Orwell, Steadfast Partisan of the Left

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Sometime during the Cold War, right-leaning ideologues got the idea that George Orwell had switched sides shortly before dying in 1949, and his legacy was somehow on their side of the aisle.

An essay by the neo-conservative writer Norman Podhoretz in the January 1983 Harpers is typical. In it, Podhoretz argues that Orwell underwent several “major political transformations,” and if you trace their arc, you see it bending clearly toward Reaganite neo-conservatism.

Well, as Orwell said of Charles Dickens, some writers are well worth stealing, and Orwell himself proved attractive to thieves. The right’s attempt to appropriate his legacy is an act of attempted robbery. Orwell was a steadfast partisan of the left and remained so to the end of his life.

Why does (re)establishing this fact matter? I’ll get to that, because it really does matter, but first let’s consider the evidence for Orwell’s enduring loyalty to the left.

  1. Actions always speak louder than words. Orwell was shot in the throat by a fascist sniper while fighting with the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. He temporarily lost his voice and nearly died. As he was recovering in a Spanish hospital, he wrote to one of his best friends that he could “at last really believe in Socialism, which [he] never did before.”
  2.   Orwell made explicit commitments to the left’s political agenda, and he never reversed them. The leftist spirit was alive but only vaguely so in Orwell’s earliest writings, which addressed the injustices of colonialism and the structural nature of poverty in what was then the world’s biggest, richest empire. But in June 1938, he put his cards plainly on the table in his essay, “Why I Joined the Independent Labour Party.” The gathering threat of fascism he said, was forcing passive leftists to adopt a concrete, organizing dimension for their sympathies, even though that meant they would have to make unwelcome political compromises with the establishment. “One has got to be actively Socialist,” he wrote, “not merely sympathetic to Socialism.”
  3. A thinker as forthright as Orwell would have publicly and explicitly withdrawn his support for the left had he privately abandoned it. He never did. Indeed, he used his dying breath to express his enduring loyalty to socialism. A representative of the United Automobile Workers had written Orwell sometime in mid-1949 asking if 1984, with its direct indictment of collectivism, had not signaled Orwell’s abandonment of the left. Weak, feverish, and unable even to walk from his hospital bed to the radiology lab for a needed X-ray, Orwell wrote back on the 16th of June, explaining clearly and forcefully, “My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labor Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralised economy is liable and have already been partly realised in Communism and Fascism.” He would only write eight more letters in what remained of his short life, but that letter contained his last political statement; he remained a man of the left.
  4. Wait, what’s that about supporting the British Labor Party in 1949? Hadn’t Orwell joined the ILP in 1938? In the essay about that decision, Orwell said that despite his membership in the more ideological ILP, he hadn’t lost faith in the more mainstream Labour Party and that his “most earnest hope is that [they] will win a clear majority in the next General Election.” He knew where the winning votes would come from in a battle against the right. From the time he was a declared socialist to the end of his life, Orwell was a pragmatist who believed that the leftist movement would only advance its cause if it was part of a larger, viable coalition against the established monied interests. Politics, Orwell observed over and over, is always a choice between bad options and worse ones. His willingness to cooperate with non-socialist parties should not be interpreted as a rejection of his declared ideological loyalties. Winning is always ugly, and Orwell wanted to win.
  5. Podhoretz, in his 1983 essay laying claim to Orwell on behalf of the right, observes that Orwell was forever criticizing the left, with vigor. Of course he was. Orwell loved the left and did not want to see it commit suicide by bowing to rigid orthodoxies. He was always trying to keep the left honest and to make sense of his own experience as an apologist for a movement that could confound, embarrass and disappoint him in thousands of ways. On the other hand, Orwell’s career-long rejection of the right was as plain as the nose on his face.  From his earliest, unpublished writings about poverty and homelessness, Orwell was always against a state that was set up to steal the workers’ labor value and arrogate it to the one percent. (Orwell may have actually coined that phrase, by the way, in a diary entry in 1941.)

