The Socialist Patriot: George Orwell and War, by Peter Stansky, Stanford University Press, 136 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 9781-503635494
In this short book, pioneering Orwell biographer Peter Stansky shows how Orwell’s development as a writer was influenced by the four major wars in which he participated ‑ the two world wars, the Spanish Civil War and the Cold War. These, Stansky argues, shaped Orwell as a writer, more so even than his experiences in Paris or Wigan. Although he was an actual combatant in only one of them ‑ the Spanish Civil War ‑ all four engaged him intellectually. This is true even of the First World War, which took place while he was still at school. In fact, it is Stansky’s view that the First World War was ‘the most important war in shaping [Orwell] as the writer and person he became’.
That is a fair assessment, I think, particularly if the First World War, in its British aspect, is extended to include the decade or so that preceded it, during which it was popularly imagined and officially prepared for. Orwell was a child at this time but, child though he was, he had been enrolled in the Navy League and dressed in a sailor suit. The League had been set up to lobby to have the Royal Navy, the biggest in the world, made bigger still.
‘On and off I have been toting a rifle since I was ten,’ he remarks in My Country Right or Left (1940). At St Cyprian’s preparatory school, for example, where he had drilled with the cadets and where, after 1914, the whole school would assemble daily to be briefed on the war’s progress. Former pupils who had been killed were commemorated, and the current pupils, Orwell among them, sent to entertain injured soldiers billeted nearby. It was in this context that he first made it into print with two poems, ‘Awake! Young Men of England’, a 1914 call to arms, and, two years later, an elegy for Lord Kitchener. In these works, it is taken as read that Germany represents an existential threat to the United Kingdom and its empire and must therefore be resisted. And that Kitchener, of the romanticised (indeed, whitewashed) Sudan campaign, is a hero of this resistance.
No stone is set to mark his nation’s loss,
No stately tomb enshrines his noble breast;
He needs them not, his name ungarnished stands,
Remindful of the mighty deeds he worked.
Orwell himself, in adulthood, made no reference to these early writings, which lay undiscovered in the archives of the Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard until the 1960s when Peter Stansky and his co-author William Abrahams exhumed them. The exhumation was part of the extensive research that led, in time, to their books The Unknown Orwell (1972) and Orwell: the Transformation (1979), the first Orwell biographies.
The Socialist Patriot includes a fascinating account of how these came to be written and of the wider politics of Orwell biography in the sixties and seventies. Orwell’s will had included a request that there should be no biography. The late Gordon Bowker, himself a fine Orwell biographer, reckoned that this had been slipped into the will a few days before Orwell’s death in January 1950, probably by his wife, Sonia Brownell Orwell. Notwithstanding this ‘no biography’ clause, Sonia herself commissioned an official biography of Orwell just a few years later, with Malcolm Muggeridge engaged to do the honours. When Muggeridge turned out to be less than energetic, others were considered, including Richard Ellman, who declined. The result was that, by the end of the 1960s, the official biography, which was being undertaken unofficially, had run into trouble. In the vacuum, a few memoirs of Orwell were published by, among others, George Woodcock, Christopher Hollis, Tosco Fyvel and Jacintha Buddicom, and a number of Orwell factoids began to do the rounds. That Orwell, in Paris, had broken into a grocery shop to fetch a peach for the Duke of Westminster, or that at a Rangoon railway station he had laid into a Burmese schoolboy with a cane.
This was the context in which the Stansky and Abrahams books were written. According to Peter Stansky, both Sonia and Sir Richard Rees, Orwell’s friend and literary executor (and himself an Orwell memoirist), were at first supportive of the project. However, Sonia soon reneged and asked for editorial control. When this was refused, the authors were barred from the evolving Orwell archive at University College, London and prevented from quoting from Orwell’s writings beyond fair usage. This did little to detract from the quality of their books, both of which draw on sound primary research, including interviews with many of the people prominent in Orwell’s life ‑ his sister Avril; his lifelong friend Cyril Connolly; Mabel Fierz, who had moved heaven and earth to get him published; and Mrs Vaughn Wilkes of St Cyprian’s preparatory school ‑ the ‘Flip’ of the memoir ‘Such, Such were the Joys’, who both scared and (psychologically, at least) scarred him. Elegantly written and effortlessly stepping back and forth between biography and sharp analysis of Orwell’s writings, the two volumes more than hold their own in comparison with any of the dozen or so Orwell biographies that have appeared since. Their only real failing is that they do not follow the story to the end. All in all it is a great pity that they are not currently in print.
