Nineteen Eighty-Four and all that

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A still from the 1984 film adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four

Seventy years after his death, George Orwell has been canonised by the literary establishment as a liberal critic of totalitarianism. John Newsinger argues that his life and his work show him to be a harsh a critic of capitalism, and a staunch supporter of the struggles of the “common people”.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was first published in 1949 when its author was already seriously ill. He was to die, aged only 46, in January 1950. One consequence of his early death was that his book was successfully hijacked by the right, both in Britain and the United States. It was turned into an ideological weapon in the Cold War, used to defend the interests of British and American imperialism and to undermine the left throughout the world. It is today once again a bestseller, speaking to a new audience in a very different world. Indeed, over the years since 1949, the book has attracted a variety of readers who have found that it spoke to their experiences.

Last year’s 70th anniversary of the book’s publication has produced two accounts of its history, of how it came to be written and of how it has subsequently been received. The first is The Ministry of Truth by Dorian Lynskey. He is the author of 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, certainly one of my favourite books of recent years. His new volume unfortunately falls short of the standard of his earlier masterpiece.

The other is On Nineteen Eighty-Four by D J Taylor. He is the author of one of the worst biographies of Orwell, a book so bad it inevitably won the Whitbread Book Award for Biography. His biography of Nineteen Eighty-Four is not much better and is sure to win him further prizes and plaudits.

Let us start with George Orwell himself. He was, from the late 1930s on, a democratic socialist. He believed that the capitalist class had to be completely dispossessed of their wealth and power and that the class system they had created for their benefit had to be overthrown, altogether eradicated. It would be replaced by a democratic socialist system which would have egalitarianism at its heart. And as far as he was concerned the people who would bring about this transformation were the working class. He had seen this process underway in revolutionary Barcelona in 1937 and hoped to see it replicated in Britain and throughout the world. Indeed, as far as he was concerned democratic socialism could only be achieved globally.

One other thing he was absolutely clear on was that the capitalist class would not sit by passively and allow itself to be dispossessed. Experience had shown in Spain, for example, that they would fight to hold onto their privileges regardless of the horrors they unleashed. The rise of fascism across Europe was another warning of how far they were prepared to go in order to hold on to their wealth and power. If they felt really threatened then they would fight. This was a truism as far as he was concerned, an incontrovertible lesson of his times. While he thought the degree of violence necessary to smash reaction would vary from country to country, even in Britain capitalists would have to be shot and resistance crushed by force.

Malign influence

One additional problem that socialists had to confront was the malign influence of Stalinism on the left, the way that hundreds of thousands of socialists had enrolled throughout the world in the Communist movement, willingly subordinating themselves to the Stalin regime in Russia. This subordination had two dimensions: first they relentlessly sang the praises of the murderous Soviet regime, covering up its mass murder, its reintroduction of slavery, its celebrating of a totalitarian police state as freedom. It was a regime based on lies and terror and Orwell was determined that the left had to confront this truth.

The second problem for the left was that Communists everywhere faithfully followed every twist and turn in the Soviet regime’s foreign policy, even passing effortlessly from the anti-fascist (and anti-revolutionary) Popular Front of the late 1930s to an actual alliance with the Nazis, the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939, which ended only when Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941.

As far as Orwell was concerned the influence of Stalinism had to be relentlessly fought on the left. There could be no compromise with the apologists for a brutal mass murdering totalitarian regime that passed itself off as a socialist paradise. Animal Farm was the first book he wrote that tackled this task.

The politics of the book were pretty straightforward: a capitalist farmer had been quite properly overthrown by the worker animals and an egalitarian socialist system had been introduced on the farm. The revolution had then been betrayed by the pigs with the revolutionary Snowball (Trotsky) driven out and the dictator Napoleon (Stalin) establishing a murderous police state.

The lessons of the book were that revolutions were absolutely legitimate, but they had to remain democratic and egalitarian, and that the new ruling class that had emerged on the farm was as bad as the farmers, indeed you could not tell the pigs from the men.

