John Newsinger, author of a new book on George Orwell’s politics, looks at how his stance as an independent socialist led him to great radicalism and terrible betrayal.
On 8 October 1945 the BBC broadcast a talk on Jack London by George Orwell. It was part of the Corporation’s educational talks for members of the armed forces. Here Orwell praised London and in particular his novel, The Iron Heel, for his understanding of the nature of the capitalist class. London, he told his listeners, recognised that the capitalists would never give up their wealth and power without a fight not a fight on the floor of the House of Commons, but on the streets. London realised that the capitalist class “would not just let itself be abolished”, but “would stop at nothing in defence of its possessions”. If necessary, it would resort to an “organised reign of terror”.
When he broadcast this warning, the first Labour government to ever win a parliamentary majority had just taken power. He confidently expected that any attempt by this government to expropriate the rich and establish socialism would meet with resistance, and while he did not expect full-scale civil war, nevertheless some members of the ruling class would certainly have to be shot.
Orwell had been radicalised by his involvement in the Spanish Revolution in the late 1930s. Here a Popular Front government had been elected and the Spanish ruling class had responded with an attempted military coup followed by a protracted civil war. Orwell had seen the working class in power in revolutionary Barcelona and had fought in the trenches in defence of the socialist cause. He was shot in the throat for his trouble.
He came away from Spain with two fixed convictions: first that socialism was possible, that socialism was a democratic classless society in which the rich had been expropriated, stripped of all their wealth and power, and that it was the working class that was the agency for this transformation. Second, his experiences in Spain convinced him that the Soviet Union had nothing whatsoever to do with socialism and that the Communist Parties in Britain and elsewhere were the agents of the Stalinist dictatorship.
This second lesson was reinforced by the fact that he had himself only just escaped arrest by the Communist secret police in Spain. If he had been arrested, he would certainly not have survived the experience.
Orwell returned to Britain very much on the far left. He was not a revolutionary on Bolshevik lines. He never recognised the need for a revolutionary party. Instead he envisaged a mass movement installing a socialist government in power and when the ruling class moved against it, taking to the streets, putting up the barricades, occupying the factories and disarming the police and troops. This would be workers’ power in practice and would open the way for the creation of a democratic classless society.
The problem was, of course, that this reliance on spontaneity left the political initiative in the hands of reformist leaders who had no intention of ever actually fighting for socialism.
Before the outbreak of the Second World War, he saw the Independent Labour Party (ILP) as the vehicle for the struggle for socialism in Britain. The ILP had broken away from the Labour Party after the disastrous 1929-31 Labour government and in 1938-39 included many revolutionaries in its ranks. When war broke out in 1939, however, Orwell broke with the ILP over its support for the war. He embraced a “revolutionary patriotism”, calling for the war to be radicalised, for a socialist revolution, which he argued was necessary if Britain was to defeat the Nazis and to spread socialist revolution throughout Europe, including Germany.
On one occasion, he actually wrote that as far as “all true socialists” were concerned, the “Trotskyist” slogan, “The war and the revolution are inseparable”, was incontrovertible. “We cannot beat Hitler without passing through revolution”, he wrote.
As far as Orwell was concerned the British ruling class was saved by the German attack on the Soviet Union and by the Japanese attack on the United States. This made victory without a revolution possible; indeed, it enabled the triumph of reaction, both on the home front and abroad. He saw the arrest of Gandhi, Nehru and thousands of others and the brutal suppression of the Quit India revolt in August 1942 as the decisive moment. As far as he was concerned the Labour Party leadership, loyal members of Churchill’s coalition government, were wholly implicated in this triumph of the reactionaries.
With his hopes for a British revolution at an end, Orwell became involved with the left Labour newspaper, Tribune, as literary editor. It is important to remember that at this time Tribune was very much an opposition newspaper, bitterly opposed to the Churchill coalition. Orwell opened its literary pages up to anarchists, Trotskyists, revolutionaries of all kinds, indeed everyone and anyone on the left except the Stalinists. More important, as far as understanding his politics is concerned, however, was his regular “London Letter” that he wrote for the US Trotskyist-influenced magazine, Partisan Review.
Certainly by 1944-45, Orwell had come to believe that a Labour government was the most that could be hoped for in Britain. What he hoped though, was that this government would move decisively against the ruling class, would radicalise the mass of the population in the process and would begin the process of transforming Britain into a democratic classless society.
He wrote in Partisan Review in August 1945, just after Labour won the General Election, that readers would be able to tell if the government really meant business by whether or not it launched a frontal assault on the ruling class. He looked forward to the immediate abolition of the House of Lords and the public schools, the purging of the senior ranks of the civil service, diplomatic corps and the military and the expropriation of the banks, big business and the great landowners without compensation. If the Labour government did not go down this road then “it is a good bet that no really radical economic change is intended”.
The following summer he complained in Partisan Review that we might as well “be living under a Conservative government”. The rich “certainly dislike the Labour government”, but “they don’t appear to be frightened of it”. As far as Orwell was concerned Labour’s welfare reforms such as the creation of the NHS certainly improved the situation of working class people, but they were ameliorating the conditions of exploitation rather than ending exploitation. The ruling class did not like working people getting free medical treatment, but it did not threaten their dominant position in society.
For Orwell, socialism was the creation of a democratic classless society where wealth had been socialised and the rich no longer existed, having been stripped of all their wealth and power. Those who resisted, and he believed resistance was inevitable, would have to be put down by force. But there was no resistance because the Labour government had no intention of expropriating the rich and the rich knew it.
He fell out with Tribune when it refused to publish his criticisms of Labour’s lack of radicalism. He also objected to its fanatical support for Zionism and what he considered its mealy-mouthed attitude towards Stalinism. Michael Foot was to later condemn Orwell’s failure to grasp the practicalities of real politics.
Of course, for Foot, real politics was to involve keeping Tribune afloat with a secret £3,000 payment from the viciously right wing Daily Express, a paper that carried on a campaign of lies and smears against the Labour government throughout its whole time in office. If this had come to light at the time Tribune would have been finished and Foot’s career would have been over.
Still Orwell considered that the Labour government had to be supported as the best alternative available and this pulled him dangerously to the right. Indeed, by late 1948 he had actually come to argue that the government’s survival was more important than “the struggle between collectivism and laissez faire”, which was secondary.
When the Labour government imposed austerity on the working class, Orwell supported it, opposing strikes and arguing that the working class had to work harder! He swallowed entirely the government’s exaggeration of the Soviet threat. Whereas both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four had been written to try and win the left away from support for Stalinism, he allowed them to be used as propaganda weapons in the developing Cold War.
And he helped the Labour government’s secret propaganda outfit, the Information Research Department, with its anti-Communist propaganda, providing it with his infamous list of fellow travellers who it would not be worth attempting to enrol in the propaganda war.
It has to be said here that bad though this was, it nevertheless pales into insignificance compared with the way that his Stalinist critics, including the likes of EP Thompson and Christopher Hill, covered up and apologised for Joseph Stalin’s regime of mass murder at this time.
Orwell’s support for the Labour government, even when it was clear that it had no intention of carrying through a socialist transformation, certainly pulled him to the right, something that provides a grim lesson for today, of course.
Nevertheless, he still hoped for a mass international socialist challenge sometime in the future. In the July-August 1947 issue of Partisan Review, he had lamented how bleak the prospects for socialism were, but proclaimed that the only cause worth fighting for was a “United Socialist States of Europe” as a necessary first step towards the establishment of socialism as a global system. One of the obstacles he had identified at this time was the Labour government’s dependence on the United States. Orwell stands as both an inspiration and as a warning.