Sonia Brownell Orwell was not so enthusiastic, alleging that The Unknown Orwell contained ‘mistakes and misconceptions’. In reaction, she now revived the biography project with added purpose, commissioning Bernard Crick, a political scientist, to take it forward: ‘Rather than let [The Unknown Orwell] stand as the only existing biography of George Orwell, I have regretfully decided to go against Orwell’s own wishes in the matter.’ According to Gordon Bowker, Crick accepted only on condition that he would first read The Unknown Orwell and, if he thought it was up to the mark, advise Sonia that the official biography should be Stansky and Abrahams’, not his. The result of his evaluation can be inferred since Crick’s George Orwell: A Life was published in 1980 and did brisk business, as it still does. It is mixed, bordering on ungracious, in its assessment of Stansky and Abrahams. Their description of service life in Burma is, Crick says, excellent; their account of Eton both fascinating and (ooh, ouch) ‘fascinated’. A few small errors are given greater prominence than is perhaps justified and the authors are chastised for having paid too much heed to such and such and so and so. To be fair, Crick confines this type of thing mainly to the endnotes and it might well be that some of it was down to a mixture of self-justification and patron-pleasing. Ironically, Crick himself had fallen out of Sonia’s favour just as the publication date loomed and a new biography, by Michael Shelden, was eventually produced in 1991. This took issue with Crick who, in turn, took issue back. Other biographies have followed, their authors in general less excitable.
But back to Peter Stansky and the wars that made Orwell, the First World War, formerly the Great War, being particularly formative. Having written schoolboy poems in defence of it, Orwell would, at Eton, complete a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn and participate in the general irreverence towards it that quickly set in once it was safely won (one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turns being a staple of Orwell’s engagement with the wars of his times). By the late 1930s, when he had joined the far left, he would be openly dismissive of the official rationale that had been put about in furtherance of the erstwhile Great War ‑ notably the depiction of Germany as a rogue, militaristic state hell-bent on world domination. He thought the same regarding the then contemporary anti-fascism ‑ a cynical demonisation of the prospective enemy the better to justify the coming war against it. Writing to Nancy Cunard to reject her request that he say, for the record, where he stood on the Spanish Civil War he seethed:
…tell your pansy friend [Stephen] Spender that I am preserving specimens of his war-heroics and that when the time comes when he squirms for shame at having written it, as the people who wrote the war-propaganda in the Great War are squirming now, I shall rub it in good and hard.
Orwell would recant his rejection of the official rationale for the First World War once Britain was again at war with Germany after 1939 and withdraw his scepticism regarding that previous war’s atrocity stories about U-boats and Edith Cavell and the rest of it. Several times in the 1940s he states that Germany’s war aim in 1914 had been, after all, what the official world had said it was ‑had Germany won in 1914-1918, Europe would have been ruled by the German army. That is what he claims in, for instance, his 1944 review of The Mirror of the Past, a book by his long-time nemesis, Labour Party outlier Konni Zilliacus. How, Orwell asks, can Zilliacus support the current war ‑ the Second World War ‑ while ‘debunking’ the First? And how can he believe that a negotiated peace would have been acceptable in 1917 if he rejects the very idea of such a peace now?
The reason, I think, is that Zilliacus saw a fundamental difference between the two wars whereas Orwell did not. Zilliacus had been concerned by the rise of fascism throughout the 1930s and by the relative inactivity of, in particular, the League of Nations, of which he was an official. He judged Nazism to be a genuine and concerning political threat that needed to be defeated comprehensively but could see nothing comparable in the previous war. Arguably, it is no more odd that Zilliacus supported one world war but not the other than that Orwell supported them both. He supported them both having lately said he supported neither. And in supporting the new war, felt the need to change his vote on its predecessor.
I will get back to the Second World War in a moment. Between the two world wars came the Spanish Civil War, the only war in which Orwell was an actual combatant, and the war which Stansky sees as central to his becoming both a writer and a socialist. He comments:
The Spanish Civil War was for him the most important war for the shaping of his ideas and making him an even more powerful writer. Indeed one might say it was what made him into a great writer.
