On International Workers' Day - The socialism of George Orwell

  
Via:  dignitatem-societatis  •  3 weeks ago  •  24 comments

On International Workers' Day - The socialism of George Orwell
“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.”

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T


The socialism of George Orwell



A look at the socialist beliefs of George Orwell. Also, a look at his writings on Soviet Communism.

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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

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:

  1. The Living Wage, incompletely applied.
  2. A substantial increase of the Unemployment Allowance
  3. The nationalisation of banking, incompletely applied
  4. The bulk purchase of raw materials
  5. The bulk purchase of foodstuffs
  6. The nationalisation of power
  7. The nationalisation of transport
  8. The nationalisation of land

Conclusion

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.

source


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.

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Dignitatem Societatis
1  seeder  Dignitatem Societatis    3 weeks ago

Lesson for the day: Totalitarianism is not socialism.

Happy May Day!

 
 
 
Trout Giggles
1.1  Trout Giggles  replied to  Dignitatem Societatis @1    3 weeks ago

And also to you!

Thanks for seeding this. I now have a better understanding of Orwell because frankly, that man always confused me. I've read both "Animal Farm" and "1984" more than once and I always, always, came away with the idea that Orwell was disgusted with socialism. Now I see what he was trying to say.

However much I agree with his ideas, they are not practical human nature being what it is.

 
 
 
Dignitatem Societatis
1.1.1  seeder  Dignitatem Societatis  replied to  Trout Giggles @1.1    3 weeks ago
I've read both "Animal Farm" and "1984" more than once and I always, always, came away with the idea that Orwell was disgusted with socialism. Now I see what he was trying to say.

In Animal Farm, Old Major is supposed to be Marx (with a little Lenin tossed in), and Napoleon (who betrays the ideal) is Stalin. Snowball is basically Trotsky.

However much I agree with his ideas, they are not practical human nature being what it is.

I think Orwell would tell you that the very part of human nature that revolts against subjugation (master and servant societal/economic arrangements) is exactly where the socialist ideal comes from, and I would too.

A major point of it all is supposed to be freedom through equality, especially when it comes to the social means of production, which are, after all, the means of life itself in a social economy (which is what human economy is). No man is an island.

A lack of that specific kind of equality inherently means that some have power over others. For example, lords over serfs who must work to benefit the lord (because the lord owns and controls the land), or capitalists over workers who must work to benefit the capitalist (because the capitalist owns and controls the capital). If that's the case, if some are dependent for their very livelihoods on means of production (means of life) owned and controlled by others, then how in the world can everyone truly be free? That's pretty much why the baseline for anything trying to call itself socialism has to be some kind of joint, cooperative (social) ownership and control over the means of production (the productive capital assets). You might have noticed that what most people think socialism is doesn't quite fit that bill. Mostly thanks to the propaganda of Orwell's Napoleon, er, I mean Stalin. ;)

 
 
 
Trout Giggles
1.1.2  Trout Giggles  replied to  Dignitatem Societatis @1.1.1    3 weeks ago
very part of human nature that revolts against subjugation (master and servant societal/economic arrangements) is exactly where the socialist ideal comes from, and I would too.

Ok, I'll buy that, but what about the greedy and the power hungry? Isn't that why the USSR basically failed and why the collective in Animal Farm failed? Someone in the collective will figure out a way to carve out a piece of production for himself and then he will become the dictator like Napoleon became. Napoleon used the army (the dogs) to gain power, then he controlled the means of production. For the sake of our exercise, someone will find a way to gain power such as means to  bribe or buy military force in order to control the masses.

Does that make any sense or do I need more covefe?

 
 
 
Dignitatem Societatis
1.1.3  seeder  Dignitatem Societatis  replied to  Trout Giggles @1.1.2    3 weeks ago

I'll have to reply later. Gotta go for now. Sorry.

