Becoming George Orwell: Life and Letters, Legend and Legacy, by John Rodden, Princeton University Press, 360 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0691182742
Eric Blair became George Orwell towards the end of 1932. According to John Rodden, the Orwell he became has gone on to become not only “the most famous British writer of the first half of the twentieth century” and “the highest best-seller of serious fiction in any language” but also “the most important writer since Shakespeare” and “the most influential writer who has ever lived”. These are big claims ‑ the last two especially ‑ claims that I reckon many would challenge. But few, surely, would dispute that Orwell’s writings have had a significant cultural influence, one that went quickly global once it got going in the mid- to late 1940s. (“Some apes, it seems, are more equal than others,” quips Charlton Heston’s character in the first of the Planet of the Apes films, a mere eighteen years after Orwell’s death). Orwell has become one of those writers whose influence is so great it extends to people who have never read his books.
Rodden gives a good account of the sudden and unexpected rise of Orwell’s reputation following the publication of Animal Farm in 1945. Initially, and widely, rejected on political grounds ‑ Russia was an ally in a war that was still ongoing ‑ Orwell’s bitter allegory of Soviet communism would have its day only when the war was safely won. Thereafter, sales were exceptional on both sides of the Atlantic, and in translation. Nineteen Eighty-four consolidated a now growing reputation. Not only did it helpfully ensure that Orwell was no one-book wonder, its dystopian projection has since proven especially resonant (Big Brother, Newspeak, the Thought Police, Room 101). The BBC’s pioneering adaptation in 1954 was particularly important to the book’s popularity, attracting seven million viewers and raising sales correspondingly.
On account of the success of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four, Orwell’s other writings, which would otherwise have been largely forgotten, are instead well-known and influential in their own right. Homage to Catalonia, for instance, which failed to sell its initial modest print run, is now the biggest-selling non-fiction work on the Spanish Civil War in English. On account of it, the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista ‑ Workers’ Party for Marxist Unification), in whose militia Orwell fought is better known now than in its day, popping up in works as diverse as Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom and Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love. By the late 1960s, Orwell was sufficiently popular that a four-volume selection of his shorter writings, diaries and letters published by Penguin proved a significant seller until superseded by the Collected Works in the late 1990s.
Critical respectability took longer. According to Rodden, Orwell was not considered a fit subject for PhD research as late as 1980, while DS Savage’s “The Fatalism of George Orwell”, in The New Pelican Guide to English Literature (1983), is barbed and dismissive. “Orwell’s works,” Savage writes, “do not have the integrality of art because the man himself did not have the integrity of the true artist.” Forty years earlier, Savage, an anti-war anarchist, and Orwell, a pro-war Labourite, had sparred in the American journal Partisan Review. Savage’s 1983 critique, though politically sharp, reads in places like an old score being settled and concludes somewhere between a wish and a curse:
As a one-eyed man in the country of the blind [Orwell] has been elevated to a position of eminence from which, with a change of mood and circumstance, he is bound to be dislodged. In any case his reputation will find its proper level when his writings come to be judged in due course not by their flattering acceptability as tracts for the times but by their quality, which will be seen not to be high, as works of the literary imagination.
Not so. Not yet anyway. Although Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four indeed served their time as key Cold War texts, both have outlived that context and the boost it gave them. They each tap into something more universal ‑ the capacity of the worst to get ahead, say, or distrust of the state. As Rodden notes, Nineteen Eighty-four saw its sales rise by a staggering 10,000 per cent following the election of Donald Trump. And it is unlikely to wither now that the Trump era seems to have passed.
Rodden gives a good account of the rise and robustness of Orwell’s reputation, while suggesting that the author’s early death might have been timely for it. That is correct, I think. Had Orwell lived even a few more years he would have been drawn into public discussions of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four and their meaning. And had he equalled his friend Cyril Connolly’s longevity and lived into the 1970s, he would have become embroiled in controversies like the Cold War, nuclear disarmament, feminism, decolonisation, Vietnam, immigration and, who knows, Northern Ireland. He would also have seen his Labour Party move, not closer to socialism, but further away from it. The way he reacted to all of this would have affected the way we think of him.