I cannot disagree with any of that, particularly with regard to Orwell’s development as a socialist writer. In the long run, his assessment of the Civil War ‑ the revolution taken back from the people, the casual attitude towards truth and what he saw as Moscow’s self-serving turnarounds in policy ‑ would inspire both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the shorter term, Orwell, who had been a socialist of no particular faction, would, in the years immediately after Spain, become uncharacteristically dogmatic and even, albeit briefly, a party man, a member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), sister party of the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista ‑ Workers’ Party for Marxist Unification) in whose militia he had served, and been seriously injured.
Orwell’s distinctive take on Spain, derived from the POUM and the ILP (and, Stansky writes, from American Trotskyist Harry Milton, who took Orwell in hand politically), is that there is little to choose between the Spanish Republic and Franco just as there is, in general, little to choose between liberal democracy and fascism. In his view, both liberal democracy and fascism are different appearances of the same capitalist substance. They are, as he several times puts it, Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Workers, he argues, should settle for neither of these two dolts, but choose instead revolution and the socialist commonwealth.
The Spanish Republic was the be-all and end-all for most on the left. But for Orwell it was neither here nor there. Another liberal democracy, preferable to Franco if pushed, but nothing special for those who, like Orwell, had sampled the heady socialistic air of anarcho-socialist Barcelona and the ‘wonderful things’ he told Cyril Connolly he had seen there. In Spain, this put him on the wrong side of the government to such an extent that he did not so much leave the country as escape from it. And when he returned home, he found that this particular view of the war put him at odds with the mainstream left. Victor Gollancz, say, who had published all his previous books and whose Left Book Club had given him his biggest success to date with The Road to Wigan Pier, rejected his Spanish memoir, the soon to be Homage to Catalonia, quite literally before a word of it was written. It was published, instead, by Secker and Warburg, a fading house then struggling to return to form. (And although Homage to Catalonia did not stop the rot ‑ it failed to sell its original print run ‑ a later Orwell untouchable, Animal Farm, would do them proud.)
The distinctive outlook that Orwell brought back from Spain was not the outlook he had had when he first arrived there at the end of 1936. At that time, he later wrote, he had had a wholly conventional left-of-centre view of what was happening there ‑ that the Republic was a good thing and Franco bad, and that the socialists of all parties (and none) were on more or less the same anti-fascist page, or leastways should be. Somewhere in the next five months, however, he shifted from this conventional view to the ILP/POUM position described. The evolution of this thinking is not traceable because, aside from a couple of letters, little of what Orwell wrote about Spain while he was actually in Spain survives. The rest, which may have been considerable (Bob Edwards, an ILP member, POUM militiaman and, in later life, Labour MP and Father of the House, referred to him disdainfully as a ‘bloody scribbler’) was seized by the Republic’s police after the crackdown on the POUM and is either lost for all time or waiting to be found in some Spanish or Russian archive. At any rate, Orwell changed his mind from the mainstream view of things to a far left view of them. And then, a few years after the war was lost, he changed it right back.
By the 1940s, Orwell was scornful of the very idea he posited in Homage to Catalonia and his other pre-war Spanish writings ‑ that the militias and their revolution might have defeated Franco, calling it a ‘Trotskyist thesis’. Instead, he commends the government of Juan Negrín, a moderate socialist, for having ‘quelled the revolutionary disorder of early days’ ‑ a disorder of which Orwell himself had been an admirer ‑ by establishing a conventional army. It is as if the defeat of the Republic and the establishment of the Franco regime, which by the 1940s might have conceivably joined Germany and Italy, giving them access to Gibraltar and control of the Mediterranean, has cooled his revolutionary passion, at least as far as Spain is concerned.
Orwell’s Spanish politicisation would, as Stansky says, have a lasting impact. It accounts for his dogged, if not dogmatic, opposition to the coming Anglo-German war in the late 1930s, a war which Orwell said would be a capitalist in-fight offering nothing to the working class beyond death and hardship. Also the moral equivalences he drew between fascism and the imperialism of democracies like Britain and France in journalistic writings such as ‘Notes on the Way’ and his review of Clarence Streit’s Union Now, both 1939. Streit, an early Atlanticist, had argued that the democracies should formally unite against the dictatorships. Orwell, however, questioned the moral authority for any such union. States like Britain and France, he said, might be democratic at home, but in the administration of their colonial possessions they denied basic civil rights to many millions. That is the world view that dominates Orwell’s writings of the immediate pre-war period ‑ the two and a half years from his time in Spain until September 1939 ‑ and it is evident both in Homage to Catalonia and Coming up for Air. Peter Stansky describes this as ‘a somewhat intense and perhaps unexpected pacifist phase’. If not a strictly pacifist phase, it was certainly intense, and it ended all of a sudden.
