A witness to revolution and counterrevolution
July 4, 2003 | Page 8
LEE WENGRAF looks at the life and writing of George Orwell on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
BIG BROTHER, double-think, thought police: almost everyone is familiar with the bleak portrait of a futuristic, totalitarian society portrayed in George Orwell's 1984. Orwell's writing has come to epitomize lessons taught in schools everywhere: resistance is impossible, and the tyranny of Orwell's Big Brother--the Soviet Union under Stalin--is the unavoidable result of fighting for a socialist society.
Reagan-era Cold Warriors have lifted up Orwell's writings to proclaim the socialist vision dead and buried. But Orwell, who described himself as a lifelong socialist, had a different vision. For that, his books have something to offer anyone who is interested in changing the world today.
Born in 1903 in India to the family of mid-level colonial administrators, Orwell initially continued down the same road his family had, signing up as a policeman in Burma right out of school. The experience of brutally enforcing colonial rule turned Orwell into a fierce anti-imperialist and laid the basis for a lifelong commitment to exposing oppression and his sympathy with the working class.
"How can you make out that we are in this country for any purpose except to steal?" his main character, Flory, declares in Burmese Days. "It's so simple. The official holds the Burman down while the businessman goes through his pockets...Do you suppose my firm, for instance could get its timber contracts if the country weren't in the hands of the British?...The British Empire is simply a device for giving trade monopolies to the English."
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DISGUSTED WITH his tour in the colonial police, Orwell threw himself into a poverty-stricken existence, living with the homeless and working low-wage jobs while he struggled to become a writer. These experiences produced Down and Out in Paris and London, his 1933 book which captured the living conditions of the poor and provided a devastating indictment of the rich.
The rich, wrote Orwell, keep workers in lifelong drudgery as they see the poor as "such low animals that they would be dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them too busy to think."
Although he never became a Marxist, Orwell gave Marx considerable credit for his insights into the workings of a system built on profit. "'Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,'" Orwell wrote, quoting the Bible. He added, "It was Marx who brought it to life. And ever since he did so the motives of politicians, priests, judges, moralists and millionaires have been under the deepest suspicion--which, of course, is why they hate him so much."
In 1937, Orwell went on to write his famous account of North England miners during the economic downturn of the mid-1930s, The Road to Wigan Pier. In it, Orwell described the intolerable conditions for coal miners, as whole communities were thrust into permanent unemployment. Socialism is urgently needed, concluded Orwell, either a "a socialist party" had to be formed in Britain or "Fascism is coming."
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ORWELL'S BEST contribution to the revolutionary tradition is his firsthand account of fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, published in 1938. After the victory of Spanish workers in the Revolution of 1936, Orwell joined thousands of others in defending it from Franco's fascist counterrevolution.
Arriving in Barcelona in January 1937, Orwell gave this famous description of a city under workers' control: "Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and draped with red flags or the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties. Waiters treated you as an equal. Servile speech had disappeared.
"Large blocks of people believed that all men are equal and acted on their belief. The result was a feeling of liberation and hope that is difficult to conceive in our money-tainted atmosphere...All this was queer and moving. There was much I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for."
After fighting in the militia of a revolutionary workers' party, the POUM, and seeing workers running society, Orwell became convinced liberation and equality were possible. But as Homage to Catalonia describes, the potential for workers' power in Spain was ultimately betrayed by the Communist-dominated Popular Front government .
The government, directed by the Soviet Union, saw workers' upheaval as a greater threat than fascism itself. Under pressure from the Soviet Union, whose allies Britain and France were clamoring to put down revolution, the Spanish Popular Front brutally suppressed the workers' movement. After Homage to Catalonia was published, the Popular government fell to the fascists.
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THE BETRAYAL of the Spanish Revolution by the Communist Party and the Hitler-Stalin Pact signed the following year cemented Orwell's bitter disgust with Stalinism.
Although Orwell's work got very little hearing until the mid-1940s, he urged that socialism be built, seeing the end of capitalism as the only solution to the economic misery facing Britain and the threat of fascism from Europe. Economic crisis led him to believe that revolution was around the corner.
Unfortunately, he took an about-face soon after. Still believing that socialism was the only answer, he became a self-described "revolutionary patriot," arguing that British capitalism was the lesser of the two evils. He urged people to join the British Home Guard.
When workers' revolution did not materialize by the end of the war, Orwell's despair deepened. Although he remained a socialist until his death in 1950, the main focus of his last years was denouncing the horrors of the Soviet Union.
Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949) are parables of failed revolutions, tragic tales that betray Orwell's pessimism of the possibility for resistance. The meaning of both novels has been fiercely debated, including by those on the left who have argued that Orwell sees hope in working class struggle from below--the "proles," or proletariat, of 1984--despite the final defeat of the novel's hero.
Likewise, despite the famous injunction at the close of Animal Farm's failed revolution against the humans--"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others"--some argue Orwell is only condemning the rise of Stalinism, not hopes for revolution. Whatever Orwell's intentions, his most famous books undoubtedly reflect the pessimism in workers' struggles and the arrival of the Cold War that loomed towards the end of his life.
Writing as an isolated intellectual removed from day-to-day struggle, Orwell never regained the hope for workers' power he experienced while in Spain.
Worse, in the final months before he died, he committed an unforgivable error. He turned over a list of names of people he thought "were not to be trusted" to the British government.
Until his death, Orwell continued to argue that a socialist Europe was urgent, but increasingly unlikely. But Orwell's legacy must be seen in light of his overall efforts and vision, one of inspiring work denouncing capitalism in all its forms and above all giving voice to one of the most important workers' revolutions of the 20th century.
His writing was a product of his commitment to a better society set against the shadow of Stalinism that loomed over much of life. As Orwell put it, "First I spent five years in an unsuitable profession (the Indian Imperial Police, in Burma), and then I underwent poverty and the sense of failure. This increased my natural hatred of authority and made me for the first time fully aware of the existence of the working classes, and the job in Burma had given me some understanding of the nature of imperialism: but these experiences were not enough to give me an accurate political orientation.
"Then came Hitler, the Spanish Civil War, etc....The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it." Orwell's legacy is our legacy, no matter how hard the Cold Warriors have fought to claim him.