Orwell was born Eric Hugh Blair in Bengal in 1903. Very soon
after his birth the family (but not his father) moved to
After he had completed his education at Eton he went back
to India to join the Indian Imperial Police (1922-27). Burmese
Days, one of his first novels, was partly autobiographical
and partly a reflection on the politics of the British Raj.
Although Orwell clearly disapproved of British domination
in India he avoided a stereotyping and patronising approach
to the 'natives'. One character, Doctor Veriswami, is fanatically
pro-British, this in spite of being on the receiving end of
shabby and racist treatment from the local white community.
Similarly the brooding figure of U Po Kyin, the completely
amoral Burmese magistrate makes one realise that there will
not necessarily be an end of political oppression with the
departure of the British. Additionally, Orwell realised that
systems of oppression corrupt the oppressors as much as they
diminish the oppressed. He expresses this in unforgettable
prose in the famous essay Shooting an Elephant:
" ... when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom
he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy; the
conventionalised figure of a sahib. For it is a condition
of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress
the natives, and so in every crisis he has got to do what
the natives expect of him. He wears a mask and his face grows
to fit it."
Orwell left Burma for Europe experiencing periods of intense
poverty as well as ill-health. It was during this interlude
that Down and Out in Paris and London, and The Road
to Wigan Pier, were published. His work was unsentimental
and realist: he did not seek to glamourise the realities of
working class life. In The Road to Wigan Pier, for
example, Orwell described the effects of mass unemployment
in the industrial north of England. It is an account that
is sometimes painfully forthright. He decided to leave Mrs.Brooker's
lodging house in Sheffield the day he found a full chamber-pot
under the breakfast table.
''It is no use saying that people like the Brooker's are
disgusting and trying to put them out of mind. For they exist
in tens and hundreds of thousands; they are one of the characteristic
by-products of the modern world. You cannot disregard them
if you accept the civilisation that produced them...It is
a kind of duty to see and smell such places now and again,
especially smell them, lest you forget that they exist; though
it is better perhaps not to stay there for too long."
Orwell's full commitment to socialism came with his decision
to fight for the Spanish Republic in 1936. He was by this
time a member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and upon
his arrival in Spain was immediately enlisted into the ILP's
sister party the Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista (POUM).
That he was not drafted into the Communist International Brigade
was purely fortuitous. Indeed at first he agreed with the
Comintern's popular front line: namely, that the war was a
defence of democracy against fascism. Force of circumstance
made him change this position realising that the Spanish war
was essentially a revolutionary war and that Stalin was intent
on there being no revolution in Spain. The reason for this
was to be found in the Stalin-Laval pact between France and
the Soviet Union. This agreement could not have taken place
if the USSR was seen to be fomenting a communist revolution
on France's southern borders. This was Orwell's first experience
of communist realpolitik, but certainly not his last.
The atmosphere of those early days of the war in Barcelona
was one to which his sympathies immediately responded: the
working class seemed to be in control, the purpose of the
struggle seemed clear, which, after the glutinous complexities
of the English class system, must have come as a relief: "In
revolutionary Barcelona shoe-shine boys looked you in the
eye and called you comrade...There was much I did not understand,
in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognised it immediately
as a state of affairs worth fighting for." (Homage
This was not to last: piece by piece the workers' gains were
unpicked. This was part of the communist strategy of containing
any revolution and not alienating the middle-classes in the
Republican areas. Sounds familiar? Thus the POUM early fell
foul of the official government authorities. In part this
was due to the Soviet machtpolitik (power politics),
but also it formed part of the Comintern's global drive against
'Trotskyism' wherever it might be found.
Having served on the Aragon front, where he was in fact wounded,
Orwell found himself involved in a virtual civil war within
a civil war when the communists settled accounts with POUM,
'a fascist fifth column', according to The Daily Worker.
Returning to Barcelona, Orwell had to sleep in the open at
night for fear of showing his papers at an hotel. Finally
he and his wife managed to escape to France one jump ahead
of the secret police.
What Orwell had learnt from Spain was that the left in power
could be every bit as corrupt and tyrannical as the right.
Spain also gave him insights into mass political psychology
and the mass media in the service of politics. His was a preoccupation
that the very idea of objective truth might be disappearing.
What suggested this to him was the trumped-up accusations
and secret arrests and the dishonest reporting of events in
both the Spanish and international press. Whereas in former
times the idea of objective truth had been common to people
who perhaps could not agree on particular facts, it was now
being jettisoned and replaced by the theory that the past
was a function of present needs, and could be changed accordingly.
