Coming up for air or going down for the third time?


A review of Robert Colls, George Orwell: English Rebel (Oxford: OUP, 2013)

To write a biography of George Orwell is to enter a crowded field.  With Bernard Crick’s George Orwell: A Life (1980/1992) and Michael Shelden’s Orwell: The Authorised Biography (1991/2004) there is very little need for another straightforward life narrative.  Thus, much recent biographical work on Orwell has been through some kind of lens.  Jeffrey Meyer’s 2000 Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation sees a needy romantic; Gordon Bowker’s 2004 George Orwell attempts to unravel his inner-emotional world; Robert Marks’ 2011 George Orwell the Essayist does what it says on the tin.  Notable amongst the non-biographical studies are those of John Rodden’s beginning with his 1989 The Politics of Literary Reputation: Making and Claiming of ‘St. George’ Orwell which analyses how Orwell was reinterpreted after his death, not least as a Cold Warrior; and a prime example of such a revisionist take being Christopher Hitchens’ post-9/11 Why Orwell Matters (2002).  The list could, and almost certainly will, go on.

Colls is best known for his 2004 work, Identity of England, and it is this perspective that he adopts to look at Orwell’s life as a struggle with his own Englishness through the 1930s, and then developing that identity in the 1940s.  In this context Orwell is understood as, at least, implicitly conservative and increasingly diverging the socialist beliefs that he professed.  The idea that Orwell should be viewed as a conservative has been developed most fully by Peter Wilkin in his book The Strange Case of Tory Anarchism, arguing that Orwell’s thinking combined non-rational devotion to national culture, opposition to change in that culture and a deep mistrust of the establishment that was entrusted with protection this tradition. For this reason Wilkin
places Orwell alongside Evelyn Waugh and the satire boomers of the 1960s.  In similar fashion Colls suggests that the closest approximation to Orwell today is the centre-right political philosopher John Gray.

Thus, Orwell is placed in a very contemporary debate about identity and nation in a post-social democratic world.  To do this while writing political commentary is one thing, but to do so under a guise of history is quite another.  There are, for an historian, two Orwell’s.  The first is Orwell as the product of his time, the chronicler of poverty, of the Spanish civil war, of the English pub.  As Colls points out, Coming Up for Air is, at least in part, Orwell working through his own thoughts on the coming Second World War, although perhaps he overemphasises the degree to which this novel is autobiographical.  This first history is of Orwell as a source that shows something of the times through which he lived, but it must be remembered that for much of his lifetime Orwell was (as Colls repeatedly emphasises) a marginal figure.  The second is his largely posthumous impact on history.  Only with the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949 as he lay dying did Orwell become a major influence on the way that people thought, and not always in the way that Orwell himself may have agreed.

Colls gives every impression of aiming for the first kind of history, but implicitly he has written the second.  Although he bases his analysis in a narrative of Orwell’s life and writing, and it is to his credit that the narrative is always deeply rooted in an in depth reading of Orwell’s work, what he is really interested in is the impact that Orwell has had on developing ideas of Englishness.  There is a point to this, as Colls repeatedly argues, Orwell’s strong anti-Stalinism walled him off from much of the left, leaving his reputation in the hands of those on the right.

Thus, The Road to Wigan Pier (published 1937) is read as Orwell finding ‘an England to believe in’.  There is a truth to this, and Colls clearly understands that the road that Orwell was walking was away from Burma, where the division was of race, the white imperialists and their Burman subjects.  The road was to an England divided by class.  The problem is that he chooses to privilege a reading of the walk being to England over its conflicted class nature.  Colls makes the assertion that when Orwell does look at the working class he sees voiceless statues, needing to be led.  While there is truth in the working class appearing to be without agency in much of Orwell’s work, in Wigan Pier he states the opposite view: ‘The truth is that for many people calling themselves Socialists, revolution does not mean a movement of the masses with which they wish to associate themselves; it means a set of reforms which ‘we’, the clever ones, are going to impose on ‘them’, the Lower Orders’.

Colls is dismissive of Orwell’s discussion of socialist ideas in the second part of Wigan Pier, but there is much here that shows Orwell was already developing an anti-Stalinist socialism.

Against the Communist Party and those who would free the workers by a dogma, Orwell argues that many a working man ‘is a truer socialist than the orthodox Marxist, because he does remember, what the other so often forgets, that Socialism means justice and common decency.’  Certainly, Orwell’s ideas are deeply problematic in that he not only thinks that these ideas are inadequate, but that any worker who develops ideas beyond this (Marxism, or any other theoretical understanding) ceases to be a worker, and ultimately Orwell appears to suggest that only when a section of the dispossessed middle-class, one with nothing to lose but its aitches, identifies its common socialist cause with the working class, will progress be made.  But Orwell is far from alone in the history of the socialist movement in thinking that the ideas of socialism originate from the middle-class intelligentsia.

