Some crimes are so grave that they remain unforgivable decades after the fact. George Orwell wrote Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which must at least be scrabbling around the foothills of the dullest novels ever written.
It’s fairly uncontroversial to argue that Orwell was a far better journalist than he was a novelist. Undoubtedly, it will be Animal Farm and 1984, his pair of bleak but incisive Cold War satires, that will see him on reading lists and curricula for centuries to come. The two books, the latter one especially, account for much if not almost all his long-term cultural impact. The list of chilling neologisms he dreamt up for ’84 – “newspeak”, “doublethink”, “Big Brother” and the like – have snuck into the Oxford English Dictionary and will probably stay there.
But these were deeply political books, and Orwell was undeniably at his best when he was writing about politics. Practically everything he wrote was political in some sense, but his earlier novels were either far less explicit in their social critique like The Clergymen’s Daughter, or bludgeoningly unsubtle with it like Aspidistra. Especially in the case of the latter, their political shortcomings placed much more of a burden on cardboard characterisation, trudging pace and often wincingly bitter tone. Tellingly, he wouldn’t allow either to be reprinted while he was alive.
To properly glimpse Orwell’s oddball genius you have read his essays and journalism. He was a magnificent writer – not in a flowery, adjective-riddled descriptive way, but as an acknowledged master of delivering information as clearly and concisely as possible. His prose style had effortless clarity, somehow managing to be outwardly simple and easy to read without being stiflingly dull. His Politics and the English Language laid out rules for clear expression that thousands have tried to follow (and are regularly broken on here). For the sake of humanity, the world’s academics and jargon-spouters should be chained to a table and made to read it before they’re allowed to publish anything.
It’s often conveniently left out of biographies written by people who wished he wasn’t, but George Orwell was also a Socialist (he always capitalised the word). In 1948’s Why I Write, he claimed that “every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it”.
Said democratic socialism was unorthodox – it wasn’t Marxist, for one, or particularly ideological at all. It didn’t boil down to Labour-style social democracy either, although by the end of his life Orwell was critically supporting Attlee’s government from the left. Instead, Orwell’s was a distinctively non-dogmatic, pragmatic radical socialism. It took class seriously, seeing it as crushingly deterministic and potentially life-ruining, but at the same, in England, too nuanced for blunt Marxist analysis. And wedded to his very un-leftish talent for clear communication, it was widely accessible.
It’s here, primarily, that Orwell remains throbbingly relevant for the floundering present-day Left. Less battling for the implementation of left-wing policies, more fighting for the very survival of left-wing ways of thinking in an era dominated by the Right – which now includes a substantial chunk of the Labour Party – we need accessible socialism. Divisive fringe politics is a dead end, as is any attempt to win popular support with complex theoretical worldviews. An open, inclusive, unsentimental radical politics that’s made widely understandable is our only chance of getting out of the neoliberal swamp alive.
Orwell’s biography is reasonably well-known. He was born Eric Arthur Blair (insert your own hilarious Tony reference here) on the 25th of June 1903 in British-ruled eastern India. His father, Richard Blair, worked for the Empire in the intriguingly-named Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service. His mother Ida, meanwhile, was half-French, born in Surrey but raised in Burma, where her Limoges-hailing father ran various businesses.
In 1904, Ida took the infant Eric and his older sister Marjorie to live in England. Richard would stay in India until he retired in 1912. The Blairs settled in genteel Henley-on-Thames, an impenetrably Tory townlet in South Oxfordshire. Much later, writing in 1937’s The Road To Wigan Pier, Orwell would describe his social status with typical precision: “I was born into what you might describe as the lower-upper-middle class. The upper-middle class, which had its heyday in the [eighteen-] eighties and nineties, with Kipling as its poet laureate, was a sort of mound of wreckage left behind when the tide of Victorian prosperity receded… the layer of society lying between £2000 and £300 a year: my own family was not far from the bottom.”
