Who was George Orwell?

The intellectual demolition of Communism was hardly the work of an individual, but even compared to the likes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Milovan Djilas, George Orwell was probably its most lethal foe. His “1984” and “Animal Farm” revealed the hideous reality of the beast behind the ideological mask, and it never really recovered from the blow. In the intervening years, Orwell the human being has been transmogrified into Orwell the intellectual icon. In the same way that the reality of Thomas Jefferson the deist has been “modified” to reveal Thomas Jefferson, defender of Christianity, so too has the reality of Orwell the democratic socialist been “modified” to reveal Orwell the defender of capitalism. He was anything but that.

To those interested in seeing the real man through the intellectual fog, I recommend “Homage to Catalonia,” Orwell’s account of his experiences on and off the front in the Spanish Civil War. He was well into his 30’s when he arrived in Spain, and I doubt that his fundamental world view changed much after he left. He was by no means a fanatical ideologue. In fact, he said that the political side of the war bored him. His perception of the events that marked the conflict certainly altered both during and after the conflict. Nevertheless, he stood to the left, not to the right of the Communists in Spain. He saw them as pawns of the Soviet Union, and their policy as subordinated completely to the need to defend the U.S.S.R. As Orwell put it,

The whole process is easy to understand if one remembers that it proceeds from the temporary alliance that Fascism, in certain forms, forces upon the bourgeois and the worker. This alliance, known as the Popular Front, is in essence an alliance of enemies, and it seems probable that it must always end by one partner swallowing the other. The only unexpected feature in the Spanish situation – and outside Spain it has caused an immense amount of misunderstanding – is that among the parties on the Government side the Communists stood not upon the extreme Left, but upon the extreme Right… In reality it was the Communists above all others who prevented revolution in Spain. Later, when the Right-wing forces were in full control, the Communists showed themselves willing to go a great deal further than the Liberals in hunting down the revolutionary leaders.

And who were the real revolutionary leaders? Orwell happened to arrive at a place and time during the conflict where the revolutionary upsurge following the shock of Franco’s coup d’état had reached its peak. He came to Aragon and Catalonia, where, led by the anarchists and the Workers Party of Marxist Unification or POUM, from its Spanish acronym, the workers were in the saddle, the local economy had been collectivized, and an extreme spirit of equality prevailed. As a democratic socialist, Orwell found this state of affairs highly attractive. As he put it,

I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Aragon one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilized life – snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. – had simply ceased to exist… However much one cursed at the time, one realized afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word “comrade” stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality. I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality… But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the “mystique” of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all… And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me. The effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before.

How could such a man have become the hammer that dealt such a mortal blow to Communism? It’s easy enough to understand for anyone who reads this short book. There were two fairly well defined party lines prevailing in Spain at the time Orwell arrived. The POUM and anarchists insisted that the revolution must continue unabated or the war would be meaningless. However, orthodox Communists, represented in Orwell’s area by the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia, or PSUC, insisted that it was essential to win the war at all costs. To achieve victory, revolutionary hubris must be sacrificed to political reality. “Reality” included accepting a return to bourgeois control, centralized government, and a militarized army in place of the party militias prevailing at the time. Initially, Orwell preferred this point of view. Later, he came to reject it. As time went on, the dispute became increasingly bitter.

Orwell had come to Spain with a letter of introduction from the British International Labor Party, which was associated with the POUM. As a result, he joined and went to the front with a POUM militia. At first, he was irritated by their “ceaseless carping against the ‘counter-revolutionary’ PSUC,” which struck him as, “priggish and tiresome.” Later, as he put it, “I realized that the POUM were almost blameless compared with their adversaries.”

At the front, Orwell witnessed the heroism of POUM fighters, some of them mere children of 15, in their battle against the fascists. There was no question in his mind about the integrity of their revolutionary ideals. However, when they returned to Barcelona after months of privation in unspeakably primitive conditions, the Communists treated them to anything but a heroes’ welcome. Quite the contrary. In Orwell’s words,

Tentatively at first, then more loudly, they began to assert that the POUM was splitting the Government forces not by bad judgment but by deliberate design. The POUM was declared to be no more than a gang of disguised Fascists, in the pay of Franco and Hitler, who were pressing a pseudo-revolutionary policy as a way of aiding the Fascist cause. The POUM was a “Trotskyist” organization and “Franco’s Fifth Column.” This implied that scores of thousands of working-class people, including eight or ten thousand soldiers who were freezing in the front-line trenches and hundreds of foreigners who had come to Spain to fight against Fascism, often sacrificing their livelihood and their nationality by doing so, were simply traitors in the pay of the enemy… It is not a nice thing to see a Spanish boy of fifteen carried down the line on a stretcher, with a dazed white face looking out from among the blankets, and to think of the sleek persons in London and Paris who are writing pamphlets to prove that this boy is a Fascist in disguise… One of the dreariest effects of this was has been to teach me that the Left-wing press is every bit as spurious and dishonest as that of the Right.

Here, then, one finds the source of Orwell’s hatred of Stalinism and orthodox Communism. He rejected them, not because he preferred Capitalism, but because, as a convinced Socialist, he found the Stalinists devious, power-hungry, and essentially counter-revolutionary. In Spain, he was confronted with their betrayal. It was a betrayal, not of Capitalism, but of the workers power. Thanks to them, “the process of collectivization was checked, the workers’ patrols were abolished and the pre-war police forces (for Orwell, the natural enemies of the workers), largely reinforced and very heavily armed, were restored, and… finally, most important of all, the workers’ militias (in which Orwell had fought), based on the trade unions, were gradually broken up and redistributed among the new Popular Army, a ‘non-political’ army on semi-bourgeois lines, with a differential pay rate, a privileged officer-caste, etc. etc.” As a result of Communist activity, Orwell noted that, “A general ‘bourgeoisification,’ a deliberate destruction of the equalitarian spirit of the first few months of the revolution, was taking place… What had seemed on the surface and for a brief instant to be a workers’ State was changing before one’s eyes into an ordinary bourgeois republic with the normal division into rich and poor.”

When Orwell, a man who had suffered and risked his life in defense of that workers’ State, was denounced as a “traitor, fifth columnist, and fascist,” by the very Party that he saw dismantling the revolution before his eyes, that betrayal inspired the intellectual deconstruction of the Stalinist state that occupied much of his remaining life and culminated in “Animal Farm” and “1984.”

The fact that Orwell, like so many of his fellow intellectuals during the era of the Great Depression, was a democratic socialist, and launched his blows at Communism, not from the right, but from the left, is not as surprising as it might seem in retrospect. Many of Communisms most effective foes were similar to him in that respect, at least at some point in their lives.  Often, like Orwell, they had witnessed the contrast between the ideal and the reality firsthand.  See, for example, “The New Class,” by Milovan Djilas, and “Child of the Revolution” by Wolfgang Leonhard.  Another interesting and entertaining if lesser known example of the genre is “Out of the Night,” by Jan Valtin.  Thinkers long before the time of Marx had predicted the eventual demise of the socialist ideal because, unlike conventional religions, which promise paradise in the world to come, it promised paradise on earth, where the disconnect between the reality and the ideal would finally become too obvious to overlook.  Orwell and his peers were the messengers who finally revealed the man behind the curtain.  We owe them much, and their relevance hasn’t ended with the demise of Communism.  Eventually, another messianic ideology will arise to take its place. 

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Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

One thought on “Who was George Orwell?”

  1. Very good point about Jefferson. He did, however, revere Christ sans his attributed mystical qualities.

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