It is notable that Orwell’s time in the Independent Labour Party 1938-1940 receives scant regard.  Similarly, his wartime writing receives only limited attention, the discussion of his essay The Lion and the Unicorn (1941) being somewhat underplayed.  Colls suggests that Orwell was calling for nothing more than what was done by the wartime coalition and Attlee’s Labour administration that followed (indeed, slightly less, Orwell not calling on the welfare state).  As with Wigan Pier, this is an under-reading of what Orwell called for in The Lion and Unicorn.  Firstly, he did not call, as Colls suggests, for the nationalisation of ‘basic industries’ (coal, railways etc. as nationalised by the Labour after 1945, around 15% of the economy).  Orwell is clear that he is proposing the nationalisation of all productive property beyond possessions for personal use.  This was not achieved by the 1945 Labour government.  It may also explain why Orwell did not promote Beveridge’s welfare reforms, a social liberal amelioration of the inequality within a capitalist social order, since this implies the nationalisation of private health care and its central planning.  Secondly, Colls suggests that Orwell saw socialism as no more than ‘national unity and state direction of the economy’.  Orwell demanded much more than this, adding the need for ‘the approximate equality of incomes … political democracy, and the abolition of hereditary privilege’.  Unsurprisingly, Orwell warned against the possibility of the state becoming the property of a political party and privilege returning based on power rather than money.  One does not need to be a Marxist to suggest that Orwell’s understanding of democracy, state power and the democratic control of socialised property is underdeveloped, but he is at least beginning to theorise a system based on common ownership and political democracy, that is democratic socialism

By giving only a watered down version of Orwell’s proposals, Colls underestimates the degree to which Orwell is revolutionary.  Although Orwell is not proposing the workers’ seizing power in a Marxist sense, his revolution is more gradual, nonetheless he is arguing that there must be a revolution against the moneyed classes and a social transformation if Britain is to win the war, and that through winning the war Britain will have its revolution.  (Of course, this turned out to be untrue, Britain turned out to be on the winning side because the USA and USSR joined the war against Germany and Japan).

It is at the war’s end that Colls suggests that Orwell took his clearest steps to the right.  This, as Colls of course knows, has long been the view of the right wing advocates of Orwell.  This is a matter of reinterpretation, for example the CIA backed 1954 animated film of Animal Farm emphasises only the cruelty of the Communist/pigs and not the capitalist/humans.  The reason that Orwell wrote Animal Farm (1945) was not to criticise socialism, but to save it from being associated with Stalinist Russia.  Even while writing The Road to Wigan Pier Orwell thought that the problem was that the workers could not rally to socialism under its present advocates, of which he identifies at least three types (Stalinist, Labour Party careerists, assorted cranks) who have buried appeal of socialism to justice and liberty under a layer of ‘priggishness, party squabbles and half-baked “progressivism”‘.  He continues:

We have reached the stage when the very world ‘Socialism’ calls up, on the one hand, a picture of aeroplanes, tractors and huge glittering factories of glass concrete; on the other, a picture of vegetarians with wilting beards, of Bolshevik commissars (half gangster, half gramophone), or earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth control fanatics and Labour backstairs-crawlers.  Socialism, at least in this island, does not smell any longer of revolution and the overthrow of tyrants; it smells of crankiness, machine worship and stupid cult of Russia.  Unless you can remove that smell, and very rapidly, Fascism, may win.

Nonetheless, Colls sees Animal Farm as a turning point leading him to assert (albeit in the form of a rhetorical question) that it showed Orwell was a ‘not quite Tory’.

It is also difficult to see how Animal Farm chimes with this hypothesis of Orwell being centrally concerned with Englishness, and although the book is set in England with various touches (Titbits, Crown Derby tableware and heritage pig breeds) these are more to denature the Soviet story in order to present its essence to a British readership (and indeed, an international one, Orwell had high hopes for the book’s reach).  But the book is not, as Colls would have it, about Englishness in any meaningful way, this is an allegory of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution where Manor Farm stands for Russia, and England for the world.   Even Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is understood as an essay in the crushing of identity with Winston Smith attempting to mine the folk memories of the proles only to find inarticulate fragments.  The nature of totalitarianism is thus presented as the attempt to wipe the slate clean of organic tradition and replace with a synthetic and controlling system of ideas.

This is not to dismiss the idea that Englishness was irrelevant to Orwell, it clearly was hugely important to him.  He believed that there was some good in at least some English traditions (although, as he notes in The Lion and Unicorn, admiration for traditions such as the rule of law goes hand in hand with the knowledge that they are made unfulfilled dreams by wealth and privilege).  But this does make him conservative, any more than those generation of socialists who looked back to the idea of the freeborn Englishmen oppressed by the Norman Yoke are crypto-medievalists or by suggesting that Russian socialism could grow directly out of the peasant mir Karl Marx worshipped at the altar of pre-industrial primitivism.

