As a young man, Orwell introduced me to a fiercely egalitarian, patriotic, undogmatic socialism. Today, his works are even more importantby Alan Johnson / December 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
George Orwell died four months before I was born, and yet his impact on my politics has been more profound than that of any other writer or, for that matter, politician. His self-declared intention was “to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” He certainly succeeded so far as I was concerned. I suspect that few writers have shaped the views of their readers to the extent that Orwell has.
Orwell entered my life in 1964 when I was in the fourth form at Sloane Grammar School in West London. Our new English teacher, Mr Carlen, decided that the whole of Class 4Y should read Animal Farm together, aloud. I was a voracious reader of whatever I could get my hands on but hadn’t heard of Orwell.
We boys, tamed by the effortless authority of our teacher, took turns in reading out from the single copy passed between our lidded wooden desks. Animal Farm cast a spell on me that has never been lifted. Though engrossing as a simple story of animals taking control of the farm, I doubt we would have grasped the subtext if Mr Carlen hadn’t explained it.
When he did it not only revealed the ingenuity of the book, it gave the class a sense of the adult world we were growing into: a world in which one-third of the population lived under Communism.
Another young teacher at Sloane, Mr Pallai, had escaped from Hungary as the Russian tanks rolled in. He taught us history and economics, branching off occasionally to talk about the iniquity of the one-party state. Two years before we read Animal Farm, the Cuban Missile Crisis had threatened our existence as the US and the Soviets had contemplated mutual destruction.
The allegory of Animal Farm, written 20 years before Mr Carlen introduced us to it, remained relevant. The writing brought clarity—an understanding of the dark and dangerous times we were living through.
As I read more and more Orwell, I became increasingly impressed by the brutal honesty that he imposed upon his writing. Making no claim to the spurious virtue of consistency, he was a thinker who was never afraid to adapt to emerging developments, rather than trying to reconcile those developments with the rigidity of his thoughts.
A self-proclaimed Tory anarchist in his youth, he later joined the Independent Labour Party, which was far to the left of Labour, only to repudiate all the reasons he’d joined it shortly afterwards.
When he went to fight in Spain it wasn’t for the International Brigade, to which most other British participants were recruited, but for an obscure Marxist/anarchist outfit called the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification in Catalonia.
We know about the political machinations he went through because he wrote about them—fearlessly exposing his doubts and inconsistencies. In The Road to Wigan Pier he spent the entire second half of the book making a case against the socialism that he’d advocated in the first half. This devil’s advocacy contained his notorious attack on “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandalwearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat.”
Orwell was probably not the only writer on the left to be attracted by socialism but repelled by socialists, yet he was the only one to commit this dichotomy to the page. I can understand how frustrating this may have been for the contemporary reader following Orwell’s thought process in real time.
As his greatest biographer, Bernard Crick, observed: “At times he was like those loyal and vociferous football supporters who are at their best when hurling complaint, sarcasm and abuse at their own long-suffering side.” But for me, following from a distance, it was exhilarating.
As a young man I read Marx’s Das Kapital, and thought I understood the theory of surplus value. Many of my colleagues in the trade union movement were emphatic about the desirability of a dictatorship of the proletariat. Public opinion was written off as “false consciousness;” an elected parliament represented “bourgeois democracy.” Compromise was derided, moderation despised.
It was through Orwell that I found the fiercely egalitarian, patriotic, undogmatic socialism that I was comfortable with. His aim wasn’t to convert non-believers, it was to defend democratic socialism against attacks from the left and win back fellow travellers with Communism.
As he records in the essay “Why I Write,” he reached a settled position only when “the Spanish War and other events in 1936-7 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. 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 understood it.”
What also appealed to me as a working-class boy was Orwell’s confidence in the decency of the working class. It would have been hard to mistake Orwell for a horny-handed son of toil. Educated at Eton (on a scholarship for four years), a former junior official in the British Empire (he’d joined the Colonial Service as a police officer in Burma rather than go to university), and with the kind of plummy accent that marked him out as a “gentleman” rather than a “player,” he certainly seemed unlike anyone I knew in the slums of North Kensington, but I somehow felt that he was on our side.
Publications of his novels were interspersed with what he called his “documentaries”—books which recorded his attempts to understand what life was like for the working classes (The Road to Wigan Pier) and the underclass (Down and Out in Paris and London).
Curiously, whilst his accent became a barrier in his attempts to ingratiate himself with the coal miners of Wigan, it was no problem when he took the extraordinary step of living amongst the destitute as what was then known as a tramp. There were apparently many “toffs” who’d fallen upon hard times and ended up in the doss house.
