George Orwell: English Rebel, by Robert Colls, Oxford University Press, 330 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-099680801
In early 1936 the publisher Victor Gollancz commissioned George Orwell to conduct an investigation into the plight of the unemployed in England’s industrial North, a project that led to the book The Road to Wigan Pier. Unemployment and hardship in Lancashire and Yorkshire were, on the face of it, not subjects that Orwell could have been expected to know that much about. True, he had written vividly about tramps and tramping, “spikes”, charity wards and common lodging houses, but he had little experience of England outside London and the home counties and few friends or acquaintances who were working class or came from a non-privileged background. His own sentimental education had been forged in the sleek landscapes of the Thames valley or, later, genteel Southwold on the Suffolk coast – the England inhabited by those he was to term “the lower-upper-middle-class”, the people who kept the country running and who, though they owned no land, still felt they were “landowners in the sight of God”.
If he did not have much relevant experience, what Orwell could offer his publisher were energy and passion, and a small but growing reputation as a young man with something to say. He also needed the money. Years later he told a friend that he would never have undertaken the trip north had it not been for the size of the advance Gollancz offered: £500, a rather large sum at the time for a writer still in his early thirties. As a man with not much taste for the high life, he reckoned he could survive for two years on that, and afford to get married.
On January 31st he set out by train for Coventry, staying the night there in a bed and breakfast establishment: “very lousy, 3/6 … Smell as in common lodging houses. Half-witted servant girl with huge body, tiny head and rolls of fat at back of neck curiously recalling ham-fat.” From Coventry, on through Birmingham and the Black Country, he was mostly to walk, the better to see his surroundings (“Wolverhampton seems frightful place. Everywhere vistas of mean little houses …”) On February 5th he arrived at the home of his contact in Manchester, the trade unionist Frank Meade. He was now more or less at his destination and immediately began to observe his surroundings, and arrive at conclusions:
The M.[eade]s have been very decent to me. Both are working-class people, speak with Lancashire accents and have worn the clogs in their childhood, but the atmosphere in a place like this is entirely middle-class … I am struck again by the fact that as soon as a working man gets an official post in the Trade Union or goes into Labour politics, he becomes middle-class whether he will or no i.e. by fighting against the bourgeoisie he becomes a bourgeois.
From Manchester, he was sent on to Wigan, where he met the socialist electrician Joe Kennan (“a very short, stout, powerful man with an extraordinarily gentle, hospitable manner”) and the unemployed miner Paddy Grady (“intelligent and well-informed”). Kennan found him lodgings in the town but he was soon forced to move again as his landlady became ill and had to go to hospital. His new digs, over a tripe shop, was not an improvement: “Social atmosphere much as [at previous lodgings] but appreciably dirtier and very smelly.” By February 21st he had had enough:
The squalor of this house is beginning to get on my nerves … The most revolting feature is Mrs F. being always in bed on the kitchen sofa [she was an invalid]. She has a terrible habit of tearing off strips of newspaper, wiping her mouth with them and then throwing them onto the floor. Unemptied chamber pot under the table at breakfast this morning … I hear horrible stories, too, about the cellars where the tripe is kept and which are said to swarm with black beetles. Apparently they only get in fresh supplies of tripe at long intervals. Mrs F. dates events by this. “Let me see, then, I’ve had in three lots of froze (frozen tripe) since then,” etc. I judge they get in a consignment of “froze” about once in a fortnight.
Orwell was not, however, in Lancashire (and later Yorkshire) just to comment on the accents, manners and physical appearance of the working class, the strange things they ate and the smell of their houses. He also took notes on pay and conditions in the mines; on the various kinds of working class houses and the rents that were charged for them; on the different grades of social assistance payment and how people who had become unemployed or who were injured at work might manage (or not) on such a diminished income; on diet (and why poor people don’t want the “dull wholesome food” others might think good for them); and on the lives of women, their intensive domestic labour and pride in their homes – when they had half-decent ones.
