A Rebel’s Guide to George Orwell – by John Newsinger-Published by Bookmarks publication-December 10, 2020.

 “If there was hope, it must lie in the proles… Everywhere stood the same solid unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and child-bearing, toiling from birth till death and still singing. You were the dead; theirs was the future. But you could share in that future if you kept alive the mind.”

George Orwell -1984

In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

George Orwell

‘”All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”‘

Animal Farm

Bookmarks are the publishing arm of the British Socialist Workers Party (S.W.P.). Their Rebel’s Guide is a series of small books which largely consist of condensed versions of larger books written by the same author.

A Rebel’s Guide to George Orwell by John Newsinger is one of these books. It is largely a smaller version of his book Orwell’s Politics.[1]At only sixty pages long, this is a short introductory guide to the work of the English writer George Orwell. To a certain extent, Newsinger does a good job. By any stretch of the imagination, Orwell is a complex and controversial literary and political figure. He was, without doubt, one of the most influential writers of the 20th century

Orwell is an attractive figure for the S.W.P. They even mistakenly go as far as calling him a literary Trotskyist.[2]A significant amount of material has been written about Orwell by this Pseudo Left political organisation. Yet, for all their so-called insight, they do not characterise Orwell as a centrist political figure.

This is not to denigrate the work of one of the great literary figures of the 20th century, but political categories matter. A simple reading of Leon Trotsky’s writings on centrism would help understand Orwell’s shifting political positions that occurred throughout his life. As Trotsky said, “Speaking formally and descriptively, centrism is composed of all those trends within the proletariat and on its periphery which are distributed between reformism and Marxism, and which most often represent various stages of evolution from reformism to Marxism – and vice-versa. Both Marxism and reformism have a solid social support underlying them. Marxism expresses the historical interests of the proletariat. Reformism speaks for the privileged position of proletarian bureaucracy and aristocracy within the capitalist state. Centrism, as we have known it in the past, did not have and could not have an independent social foundation.

Different layers of the proletariat develop in the revolutionary direction in different ways and at different times. In periods of prolonged industrial uplift or the periods of political ebb tide, after defeats, different layers of the proletariat shift politically from left to right, clashing with other layers who are just beginning to evolve to the left. Different groups are delayed on separate stages of their evolution; they find their temporary leaders and create their programs and organisations. Small wonder then that such a diversity of trends is embraced in the comprehension of “centrism”! Depending upon their origin, their social composition and the direction of their evolution, different groupings may be engaged in the most savage warfare with one another, without losing thereby their character of being a variety of centrism”.[3]

While Trotsky was not writing directly about Orwell, who vacillated between revolution and reformism for most of his life, they capture the essence of Orwell’s politics.  But he was also a consistent anti-capitalist and a lifelong opponent of Stalinism. He died a Socialist

There are many striking aspects of Newsinger’s work on Orwell. Perhaps the most obvious is that for a member of an organisation that purports to be Trotskyist, he makes no use of Leon Trotsky’s writings on centrism or his important writings on The Spanish Revolution in this small book or bafflingly in his major book Orwell’s politics, making one passing comment that Trotsky had differences with the centrist POUM leader Andreas Nin.

To his credit, Newsinger does show that Orwell read many works by the various radical groups of the time. As Newsinger shows “Orwell saw no shame in starting small. He collected pamphlets from even the smallest groups, and he took them seriously. The 214-page inventory of his 2,700-item collection includes pamphlets by the All-India Congress Socialist Party, the People’s National Party (Jamaica), the Polish Labour Underground Press, the Leninist League, the Groupe Syndical Français, the Workers’ Friend, Freedom Press, Russia Today, the Meerut Trade Union Defence Committee, the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, and myriad others”.[4]

He also read Karl Marx and had a substantial collection of left-wing pamphlets borne out by this quote from Newsinger’s book on Orwell” I have before me, what must be a very rare pamphlet, written by Maxim Litvinoff in 1918 and outlining the recent events in the Russian Revolution. It makes no mention of Stalin but gives high praise to Trotsky and also to Zinoviev.” [5]