By Orwell’s own account, his opposition to the coming war ‑ the soon to be Second World War ‑ ceased on the night of August 23rd, the eve of the Russo-German non-aggression pact. That was the night when, he later said, he had had a dream in which the war had already begun and he was supportive. And he was still supportive when he awoke the next day and learnt that the two dictators had announced their agreement. Stansky suggests that, with Germany and Russia now on the same side, Orwell decided that war against them was no longer such a serious mistake. But I do not think it was as logical as that. Orwell was explicit as to why he had changed. It was because, for all his revolutionary socialist internationalism, he was, when it came to it, ‘patriotic at heart, would not sabotage or act against my own side, would support the war, would fight in it if possible … war was coming, and the Government, even the Chamberlain Government, was assured of my loyalty.’
I do not – cannot ‑ know for sure if Orwell did dream that late August dream although, on balance, I suspect not. It is the sort of thing he might have noted in his diary, that he had had a dream that had caused him to set aside ideas that he had held firmly for more than two years and at considerable cost. But there is nothing of the sort in the diary ‑ no mention of the dream or even the change of mind. The pact is mentioned, but only by way of reportage, not as the cause of a fundamental reversal of everything he believed. I think it more likely that Orwell changed his mind somewhat later than he said he did ‑ in September rather than August 1939, not a great deal later than he said he had changed it but significantly after rather than before the declaration of war on Germany. The post-declaration period was, I think, when his latent patriotism began to get the better of his ILP socialism. And though he did not go public on his change of heart for another twelve months, behind the scenes he was making enquiries about joining up and justifying his decision in correspondence with his friend the writer and ILP member Ethel Manin. And when he did at last go public on his revised view of the war, in ‘My Country Right or Left’, he said it was the long drilling in patriotism of his schooldays that had caused it ‑ the St Cyprian’s cadet corps and the Navy League, Newbolt’s ‘Vitaï Lampada’ and Henley’s ‘Pro Rege Nostro’ (‘What have I done for you, England my England?’).
But if Orwell abandoned his opposition to the war, he did not abandon his socialism. Having been a revolutionary socialist opponent of the war, he became a revolutionary socialist supporter of it, for whom the conflict was full of exciting revolutionary potential. ‘For two years [Orwell] had seen war as the enemy of socialism,’ Stansky writes. ‘Now he was coming to believe that the demands of war would facilitate, indeed require, the establishment of a socialist state.’ Orwell’s reasoning was that socialism was more economically efficient than capitalism. Nazism, which he had previously considered a form of capitalism, he now thought sufficiently socialist to give Germany the edge over Britain. For Britain to win, he believed, it must transform itself into a socialist society, and soon ‑ 1940 being his ideal Year Zero.
This is the argument that Orwell sets out in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, as detailed an account as he ever manages regarding what he thinks a socialist society might look like. He advocates, in effect, socialism in one country (or one Commonwealth) based on the popular patriotism of the working class rather than on any improbable international proletarian solidarity, and on the down-to-earth culture of the working class, not what he sees as the pretentions of the middle class intelligentsia. These he depicts as disdainful of their own country, ‘Europeanised. They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow … England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.’ And a few years later, his side of a rhyming verse debate with Alex Comfort in Tribune included the following:
I wrote in nineteen-forty that at need
I’d fight to keep the Nazis out of Britain;
And Christ! how shocked the pinks were! Two years later
I hadn’t lived it down; one had the effrontery
To write three pages calling me a “traitor”
So black a crime it is to love one’s country.
Yet where’s the pink that would have thought it odd of me
To write a shelf of books in praise of sodomy.
‘Pink’ here suggests not just something decidedly less than red-blooded socialism, but also something less than red-blooded masculinity. Homosexuality was one of a number of topics that gave Orwell difficulties, viz his thundering response to Nancy Cunard cited earlier. Sometimes, indeed, it seems as though these effete, Anglophobic literati loom larger in his demonology than capitalists proper.