Early in the book, Rodden distinguishes Orwell and “Orwell”.
Orwell I get. George Orwell first appears as the pseudonymous author of Down and Out in Paris and London. That is when Orwell begins and Eric Blair starts to phase himself out. Blair had been reluctant to publish under his own name, partly to spare his family’s feelings. At the same time, however, he did not want the perfect anonymity of ‘X’, which Gollancz had suggested. He wanted a reusable pseudonym under which he could build a literary reputation. An alter ego, in other words.
Alok Rai comments in his Orwell and the Politics of Despair that, among other things, the pseudonym “enables Orwell to dramatize the act of observation by embodying it in a creation which partakes of both the authority of fact and the licence of fiction …” In other words, this Orwell is not Eric Blair, and should not be completely identified with him. When this Orwell recounts his life, it is not the life of Blair he is narrating, but a fictionalised version of it. In Down and Out in Paris and London, for example, events are rearranged (in the life of Blair, London predated Paris) and characters amended (the Italian conman who stole Orwell’s money was actually a “little trollop” that a drunken Blair was trying to seduce). Also, in the book, Orwell descends into poverty against his wishes whereas Blair was a recreational participant in the underclass, an author on the trail of things to write about and who had other options besides the spike and the kitchen of the Hotel Lotti.
If Blair’s Orwell is a kind of literary persona, what about this “Orwell” whom Rodden refers to throughout the book? Who is he? There are a few attempts at definition, not always helpful. This, say:
“Orwell” is a half-sibling of the man and author Orwell. Forever in stealthy, shadowy pursuit of Orwell, the apparition. “Orwell” frequently impersonates Orwell; conversely, Orwell is commonly mistaken for “Orwell” in public discourse.
Better, I think, is the idea that “Orwell” might be a kind of caricature or, as Rodden puts it, “the towering totem invoked by ideologically motivated (or ill-informed and careless) observers to bolster whatever arguments they seek to advance”. If Orwell is what Eric Blair became, then “Orwell” is what Orwell has become, what has been made of him in the seventy years since his death. Orwell, Rodden says, is the last of what he calls the “big tent” authors, a writer who has something for everybody, from the liberal Catholic periodical Commonweal, for whom Orwell, the arch anti-Catholic, has been a longstanding favourite, to the John Birch Society, an American conservative pressure group that once incorporated “1984” into its Washington phone number. Bernard Crick called this type of thing “bodysnatching” ‑ enlisting the dead Orwell in movements and causes he might or might not have favoured. Orwell’s latest, Trumpian boost has seen a corresponding surge in it, with sometimes interesting consequences.
For a while now, for instance, a quotation has been doing the rounds on social media: “The further a society drifts from the truth the more it will hate those that speak it.” It is attributed to Orwell and typically comes with a picture of him. But, it should actually, I suppose, be attributed to Rodden’s “Orwell”, because Orwell (previously Eric Blair) had nothing to do with it. It is the type of thing he might have said, and similar types of thing could probably be found in his writings. But that particular thing he never said. Attributing it to him might be a straightforward mistake, or it might be a deliberate attempt to give the statement more clout by attaching it to an iconic author. Whatever the reason, we have the fine irony that a stirring statement about the truth is being falsely ‑ perhaps deceitfully ‑ attributed to Orwell so that the Orwell who is made to “tell” this truth about the truth is not in fact being truthful. Also, the seeming pro-truthers who push this misattributed quotation—who like it, retweet it, make a screensaver of it and, for all I know, wear it on a T-shirt—inadvertently (or not) put themselves on the side of the false.
