On Orwell

The saddest thing about George Orwell is not the fact of a life or valuable literary contributions cut short by illness and self-neglect. Rather, it is of his own beliefs and their relation to their times.  Some men are born in the wrong era, either too early or too late, and thus exhibit a spirit of what is to come or what has been.  Others are oblivious to what goes on around them and their work and interests may reflect that. Orwell was, through and through, a man of his times.  That is not to say that he was a caricature or a stereotype of the predilections, beliefs, and habits of interwar Europe.  He was a keen critic and observer, capable of insight and judgments that few, if any, could match.  Orwell’s age was a dichotomous one and he was able to see each side of that cut for what they were.  But despite his skill in exposing the treachery, lies, and evil perpetrated by 20th century ideologies, Orwell could not escape seeing the world from a similar perspective.

Orwell’s background deserves examination if one is to understand his thought.  But his background alone is not what defined him, but his perception of and reaction to it.  He described himself as coming from England’s “lower-upper-middle class.”  While perhaps he didn’t think about it as a child, the fact that he defined his origins in such a way, even in retrospect, says something about his mindset.  It is not a casual, passing comment about the means one was born into.  “Lower-upper-middle” is a rather convoluted and nuanced term.  It indicates that Orwell put a great deal of thought into labelling himself.  The fact that he had little to no self-awareness or control bore little relevance obviously.

But should we be surprised?  He was indeed English and born before the First World War.  He was born in India, into the class of civil servants who staffed the empire.  He was thoroughly a part of what it meant to be British at that time.  He even attended public schools in England, boarded away from his family.  While it is true Orwell spent most of his early years being formed in the manner of the old order, but his outlook is fundamentally modern.  An indication of this is his tendency to utilize mass in his labels.  Orwell always talks about people not so much as individuals, but as belonging to classes,  be they  lower, upper, or middle.  He lumps people together, both in excoriation and laud.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by this, given the long-standing importance of class in pre-World War One England. But it is not just the application of mass in his labels, the harping on class differences that characterizes Orwell’s thought.  Orwell does so by presuming that economics trumps all other affinities in binding human beings together.  In his view, religion, locale, language, family or clan connections, even sports  cannot be the primary allegiance in people lives.  This seems hardly worth a mention today, but it is not representative of most of human history.  After all, European history is replete with struggles and violence between Catholic and Protestant powers.  The nations of the British Isles have generally considered themselves not European, but even so, many of England’s internal and foreign struggles were based upon religion and allegiances to rulers, as well as tribal allegiances if one considers the Celtic experience.  People have always defined themselves, to differing extents, in ways outside of merely how one gains money.  Orwell certainly understood this, but he still insisted that economic class was the primary criteria by which one should examine the world.

Had another writer spoken in such terms, it would not be surprising.  The 1930s and ’40s were the height of Modernity, though perhaps a nadir of Western Civilization.  It was an industrial age, the first in which culture became as mass-produced as the goods utilized in daily life.  Orwell proclaimed himself to be utterly opposed to industrialism, to capitalism in particular — after all, it is little more than wage-slavery for the people he respects the most, the lower class, the “common people,” as he always referred to them.  But despite his opposition to modern capitalism, he still used those modern terms and labels that capitalism developed and applied en masse to, well, masses of people.  While Orwell certainly understood the complexities of the grand struggles between Left and Right, he could not escape using the grand, sweeping categories upon which those ideologies thrive.  The very words he used imply a distinct ideological (or as he would have said, “political”) view of the world.

This is difficult to reconcile with Orwell’s brilliant creation in 1984 of the concept of Newspeak.  The man understood deeply that words carry both overt and implicit meanings.  Moreover, he understood that words are the only way to truly articulate the emotions and thoughts within our heads.  Without a word, it would be impossible to express ourselves and therefore impossible to act in any consistent, directed manner.  The advantage of the English language is its vast and diverse variety of words which are concrete and very specific in meaning.  This allows for a greater precision in thought.  So why, if Orwell truly did understand this, did he use imprecise language, language drawn from the system that he believed was enslaving the world?

