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Icons of the Left: Blair's Anarcho-Socialism

Frank Lee remembers the indepdendent socialism of Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) who is sorely missed in our 'on-message' times.

George Orwell was born Eric Hugh Blair in Bengal in 1903. Very soon after his birth the family (but not his father) moved to England. 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.

George OrwellAlthough 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 to Catalonia).

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.

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 penned.

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'.