The Orwell we never knew
By LEE WENGRAF
BIG BROTHER, double-think, thought police: George Orwell’s 1984–his bleak portrait of a futuristic, totalitarian society–is as powerful today as ever. Though it has often been used as a cautionary tale about the terrors of socialism, its portrayal of government deception, lying and thought-control has a familiar ring in today’s post 9-11 world. His Animal Farm and 1984 are among the best-selling political novels of all time.
Orwell’s writing has come to epitomize lessons taught in schools everywhere: Resistance is impossible, and Orwell’s Big Brother–the Soviet Union–is the unavoidable result of fighting for a better society. Reagan-era Cold Warriors and the U.S. education system have continually lifted up Orwell’s writings to proclaim the socialist vision dead and buried. Ex-Trotskyist, now neoconservative, Norman Podhoretz, writing on the eve of the year 1984, claimed Orwell as a "guiding spirit" for his Committee for the Free World by exclaiming, "If Orwell were alive today, he would be taking his stand with the neoconservatives and against the left."1 Podhoretz is not the only former leftist to use what’s seen as Orwell’s shift to the right as a cover for their own conservatism, such as Nation columnist and writer Christopher Hitchens, who embraces Orwell to cover his own rightward drift.2
But George Orwell had a different vision than these conservatives, and for that, his life and works have something to offer the left today. Orwell became a self-described socialist as a result of lessons learned early in life. His service as a colonial policeman in Burma turned him into a fierce anti-imperialist with a commitment to exposing oppression and championing the rights of the working class. But Orwell was also a controversial and contradictory writer who took diverse–sometimes courageous–positions over the course of his life that have left his work open to interpretation. He moved from firm anti-imperialist and working class politics to become a supporter of the British Labor Party and a critic of the left by the end of his life, including an almost obsessive focus on Stalinism. He also became a defender of the Second World War and a self-described "patriot."
Some on the left today have gone to the other extreme, claiming that Orwell’s case for workers’ power runs strong throughout his books, right down to 1984.3 The controversies surrounding his life stem from the fact that Orwell was very much a product of defeat and his own political isolation. His life was punctuated by Stalinism, the rise of fascism in Europe, nuclear threat and Cold War. Economic depression and working-class defeat made their marks on Orwell’s political writings, which contain a tone of deep pessimism. As British socialist John Molyneux describes,
Orwell did not become a militant in and of the working class movement, nor did he adopt the world outlook of the workers’ movement, i.e., Marxism. Rather he adopted the role of the self-conscious outsider who, while investigating the conditions of the workers and the poor (and sympathizing with them), would retain his individual independence and detachment. In the process he never lost his skepticism about the political capacities of the working class.4
Yet Orwell left us with one of the most inspired accounts of workers’ struggle ever written in his book Homage to Catalonia. Moreover, despite his experiences of working-class defeat, he held tight to a vision of an egalitarian society, and his entire life’s work reflects his efforts to see a third path, an alternative to Soviet so-called socialism and the brutality of capitalism. That is why, despite the right-wing uses of his books, Orwell can be "claimed" more by the left than the right.
It was in this context–discontent with the left and the working class and outrage with totalitarianism–that Orwell wrote Animal Farm and...