Attempts to portray Animal Farm as anti-revolutionary are a complete travesty. They tell us what those putting them forward think, not what Orwell thought at the time. How can we be sure of this? The answer is simple. Orwell made it absolutely clear when he wrote to his friend Dwight Macdonald that it was a warning of the danger of the revolution being betrayed: “What I was trying to say was, ‘You can’t have a revolution unless you make it for yourself: there is no such thing as a benevolent dictatorship’.”

By the time he came to write Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Soviet Union had imposed Stalinist puppet regimes throughout Eastern Europe and in this new situation it had revealed itself, as far as he was concerned, to be worse than Western capitalism. The totalitarian world portrayed in Nineteen Eighty-Four was by now the fate that Orwell feared might result if the Soviet Union won the Cold War. Even though the Stalinist threat had increased, the book was still primarily intended as a further attempt to convince the left of the realities of Soviet-style regimes. In the months before his death, Orwell was worried about how it was already being hijacked as an anti-socialist book and was determined to resist this development. Death cut him short.

How do Lynskey and Taylor approach the book? The first point to make is that their concerns are primarily literary and cultural. They certainly recognise Orwell as a critic of social injustice and political oppression, but have no real sympathy for his politics beyond that. Lynskey, for example, describes Orwell’s politics as deriving from his core values of “honesty, decency, liberty, justice”. What this amounts to is a determined refusal to actually engage with the man’s politics. The debate that he conducted with Trotskyist and anarchist ideas is really just too unsavoury to be taken seriously so it is ignored. And, of course, Orwell’s belief in the working class as the agency of socialist transformation is clearly not worth taking seriously. Nevertheless, Lynskey’s book is still worth reading, not least for the sheer breadth of his discussion. One can disagree with his book, but still learn a lot from it.

Taylor’s achievement in his volume is to construct an Orwell who is acceptable to the literary establishment, someone non-threatening, irredeemably one of them. As far as he is concerned two of the major influences on Nineteen Eighty-Four were Orwell’s rat phobia and the totalitarian horrors he had experienced at his prep school St Cyprian’s!

Literary establishment

To reduce the book to the horrors of prep school is, of course, something that presumably much of the literary establishment can wholeheartedly identify with. One can, of course, quite understand how comforting it must be to see the book as reflecting one’s prep school experiences rather than the horrors inflicted on the Russian people by Stalin’s regime.

Much less interesting is the idea that Orwell tirelessly read books, pamphlets and articles by anarchists, Trotskyists and others to try and understand the class nature of the Soviet Union. He concluded that it was a new kind of exploitative class society, bureaucratic collectivism or oligarchic collectivism, as it becomes in the book. This was the analysis advanced by the dissident Trotskyists associated with the US magazine Partisan Review, to which Orwell was a regular contributor.

One thing that Lynskey and Taylor agree on is the importance of Orwell’s article, “Looking Back on the Spanish War”, written in 1942. They both, quite correctly, see it as of vital importance in Orwell’s intellectual preparation for the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four. What is interesting is that they focus on his discussion of the assault on the idea of the truth, which is certainly of considerable importance, but have no time whatsoever for his discussion of the working class, which is right at the centre of article.

At one point, Orwell remembers an Italian militiaman who shook his hand “the day I joined the militia…he was probably a Trotskyist or an anarchist, and in the peculiar conditions of our time, when people of that sort are not killed by the Gestapo they are usually killed by the GPU”. For Orwell, this man symbolised “the flower of the European working class, harried by the police of all countries, the people who fill the mass graves of the Spanish battlefields and are now, to the tune of several million, rotting in forced-labour camps”.

For him, in the end, everything is reducible to “the struggle of the gradually awakening common people against the lords of property and their hired liars and bumsuckers”. He was certain that “the common man will win his fight sooner or later, but I want it to be sooner and not later — sometime within the next hundred years, say”. That gives us until 2042.

Further reading
The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, Dorian Lynskey, Picador, £16.99
On Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Biography, D J Taylor, Abrams Press, £17.99
Hope Lies in the Proles: Orwell and the Left, John Newsinger, Pluto, £16.99