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Orwell and MarxismOrwell’s road to socialism

Although George Orwell was opposed to Stalinism, writers in and around the Communist Party influenced his output, new research shows. Peter Arkell reports.

George Orwell came to socialism by a very unusual route. As an old Etonian, he took a job upholding the empire as a policeman in Burma, but disgusted with his work, he returned to Britain and turned to the “common people” for the ideas and the inspiration that informed his early essays, novels and articles.

In The Road to Wigan Pier, written in 1937, he formulated his own common-sense version of socialism based on his observations and experiences during a two-month tour of working-class areas in the North. His credibility as a socialist thinker and theorist rests largely on his being a political loner and a writer who resisted the influence of the Communist Party (CP) and who became an anti-Stalinist.

A new book, Orwell  and Marxism: The political and Cultural Thinking of George Orwell by Philip Bounds, establishes beyond any doubt the considerable influence, both direct and indirect, that the writers in and around the CP had on his output. The importance of this research is not only in identifying the source material for many of the ideas and themes in Orwell’s work, but in placing it all into the context of the literature and the politics of the time.

Bounds is familiar with the works of party writers and fellow travellers, and shows the way in which they influenced Orwell, both consciously and unconsciously. It should not be forgotten that the CP for a period stretching from the 1930s to the early 1950s attracted the support of many writers and significant sections of the intelligentsia in general.

Orwell scholars up till now have largely ignored this source of material because they had little interest or knowledge of the aims and culture of the CP or indeed of socialism in general. While Orwell was a member of the Independent Labour Party for a short time in the late 1930s, and was even influenced by Trotsky’s writings and the Trotskyists in Britain, these groups were too small and isolated (by the CP) to have much influence within the working class.

As Bounds points out, Orwell was not above attacking a book and then appropriating some of the arguments into his own writings. That said, he could not have done his job as a committed socialist without paying the closest attention to the writers around the CP, many of whom first came to the party believing it was still a revolutionary organisation.

Orwell never was a party man, and seemed to have an agnostic view of Marxist theory and practice as a revolutionary ideology, picking up his ideas second-hand through the distorting prism of Stalinism. In spite of suspicions, he still regarded the party, until 1937, as a natural ally in the struggle against fascism and poverty. But all that changed during the Spanish Civil War when he fought with the anti-Stalinist POUM, the anarchists and Trotskyists. This force, together with other groups, led an anti-capitalist revolution in Catalonia believing this to be the most effective way of defeating Franco.

It was the scenes he witnessed in Barcelona – the burning belief in liberty and equality, the emphasis on public ownership, the contempt for the established Catholic culture – that bounced him straight into the role of a fighter for revolution on the republican side. Shot through the throat in 1937, he survived, but then witnessed the suppression of the revolution in Barcelona by the forces led by the Stalinists (who were by that time very much under the control of Moscow), with the arrest of thousands of revolutionaries included the POUM leader Andres Nin.

The policy of the Spanish Communist Party, which became a powerful force during the first year of the war, was to support the People’s Front, whereby all anti-fascists including capitalists, combined to resist Franco, but without threatening the capitalist state or challenging capitalism in any way. Orwell had been identified by Soviet intelligence as a rabid Trotskyist, and was tipped off just in time to make his escape from imprisonment and likely murder. On his return to Britain, he wrote Homage to Catalonia, a brilliant expose of the betrayal of the Spanish revolution by Stalinism. From this time on Orwell saw in world Stalinism the growing threat of the totalitarianism that he so effectively satirised later in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Bounds quotes a very revealing passage from Orwell’s essay, Spilling the Beans, written just after his return to Britain: “Broadly speaking, Communist propaganda depends upon terrifying people with the (quite real) horrors of fascism. It also involves pretending not in so many words, but by implication – that Fascism has nothing to do with capitalism. Fascism is just a kind of meaningless wickedness, an aberration, mass sadism’, the sort of thing that would happen if you suddenly let loose an asylumful of homicidal maniacs. Present Fascism in this form, and you can mobilise public opinion against it, at any rate for a while, without provoking any revolutionary movement. You can oppose Fascism by bourgeois ‘democracy’, meaning capitalism. But meanwhile you have got to get rid of the troublesome person who points out that Fascism and bourgeois ‘democracy’ are Tweedledum and Tweedledee.”

This passage, as Bounds points out, contains the seeds of much of his later writing.
“The thing which most obviously distinguished Orwell from other members of the labour left,” Bounds writes, “was his deep loathing of Soviet Communism... Orwell’s overriding concern was to provide a rounded understanding of totalitarianism, something he had not succeeded in doing before... Orwell became convinced in the mid to late 1940s that democracy was increasingly under threat. Taking it for granted that capitalism would soon be abolished across the planet, he feared that the system that replaced it would not be socialism so much as an extreme form of Stalinism.”

