Iranians, faced with a dilemma, turn to the collected works of the 14th-century poet Hafiz. They make the required incantation, turn to a page at random and mysteriously enlightened guidance awaits. We in the UK make do with the wisdom of George Orwell. Does it help? His writerly concern for plain language and truth-telling certainly does: it has profound relevance for the modern world. But his guidance regarding broader political issues is by no means unambiguous; in fact it is not even clear what his own politics were.
Though latterly playing a part in movements supporting civil liberties, Orwell generally disdained activism. True, in his pacifist days he joined the tiny Independent Labour Party. He didn’t remain for long and never became one of the “comrades,” whose pacifism he later savaged. There is a chapter on Orwell in English Ethical Socialism, since he too emphasised community, social justice and equality. But he would have been a cuckoo in that nest, throwing out the “empty windbag” William Morris and the “pious sodomite” Edward Carpenter (Orwell’s words). In The Road to Wigan Pier, the ethical socialists were sent packing to practise their yoga.
Others claimed Orwell for Trotskyism but this is to confuse sympathy for the underdog with ideological commitment. Orwell has been claimed more loosely for revolutionary socialism, and it’s true that revolutionary Barcelona seized his imagination, but Animal Farm suggests revolution is doomed to fail. Nobody claimed Orwell for scientific socialism: he was convinced that the “polysyllable chewing” Marxists were interested only in power and its abuses. As literary editor of Tribune he was very well placed to write about parliamentary socialism, but this didn’t cut it either: too many “trade union lackeys” and “backstairs crawlers” (Orwell’s words). In his 54-page analysis of socialism in Wigan Pier the Labour Party is scarcely mentioned. There was no major branch of socialism to which he did not show rancour.
Orwell himself claimed that everything he produced after 1936 was written in defence of democratic socialism and against totalitarianism; in fact he spent far more time attacking totalitarianism than articulating any serious socialist programme. Not that he knew nothing about ideology—quite the opposite—but he despised “smelly little orthodoxies” while providing no coherent odour-free alternative. In short, he wasn’t a serious political thinker of any stripe; so why should we still turn to him?
Suppose that we adjust focus so Orwell appears not as a political thinker but a moralist, by which I mean what he meant: one who tries to teach others to behave correctly. (Orwell himself wouldn’t have approved of this new focus: after all, he had claimed that Dickens’s message was diminished by the lack of “politics.” Yet he recognised the enduring force of Dickens’s “almost exclusively moral” critique and lauded the fact that he was a prisoner of no ideology.)
In a review written in 1935, Orwell painted a graphic picture of a bisected wasp on a plate. Unaware of its tragic loss, the wasp goes on eating, jam spewing from its oesophagus. The severed abdomen represents man’s spirituality. Shorn of his “soul,” he continues to gorge on sensual gratification which is, in the literal sense, unfulfilling. In Coming Up for Air, George Bowling buys a frankfurter for lunch and reflects disgustedly “it gave me the feeling I’d bitten into the modern world…rotten fish in a rubber skin. Bombs of filth bursting in your mouth.”
Since his days in Burma, Orwell had feared that with Christianity in irreversible decline, the values that held a democratic society together would become collateral damage, leaving democracy dangerously vulnerable. Modern man, he concluded, must forsake the dead wood of Christian dogma but re-establish its core ideal: the brotherhood of all men based on common decency.
A year later, while on a commission to write about poverty and unemployment, Orwell had an epiphany: he saw his core ideals in action. The northern working class was living out these values. This was true socialism—common decency when “all the nonsense is stripped off”—and in Wigan Pier he declared himself a democratic socialist. But in reality his socialism was primarily an “instrument of justice.” In The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s judge declares that democratic law represents an attempt to codify the principles of decency. “And decency,” he goes on, “is not a deal, an angle, a contract or a hustle. Decency is… in your bones.”
Is the idea of politics based on common decency relevant now the class that Orwell thought spawned it has withered? If we think of the panoply of voluntary organisations responding to deprivation today; of the public’s response to the 2020 pandemic—isn’t this common decency in action? Common decency finds institutional expression in the NHS, whose values were never clearer than now. Figures so different as Nigel Lawson and Grayson Perry have suggested the NHS is akin to a modern religion. This is pure Orwell, who had argued that if properly represented, the values of “countless thousands of ordinary people” could shake the polity.
Orwell saw ordinary people wanting to be and do good—though not too good and not all the time; and based on recent experiences, not all the people (toilet rolls, anyone?) Overwhelmingly, however, the public response to Covid-19 has shown the continued, maybe enhanced relevance of common decency.
Machiavelli thought morality simply couldn’t be applied to governing. Orwell himself recognised that reconciling power with righteousness (his words) was the major political problem, but would have insisted there was an alternative to the policies pursued today: the dehumanising politics of the market, the return to corrosive inequality, the creation of a social environment so hostile as to deter any from seeking refuge in this country. That alternative would be to create a more effective form of representation than our current party system allows, thereby “institutionalising” common decency. Maybe Orwell the moralist is still worth listening to.