YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

January 22, 2015

Orwell’s wartime essays: rethinking his politics

poster by "liberty maniacs"

poster by “liberty maniacs”

Everyone on left or right cites George Orwell when they believe they are being deceived by “authority”. This blog, though, is written to those conservatives who believe that Orwell was an un-ambivalent opponent of statist controls. He was not. He never deviated from his anti-capitalist, populist ways.

Here are some shocking details from Orwell’s wartime essays, reviews, and letters. I consulted them because I wanted to find out if Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four were roughly the same book, both directed solely (or largely) at the Soviet Union’s assaults on telling the truth. I read all of the volumes available to me, and was impressed that he admitted to errors of prediction. But the list that follows is about consistent views. I continue to wonder if Orwell identified both with Winston Smith (the victim) and O’Brien (the sadistic persecutor). (On a prior blog quoting Orwell’s pity for the Promethean Hitler of Mein Kampf, see https://clarespark.com/2014/12/27/some-irregular-thoughts-on-george-orwell/; also https://clarespark.com/2012/09/28/bibi-and-the-human-nature-debate/.)

1. Orwell admires the reactionary writers of his period: T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, Evelyn Waugh, James Joyce, in spite of their awful or neutral politics. I.e., he as much as admits to being an aesthete.

2. A self-described “Socialist” and anti-imperialist throughout the essays, he rails at the lack of artistic freedom in the fascist, “totalitarian” regimes of his time. He wants both “Socialism” and total intellectual freedom. When he uses the word “totalitarian” he refers to the lying mass media, especially journalists who perpetuate lies about the Spanish Civil War, the subject of his favorite book-child, Homage to Catalonia. He describes POUM (the faction he joined) as Trotskyist. This raises the question of why he objects to Emmanuel Goldstein, the character with both a Christian and “Jewish” name, and understood to represent Leon Trotsky, a Bolshevik with Jewish descent.

jcemmanuel.com

jcemmanuel.com

3. Though in one essay he detaches himself from the notion of “national character”, earlier he describes the “English” as “Christian”, though their allegiance to that religion is unserious. Now comes the most illuminating point: because the “English” are only superficially Christian, lacking the rejection of worldliness in the Catholicism of Chesterton and Belloc (whom he otherwise rejects as bigots), the English no longer believe in immortality. Thus, devoid of heaven and hell, they are prey to the “materialism” he associates with the Soviet Union and its lying, seductive ways. Hence, the English lack the knowledge of the distinction between “good and evil”. Thus bereft, there is no incentive but the search for power. (Enter O’Brien’s speech to Winston Smith, quoted here: https://clarespark.com/2012/10/15/orwell-power-and-the-totalitarian-state/.)

4. I have suspected previously that Orwell’s attachment to the working class was mostly sentimental, as either compensation or reparations for his military family or his early work for the British Empire in India, before he took up the cudgels for “the colored peoples” of the world.

5. His stated admiration for Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, particularly the relations between two characters, Rubashov and Gletkin, corresponding to Smith and O’Brien (?), suggest deep influence in the composition of his last book. (There are numerous internet essays on the similarities between the two books: here is one of many examples: http://www.ehistorybuff.com/koestlerdarknessatnoon08.html.)

Conclusion: In his rejection of materialism, Orwell reminds me of the social democratic inheritance passed on by Disraeli (whom he abhors as an imperialist). But his horror at the mendacious new mass media suggests the line of the counter-Enlightenment Frankfurt Institute refugees, whose critical theory dominates the teaching of the humanities today. Because Orwell is not enthused about the victorious but only weakly socialistic British Labour Party, though he does hate the money power (i.e. the British aristocracy that he longs to expropriate), Orwell should be viewed as a disgruntled artist and populist, neither conservative nor left-wing in any sense. At most, he was probably an organic conservative, hoping for mystical Goldstein-free social bonds and sacrifice to restore order to a permanently warring world.

image arcade

image arcade

As George L. Mosse once observed, populism stands outside politics. As a closet peacenik writing in the 1940s, a dystopia was Orwell’s only alternative.

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4 Comments »

  1. You say you think Orwell’s attachment to the working class was sentimental. Do you think he comes across as sentimental about the working class in The Road to Wigan Pier ? (I was 23 when I read the book 35 years ago. I would have to read it again to know what I think now. But as a 23 year old reader, Orwell’s portrayal of the working class people he visited didn’t seem sentimental to me.)

    Comment by Galer Dolan — January 25, 2015 @ 10:04 pm | Reply

    • My impression of Orwell’s sentimentality came from Homage to Catalonia. I sensed that he sought a male solidarity that was missing in his family of origin. This was confirmed in a poem he wrote to an Italian soldier (later), which is almost homoerotic. Shocking because Italy supported Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

      Comment by clarelspark — January 25, 2015 @ 10:35 pm | Reply


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