Orwell has also recently featured as a character in a film ‑ Mr Jones (2019) by Agnieszka Holland. Set in the first years of the 1930s, it is a film about truth, those who tell it and those who don’t. The titular Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist, journeys to the Ukraine at the time of the famine, the Holodomor. There he witnesses the brutalising conditions the famine has brought ‑ not just starvation but cannibalism. Jones’s honest, first-hand account of these events is contrasted with Walter Duranty’s notorious, Pulitzer Prize-winning denial. While Duranty prospers, Jones is shunned.
Jones died in 1935, at around the same time that a then unknown Orwell was still trying to crack the naturalistic novel. They never met, except in this film about truth where a meeting is invented. The fictional Jones finds the fictional Orwell a willing listener; and the fictional Orwell is so moved by what he hears that he is inspired to write Animal Farm. We see him typing, with grotesque ceramic pigs on his desk to get him in the mood.
In fact it was Spain, rather than the Ukraine, that moved Orwell to a lifelong indignation towards the Soviet Union and thus to writing Animal Farm. In contrast to Spain, the Ukrainian famine barely registers. His most substantial comment on the Holodomor comes in his 1938 review of Assignment in Utopia by Eugene Lyons, an American journalist who had joined in the denunciation of Gareth Jones at the time of his revelations, but who later came to agree with him. Orwell, reviewing Lyons, writes:
The years that Mr Lyons spent in Russia were years of appalling hardship, culminating in the Ukrainian famine of 1933 in which a number estimated at not less than three million people starved to death. Now, no doubt after the success of the Second Five Year Plan, the physical conditions have improved …
Here Orwell acknowledges the famine and accepts Lyons’s account of it but then immediately qualifies it with some mild optimism regarding Soviet planning. He does not consider that the first Five Year Plan might have contributed to the famine or that this particular famine, like almost all the great famines, might have been the result of government disruption of established communities.
The period of the first Plan, and the famine, is allegorised in Chapter 7 of Animal Farm, where Napoleon’s windmill project (previously Snowball’s windmill project) stands in for the Plan. The construction of the windmill is labour-intensive and, as a result of the amount of animal labour allocated to it, the regular work of the farm is neglected, with the result that there are food shortages. Orwell’s narration informs us that in the neighbouring, conventional farms “ … the human beings were inventing fresh lies about Animal Farm. Once again it was being put about that all the animals were dying of famine and disease, and that they were continually fighting among themselves and had resorted to cannibalism and infanticide.” There were shortages on Animal Farm, Orwell tells us, and there was hunger. But no famine. All the famine talk was hearsay and propaganda.
I do not think Orwell was being deliberately misleading either in Animal Farm or in his review of Lyons. In his review, his strong belief that planning is a good thing means that it probably did not occur to him that it might actually be the problem. As for Animal Farm, I think that his creative intention was to say, here is a revolutionary socialist society that works well; there’s a bit of early days hardship but nothing more than that. And here is that society’s venal leadership that will destroy it. He wants to say that it is the venal leadership that is the problem, not the revolutionary transformation of the farm.
Rodden writes that Orwell was both “an independent socialist who was leftist yet non-Marxist” and “a freethinking Tory radical who was also an anti-Stalinist critic of the progressive Left”. Orwell did, in his earlier days, describe himself as a Tory anarchist, by which I think he meant he was a kind of Swiftian gadfly. But after 1936, not only was he emphatically a socialist, he was a fairly conventional one who believed in the things most socialists believed in at that time, with a few quirks of his own added in. Economic planning was one of the conventional socialist things he believed in, along with the nationalisation of all significant business organisations and a currency reform that would make money operate more like ration coupons or trading stamps. Also, he thought that government should promote greater income equality and use education to smooth out class differences. And he believed the House of Lords and the public schools should be abolished in tandem with a purge of upper-class elements from the civil service and, especially, the diplomatic service. Orwell was generally hostile towards consumerism and advertising, especially of frivolous fashions and products. Top hats were a frequent cause for complaint (in Nineteen Eighty-four, the Party’s propaganda depicts the former, capitalist ruling class as having been permanently top-hatted, like Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Or Lord Snooty) and he variously fumes at the wastefulness of turned-up trousers, “useless luxuries” and Wrigley’s chewing gum. Hedonism in general displeased him. He was concerned that a hedonistic society, especially if it were leisured, would be a society without values. One of the good things about the war, he reckoned, was the damage it would do to hedonism. (“How much rubbish this war will sweep away,” he writes in his wartime diary. “So much of the good of modern life is actually evil that it is questionable whether on balance war does harm”). There was a puritan streak in Orwell, or, more kindly, a lack of materialism. The long period of privation he believed would precede the achievement of socialism did not especially bother him.
