On Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Biography (Books about Books) Hardcover – by D.J. Taylor- Abrams Press; 1st edition (October 31 2019)

“the day I joined the militia…he was probably a Trotskyist or an anarchist, and in the peculiar conditions of our time, when people of that sort are not killed by the Gestapo, they are usually killed by the GPU”.

George Orwell

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”― George Orwell, Animal Farm

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” ― George Orwell, 1984

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” ― George Orwell, 1984

D J Taylor’s book is a useful but somewhat politically limited biography of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Orwell’s book and his previous masterpiece Animal Farm are correctly seen as “key texts necessary for an understanding of the twenty-first century.” Taylor concentrates mainly on the making of the novel, trying to find out how and why Orwell wrote it.

Orwell took five years to write his last book and was already very ill during its gestation period. Written in seclusion on the windswept Isle of Jura, off Scotland’s coast, he died less than a year after it was published in 1949. Taylor writes, “By writing about the terrors that obsessed him, he had got them out of his system. 1984 is a devastating analysis of the corruption of language and dystopian horror world…and more.”

Taylor believes that Orwell’s idea for 1984 came from his study of The 1943 Allied leaders’ Tehran Conference, which according to Taylor, gave “his consciousness a decisive kick.” Maybe it did, or perhaps it did not. But Taylor misses the point. Orwell’s 1984 attempts to come to terms with Stalinism’s betrayal of the Russian and Spanish revolutions. To give his book clarity and accuracy, Orwell carried out extensive research. One important influence was Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.[1] Orwell did not live to see how important the book would become. It sold over 40 million copies and is as contemporary today as when it was written.

Orwell died in January 1950. One consequence of his early death was that he could not defend his work or prevent it from being used by right-wing ideologues in Europe and the United States for their ideological crusade. As was said in the opening of this review, Taylor’s biography of 1984 is useful but limited. The same can be said about his biography of Orwell despite winning the Whitbread Book Award in 2003.

Missing from both books is an accurate political evaluation of George Orwell himself. Orwell was part of a generation of workers and intellectuals who moved sharply to the left in the 1930s in response to the Depression, the rise of Nazism in Germany and the growing struggles of the working class. While Orwell looked to the Soviet Union for leadership, very early on, Orwell saw that the Stalin regime had nothing to do with Socialism and was betraying the ideals of the 1917 Revolution.

From the late 1930s onwards, he described himself as a Democratic Socialist, but he was mostly a centrist politically wavering between reform and revolution. He detested inequality and, on numerous occasions, favoured the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system. This sentiment was expressed in his book 1984, and Orwell’s main character Winston had a broadly sympathetic and hopeful attitude towards the working class or, as he says, the “proles.”

In the book, he believed the “proles were the only hope for the future. If there was hope, it MUST lie in the proles, because only there, in those swarming disregarded masses, eighty-five per cent of the population of Oceania, could the force to destroy the Party ever be generated.” If only they could somehow become conscious of their strength needed only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies. If they chose, they could blow the Party to pieces tomorrow morning. The proles had stayed human. They had not become hardened. They had a “vitality which the Party did not share and could not kill…the future belonged to the proles.”[2]

Orwell was never a Marxist but was influenced by Marxist writers such as Leon Trotsky. I have not been able to ascertain if Orwell read Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed, but he certainly knew what was in it. But as Fred Mazelis writes, “Orwell was always ambivalent about the genuine legacy of the October Revolution which Trotsky represented. His identification with the working class was based more on emotion and sentiment than scientific conviction. He associated with centrists like the Independent Labour Party in Britain and the POUM in Spain. The ILP called for “left unity,” adapting to the Stalinists and criticizing Trotsky’s merciless critique of Stalinism as “sectarian.” In Spain, the POUM played a similar role, giving crucial support to the Popular Front government, which turned around and suppressed it. At the same time, the Stalinists assassinated the POUM leaders because they could not tolerate any independent left-wing working-class movement.”

