George Orwell and Socialism

With Animal Farm, an allegorical tale of the Russian Revolution, and 1984, a fictional analysis of the totalitarian state, George Orwell may well have done more to smash Marxist ideology than any other writer before or since.  He is considered by many the great nemesis of socialism.  As it happens, he was a convinced socialist himself.  Anyone doubting the fact need only read Homage to Catalonia, a memoir of his service in the Spanish Civil War.  If he ever felt any sympathy for the Stalinist variant of the totalitarian state, that experience cured him of it.  Not so his dedication to the socialist idea.  Orwell was, in fact, a revolutionary socialist.  For example, during World War II he wrote,

The difference between Socialism and capitalism is not primarily a difference of technique. One cannot simply change from one system to the other as one might install a new piece of machinery in a factory, and then carry on as before, with the same people in positions of control. Obviously there is also needed a complete shift of power. New blood, new men, new ideas – in the true sense of the word, a revolution.

(Writing in 1940) The English revolution started several years ago, and it began to gather momentum when the troops came back from Dunkirk. Like all else in England, it happens in a sleepy, unwilling way, but it is happening. The war has speeded it up, but it has also increased, and desperately, the necessity for speed. …since a classless, ownerless society is generally spoken of as “Socialism”, we can give that name to the society towards which we are now moving. The war and the revolution are inseparable. We cannot establish anything that a western nation would regard as Socialism without defeating Hitler; on the other hand we cannot defeat Hitler while we remain economically and socially in the nineteenth century. The past is fighting the future and we have two years, a year, possibly only a few months, to see to it that the future wins.

We cannot win the war without introducing Socialism, nor establish Socialism without winning the war. …The fact that we are at war has turned Socialism from a textbook word into a realizable policy. The inefficiency of private capitalism has been proved all over Europe. Its injustice has been proved in the East End of London. …If it can be made clear that defeating Hitler means wiping out class privilege, the great mass of middling people, …will probably be on our side.

From the moment that all productive goods have been declared the property of the State, the common people will feel, as they cannot feel now, that the State is themselves.

One can predict the future in the form of an “either-or”: either we introduce Socialism, or we lose the war. (Published November, 1942)

and so on.  One can find much more in the same vein in Orwell’s writings. In retrospect, it all seems a bit delusional, but Orwell was no fool. He was a surpassingly brilliant man, with a deep respect for the truth. He was no ideologue, and his analyses of the great events happening around him were often remarkably accurate and profound. If anything, his example should teach us humility. If one of the greatest thinkers our species has ever produced could have been so wide of the mark in his predictions of things to come, it might behoove us to be somewhat reticent about attempting the same thing ourselves. Black swans have a habit of turning up at embarrassing times.

For that matter, Orwell was hardly an anomaly in the first half of the twentieth century.  A great number of intellectuals accepted it almost as a commonplace that socialism in some form was not only desirable, but inevitable.  Many agreed with Maxim Gorky’s conclusion that democracy and socialism were inseparable.  One could not exist without the other.  The hard times of the 1930’s seemed to sweep away any lingering doubts that the capitalist system was at the end of its tether.  The stampede to socialism was hardly just a European phenomenon.  Anyone doubting that thinkers in the United States were just as susceptible to the collective delusion need only visit the stacks of a university library and look through the pages of such intellectual and political journals as the Nation, The New Republic, and the American Mercury for the year 1934.  Orwell was merely one of many who saw the “obvious”:  the demise of capitalism was coming sooner rather than later.  The only question left was how to manage the transition to socialism as elegantly as possible.

Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, we now know that capitalism was rather more tenacious than Orwell and the rest suspected.  However, we would do well not to become too complacent.  Technological developments like the Internet greatly enhance our access to all kinds of information, but they also tend to reinforce groupthink on both the left and the right with a power that is exponentially greater than the pamphlets and journals of the 1930’s.  Our own collective delusions about the future of mankind will likely seem even more quaint half a century hence.

Orwell’s classless society may have been the stuff of dreams, but several regimes have come and gone since his death that came close to realizing the nightmare world of 1984.  As we shall see, he was remarkably prescient about a good number of other things as well.

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