His description was accurate. The Blairs were privileged, undoubtedly, but they were entirely reliant on Richard’s Empire salary. They didn’t own any property or have extensive investments, which would soon sharply distinguish the young Eric from his extravagantly wealthy peers. His parents struggled to put him through a private preparatory school, which he came away hating. St Cyprians was, he succinctly recalled, “an expensive and snobbish school which was in the process of becoming more snobbish, and, I imagine, more expensive”. It would receive an apparently well-deserved pasting in Orwell’s laconically-titled essay “Such, Such Were the Joys”.
From there, Eric went on to England’s most elitist and esteemed public school. Having briefly sampled life at the austere Wellington College, he won a scholarship to Eton. He enjoyed it, even while underperforming academically. In Wigan Pier, he recalls the incongruous mix of schoolboy leftism – 15 of his 16-strong English class named Lenin as one of their ten greatest men alive – and ingrained prejudice he encountered while there. He was far from immune: “at the age of seventeen of eighteen”, he admitted “I was both a snob and a revolutionary. I was against all authority … and I loosely described myself as a Socialist. But I had not much grasp of what Socialism meant, and no notion that the working class were human beings”.
Plain old Eric Blair left Eton in late 1921. He’d already decided he wanted to be a writer, but lacklustre academic performance brought about a sudden diversion from the cushy life trajectory of his Oxbridge-bound Etonian peers. He finished 138th out of 167 in his final exams and stood little chance of getting a university scholarship. Instead, he went in a radically different direction – in 1922, he joined the Indian Imperial Police. He served for five years in Burma, eventually becoming responsible for the safety of 200,000 people. In 1927 he caught dengue fever, returned to Cornwall to convalesce and decided not to go back – by this time he “hated the imperialism I was serving with a bitterness which I probably cannot make clear … it is not possible to be a part of such a system without recognising it as an unjustifiable tyranny”.
Blair had turned away from Empire wanting to “escape from … every form of man’s dominion over man”, and by autumn 1927 he was a London-based aspiring writer. Before long, he was submerging himself in the world of the downtrodden, lodging in working-class quarters of Paris and washing dishes for a pittance, then living with tramps on the streets of England’s capital. Briefly flitting back into respectable society, he announced he would write a book on what he’d seen. He chose to publish it under a pseudonym for decidedly un-radical reasons – he didn’t want to embarrass his status-conscious parents. In 1933 his first book was published, not as Eric Arthur Blair but as George Orwell.
Orwell’s literary output, like his life, has been surveyed hundreds of thousands of times by people far better qualified to talk about it. As a very un-literary and single-mindedly political blog-based non phenomenon, we’re far more interested in his politics, and the mid-1930s is as good a place as any to hop off the biographical express – from late ’36 to ’37 Orwell fought against fascism in Spain, was near-fatally wounded by a sniper’s bullet, and sent back to England to begin what would be the most successful, financially secure and politically-engaged phase of his career.
He had been invigorated by the sight of real, transformational socialism in the besieged Spanish Republic. A decade earlier, he’d returned from his imperial adventure in Burma a self-declared “Tory anarchist” – someone “despising authority while disbelieving in liberty, and preserving the aristocratic outlook while seeing clearly that the existing aristocracy is degenerate and contemptible” to use the definition of the term he would later apply to Jonathan Swift. His period slumming in London, then Paris, then London again pushed him leftward, persuading him socialism was desirable. And the classless atmosphere of republican Spain, particularly anarchist-held Barcelona, showed him that socialism was possible. By the time he was stretchered off the battlefield with a hole in his throat, he was, in his own words, “a convinced democratic Socialist”.
The ex-Eric Blair was now on the radical Left. But the fact he wasn’t a Marxist made him strikingly different, as did his slow and relatively late conversion to socialism. Plenty of young Etonians read Das Kapital, flounced around as cardboard communists for a few years before settling down as stock-broking Conservative die-hards. Few lasted long enough to take a bullet for their cause.
Orwell’s Socialism defined itself in opposition to Stalinist oppression – something he’d seen plenty of in Spain. It was reasonably tolerant of “true” communism, but still rejected Leninism, Trotskyism or any other theoretical-ism even as it railed against dehumanising capitalism. It was pragmatic, radical democratic socialism – of a kind that was only really found elsewhere on the Labour left, or in the Independent Labour Party, the unusual left-wing group Orwell fought alongside in Spain and briefly joined when he returned to England.