Indeed, despite Orwell’s frequent critiques of leftist foibles, there is nothing you can recover from his writing that teaches you how to be a better rightist. Orwell went to Spain in 1937 with an expressed desire to put a bullet into a real, existing fascist, and he never lost his antipathy toward the more abstract powers ranged behind the right–money worship, predatory corporations, religious authority, bought-off media, politicized courts, and of course, the great populist enabler of it all, Yahoo nationalism. All Orwell’s writings that conservatives might construe as rejections of leftism actually can, and should, be understood as instructions for how to be a better leftist.

An offhand remark by Orwell in a letter to the Partisan Review in 1944 is typical. He was tossing around the idea with his editors that Europe’s constitutional monarchies (in Britain, the Low Countries and Scandinavia) had done a better job resisting Nazism than Europe’s republics, possibly because time-worn royal pageantry stirred and provided a harmless, domestic outlet for popular patriotic sentiments. France, though, an exemplary republic that had killed its kings as any “correct” leftist movement would, had no repository for its patriotic feelings outside the state’s real power structures, and these largely strove for survival by adapting to fascism. If you tell this kind of thing to “the average left-winger,” Orwell noted, “he gets very angry, but only because he has not examined the nature of his own feelings toward Stalin.”

Orwell Tea
(Image: Commonweal)

Today’s right-winger trying to put a neo-conservative construction on Orwell generally has an easy time cherry-picking items like this one. There was a shameful number of European and American socialists who stayed true to Stalin, and Orwell repeatedly called them out for this arch sin, and with many lesser ones. Gather a few of these indictments together and, voila, you have an Orwell struggling to break free of his leftist dogmas and who would have grown in time to love Margaret Thatcher.

Bullshit. Orwell’s self-criticism never rose to the level of embracing of the right, nor did it even point that direction. Indeed, if anything systematic can be recovered from Orwell’s writings as a whole–and he seems to have hated systems–it is a multi-layered critique of the things that threatened to sink socialism.

The body of Orwell’s work weaves together three levels on which he constantly battled against leftist pieties–as an artist, as a political operative, and as a cultural conservative. Orwell believed that declaring a party loyalty was artistic suicide for a writer, whose job was to tell the truth. Writing requires complete freedom of expression, and party membership requires hamfisted modifications of this freedom. He knew he was maiming himself as a writer when he joined the ILP, but he joined anyway, because, he thought, the times demanded political responsibility even of artists. “Group loyalties are necessary,” he wrote in ‘Writers and Leviathan,’ “and yet they are poisonous to literature, so long as literature is the product of individuals.”

(Interestingly, Orwell was remarkably charitable to writers who stayed true to their art and kept out of politics. On his way to Barcelona in 1937, Orwell visited Henry Miller in Paris and praised him frankly and profusely for writing Tropic of Cancer, a book widely censored and generally seen at the time as a scandal of sacrilege and hedonism. Orwell was only slightly perplexed, possibly even charmed, by Miller’s naive indifference to what was happening in Spain. Miller exhorted Orwell to stay in Paris and drink, asking him why he would go down and throw his life away.)

As a political operative–or, by extension, as an ordinary voter–Orwell thought that backing certain desirable leftist causes would inevitably bring to light other, unarticulated commitments to less desirable, even repugnant outcomes. If you want the emancipation of the working class,  for example, you are going to need more, not less, industrialization, which is hateful on aesthetic and environmental grounds. Furthermore, there was no resolving such basic inconsistencies for Orwell: you just had to live with them. Political responsibility, he wrote, demands that we “recognise that a willingness to do certain distasteful but necessary things does not carry with it an obligation to swallow the beliefs that usually go with them.”

This is, of course, a liability of any political orthodoxy, not just the leftist one. But when Orwell indicated the best way out of this thicket, he was clearly speaking from and for the left. The first thing progressives (yes, he used that term too) must do is reject two assumptions forced on them by the established right. One is that the left is in search of a laughably unachievable utopia, and two is that any political choice is a moralistic one “between good and evil, and that if a thing is necessary it is also right.” Both these assumptions spring from a common myth, popular consensus in which Orwell thought the right had gotten for free for a long time.

