Peter Sedgwick

George Orwell
International Socialist?

1: The Development of Orwell’s Socialism

(June/July 1969)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.37, June/July 1969, pp.28-34.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


The purpose of this article is to give a basic account of the development of George Orwell’s political beliefs, from the beginning of his literary vocation down to his death in January 1950. This project has been suggested by the recent publication in four volumes of Orwell’s occasional writing, amounting to more than two thousand printed pages. Parts of Orwell’s published journalism which are not included in this collection have also been drawn on; I am indebted to Ian Angus, the librarian of the Orwell Archive, for access to these files and for guidance around them. Orwell’s fiction has also been raided for the crude purpose of extracting explicit political commentary from it where this is identifiable as the author’s own viewpoint. Considerations of space, and the narrow terms of reference chosen, will inevitably make this a very coarse piece of work, alert to few aspects of Orwell’s writing except the political doctrines or assumptions available in it at a concrete, conscious, propagandistic level. Detailed bibliographical reference will be kept to a minimum; where material is cited from the Collected Orwell, its date will be given. Any reader will then be able to find the exact location since the writings are chronologically ordered in the four-volume collection and the indexing is excellent.

The Problem of Orwell’s Socialism

There are several good reasons why an analysis of the stages in Orwell’s political thinking might be of interest to revolutionary Socialists in 1969. Orwell was always at pains to deny that he was any kind of Marxist, and was only rarely informative on basic political norms that guided his judgment on an individual situation. We know that he was deeply and sympathetically interested in the behaviour and consciousness of workers, coolies and lumpenproletarians, and that at certain times he campaigned on positions that coincided with those of declared Trotskyist groups. If there is such an activity as Marxist literary criticism, the bulk of his work forms a brilliant instance of it; a Marxist literary critic might be one who, committed to the world-outlook of the oppressed classes, ‘reads books principally to expose political tendencies and the viewpoints on social structure that are latent within them. Such a critic of tendency Orwell was throughout his literary career and irrespective of the type of material he was reviewing: tracts, boys’ comics, novels or King Lear. The problem of defining Orwell’s own ideology lies in its odd mixture of consistency and inconstancy. He changed his mind repeatedly, and his party allegiance at least thrice; yet no one who looks at a scattering of Orwell pages, separated by no matter how many years of personal vicissitudes, can doubt a fundamental identity, a firm total perspective on the world that was achieved early and never moderated. His style – dogmatic but inviting response, blocking out all but a few stimuli yet nakedly sensitive within that range – has often been celebrated as a verbal purgative. Orwell, it is said, did something to our prose tradition. ‘He was, both by precept and example, a great cleanser of the English language, and a great teacher of younger writers of English prose ... The present younger generation ... could and should learn from him how to write English ...’: thus Conor Cruise O’Brien, in a review [1] whose whole tenor is to refuse to admit any shape and scarcely any credit, to Orwell’s political record. O’Brien’s political indictment will be mentioned later; it must suffice to say now that less than with any other modern author can Orwell’s linguistic achievement be separated from his stance, from his world-view. Here, if anywhere, the style is the man, and the man is nothing if not a political animal.

We should enter the study of Orwell’s politics both because they are our politics too, and because they are not. To the extent that he varied his position from one choice-point to the next, we may gauge and follow the sequence of objective dilemmas which confronted not only Orwell but any Socialist in the period of over twenty years that spanned his literary practice. The line traced by his response to these pressures is therefore, in all its waverings, a record of international political history; and it is also (as he himself was acutely aware) a record of the error-component in the successive adjustments made by the instrument (a highly politicised brain) into which the inputs of history were fed. After the wreckage of an aircraft, the investigators search for the black box which has monitored the flight. The data preserved upon its tapes are then used to modify the controls (including the pilots’ store of experience) for future journeys. We should pay Orwell the compliment (flattering ourselves, perhaps, considerably) of assuming that the machine for processing politics that he carried on top of his neck was not of a very different make from our own. It faltered, swung and was moody: exactly like ours. (‘Ours’ may be taken to include any individual or group on the Left known to the writer). The shifts and constancies of Orwell’s politics reflect, anticipate, and may be used to cure, the moodiness of Marxism.

Orwell’s own explicit formulations of his ideological history are of very little use in the analysis. In the 1946 essay Why I Write, which is reprinted as a preface to the first volume of the Collected Orwell, he stated that ‘every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly and indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.’ While his experience of Burma (1922-7) and of poverty (1928 onwards) had ‘given me some understanding of the nature of imperialism’ and ‘made me for the first time fully aware of the existence of the working classes’, he lacked any ‘accurate political orientation’ in this period. Thus Orwell could treat the politics of his writing over the whole decade from 1936 as a fundamental continuity, when quite obviously the ideological commitment of Wigan Pier differs from that of Homage to Catalonia, and the ‘democratic Socialism’ of his ILP days is not the same as that of his 1946 tirades against ‘crypto-Communists’ in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

In the 1946 preface to the Ukrainian translation of Animal Farm, Orwell again retrospects over his political life-history. ‘Up to 1930 I did not on the whole look on myself as a Socialist; it was disgust with the way the poorer section of the industrial workers were oppressed’ that formed the main motive in his later Socialist development; the rest of the account relates his growing opposition to Russian totalitarianism without in any way detailing the actual positive beliefs which formed the grounding to his anti-Stalinism.

