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. Gareth Jenkins assesses Orwell's writing on culture.
Room 101, Big Brother, doublethink - all these have passed into the language to become instantly recognisable, though in ways that might have surprised Orwell. They are testimony to the power of his writing and the way it has become part of everyday culture.
Orwell took culture very seriously and was one of a handful of writers in the 20th century to map its influence. He wrote about the enduring popularity of the 19th century British novelist Charles Dickens and about Rudyard Kipling, whose poems and stories celebrated the Indian Raj. His writings on culture are tremendously readable - journalistic in the best sense of the word. Orwell could not be dull - and present-day academics, whether addressing high or low culture, could learn a thing or two about how to interest the reader. But Orwell is not simplistic in his judgements, even at his most annoying. Whether writing about Dickens, or the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, or the American low-life writer Henry Miller, or Donald McGill's postcards, he is out to engage with a larger question about the importance of culture in the 1930s and 1940s.
The culture of the period had been deeply politicised in a way that it hadn't for a hundred years or so in Britain, with writers invited to take sides and with culture itself being harnessed to right and left wing causes. The driving force in this respect was the Communist Party and its Stalinist reduction of culture to being 'good' or 'bad' because of its class perspective. Orwell refused such gross oversimplification - but did not fall into the opposite trap of pretending that culture should exist in some rarefied atmosphere. So he rejected the idea that Dickens was some kind of 'proletarian writer' but didn't for all that deny the importance of Dickens's politics.
He explores the contradictions in the novelist's work - in Dickens's moral, rather than social, criticism of his society, his championing of the underdog yet fear of the mob - as well as the way in which his style and language work on these contradictions. He memorably concluded his essay by defending Dickens as a writer who was 'generously angry - in other words, a 19th century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls'.
More controversially, in his essay on Kipling Orwell looks beyond the jingo imperialism, moral insensitivity and aesthetic disgust and sees a certain realism in the portrayal of Anglo-Indian life. Orwell was also fascinated by the 'popular' culture generally despised by genteel culture, the culture of saucy postcards, boys' weeklies and the cult of the detective - long before such subjects become central to cultural studies departments in universities. He writes about these things not just to criticise but to see what the left might learn. He sees in the vulgarity of saucy postcards an expression of an 'unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul', the worm's eye view as against the elevated heroic self. At the end of his essay on boys' weeklies he speculates whether adventure stories could be written without being 'mixed up with snobbishness and gutter patriotism' - a kind of 'left' popular fiction.
Inside the Whale's starting point is Henry Miller's novels about low-life drifters and would-be artists. Orwell uses them to explore a broader issue of a cultural trend towards passivity in the face of social conflict and war - a refusal to be involved in the kind of political choices that so many left wing writers, like the poet W H Auden, felt confronted with in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell caught this idea in another memorable metaphor. Miller and writers like him responded to the appeal of being swallowed up by the whale like Jonah in the biblical story. The whale's belly 'is simply a womb big enough for an adult. There you are in the dark, cushioned space that exactly fits you, with yards of blubber between yourself and reality, able to keep up an attitude of the completest indifference, no matter what happens.'
Orwell, writing in 1940, with fascism victorious in Spain and Britain at war with Nazi Germany, was deeply critical of the limitations of this acceptance: 'To say "I accept" in an age like our own is to say that you accept concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs, aeroplanes, tinned food, machine guns, putsches, purges, slogans, Bedaux belts, gas masks, submarines, spies, provocateurs, press censorship, secret prisons, aspirins, Hollywood films, and political murders.'
But Orwell was also deeply critical of the alternative on offer - commitment to Communism. The Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 meant that 'the unquestionable dogma of Monday' (the popular front against fascism) became 'the damnable heresy of Tuesday' (siding with imperialism). 'Why', he asked, 'should writers be attracted by a form of socialism that makes mental honesty impossible?'
The answer, he reckoned, was cultural. Middle class unemployment (among British intellectuals) meant that the old loyalties towards King and Empire had been undermined. But you still needed to believe in something. The young writers of the 1930s had flocked towards the Communist Party - 'here', he claimed, 'was a Church, an army, an orthodoxy, a discipline'. 'The "Communism" of the English intellectual is the patriotism of the deracinated.'
