George Orwell on Revolution
James Bradshaw casts an eye over the great writer’s insights – and oversights – in his treatment of politics and religion.
George Orwell, whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair, is widely viewed as one of the twentieth century’s great writers. Naturally, his most famous books Animal Farm and 1984, continue to attract the most attention. Yet there is far more in Orwell’s literary work which requires consideration and study. Examining his work as a whole, we see a great mind who continuously drew attention to political and religious questions.
Orwell’s work gradually became more political as he moved towards socialism. “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,” he wrote. Considering he had followed in his father’s footsteps by serving as a colonial official in the British Raj, this development was itself remarkable.
His work makes clear that disgust at the petty bigotry of classism in early 20th century England fuelled this leftwards movement. The childhood experience of being prevented from playing with the children of a local plumber stayed with him, though not to the extent of his experiences at a boarding school where the other boys were not shy about making it known that their families were far wealthier than his.
Although Christopher Hollis’s analysis of Orwell strongly suggests that his old schoolmate exaggerated the severity of his ill treatment at school, and that Orwell’s anti-imperialism was far from obvious during his early years of service in Burma, opposition to imperialist rule did grow within him.
Abandoning a quite lucrative position in Burma and returning to England, Orwell consciously exposed himself to the world of urban poverty which was completely foreign to him.
His experiences in France and Britain led to the publication of his first book in 1933, Down and Out in Paris and London. Four years later, he would expand on this greatly in The Road to Wigan Pier, which was written after Orwell had spent months travelling through England’s economically distressed North. The Road to Wigan Pier is arguably Orwell’s most complete work, containing as it does an absorbing account of how working-class people lived, along with deep reflections by Orwell about England’s class divide and – much to the chagrin of his left-wing publisher – the mistakes which socialists were making which were alienating potential supporters.
There is no Marxist theorising in Orwell’s work: in fact, there is a positive contempt for such things. There is also a remarkably prescient critique of those on the Left who concentrate on doctrinal purity and treat politics as an ‘exciting heresy hunt’, as Michael Shelden puts it. Added to this was the scorn which he heaped on the (often middle- or upper-class) activists whom he encountered. As he wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier: “One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist and feminist in England.”
Orwell’s reflections on the problems of Depression-era England also demonstrate an admirable broadness of thought. Though he felt that the Catholic writers Hilaire Belloc and GK Chesterton had been unrealistic in calling for a return to small-scale ownership decades earlier, he praised their prescience in identifying the problems which would emerge. When the libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek released The Road to Serfdom, in which he assailed the socialist policies which Orwell espoused, Orwell reviewed the book generously, while agreeing with him that ‘collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamed of’.
After years of writing about politics, and after seeing the conditions of the working-class himself, Orwell was convinced of the need to fight against General Franco’s falangist forces in the Spanish Civil War. Arriving in Barcelona, Orwell was swept up in the atmosphere of equality where all businesses had been collectivised, where people of all classes now dressed the same and where waiters had begun to speak to patrons as equals, as he later made clear in Homage to Catalonia: “Many of the normal motives of civilised life – snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc – had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as his master.”
Although Orwell did not approve of all the measures which the Spanish revolutionaries had adopted, their radical egalitarianism did appeal to him strongly. Before Burma or his encounters in the slums, and long before he became a writer, the teenage Eric Blair had been caught up in the anti-establishment mood which prevailed at the end of the First World War.
As he explained in The Road to Wigan Pier, the wave of anti-militarism following its ending had ‘extended into a general revolt against orthodoxy and authority’, including politicians, the monarchy and the Christian religion. In 1920, his class at Eton had almost unanimously selected Lenin as one of the world’s greatest living men. This alienation from tradition would have an enormous effect on his generation, likely increasing the appeal of revolution, even where it involved the most violent means.
The great popularity of Animal Farm and 1984 – particularly among modern conservatives – should not hide the fact that its author remained convinced of the need for dramatic economic and social change right up to the end.
Animal Farm is a good example of this. The farm’s owner Mr Jones is a bad ruler, and the indictment of the current system offered by the Old Major (a composite of Marx and Lenin) is true, just as his proposed alternative – Animalism – is desirable. The animals’ Rebellion is justified, and leads at first to equality between all creatures, and improved conditions on the farm. While the corruption of all the pigs quickly becomes obvious, it is only when Napoleon (the vicious boar who represents Stalin) becomes all-powerful that conditions truly degenerate.
On the other hand, 1984 offers a far more frightening picture of a totalitarian society which existed long after a successful revolution. Such is the book’s influence that many of its key terms have entered the everyday lexicon: Big Brother, Newspeak, Doublespeak, etc. Again though, it is easy to overlook some of the key components of the totalitarian state of Oceania, while placing too much emphasis on others…
The conscious and ongoing destruction of the past which the protagonist Winston Smith engages in as a minor official at the Ministry of Truth has much broader implications given the manner in which all political factions – including modern social progressives – relentlessly distort history in order to advance current goals.