This myth is the quasi-religious belief that man is fallen and essentially incorrigible. There’s simply no use trying to improve his lot. For centuries, the right (and its progenitors) have placidly asserted the dogma that humans are either candidates for heaven or hell, with no ground in between. Right in front of our nose, though, Orwell was constantly observing signs that humans were capable of making incremental progress, through politics that were often tortured, dishonest, even corrupt, but oriented nonetheless toward the reduction of human misery. In a 1943 book review, Orwell notes that the London slums of Dickens’s day teemed with poor people so deprived of decent conditions that it was objectively true to say they led subhuman lives. They were so far outside the pale, they could not even orient their existence on any kind of program to help civilize them. Sitting in his cold, dark flat during the Blitz, Orwell measured the progress achieved since the 1870s:

Gone are the days when a single room used to be inhabited by four families, one in each corner, and when incest and infanticide were almost taken for granted. Above all, gone are the days when it seemed natural to write off a whole stratum of the population as irredeemable savages.

The conservative belief that we cannot and must not take even the first step toward heaven as long as we are earth-bound, Orwell said, “belonged to the stone age.” Clearly there was no need to invoke a utopia if your real political aim was merely to reduce the worst, most tractable injustices occurring right here, right now. “Otherworldliness,” Orwell writes, “is the best alibi a rich man can have” for doing and sacrificing nothing to reduce the suffering of the poor.

The metaphysical pessimism behind the rich man’s alibi, Orwell believed, led directly to defeatism. And this defeatism made it an urgent matter for the left to reject the straw-man accusation that they were trying to build a utopia of unachievable dimensions. “The real answer,” he wrote, in a 1943 ‘As I Please’ column, “is to dissociate Socialism from Utopianism.” He would write this over and over again, in other words, in other places, until he died.

A right-winger looking to steal Orwell’s legacy can perhaps find the most aid and comfort in the third level of Orwell’s critique of his leftist fellow-travelers, his scorn for their bad taste and what we would today call the performative aspect of their politics. Despite faithfully bearing the leftist banner of liberté, égalité, fraternité, Orwell retained many of the biases and preferences of a garden-variety cultural conservative. He obviously believed it was important not to hide these things, but to wear them on his sleeve.

Although Orwell was horrified by war and believed that socialism would help pave the way to less of it, he was more horrified by pacifists who not only held to Chamberlain’s line of appeasement in 1939 but touted staying out of all wars on philosophical grounds. Orwell called this one-eyed pacifism. He did’t stop there, though. He openly despised the posturing of the pacifists and other cultural progressives of his day, calling them “juice-drinking sandal-wearers” and “creeping Jesus” types. Emotionally, Orwell was closer to Archie Bunker on some things than he was to a by-the-book leftist.

Orwell was also free with some epithets that he might think twice about today. In letters to friends, he called homosexuals fags, often in connection with boys’ public school life. (He mentions in his 1948 essay “Such, Such Were the Joys” that the younger boys at school mooned over and sometimes had crushes on the older boys.) Although he took pains in one “As I Please” column in 1943 to observe that black American G.I.s in London were more polite than white ones, he used the N word without compunction. (It should also be pointed out, though, that he used the same word with political acumen when unmasking the racist hypocrisies of liberal democracies, as in his 1939 essay “Not Counting Niggers.”)

He also viewed the racial situation in Burma, where he served as a colonial policeman, stereoscopically. With one eye he saw the Burmese as “little beasts,” but with both eyes open, he was “all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British.” Again, even while propagandizing for an oppressed people, Orwell believed it important to wear his reactionary racism in full view. He would always believe humans to be a tangle of contradictions, and he did not wish to have his own hidden.

In many ways, Orwell simply deplored the bad material taste of his time. He pined, as any conservative does, for the good old days, when beer was better and fishing streams cleaner. But he clearly reserved a special contempt for the aesthetic depths to which collectivists would plunge out of loyalty to their politics. The low-level, everyday miseries of Londoners in 1984 represent not just a shudder against ugliness and poor taste in general, but a particular warning against accepting material shabbiness as a condition of political progress. The opening chapter of 1984, set in Winston Smith’s apartment building, Victory Mansions, uses the aromas of chronic poverty to animate this idea. “The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats.” Smith’s Victory Gin “gave off a sickly, oily smell . . . ” In a later chapter, Smith visits a proletarian pub, where the ale smells and tastes sour. (See this wonderful 2016 article from the Guardian on “George Orwell and the stench of socialism” for further discussion of this theme.)