Commentators on Orwell’s ideology are in disagreement over the most elementary points. This is partly because they seize on particular stages in his development as if they were final, partly because some of them have hefty axes to grind. ‘He was not a revolutionary ... and had no confidence that a golden millennium could be created by abrupt political action’ (John Wain [2]). ‘At heart Orwell was a simple-minded anarchist...’ (Isaac Deutscher [3]). Conor Cruise O’Brien [4] finds ‘a Tory growl’ audible throughout Orwell’s writing, and remarks that ‘It is not surprising that Orwell should have taken pleasure in defending Kipling against leftist criticism.’ [5] In O’Brien’s comments on the Collected Orwell, the original ‘Tory’ accusation is simply dropped; instead, ‘Orwell’s socialism and “revolution” did not in practice go beyond what English people though was reasonable.’

John Mander, in contrast [6], finds Orwell’s revolutionary commitment of the Thirties eminently unreasonable. Homage to Catalonia allegedly covers up for the violence of the far Left: ‘Orwell must have known that many of these atrocities were committed by his own people, the rabidly anti-clerical Anarchists and Trotskyists.’ Adopting the political position of the CP on Spain (The only hope of defeating the Fascists was to win the support of the liberal, anti-clerical bourgeoisie’ [7]), Mander condemns Orwell’s ‘revolutionary euphoria’ and Trotskyist pamphleteering.’ [8] Mander’s critique of Orwell’s commitment to the working class is that it was wholly embedded in the existing

proletarian community; it therefore could not move beyond the perspective of a class-divided society. ‘By describing the working class as it is and not as it might be ... Orwell is supporting the status quo.’

For Raymond Williams, on the other hand, Orwell’s basic flaw is that he was unable at the deepest level, to describe ‘the working class as it is’; ‘the inherent patterns of feeling’ in the worker-community eluded him, so that what we get in his reportage is merely ‘observation of particular working-class people’, perceptive only of ‘what was evident, the external factors ...’ [9] What strikes Mander as an excess of working-class solidarity is seen by Williams as a recurrent, rootless individualism: Orwell is the permanent ‘exile’, to whom ‘society, as such, is totalitarian’ and who self-indulgently attacks the ‘disciplines’ of Socialism by picking on Stalin’s Russia.

Another critic from the Old New Left, Edward Thompson, has also detected personal isolation, this time not so much anti-social as anti-political, as the main clue to Orwell’s thinking from the early Forties onward. In his essay Outside The Whale [10] Thompson deals with what he termed the ‘apology for quietism’ manifested in Orwell’s article Inside the Whale, a work to which he attaches extraordinary importance. ‘It was in this essay, more than any other, that the aspirations of a generation were buried ... the disenchanted of 1945-49 retired to the positions which Orwell had already prepared.’ Inside the Whale supposedly forms a terminal stage of ‘profound political pessimism’, (significantly published at the time of “a nadir of hope”, 1940) and leads straight through to ‘the negations of 1984’ and the crystallization of ‘Natopolitan’ (i.e., Cold War) ideology. The burden of Thompson’s attack is twofold: (i) Orwell’s objections to the Popular Front/Left Book Club intelligentsia were unfair to the intellectuals’ ideals and insensitive to the pressures of the Thirties; (ii) Orwell expresses the view that ‘Progress is a swindle’, with the corollary that all that anyone could do now, was to submit passively to ‘the world-process’ and hope to survive.

I shall discuss later (in part two of this article) the evidence on the state of Orwell’s ideology in 1940 (actually the beginning of a period of vigorous political campaigning, of maximal ‘revolutionary euphoria’ even, on his part); it should be noted at present that Orwell did not say ‘progress is a swindle’ (either in 1940 or at any other time). In view of the distinction of E.P. Thompson’s writings elsewhere there is some risk that this piece of mythology may enter the realm of accepted fact, like that other celebrated Orwellism (never stated by the actual Orwell) to the effect that ‘the working classes smell.’ Orwell merely predicts in Inside The Whale, that the view ‘Progress and reaction have both turned out to be swindles ... give yourself over to the world-process ... simply accept it, endure it, record it’ will be ‘the formula that any sensitive novelist is now likely to adopt.’ The prediction was hopelessly wrong, of course. But its appearance in Orwell’s work does not mark the onset of a anti-political pessimism; indeed, the whole standpoint of Inside The Whale is that of a totally committed revolutionary critic, probing the surface ‘degeneracy’ of a particular author (Henry Miller) to display its aesthetic and social response to a reactionary epoch. [11]

We already have, then: Orwell the Tory (or English Patriot), Orwell the Early Natopolitan, Orwell the Trot, Orwell the Proletarian Loyalist, Orwell the Rootless Exile, Orwell the Anarchist, and Orwell the Foe of Abrupt Transitions. The account which follows will eschew, as far as possible, that mode of politico-literary psychoanalysis which has conjured up so rich a variety of fluent and convincing interpretations. For our purposes, the transitions and continuities in Orwell’s thinking are sufficiently evident in the manifest content of what he actually wrote.

