All we see of George Orwell
in popular culture is a shallow TV program that uses his sinister theme of "Big Brother". But he was one of the great thinkers of the 20th century, all the greater because worked hard to express his ideas clearly, and because he risked his life for his beliefs - ultimately losing it to illness which he probably picked up on the battlefields of Spain.
In the late 1930's and for a long time afterwards, being pro-communist was popular among European intellectuals. Orwell stood out for being socialist, yet vehemently anti-communist. Many others on the left turned away from communism during the 1950s or later. (A small number continue with religious fervor to believe whatever nonsense is required, to keep the communist faith today).
When did Orwell reach his views against communism? And what led him to this? I'm still trying to figure that out.
He had a great clarity of thought in moral and political issues. Not infallible of course - discussing this with a friend, I'm now convinced me that Orwell was wrong to say that the British ruling class approved of Franco and Nazism prior to WW2. But he was right so often, and so far ahead of his time.Spain and the British ruling class
By that time one did not need to be a clairvoyant to foresee that war between Britain and Germany was coming; one could even foretell within a year or two when it would come. Yet in the most mean, cowardly, hypocritical way the British ruling class did all they could to hand Spain over to Franco and the Nazis. Why? Because they were pro-Fascist, was the obvious answer. Undoubtedly they were, and yet when it came to the final showdown they chose to stand up to Germany. It is still very uncertain what plan they acted on in backing Franco, and they may have had no clear plan at all. Whether the British ruling class are wicked or merely stupid is one of the most difficult questions of our time, and at certain moments a very important question.- Orwell, Looking back on the Spanish War
Orwell did seem to have had a sense of foreboding, and by early '39 (when he finished writing Coming Up For Air
) he seemed to regard war as inevitable. Many in the ruling class, however, were traumatized by WW1 to the extent that they made compromises and serious errors in trying to avoid a repeat, and made things worse. Easy to see that in hindsight, but Orwell (and Churchill, from a very different political outlook) saw it earlier.
But there's a big difference between being pro-fascist (or anti-communist) and pro-Nazi. Reading about what went on in the days of the Spanish Republic (an anarchist-socialist-communist coalition) you didn't have to be a Franco supporter to be worried about the Republic.
There was a lot of sympathy for Hitler's anti-communism, but there wasn't a lot of vocal support for expansionist Nazism in Britain prior to WW2, if I understand correctly. Once they finally woke up to what Hitler was doing, they did stand up to Germany.Orwell's views of communism
Even in "The Road to Wigan Pier," 1937 (download
) based on his visit to the north of England in 1936, he seems to be already very negative in his views of communism, though it's unclear to me how much awareness and opposition he had to the Soviet communism at that time. Note that this is before his experiences with communist propaganda and betrayals when he fought in the Spanish Civil War.
To explain, I've given some lengthy quotes - but Orwell is always a good read.
He also expresses sympathy with a communist speaker at one point, about the hypocrisy of teaching the working class about "food values," where I feel torn in exactly the same way as Orwell:
First you condemn a family to live on thirty shillings a week, and then you have the damned impertinence to tell them how they are to spend their money. He was quite right — I agree heartily. Yet all the same it is a pity that, merely for the lack of a proper tradition, people should pour muck like tinned milk down their throats and not even know that it is inferior to the product of the cow.
But he also reveals his views of communism's dodgy theories, and its attacks on democracy:
It seems only yesterday that Socialists, especially orthodox Marxists, were telling me with superior smiles that Socialism was going to arrive of its own accord by some mysterious process called ‘historic necessity’. Possibly that belief still lingers, but it has been shaken, to say the least of it. Hence the sudden attempts of Communists in various countries to ally themselves with democratic forces which they have been sabotaging for years past.