If your socialist leader promises material progress–which they all do as a matter of course–they damn well better deliver. From East Germany to North Korea, collectivist dictators have been forced to make whole careers of denying the material poverty of their subjects. Had Orwell lived to see the Kitchen Debate of 1959 between Nixon and Kruschev, he would have called it political schlock and free propaganda for American corporations, but I think he would have also called it an important victory for liberal democracy. It showed what working people ought to expect as a return on their labor value.

Orwell lived a great deal of his life near the functional poverty line, and his tastes were never sumptuous–how could they have been? But he did believe that the ordinary person’s attraction to nice things was a politically useful force. The realistic desire for a “nice cup of tea,” a good glass of beer, or a decent dinner out with one’s partner were handy yardsticks for measuring the success or failure of a government. The whole undertone of Orwell’s 1939 novel Coming Up for Air is about how unnecessarily hard it was for an ordinary young person to fulfill even the shabbiest of proletarian desires in the world’s richest empire.

Does all this matter? Does it matter that the right cannot justifiably lay claim to Orwell’s legacy? I believe it does. Because I believe it is precisely Orwell’s stereoscopic vision of socialism that makes him true to and valuable for the left. “In a prosperous country,” he wrote in 1939, “left-wing politics are always partly humbug.” Progressivists made their livings, Orwell continued, self-righteously “demanding something they they don’t genuinely want”–a measurable reduction in the elite’s standard of living. That would make waves. Safer to stay in opposition.

Orwell spent his energies, though, in pursuit of taking and holding political power for the left. Real political responsibility would come at a cost, as he knew, and it would court contradictions, compromises, even corruption. But that was also true of the political processes that lifted the lives of 1870s slum dwellers out of subhuman misery. Yes, socialism as Orwell understood it, is partly humbug, but corporate capitalism is wholly and completely humbug. You cannot just cheer on the rich and wait for them to voluntarily return you some dividends on your labor value. It will never happen. This is not to say, though–and Orwell never would–that one system is right and the other wrong. But the system in which the worker makes his claim to a bare minimum of security is clearly a less bad system than one where the rich reserve the power to ignore the poor. Good politics is always choosing the less bad option over the worse one. This is the leftist cause, and Orwell is one of its leading champions.

Good Cheap Books

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

One of the things I love most about my e-reader is the access it gives me to inexpensive books. Some of the best bargains out there are great books or collections of great authors that you can get for mere pennies.

Now that many of us have more time for reading, you might consider savoring–or in some cases, tackling–some of these:

Germinal by Emile Zola. If you can hack the French, it’s free on Amazon. We anglophones can read it for 99 cents. This is a great book on its own, of course, but it’s particularly relevant right now while the whole nation is basically on a de facto general strike. When you consider what troubles Zola’s miners had to go to merely to organize a strike in one isolated mining district in Germinal, you start to think that our working class, with a general strike more or less materializing out of nowhere, might wake up and demand some nice things too before going back to work. Probably not, though, because, . . .

. . . our ambient levels of passivity and conformism run pretty high. On this theme, read Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 classic Babbit. It gives the American middle class’s first honest look in the mirror. While our economic life in the Roaring Twenties told us we were masters of our fate, sitting on top of the world, our interior lives said we were chumps, self-righteous fools, and slaves to convention. Babbit–the character and the novel–asks what lies beneath the masks we wear.

Speaking of broad human themes, you cannot miss Cervantes’s Don Quixote. It is possibly the first novel ever written and in any case a great literary wellspring of European enlightenment. From cover to cover it speaks unsparingly but with great comic warmth of a world no longer enchanted by religion. Milan Kundera reflects on it, “When Don Quixote went out into the world, that world turned into a mystery before his eyes. That is the legacy of the first European novel to the entire subsequent history of the novel. The novel teaches us to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude.” For 99 cents you can join the communion of the faithful who ask themselves this question over and over.