 
 
 
Trout Giggles
1.1.4  Trout Giggles  replied to  Dignitatem Societatis @1.1.3    3 weeks ago

I eagerly await

 
 
 
Bob Nelson
1.1.5  Bob Nelson  replied to  Trout Giggles @1.1.2    3 weeks ago
or do I need more covefe?

We all do.

In my of-course-not-at-all-humble opinion, you're not looking at the right topic.

Russia was autocratic under the tsars, then under the Soviets, and now under Putin's kleptocratic capitalism. The economic system is irrelevant. Russia has never had any democratic / human rights traditions, so it slides naturally under a strongman.

Revolutionary France was the same. Two centuries and five regime changes were needed before attaining stability as a democracy with solid human rights.

The Brits (and their spiritual descendants) trace the birth of their traditions back to the Magna Charta, 1215, if I remember correctly.

Not that the Brits hold the record. The Scandinavians have been at it for a thousand years. Iceland's Althing (parliament) is that old.

 
 
 
luther28
1.1.6  luther28  replied to  Trout Giggles @1.1.2    3 weeks ago
Ok, I'll buy that, but what about the greedy and the power hungry? Isn't that why the USSR basically failed and why the collective in Animal Farm failed?

It seems to be the major contributor for the failure of many to most Governments and organizations. All are equal, but some are more equal than others, sadly it seems to be the human condition.

 
 
 
Dignitatem Societatis
1.1.7  seeder  Dignitatem Societatis  replied to  Trout Giggles @1.1.2    3 weeks ago
Ok, I'll buy that, but what about the greedy and the power hungry? Isn't that why the USSR basically failed and why the collective in Animal Farm failed? Someone in the collective will figure out a way to carve out a piece of production for himself and then he will become the dictator like Napoleon became. Napoleon used the army (the dogs) to gain power, then he controlled the means of production. For the sake of our exercise, someone will find a way to gain power such as means to  bribe or buy military force in order to control the masses. Does that make any sense or do I need more covefe?

It makes perfect sense. It's also a lesson from history. All too often, the power vacuum created by a revolution can leave the door wide open for malign actors to take advantage. It tends to happen when a population doesn't really understand a movement, and trusts too much in the leaders of a revolution to hand some kind of utopia down to them from on high. It just doesn't work that way. There's too much power in too small a space, which, oddly enough, is one of the main things socialism is supposed to prevent.

People used to think that a 19th Century-style revolution, a violent overthrow of existing power relations (ala Marx) was the only way it could happen, but today that view has changed dramatically. History shows that it simply doesn't produce good results. Socialist parties who hold seats in parliaments around the world (at least in advanced nations) are not calling for revolutions like that anymore. They mostly focus on legislation that helps the working class in a still-existing capitalism.

Personally, I think socialism has to evolve slowly over time. I don't think it can be handed down in short order by a government, from above, at the stroke of a pen. It can't be created by force. It can't be imposed. It has to be built up by the people themselves, from below. People have to become so fed up with the capitalist and worker relation that they actively seek out alternative organizational forms (like worker-owned cooperatives, for example). Economic security via cooperative, pluralistic, communal wealth-building has to become a widespread thing of its own volition. The idea of making a living as a non-owning (and dispensable) wage worker, at the disposal of someone else in a servile capacity, dependent on someone else's capital for their very existence, has to become totally unacceptable to more and more people over time. Eventually a sea change could occur and we'd find ourselves in a fundamentally different kind of society. Only then, when a vast majority of a population are on the same sheet of music, and have a shared, real-world experience making a living with 'social' means of production (so to speak) could a national legal framework be set up (some kind of charter or constitution) that could genuinely establish a nation as being 'socialist'.

A takeover by self-interested thugs in the chaotic aftermath of a violent revolution is impossible when a violent revolution never occurs. Not to mention the fact that once enough people are on the same sheet of music, a violent overthrow of an existing social order isn't even necessary. They would just make things how they want them to be.

 
 
 
Bob Nelson
1.1.8  Bob Nelson  replied to  Dignitatem Societatis @1.1.7    3 weeks ago

Revolutions are not good. People die. The chaos offers opportunities to unpleasant people.