Nor was he an independent socialist in the sense that he was a socialist without party affiliation. Although his formal membership of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) lasted barely a year, he had previously spent some four years in ILP circles, gradually coming to accept the party line. It was with ILP credentials that he went to Spain at the end of 1936 and a significant part of his education as a socialist was via that party, including attendance at least one ILP summer school. Two of Orwell’s books ‑ Homage to Catalonia and Coming Up for Air ‑ show a strong ILP influence, as do many of his journalistic writings such as his review of Clarence Streit’s Union Now.
Following his break with the party, which was over his support for the war and its opposition to it, Orwell became a supporter of the mainstream Labour Party, writing regularly for Tribune and being at pains to say, towards the end of his life, that the Party in Nineteen Eighty-four was in no way intended to represent the then governing Labour Party. In moving from ILP to Labour, Orwell continued to advocate a variant of his former party’s revolutionary socialism, notably in My Country Right or Left and The Lion and the Unicorn.
Rodden writes that the ILP “espoused a blend of anarchism and pacifism”. In fact, it was a Marxist party (“a strange English mixture of secularized evangelism and non-Communist Marxism”, said Bernard Crick) and the founder party of the International Revolutionary Marxist Centre, for which it provided the secretariat. Nor was it pacifist in the literal sense of exhibiting a blanket disapproval of all wars. In the ILP wars were supported or opposed depending on how much they might advance revolutionary socialism. On this basis, it selectively supported the Spanish Civil War ‑ the revolutionary bits of it ‑ but opposed the Second World War, which it regarded as a conventional war between two capitalist/imperialist blocs.
In Spain, Orwell fought for the militia of the POUM, which was the ILP’s sister party in the International Revolutionary Marxist Bureau. Rodden describes the POUM as “a motley left-wing militia (consisting of Trotskyists, anarchists and other radicals)”. But, strictly speaking, the POUM was a party not a militia. It had a militia and Orwell was a member of it. How motley that militia might have been I don’t know. Orwell’s account of it suggests that it was thereabouts in its military discipline and poorly equipped. Also, it might not have been too purist as to who joined. The poet John Cornford, for example, was in the Communist Party but served in the POUM militia as did, says Rodden, the French maverick leftist Jean Malaquais.
Spain was formative for Orwell. “At last I really believe in socialism, which I never did before,” he wrote to Cyril Connolly. But he also thought that the achievements of the country’s revolutionaries were vulnerable, and that the Soviet Union was no defender of them. It was in Spain that he saw fabrication passed off as reportage, and dedicated revolutionaries denounced as fifth columnists.
On Spain, Rodden comments: “Orwell believed that the antifascist revolution had been betrayed by the Communists, who prolonged the fighting to divert attention from the purges in Stalin’s Russia and to weaken the west. They were chiefly beholden to Stalin’s aim to wipe out potentially rival socialist groups rather than interested in a Loyalist victory.”