After twelve days in Wigan he went down a mine (the first of three such visits). Writing about the experience later, he has one clear point he wishes to make about the coal industry and its workers: that it, and they – in the England of the time – are the bedrock of all other industrial activity, of all capitalist profit and hence the main source of the “dividends” on which many of the wealthier members of society depend for their civilised lives and which they could not live without: “In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil. He is a sort of grimy caryatid on whose shoulders everything that is not grimy is supported.”
Orwell’s account of his visit to Crippen’s mine in Bryn, near Wigan, a superb piece of journalistic writing, forms the second chapter of The Road to Wigan Pier and has also been anthologised separately as “Down the Mine”. The chapter focuses alternately on the miners who dig the coal and those who unthinkingly consume it, the latter portrayed primarily as the comfortable, even the decadent classes – as if coal was not burned too in redbrick terraced houses in working class towns. Here are the fillers, who shovel the freshly mined rocks onto a conveyor belt from a kneeling position, splendid, heroic creatures in spite of the cruelly demanding labour they are engaged in:
They really do look like iron – hammered iron statues – under the smooth coat of coal dust which clings to them from head to foot. It is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realize what splendid men they are. Most of them are small … but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender, supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere.
And here are the uncaring rich, who warm themselves in their drawing rooms and studies on the products of the miners’ labours, oblivious to the grinding effort that has gone into filling their grates:
… it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Litt. Supp., and the Nancy poets [Spender, Auden, Day Lewis etc, a favourite Orwell smear] 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, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.
Orwell brought to Wigan his intelligence, connections brokered by his political (chiefly Independent Labour Party) friends in London, some convictions about socialism gleaned from his reading, no doubt some knowledge of local conditions based on specific research, and certain attitudes to exploitation, power and the possibility of political change which we might surmise were as much informed by his experience of the oppressive regime of colonial Burma as by parliamentary politics in 1930s Britain (in which he took little enough interest). What he did not bring with him was any particular understanding of the British working class, of their history, traditions, aspirations or modes of organisation. Robert Colls writes:
That they shared a certain organizational talent he accepts, but there is no sense of leadership or thought or even point of view in his account [in The Road to Wigan Pier]. For a man on the brink of breaking his ties with ‘bourgeois intellectuals’, it is strange that Orwell does not know any labour history, seems to regards socialism as some sort of fad … shows no knowledge of the Socialist Sunday Schools and Leagues of Youth … [or has] no interest whatsoever in the more gregarious aspects of life in the industrial town – the chapel oratorios and concert parties, or the rambling and cycling clubs, or the boxing booths, banjo bands, and brass bands, the weekly hops, the free-and-easies, the charabanc outings, and Lancashire’s famous Wakes … Lancashire was the home of football, but there is no football in Orwell. Yorkshire was a stronghold of the Workingmen’s Club and Institute Union, but when he attends their delegate meeting in Barnsley he does not approve of the free beer and sandwiches … The friendly societies took the subscriptions of half of all working-class men in 1914, but Orwell says not a word on how they had managed to organize such a vast undertaking, nor indeed on how, along with all the other mutual societies, sick clubs, and boxes, they had secured their place in law to allow them to do so. There is no fun, no ambition, no zest, no obscenity, and precious little sociability in Orwell’s north. A night out in Blackpool would have done him (and English literature) the world of good. Where are the comedians? Where is George Formby, Wigan’s favourite son? Where are the factory lasses? Where’s our Gracie? He says that all trade-union and Labour party officials are middle-class, automatically so, and shows almost no time for those bulwarks of working-class defence – the Miners’ Federation, the cooperative societies and guilds, the trades councils, the Labour party, and the multi-layered and infinitely resourceful female communities of the street. He notes the poverty, but where is the thrift? He notes the grind, but where’s the Ritz Super [cinema] … ?