Bounds’ general thesis is that Orwell’s writings, including Nineteen Eight-Four, were often deeply influenced by the writers around the CP, and he points to many instances in his work where this is evidently the case, not just with the detail, but with the overall themes and subject matter too. For instance, Orwell’s attempts to identify Englishness in some of his essays and in The Road to Wigan Pier, were foreshadowed by a debate in the CP, set in motion by the Comintern, which required its affiliated parties around the world to identify and research the radical national traditions and history of each country.

Worried that the fascist parties were laying claim to be the natural inheritors of the deeds of their respective national heroes, the word from Moscow was for the Communist Parties around the world to “outflank the fascists by launching a sort of parallel project from the left” to claim the traditions of popular revolt for the Communists. 

“The consensus among Orwell scholars is that the shift towards patriotism was something wholly exceptional, a sort of intellectual quirk which distinguished Orwell from an inter-war left that was more internationalist in perspective.” Bounds shows that Orwell’s writings on Englishness were often strikingly similar to those of the CP and suggests that they can reasonably be seen as his “critical response to the Communist orthodox”.

Bounds also shows how Orwell’s writings on class, particularly the importance of the middle classes making common cause with the Socialist movement, are indebted to CP writers. And he examines in Orwell’s writings on the media, the radio, mass communications and popular culture in general, the likely influence of other radical authors. Even Orwell’s essays on Dickens and Swift were heavily influenced by the output of writers around the CP who were at the time weighing up the political outlooks of various radical writers of the past in order to claim them as sympathetic to socialism.

In his analysis of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Bounds also shows that a number of Orwell’s ideas were anticipated by the writings of the party’s cultural thinkers. Most critics of the book have assumed that because Orwell hated “communism”, he simply projected the characteristics of the communists and their fellow travellers onto the Oceania ruling class.

“It is only in their writings on Nineteen Eighty-Four that scholars have acknowledged the possibility that Orwell was influenced by the British Communists. However, since practically none of them has known very much about the intellectual culture of the CP, their understanding of this influence has generally been vague. Most of them have assumed that Orwell was primarily motivated by a sort of furious but impressionistic hatred of communists, not by a detailed knowledge of their ideas and activities,” he insists.

Bounds gives a far more balanced view of the influences behind the dystopian masterpiece and goes on to develop a re-appraisal of the novel. Orwell saw in the modern dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin, Bounds says, the overwhelming need on the part of the ruling elites to exercise “untrammelled power for its own sake”. This power-lust was a modern phenomenon and was more than the necessary domination of one class over another that had characterised all authoritarian regimes of the past.

“By contrast,” Bounds writes, “the likes of Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini had somehow reached into the minds of ordinary people to win their unquestioning support. If we had to summarise Orwell’s understanding of this process in a single sentence, we could perhaps say that totalitarian governments achieve the consent of their subjects by creating circumstances in which blatant lies are instantly regarded as pure truth... Despite living in highly militarised conditions in which poverty is unavoidable and the individual’s every move is determined by the state, people are told every day that theirs is a country of peace, liberty and plenty. Moreover, as Orwell recognised more acutely than anyone else, the mendacity of official ideology extends not simply to the present and future but also to the past.” History has to be re-written.

Orwell’s concern was to question why the socialist movement had been so tragically corrupted by totalitarian habits of thought. “His startling answer,” writes Bounds, “was that socialist doctrine is often peculiarly attractive to people with dictatorial ambitions... The history of socialism therefore has been characterised by an enormous and conscious fraud practised by an authoritarian leadership on a credulous rank-and-file.”

These kind of explanations for the betrayal of the Russian Revolution, as Bounds points out, are in complete opposition to the analysis by Leon Trotsky (in The Revolution Betrayed) who considered that the rise of Stalinism had its origins in the isolation of the revolution in the USSR and the country’s economic backwardness rather than in the psychological flaws of the leaders. But then Orwell never saw the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy and its destruction of the old Bolshevik values as anything other than the inevitable consequence of Lenin’s revolution.

Orwell and Marxism is an impressive work of scholarship, showing that Orwell’s writings effectively took the form of a dialogue with the leading writers around the CP. Orwell sometimes agreed with some of what they said and built on their insights, but used his disagreements with them to strengthen his own critical position, and ultimately to assist him in creating the ideas for Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Bounds, who has plainly been in the CP, is clearly struggling with its history in this objective piece of research. Members of the party have generally loathed Orwell and everything he stood for, and are quick to attack both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four as anti-socialist. Orwell himself felt compelled to set the record straight and defend the books against both right-wingers and Stalinists: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.”

17 August 2010

Orwell and Marxism: The political and Cultural Thinking of George Orwell. By Philip Bounds. I.B. Tauris

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