On International Workers' Day - The socialism of George Orwell
The socialism of George Orwell
A look at the socialist beliefs of George Orwell. Also, a look at his writings on Soviet Communism.
George Orwell was a fascinating figure and brilliant writer. He was an idealist, who is best known for his work in warning of the dangers of totalitarianism (whatever its political form) This can be seen in the two classics 1984, and Animal Farm. Orwell was also a committed socialist who sought to promote a more egalitarian and fairer society.
“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.”
George Orwell, “Why I write”
Firstly, George Orwell was definitely a democratic socialist. He stated this consistently throughout his life – from the mid-1920s to his death in 1950. It is true that he wrote a compelling account warning of the dangers of a totalitarian state. But, Orwell always maintained that just because you severely criticised Soviet-style Communism didn’t make you any less a socialist. In fact, socialism as Orwell understood it, stood for all the values – democracy, liberty, equality – that Soviet Communism rejected. Orwell believed that only a truly democratic Socialist regime would support liberty.
“And the only regime which, in the long run, will dare to permit freedom of speech is a socialist regime. If Fascism triumphs I am finished as a writer — that is to say, finished in my only effective capacity. That of itself would be a sufficient reason for joining a socialist party.”
George Orwell, “Why I Joined the Independent Labour Party”
Homage to Catalonia
Orwell detested Soviet-style Communism – a belief strengthened when he ended up fighting Soviet-backed Communists during the Spanish civil war – Orwell went to Spain to fight against Fascism and for the Republican movement. As a member of the ILP, he joined a fraternal Spanish party – POUM – a small Marxist / Anarchist / Socialist grouping who had strong utopian Socialist ideals. Orwell loved their utopian Socialism.
“Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all. And it was here that those few months in the militia were valuable to me. For the Spanish militias, while they lasted, were a sort of microcosm of a classless society. In that community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no bootlicking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages of socialism might be like. 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.”
George Orwell, ‘Homage to Catalonia’
But, Stalin wanted to crush all left-wing parties who were not the Communist party; this led to a civil war amongst the Republican movement in Spain. Orwell got caught up in this and it made him really disgusted with Stalin and the Communist party.
“the Communists stood not upon the extreme Left, but upon the extreme right. In reality this should come as no surprise, because the tactics of the Communist parties elsewhere”
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia
This experience of fighting alongside socialist idealists and against Stalinist backed Communist party, only strengthened his belief in democratic socialism.
Down and out in Paris and London
Orwell had a privileged upbringing – he studied at Eton College, along with many future members of the British establishment. After school, he got a job in the Burmese civil service. But he came to reject his class privileges and also grew to detest the British Empire. In Down and out in Paris and London and Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell wanted to experience the difficult life that working class people experienced. These experiences in Paris, London and Wigan made Orwell very sympathetic to the cause of the working class, and Orwell believed it was socialism that was the fairest way to help create a more equal society.
“For perhaps ten years past I have had some grasp of the real nature of capitalist society. I have seen British imperialism at work in Burma, and I have seen something of the effects of poverty and unemployment in Britain…. One has got to be actively a Socialist, not merely sympathetic to Socialism, or one plays into the hands of our always active enemies.”
George Orwell, “Why I Joined the Independent Labour Party”
Animal Farm is an allegory on revolutions which fail their ideals. It is clearly an indictment of the Russian Revolution. Orwell made no secret of the fact that he detested what Stalin was doing in Russia. Orwell was scathing of left-wing intellectuals (like George Bernard Shaw) who thought Soviet Russia was a Socialist paradise. Orwell lamented that Communists in Britain were too liable to excuse Stalin’s crimes and paint a picture of Russia which was not reality.
To Orwell, Soviet Russia was a failing of democratic Socialist ideals. Stalin had merely replaced one dictatorship (old Tsars) with another more murderous dictatorship.
Independent Labour Party
George Orwell was a member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). The ILP was one of the founding forces of the British Socialist and Labour movement. Their roots were strongly influenced by Christian Socialism and the Fabian movement. Key figures in the party included John Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald and James Maxton.
To give a flavour of the ILP 1928, the ILP developed a “Socialism in Our Time” platform, embodied in the programme:
- The Living Wage, incompletely applied.
- A substantial increase of the Unemployment Allowance
- The nationalisation of banking, incompletely applied
- The bulk purchase of raw materials
- The bulk purchase of foodstuffs
- The nationalisation of power
- The nationalisation of transport
- The nationalisation of land
Unfortunately, many in America equate Socialism with Soviet Communism. They are unaware that Socialist ideals have nothing to do with Stalin’s policies. Orwell saw Stalin and Hitler as pursuing essentially the same aim of creating a totalitarian state. Orwell wrote against totalitarianism and passionately for a democratic and fair Socialist society in Britain.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “The socialism of George Orwell”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net. | 14th July 2014.
Seeder's note -- The fourth quote in this article is incomplete for some reason, and rather vague. For clarity, here is a larger version of the quoted passage from Homage to Catalonia, chapter 5 :
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 this should cause no surprise, because the tactics of the Communist Party elsewhere, especially in France, have made it clear that Official Communism must be regarded, at any rate for the time being, as an anti-revolutionary force. The whole of Comintern policy is now subordinated (excusably, considering the world situation) to the defence of U.S.S.R., which depends upon a system of military alliances. In particular, the U.S.S.R. is in alliance with France, a capitalist-imperialist country. The alliance is of little use to Russia unless French capitalism is strong, therefore Communist policy in France has got to be anti-revolutionary.