From Eric Blair to ‘George Orwell’

Orwell’s will insisted that no biography should be written about him. He threw away nearly all his drafts and notes, as well as most of his early unpublished material. Except for two or three memoirs by people who were at school with him, the long, horrifying piece he wrote in 1947 about his life as a scholarship boy at prep school (Such, Such Were the Joys), the autobiographical section of Wigan Pier and a couple of later stories about Burma (Shooting An Elephant and A Hanging), we have virtually no material on his intellectual development before late 1927, when he packed in his job with the Indian Imperial Police. During the Great War the young Eric Blair, at the age of eleven (and later at thirteen), had some patriotic doggerel (Awake! Young Men of England and Kitchener) published in the Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard; he was still at his hideous preparatory school, acquiring a mystified inarticulate loathing of authority. At Eton (where he was also a scholarship boy) he dwelt in a social atmosphere curiously compounded of social exclusiveness and post-war radicalism: Eton’s adolescents admired Lenin, mocked their compulsory OTC and religious drill, and made up blasphemous, treasonable words for tunes like Rule Britannia’. [12] The radicalism of the Eton Sixth was evidently not powerful enough to deter the nineteen-year-old Blair from entering the police service of British colonialism. His decision to do so remains unexplained, though it is true that his family had long traditions of employment with the Raj. The evolution of his views at this point is obscure: in a recollection that may or may not be revealing, Orwell wrote ‘I worshipped Kipling at thirteen [i.e., during the War], loathed him at seventeen [i.e., at Eton], enjoyed him at twenty [i.e., in Burma], despised him at twenty-five [i.e., after leaving the colonial police] and now again rather admire him.’ [13] Hollis, who talked with Orwell in Burma in 1925, records him as offering conventionally brutal imperialist opinions: ‘he was at pains to be the imperial policeman, explaining that these theories of punishment and no beating were all very well at public schools, but that they did not work with the Burmese.’ [14] Orwell of course became an unhappily divided man in Burma: the turmoil and eventual trauma of his role there are memorably described by him in the accounts cited above, and have been amply commented on. Two points only will be noted in this connection, since they may throw light on Orwell’s subsequent development. Firstly, Orwell’s experience of the imperial system is presented in terms not only of the injustice, but (perhaps even more) of the insincerity of social relationships within it. The policeman-narrator of Shooting An Elephant is revealed, at the moment of decision (whether to shoot the beast or not), as a creature without freedom or authority, moulded in every action by the expectations of the Burmese crowd who have come to watch their stereotype of an imperial cop. In Burmese Days (written, it is true, in 1932-3, years after Orwell’s colonial stint, but probably reflecting many of his conflicts during it), Flory, the disillusioned hero, finds his pukka environment a ‘stifling, stultifying world ... in which every word and every thought is censored ... Free speech is unthinkable ... the secrecy of your revolt poisons you like a secret, disease. Your whole life is a life of lies.’ Flory’s acts of treachery towards his best friend, an Indian doctor, and his cast-off Burmese concubine are only intensified expressions of a general system of ruthless hypocrisies running among and across Europeans, Asians and Eurasians, itself the embodiment in face-to-face relationships of a larger, objective structure of exploitation. The suffocating world of 1984 is already present in Orwell’s early experience of Burma; and, as in 1984 the search for frankness and sincerity in personal relations is, unavoidably, an attack on the social fabric – which is why it is bound to lose.

Secondly, the intellectual crisis recorded by Orwell at this stage shows an uncanny closeness to the divided consciousness (‘doublethink’) of the citizens of 1984. Orwell is clearly fascinated by his capacity to entertain, quite simultaneously, diametrically opposed world-outlooks. He and his Etonian compeers are (as he emphasised in brilliant detail) both snobs and Socialist revolutionaries; as a colonial policeman he finds himself infuriated by native insolence, yet secretly hopes for a nationalist rising that will drown the Raj in blood. Orwell’s later changes of position, especially during World War Two, will display very similar juggling propensities: it seems that he was able to tolerate, over unusually long periods, an inward compartmentalising in which one standpoint is offered as the sole feasible, perhaps even the sole logical response to a problem (sometimes with a disconcertingly aggressive single-mindedness, as in his tough-cop act with Hollis and his later polemics against other Left-wingers) – while all the time a different sub-system in his mind is busy registering, storing and elaborating a contrary viewpoint, ready to supplant or supplement the one currently in public view. ‘Doublethink’ – though not the static, conformist variety propagated by Big Brother – is Orwell’s own characteristic means of enduring and resolving intellectual tension. His habit of confessing his own contradictions has been exploited by some prim critics (CPers have found in them a clear instance of the dear old ‘vacillations of the petty-bourgeoisie’, and Gollancz and Cruise O’Brien have both tut-tutted about Orwell’s admissions of smell-snobbery and violent anti-Burmese fantasy). Of the aesthetic justification for the Orwellian confessional there can be little doubt: Orwell’s brand of extraverted introspection is what transforms even his pamphleteering into literature. His manipulation of a divided sensibility does, however, present serious problems in the description of what, at any point, constituted his determining beliefs.

Indeed, on several occasions when Orwell recounted his pilgrimage towards Socialism, he failed to record the successive inconsistencies of his development. (To entertain opposite ideologies at once is perhaps easier than to remember the fact that one did so, or to analyse how one managed to believe them.) In the Road to Wigan Pier reminiscence we are told that his first political theory after Burma was ‘anarchistic’: ‘all government is evil’; ‘the oppressed are always right and the oppressors are always wrong.’ ‘I had at that time no interest in Socialism or any other economic theory.’ This anarchistic position is doubtless a faithful rendering of the intellectual reflections which accompanied the twenty-four year-old Blair’s emotional revulsion against his authority-role and his decision to enter the life of England’s outcasts so that ‘part of my, guilt would drop from me.’ It cannot represent, in Orwell’s case, any rationally articulated creed lasting over more than a few months. For his earliest journalism, from 1928-9, is neither anarchistic nor indifferent to economics. The first article to appear from his pen (still under the name of Eric Blair) was published on October 6 1928, in Monde, the CP literary-front weekly edited in Paris by Henri Barbusse. [15] This article, La Censure en Angleterre (Censorship in England) is a short study of English prudery, (strikingly similar to the media-and-matters investigations of the mature Orwell) which links the nineteenth-century clamp-down in official morals with the ascendancy of the new industrial bourgeoisie. Between December 1928 and May 1929 Blair published four more articles [16] in the paper Progres Civique. Three appear under the collective title La Grande Misère de l’Ouvrier Britannique (Wretched Poverty of the British Worker). The first is on unemployment, providing a general social and statistical account of the unemployed, the State dole provisions and the life around the labour-exchange: it concludes with the lesson,