Whatever the limited truth in this sweeping generalisation about middle and upper class recruits to Communism, this hardly explains why thousands of working class militants joined the Communist Party and constituted the bulk of its membership. This is something Orwell never tackles in his writing. For him, the working class experience is closer to that represented by Henry Miller: 'For the ordinary man is also passive. Within a narrow circle (home life, and perhaps the trade union or local politics) he feels himself master of his fate, but against the major events he is as helpless as against the elements.'
Yet it was only four years earlier that Orwell had glimpsed in Barcelona something quite different, 'the working class in the saddle', and noted a quite different culture among ordinary people, in which 'waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal'. This was quite the opposite of the passivity he noted in the later piece of writing.
Why the difference? Orwell's discussion of popular culture - particularly in The Lion and the Unicorn, the essay-pamphlet he published in 1941 - provides the clue. Its subtitle is 'Socialism and the English Genius'. It shows Orwell still committed to socialism, despite his own sudden conversion when war was declared, to support for Britain. In January 1939 he was talking about 'organising for illegal anti-war activities' and 'underground organisation'. For, as he wrote as late as July 1939, 'what meaning would there be, even if it [British imperialism] were successful, in bringing down Hitler's system in order to stabilise something that is far bigger and in its different way just as bad?'
Yet it was 'My Country Right or Left' - to use the title of a piece he wrote in the autumn of 1940 - once he realised he was 'patriotic at heart'. Yet this was a strange sort of patriotism. 'Only a revolution can save England,' he declared, even if 'loyalty to Chamberlain's England and to the England of tomorrow might seem an impossibility.'
How did Orwell resolve this contradiction? This is where the 'English genius' comes in, for much of The Lion and the Unicorn is devoted to investigating the cultural peculiarities of the English. These form the basis of Orwell's simultaneous attachment to patriotism and revolution. Orwell claims that the only way to understand the modern world is to recognise the strength of patriotism, in comparison with which 'Christianity and international socialism are as weak as straw'. This comes from the reality of national differences, which makes English culture as 'individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes.' And this culture stretches into the future as well as the past, making it 'your civilisation, it is you'.
Orwell is putting a positive gloss on the picture of the 'ordinary man' depicted in Inside the Whale. Passivity in the face of major events is now the celebration of 'the privateness of English life': 'All the culture that is most truly native centres around things which even when they are communal are not official - the pub, the football match, the back garden and the "nice cup of tea".'
This privateness explains hypocrisy towards empire and anti-intellectualism - but it also connects with indifference, or hostility, to regimentation. So, party rallies, youth movements, coloured shirts, Jew-baiting go against the grain - as do, according to Orwell, militarism and flag-wagging of the Rule Britannia type.
Does class disappear in this analysis? Orwell's view of the 'most class-ridden society under the sun' does not spare the ruling class in its attachment to imperial exploitation or ambivalence towards fascism. But his conclusion - which is in line with putting nation before class - is that the best way to describe England is that it is 'a family with the wrong members in control'. What therefore Orwell hopes from the war is that in fighting Hitler the right members of the family will take control: 'It is only by revolution that the genius of the English people will be set free.' An understanding of culture, rather than the attempt to impose some 'alien' left-intellectual doctrine of class consciousness, is the road to socialist change.
Sixty years on, Orwell's portrait of English culture bears little relationship to today's realities. Few people, apart from former prime minister John Major, would think of 'old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning' as a characteristic fragment of the English scene that has persisted as our civilisation.
But it's not just that he got it wrong. There's a problem with his method which comes back to why he writes about culture. In the end his interest in 'ordinary' life accompanies a paradoxical despair about change. Spain showed him a way forward - how change could be rooted in the self-activity of ordinary people. However, defeat did not, as it did for many others, turn him away from socialism. He stuck tenaciously to the capacity of ordinary people to resist. But understandably, he was reluctant to use 'internationalist' vocabulary that had been abused by Communists and seemed to bear little relationship to concrete realities.
But the surrender to patriotism, however radically presented as rooted in popular national culture, is a move against change from below. There was no English revolution. The wrong members of the family remained in charge, kitted out in Labour colours. Nineteen Eighty-Four maintained that hope remained with the 'proles'. But the culture of the proles that we see denies that hope.