Victor Gollancz, who might be said to have been “close to the thinking of the Communist Party of Great Britain”, was not entirely pleased by the book which Orwell submitted to him in December 1936 and for which he had paid so large an advance. Not a great deal of exception could be taken to the first part, which was a fairly straightforward account of conditions in the North. Indeed Gollancz at first proposed – though the suggestion was not accepted ‑ that this should be published on its own as a Left Book Club edition. Into the second part, however, Orwell had stuffed his analysis and his always plentiful opinions, many of them strongly expressed and often focusing on the kind of people who formed a large part of the readership of the Left Book Club. Here are the urban, middle class intellectual socialists:
… the more-water-in-your-beer reformers of whom Shaw is the prototype, and the astute young social-literary climbers who are Communists now, as they will be Fascists five years hence, because it is all the go, and all that dreary tribe of highminded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of “progress” like bluebottles to a dead cat.
Famously, there is the attraction of socialist doctrine for “cranks”:
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.
And finally, rising to an apparent pitch of impotent frustration:
If only the sandals and pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaller and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly.
Perhaps more than a little of this is tongue in cheek. One conclusion, however, can be tentatively drawn before moving on: at this stage of his life and intellectual development, Orwell preferred to portray socialism as chiefly a middle class fad and, while he was quite ready to idealise the working class “other” if it came to him in the right shape, he showed virtually no interest in working class politics or social organisation as they actually existed.
On returning from Wigan, Orwell and his new wife, Eileen, moved out of London to rent, for 7s/6d a week, a disused cottage in remote Wallington in Hertfordshire which had formerly hosted a village shop. Energetically, he tackled the overgrown garden, sowed vegetables, built a henhouse, bought chickens and geese and introduced into the family the goat Muriel (who was to resurface as a character in Animal Farm) and a black poodle called Marx. He also reopened the shop, selling small grocery items, and sweets to local children. By late 1936, however, political events in Europe were occupying more of his attention and late that year he decided to go to Spain to fight fascism.
With a letter of introduction from friends in the ILP, Orwell travelled, via Paris, to Barcelona. The party’s man on the spot, John McNair, directed him to the local barracks of the militia of the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM), where he signed up as “Eric Blair, grocer”. It was here, at the Lenin Barracks, that Orwell experienced another socialist epiphany when he noticed, standing by a table, an Italian militiaman, “a tough-looking youth of twenty five or six, with reddish yellow hair and powerful shoulders”.
Something in his face deeply moved me. It was the face of a man who would commit murder and throw away his life for a friend …
As we went out he stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard. Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition … I hoped he liked me as well as I liked him. But I knew that to retain my first impression of him I must not see him again.
He was dispatched to the Aragon front, where he saw action twice, in what seemed to be pointless skirmishes between two equally miserable and underequipped squads of combatants. His rifle was an 1890 Mauser; he also noted that “we had no tin hats, no bayonets, hardly any revolvers or pistols, and not more than one bomb between five or ten men … no range-finders, no telescopes, no periscopes, no field-glasses except a few privately owned pairs, no flares or Very lights, no armourers’ tools, hardly any cleaning materials”.
After a brief period of leave in early May, spent in Barcelona, where Eileen had joined him, Orwell returned to the front at Huesca, where he was made lieutenant of an ILP platoon. It was here that he was shot, an experience he described with typical Orwellian detachment and precision.
The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail …
I had never heard of a man or an animal getting a bullet through the middle of the neck and surviving it. The blood was dribbling out of the corner of my mouth. ‘The artery’s gone,’ I thought. I wondered how long you last when your carotid artery is cut; not many minutes, presumably. Everything was very blurry. There must have been about two minutes during which I assumed I was killed. And that too was interesting …
He was evacuated to Tarragona and eventually Barcelona, where he recovered quite quickly from his wound (the high-velocity bullet, fired from relatively close at hand, had gone clean through his throat; had it been a millimetre to the left it would have killed him). In Barcelona, the political atmosphere had soured considerably, the government having declared the POUM illegal; now its units were being disbanded and its members arrested. The degree of hostility that existed between the communist element in the anti-Franco coalition and the anarchist and Trotskyist elements was scarcely surprising (the communists called the POUM Trotskyist, though strictly speaking they had been banished from that faction). As early as December 1936 (and thus somewhat before the events), Pravda had ominously announced that “In Catalonia the elimination of Trotskyites and Anarcho-Syndicalists has begun. It will be carried out with the same energy as it was in the Soviet Union.” The dispute in Spain between these two currents – let us say “orthodox” and “left-wing” communism – revolved around strategy. The POUM and the anarchists believed that the war could be won only by continuing and deepening the revolution: in practice this meant that any power, or position or property the masses had seized they must remain in control of. The orthodox communists – for the moment at least – backed the position of moderate socialists and democrats in the government that the essential purpose of the war was to save the Republic and that if there was to be any hope of achieving that it must be prosecuted with efficiency, an efficiency which ran counter to far-leftist and anarchist modes of organisation, or disorganisation.
