Introducing Orwell

A series of weekly essays charting George Orwell’s ideological evolution.

Part One

George Orwell is a writer who is ‘well worth stealing’ as he once wrote of Dickens. Ever since his death in 1950 Orwell has been almost continuously resurrected to support arguments and ideologies from across the political spectrum. Yet little is definitively known of his own ideology. Despite being a self-professed Socialist, he spent much of his life attacking the left, and is thus often adopted by the right who cite works such as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four as arguments for their cause. In the wider context of Orwell’s work however, this is a dubious case of political body snatching. In an attempt to throw some light on the enigma, this series of essays traces Orwell’s ideological evolution through an extended consideration of his life and work, to create some context around what has become a highly disputed political myth.

As with previous investigations that have considered Orwell’s literary and political developments, the analysis in this examination measures Orwell’s political development in line with the two personas which formed the man; ‘Eric Blair’, his real name, and ‘George Orwell’, his literary pseudonym. Burma and Spain are highlighted as the two main experiences which definitively shaped Orwell’s ideological evolution, both revolving around discoveries of oppression, which would form an integral part of his political conviction.

Yet Spain also taught Orwell an unforgiving lesson in the unpleasant side of ideology, of which he already harboured suspicions. It is from this, among other factors, that the examination concludes that Orwell’s ‘ideology’ was paradoxically ‘non-ideological’. It thus follows that George Orwell’s ideological evolution is best summarised as a series of reactions to the defining aspects of the 20th century, guided by a sense of personal morality. He condensed this moral feeling to the ideology he saw as most accommodating to his beliefs, Socialism.

It is apt that the existing literature on George Orwell’s politics is as contradictory and politicised as the man was himself. One of the striking things about Orwell’s legacy is the claims of both the right and the left, paying testament to a greater level of ambiguity than may immediately be perceived in his work. Despite claims to the Orwellian ideology ranging from the neoconservatives (Podhoretz, 1983) and anarchism (Cape, 1967),to his own profession of democratic socialism, most literature is, however, clear that Orwell’s politics do not fit within existing ideologies.

However, Ingle (1993) claims that Orwell forsook, though was not ignorant to, ideology. Moreover he states that Orwell was suspicious of ‘isms’; instead formulating a moral code – incapable of traditional ideological articulation. Ingle suggests that as Orwell politically developed he saw that there were ‘more important aspects to Socialism than ideology’ (Ingle, 1993: 113), noticeably developing a ‘working-class socialism’, which was non-ideological, non-Utopian, and non/anti-intellectual.

Alok Rai (1988: 52) somewhat questions this claim, asking whether the Orwell ideology ‘has a nature at all, or only a history?’ Contrary to this, in his short, pompous volume Orwell’s Victory (2003), Christopher Hitchens explains how Orwell discovered his politics through a rigorous self-critical education; shunning what was effectively a comfortable Tory upbringing and suppressing natural conservative sympathies, a point also made by Ingle.

It is true that Orwell, or in this case better referred to as Blair, possessed many conservative characteristics; individualism, anti-intellectualism, and a belief in small government. However, Hitchens is clear that this does not place him on the right wing, concluding: ‘George Orwell was a conservative about many things, but not politics’ (Hitchens, 2002: 92), of which his lifelong friend Richard Rees concurred (Taylor, 2004).

Hitchens presents the evolution of Orwell as a development characterised by contradiction, which formed a creative tension, sculpting a subsequent individual conviction. This allowed him to act presciently, thus being ‘correct’ on the three main issues of the 20th Century – imperialism, fascism and communism. One may extrapolate from Hitchens’ words that the founding of Orwell as an individual, and his ‘power of facing unpleasant facts’ (Orwell, 2000a: 1), bore fruition to his political character. Yet, Michael Shelden suggests that Orwell consciously created his oppressed persona which characterises the man’s more developed ideology. Although this conclusion of Orwell’s development has greater depth than Hitchens’, the notion of conscious creation is badly expressed by Shelden, who goes too far in suggesting Blair created ‘George Orwell’ as a character for writing material, at odds with the majority of thought. Indeed this examination, concludes that moral motivations followed personal experiences.

One must be conscious of the real resentments behind a substantial amount of the literature on Orwell, jealous and despising as it is. Chief political, literary and historical enemy in this sense is Raymond Williams, whose grossly biased ‘analysis’ of Orwell’s work and politics should simply be disregarded academically other than to be viewed as a prime example of the extreme left’s hatred for Orwell.  It is in this sense, alongside claims from the like of Podhoretz, that one may observe the continuation of Orwell’s ideological evolution in modern day claims and ‘interpretations’ to his legacy, which will be speculated upon, but hopefully not added to, in this examination.

Background context

Despite leaving a great literary legacy of an overtly political nature, the politics of George Orwell remain evasive and overwhelmingly ambiguous. Attempts have been made from across the political spectrum to claim Orwell for various ideologies and causes, which is perhaps testament to the inability to contain ‘Orwellism’ ideologically. As his work is largely a reflection of his personal experiences, the investigation considers Orwell’s life and work in tandem as a means to unravel the continued enigma of the Orwellian ideology.

The examination is conducted chronologically. The first chapter considers family background and upbringing, looking at the young Blair’s early schooling, attempting to differentiate between fact and fiction. Lastly this section will look at Blair’s time at Eton, how this shaped him and allowed him to shape himself, but how this became politically inconvenient to him as his politics evolved.

The second chapter focuses solely on his five years as an Imperial policeman in Burma, his contradictory attitudes on Empire, examining when these developed, as with Orwell retrospect is seemingly where his opinions form. Despite having no political conviction by the time he returned to England, the section argues that Burma was to prove the catalyst which formed the first stages of the development of ‘Eric Blair’ becoming ‘George Orwell’.

Following five years in the boots of imperial oppressor Blair sought to swap roles, fulfilling his personal atonement in a self-subjugation in the subterranean world of Down and Out in Paris and London, characterising a conscious descent from middle class comfort and respectability. This is explored in the first half of the third chapter. The second half addresses the definite emergence of ‘George Orwell’ as a political consciousness in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), and the ambiguity of his evolving understanding of socialism, and a remaining naivety, but clear interest, in the British class system. The main theme of this section will be the contradiction of Blair’s past and his developing moral sense, the conflict which shaped his ideological evolution.

The fourth chapter is the most important in the examination. It analyses Orwell’s motivations for travelling to, and his consciousness when returning from, Spain. The Spanish Civil War was the greatest turning point in Orwell’s political development as it was Barcelona where he saw both glimpses of a socialist utopia and felt the reality of an authoritarian terror. Importantly this discovery taught Orwell the dangers of ideology, a lesson which would solidify a lingering suspicion.

The penultimate section will focus on the Second World War, and Orwell’s attempts to reconcile his socialism with his patriotism. The chapter will stress the 1940s as Orwell’s most politically conscious decade, with his essays at their most piercing, his socialism at its most coherent, and his Englishness most pronounced, exemplifying how even at his most ideologically developed he was never free of the consciousness learned in his upbringing.

The last essay will focus on Animal Farm and Nineteen-eighty Four, how they were shaped by his four decades of evolving ideologically and whether or not Orwell’s final books were an outpouring of his political disillusionment post-Spain. As it is concluded that Orwell’s ideology was non-ideological, consideration will be given to what his politics were based upon, and the final product of the ideological development explored in the previous five essays. The examination shall conclude that despite being non-ideological, unorthodox and even vague, Orwell’s grave resides on the Left, as a Democratic socialist, anti-totalitarian and a supreme political-moral conscience. 

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