Orwell, George (1903-1950)
George Orwell was a British novelist, essayist, and social analyst. His writings, especially Animal Farm and 1984, had the effect of combating socialism, yet he was a committed socialist who never explicitly questioned socialism in the years immediately before his death at a comparatively young age. From the mid-1930s on, Orwell became increasingly preoccupied with the rise of totalitarianism. Orwell saw totalitarianism as a new slave state that would abolish capitalism, would be far worse than capitalism, and would not institute anything he would choose to call socialism.
Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903 in India, where his father was an official in the British imperial administration. He was raised in England and won a scholarship to Eton, Britain’s most prestigious private school. On leaving Eton in 1921, he did not go to Oxford or Cambridge, as might have been expected, but signed up for the imperial police force in India. Administratively, Burma was then part of India, and Blair was assigned to the Burmese police, where he served for 5 years. Home on leave in 1927, he abruptly resigned his position in Burma and announced his intention of becoming a writer.
In the tradition of Jack London, he began to spend days at a stretch posing as a “tramp” and making notes on his experiences. He then moved to Paris, quickly ran out of money, and worked as a dishwasher in Paris restaurants. On his return to England, he continued his forays into the life of the underclass. In 1933, he published his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, under the carelessly assumed name George Orwell. The book was praised by respected literary authorities, but did not enjoy big sales. From then on, new acquaintances of Blair’s tended to know him as Orwell, whereas his earlier friends continued to know him as Blair. The rather bizarre theory, developed when little biographical information was available, that Orwell and Blair are two distinct personae has turned out to be baseless.
In 1934, Orwell published his powerful novel Burmese Days, which, like his previous work, was not an immediate success. It is difficult to be certain of Orwell’s precise political views prior to 1936. For example, Burmese Days is fiercely anti-empire, but we do not know exactly how Orwell’s attitudes toward the empire evolved during his stint in Burma and immediately afterward. In 1936, Orwell visited the poverty-stricken North of England, quickly wrote up his experiences and his extended comments, and produced The Road to Wigan Pier, which had good sales. In this and subsequent writings, Orwell’s views are starkly spelled out. He favored a socialist state in which the government owned nearly everything, and everyone was paid an equal wage. These opinions were standard of many British leftists at the time. He also was critical of the habits and outlooks of many of his fellow socialists, which he described in colorful terms. Orwell despised vegetarianism, feminism, effeminate dress for men, aspirin, birth control, and the soft living encouraged by machine technology. He favored tough, virile men, and women who had many babies (Orwell was sterile and later adopted a child, to whom he was devoted).
In 1936, Orwell had contacts with the Independent Labour Party (ILP), a socialist faction of the Labour Party, but soon regarded the Labour Party as having sold out its socialist commitments. While Wigan Pier was at the printers, Orwell went to Spain where the civil war was in progress. The war was regarded by the Left throughout Europe and America as a fateful battle between progressive forces and fascism. Orwell was unable to join the International Brigades, which were controlled by the communists, but instead used his ILP connections to enlist in the militia of the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM), a group of anti-Stalinist Marxists that had some strength in the province of Catalonia. While engaged in trench warfare, he was wounded by a bullet in the throat and invalided back to Barcelona. Here he observed the fighting between supporters of the communists and the POUM in May 1937, and he was able to compare what he had seen with the mendacious accounts successfully planted by the communists in the world’s media. Soon Orwell and his wife, who had joined him in Barcelona, made their escape into France. Their names had been placed on a list of Trotskyists marked down for liquidation by the communists despite the fact that Orwell was never strictly a Trotskyist nor indeed a Marxist.
Back in England, Orwell joined the ILP and quickly wrote Homage to Catalonia, his account of the events in Spain. The book sold poorly for many years while the communist version of events predominated, with moderate leftists holding the opinion that, whatever vile deeds the communists had been responsible for in Spain, the Left’s main enemy was fascism and, given that fact, the Left’s dirty linen should not be washed in public. A strong mutual hostility developed between Orwell and the communists that facilitated Orwell’s friendship with another anticommunist leftist, Arthur Koestler. Their views on politics were almost identical, except that Orwell opposed Zionism, which he saw as one more example of oppression of the people of Asia and Africa by European colonizers.
Despite his military service in the doomed Spanish republic, Orwell, like many on the Left, saw the coming world war as a Tweedledum–Tweedledee struggle between rival imperialisms. He maintained that the British Empire was just as brutal as the Third Reich. He even contemplated forming an underground antiwar organization. Orwell abruptly changed his mind in August 1939 and from then on became an outspoken supporter of the war against Nazi Germany and a ferocious critic of antiwar leftists. For the first few years of the war, he attributed Germany’s military successes to its socialist economy and maintained that Britain could not effectively fight Germany unless the British ruling classes were removed from power in a socialist revolution. He came to see that this idea was mistaken, and he acknowledged his error. During the war, he worked for a time as an organizer of broadcasts to India for the British Broadcasting Corporation, which later provided some of the material he was to use in describing Winston Smith’s job at the Ministry of Truth in 1984.
He completed his short satire on the Russian Revolution, Animal Farm, in 1944, but at first did not find a publisher, in part because of the prevailing sentiment that the Soviet Union, as a valuable ally bearing the brunt of the struggle against Germany, should not be offended. When Animal Farm appeared, it was an immediate success. Because of its vivid final scene, Animal Farm is often misconstrued as holding that the communist system was becoming just like the West. In fact, Orwell held that life for the workers in Soviet Russia was considerably worse than under Western capitalism, just as it was worse for the animals in the pig-ruled Animal Farm than under human farmers.
Orwell’s last years were dominated by ill health and his struggle to write 1984. When this terrifying novel was published, it was widely seen as a repudiation of socialism. Orwell publicly insisted that he continued to embrace socialism and supported the new Labour Party government. In fact, he objected to the Labour government’s compromises and failure to enact more sweeping socialization.
A key to understanding Orwell’s position is that he was convinced capitalism simply could not survive much longer. Despite his rather favorable review of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, Orwell never abandoned his view that “the trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them.” Inexorable trends within capitalism would soon lead to its abolition. He believed that the choice for the future lay between totalitarianism and democratic socialism. Thus, the horrors of totalitarianism constituted for Orwell an argument for democratic socialism, which he perceived as the only feasible alternative to totalitarianism.
Angus, Ian, and Sonia Orwell, eds. My Country Right or Left, 1940–1945: The Collected Essays Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1968.
Davison, Peter, ed. The Complete Works of George Orwell. London: Secker & Warburg, 1998.
Hitchens, Christopher. Why Orwell Matters. New York: Basic Books, 2003.
Orwell, George. “Review of the Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek.” The Complete Works of George Orwell: Vol. 16. I Have Tried to Tell the Truth. Peter Davison, ed. London: Secker & Warburg, 1998.
Widmer, Kingsley. “Other Utopian Anti-Utopians: Huxley, Orwell, and Lawrence.” Literature and Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought 4 no. 10 (Winter 1981): 5–62.
Woodcock, George. The Crystal Spirit: A Study of George Orwell. London: Black Rose Books, 2005.
Originally published .