More relevant still is the ruling Party’s determination to weaken the bonds of marriage and family to deter people from forming loyalties outside of the State’s control, while actively turning children against their parents by encouraging them to act as domestic spies. One of Winston’s blameless colleagues falls victim to this, while Winston is haunted by the fading memories of his own childhood, where his mother had sacrificed herself for him in an age ‘when there was still privacy, love and friendship, and when the members of a family stood by one another without needing to know the reason’.
It is this destruction of the family and what we would call ‘civic society’ that is most significant in 1984, even though the constant surveillance by the omnipotent Big Brother and his Thought Police is what most readers focus on.
Oceania’s system is called English Socialism or ‘Ingsoc,’ and in considering its grim realities, it is worth contrasting this with the alternative vision which Orwell himself draws attention to in his famous 1941 essay, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius.
Considering what set Englishmen apart and what had kept them free, Orwell points to the English ‘addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations, the privateness of English life’. Not only did this involve a multitude of common and not so common activities, the culture centred around things which though they are ‘communal are not official – the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea.’ ’
English people of all political stripes still believed in this liberty, and Orwell added that the residual influence of Christianity in a broadly secular England helped to prevent the ‘power worship’ which had infected many authoritarian-led states in Europe.
The Party in 1984 is certainly repressive when it comes to religion – one of Winston’s colleagues is imprisoned for allowing the word ‘God’ to remain in an edition of poems, and Winston is forced to confess to being a believer – but for the bulk of the uneducated ‘prole’ class, it seems that the continued existence of gambling, drinking and football is enough to snuff out any interest in deeper questions.
Throughout the work, what is more interesting than the tools of repression are the means by which the Party ensures that heavy-handed measures are mostly unnecessary. By concentrating on the overtly repressive elements, too many observers miss the key points about how liberty was crushed, and how that societal ruination was made eternal.
For all his extraordinary insights, Orwell did have a blind spot when it comes to revolutionary violence, even though both his famous works depict it quite accurately. The Spanish Civil War unquestionably hardened his views about the Catholic Church, and this in turn hindered his analysis in Homage to Catalonia. Observing that people never blessed themselves in the region of Aragon where he fought, Orwell ignores the fact that any public gesture of faith could have resulted in execution by his socialist comrades, and simply pronounces that to the Spanish people, ‘the Church was a racket pure and simple’.
Again and again, this simplistic analysis is laid down, even where his own words contradict it, as when he suggests the lack of competent nurses in Republican Spain may have been down to the fact that ‘before the war this work was done chiefly by nuns’.
There is no acknowledgement of the scale of the persecution of Catholics by his own side – well over 6,000 priests, religious and nuns slaughtered by the Republicans, along with tens of thousands of others – or the degree to which this drove the Church to seek Franco’s protection.
Instead of acknowledging this, after the war, Orwell would continue to denounce the ‘huge pyramid of lies which the Catholic and reactionary press all over the world built up’. Instead of addressing the killing – often accompanied by horrific torture and/or rape in the case of nuns – of Catholics, Orwell routinely minimised the anti-clerical nature of the Spanish Republic by focusing on the physical damage to ransacked churches.
While serving in Barbastro, for instance, Orwell recalls that the occupied church was being used as a latrine; was this in the seminary where the Republicans murdered the 51 Claretians – many very young men – or in any of the other churches where atrocities occurred in Barbastro? He does not say.
Beyond an admission that all churches were ransacked as a matter of policy, and an acceptance that both sides committed atrocities and that both left-wing and right-wing media outlets were extremely dishonest in their coverage, Orwell is consistent in his refusal to face the facts about the bloodier aspects of the revolution which impressed him so much.
For all its merits, Animal Farm, which is an allegory about the Russian Revolution, suffers from a similar problem. Mr and Mrs Jones are driven out of the farm, but neither are physically harmed – and if this were a more accurate retelling of what happened to the Romanovs, the Jones’s and their children would have been herded into the basement and shot.
Moses the Raven – who represents the Russian Orthodox church – flies after them, and is similarly untouched; even when he returns to the farm, the ruling pigs do not interfere with his preaching. This is as far from the historical facts as can be imagined, and shows that even Orwell’s frank assessment of political change was far from flawless. Ultimately, even an honest revolutionary sometimes shudders to think of what is done in the name of achieving his aims.
This article was originally published here in Position Papers. It is republished here with permission. It is the first of two articles in Adamah Media by James Bradshaw on George Orwell. The second, on Orwell and Revolution, will be published next week.
Like what you’ve read? Consider supporting the work of Adamah by making a donation and help us keep exploring life’s big (and not so big) issues!