The ILP was old, older than the Labour Party it helped to found and spent decades inside, but by 1932 it had struck out on its own. It subscribed to what it called a Third Way (insert another hilarious Tony reference here) between Labour’s timid reformism and the standard Russian-influenced revolutionary dogma. It stood for a kind of institutional revolution – an elected ILP, backed by mass movements on the ground, would give society a comprehensive socialist makeover, using the legal power of the state to stop the inevitable propertied backlash. And until a time when that was feasible, it would work to pragmatically improve the lives of the vulnerable. Before long, the ILP had shrivelled into insignificance, of course, but its distinct political stance closely mirrored Orwell’s own.
Any socialism worth bothering with had to go beyond just “common ownership of the means of production”, he would argue in his 1941 essay “The Lion and The Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius”. It required “approximate equality of incomes (it need be no more than approximate), political democracy, and the abolition of all hereditary privilege, especially in education. Centralised ownership has very little meaning unless the mass of the population are living roughly upon an equal level and have some kind of control over the government.” Four years later, when the Attlee-led Labour Party won a historic majority and began to knit Britain a substantial welfare safety net, Orwell called for the immediate abolition of private education and the House of Lords. Alas, on both counts he would be disappointed.
In the decades since his miserable death of TB, leftists, rightists and some of those in between have tried to argue that Orwell was becoming grouchily right-wing as he grew older – or that, if he’d lived past 46, he would’ve somehow drifted into High Toryism. The former prediction almost always stems from reading too much into his undeniable dislike for much of the established Left, and, in particular, his hatred of Stalinism. Infamously, he wrote a list of journalists and public figures he suspected of Soviet sympathies for the Information Research Department, a propaganda arm of the Foreign Office. But if ethically dubious, this was entirely consistent with his particular brand of left-wing anti-totalitarianism. As for the latter – would an elderly Orwell have been a neoconservative war hawk, as plenty of Hitchens-style ex-leftists have tried to argue – who knows, who cares. He died when he died, and was ideologically pickled as the ailing, curmudgeonly democratic socialist who frantically typed his life away on a sodden Scottish islet trying to finish 1984 before tuberculosis finished him off.
None of this is an attempt to hold up Eric Blair as some kind of exemplary human being. He wasn’t. Orwell was homophobic, chauvinistic, xenophobic, and, more pettily, often just dismayingly superficial. Being gay and being a pacifist, a vegetarian, a teetotaller or generally anything Orwell saw as degenerate were often treated as one and the same. Decency, health and vigour equalled masculinity, while homosexuality not only embodied the opposite but threatened western civilisation by not producing offspring – he was against birth control for the same reason. His novels abound with casual misogyny, and a worrying preoccupation with rape – although in 1984 he does have the excuse that this could be said to reflect the violent frustration of Winston’s trodden-upon existence under totalitarianism.
But the Bemolutionary rule of intellectual grave robbery is to cynically take what’s useful and scrap the rest. Human beings – or, more specifically, the civilisation that shapes us – are too bleakly flawed for uncritical hero worship. In Orwell’s case, it’s his idea of socialism that’s worth salvaging.
The Left as we know it is dwindling away. In the last two decades it has achieved less than at any time in the last hundred. The rampant Right has hard-wired market values into the way we’re brought up to see and think about the world. If socialism has a future, it’s not looking good. The kind of clear, everyday style of communication at which Orwell excelled is vital at a time when getting yourself heard above the general banal-consumerist hubbub is more difficult than ever.
The same goes for his style of broad and non-dogmatic socialism. The Left needs unity more than it ever has done, and our best chance of achieving that is by making practical left-wing policy the focus – gathering leftists around the things they would want to see done in power, rather than the underlying philosophical whys and wherefores that have kept them divided for decades. It’s a colossal ask, but the alternative, doubtlessly grim, doesn’t bear thinking about. George Orwell was very, very far from perfect, but he does offer us a way out of the mire.