The answer lies in Orwell’s own ideology.  He was a self-professed socialist.  What he meant precisely by that I will discuss later.  But, returning to the issue of mass in modernity, it is true that 20th century socialism was as tied to the industrial order as the capitalism it proclaimed was evil.  Overtly Marxist or not, European socialism was completely comfortable with perpetuating industrialism.  It did not oppose an inhuman order by looking backward, like the anti-technology Luddism of the early 19th century or the agrarianism of the French Physiocrats. Socialism was merely for changing who controlled the industrial order.  So, despite Orwell’s professed distaste for industrialism, he still subscribed to an ideology that is comfortable with it.

So, yes, Orwell was a socialist.  He said as much.  But what kind of socialist?  That is really the root of Orwell’s self-dilemma.  He was certainly not a Communist.  He criticized the British Communist Party up and down.  He hated Stalin with a passion.  Nor was he a Trotskyite.  While clearly not a doctrinaire Marxist, neither did he consider himself a part of the other major socialist movements.  In his essay “Rudyard Kipling,” Orwell offered unveiled contempt for them:

“All left-wing parties in the highly industrialised countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy.  They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible.”

Perhaps Orwell resented the other socialists for their impurity of belief.  Yet that seems to be the mindset of  someone whose principles derive from their self-insulation from the realities of the world.  That hardly describes the blunt, hard-nosed Orwell who only seeks clarity and forceful honesty, the Orwell who fought in the trenches of the Spanish Civil War.  So we are stuck with a still-unanswered question: if Orwell mistrusted or despised so much of the socialism in the world, why then did he consider himself a socialist?

I think the answers lie not in any true belief in socialist ideology on the part of Orwell, but in his early life. His childhood in an English public school created within him a resentment of authority derived from foolish titles and large bank accounts.  He suffered unjustly at hands of those who deemed themselves better or were sycophantically trying to claw their way higher.  But that explains merely his personal mistrust of those in control.  It does not completely explain why Orwell came to sympathize with people with whom he had nothing in common.   After all, he grew up in the English middle class and in snobbish surroundings.  While he may have had contact with individual commoners or outcasts in his youth, it was not enough to build a sympathy for their class as a whole.  His experience as a colonial policeman in Burma may have been what changed his sympathies:

“As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear.  In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters.  The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos — all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt.  But I could get nothing into perspective.  I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every English in the East.” (“Shooting An Elephant”)

Orwell may have felt guilty about his complicity in perpetuating injustice, but he also developed a strong sense of compassion for those he oppressed.  In his essay “A Hanging,” Orwell writes of the execution of a Hindu man:

“It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me. He walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees. At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.

“It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working – bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming – all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned – reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less.”

Orwell was nothing if not a man of strong conscience.  His feelings for fellow men, especially the honest, lowly ones, were deep and heartfelt.  He knew that life on earth is immensely unfair to people, but especially the weak.  But all that does not logically and necessarily lead to a socialist outlook.  I think the case may be made that Orwell’s anger from his childhood  turned him against the prevailing order.

In his writings about his youth, Orwell had an outlook that is peculiar to leftist thought.  He made explicit the injustices and evils perpetrated by the public school administrators and richer students.  Yet he viewed these personal moral failings as manifestations of the evils of the order as a whole.  Whether out of naive idealism, youthful rage, or cold, calculated ideology, he still wished to overthrow on a grand scale instead of reform at a smaller one.

He obsessed over the worker and the “common people.”  He wanted a better world for them, a world in which they can get what they need.  But Orwell was also a constant cataloguer of the evils and horrors that people perpetuate on each other.  People do indeed commit atrocious acts against their fellow man; even in the best of civilizations, they are unjust, prejudiced, petty, hurtful.  “We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies,” he wrote in the same Kipling essay, “and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that those coolies out to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our ‘enlightenment,’ demands that the robbery should continue.”

If Orwell were a mere nihilist, such statements would pose no difficulty.  But Orwell is principled, especially on the matter of socialism.  This seems to create a dilemma for Orwell: how can he expect anything produced by humans to be of worth, since they are the ones perpetuating the evil in the world?  He denies the existence of God and much of what he sees as superstition surrounding such belief.  He thinks that only humanity can create a better future for itself.  But isn’t that humanity the same one living hypocritically?  Aren’t even workers, common people, human?  Are they truly exempt from flaws that he sees manifest in the ruling order?  Is it power that corrupts or unjust belief?  Orwell acknowledges that the British Empire was not completely bad, especially compared with the totalitarians of his day.  Yet those leading the Empire were imbued with the very values he despises and yet they still manage to be less worse than those all around Orwell calling themselves socialists.

