THIS MONTH’S centenary of the birth of novelist and political commentator George Orwell (1903-50) has been widely commemorated in the press and media. Michael Calderbank puts a socialist viewpoint of Orwell’s life and writings while Keith Ellis reviews the book which many socialists see as his best work, Homage to Catalonia. CWI online.
Facing up to the contradictions
The young Orwell soon returned to England where he would eventually win a scholarship to Eton, before serving for nearly five years in the Indian Imperial Police, where he was mostly stationed in Burma. He became acutely aware of, and dissatisfied with, what he called his "lower-upper-middle class" origins which were so closely tied to a vision of British imperial supremacy.
This class, in recognition of their own relative subservience to the bourgeoisie proper (for whom they performed the mundane task of functionaries, or "shock-absorbers" as Orwell put it), tried to compensate for their dependency through a virulently reactionary nationalism, which allowed them to claim both class and racial superiority.
However, Orwell claims, members of this class are secretly all too well aware of the injustice and flagrant oppression which sustains their position, but are forced to cling onto such precarious privilege with only barely concealed resentment:
"I was serving with a bitterness which I probably cannot make clear... In order to hate imperialism you have to be a part of it." This experience is dramatised in Burmese Days, which is the first in a series of novels (The Clergyman’s Daughter, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and Coming Up for Air) which are all structured around a similar class predicament, in which the hero is forced to confront his helpless complicity in a system which he deeply resents.
Thus, even when Orwell deserted his post in Burma, he still did not feel that he had ’escaped’ from a mentality which had shaped his whole class identity.
Exasperated, he pursued a romantic identification with the down-trodden: "I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down amongst the oppressed, to become one of them and on their side against the tyrants."
He does not mean (at this stage) to offer political solidarity with the working class, but rather attempts to disappear amongst the most de-classed and alienated elements of society (tramps, homeless, petty criminals etc.), as documented in Down and Out in Paris and London.
By contrast, the organised working-class were still a completely unknown quantity for Orwell. Tellingly, given Orwell’s background, familiarity with far-flung parts of the globe masks a deep-seated fear and ignorance of the lives of workers in England itself.
ORWELL, (UNLIKE many of the left’s new-found supporters amongst writers and intellectuals in the 1930’s), at least recognises how politically disabling this situation is for any socialist politics worthy of the name.
Therefore, he honestly confronts the visceral class-prejudice and disgust with which he had been instilled, prejudices which other middle-class ’lefts’ may have had but refused to face.
His description of a visit to stay with workers in Northern industrial towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire, The Road to Wigan Pier, is like an adventure into a strange and exotic world of the unknown where the intrepid Orwell braves his fears of the horrors contained within "labyrin-thine slums and dark back kitchens with sickly, ageing people creeping round them like black beetles".
The masochistic attempt to familiarise himself with a world that obviously felt so alien, at least allows Orwell to express his more extreme sense of discomfort, but he is forced to admit that though he can be admitted "in to" such communities, he will never be "of" them.
Perhaps it is this frustration which he vents, with much justification, at the Fabians and other fellow-travelling middle classes: bearded sandal-wearers, for whom Socialism is an edifying pursuit like yoga or health food.
Similarly, he is sharply critical of sectarian professors who apply ’Marxist’ theory in a way that is so abstract as to bear no relation to the lives of workers. But, perhaps as a consequence of his isolated position as a professional writer, Orwell could not yet go beyond attacking such glaring hypocrisy, and directly identify with the struggles of the class.
This impasse would only be broken by tumultuous historical events: the defence of the Spanish Revolution from the fascist forces amassing under Franco was a task so urgent as to require immediate assistance from lefts across Europe.
This was a time for action, and Orwell was willing to throw himself into fighting in defence of the Spanish workers. As part of the Independent Labour Party delegation, Orwell did not join the International Brigade (under Communist leadership), but instead fought alongside the POUM militia.
In Homage to Catalonia, probably his greatest achievement, he gives a vivid depiction of meeting a fellow recruit, an Italian, and how, despite the fact that they did not share a language, they could still feel a tremendous bond of solidarity and comradeship.
He conveys, too, the sense of excitement of seeing Barcelona under de facto workers control, and the intensity of the revolutionary spirit which coursed through the city’s streets. Crucially, however, what Orwell goes on to show is the sense of utter betrayal felt at the hands of Stalin.
The Communists, instead of extending the gains of the workers and building the foundations of a socialist society, deliberately set out to sabotage the revolutionary movement by forcing the workers into a Popular Front with their mortal enemy, the capitalist class, in the name of the fight against fascism.