Colls gives five reasons for believing Orwell to be a Tory.  First, that he called himself a Tory anarchist.  But according to Bernard Crick, he only did this in the early 1930s before he started to call himself a socialist.  Second, that he may have ‘invented some powerful conservative myths about the stability and traditions of post-war England.  The sources that Colls gives for this are unconvincing.  For example, he cites Patrick Parrinder, although he is discussing The Lion and the Unicorn, stating that ‘the fact that these essays purport to describe a settled and permanent national character at a time not merely of domestic political change, but of invasions, foreign wars, and the mass displacement and emigration of peoples across Europe’ does not support Colls’ assertion. Tellingly, Colls does not say what these ‘myths’ are.  The third and forth are essentially the same, that he was critical of soviet union, Stalinist communism and other socialisms.  This, of course, does not make Orwell a conservative.  The reverse is true, Orwell criticises Stalinism to rescue socialism from it.  It was only dyed-in-the-wool Stalinists who argue that anyone who criticised the USSR fell into the camp of fascists.  And fifth, that Orwell exhibited what Alison Light has called ‘conservative modernity’.  Again, this is strained.  Light’s idea is of inter-war modernity that ceased to look to the new, to change and became a whine of emasculated complaint from men.  It is possible to see this in Orwell’s George Bowling in Coming Up For Air, particularly in his dislike of his wife.  But it is impossible to apply it to Winston’s attitude to Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Anyhow, Colls does nothing to develop an analysis of conservative modernity.  If this is conservatism, I can only quote Muhammad Ali, ‘Is that all you got, George?’

If Colls’ hypothesis of Orwell’s returning conservatism is correct, in each case we should see the expression of this current of conservatism becoming stronger after 1940.  With the exception of his unwillingness to equate murderous and oppressive dictatorship with socialism, Orwell became less conservative in the years after 1940.  Perhaps it would be more interesting to hold up to the light the assertion made by Christopher Hitchens that ‘George Orwell was conservative about many things, but not about politics.’

Where Colls is much nearer to the mark is that Orwell is not an anti-Stalinist Marxist either.  It is a shame that the one book length effort to relate Orwell to the left-wing politics of his time, John Newsinger’s Orwell’s Politics (1999) is such a poor book.  Colls is right to dismiss Newsinger’s grouping Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm, and Nineteen Eighty-Four as Orwell’s trilogy of ‘literary Trotskyism’.  Not only did Orwell himself dismiss Trotskyism as another cult of the leader, but the Trotsky figure in Animal Farm (Snowball) assumes greater importance as the absent figure of hate after he is driven from the farm, and this is fully realised in Nineteen Eight-Four where Goldstein appears to be an invention of the party, the significant other to Big Brother.  Nonetheless, there are parallels that one may draw.  For sure, Orwell’s anti-Stalinism was far stronger than that of orthodoxy Trotskyists developed after Trotsky’s death.  But the proletarian military policy that the Trotskyist movement developed in the Second World War, which recognised that there would be a war against Nazi Germany but sought to turn it into a revolutionary class war too, has more than a passing similarity to Orwell’s position in The Lion and the Unicorn.

For Colls, Nineteen Eighty-Four is hardly the work of a socialist at all.  It is the work of an anti-Stalinist English nationalist.  He sees the template of Big Brother as Stalin and the society of Airstrip One as an extension of the analogy of the Soviet Union from Animal Farm.  What is submerged and destroyed is not the idea of socialism (done so more thoroughly as it is done in the name of socialism) but of English national identity.  Of course, what Colls argues has some basis in Nineteen Eighty-Four with distant memories of England of the old prole in the pub, but it misses the point.  The template for the novel is found in a piece that Colls mentions only once, and then in footnote, ‘You and the Atomic Bomb’ (1945).  Here, Orwell argues that the existence of nuclear weapons will cause the world to be separated in their competing power blocks, each internally totalitarian.  On this Orwell grafted a reading of James Burnham (as it happens, formerly a leading American Trotskyist, but moving swiftly right) who predicted that all societies were developing oligarchies (and welcomed this).  This is the elite in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the 15% of society who are party members.  It is worth noting that Ingsoc and totalitarianism is for this elite, not the proles, who by and large are allowed to get on with their lives.  Although Nineteen Eighty-Four satirises the Soviet Union, its target is also the bureaucratisation of all societies and the control of the intelligentsia by a false vision of socialism.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s overgeneralization that all biography is autobiography has some leverage here.  Colls was once clearly on the left in a History Workshop Journal study of nineteenth century working class community kind of way, and in 2000 wrote that Orwell was socialist ‘to the end’.  Now, Colls argues in a way that is reminiscent of Orwell (and even more akin to David Goodhart’s British Dream (2013)) that British/English national identity can be progressive form of solidarity, but sees this only in a post-social democratic world.  Colls’ politics (which I am entirely unsure about) is not, however, the point here.  Rather, the point is that it is historically inaccurate to rewrite Orwell to support that case, to suggest that he was, in the end, not a socialist at all but reverting to his middle-class type as Tory.

What is needed is a more nuanced understanding of Orwell.  Colls (2013) has a point that Orwell’s Englishness was important to him, just as Colls (2000) is right that Orwell was a socialist to the end.  This movement for the anti-imperialist of Burmese Days, to the anti-war socialist of his days in the ILP and English anti-fascist socialist of 1941 has yet to be fully explained.  Sadly, this book adds little to developing such an understanding.

3 responses to “Coming up for air or going down for the third time?

  1. Pingback: Coming up for air or going down for the third time? | British Contemporary History

  2. Pingback: Archives, Spies and the end of Empire | British Contemporary History

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