Orwell, having seen the paltry nature of the military effort that the POUM had mounted on his section of the Aragon front, was at first quite amenable to this “realist” position (indeed he fervently wished to join the International Brigades at Madrid, where the “real” struggle was taking place). However, as the civil war within the civil war developed he became more angry at the lies the communists, and their allies in the left-wing and liberal press at home in Britain, were telling about his comrades, who were now being represented as “Trotsky-Fascists” and fifth-columnists: the distance between having a wrong strategy, and thus perhaps hindering a unified war effort, and being “objectively fascist”, or quite simply fascist, can be a short ‑ and often fatal ‑ one in Stalinist communism.
If Orwell, after a good deal of hesitation, came down in favour of the POUM analysis, this was, Colls argues, “not so much because he believed the line but because [he] believed the men who believed the line”. The communist smearing of the POUM, he wrote,
implied that scores of thousands of working-class people, including eight or ten thousand soldiers who were freezing in the front-line trenches … were simply traitors … It is not a nice thing to see a Spanish boy of fifteen carried down the line on a stretcher, with a dazed white face looking out from the blankets, and to think of the sleek persons in London and Paris who are writing pamphlets to prove that this boy is a Fascist in disguise.
This is strong writing, and the themes and tone are of course familiar, with the contrast between the shivering soldiers on the front line and the sleek persons (intellectuals, no doubt with merrily burning coal fires) who are writing lies about them from their comfortable metropolitan studies. Colls, however, contends that in relation to the Spanish war Orwell, and the extreme leftists, simply had it wrong. It was quite legitimate at this point in the struggle, he argues, for the central government to wish to put an end to the murderous excesses of militia justice and “people’s tribunals”, with “private revolutionary patrols, crossings, checkpoints, holding centres, safe houses”; indeed such an assertion of control was crucial to the constitutional credibility of the government. As for the military situation, the Soviet Union was the only significant power that was helping the Republic: it had been their tanks, not the militias, which had stopped Franco outside Madrid in November 1936 and the Republic’s few victories, at Jarama and Guadalajara in early 1937, could not have been won without Soviet armour. Colls’s position on this, it should be stressed, is not a pro-communist one but a pro-government one. Many historians of the war would back this analysis. Most tellingly, however, there is Orwell’s own retrospective judgment, from the essay “Looking Back on the Spanish War”, published in 1943:
The Trotskyist thesis that the war could have been won if the revolution had not been sabotaged was probably false. To nationalize factories, demolish churches, and issue revolutionary manifestoes would not have made the armies more efficient. The Fascists won because they were the stronger; they had modern arms and the others hadn’t. No political strategy could offset that.
In spite of this later revision, the political attitudes that the Spanish conflict had awoken in Orwell were to remain strong for several years.
In one of his many tirades against “cranks” Orwell relates that he was, while living at Wallington, travelling through the nearby town of Letchworth when his bus stopped and two “dreadful-looking” old men got on.
They were both about sixty, both very short, pink, and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in the Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple. Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on top of the bus. The man next to me, a commercial traveller I should say, glanced at me, at them, and back again at me, and murmured ‘Socialists’, as who should say, ‘Red Indians’.