Don’t let the imposing-sounding title of Epictetus’s Enchiridion scare you off. It’s a highly accessible introduction to Stoicism, which basically says that unplanned, unjust, and chaotic as the world may be, you should still do your best to live an orderly, dignified life. When I read the plain moral brilliance of Epictetus, I have to wonder how we Americans–many of us cheerful, decent people of solid good sense–let ourselves be saddled with the farcical beastliness of Christianity and other Bronze Age Levantine sky god cults. Read Epitectus alongside your chosen “sacred” text and ask yourself which one really and truly commands your conscience.

If you enjoy unpacking surprise gifts, try any of the Stoics Six Packs series on Amazon, especially volume two, which includes Seneca’s essential On the Shortness of Life (De Brevitatis Vitae). They cost 99 cents. Had you been a curious student living in ancient times somewhere on the Mediterranean rim, you would have risked your life traveling through war zones and plague hotspots to go study these masters.

For years I put off reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, because (a) it’s seven books long, and (b) it struck me in my youth as too fancy pants for my tastes, which ran more toward Dostoevsky’s direct line of questioning God Himself. My mind was changed though, when I read that it was a stylistic inspiration for Shelby Foote’s massive, novelistic History of the Civil War (also a wonderful read but not one that meets my price criteria for this post). You will be richly rewarded even if you only make it through Swann’s Way, the first book. In it, Proust reveals how hard it is to be human. We think of our lives as more intelligible in retrospect than they are as they happen in real time, but Proust gives pause, page after page, to ask if that’s really true. The thing we think we know best–our self–is a collection of rounded-off impressions and outright illusions that require exertion to be held together. When critics talk about the modernist movement as one that unmasked the incoherence of the individual self–the notion that not only is there no essential me in the present, but that I cannot even construct one from the past–they invariably have Proust’s masterpiece first in mind. $1.99.

books

I have several good collections that range in price from free to $1.99. Used to be these beasts were hard to navigate because each book was marked as a “chapter,” so all you could do was move from one book to the start of another. Some were even worse (like a collection of Bertrand Russell I picked up and then abandoned in frustration). They contained thousands of pages, and sometimes all you could do was plow through from the start of the collection toward your desired book. These days, though, many large digital collections are organized better, with internal chapter markings. I am currently reading my way though the complete novels of H.G. Wells, and it is very nicely organized so that you can access individual sections or even chapters in each novel.

In 2015 or so–I can’t quite remember–I decided to read all of Charles Dickens. I was inspired by Orwell’s justly famous essay about Dickens, which convinced me that I would rather be a failed literary critic rather than a successful anything else, even if I came across as pretentious or ridiculous. Plus I didn’t have to quit my day job, which was nice. Anyway, picking up all of Dickens was the easy part. You can get his complete works for a buck.

It’s pretty much the same for Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Balzac, Nietzsche and Goethe. The E.M. Forster collection is good but lacks A Passage to India. I’m sure there are many other great collections out there; these are the ones I’ve spent my time on. Oh, yes, one more I can’t neglect. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is often called the greatest novel in the English language. You can pick it up in Eliot’s collected works and judge for yourself.

 

 

 

Review of “Joe Gould’s Teeth” by Jill Lepore

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Have you heard of Joe Gould, the mad, drunken, chain-smoking bohemian who called himself the greatest historian in the world–flunked out of Harvard, twice, communicated with seagulls, wrote the world’s longest unpublished book, an oral history of everyone, but then again possibly didn’t?

Neither had I, until I read Jill Lepore’s completely absorbing 2016 biography of the man himself, Joe Gould’s Teeth.

Gould came from a family with a queer streak, Lepore tells us.

The Goulds had come to New England in the 1630s, and they’d been strange for as long as anyone could remember. [Joe] was born in Massachussetts in 1889, . . . . [His father,] Dr. Gould was known to fly into rages, and so was Joseph. There was something terribly wrong with the boy. In his bedroom, he wrote all over the walls and all over the floor. His sister, Hilda, found him so embarrassing, she pretended he didn’t exist. He kept seagulls as pets, or at least he said he had, and that he spoke their language: he would flap his wings, and skip, and caw. He did all his life. That’s how he got the nickname “Professor Sea Gull.”

