Hope lies in the proles

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As well as being one of the most significant literary figures on the left in the 20th century George Orwell was also a broadcaster, a columnist, a poet, an essayist, a war correspondent — and a Republican fighter in the Spanish Civil War.

His two most influential books, Homage to Catalonia (based on his experience fighting Franco’s army in Spain) and Nineteen Eighty Four (a nightmare vision of life in a totalitarian society), continue to be relevant today 70 years after they were first published.

In Hope Lies in the Proles John Newsinger rescues Orwell from the years of lies, slander and misrepresentation by his critics and detractors.

Newsinger reveals what Orwell actually said in his writings as well as the historical and political context of the time to bring clarity and understanding to Orwell’s politics. Only then does Newsinger outline Orwell’s mistakes and limitations.

When Orwell first saw the British Union of Fascists on the streets he did not believe they were a real threat. He was though alarmed by the advance of the fascists in Spain. It was Orwell’s experience fighting Spanish fascist leader Francisco Franco’s army that fundamentally shaped his political life.

When Orwell arrived in Barcelona he saw a city with the “workers in the saddle”. What Orwell encountered “really was a workers’ state”. He took part in the unsuccessful May Uprising.

Orwell had originally been sympathetic to the position advocated by the Communist Party (CP) which was that “the revolution should be put on hold in order to concentrate on the defeat of Franco”. However, Orwell’s application to join the International Brigades had been blocked by the leader of the CP in Britain Harry Pollitt.

So instead on arrival in Spain Orwell joined the POUM militia who were fighting Franco’s fascist forces as well as driving forwards the revolutionary process.

Subsequently when the CP moved to suppress the POUM Orwell had to flee for his life. If he had stayed he believed he would certainly “have had a bullet in the back for being politically unreliable”.

In Spain Orwell saw how it was the strategic and political interests of the Russian state that shaped the policy and practice of the communist parties rather than the need to advance the revolutionary struggle.

Newsinger shows how it was Orwell’s experience fighting Franco along with the realisation that the communist parties were holding back or even sabotaging the fight against fascism which shaped him as a writer.

Consequently Orwell wrote extensively about the reality of Stalin’s Russia. This was in the 1930s when most of the left either supported, excused, or remained silent about the twists and turns of the CP’s policies, the Soviet show trials, the betrayal of the Spanish Revolution, and those who they knew had “disappeared” into Stalin’s gulag.

Newsinger brings to life the real George Orwell. He takes up the arguments about Orwell’s life, the “real” meaning of his books, his links to security services, and conjecture about what he would have done “if he were still alive”.

This is a gripping must-read book.