‘Unemployment is a by-product of capitalism and of industrial competition on a grand scale. As long as this state of affairs continues, poverty will be rife among the workers of one country or another. At present it is the British worker who bears the brunt of it. Doubtless he will continue to suffer until a radical change in the present economic system comes about. In the meantime, his only real hope is that one day a government will be elected which is both strong enough and intelligent enough to bring in this change’ [17]

The two other essays of this series deal respectively with the life of British tramps and with the beggars of London, roughly on the lines of Down and Out in Paris and London and the 1931-2 memoirs of tramping reprinted in the Collected Orwell. The fourth Progres Civique article is an exposure of British imperialism in Burma: its main theme is the role of British economic interests in milking the country, an emphasis of special interest since it highlights Orwell’s interpretation of imperialism in terms of raw-material exploitation. Orwell throughout his life was convinced that Britain was totally dependent on the Empire for cheap primary produce, so that living-standards here would fall dramatically as soon as the decolonisation that he advocated got under way. [18] These first essays in propaganda, so compressed that the literary, private-eye Orwell scarcely has room for expression, display a politics that will suffice him for several years. Its elements are (1) an uncomplicated crypto-Marxist economic analysis where the lines of class-division are drawn, impressionistically, from his own experience of Burma and the unemployed; (2) a programmatic and tactical apathy which is still compatible with conventional reformism (‘strong, intelligent government’).

What becomes, then, of Orwell’s conversion-trauma, his proclaimed total entry into the world of the oppressed? Here it must be said at once that we do him a serious injustice by extracting out the explicit theoretical content of his writings. Thus far, Orwell appears as some kind of Pop-Marxist Social Democrat, which he cannot have been: if only because no Social Democrat has ever produced art. The radicalism of Orwell’s stand even in these early days goes far beyond the commitment enshrined in this or that political proposition that he may have emitted. What he opted for was nothing less than a complete reversal of social role. From being one of the kickers, he became one of the kicked. His adoption of the world-view that is seen from ‘the lower depths’ came not through a process of reading and reflection but from his actual occupancy of lower-depth social positions. It is true that many writers, through impoverishment or design, have chosen a similar journey through the most ground-down classes of society, without arriving at any remotely radical political vision: in the eighties and nineties of the last century, after all, a whole colony of artist-outcasts tramped the gutters of London and Paris, searching for the appropriate sensations of abjection that would fuel the poetry of Christian guilt (Francis Thompson, Hound of Heaven), pagan masochism (Ernest Dowson, Cynara), sensual purgatory (Rimbaud and Verlaine) or hag-ridden nightmare (James Thomson, City of Dreadful Night). All of these, however, had other things to do than to adopt the social viewpoint of the class of outcasts among whom they moved; which is primarily what Orwell did. And Orwell’s outcasts are almost always a sub-section of the proletariat itself: workers in hotel-kitchens, itinerant hop-pickers, hoboes who are still on the fringes of labour’s reserve army. Despite Orwell’s apparent determination to ‘touch bottom’ and live with ‘the lowest of the low’, the classes of the destitute among whom he moved were far more proletarian than lumpen; he reports on very few meths-drinkers, wandering schizophrenics, criminals or tarts. Was it the characteristic Orwellian ‘decency’ – the sense of limits, of minimum standards that are also a moral absolute – that prevented him from plunging further? Perhaps: but anyone who entered the circle of the outcast in 1928 would have found himself in the company, for much of the time, of displaced workers. Orwell, in his article on British tramps in Progres Civique [19] himself estimates their number, in times of serious unemployment, at around 100,000. In London alone he judged, there were about ten thousand beggars, .with Trafalgar Square regularly sleeping up to two hundred vagrants and prostitutes (fee: sixpence a go) on summer nights in 1931. [20] To engage with misery on this scale entailed in a man of Orwell’s intelligence, some appreciation, however loose and intuitive, of the political economy of capitalism.

It did not, as yet, mean any form of militancy. Orwell’s identification with the under-class extended only to an acceptance of their perceptions of existing society. It did not frame any demand for an alternative social order. If it was anarchism of any kind, it was the anarchism of Permanent Protest rather than of communes and syndicates. In the next few years, in any case, Orwell’s journey into the social depths is interrupted. He stopped being a regular habitué of the doss-houses around 1931-2, working as a bookshop salesman and schoolmaster as well as finishing his next three novels. His occasional output consists of fiction-reviewing and a few poems. Disgust with industrialism and guilty vacillation are the main themes of the latter (e.g. ‘I am the worm who never turned/The eunuch without a harem./Between the priest and the commissar/I walk like Eugene Aram’, published in late 1936). One poem of this period (unforgiveably missing from the Collected Orwell), St Andrew’s Day 1935, summons a vision of London clerks, hurrying to the station with thoughts of job-insecurity: [21]

They think of rent, rates, season tickets,
Insurance, coal, the skivvy’s wages,
Boots, school-bills, and the next instalment
Upon the two twin-beds from Drage’s.

