Peter Sedgwick

Orwell: honesty, courage and faith in the ‘proles’

(9 November 1968)

From Socialist Worker, No. 96, 9 November 1968. (review)
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Four volumes amounting to some 2,000 pages,with the title The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell have now been published, painstakingly edited and provided with notes by Sonia Orwell (the writer’s widow) and Ian Angus (the librarian of the Orwell Archive at University, College, London).

This is a real event for socialists. Orwell wrote about a few simple themes – war, revolution, social life in Britain, nonsense and reaction in the printed word – with total dedication and remorseless attention to two kinds of detail: the detail of observation and the detail of the connection between ideas.

He seldom wrote on any topic which he did not know about deeply and personally (which means that his writing during the war, for instance, has extraordinarily little to say about Nazism). Every page is compulsively readable, and usually says something very funny, even if it happens to be wrong.

There are virtually no other political journalists from this period (roughly 1936 to 1950) whose collected output could be printed today except as a dreadful warning.

Orwell’s politics were inconsistent and eccentric, but nearly always displayed a primitive, unerring class-sense.

Up to the age of 24, he steered himself, with in inner core of rebellion that became more and more articulate, through a series of repressive and peculiarly British institutions: first as a scholarship boy at a private junior school and at Eton, then as an uneasy middle-man of authority in the Indian Imperial Police.

Boycott, blue pencil

When he returned from Burma in 1927 he at once threw himself into a vagrant existence among the poorest proletarian and sub-proletarian strata in London and Paris. His early novels were usually rejected or blue-pencilled by publishers on grounds of libel, and his more political scripts were subjected to boycott, tampering and scaremongering by publishers and reviewers almost to the end of his life, often because they gave offence to the nostrils of the established Left.

For a few years from 1937 on, Orwell was a socialist revolutionary of unrivalled eloquence. He reached this position following his enrolment, almost by accident, in the POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) militia during the Spanish Civil War, where he underwent a baptism of fire in the Barcelona workers’ struggle against Franco Fascism and the Communist Party suppression of revolution.

This experience is recorded in his classic documentary Homage to Catalonia.

Until late 1939 he regarded even an anti-fascist war fought by the British ruling class as an unmitigated evil, likely to bring a home-grown fascism to Britain. He tried to get the anarchist writer Herbert Read to join in plans for an underground anti-fascist, anti-war printing press.

After the Nazis conquered France he became what is often called a ‘revolutionary defencist’; he thought that the British capitalists and aristocracy were heading for a sell-out with Hitler and that the workers were developing a mood like that of ‘St. Petersburg in 1916.’

In his long pamphlet The Lion and the Unicorn, published in 1941, he advocated turning the war into a revolutionary war of defence by nationalising the land, banks and major industries, levelling down incomes, suppressing or integrating the public schools, and granting independence to India and representative government to all the colonies. The alternative (he thought) was to lose the war.

From this point on, Orwell’s explicit politics become vaguer. For him, politics was always excessively ‘the art of the possible’ and once it became evident that the British ruling class could wage an anti-Fascist war, and that the working class were not ready for insurrection, he ceased to advocate revolution.

Warm, willing

He still displayed magnificent virtues: extensive criticism and analysis of his own errors in political judgment, a warmth and willingness to make amends to those he had criticised too bitterly, a sternly accurate observation of the popular consciousness (he saw, for instance, that Labour’s election victory in 1945 signified very little in terms of any socialist impulse among the workers).

Two or three passages in his later articles exhibit distinctly pro-American Cold War tendencies. Orwell became an Ernie Bevin man in the early post-war years, on the strange grounds that the Labour government was working towards a socialist united Europe, free from both American and Russian dominance.

These shameful deviations are surprisingly infrequent, considering the pressures of the time. When the Cold War grew fiercer, he withdrew from current political commentary.

His long battle with illness and fatigue, as the terminal stage of his TB drew nearer, is stoically recorded in the last pages of his letters and journals. Before his death, 18 years ago, he completed and published Nineteen Eighty-Four.

This novel’s preoccupation with pain and defeat has often been commented on: ‘I ballsed it up rather,’ he himself wrote to a friend, ‘partly owing to being so ill while I was writing it.’ Yet one passage from it will serve as Orwell’s own epitaph:

If there was hope, it must lie in the proles ... Everywhere stood the same solid unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and child-bearing, toiling from birth till death and still singing. Out of these 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.

Through his honesty and courage in an age of suffocating political illusion, through the strength of his basic commitment to the cause of the workers, Orwell indeed shares and perhaps helps to mould, the revolutionary future, at which he could only guess.

Last updated on 22 October 2020