The appearance of these two grotesques in Letchworth at this time can have had only one explanation: they were there to attend the summer school of the Independent Labour Party, a ginger group just to the left of the official Labour Party. In spite of his apparent aversion to cranks, Orwell attended the school himself in the following year and in 1938 he joined the ILP:, writing in its journal, New Leader, that the time had come when “one has got to be actively a Socialist, not merely sympathetic to Socialism”. It was not, he stressed, that he “had lost all faith in the Labour Party” (the first sign that he had ever had any, his biographer Bernard Crick remarks). But he was relying on the ILP in particular to resist “the temptation to fling every principle overboard in order to prepare for an Imperialist war”. In a long article in The Adelphi in December 1938 he strongly criticised Labour for being half-hearted in its resistance to what he saw as the inexorable drift towards war with Germany, urging it, instead of colluding in British rearmament, to make stronger appeals to the German working class to resist Hitler. If the war were to be fought, he believed, it would be little more than an ignominious scrabble for markets between Britain and France on the one hand and Germany and Italy on the other. The only blessing would be that, given the power of aerial bombing, it would certainly be over very quickly. But declaration of war and attempted conscription and mobilisation would also give to the working classes of each of the belligerent countries the chance to stage a revolution.
Something quite marvellous happened in summer 1939, and as is so often the case it was announced in a dream. In an essay entitled “My Country Right or Left”, published in 1940, Orwell wrote that though the fact that war was on the way had, since at least 1936, been obvious to anyone except an idiot, the prospect of conflict had, for a long time, been horrific to him: indeed he had even made speeches and written pamphlets against it. However, on the night before the Russo-German pact was announced (August 23rd, 1939), he dreamed that the war had started (it in fact started, for Britain and France, on September 3rd). In spite of his previous position, this “realisation” brought him relief, and he knew that he would support the war and, if he could, fight in it. He had been educated, and well-educated, in upper middle class patriotism and now that England was in a jam he would have no option but to heed the call. Patriotism, however, he insisted, was a quite different thing from political conservatism, and his enlistment in his country’s service was, he felt sure, going to be accompanied by unexpected, and quite dramatic, developments:
Only revolution can save England, that has been obvious for years, but now the revolution has started, and it may proceed quite quickly if only we can keep Hitler out. Within two years, maybe a year, if only we can hang on, we shall see changes that will surprise the idiots who have no foresight. I dare say the London gutters will have to run with blood. All right, let them, if it is necessary. But when the red militias are billeted in the Ritz I shall still feel that the England that I was taught to love so long ago and for such different reasons is somehow persisting.
A combination of poor health (tuberculosis) and political unreliability was to keep Orwell out of the armed forces, but he did, in June 1940, manage to join the Local Defence Volunteers, later to become the Home Guard, a formation to which he attributed great revolutionary potential, seeing it, in Bernard Crick’s words, “through blood-red spectacles as a potential people’s militia”. Those born after the war may be more familiar with the body through the adventures of Captain Mainwaring’s valiant platoon at Walmington-on-Sea.
Once the war got going Orwell had no difficulty in identifying wholeheartedly with it. In a letter of January 1940 he wrote that “[t]he intellectuals who are at present pointing out that democracy and fascism are the same thing depress me horribly”, forgetting that he had spent much of the previous four years pointing out much the same thing (“Fascism and Bourgeois ‘democracy’ are Tweedledum and Tweedledee” for example). Still, the prosecution of the war and the prospect of revolution remained intimately linked in his mind. In late 1942 he was telling the New York readers of Partisan Review that “[o]ld-style capitalism can’t win the war … now, as two years ago, one can predict the future in the form of an ‘either – or’: either we introduce Socialism or we lose the war.” Not that his predictions always worked out: in May 1942 (again for Partisan Review) he was writing that “I wouldn’t give Churchill many more months of power”. Orwell may not have been quite a Trotskyist (indeed he was to adjust quite happily, after 1945, to supporting the left-wing social democrats of the Labour Party’s Tribune group) but he had enough of the revolutionary socialist spirit for a number of years after Spain to regard the ultimate upheaval as being always just around the corner: explanations would then be required as to why it didn’t happen, when the real question was why it ever should happen, particularly in a country with as pacific a political culture as Britain. Eventually however, the penny seemed to drop: in January 1943 he wrote, again for his American audience, that
the growing suspicion that we may all have underrated the strength of capitalism, and that the Right may, after all, be able to win the war off its own bat without resorting to any radical change, is very depressing to anyone who thinks. Cynicism about ‘after the war’ is widespread, and the ‘we’re all in it together’ feeling of 1940 has faded away.
