Were George Orwell alive today he would be 115 years old. Despite this, nearly everyone purports to know exactly what the old Etonian would have thought were he still around.
I have exhumed Orwell myself on occasion. It is hard not to; Orwell is one of the great twentieth century writers. As such, his influence is everywhere. To mull over a certain set of political questions in print – war and peace, freedom versus authoritarianism, socialism or capitalism – is invariably to tread upon ground previously walked by Orwell. And so while it has become something of a cliché to quote Orwell, it is also a sin of omission not to.
Columns and polemics that begin by asking ‘What would George Orwell do?’ (WWGOD) are ubiquitous. To see what I mean, type ‘Orwell and Brexit’ into Google – you’ll find page after page of articles purporting to know what Orwell would have made of the 2016 referendum.
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Brexit is only the latest incarnation of WWGOD. Casting an eye back more than a decade ago to the eve of the American invasion of Iraq, pro- as well as anti-intervention pundits frequently sought to borrow Orwell’s perceived moral authority to push their own respective positions.
One of the favoured Orwell-isms deployed by proponents of the war was that pacifism was “objectively pro-Fascist” – a phrase Orwell used in his correspondence with Alex Comfort, a pacifist who drew parallels between Nazi concentration camps and the British wartime state. Yet Orwell himself recanted on the phrase, later describing it as one of the “propaganda tricks” that “I have been guilty of… myself”.
More recently, Orwell’s famous jibe at fellow socialists has been applied to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters:
“One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist and feminist in England.”
There is undoubtedly some truth to any comparison of Corbynism – with its conspiratorial thinking and flirtation with antisemitic tropes – to the cranks who flocked to socialism “like bluebottles to a dead cat” during Orwell’s day. One can also imagine Orwell being appalled by the gruesome communist apparatchiks that Corbyn has chosen to surround himself with.
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Yet Orwell remained a committed socialist until the end of his life, and his insistence that he “belong(ed) to the Left and must work inside it” has little in common with those who have chosen to ‘resign’ from the Left rather than stay and fight against a new generation of communist fellow travellers.
Orwell today is all things to all people. As Orwell himself wrote of Charles Dickens, but which might as easily be applied to himself, “The Marxist claims him as ‘almost’ a Marxist, the Catholic claims him as ‘almost’ a Catholic, and both claim him as a champion of the proletariat”.
In Orwell’s case this is partly a consequence of his political inconsistency. I do not mean this in a pejorative sense. On the contrary. The very worst quality in a political writer is an unwillingness to change his or her mind or to hold rigidly to some point of view or doctrine that has long since ceased to be applicable.
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Orwell was “a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies”, as Orwell himself wrote of Dickens in the same essay about the great Victorian novelist, precisely because he was prepared to change his mind about things: “when the facts change[d]”, as his contemporary John Maynard Keynes famously remarked.
This is why communists detested Orwell; but it is also why neoconservatives feel able to distort the meaning of his two great novels – Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four – in order to adopt him as one of their own. If you look at Orwell long enough, you can find whatever you are looking for.
Orwell arrived late at many of his arguments. As the English were reconciling themselves to the prospect of war with Germany, Orwell’s position was about as “objectively pro-Fascist” as he would go on to accuse others of being. Until March 1939 he was in Marrakesh “writing a pacifistic novel in his shirtsleeves”, as Orwell biographer Robert Colls puts it.
For far longer than many of his more clear-sighted contemporaries, Orwell viewed fascism in orthodox far-Left terms as merely capitalism in extremis. This is hardly the visionary George Orwell we are so used to hearing about.
Yet this apparent inconsistency does not detract from Orwell’s qualities as a writer. Indeed, Orwell’s value lies in the fact that he held firmly to first principles, extrapolating his practical ideas – which he was notoriously reluctant to thrash out comprehensively – from these broader starting points: solidarity with the oppressed, opposition to totalitarianism, and the beauty of “solid things” over abstract teleology.
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Orwell was a pessimistic pragmatist at root – but one who was nevertheless given to ideological flights of fancy characteristic of the Left-wing literary intelligentsia of his day.
Thus Orwell detested poverty and sought to understand the experience of the lower classes – yet he knew from his own experience in Spain that a state espousing altruism could easily turn into a repressive Leviathan. (Orwell witnessed first-hand the Russian-backed communists crush a genuine working-class revolution).
He saw war as a “racket” – yet he came to understand that peace depended on defeating Hitler’s Germany with bombs and bullets. He hoped to see a “Socialist United States of Europe”, viewing it as the “only worthwhile political objective” – yet he had few illusions as to the likelihood of such a federation coming into existence during his lifetime.
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For all his inconsistencies, we can, however, be fairly certain as to who Orwell would have been interested in were he alive today: the homeless, the working poor, those suffering under the auspices of fashionable dictatorships. But then, it is only the ideologue who is uninterested in such people.
Orwell was never one of those. Which is why those who try to claim his spirit in our own age are as misguided as those who tried to fortify their arguments back in Orwell’s day by resurrecting the ghost of Charles Dickens. We know who Orwell would’ve sided with in the broadest sense – the poor and downtrodden – but extrapolating a doctrine or policy position from this and seeking to apply it to the present day is a form of shabby demagoguery.
Orwell’s brilliance lay in his willingness to re-think arguments he’d made just a few years earlier. Such people are rare; their inconsistency is arguably their greatest strength, and they can never be truly claimed by anyone. In today’s ideologically tribal atmosphere, that is the greatest lesson we can take from Orwell the writer.