This is the real crisis for Orwell.  For him, socialism is not a definable end state, nor even a prescribed process.  He doesn’t even have an idea of the societal and political institutions that will result in a successful worker’s state.  Is it a direct democracy?  Is it more anarchical in structure?  Once the common people have had their revolution, how specifically can they ensure that it remains and benefits them?  Orwell has no real answer.  His affinity for socialism is merely sentimental.  Socialism seems little more than a sort of magical way for the oppressed to assert themselves.  He cannot define what a worker’s state would truly look like because  if he did put it down in concrete terms, others representing the same principles might end up betraying them.  And then where would he be?  Thus Orwell’s understanding of socialism becomes narrower and narrower.  He says, no, Russia is not socialism; Communism is not socialism; neither Stalin, nor Trotsky; not The Guardian, nor the Labour Party; indeed, none of those out there representing socialism as it is. To Orwell, the only true people who can make socialism happen are those who seem to espouse it hardly at all: ordinary people.

Orwell’s great failing, therefore, is his inability (or perhaps refusal) to see that the problems with socialism and communism are not merely the people or spirit or conditions of his age, but rather something inherent to socialism itself.   It is difficult to know exactly what that fault is.  Perhaps the intent to judge men by human will alone is what corrupts socialism. But this was unthinkable to Orwell. He could never give up hope in socialism because he had already cast out a whole coterie of beliefs as bunkum and worthy of only mistrust.  Yet he faced a paradox, for he recognized that higher belief is essential for people.  In his essay “Inside The Whale,” Orwell wrote the following (the emphasis is his):

“Who now could take it for granted to go through life in the ordinary middle-class way, as a soldier, a clergyman, a stockbroker, an Indian Civil Servant, or what-not?  And how many of the values by which our grandfathers lived could not be taken seriously?  Patriotism, religion, the Empire, the family, the sanctity of marriage, the Old School Tie, birth, breeding, honour, discipline — anyone of ordinary education could turn the whole lot of them inside out in three minutes.  But what do you achieve, after all, by getting rid of such primal things as patriotism and religion?  You have not necessarily got rid of the need for something to believe in.”

Even here, immensely honest Orwell cannot help but deceive himself.  He knows that people must believe in something.  But he sees grand, overarching ideals (at least the common, historical ones) as a refuge for the bourgeois, the oppressors of society.  They couldn’t possibly be something that the working class ascribe to.  And if they did, then surely, surely it is because they were deceived by the more powerful.  He denies the agency of the common people while simultaneously expecting them to take the world for themselves.

Yet he had admitted that everyone must believe in something.  In the same essay, he goes on to point out how English intellectuals either took sides with either the Catholic Church, the oldest of orders but not the one of their Anglican fathers, or Communism.  They needed new belief to replace that which they had already cast aside.  Orwell could almost have been writing about himself.  Even after he has torn apart so much of what came before, he knew he still must believe in something. But he had nothing else to stand on, nothing to believe in.  His narrow, poorly-defined, sentimental belief in socialism may thus have been the last thing he could hang on to, the last thing to keep him sane and human:

“The major problem of our time is the decay of the belief in personal immortality, and it cannot dealt with while the average human being is either drudging like an ox or shivering in fear of the secret police.  How right the working classes are in the their ‘materialism’!  How right they are to realise that the belly comes before the soul, not in the scale of values but in point of time!  Understand that, and the long horror that we are enduring becomes at least intelligible.” (Looking Back on the Spanish War)

This the tragedy of Orwell – he did so much, tried to be so honest and compassionate in his beliefs, words, and actions, always humble, never boasting. Yet he could not completely distance himself from one of the most corrupt belief systems in history, despite his total opposition to the death and corruption it perpetuated in the world.  It was his great unexamined weakness.


Inveigh against me.

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