Yet even in this sudden lurch towards pessimism he was to be somewhat off the mark, as the Labour landslide in the general election of July 1945 would show. Many British people did apparently feel, after all they had been through, that they were in it together and they had no wish to go back to the Tory normality of the 1930s, with millions unemployed. The Labour Party, having won 393 seats to the Conservatives’ 197, was to be in government for the rest of Orwell’s lifetime.
The centrepiece of Robert Colls’s fine study of Orwell, which is sympathetic yet sceptical in tone, crammed with persuasive insights, bracing in its judgments and written in a pleasingly informal and occasionally idiosyncratic style, is his chapter on Orwell’s Englishness (“England the Whale”). Colls sees Orwell’s change of attitude towards his country, which he dates to the very early years of the war, as a psychological watershed, a belated coming to terms for the sometimes haunted author with his background, education and even “the British nation-state … an old and not entirely dishonourable form of political life”. How one feels about this may depend to a degree on how one feels about Britain (or even England). Robert Colls is a professor of cultural history and the author of a well-received study, Identity of England, and one may assume that he is not unduly embarrassed by the celebration of his native land. Orwell himself, however, recognised that what he saw as the natural gentleness and deep-seated hostility to dictatorship or even the military mindset characteristic of his compatriots was achieved at the cost of a certain hypocrisy: either they were unaware of what their empire was up to or they simply chose to ignore it. Be that as it may, in a series of sparkling essays written during this period, “this most deracinated of intellectuals” (India – Henley – prep school – Eton‑ Burma –Southwold – London – Wallington – Spain – London –Jura), who seemed to be always trying to get away, focused on what it was to be English, in the extended meditation The Lion and the Unicorn and in perceptive and beautifully written individual essays on Dickens, Kipling, boys’ comics, “dirty” postcards, the English murder and PG Wodehouse.
Orwell has often been credited with having elevated political writing to an art (the phrase appears with great regularity in blurbs). The judgment, which is in essence a sound one, is usually made with more of an eye on the essays, reviews and occasional journalism than on the major fictions of the final decade, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which Orwell honed his vision of totalitarianism in general and Soviet communism in particular. In assessing this reputation, however, it might be useful to separate out its terms, “political” and “writing”, for while it is undeniable that Orwell’s writing is of the highest order (and often more so in his essays than his novels) the quality of his political judgment ‑ with the exception of his deep central insight into the nature of Stalinist communism ‑ remains questionable. Indeed if he had taken to betting on the basis of his political forecasts he would have been bankrupt several times over.
If Orwell was, as his friend Cyril Connolly wrote, “a man … whose personality shines out in everything he wrote”, we must ask if this was, in the essays, frequently a rather manufactured personality, made up of an outsize helping of what is called common sense – robust and often hectoring ‑ filtered through an apparently unshakeable self-assurance: Orwell’s assertions are never simply the case – they are things everyone knows, things obviously true, indisputably true, self-evidently true, clear to anyone except a complete idiot. And this is so even when they seem arbitrary, ridiculous or simply plucked from the air. Here, for example, is Orwell on England:
Few Europeans can endure living in England, and even Americans often feel more at home in Europe.
[The English] have no aesthetic feelings whatever.
The English electoral system … is an all but open fraud.
In England, all the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by small minorities.
And rather puzzlingly
In no country inhabited by white men is it easier to shove people off the pavement.