The modern totalitarian state possessed the resources to erase
all trace of an historical event, and to put a complete fabrication
in its place. This thought, which is fully developed in 1984
('he who controls the present controls the past') , haunted
Orwell's time in Spain provided him with the material upon
which he drew for both 1984 and Animal Farm. Behind
the reiterated cry of the pigs to the other animals ''Surely
you don't want Jones to come back", lay his experience
of a real situation in which the Spanish working class could
be made to accept every encroachment on their freedom by reminding
them of the supreme need to win the War. Sounds familiar?
In spite of Franco's victory in Spain Orwell was at that
time still optimistic. In 1943 he wrote this poem to the memory
of an Italian militiaman he had met upon his arrival and this
comes nearest to an affirmation of the human spirt he ever
Your name and your deeds were forgotten
Before your bones were dry,
And the lie that slew you is buried
Under a deeper lie
But the thing that I saw in your face
No power can disinherit
No bomb that ever bursts
Shatters the crystal spirit.
By now Orwell had firmly
nailed his colours to the mast stating that he was against
all forms of totalitarianism and for democratic socialism
as he understood it. He had little love for the power politics
and mass bureaucratic parties of the twentieth century. In
this sense he was completely and gloriously out of time and
out of place. But for all that there was something essentially
timeless about his beliefs. For Orwell the essential object
of socialism was the establishment of justice and liberty.
This simple formula had somehow been lost in the sterile godless
world of official 'scientific' socialism - in both its fabian
and marxist varieties.
''Socialists have, so to speak, presented their case wrong
side foremost. They have never made it sufficiently clear
that the essential aims of socialism are justice and liberty.
With their eyes glued to economic facts, they have proceeded
on the assumption that man has no soul, and explicitly or
implicitly they have set up the goal of a materialistic utopia...
Socialism, at least in this island, does not smell any longer
of revolution and the overthrow of tyrants; it smells of crankishness,
machine-worship, and the stupid cult of Russia."
Of course much of this was unfair. But what I think Orwell
was saying is this: The masses are capable of spontaneous
decency whereas these simple feelings have been largely coached
out of the educated classes, being replaced by a set of contrived
ideologically approved feelings; what we would no doubt today
call Political Correctness. And for Orwell the object of socialism
is to bring out and accentuate the innate decency of the common
people. 'If there is any hope it lies in the proles' (1984)
Both Animal Farm and 1984 represent the stage
of terminal pessimism in Orwell's life and work. Animal
Farm was specifically about the Russian revolution but
the logic was applicable to all revolutions; the message was
simple and worthy of Edmund Burke: all revolutions fail. In
1984 we see the final triumph of the totalitarian ethic.
The erstwhile rebels, Winston and Julia, are converted, at
the hands of the thought police, into cringing lovers of Big
Brother. In the scene where they are captured, one of the
thought police smashes the beautiful paperweight given to
Winston by the owner of the antique shop, Charrington, who
unbeknown to Winston was a member of the thought police himself.
Thus the crystal spirit of Spain was smashed. Orwell's depression
is easy to understand given that he - like the rest of us
- lived in a century in which almost every positive idea has
ended in failure. Additionally his disposition was not improved
by his suffering from terminal illness. He wrote of 1984
"I wouldn't have written such a depressing book had I
not been so ill".
Even in 1984, however, there are glimpses of
optimism. In one scene Winston visits the cinema where war
documentaries are showing. There is one shot of a helicopter
dropping a bomb into a boatload of refugees. This occasions
applause from the party seats, but in the prole seats a woman
is complaining that such a scene is unsuitable for children,
'they didn't oughta 'ave shown it, not in front of the kids'.
The woman simply represents common decency against the hysterical
hate of the party members. The same figure of the prole woman
makes her appearance in the backyard of Charringtons's shop,
hanging up washing and singing a simple love song 'It was
only an April fancy'. Winston noted that 'the birds sang,
the proles sang, the party did not sing', apart from the anthems
of hate that is.
Orwell's socialism went with the grain of all that was positive
and decent in human nature. For him socialism was a lived
experience, part of the bone and marrow of his being. This
distinctive anarcho-socialism was based upon a profound belief
in the human spirit and a deep distrust of bureaucracy, power-structures
and the type of thinking and ethos which they engendered.
Such independence of mind and spirit is rare today. He is
sorely missed in an age obsessed with being 'on message'.