Over them hangs ‘our rightful lord, the lord of all, the money-god’

Who chills our anger, curbs our hope,
And buys our lives and pays with toys,
Who claims as tribute broken faith,
Accepted insults, muted joys;

Who binds and chains the poet’s wit,
The navy’s strength, the soldier’s pride.
And lays the sleek, estranging shield
Between the lover and his bride.

That the punch-line of this onslaught on the cash-nexus should consist of an attack on contraceptives speaks more for Orwell’s personal delicacy than for his sense of historical urgency; this was already in the era of Fascism, after all. And in speaking at all of an ‘Orwell’ in this period, we should remember that the name (and presumably the identity) took a while to stick. It was ‘George Orwell’ who elected to appear on the covers of Down and Out in Paris and London, Blair having offered his literary agent (in November 1932) a list of possible pseudonyms which also included ‘P.S. Burton’, ‘Kenneth Miles’, and ‘H. Lewis Allways’. For two years after this, however, the less tentative Eric Blair continued with his literary reviewing. [22] The transition from Blair to Orwell, from the shabby-genteel artist to the political intellectual, will be fully completed only in 1936, with the journeys in the industrial North that will be digested into The Road to Wigan Pier.

The Oldest New Left

The examination of Blair-Orwell’s book-reviews during the Thirties in itself conveys little knowledge of the man’s development, unless we also know something of the pages that flanked these brief notices on their first appearance in print. Orwell’s journalism always demanded a certain context in which to take root: it could not, even in its earliest years, direct itself indifferently towards a conventional ‘literary world.’ Luckily, the forces that created Orwell’s writing also generated a context in which it could live, precariously but still publicly. The story of Orwell’s contact with a particular slice of literary Socialism during the early Thirties forms a chapter without which his emergence as a radical voice, in the later years of the decade, look much more mysterious than it need be. Here we shall be able to describe this context only very briefly.

From 1930 until the outbreak of the new World War, Orwell was fostered as a regular journalist by two radical periodicals, the monthly The Adelphi founded by John Middleton Murry and the New English Weekly founded by the ex-Guild Socialist and ex-mystic A.R. Orage. The latter journal (which politically stood on the Left of the Social-Credit movement) is of little ideological importance for Orwell except in that it left him to write what he liked; The Adelphi connection, however, is a substantial one. Orwell’s first association with it coincided with a Leftward move in its editorial direction: founded by Murry in 1923 as a mainly literary organ, in 1930 it acquired two new editors, Richard Rees (a socialist baronet) and Max Plowman (a militant pacifist) along with a new circulation manager, Jack Common (a working-class author, later to edit the magazine). All three were to be lifelong friends of Orwell’s. The Adelphi soon became what might be termed the organ of the ILP intelligentsia, though it was never officially committed to any one party. Within a general policy of encouraging plain and vigorous language, it published social-realist documentary (much of it written by workers), militant political commentary and texts of Socialist classics (early Marx, Engels, Rosa Luxemburg) as well as more orthodox literary-review material. Its contributors in this period included: G.D.H. Cole, James Thurber, Havelock Ellis, Paul Mattick, Auden, Spender, Dylan Thomas, J.T. Murphy, Edmund Wilson and frequently Murry himself. In several directions its concerns closely foreshadowed those of the British New Left of 1957-60: working-class culture and community (this time as an actuality rather than a nostalgia), a broad Socialism scornful of pro-Russian and pro-Labour cant, anti-’literary’ literary criticism, an ethical, early-Marxian ‘Socialist humanism.’ Politically speaking, its supporters lacked stamina and consistency – for example, though some had Left-wing reservations about the Popular Front, the journal was on the whole uncritical of the tactic. Murry himself was an extraordinary weathercock; having started as an acolyte of D.H. Lawrence, he was converted to religious socialism after reading Das Kapital, published The Necessity for Communism and joined the ILP in 1932. He broke off from the ILP in late 1934 to form (briefly) the ‘Independent Socialist Party’ (based on the Lancashire anti-Comintern dissidents; its organ Labour’s Northern Voice was published from the same Manchester office as The Adelphi), and a year later was succumbing to fits of Utopian ruralism (‘Comradeship with Nature’) with his sponsorship of the Adelphi Centre, a community idyll near Colchester. He then became a zealous pacifist, with a marked softness towards Hitler’s ‘New Order’, edited Peace News from 1940 to 1946, and then propagandised for a holy nuclear war to be waged against Russia (The Free Society 1948). Most of The Adelphi team followed Murry into Russian anti-political abstentionism later on in the Thirties (though less dramatically than he): Orwell’s entry into the circle was during their phase of maximum political involvement and adhesion. Still, at this peak the politics of The Adelphi could be uncommonly bold: in May 1932 the magazine carried an article by F.A. Ridley (Marxism, History and A Fourth International) which, after detailing the incorrigible bankruptcy both of the Comintern and of Social-Democracy, concluded that ‘The European Revolution will be achieved by a Fourth International arising from a split in the middle class and its fusion with the proletariat.’ (Not bad for its day, especially considering that the notion of the Fourth International was still being strenuously opposed by Trotsky, who had not yet broken with the perspective of a revitalised Stalintern.)