There is plenty to start with here if you are trying to unravel the mystery of Joe Gould. The guy had weirdness in buckets. He was probably misunderstood by everyone around him, from his childhood on. Lepore ventures that he was autistic before it was a diagnosable condition. But there must have been something especially formative about having his sister deny his existence–in effect, trying to erase him.

jgteeth

Later, when Gould would attract the serious attention of literary critics, it was because of the revolutionary scope of his work. He wanted to democratize the recounting of history so that everyone had a voice. No one would be erased. He wrote:

What we used to think was history–kings and queens, treaties, conventions, big battles, beheadings, Caesar, Napoleon, Pontius Pilate, Columbus, William Jennings Bryan–is only formal history and largely false. I’ll put it down the informal history of the shirt-sleeved multitude–what they had to say about their jobs, love affairs, vittles, sprees, scrapes, and sorrows–or I’ll perish in the attempt.

To a friend, he summed it all up rather beautifully, saying, “I am trying to present lyrical episodes of everyday life. I would like to widen the sphere of history as Walt Whitman did that of poetry.” In the end, though, he did perish in the attempt. It was all too much for him.

Gould wrote the oral history in hundreds, maybe thousands, of dime-store composition books, over the course of decades. But he could never find them when it came time to publish. He thought he left some on a chicken farm. Or he would have to re-write them. Or he had sent them to correspondents who kept them in trunks. Critics, and even friends, eventually came to suspect there was no Oral History. Could it all have been a dream? Maybe.

“He was forever,” as Lepore puts it, “falling down, disintegrating, descending.” He once fell and cracked his skull on a curb. He woke up with his head bleeding and he recited parts of his history to a policeman. Writing held him together, but never for long, Lepore tells us. Gould just couldn’t get long with people, and in the end society could not accommodate him. He harassed women, including Harlem’s most famous sculptress. He turned on friends and generous benefactors. He died in America’s largest mental institution, unmourned, unnoticed by anyone on the outside. (In an early stage of his “treatment,” his teeth were pulled. Hence the book title. It was just one of those things doctors did in those days to render the insane more pliant. Lepore hypothesizes that Gould was probably also lobotomized near the end. This was another thing that doctors just did in those days, and there is a record of a man of Gould’s age and description undergoing the procedure.)

Lepore is an irresistible writer and magnificent historian. She tells the story of Gould in a way that sweeps you along with it. But it is the complexity of her subject that compels us. Beneath the greatness of Lepore’s writing is a paradox about Gould himself that yawns wide and takes us in. One of the ways Gould kept his internal balance–early on, when he still could–was to remind himself that individuals are unknowable at their core:

The fallacy of dividing people into sane and insane lies in the assumption that we really do touch other lives. Hence I would judge the sanest man to be him who most firmly realizes the tragic isolation of humanity and pursues his essential purposes calmly.

Lepore’s book is an adventure story in a way.  She set out on it, she says, to try to find the products of Gould’s “essential purposes,” the legendary stacks of dime-store composition books that contained the Oral History. But she didn’t find them. Instead, she found this: the man who gave his whole life to writing the history of the shirt-sleeved multitudes didn’t even believe in it. He couldn’t have. He thought people were unknowable at their core. You might get at the epiphenomena of their lives, but you could never access the individuals themselves. How could you write a history of all of them if you couldn’t even know one of them?

But he kept on, as we all must. “My impulse to express life in terms of my own observation and reflection is so strong,” Gould once wrote, “that I would continue to write, if I were the sole survivor of the human race, and believed that my material would be seen by no other eyes than mine.” This is an expression of courage worthy of Joseph Conrad. When you find that one life-sustaining thing you would do even with no one to witness it, you have arrived. It doesn’t matter that you are possibly as insane as Joe Gould. Because who’s to say what insanity is. Keep calm and pursue your essential purposes.