Paul Foot

Orwell and the proles

(January 1984)

From Socialist Worker, January 1984.
Reprinted in Paul Foot, Words as Weapons: Selected Writings 1980–1990 (London: Verso, 1990), pp. 272–273.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Everyone else seems to be doing it, so I did it too. I re-read 1984 by Geroge Orwell, and I marked this passage:

The future belonged to the proles. And could he be sure that when the time came the world they constructed would not be just as alien as the world of the Party? Yes, because at the least it would be a world of sanity. Where there is equality, there can be sanity.

Sooner or later it would happen, strength would turn into consciousness. The proles were immortal, you could not doubt it when you looked at that valiant figure in the yard.

In the end their awakening would come. And until that happened, though it might be a thousand years, they would stay alive against all the odds, like birds passing on from body to body the vitality which the Party did not share and could not kill.

All round the world, in London and New York, in Africa and Brazil, and in the mysterious, forbidden lands beyond the frontiers, in the streets of Paris and Berlin, in the villages of the endless Russian plain, in the bazaars of China and Japan – everywhere stood the same solid, unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and childbearing, toiling from birth to death and still singing.

Out of those mighty loins a race of conscious beings must one day come. You were the dead; theirs was the future. But you could share in that future if you kept alive the mind as they kept alive the body and passed on the secret doctrine that two and two make four.

Poor George Orwell (and 1984 in particular) have been ground down almost to nothing in the awful mill of the Cold War. In the West, he has had to put up with the most revolting flattery from those who say that 1984 is all about Russia: that it is Russian horror alone which he had brilliantly exposed.

From the East (and from official Communists everywhere) Orwell has had even worse service. He has been denounced as pessimistic, nihilistic and even anti-working class. He has been ridiculed as a Hampstead intellectual who sold out to the CIA.

The Western flatterers forget that all three warring super-continents in 1984 have developed the same system, not through conquest, but through the choice of their rulers.

Orwell’s prediction was that all the power blocs would grow increasingly similar in style and character – a prediction which every minute is being brilliantly fulfilled.

The Eastern critics forget passages like the one above (and many others) when Orwell’s perennial optimism and good humour break out from behind his gloomy descriptions of what he saw as an extremely gloomy society.

Both sets of critics forget, above all, the working class, which as this passage shows, Orwell did not forget, even at the end. Of course he did not know or care much about working-class organization, about the relationship between party or class.

Of course, he was a loner, with all sorts of weird and often quite horrible ideas about nationalism and people’s instinctive ‘love of country’. Of course he was a male chauvinist of the most patronizing and often vulgar variety.

But for all that you’ve really got to hand it to him. He was among the very first to see through Stalin’s Russia for the bureaucratic tyranny which it was: and to detect how such a tyranny necessarily took the path of counter-revolution when a revolution broke out anywhere, as in Spain in 1936 and 1937.

While much ‘better trained’ and ‘conscious’ socialists were looking to Stalin’s Russia for salvation, Orwell was denouncing it and exposing it, not as a Cold War diatribe, but as part of a life’s devotion to the common people. He exposed Russia precisely because he saw things from the point of view of the proles.

He and his books will survive attacks from Moscow and praise from Washington, because his basic message is stronger than either of them: A plague on both your houses. The future belongs to the proles.

Last updated on 2 September 2014