Orwell also had a significant number of Leon Trotsky works found in his library after his death. He believed that “Trotskyism can be better studied in obscure pamphlets or in papers like the Socialist Appeal than in the works of Trotsky himself, who was by no means a man of one idea.”[6]

As Newsinger states, Orwell read a significant amount of Trotsky’s work enough to be heavily influenced by his work. You could safely say that without Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism, Orwell could not have produced his two most famous works Animal Farm and 1984. Orwell mistakenly called himself a Democratic Socialist, but he was more than that. As he writes, he was heavily influenced and radicalised by the times he lived in “In a peaceful age, I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is, I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer… 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. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows.”[7]

As Newsinger points out, Orwell was not always a socialist his early days were spent being a colonial policeman in Burma. Orwell was forced to break from this past imperial life. He did so in response to the 1926 General Strike in Britain. His experiences of poverty and unemployment shaped Orwell’s future writing in the North of England. As Orwell explained, “I have only been down one coal mine so far but hope to go down some more in Yorkshire. It was for me a pretty devastating experience, and it is fearful thought that the labour of crawling as far as the coal face (about a mile in this case but as much as 3 miles in some mines), which was enough to put my legs out of action for four days, is only the beginning and ending of a miner’s day’s work, and his real work comes in between.” [8]

Stalinism’s betrayal of the Spanish revolution had a massive impact on Orwell and led to certain disorientation and confusion, which showed up in his later writings, particularly his work on war and nationalism. His experience of revolutionary Spain would move him further to the left. Homage to Catalonia, written about the events in Spain, is arguably his most important book and the key event in Orwell’s political life.

The English historian Eric Hobsbawm. Suffice to say; this book came under ferocious attack from Stalinists around the world. They still attack it even today. As Ann Talbot writes, “One could be forgiven for thinking, from the venom with which Hobsbawm attacks him, that Ken Loach was personally responsible for the defeat of the Spanish Republic. And George Orwell, author of Homage to Catalonia, which records his own experiences in the Spanish Civil War, also comes under sustained attack. Victor Gollancz was right to refuse to publish the book Hobsbawm fumes, and Kingsley Martin of the New Statesman was right to run hostile reviews when it was published since it could only divide the left. No one was interested in it anyway. “Only in the cold-war era did Orwell cease to be an awkward, marginal figure.” With this sneering remark, Hobsbawm implies that Orwell was serving the interests of Washington and the C.I.A. when he tried to expose the crimes of the Moscow bureaucracy in Spain. It is an old lie and one that has been hawked about ever since 1938 when Homage to Catalonia revealed the way in which Stalin suppressed the revolution in Spain”.[9]

This confusion is seen in his essay the Lion and the Unicorn. Orwell writes, “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their nationality. In left-wing circles, it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings”. This could be seen as an attack on left-wing intellectuals. It also could read as a little bit of a right-wing attitude as regards patriotism.

Orwell’s essay was not just a knee jerk reaction to the war. As Gregory Claeys points out, “before he wrote The Lion and the Unicorn Orwell had briefly suggested three of its central themes: first, patriotism was not inherently conservative or reactionary, but might be expressed as a legitimate sentiment among those on the left; second, patriotism alone would not prevent England’s defeat, but instead the social revolution must progress (and here his Spanish ideals were clearly carried forward). Third, Orwell argued that, in fact, it was those who were most patriotic who were least likely to “flinch from revolution when the moment comes.” John Cornford, a Communist, killed while serving in the International Brigades, had been “public school to the core.” This proved, Orwell thought, that one kind of loyalty could transmute itself into another and that it was necessary for the coming struggle to recognise “the spiritual need for patriotism and the military virtues”.[10]

Orwell’s work after Spain vacillated between right and left positions. Some of his best analyses drew heavily on the works of Leon Trotsky and his British supporters. As this quote shows, his work also contained much political confusion. He writes, “It is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free. Revolution does not mean red flags and street fighting; it means a fundamental shift of power. Whether it happens with or without bloodshed is largely an accident of time and place. Nor does it mean the dictatorship of a single class. The people in England who grasp what changes are needed and are capable of carrying them through are not confined to any one class, though it is true that very few people with over £2,000 a year are among them. What is wanted is a conscious open revolt by ordinary people against inefficiency, class privilege and the rule of the old. It is not primarily a question of change of government.