Orwell himself, in Homage to Catalonia and in essays such as “Spilling the Spanish Beans” and “Looking Back on the Spanish War”, argued that Franco’s coup had prompted a spontaneous resistance in Spain which was frequently revolutionary in nature. The anarchist takeover in Barcelona, which he eulogised, was an instance of this. In Orwell’s view, this spontaneous revolution was not anti-fascist so much as anti-capitalist. (It was anti-fascist only to the extent that Orwell viewed fascism as a particular version of capitalism.) It was the Soviet and pro-Soviet Communists whom he thought were literally anti-fascist in the sense that their issue was solely with Franco and his principal foreign backers, Hitler and Mussolini ‑ not the capitalist system in its entirety. In Spain, they wanted to defeat the fascists while leaving the capitalist republic in place. I think that that is an accurate presentation of their position. But I do not see that they wanted, as Rodden says, to prolong the civil war so much as win it quickly and decisively. Nor do I see how prolonging it would have weakened the West ‑ the democratic capitalist states, chiefly Britain, France and the United States ‑ given that the West was not engaged in the war. However, I agree with Rodden (and with Orwell) that Stalin wanted there to be just one revolutionary party in Spain, his own.
Orwell’s main problem with the pro-Moscow Communists in Spain was that they wanted to strengthen the Republic by suppressing revolutionary groups such as the anarchists and the POUM, which they did using a mixture of aggression and propaganda. It was in that respect that he judged them to be counter-revolutionaries.
Just as Gareth Jones was shunned for reporting the Ukrainian famine so Orwell became persona non grata on account of his views on Spain. Victor Gollancz rejected Homage to Catalonia on political grounds, for example, and the New Statesman would not publish Orwell’s writings, not on Spain anyway. Their justification, which was essentially the communists’ own justification, was that this was a war that needed to be won. It needed to be won because fascism was prevailing and, contra Orwell, the Republic was preferable to fascism. Seen that way, revolutionary purists like Orwell, the POUM and the Barcelona anarchists could only be a hindrance, especially given the Republic’s by then parlous state. It is at least a point of view.
Orwell’s vast readership has meant that his account of the Republic’s suppression of the Barcelona anarchists and the POUM has had more exposure than any other and attracted considerable sympathy. But I don’t think I have ever seen it put that Orwell was politically or tactically right about Spain; that he was correct, say, in his view that the grassroots revolutions against both Franco and the Republic would eventually carry the day or that the Republic and Franco were basically the same deal. The latter argument, one that Orwell rehearsed across successive writings for more than two years, now seems especially eccentric. Or worse, ideology in the face of evidence. And though Orwell asserted it, he could not, in the end, quite sustain it, eventually conceding that even a Communist-influenced, non-revolutionary Republic would be preferable to Franco. “The intellectuals who are at present pointing out that democracy and fascism are the same thing etc. depress me horribly …” he commented, with some chutzpah, to Victor Gollancz in a letter at the start of 1940. By then Britain had declared war on Germany and Orwell, who had opposed the war when it was in prospect, was supportive.
In supporting the war, Orwell broke with the ILP, which would continue to oppose it. But there was no break with revolutionary socialism. On the contrary, Orwell held that the war had created the ideal conditions for a socialist takeover. Only if Britain became socialist, he argued, could it have the edge on Germany. Forget international proletarian solidarity. The war, he said, had roused the patriotism of the working class and this collective sentiment was something socialists could work with. Orwell, in the war years, would be quick to level at those who opposed the war (pacifists, anarchists, the ILP and, until June 1941, the Communist Party) the very charge the communists in Spain had directed at the POUM and the anarchists and, by implication, at Orwell himself ‑ that they were objectively pro-fascist.
On Orwell’s politics during the war years, Rodden writes that they “represented no defence of British colonialism. Rather, he hoped that Britain would suffer a series of defeats sufficiently minor to still ensure victory over Hitler and yet sufficiently major to remove Churchill from power and introduce a Labour government.”
