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.
- 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.”
- 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.”
- A thinker as forthright as Orwell would have publicly and explicitly withdrawn his support for the left had he privately abandoned it.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.
- 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.
- 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.”
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.