Orwell’s Origins as a Social Democrat


Orwell is such a fixed star in the universe of political writers, we can easily forget how meandering a path he took to reach his mature views. It was only in middle age after fighting the forces of fascism and being menaced by fellow leftists in the Spanish Civil War that his principles as a social democrat clearly came together. For several years as a young man he had held such an odd mixture of traditional and libertarian beliefs he called himself a “Tory anarchist.” (“Hippie Reaganite” might give American ears a sense of the disconnect.)

Still, the social democrat was there in outline all along. When you go back to Orwell’s first writings and read them in order–as I am doing this year–the component artifacts of his mature position are evident and intact even in the beginning. They need very little sifting or piecing together.

In April 1931 Orwell published his first political essay, “The Spike.” It was actually an article of what we would today call “immersion journalism,” in which he posed as a tramp and stayed a weekend in a public shelter (called “spikes” at the time). The experience Orwell describes is austere and humiliating. Together with his fellow tramps, he was stripped down to his rags of underclothing, medically screened–ostensibly for smallpox–and locked inside a barn-like building with bare concrete floors. The men received only hard bread, margarine and weak tea for their sustenance. They washed up twenty to a single washbasin.

Although Orwell’s general description of the spike’s misery is memorable, it was one particular tramp who caught his attention. The tramp in question seemed a cut above the 40-odd others, described as “mentally blank” and intellectually unable to grasp their plight. But Orwell’s tramp knew what was wrong: a carpenter, he had lost his tools to a small financial crisis and fell out of work. “It’s idiotic,” he reflected: “six months at the public charge for want of three pounds’ worth of tools.”

This passage points directly to the social democratic principle that welfare should relieve specific shortfalls. It need not be wasteful or even generous if it is smart. Restore that destitute carpenter’s tools today, and relieve the public of paying his room and board indefinitely. What Orwell was witnessing in the spike was a general approach to palliating poverty and homelessness so lacking in thought that it perpetuated the very conditions it was supposed to address. This was basically the same world Dickens inhabited, in which poor houses were kept up as a means of warehousing the poor but with no conception of other kinds of interventions that might break the cycle of poverty. It was almost as if the rich wanted the poor to always be with them.

(Image: Getty)

Orwell’s next essay, “A Hanging,” was published in August 1931. In it he illustrated a far weightier principle of social democracy: that the state must waive its right to kill where it can humanely incapacitate instead. There should be no death penalty. Today we know of several abstract arguments against the death penalty. To me, the most compelling one is based in the error rate of capital convictions. Actual cases of mistakes tell us innocents have been executed; statistics tell us this injustice will continue as long as the death penalty exists.

For Orwell, though, the most compelling “argument” against the death penalty is simply that he is radically pro-life. He cannot, metaphysically, make sense of humans deliberately snuffing out the lives of other humans who are completely under their control.

In the scene Orwell recalls in “A Hanging,” he is a young colonial police officer in Burma. As his detail force-marches a condemned prisoner toward the gallows, the man adjusts his stride to avoid stepping in a puddle. That moment burst upon Orwell’s conscience like lightning. He recalls:

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working—bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming—toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned—reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone—one mind less, one world less.

Orwell would go on for nearly twenty years speaking and speaking of the wrongs men do to one another, but the wrongness of capital punishment he found unspeakable. All social democrats, indeed all decent human beings, share this belief in the limits of justice–that our system may go up to the point of incapacitating a known criminal, but we dare not take their lives as long as we are in full control of our senses, reasons and actions.


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