I disagree. Orwell, in “Notes on Nationalism”, is scornful of those on the left who, he said, celebrated British defeats and hoped that the final victory might be down to the United States or Russia, not Britain. As for his view of Churchill, Orwell at one point considered the Churchill government to be imaginative. (Clement Attlee, in contrast, reminded him, he said, of “nothing so much as a recently dead fish, before it has had time to stiffen”). He did not favour Churchill being replaced as prime minister until after the war and even imagined he might be part of the envisaged revolution. As for colonialism, Orwell’s opposition to empire was weaker in the war years than it had been pre-war. In his wartime writings, there is impatience with Irish neutrality and Indian nationalism. Orwell doubts that Indian and Burmese independence are even feasible and seems to agree with his friend Sebastian Haffner’s view of Ireland as a “sham independent country”.
Rodden considers Orwell the British writer who contributed most to a post-imperial idea of Englishness. I am not sure how he has reached that conclusion. If there is a post-imperial idea of Englishness, it has more to do with literature and cinema from the 1950s on and popular culture, especially music and television, from about 1960 ‑ Philip Larkin, James Bond, Dr Who and the Beatles. The post-imperial era was only beginning at the time of Orwell’s death. His idea of Englishness was formed during the high days of empire. In books like Coming up for Air there is a nostalgia for the early 1900s, the last years of the Pax Britannica, which was also the time of Orwell’s own childhood. In his writings, he frets at the demise of that time, and at the coming, uncertain world.
Orwell’s romanticised vision of England in the likes of The Lion and the Unicorn is well-known. About twenty years ago John Major, then prime minister, quoted the famous passage from that essay that references “the clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns’, and “old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings”, not to mention red pillar boxes and suet pudding. This was in the great days of Cool Britannia when New Labour seemed (and indeed was) unstoppable. Some on the left considered it appalling that a Tory PM might quote a socialist author. But there is nothing especially socialist in Orwell’s nostalgia once it is uncoupled from the socialist programme he envisages as its partner. The romanticised image has outlasted the socialism. There was nothing like Orwell’s programme in the party politics of Britain in the 1990s ‑ or at least not in the policies of any party that might conceivably form a government. And stripped of his socialist programme, Orwell, in The Lion and the Unicorn and elsewhere, is a decidedly conservative writer. His socialist programme with its wholesale nationalisation, currency reform and economic planning was ‑ a business metaphor seems here entirely appropriate ‑ discontinued. But his romantic England still had market value.
Rodden suggests that Orwell remained a socialist because he had seen just one socialist failure, the USSR, and that had he lived to see more such failures he would have come to think differently (“History had not signposted ‑ not yet ‑ that the collectivist ethos detours into Room 101” is how Rodden puts it). I think that Orwell remained a socialist because he thought that capitalism and market liberalism were destined to fail in the long run and that some form of economic collectivism would replace them and be superior to them. His concern was that it might not be possible to have collectivism and democracy together, that to socialise or collectivise an economy would be to risk a totalitarian turn. But his hope was that the democratic strain of socialism ‑ such as Labour Party socialism ‑ would prevail. In that respect, Nineteen Eighty-four, as Orwell said, speculated as to what might happen, not what would.
Rodden does not say exactly why he thinks Soviet socialism might be regarded as a failure. I am assuming that he reckons it a failure because it was a dictatorial arrangement that abused human rights. But if that is why he sees it as a failure, then it was a failure from more or less the outset. Orwell had no illusions about the Soviet system. He thought that it had shown its true colours early on with the suppression of the Kronstadt rising and he saw no reason for thinking that Lenin, if he had survived in power, or Trotsky, if he had come to power, would have been any different from Stalin. “Lenin,” he once wrote, “is one of those politicians who win an undeserved reputation by dying prematurely.”
In Animal Farm, his allegory of the 1917 revolution and the subsequent decades of Bolshevik rule, there is a brief, initial period of participatory democracy in which the pigs dominate the proceedings. After that, the pigs stage-manage the process before finally abolishing it. In step with this, something like the old arrangements of the farm are systematically restored with the pigs replacing Jones, becoming like him in lifestyle and even appearance. (The first sign of this comes when the pigs monopolise the first of the farm’s luxuries, which Orwell intended to represent Kronstadt.) By the end, the animals are surely worse off than at the start. Not only are they materially worse off, they have been comprehensively bamboozled by the pigs to the extent that they cannot rightly say if they are now worse or better off. All in all they are easily manipulated ‑ uneducable and deficient of memory. (The “proles” of Nineteen Eighty-four are similarly wanting. It is a feature of both of Orwell’s dystopias that the masses are incapable of recognising their oppression let alone building a case against it.)