These attempts to go underground with the poor were seen as patronising and inauthentic given Orwell’s ability to resurface anytime he chose to. The artifice may have been unwise in some respects, but it could be effective, particularly when he literally went underground.
The famous passage in The Road to Wigan Pier in which Orwell descends into the coal mine and struggles along the claustrophobic tunnels, bent double for three-quarters of a mile, is a case in point.
When he reaches the 26-inch coal face utterly exhausted, he is reminded that he has yet to begin his shift. That long journey into the bowels of the earth was unpaid. It was merely the prelude to eight hours breaking chunks of coal in the airless, pitch-black, suffocating atmosphere, which Orwell brought to life for readers who burnt the stuff without giving a second thought as to how it was produced. That passage certainly educated me about the hardship and dangers of mining, as it must have educated millions since the book’s publication in 1937.
Orwell’s brilliance stretched beyond his books. In many ways the man himself is more fully revealed in his essays and journalism. It is here that he discloses his “pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.”
Most revealingly (in “Why I Write”), he tells us that “one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.” In this sentence, Eric Blair reveals why he chose to write under a nom de plume. But for me, Orwell fails in this objective, particularly in the essays. It’s as if Blair writes these, whilst Orwell concentrates on the books.
The novels are where the fully formed political views gradually emerge. The journey towards them, however, is described in the essays. And thank goodness the attempt at self-effacement failed, because it’s Blair’s personality that finds such compelling poetry in the mundane.
In The Lion and the Unicorn he reveals his love of England where “the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant.” He describes a culture “bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes.”
The essays reveal his essential gentleness, which was as much a part of his personality as aloofness and contrariness. And while he believes that concepts such as justice, liberty and objective truth may be an illusion, they are powerful illusions that people still believe.
In Orwell’s England (never Britain) “the sword is still in the scabbard” and the hanging judge, “that evil old man in scarlet robe and horsehair wig, whom nothing short of dynamite will ever teach what century he is living in,” is incorruptible, part of the “subtle network of compromises” that make England a country worth fighting for.
It was the outbreak of the Second World War that crystallised Orwell’s views. He was a patriot who understood the threats posed by both fascism and Communism (Stalin’s pact with Hitler was a particular turning point) and these inspired his two most famous novels. Animal Farm came first, portrayed by some as a cautionary tale about the evils of revolution. But Orwell believed revolution to be necessary. He considered it a process, rather than an event, that would come via the ballot box. Violence would only be perpetrated by those “Blimps” who opposed the democratically determined will of the people.
Animal Farm railed not against revolution but against a revolution betrayed. The book made him famous throughout the world. Intriguingly, in “Why I Write” he says (in 1946) that “I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure.”
That novel was Orwell’s final book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, seven months before his death. It wasn’t a failure. Appearing in every list of the best English-language novels, from Time magazine to the BBC, it has sold and continues to sell millions of copies around the world.
Orwell made clear that the novel was a warning against totalitarianism of right or left and not a prophecy. It imagined the consequences of a political philosophy that placed power above the law and sacrificed individual liberty to the Party’s interpretation of the collective good. At the time it was written, although Orwell knew about Hitler’s efforts to achieve racial purity, the full extent of Stalin’s crimes against humanity had yet to be revealed—and Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book was yet to be written.
The book was bound to retain its relevance between the year of its publication and the year of its title. The wonder is how resoundingly relevant it remains well into the 21st century. The clarity and precision of its prose has ensured its freshness, and its themes—the importance of objective truth and of not confusing patriotism with nationalism—remain acutely pertinent to our age.
In essence Orwell’s literary, political and philosophical journey culminated in a final masterpiece which has become ingrained in our lives.
Today we watch programmes like Big Brother and Room 101 on our “telescreens.” The terms “Newspeak” and “thought crime” have entered our language, just as their author’s name has entered our dictionaries as an adjective.
The momentous events of the last year and half in respect of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump had an Orwellian dimension. In The Lion and the Unicorn Orwell says that “the insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time.” And in America, the election of the 45th president led to Nineteen Eighty-Four (published when the 33rd president, Harry S Truman, was in the White House) becoming a bestseller once again.
With delicious irony, Trump’s spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway channelled Orwell when she described a comment by the president as “an alternative fact” rather than a lie.
The concept of “fake news” could have come from the Ingsoc regime in the superstate of Oceania. These developments demonstrate that the battle to defend objective truth is as important as ever, and that whilst Eric Blair died in 1950, George Orwell lives on.
Copyright © Alan Johnson 2017. From “Orwell on Truth,” a new collection of Orwell’s essays (Harvill Secker, £9.99)