George Orwell was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. On the hundredth anniversary of his birth we examine the controversy around his work and his legacy for today. John Newsinger reviews recent biographies of Orwell.
In 1946 George Orwell was to acknowledge the importance of his Spanish experiences. Spain, he wrote, had 'turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line I have written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.' What is remarkable, of course, is that an old Etonian, very much a product of the imperial middle class should have ended up fighting in Spain with the POUM militia and then have gone on to become the most important socialist writer and novelist of 20th century Britain. The paradox has made Orwell the subject of numerous biographies and studies of various kinds, some friendly, some hostile, some useful, some not. Inevitably, 2003, the centenary of his birth, is witnessing the publication of a rash of new books about the man. Christopher Hitchens led the way last year with his Orwell's Victory and so far this year we have had DJ Taylor's Orwell: the Life, Scott Lucas's Orwell and Gorden Bowker's George Orwell. What do they contribute to the already large body of writing that exists?
First, let us look at Orwell's political development after Spain. On his return to Britain he attempted to expose the betrayal by the Communists there and actively opposed the build-up to war in 1939. He even argued with anarchist friends for the establishment of an underground organisation to continue illegal anti-war propaganda once conflict broke out. In the event, when war was declared Orwell abruptly reversed his position, a reversal made easier by the Hitler-Stalin pact, and began advocating a revolutionary patriotism. In effect, he tried to adapt POUM arguments about how to win the war in Spain to the situation in Britain. By the summer of 1940 he was arguing that 'only revolution can save England' and was calling for the arming of the people. 'I dare say', he wrote, that 'the London gutters will have to run with blood. All right, let them if necessary.' He urged all true patriots and all true socialists to 'embrace the Trotskyist slogan "The war and the revolution are inseparable".' He insisted that either 'we turn this war into a revolutionary war or we lose it'. The ruling class was completely discredited by appeasement, defeat and class privilege and all that was needed for a socialist revolution was decisive leadership. The Home Guard would play the role of a revolutionary militia. Once the revolution had triumphed in Britain a people's war of liberation would be declared, carrying revolution throughout occupied Europe and into Germany itself, where the people would rise up, massacre the Gestapo and overthrow the Hitler regime.
These revolutionary hopes were not to be realised. The challenge from the left was beaten back in Britain by the Conservative-Labour coalition government and the involvement of the Soviet Union and the US in the war made it possible for victory to be achieved without socialist revolution. Orwell chronicled these developments in a remarkable series of 'London Letters' that he wrote for the US 'literary Trotskyist' journal Partisan Review. This American connection is vital to understanding his political development as a 'literary Trotskyist'. This is not to deny that Orwell had serious disagreements with Trotskyism. Nevertheless, he was engaged in a continual debate with Trotskyist ideas right up until his death.
With the reluctant recognition that socialist revolution was not on the agenda in Britain for the foreseeable future, Orwell looked to Labour reformism as the best alternative. Earlier, he had always dismissed the Labour Party as hopelessly compromised, as always bound to capitulate to the rich. Now he became literary editor of the left Labour newspaper Tribune. Although he was always critical of the 1945-51 Labour government's moderation, his support for it began to pull him to the right politically. This did not lead him to embrace conservatism, imperialism or reaction, but to defend, albeit critically, Labour reformism.
The other crucial dimension to Orwell's socialism was his recognition that the Soviet Union was not socialist. Unlike many on the left, instead of abandoning socialism once he discovered the full horror of Stalinist rule in the Soviet Union, Orwell abandoned the Soviet Union and instead remained a socialist - indeed he became more committed to the socialist cause than ever.
In 1948 the Labour government established a propaganda organisation, the Information Research Department (IRD), supposedly to counter Communist propaganda and advocate the cause of democratic socialism. In practice, it was to become an important tool of British imperialism in the Cold War, carrying out black propaganda at home and abroad. Shortly before his death Orwell became one of a number on the non-Communist left recruited to help the organisation. He provided it with his notorious list of people he believed could not be relied on to help fight Communism. This was a terrible mistake on his part, deriving in equal measure from his hostility to Stalinism and his illusions in the Labour government. What it certainly does not amount to, however, is an abandonment of the socialist cause or transformation into a footsoldier in the Cold War. Indeed, Orwell made clear on a number of occasions his opposition to any British McCarthyism, to any bans and proscriptions on Communist Party members (they certainly did not reciprocate this) and any notion of a preventive war. If he had lived long enough to realise what the IRD was actually about there can be no doubt that he would have broken with it.
Which brings us back to the four new books examining Orwell and his times. First of all Taylor's Orwell: The Life. This is a lightweight literary biography written by someone who is not really interested in his politics. Its limitations are best demonstrated by the fact that Taylor spends more time discussing Orwell's attitude to rats than he does his attitude towards the Soviet Union. The book is just not worth reading. Much more substantial is Gordon Bowker's George Orwell. He certainly does take Orwell's politics seriously and has uncovered new material of considerable interest. Where Bowker falls down, however, is in actually getting to grips with the particular character of Orwell's socialism. Despite this, the book is a valuable contribution to debate and discussion about Orwell. The best biography of the man remains Bernard Crick's Orwell: A Life published in 1980.
More controversial are the volumes from Hitchens and Lucas. Hitchens' Orwell's Victory is likely to be his last decent book now that he has become a cheerleader for US imperialism. It is a vigorous defence of Orwell, marred by a tendency to show off and self advertise. Nevertheless it is an excellent introduction.
This leaves Scott Lucas's rather strident attack on Orwell as an enemy, indeed as the enemy of the left in his book Orwell. What is interesting is that in many ways, for example, his anti-imperialism, Scott Lucas is much closer to this journal than the likes of Hitchens. But what we get from him here is the traditional Stalinist attack on Orwell, but with the Stalinism left out. For Lucas, Orwell was really never more than a liberal (he provides a particularly fatuous discussion of Orwell and Dickens to prove this) and with the onset of the Cold War he finally displayed his true colours.
Lucas can only advance this argument by refusing to engage with the problem that Orwell faced up to: how to be a socialist and an opponent of Stalinism. Stalinism as a problem for the left is completely absent from Lucas's book. Instead all of Orwell's attacks on Stalinism are treated as if they were attacks on socialism, despite Orwell's continued insistence that they were not. This was never an honest way to proceed but while one might have got away with it when Stalinism still had some credibility on the left, you cannot get away with it today. For Lucas, Orwell is tarnished by, indeed blamed for, those socialists who did become Cold War liberals. What he cannot account for are the thousands who every year are inspired by Orwell, who he helps to see through the rubbish to continue the struggle for a better world.