounding this, the anti-Stalinist left was too small to provide Orwell with any centre of gravity. His fleeting contact with British Trotskyists, who attempted to defend genuine revolutionary Marxism against the dictatorship in Russia, was not enough to negate the demoralisation that followed such crushing defeats. Had a substantial revolutionary organisation existed at the time, Orwell might have found hope through actively involving himself in renewed resistance to capitalism.
Resistance is fertile
Only a couple of years after Orwell’s death, the monolith of Stalinism was cracked open. In 1953, construction workers went on strike in East Berlin and sparked a mass revolt. In 1956 workers across Hungary occupied factories, offices, railways and power stations and ran them themselves.
The revolts kept coming. In 1968 in Czechoslovakia, the brute force of Stalinist tanks was necessary to put down a revolutionary movement demanding change. In 1980, workers in Gdansk, an industrial city in Poland, occupied their factories and issued the following proclamation:
“We are different now, above all because we are united, and therefore stronger. We are different because in 30 years we have learned that their promises are illusions. We are different because we have understood that when we hear the words ‘financial reorganisation’, this means exploitation.”
The movement spread across the country, and it took the government more than a year to wrest power back from the workers.
Had Orwell seen these uprisings and the birth of a new anti-Stalinist left that followed, perhaps he would have been reminded of his earlier experiences. If he had been around to see the Egyptian revolution of 2011, the general strikes against austerity in Greece, the Baltimore rebellion, it’s safe to say he would have been on the side of the downtrodden.
And if Orwell was shocked by the inequality and class distinction that was so clearly observable in 1936 London, what would he say about a world where the richest 69 individuals now own more wealth than the bottom 3.5 billion people?
In 1942, he recalled a moment from Spain when he shook hands and locked eyes with an Italian militiaman, who like him had travelled to fight for the working class: “The question is very simple. Shall people like that Italian soldier be allowed to live the decent, fully human life which is now technically achievable, or shan’t they? Shall the common man be pushed back into the mud, or shall he not?”
Seventy years later, the question remains a good one. As is Orwell’s answer: “I myself believe that the common man will win his fight sooner or later, but I want it to be sooner and not later – sometime within the next hundred years, say, and not sometime within the next ten thousand. That was the real issue of the Spanish war, and of the present war, and perhaps of other wars yet to come.”