Orwell’s activity through the Thirties must be seen as something which reacts both within and against this idiosyncratic ‘Centrist’ current of Socialism. In the files of The Adephi, themes constantly recur which, when detected in Orwell’s work alone, have come to be thought of as peculiarly his: close observation of lived social reality, hatred of humbug and fancy language, the personal quest for fraternity across class-barriers (‘Real identification with the proletariat,’ Murry wrote in one of his essays in Marxist mystique, ‘demands real incorporation with it’). Several of the local guides on Orwell’s Wigan Pier trip across the North were from The Aldelphi, worker-intellectuals who had supported the journal as writers or sellers. Much of The Road to Wigan Pier itself must be seen as an outgrowth from the whole complex of argument and acquaintance within The Adelphi-ILP Left: the long discussion on machine-civilisation, the fear of a creeping ‘English fascism’ (‘fascism by consent’, as Murry put it), and above all Orwell’s obsession with cranks. For the bitter invective against sandal-wearers, fruit-juice drinkers, nudists, escaped Quakers and other miscreants figuring in this very special list of bans and proscriptions is not – as has sometimes been implied – an attack either on ‘The Thirties’ in general or, more particularly, upon the Left Book Club audience. (Wigan Pier was not written for the Left Book Club, and Orwell did not expect it to be picked as a Club choice.) The blast is directed against characters who are drawn, on internal evidence, from Orwell’s own experience of the middle-class Left: an experience which appears to have been undergone very largely among the painfully earnest humanitarians of the ILP and Adelphi fringe. In the person of Middleton Murry one can scarcely avoid seeing the archetypal Escaped Quaker of all time, the guru of the faddists. The specificity of Orwell’s revulsion (indeed, it would have to be freshly adapted for each generation of fashionable camp-followers, as fruit-juice is replaced by cannabis, sandals by beads, and Nature Cure by existentialist remedies for insanity) should be obvious. The indictment against the CP Popular-Front Left-Book-Club ambit is a separate one, and wholly political in emphasis. Begun in The Road to Wigan Pier, it will reach full articulation in Coming Up For Air and the Spanish writings. Whatever the fads and follies of The Adelphi wing of independent Socialism, exposure to its influence from 1930 onwards had given Orwell some immersion in a political tradition standing well to the Left of the Comintern’s ‘unity of democratic anti-fascist forces’. By the time Nazism and the Popular Front arrived, Orwell already had a Socialist political memory, a minimum knowledge of what certain words meant. It was a small achievement, but enough to set him as a man apart from the ensuing generation of ‘the progressive.’

Wigan Pier and the road to Barcelona

The Road to Wigan Pier is of course an exceptionally dated book. Its obsolescence lies not in the passing of the social conditions of the Thirties recorded in such meticulous detail by Orwell: there are thousands of streets, of the cramped, bathroomless dimensions listed in Chapter 4, still standing in the North – and in any case Orwell’s critique extends beyond the physical slum, into the whole model of living decreed even by a reformed and municipalised capitalism for its working masses. What jars so awkwardly in Wigan Pier is the self-consciously genteel class-sense of its author, his attempt to act as spokesman for a social stratum – the ‘lower-upper-middle-class’ or downwardly-mobile petty-bourgeoisie – that was on the way out even in his own time and is of scarcely even historical interest nowadays. Gone is the free-and-easy camaraderie of the kiphouse from Down and Out in Paris and London, where the narrator scarcely ever intrudes his own personal and social characteristics: instead, we have a deliberate emphasis on the difference, the separation, between the proletariat and their middle-class sympathisers. This gulf, Orwell believes, cannot be overcome by missionary efforts in class-mixing, which will only serve to highlight the real differences, the antagonism even, between the worker and the middle-class radical. All one can hope for is an alliance of forces for Socialism in which the middle-class Leftists sacrifice their cranky status-symbols and the Socialist movement does its damnedest not to offend petty-bourgeois cultural susceptibilities. The problem of a possible cultural antagonism between the working-class and the middle-class Left is not of course an outmoded one, and probably deserves franker discussion than we have been used to in recent years. All the same, Orwell’s particular type of cultural anxiety has lost most of its force. With the post-war revolution in manners which has created an autonomous youth-culture, a sophisticated working class (Orwell’s workers would not eat brown bread and left the washing-up to their wives), and a middle class which is much more of a salariat than a petty-bourgeoisie, Wigan Pier’s concern with barriers, smells and accents must be almost incomprehensible to modern readers. And Orwell’s vision of the United Front between the traditional proletariat and the sinking gentry now seems simply grotesque: where, today, are ‘the private schoolmaster, the half-starved freelance journalist, the colonel’s spinster daughter with £75 a year, the jobless Cambridge graduate, the ship’s officer without a ship ... the commercial travellers and the thrice-bankrupt drapers in the country towns’ who could be won for the revolution – if indeed they ever could have been?