That said, when there's nothing left to lose......

 
 
 
Dignitatem Societatis
1.1.9  seeder  Dignitatem Societatis  replied to  Bob Nelson @1.1.8    3 weeks ago
That said, when there's nothing left to lose......

Bad things happen.

And jumping from nothing left to lose all the way to socialism is probably a stretch. You really need a couple of stepping stones in between, like a sound democratic political tradition and a complex social economy with fairly high levels of productivity. Even Marx thought socialism was an emergent thing, in his case emerging naturally from industrial capitalism (per historical materialism).

 
 
 
TᵢG
1.1.10  TᵢG  replied to  Dignitatem Societatis @1.1.9    3 weeks ago

Been trying to explain that very concept to others here on NT regarding Lenin's attempts to force-fit socialism.   Funny how people refuse to acknowledge facts that counter their beliefs.

 
 
 
Dignitatem Societatis
1.1.11  seeder  Dignitatem Societatis  replied to  TᵢG @1.1.10    3 weeks ago
Been trying to explain that very concept to others here on NT regarding Lenin's attempts to force-fit socialism.

There were arguments about that at the time, too. I'm pretty sure (off the top of my head) that after the February revolution Kerensky's provisional government wanted to go with capitalism, specifically because of Marx's historical materialism. Of course, the Bolsheviks were having none of that and put an end to it with the October Revolution.

Granted, the basic idea of a 'union of workers soviets' wasn't a bad one in and of itself, but unfortunately it wasn't long before it existed in name only. Developing the country with capitalism first, and setting up a functioning government based on genuine representative democracy (not false, just for show stuff) would have definitely been the better way to go.

 
 
 
TᵢG
1.1.12  TᵢG  replied to  Dignitatem Societatis @1.1.11    3 weeks ago

By the time Lenin realized that he needed to develop capitalism within Russia he was within two years of his death.   He finally did realize that sometimes things must evolve over time (skipping steps does not always work) but it was the end of his time on Earth.   Stalin, however, was quite okay to go with the happy promises and popular label as a cover for producing one of the most brutal authoritarian states in history.

 
 
 
Dignitatem Societatis
1.1.13  seeder  Dignitatem Societatis  replied to  TᵢG @1.1.12    3 weeks ago
 Stalin, however, was quite okay to go with the happy promises and popular label as a cover for producing one of the most brutal authoritarian states in history.

And somehow convinced a great many people around the world, even to this day, that what he was doing was socialism.

 
 
 
Bob Nelson
1.1.14  Bob Nelson  replied to  Dignitatem Societatis @1.1.9    3 weeks ago

When there's nothing left to lose, desperation engenders violence. That violence will probably end badly, but... desperation engenders violence.

 
 
 
Trout Giggles
1.1.15  Trout Giggles  replied to  Dignitatem Societatis @1.1.13    3 weeks ago

I like watching the smart kids in the room having a discussion (you and TiG).

I've learned something thanks to the both of you

 
 
 
TᵢG
1.1.16  TᵢG  replied to  Dignitatem Societatis @1.1.13    3 weeks ago
And somehow convinced a great many people around the world, even to this day, that what he was doing was socialism.

Apparently that is extremely easy to do.   Simply announce 'what I am doing is socialism' and people run with that.   Take Chavez as the most recent example.   The guy expropriates industry, tries to implement a command economy, irresponsibly redistributes wealth to the people and effectively produces a hapless authoritarian state capitalism that ruined the economy.   But since he labeled his initiatives as 'socialism' Venezuela is now considered as such even though the people's control over the economy was actually lessened by his actions.   Talking heads decry 'socialism' vis-à-vis Venezuela and praise capitalism while being entirely unaware that the economic system of Venezuela is a variant of capitalism.   