British governments do, broadly speaking, represent the will of the people, and if we alter our structure from below, we shall get the government we need. Ambassadors, generals, officials and colonial administrators who are senile or pro-Fascist are more dangerous than Cabinet ministers whose follies have to be committed in public. Right through our national life, we have got to fight against privilege, against the notion that a half-witted public schoolboy is better for command than an intelligent mechanic. Although there are gifted and honest individuals among them, we have got to break the grip of the monied class as a whole. England has got to assume its real shape. The England that is only just beneath the surface, in the factories and the newspaper offices, in the aeroplanes and the submarines, has got to take charge of its own destiny.”[11]

Conclusion

It is hard not to recommend this little book. It is a good basic introduction to the work of George Orwell. A Short Review of this book is not enough to do justice to such an important literary and political figure’s work and legacy, as Orwell undoubtedly was. Towards the end of his life, there was much controversy over the issue of Orwell of compiling a list of some 130 prominent figures in 1949 that he believed were sympathetic to the Stalinist regime in Moscow.

Orwell gave over 35 of these names to a secret government organisation called the Information Research Department. This was an arm of the British Foreign Office set up for organising anti-Soviet and anticommunist propaganda. This fact has been used to rubbish his political and literary legacy.

What Orwell did was wrong and a grave mistake, but his actions should be put in historical context not to justify what he did but to understand and learn from this experience.

As points out, “Orwell, to his credit, was neither a dupe of Stalinism nor a bourgeois liberal defender of the Moscow regime during this period. He took up an intransigent struggle against Stalinism from the left, at a time when this was the most unpopular position to take amongst liberal intellectuals. When Homage to Catalonia was published, Orwell was virtually ostracised for this account of the Spanish Civil War, which laid bare the Stalinists’ treachery against the Spanish and international working class. The Stalinists and their supporters were enraged by the book’s exposure of their role in strangling a genuine revolutionary movement through the same bloody methods then being utilised inside the USSR”. [12]

His work should be studied and critiqued, he was an intransigent opponent of Stalinism and died an opponent of capitalism. It should be in that context that his memory should be honoured.

Reference

  1. George Orwell and the British Foreign Office-Fred Mazelis-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/1998/09/orw-s09.html
  2. A comment: Revisiting George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in 2010-Richard Mynick-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2010/06/1984-j12.html
  3. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, Stalinism and the Spanish revolution-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2002/04/orwe-a11.html
  4. Eric Hobsbawm on the Spanish Civil War: an anti-historical tirade Ann Talbot-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2007/03/hobs-m16.html

For Emily, My Bestie


[1] https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9780333682876

[2] George Orwell: a literary Trotskyist? A review of John Newsinger, Orwell’s Politics (Macmillan Press, 1999), £42.50 Anna Chen

[3] Centrism “in General” and the Centrism-of the Stalinist Bureaucracy

(January 1932) – marxists.architexturez.net/archive/trotsky/1932/01/whatnext9.htm

[4] https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/06/george-orwell-birthday-politics-socialism

[5] Orwell’s Politics-By J. Newsinger

[6] https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/notes-on-nationalism/

[7] George Orwell, Why I Write (September, 1946)

[8] George Orwell, letter to Richard Rees (29th February, 1936)

[9] Eric Hobsbawm on the Spanish Civil War: an anti-historical tirade

Ann Talbot-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2007/03/hobs-m16.html

[10] “The Lion and the Unicorn”, Patriotism, and Orwell’s Politics-Gregory Claeys-The Review of Politics-Vol. 47, No. 2 (Apr., 1985), pp. 186-211

[11] The Lion And The Unicorn-Socialism and the English Genius-1941

George Orwell

[12] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/1998/09/orw-s09.html

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s