Also, socialism in the working class - and showing his contempt for communist theory:
For it must be remembered that a working man, so long as he remains a genuine working man, is seldom or never a Socialist in the complete, logically consistent sense. Very likely he votes Labour, or even Communist if he gets the chance, but his conception of Socialism is quite different from that of the, book-trained Socialist higher up. To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night, Socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter’ hours and nobody bossing you about. To the more revolutionary type, the type who is a hunger-marcher and is blacklisted by employers, the word is a sort of rallying-cry against the forces of oppression, a vague threat of future violence. But, so far as my experience goes, no genuine working man grasps the deeper implications of Socialism. Often, in my opinion, he is a truer Socialist than the orthodox Marxist, because he does remember, what the other so often forgets, that Socialism means justice and common decency. But what he does not grasp is that Socialism cannot be narrowed down to mere economic justice’ and that a reform of that magnitude is bound to work immense changes in our civilization and his own way of life. His vision of the Socialist future is a vision of present society with the worst abuses left out, and with interest centring round the same things as at present — family life, the pub, football, and local politics. As for the philosophic side of Marxism, the pea-and-thimble trick with those three mysterious entities, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, I have never met a working man who had the faintest interest in it.
Sounds like someone who hasn't been a believer in communism for a long time, if ever.
And, not about communism per se but relevant to dictatorial communism:
Sometimes I look at a Socialist... and wonder what the devil his motive really is. Poverty and, what is more, the habits of mind created by poverty, are something to be abolished from above, by violence if necessary; perhaps even preferably by violence. Hence his worship of ‘great’ men and appetite for dictatorships, Fascist or Communist; for to him, apparently (vide his remarks apropos of the Italo-Abyssinian war and the Stalin-Wells conversations), Stalin and Mussolini are almost equivalent persons... The truth is that, to many people calling themselves Socialists, revolution does not mean a movement of the masses with which they hope to associate themselves; it means a set of reforms which ‘we’, the clever ones, are going to impose upon ‘them’, the Lower Orders.
and then, communism and Catholicism
Hence the net effect of books like this is to give outsiders the impression that there is nothing in Communism except hatred. And here once again you come upon that queer resemblance between Communism and (convert) Roman Catholicism..... You will find there the same venom and the same dishonesty, though, to do the Catholic justice, you will not usually find the same bad manners... The Communist and the Catholic are not saying the same thing, in a sense they are even saying opposite things, and each would gladly boil the other in oil if circumstances permitted; but from the point of view of an outsider they are very much alike.
Reminds me of the fear and venom aimed at communists by in Indonesia under Suharto (1965-1998), when Suharto's own practices in propaganda, fear and social welfare had more than a little of the communist about them. (I'm not criticizing his government for having welfare programs, but there were definitely some socialist principles mixed into his government's economics, at the same time as socialism and communism were demonized.)
This next quote is more ambiguous:
Of course, as I have suggested already, it is not strictly fair to judge a movement by its adherents; but the point is that people invariably do so, and that the popular conception of Socialism is coloured by the conception of a Socialist as a dull or disagreeable person. ‘Socialism’ is pictured as a state of affairs in which our more vocal Socialists would feel thoroughly at home. This does great harm to the cause. The ordinary man may not flinch from a dictatorship of the proletariat, if you offer it tactfully; offer him a dictatorship of the prigs, and he gets ready to fight.
Marxists as a rule are not very good at reading the minds of their adversaries; if they were, the situation in Europe might be less desperate than it is at present.
Apparently wishing that the Soviets would be tougher in standing up to Hitler. This seems consistent with his later writings on the Spanish Civil War, before it ended, when he saw a communist victory as a lesser evil to a fascist one. I don't know if he still saw things in this order later, when he wrote 1984
and Animal Farm.
On the left side of politics, Orwell remained a contrarian, vehemently opposing Stalinism and communism while it was still popular to excuse and hide their atrocities.
What gave him that insight? So far, from reading Orwell, my conclusion is brutal honesty, first-hand experience (e.g. in seeing communists in action in the Spanish Civil War), nonconformity and intelligence.
Is that fair? If so, how do we imitate this?
(We could also ask: What threats are we missing today, where Orwell's way of thinking could help us? But that's a bigger question that deserves its own post.)