It is as if most people do not analyze beyond the label.   I have been trying to show how the various so-called 'examples' of 'socialism' break down into well-defined factors such as expropriation, redistribution of wealth, statism, command economy, authoritarian rule, government programs/services, pure egalitarianism, etc. to encourage people to try to recognize that they are using an overloaded word (socialism) to express entirely different (even contradictory) systems.   Not only would using proper terminology improve clarity of communication by calling out specifically that which one dislikes, it allows us all to more directly act on the specific problems.    It has been interesting to observe individuals even here on NT who literally are against anything that is labeled 'socialism' regardless of the specifics of the case in point.   'If it is called socialism I am against it; if it is called capitalism I am for it'.   How easy is it to manipulate an electorate who operates in terms of labels rather than substance?

Bernie Sanders, for example, as PotUS would not move our system away from capitalism.    The closest he might get to a socialism initiative is to make it easier to create and evolve workplace democracy.    His focus is not on socialism but on regulating and further taxing industry, increasing egalitarianism, redistribution of wealth and public services (e.g. free healthcare, education).  He would, if he succeeded, increase the level of social democracy in the USA.   He is clearly a social democrat, but since he self-labels 'socialist' whatever a President Sanders would do would ipso facto become 'socialism'.


( I realize that I am not informing you of anything new.   Just venting. )

 
 
 
Bob Nelson
1.1.17  Bob Nelson  replied to  TᵢG @1.1.16    3 weeks ago
Just venting.

The abuse of certain words is... ... annoying.

 
 
 
Bob Nelson
2  Bob Nelson    3 weeks ago

Good seed. Thank you.

Orwell's dogged insistence on individual liberty is significant. It seems to me - it seems obvious to me to the point that it must require intention to not see - that workplace dictatorship, as is inevitable in capitalism, is incompatible with individual freedom.

Capitalism is incompatible with democracy.

 
 
 
Trout Giggles
3  Trout Giggles    3 weeks ago

I have a question.

How do you feel about regulatory oversight in a socialist economy? Is it required? Will you trust the producers to ensure safe products and safe working environments?

IOW, would we need agencies like the EPA, OSHA, and FDA?

 
 
 
Bob Nelson
3.1  Bob Nelson  replied to  Trout Giggles @3    3 weeks ago

IMHO, it depends on other factors, primarily resource allocation. If the system uses supply-and-demand, I see no reason for a socialist company to be any more angelic than a capitalist company. Oversight required.

If, OTOH, the system uses "central planning", there might not be the same cutthroat competition that leads so often to corner-cutting. I'm not sure.

Penal sanctions for malfeasance might have a greater deterrent effect, since it would be much harder to extract the conspirators' booty.

 
 
 
TᵢG
3.1.1  TᵢG  replied to  Bob Nelson @3.1    3 weeks ago
If, OTOH, the system uses "central planning", there might not be the same cutthroat competition that leads so often to corner-cutting. I'm not sure.

If societal systems evolve to the point where a nation can effectively plan its economy the system would likely be at a point where the needs of society are easily satisfied.   That is, food, clothing, building materials, etc. are all plentiful and produced as a product of the central planning (imagine a heavily automated system - production by robots).   Businesses outside core needs would likely still engage in competition.   For example, the fun stuff like technology, fashion, etc. would make more sense as the products of a competitive market.

 
 
 
TᵢG
3.2  TᵢG  replied to  Trout Giggles @3    3 weeks ago
How do you feel about regulatory oversight in a socialist economy?

It depends on the specifics of the socio-economic/political system.   A system could technically be socialism but lack the means to ensure individual businesses act responsibly.   As such these agencies are the best solution we have to try to regulate responsible actions that often go against the bottom line.   A mature socialist system (in theory) would be such that the people would not approve of a new coal plant (for example) if they were willing to pay more to keep the environment cleaner.   This is because the level of involvement of the people would be dramatically higher than what we see today.    So in theory, over time such agencies would no longer be needed.    The people would get what they want.

Personally, I do not expect that will ever happen.   I suspect that there will always be a need for regulatory agencies - at least as agents to identify violations and enforce compliance.

 
 
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