Stefan Collini, in a chapter in his book Absent Minds, has extensively documented Orwell’s “intellectual’s anti-intellectualism”, his rather concocted plain man’s irritation at pretension, the “come-off-it” commonsensical mode that was to become a popular journalistic device, evolving eventually into what Collini has called the “‘no bullshit’ bullshit” style of Orwell’s disciple Christopher Hitchens and others. Indeed there is little doubt that the typical Orwellian form of polemic was a conscious construction, since almost all who knew him agreed that personally he was a rather shy and gentle man. In 1938 he wrote to the poet Stephen Spender, whom he had often pilloried as a member of the “pansy left”:
You ask how it is that I attacked you not having met you, & on the other hand changed my mind after meeting you … Even if when I met you I had not happened to like you, I should still have been bound to change my attitude, because when you meet anyone in the flesh you realize immediately that he is a human being & not a sort of caricature embodying certain ideas. It is partly for this reason that I don’t mix much in literary circles, because I know from experience that once I have met & spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to …
Over the decades Stalinists and other Marxist-Leninists have attempted to blacken Orwell’s reputation, but with remarkably little success. But was he, as they tend to suggest, in his final decade on an inexorable journey to the political right? Would he, if he had survived into old age, have ended up cheerleading for Thatcher? The question is, of course, unanswerable. But was he already in his lifetime becoming a renegade? Much has been made of his supplying, in 1949, the names of people he suspected of being communist fellow travellers to his friend Celia Paget, who worked for the Information Research Department, a branch of the Foreign Office whose brief was to write anti-communist propaganda for use in continental Europe in the immediate postwar era. But here Orwell’s action seems quite harmless: no one was being fingered, no one seemed likely to disappear; the advice he gave Paget was simply not to employ people for work they might not be naturally sympathetic to (or trustworthy in). And what exactly is wrong with not wishing to abet communists in dissolving liberal democracy and civil freedoms?
In the essay “Why I Write” (1946), Orwell maintained that “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.” There is little reason to doubt this statement or to think that Orwell might have been moving away from it in his last few years, when the Attlee government was in fact achieving more for democratic socialism than at any time in English history before or since. Orwell’s socialism may have been ill-defined and contradictory, but it was deeply felt. It certainly derived to some degree from guilt about his own fairly comfortable upbringing, his education and the role he had played as an enforcer for British imperialism in the Burmese police. It was also based on a clear romanticisation of the “ordinary Englishman” (Colls speaks shrewdly of his narodnik tendencies) and a settled view that the misery of the working class in hard times was intimately linked with the comforts of Orwell’s own class: the miner was the “grimy caryatid on whose shoulders everything that is not grimy is supported”: a huge obstacle to any significant move to the right on Orwell’s part must surely have been his considerable distaste for extreme wealth. Certainly his oddities often infected his political judgment and made him a particularly unreliable guide to what the future might hold. At the same time they seem to have been the fuel that drove his magnificent prose writings, which, in perhaps a very English way, can be wildly eccentric, hilarious, perverse or brilliant. Perhaps we might appropriately conclude with one of the best summings up of the Orwellian virtues, and of the accompanying flaws of “personality”, which in his writing often function aesthetically as virtues. It is from VS Pritchett:
Mr George Orwell has many of the traits of the best English pamphleteers: courage, an individual mind, vehement opinions, an instinct for stirring up trouble, the arts of appealing to that imaginary creature the sensible man and of combining original observations with sweeping generalization, of seeing enemies everywhere and despising all of them. And like the two outstanding figures of our tradition of pamphleteering, Cobbett and Defoe, both of whom had his subversive, non-conforming brand of patriotism, he writes a lucid conversational style which wakes one up suddenly, like cold water dashed in the face. The sting of it is sometimes refreshing; sometimes it makes one very angry. For Mr Orwell likes his friends no better than his enemies and in the name of common sense is capable of exaggerating with the simplicity and innocence of a savage. His virtue is that he says things that need to be said; his vice that some of these things needed saying with a great deal more consideration. But, damn thoughtfulness! Pamphleteers have to hit the bull’s-eye every time, or, failing that, someone else’s eye. Mr Orwell’s standards of accuracy and judiciousness are in the tradition and may be compared with those of Shaw, the greatest pamphleteer of our time. I will give one key example from The Lion and the Unicorn and be done with it:
‘It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true, that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during “God Save the King”, than of stealing from a poor box.’
Pritchett, who knew his Orwell, concluded: “‘Unquestionably’ is the word I like in that sentence.”
Enda O’Doherty is a journalist and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.