Orwell’s Animal Farm was his second attempt at reckoning with Stalinism, his first being the book Homage to Catalonia. At 120 pages, the book Animal farm can be read on many levels. As John Newsinger points out, “The politics of the book were pretty straightforward: a capitalist farmer had been quite properly overthrown by the worker animals, and an egalitarian socialist system had been introduced on the farm. The pigs had then betrayed the revolution with the revolutionary Snowball (Trotsky) driven out and the dictator Napoleon (Stalin) establishing a murderous police state”.[3]

Right-wing ideologues have attempted to portray the book as anti-revolutionary. Orwell refutes this slander saying, “I meant the moral to be that revolutions only effect a radical improvement when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job. The turning point of the story was supposed to be when the pigs kept the milk and apples for themselves (Kronstadt). If the other animals had had the sense to put their foot down, then it would have been all right…What I was trying to say was, “You can’t have a revolution unless you make it for yourself; there is no such thing as a benevolent dictatorship.”[4]

Several short-sighted and stupid ideologues, both left and right, saw that the novel’s police state had an uncanny resemblance to Stalin’s USSR and accused Orwell of being an anti-communist but as Richard Mynick points out, “Orwell was too clear-sighted to conflate Stalinism with socialism (writing, for example, “My recent novel [‘1984’] is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism…but as a show-up of the perversions…which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism.”[5]

Despite having serious political differences with Leon Trotsky, there is no doubt that Orwell respected and was heavily influenced by the writings of Trotsky. As Jeffrey Meyers writes in his not-too-friendly essay on Trotsky and Orwell, “In May 1946 Orwell tried to persuade his publisher Fredric Warburg to publish the English edition of Trotsky’s Life of Stalin (1941): “I have read a good deal of it, mostly the bits dealing with Stalin’s childhood, with the civil war and with the alleged murder of Lenin” by Stalin. The earlier parts were “particularly interesting because they demonstrate the difficulty of establishing any fact about a public figure who has been a subject for propaganda. It might be worth trying to get a little more information about the circumstances of Trotsky’s assassination, which may have been partly decided on because of the knowledge that he was writing this very book.”[6]

To conclude, the discussion about Stalinism and the betrayal of revolutions has little interest for Taylor, which is certainly reflected in this book. His main concern is literature and culture. As Newsinger correctly points out, “Taylor’s achievement in his volume is to construct an Orwell who is acceptable to the literary establishment, someone non-threatening, irredeemably one of them. As far as he is concerned, two of the major influences on Nineteen Eighty-Four were Orwell’s rat phobia and the totalitarian horrors he had experienced at his prep school St Cyprian’s!”.[7]

It is not in the realms of possibility in this review to give justice to what was Orwell’s legacy. His most important work concerned the question of what Stalinism was and how to fight it. His most important books satirized the Stalinist political regime and warned of the dangers of totalitarianism. If you ignore the rubbish about him being a reactionary defender of the status quo or even an anti-communist, a systematic study of his most important works reveals a far more nuanced and complex individual. He was very much a product of his time. An old Russian proverb[8] once said, “It sometimes happens to eagles that they descend lower than chickens, but chickens never succeed In mounting as high as eagles”. George Orwell remains an eagle.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_(novel)

[2] 1984, George Orwell

[3] https://socialistworker.co.uk/socialist-review-archive/nineteen-eighty-four-and-all/

[4] Letter to Dwight Macdonald,George Orwell

[5] A comment: Revisiting George Orwell’s-1984-wsws.org

[6] https://orwellsociety.com/orwell-and-trotsky/

[7] https://socialistworker.co.uk/socialist-review-archive/nineteen-eighty-four-and-all/

[8]In criticizing Rosa Luxemburg Lenin once quoted two simple lines from a Russian proverb: “It sometimes happens to eagles that they descend lower than chickens but chickens never succeed In mounting as high as eagles”, and he added, “she was and remains an eagle”.

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