Orwell’s error was to have taken his own evolution, that of an uprooted petty-bourgeois gravitating to the workers’ cause, as something much more typical for his class and his time than it ever remotely was. But there is more to Wigan Pier Socialism than the class-anxieties of a self-confessed ‘literary gent’. Orwell’s journey in the North, during the February and March of 1936, moulded his politics more thoroughly than appears from the obsessional dialogue with the gentry that he carried through into the writing of his book. We have, as one of the real treasures which the Collected Orwell has made public for the first time, a lengthy diary kept by him during his visits to the Midlands, the Potteries, Lancashire and Yorkshire. These notes, apparently typed straight down after each day’s impressions, form the record of Orwell’s interaction with the Northern working class before the stage when he turned his experience into pamphleteering. The observation is compressed and merciless: ‘There is no turbulence left in England’, Orwell wrote despairingly after a sheepish social got up by the Wigan branch of the National Unemployed Workers Movement. The biggest public meeting is an audience of 700 workers in Barnsley to hear Mosley; they applaud him, and let the Blackshirt stewards beat up questioners. The unemployed workers’ discussion-group that Orwell attends in Leeds emerges as pro-German when the talk turns to Europe. It is a ‘progressive’ (ex-ILP, ‘Independent Socialist’) trade-union official in Manchester who inspires Orwell’s classic jibe against the species: ‘by fighting against the bourgeoisie he becomes a bourgeois himself.’ There is not a hint of any collectively-organised struggle. When Wal Hannington, the CP unemployed workers’ leader, visits Wigan, Orwell notes a quite spirited meeting of 200, but Hannington is just rhetorical and ‘the wrong kind of cockney accent (once again, though a Communist entirely a bourgeois)’: an observation, actually, of stupendous inaccuracy since Hannington was a London-bred worker. ‘It is dreadful,’ Orwell reports in a letter to Henry Miller in August 1936, ‘to see how the people have collapsed and lost all their guts in the last ten years.’ Is this .view of working-class disintegration accurate, and how does it square with Orwell’s Socialism? Communist Party critics, from Harry Pollitt onward, have repeatedly reproached Orwell for his apparent blindness to ‘the struggle of the organised labour movement’. On the face of it, there is considerable justification for this rebuke. The year previous to Orwell’s trip had, after all, seen tens of thousands of workers out in the streets all over Britain – including the towns recorded in Wigan Pier – in militant street demonstrations against cuts in the dole and the National Government’s ‘Slave Act’ for the unemployed (which would have legalised their drafting into labour-camps under semi-military rules). The march of 40,000 in Sheffield, of 8,000 in Wigan, the big crowds out in many Northern and other centres for the national demo against the Act in February 1935 are symptoms of ‘turbulence’ and ‘guts’ which would re-appear later in 1936 with the Hunger March mobilisation and the wave of strikes in Southern aircraft factories. [23] Orwell has undoubtedly over-generalised from the lull during early 1936 (when he gathered his material), which was probably in part a wait-and-see reaction following the General Election of the previous November: as it turned out, the ‘Slave Act’ and Means Test provisions were considerably modified by the incoming National Government. We must also reckon with Orwell’s evident bias against ideological politics even among workers. He is insistent in Wigan Pier that he has never come across any worker with an intellectual grasp of Socialism [24]; yet the diary for his journey makes it clear that he was totally dependent, for his contacts and introductions, upon Socialist workers with a CP, ILP or NUWM background. Even at this stage, the virtues of decency and solidity excluded theory so completely that the latter could not be admitted to exist among conscious workers.

Yet, at a deeper level, Orwell’s perception of the working class of the Thirties was keen and unprejudiced. If he did not see the political militants, he saw beyond them, to the blighted communities, the haggard, downcast womenfolk, the cosy indifference of the slightly-prosperous proletariat in the Yorkshire workingmen’s clubs. He could, after all, compare the British worker with his French counterpart: in May 1932, writing in The Adelphi, he had recalled a mass demonstration for Sacco and Vanzetti that he had witnessed in France, noting how impossible such a spectacle would be in England ‘where a century of strong government has developed what O. Henry called “the stern and rugged fear of the police” to a point where any public protest seems an indecency.’ However, ‘in France, everyone can remember a certain amount of civil disturbance, and even the workers in the bistros talk of la révolution, meaning the next revolution, not the last one.’ The landslide victory of the Front Populaire in May 1936, with its wake of stay-in strikes around a workers’ programme, could not be in greater contrast to the British electoral verdict of the preceding winter, with the Labour vote still behind its 1929 level even after four years of National Government misrule. With the ILP’s membership zooming down – nearly 17,000 in 1932, 4,000 odd in 1935 – and with the expansion of the CP (up to 12,000 in 1937 from 6,000 two years earlier) far more a response to international events than to any wave of home-grown militancy, the Left was thin on the ground despite its occasional epic demo’s. Orwell’s portrait of Depression politics may be dismal, but it is pretty well drawn from the life. The bleakness of Wigan Pier does not, however, dampen or corrode Orwell’s Socialist commitment. His fantasy-alliance between a renascent working class and the impoverished gentlefolk is not a Popular Front of the Liberal-CP variety: while anti-fascist in aim, it remains uncompromisingly a united front of proletarians (over-extensively defined, it is true) for the insurrectionary achievement of Socialism. Orwell engaged in sharp criticism of the ‘Popular Front which ... will not be genuinely Socialist in character, but will simply be a manoeuvre against German and Italian (not English Fascism) consequently you have got to drive away the mealy-mouthed Liberal who wants foreign Fascism destroyed in order that he may go on drawing his dividends peacefully – the type of humbug who passes resolutions “against Fascism and Communism”, i.e. against rats and rat-poison.’ (It was, of course, precisely this type of Liberal that the Stalinist Front of the Thirties was concerned, not to ‘drive away’, but to attract and recruit). The Socialist bloc, in Orwell’s view, will be led by its own party: ‘In the next few years we shall either get that effective Socialist party that we need, or we shall not get. it. If we do not get it, then Fascism is coming...’ [25] This loose but distinct tactical conception – antifascist workers’ front, defeat of fascism through revolution, a new Socialist party – will stay with Orwell through to the early Forties at least. In his ‘revolutionary-defensist’ articles [26] the extended working-class bloc is revived in a fresh definition: here the ‘classical’ proletariat is to ally, not with the mass of distressed gentlefolk, but with the industrial-technical white-collar strata, i.e. with what has recently been termed the ‘new’ working class. The gaps and weaknesses of the conception, as sketched by Orwell, hardly need emphasising: it is only to be noted that this view of Socialism already borders on a Workers’-Front, Permanent-Revolution tack before the Spanish experience of Homage to Catalonia.

