George Orwell and the limits of individualism

FRFI 174 August / September 2003

George Orwell (1903-1950) is celebrated on the centenary of his birth as the author of two novels that achieved iconic status and sold a million copies each in ten years: the revolution betrayed in Animal Farm (1945) and Big Brother totalitarianism in 1984 (1948). But his real significance is as the most powerful creator of the myth of English socialism – or rather, the English socialist. He has come to represent the ideal socialist – essentially patriotic and aloof from compromise and commitment, except to his own conscience and moral standards. Indeed, much of Orwell’s writing, outside of the two commercially successful novels, is about his own personal integrity. His emphasis on personal and political independence attracts the left-leaning middle class who were largely deprived of influence in British universities during the 18 years of Thatcherite reaction but today have a place in the left-of-centre media.

George Orwell (Eric Blair) was by no means an isolated ‘outsider’ despite an adventurous and sometimes isolated young manhood. Born in India in 1903 Orwell entered Eton in 1917. Here he became a utopian schoolboy socialist and together with others, including Cyril Connolly, who was to become a leading left writer and editor, fomented the so-called ‘Bolshy Election’ at Britain’s most famous school in 1921. Without going to university, he joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma for seven years, but resigned in 1928, unhappy with the stupidity of colonial administration. His memoir Burma Days was published in 1934. His decision to become a writer was made after living as an indigent worker and he wrote about his experiences of casual poorly-paid work and life in doss-houses and on the streets in Down and Out in Paris and London in 1932 (some sources say 1933). Orwell’s writing career took off after Homage to Catalonia, his account of experiences in the Spanish Civil War in which he was wounded in 1936. Orwell was to remain permanently resentful of Victor Gollancz of the Left Book Club who, under the direction of the British Communist Party rejected his manuscript because it criticised the role of the communists in Spain.

The following year Orwell travelled to areas of northern England hit by the economic depression of pre-war Britain. He describes his impressions of life and poverty in The Road to Wigan Pier. His characteristic moralising tone imbues the text, embracing the reader in guilt. After a visit to a coal mine he writes without irony, ‘It is only very rarely, when I make a definite mental effort, that I connect this coal with that far-off labour in the mines’. And yet this chapter makes not the slightest mention of the mine owners’ responsibility for the appalling wages and conditions he observes and the bitter defeat of the General Strike ten years before when the miners were starved into submission. Instead, throughout his account, Orwell’s antagonism is directed against the socialists. He sneers at the communist circles in London who apparently lack his own powers of empathy: ‘You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp., and the poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants – all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground ...’ (The vitriolic references are to left-leaning poets like Auden and Spender and to Hewlett Johnson, the ‘red’ Dean of Canterbury). The Road to Wigan Pier marks the end of Orwell’s utopian socialism and the start of his active hostility to political organisations of the left.

Orwell’s anti-communist credentials were well established before the second world war, the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact and the consequent change of line by the British Communist Party. His anti-communism pre-dates the Cold War and McCarthy era purges of radicals and the left in the US. He was ripe to serve his own class who were already preparing to contain their anti-fascist ally, the Soviet Union.

In the early 1940s Orwell began to compile lists of people who he suspected of being Communist Party members (agents) and those he described as ‘sentimental sympathisers’. There were 135 names in all, each with a code, most with few words of judgment, usually snobbish and personal, and a race category. For example: ‘Cedric Dover, Writer (Half-caste) etc and journalist. Trained as zoologist, is Eurasian. Main emphasis anti-white (especially anti-USA), but reliably pro-Russian on all major issues. Very dishonest, venal person.’ The majority of those named were colleagues, fellow writers and supporters of the Tribune New Statesman (‘Too dishonest to be outright “crypto” or fellow-traveller, but reliably pro-Russian on all major issues’).

Special Branch and the CIA appreciated Orwell’s already established role as an anti-leftist writer and propagandist. He worked for the BBC Eastern Service from 1940-1943 and, as literary editor of Tribune, he contributed a regular page of political and literary commentary called ‘As I Please’ which included the essay ‘England Your England’ (1941), an excessive display of patriotic pride in the English qualities of class tolerance, moderation and reasonableness. From 1945 Orwell was The Observer’s war correspondent and later became a regular contributor to the Manchester Evening News. From 1947 he was vice-chair of the Freedom Defence Committee which vetted civil servants for political tendencies in order to exclude Communist Party members, past and present, from office.

In 1949 Orwell sent 38 names from his list to a friend at the Information Research Department (IRD), which was established to combat communist cultural and literary influence and infiltration into trade unions or organisations like the BBC and the National Council for Civil Liberties. What was the purpose of this voluntary intelligence submission to the special branch? After all, the Communist Party’s telephones had been tapped for years, the PID (Political Intelligence Department) had rooms in Bush house where the BBC Overseas Service gave them space and most of Orwell’s ‘names’ were under surveillance. None of the names would have been new. The list included Charlie Chaplin who had fled to Britain following questioning by the Committee on Un-American Activities and a campaign of what he called ‘virulent hatred’ directed against him. Following his film about Hitler, The Great Dictator 1940, and his speech ‘A Second Front Now!’ (‘On the battlefields of Russia democracy will live or die’) in 1942, Charlie Chaplin was publicly targeted in the US by the FBI. George Orwell offered this useless information because he wanted to prove that he was a hard man of the reactionary tendency.

Orwell’s publishers claim that he was a free spirit and the social conscience of his age. In reality, while posing as a man of integrity who rejected false creeds, he actually encouraged the British left to embrace the cause of anti-communism. In the end the limits of individualism are determined by the real world. Orwell chose to support the emergence of a post-war settlement in favour of the US and British imperialism and Cold War isolation for the Soviet bloc with its over 20 million war dead. He chose to offer himself up as a model of an English socialist, independent, patriotic, reformist and ultimately, a bourgeois servant of the state.

Susan Davidson


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