It is not because Animalism/Socialism does not work that the majority of the animals are worse off by the end. Far from being an anti-socialist text, Animal Farm does not accept or depict any fundamental deficiency with socialism as a practical economic system. The economic system we see being delivered works well, in principle at least. Following the Revolution, for instance, the animals work the farm more efficiently than Farmer Jones ever did. And even the ambitious windmill project is achieved. If the windmill does not, in the end, deliver Snowball’s vision of a leisured and mechanised farm, it is not because that was never technically feasible, but because the pigs, now dominated by Napoleon, have decided otherwise. It is for the same reason that no animal has ever enjoyed retirement. The problem of the revolutionised farm is not that it is operating on unsound economics, but unsound, dictatorial politics.
Orwell’s idea of socialism has, in terms of the economic system envisaged, much in common with the Soviet model. Indeed it has more in common with it than with the postwar welfare states established in Britain, Germany and Scandinavia, all of which retained substantial market sectors. What most distinguishes Orwell’s socialism from that of the Soviet Union is, of course, that it is democratic. It envisages that, in time, a socialist party will win a parliamentary majority of sufficient size to implement a socialist programme. I don’t know that Orwell ever spelt out what would happen following this ballot box revolution, but going by his writings, his contempt for totalitarianism, and his willingness to speak up for the rights of people he did not agree with, such as the British anarchists, I think that it is reasonable to assume that he fully expected that a formal political opposition would continue to operate and that the various freedoms that made opposition politics possible and meaningful, such as freedom of speech and freedom from censorship, would stay.
If anything, Orwell probably believed that socialism would enhance British democracy not curtail it. And his faith in socialism as something inevitable and optimal probably meant that he saw it as electorally unassailable. The only threat he considers ‑ and it is a significant one ‑ is that the great empowerment of the state that socialism would entail might make totalitarianism an irresistible temptation for those in control.
John Rodden writes that he himself is not a socialist. Socialism, he says, is “a vision that is far beyond our moral reach”, one that has failed because we are morally not up to it. Instead, he suggests social democracy ‑ the welfare state ‑ as an alternative and attainable goal. And, indeed, that is where all democratic socialist parties in serious contention for political power have tended to go in practice.
Orwell lived long enough to see Labour win power on a programme that, if not socialist enough for him, was more socialist than anything that would ever be tried again. And had he lived into the sixties he would have seen the Labour and Conservative parties operate a kind of social democratic consensus. Socialists more optimistic than Orwell took this as a sign that socialism was making headway. So solid did the welfare state consensus at that point seem that the history textbook that was used in my school, and in many other schools, David Arnold’s Britain, Europe and the World, 1871-1971, speculated that the Conservative Party might, by the end of the twentieth century be conserving “a mild form of socialism” (those were, I think, the exact words used). That was in 1979, the year of the first Thatcher government. It signalled a drift back to market ‑ or leastways to a renewed faith in the market. In the great, if selective, revival of market liberalism that followed, the idea that socialism and even social democracy were incipiently totalitarian gained considerable currency. And it was not uncommon to see Orwell dragged in as evidence of that particular view of things. The market revivalists were frequently hubristic, so much so that they could not or would not see their own totalitarian potential. Why should they have done? They were on a roll. The Berlin Wall came down, and the Soviet bloc came down after it. History, it seemed, was over just in time for the millennium. The Conservatives were not, at the century’s end, conserving a mild form of socialism. And neither was Labour.
Martin Tyrrell will be teaching a five-week class on Orwell’s essays at Queen’s University Belfast Open Learning next spring, lockdown permitting.