Too often Orwell’s entry into the POUM militia, with its special vantage-point on the Barcelona events of 1937, has been presented as the outcome of chance. He himself stresses the accidental character of his arrival in Spain with ILP papers, so that he just happened, as it were, to join POUM rather than the International Brigade. It should be clear, however from the preceding discussion that nothing could be less accidental than the position he took up in Spain. Orwell was pre-conditioned by his entire experience as a Socialist to see the Spanish Revolution in a proletarian rather than Popular-Frontist terms. Undeveloped and eccentric as his politics were, they retained enough basic class-sense to collide against Stalinism’s attempt (abetted by the ‘liberal’ Left like Gollancz and the New Statesman) to crush the Spanish workers’ own revolution. The degree of clarity in his initial position mattered less than the fact that it was distinct from the CP line: once Orwell came up against the reality of the CP’s counter-revolutionary terror, he was inevitably pushed further to the Left. And his experience of human fraternity, in revolutionary Barcelona and at the front with POUM, dissolved the waverings of gentility: ‘I have seen wonderful things,’ he wrote back to Cyril Connolly from Spain, ‘and at last really believe in Socialism, which I never did before.’ Orwell himself never analysed the movement of belief which accompanies his passage from the streets of Wigan to those of Barcelona. His understanding of the nature of the workers’ struggle against oppression was set down, explicitly at last, in an article he wrote in 1942, Looking Back on the Spanish War:

‘... the working class will go on struggling against Fascism after the others have caved in ... They must do so, because in their own bodies they always discover that the promises of Fascism cannot be fulfilled. To win over the working class, the Fascists would have to raise the general standard of living, which they are unable and probably unwilling to do. The struggle of the working class is like the growth of a plant. The plant is blind and stupid, but it knows enough to keep pushing towards the light, and it will do this in the face of endless discouragements.’

In Orwell’s notes upon the British working-class community in the mid-Thirties, we have the naturalist’s fascinated, microscopic dicovery of ‘the growth of the plant’, of the secret underlife of living cells in motion, ‘pushing towards the light.’ Without a vision trained to sense these tiny, molecular stirrings, the bursting of Spain’s red flower, in the fullness of proletarian insurrection, might well have eluded him. Others were there, after all, and did not notice it.

The second part of this article, War, Revolution and Oligarchy in Orwell’s Thought, will appear in a forthcoming issue. [1*]




1. The Listener, December 12th 1968

2. Essays on Literature and Ideas.

3. In Heretics and Renegades.

4. In Writers and Politics.

5. Cf. on the other hand, ‘Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting ... Kipling sold out to the British governing class, not financially but emotionally.’ G.Orwell in an essay on Rudyard Kipling, February 1942.

6. In a useful discussion in The Writer and Commitment.

7. Ibid., p.94.

8. It may be noted as a curio of intellectual history that Mr Mander shortly afterwards moved over to another variant of the United Front with the Liberal Bourgeoisie, as Assistant Editor to the house-organ for non-rabid intellectuals financed by the CIA, Encounter, where revolutionary euphoria and Trotskyist pamphleteering would be equally at a discount.

9. Culture and Society, chapter on G. Orwell.

10. In the Old New Left collection Out of Apathy, 1960.

11. Trotsky’s treatment of another ‘degenerate’ classic, Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night shows some resemblance to Orwell’s critical perspective – see his Diary in Exile, London 1958 or the Trotsky anthology edited by I. Howe where it also appears.

12. Thus far Wigan Pier, part two, largely confirmed by Christopher Hollis, a contemporary of Blairs, in his George Orwell, 1936

13. Obituary on Kipling, January 1936.

14. Hollis, op. cit., p.27.

15. As it was translated by somebody else into French and the English original has been lost, it is absent from the Collected Orwell.

16. Again translated into French by another hand, and omitted from the Collected Orwell.

17. Retranslation obviously loses any Orwellian flavour

18. E.g. from Wigan Pier: ‘The alternative is to throw the Empire overboard and reduce England to a cold and unimportant little island where we should have to work very had and live mainly on herrings and potatoes’

19. January 5th 1929.

20. Ibid., January 12th 1929; ‘Hop-picking’ Diary, August 1931 in Collected Orwell.

21. From The Adelphi, November 1935.

22. In The Adelphi he is ‘Eric Blair’ in November 1934, ‘EB’ a month later, and then ‘George Owell’ continuously from March 1935 onwards.

23. These manifestations are summarised in chapter 18 of Wal Hannington’s Unemployed Struggles 1919-36 and Allen Hutt’s Post-war History of the British Working Class; the exact figures can be disputed until Kingdom comes, but not the mood.

24. Cf. too his letter to Humphrey House in April 1940, ‘I have never met a genuine working man who accepted Marxism ...’

25. The Road to Wigan Pier, Penguin edition, p.194, 195, 203.

26. Reprinted as chapters in The Betrayal of the Left, 1941 – but not alas in the Collected Works.


Note by MIA

1*. This part of teh article was apparently never published.


Last updated on 19.10.2006