On Orwell

The only people who misunderstand George Orwell’s 1984 are those that go around trying to imagine it has a leftist message. It is mistaken to imagine that children in the English-speaking world get his work drilled into them like a mantra because, somehow, genuine socialists managed to sneak his work past a censor that banishes the likes of Karl Marx and Malcolm X.

The less complicated reading is the correct one: it’s an anti-communist book that the establishment pushes, and the right adores and cites constantly, because it is effective anti-communist propaganda.

Let’s part from a very basic fact: The CIA loves Orwell.

Between 1952 and 1957, from three sites in West Germany, a CIA operation codenamed ‘Aedinosaur’ launched millions of ten-foot balloons carrying copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and dropped them over Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia — whose airforces were ordered to shoot the balloons down. [1]

The movie adaptation of Animal Farm was the UK’s first animated feature film, and it was entirely funded by the CIA. This fact was kept secret for 20 years, and only revealed in 1974, to no cultural impact. [2]

Orwell enthusiasts insist that he would be horrified by this turn of events, that he was trying to preserve a genuine and humane socialism from the clutches of “Stalinism”. They insist Orwell was against all empires, not just the one he lived in. However, his life and his work rather undermine this interpretation.

In an incredibly incisive analysis, John Dolan compiles a collection of excerpts that make a damning case. For instance, consider the fact that Orwell names the villain of 1984 O’Brien. Given English-Irish history, it takes a very strange kind of “socialist” to scaremonger with the possibility that the Irish would one day be in charge of a cruel vengeful dystopia. Dolan explains,

I’ll start with a classic Orwell essay, “Shooting an Elephant.” It’s a vivid, simple story about how the young Orwell was forced by the pressure of an expectant Burmese crowd to shoot a harmless elephant. Orwell’s surface thesis, laid out in the concluding paragraphs, is that Imperialism turns the Imperialist into a puppet in the hands of the natives. Here’s the first paragraph:

In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.

I did worry about that description of the Burmese. I mean, it was sort of racist. But reading on, I saw it was just part of a strategy, a double twist where first Orwell zaps you with his anti-Burmese descriptions, then balances them with a paragraph about his loathing for “the Empire [he] served.” It was such a risky, raw strategy I felt proud to have spotted it. Moving up through the ranks, I taught “Shooting an Elephant” for years as a classic of rhetorical structure.

Now I think I read it wrong, rejecting the “obvious” in favor of cooptation by the author. In fact, I was exactly the sort of sucker Orwell had in mind, a half-bright provincial trained to miss the obvious and cleave unto the far-fetched. By teasing this sort of reader with that shock intro, then reassuring him (“Don’t worry, I’m anti-Imperialist”), Orwell got me to ignore the biggest and most important feature of the essay: Orwell’s sheer simple hate for the Burmese. It stuns me to realize that I helped a generation of students overcome their simple, correct instinct (some poor honest kid would always ask, “Isn’t this kinda racist?” and be talked into seeing the Emperor’s glorious wardrobe by me). [3]

Isaac Asimov also takes Orwell to task for his unimaginative and misogynistic writing:

In his despair (or anger), Orwell forgets the virtues human beings have. All his characters are, in one way or another, weak or sadistic, or sleazy, or stupid, or repellent. This may be how most people are, or how Orwell wants to indicate they will all be under tyranny, but it seems to me that under even the worst tyrannies, so far, there have been brave men and women who have withstood the tyrants to the death and whose personal histories are luminous flames in the surrounding darkness. If only because there is no hint of this in 1984, it does not resemble the real world of the 1980s.

Nor did he foresee any difference in the role of women or any weakening of the feminine stereotype of 1949. There are only two female characters of importance. One is a strong, brainless ‘prole’ woman who is an endless washerwoman, endlessly singing a popular song with words of the type familiar in the 1930s and 1940s (at which Orwell shudders fastidiously as ‘trashy’, in blissful non-anticipation of hard rock).

The other is the heroine, Julia, who is sexually promiscuous (but is at least driven to courage by her interest in sex) and is otherwise brainless. When the hero, Winston, reads to her the book within a book that explains the nature of the Orwellian world, she responds by falling asleep — but then since the treatise Winston reads is stupefyingly soporific, this may be an indication of Julia’s good sense rather than the reverse.

In short, if 1984 must be considered science fiction, then it is very bad science fiction. [4]

His non-fiction fares no better. In 1939, Orwell reviews Mein Kampf, and offers the following account:

Hitler could not have succeeded against his many rivals if it had not been for the attraction of his own personality, which one can feel even in the clumsy writing of Mein Kampf, and which is no doubt overwhelming when one hears his speeches… The fact is that there is something deeply appealing about him. One feels it again when one sees his photographs — and I recommend especially the photograph at the beginning of Hurst and Blackett’s edition, which shows Hitler in his early Brownshirt days. It is a pathetic, dog-like face, the face of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs. In a rather more manly way it reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ crucified, and there is little doubt that that is how Hitler sees himself. The initial, personal cause of his grievance against the universe can only be guessed at; but at any rate the grievance is here. He is the martyr, the victim, Prometheus chained to the rock, the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds. If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon. One feels, as with Napoleon, that he is fighting against destiny, that he can’t win, and yet that he somehow deserves to. The attraction of such a pose is of course enormous; half the films that one sees turn upon some such theme. [5]

This is the same man that declared in 1943 that “willingness to criticize Russia and Stalin is the test of intellectual honesty.” [6] George Orwell resented Joseph Stalin more than Adolph Hitler.