But Orwell is convinced that capitalism will go and, presumably, the ‘pinks’ along with it. In the imagined, post-revolutionary Britain of ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, the state will control the main economic assets, leaving only a small private sector. Currency will operate more like ration coupons than the conventional store of value. And there will be approximate equality of income, in effect, the type of economy that would be standard in Eastern Europe in the decades following the end of the war, though Orwell is adamant that in his revolutionary vision, democracy and its associated freedoms will remain.
It is a remarkable piece of writing, ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’. For a writer often regarded as dour and pessimistic, Orwell, writing when the war had reached something of a crisis and a Luftwaffe air raid might randomly end his life, is suddenly alive with enthusiasm. The prospect of an English revolutionary socialism à la Barcelona has him on something like a high. ‘The Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children’s holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten, but England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past …’
Stansky goes on to chart Orwell’s fall to earth, from when he thought revolution was imminent to his acceptance that it was not. ‘We have been two years on the burning deck and somehow the magazine never explodes,’ writes a frustrated Orwell towards the end of 1942, while the following spring finds him chastened and disillusioned ‑‘the forces of reaction have won hands down’ with Churchill in charge and Sir Stafford Cripps, a leading Labour politician on the party’s left, a busted flush. By the following year, he was describing his belief that war and revolution were inseparable as a ‘very great error’. Britain was changing, he said, but nothing like as much as he had thought. More planning, but no sign as yet of working class empowerment. Still, by the end of the war, and for the remainder of his life, Orwell would hope eternal that Britain might square the circle ‑ have a socialist planned economy, and democracy, and freedom of thought, all at once.
His last years coincided with the beginning of the Cold War, a conflict in which Stansky writes that Orwell did more than simply critique Soviet communism. Unusually for a man of the left, Orwell not only took a side in it, he took the Western side. As is now well-known, this extended to his assisting the Information Research Department (IRD), which was in effect a branch of the secret state, a tale that has been told, and spun, many times in the twenty-five years since it first came to light. Stansky’s account is balanced and factual. The IRD was looking for propagandists, ideally people on the left who could make an eloquent case against Soviet communism. Orwell, with Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four to his credit, was the very man, but he was by then too ill to get directly involved. Instead, he named a few people whom he thought would be up to it. Then he followed this up with his own, somewhat fanciful, list of those whom he considered too close to the Soviet side of the Cold War to make useful propagandists. It was an ill-considered and irresponsible action that continues to tarnish his posthumous reputation. That the list appears to have been ignored, and no harm came to those whose names were on it, was probably accidental, and ultimately down to the decisions of others, not Orwell.
It is easy enough to forget that the Cold War Orwell who helped the IRD and wrote the two essential critiques of Soviet communism remained a committed socialist. It is especially easy to overlook given that Nineteen Eighty-Four, as Stansky concludes, offers socialists little comfort. Winston’s hope that the working class of Oceania ‑ the ‘proles’ ‑ might rise against the Party can be nothing more than wishful. It is, in fact, working class apathy that gives the Party the run of Oceania just as it is the unquestioning obedience, conformity and resignation of the other animals that enables the pigs to manage Animal Farm exploitatively. Lacking even reliable memory and therefore the ability to compare past with present, Orwell’s various proles and sheep and carthorses cannot formulate an effective narrative of opposition. ‘The struggle of the working class is like the growth of a plant,’ writes Orwell in ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’. ‘The plant is blind and stupid, but it knows enough to keep pushing upwards towards the light …’ It is a decidedly backhanded compliment. And a reminder that the qualities Orwell imagines in working class people, such as a stubborn loyalty to the collective, are the very qualities that may well make it inadequate to the task of resisting dictatorship. Certainly, there is little sign that some working class pushing upwards is coming any time soon in either Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Class conflict and Orwell’s idea of social class are areas that Stansky might have looked at in more detail in this succinct account. But that is a quibble. The Socialist Patriot is a considered analysis of the role of war in the development of Orwell’s thinking, notably his sudden shifts from one ideological position to its polar opposite. In its text, as in its title, it captures what would be the two constants informing Orwell’s engagement with the momentous events of his time.
Martin Tyrrell is currently under contract to Athabasca University Press to complete a book on Orwell’s wars, from class war to Cold War. The project is being generously assisted by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland under its Support for the Individual Artist programme.