But far from repelling Franco, the Communists help to liquidate the most militant elements of the working class, and thus helped prepare the ground for the counter-revolution.
What is most important about Homage to Catalonia is not that it analyses events with theoretical clarity (as, for example, does Felix Morrow’s Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain) or even in literary quality, but in the integrity of Orwell’s testimony, which gives the lie to all the Stalinist falsifiers who would re-write the history of the tremendous workers’ struggle and its outright betrayal.
THIS DOES not mean, though, that we can go as far as some commentators and call Orwell "a literary Trotskyist". Even his mature politics were never based upon a Marxist understanding of society, but rather on an appeal to an ’ordinary’ English sense of decency and common sense.
Ultimately, this empiricism is based upon a rejection of dialectics: for Orwell the working class is a historical constant, a reservoir of practical know-how and ’down-to-earth’ honesty, not a complex, layered phenomenon subject to uneven historical development. This empiricism led him to tread an uneven political path: at best, trying to find an impossible Centrist "third way" between revolutionary socialism and timid reformism.
Debates in the Left
After returning from Spain Orwell, now no longer in the midst of concrete political struggles, was cut adrift in the pages of Tribune and Partisan Review. Here, like others, he gave rein to wild speculation about the emergence of some kind of bureaucratic, administered society which was neither capitalist nor socialist.
If this gloomy mood of disillusionment and conjecture produced some memorable literature (Animal Farm and 1984) it also opened the door to the posthumous construction of Orwell as a Cold War anti-communist: the straight-talking ’honest Joe’ who showed that capitalist liberal democracies, though flawed, were better than dangerous socialist pipe-dreams.
This interpretation is a travesty of a writer who once noted: "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."
That is to say, Orwell was responding to debates within the left, about how to keep the idea of a genuine socialist transformation alive. To keep Orwell’s work alive for that project, we ought not to idealise him as a spokesman for "our" side, but to face up to the contradictions in the man, the work, and the history through which he lived.
IN THE first of an occasional series on books that inspired socialists KEITH ELLIS looks at Homage To Catalonia by George Orwell.
Homage to Catalonia
I READ Homage To Catalonia when I was 20. I had grown up watching John Wayne films where war was portrayed as heroic or glamorous. Even films like Catch 22 and M.A.S.H didn’t totally dispel this image.
George Orwell was the first writer I had come across that talked about the horrific conditions and boredom of war. He graphically described the sights, sounds and smells of conflict.
Orwell travelled to Spain in 1936 to report on the Spanish Revolution. An army mutiny led by the fascist General Franco against a reformist government resulted in a revolt of the Spanish workers and peasants. In Catalonia, the revolutionary movement saw workers taking control of the factories and peasants taking over the land.
Orwell wrote: "When I first reached Barcelona I had thought it a town where class distinctions and great differences of wealth hardly existed." This made such an impression he joined the struggle against fascism.
In Catalonia the revolutionary army was organised by the trade unions, political parties and anarchist federations. For the next three months Orwell served, alongside the POUM, on the front line just outside Zaragoza. The militias were poorly armed and ill equipped. There was no battle plan and weeks were spent in dirty conditions.
Initially George Orwell couldn’t understand why an offensive wasn’t launched in Catalonia to help relieve the fascist siege of Madrid. Eventually he worked it out.
Stalin and his supporters in Spain did not supply arms to the revolutionary masses because they wanted to crush (or at least contain) this movement, to do a deal with Britain and France over the threat posed to the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany. Stalin’s support for Spain’s capitalists gave confidence to anti-working class forces.
The Barcelona Orwell returned to in May 1937 was transformed. The rich and middle classes felt safe to be seen. Class distinctions had reappeared together with beggars on the streets.
In May 1937 the Civil Guard tried to take the telephone exchange from the anarchists as a first step to destroy workers’ control in Barcelona. There was intermittent fighting to defend the revolutionary gains of the workers. Orwell describes the lack of leadership offered by the anarchists and the POUM, which resulted in their defeat.
By the end of 1937 Orwell had returned to the front, been wounded and escaped to France. The POUM and the anarchists had been outlawed and the republican government was headed for defeat at the hands of the fascists.
Leon Trotsky explained that the workers and peasants of Spain could have achieved one hundred revolutions, the only thing lacking was a revolutionary party. Orwell’s description of the chaos and lack of leadership during the May days in Barcelona reinforces Trotsky’s conclusion.
However, despite the defeat, Orwell had seen what a future workers’ state would look like. "One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ’comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality."
By reading Homage To Catalonia workers can get a glimpse of what a socialist society will look like, the feeling of common struggle to create a better society, a society that abolishes poverty, exploitation and wars.
Both articles from The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, the CWI in England and Wales