Orwell did not limit himself to purely abstract interventions in the capacity of fiction writer or literary reviewer. He also used his position within Britain’s intellectual community to snitch on behalf of Empire. In 1949, he enthusiastically collaborated with the IRD, an anti-communist propaganda unit of the British Foreign Office. He compiled a list of 38 journalists and writers who should be barred from employment due to their being communists, homosexual, jewish, or outspoken about black causes (and, thus, in his estimation, “anti-white”):

Most of the Orwell cult only irritates, but one thing legitimately grates: the idea of Eric Blair as a monument to British decency. The author of 1984 not only wrote a deathbed list for the authorities denouncing notable writers and public figures as Communist sympathisers. He had meticulously kept throughout the last decade of his life a paranoid notebook filled with 135 names.

These, he had variously labelled what he called “cryptos,” “F.T.s” for fellow travellers, or those he alleged were Stalinist sympathisers, suspect agents or outright members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Orwell’s list included figures as eminent as the future leader of the Labour Party Michael Foot, the broadcaster and writer J.B. Priestly, and the the historian E.H. Carr. Whilst occasionally it was right, more often than not the list was absurd.

There is a notable and obvious overlap in Orwell’s notebook between many of 1940s London’s prominent gay, Jewish and anti-colonial public figures and the accused “cryptos.” Orwell’s bigoted commentaries fill his suspects notebook. Jews are clearly labeled (“Polish Jew”, “English Jew”, “Jewess”) whilst others were mislabeled (“Charlie Chaplin — Jewish?”). The African-American bass singer and future civil rights activist Paul Robeson finds himself in Orwell’s list with the note “very anti-white,” whilst the half-Jewish poet Stephen Spender is damned as a “sentimental sympathiser… tendency towards homosexuality.” Orwell was a British McCarthyite before the hour. It was only Orwell’s death in 1950 that saved his reputation from his paranoia. [7]

Faced with all of this damning evidence of extremely poor character, Orwell enthusiasts recur to invoking his commitment, in the flesh, to the fight against Fascism in Spain, as proof that what got corrupted was once pure. Contemporary accounts, however, also cast doubt on this reinvention:

Much time was also spent engaged in political arguments, where ‘the conflicting party “lines” were debated over and over’. Orwell did not endear himself to his comrades by laughing at what he felt to be their political naivety. Like Pollitt and McNair before them, many volunteers were acutely aware of Orwell’s ‘cut-glass Eton accent’ and east Londoner Frank Frankford said he disliked the ‘supercilious bastard’ on sight:

He really didn’t like the workers… It was his attitude in discussions that I didn’t like, his attitude towards the working class. Two or three of us said that he was on the wrong side, he should be on the other side… I rather think he fancied himself as another Bernard Shaw… There was no depth to his socialism at all.

April saw the arrival of copies of The Road to Wigan Pier, in which Orwell made the infamous claim that the middle classes were taught that the working class smelled. Neither this, nor his habit of setting aside time every day to write, helped to ingratiate Orwell with his working class comrades. Bob Edwards, who also took a personal dislike to Orwell, later unfairly described him as ‘a journalist observer [and] bloody scribbler’. [8]

George Orwell, born Eric Arthur Blair, was also a rapist:

Venables is the Buddicoms’ first cousin, and was left the copyright to Eric & Us, as well as 57 crates of family letters. From these she made the shocking discovery that, in 1921, Eric had tried to rape Jacintha. Previously the young couple had kissed, but now, during a late summer walk, he had wanted more. At only five feet to his six feet and four inches, Jacintha had shouted, screamed and kicked before running home with a torn skirt and bruised hip. It was “this” rather than any gradual parting of the ways that explains why Jacintha broke off all contact with her childhood friend, never to learn that he had transformed himself into George Orwell. [9]

In short, Michael Parenti perfectly summarized George Orwell when he described him as “a prototypic Red-basher who pretended to be on the Left”:

Safely ensconced within a virulently anticommunist society, Orwell (with Orwellian doublethink) characterized the condemnation of communism as a lonely courageous act of defiance. Today, his ideological progeny are still at it, offering themselves as intrepid left critics of the Left, waging a valiant struggle against imaginary Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist hordes. [10]

Capitalists have benefited greatly from making Orwell a cornerstone of anti-communist propaganda. Tearing down his cultural legacy therefore has great political strategic value.

  1. The Spectator [web] 

  2. The Telegraph [web] 

  3. Exiled Online [web] 

  4. New Worker [web] 

  5. “Review of Mein Kampf” by George Orwell, 1940 [web] 

  6. The Collected Essays, Journalism, & Letters, George Orwell: As I Please, 1943-1945 (2000), edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus 

  7. The Wire [web] 

  8. “The Unlikely Warriors: The British in the Spanish Civil War and the Struggle Against Fascism” by Richard Baxell 

  9. The Guardian [web] 

  10. “Left Anticommunism: The Unkindest Cut” by Michael Parenti [web]