Paul Anderson, from Richard Keeble (ed), George Orwell Now! (Peter Lang, 2015)
George Orwell’s politics have always been contentious. In his lifetime, he was a notable intellectual contrarian whose antipathy to received wisdom of all kinds made him admirers and enemies across the political spectrum – and since his death the argument about where he stood politically has been vigorous. It shows no sign of ending soon. Of course, the polemics ebb and flow according to events in the real world and publishers’ schedules, and there has been little in the past quarter-century to match the vituperation of the cold-war battle for Orwell.
Apart from a few notable peaks of invective – the last of them in 2003, the centenary of his birth, the one before that in 2000, the 50th anniversary of his death – the struggle for Orwell’s legacy has recently been subdued. Yet even today, people from all over the political spectrum still want to appropriate the mantle of Orwell – from Trotskyists and anarchists on the far left who embrace the anti-Stalinist revolutionary socialism of Homage to Catalonia to conservatives who revere him as a ‘Tory anarchist’ and consider Nineteen Eighty-Four as the ultimate warning against any kind of collectivism. On the other side, there are those who find different things with which to fault Orwell – leftists who see him as an establishment cold-war informer or a defeatist, feminists who question his attitudes to women, and so on. And that is before you take into account the vast interpretative literature by writers without any obvious partisan political preferences and the dozens of authors engaging with particular aspects of Orwell’s politics, from the theory of geopolitics to surveillance.
This one will run and run, and so it should. Orwell was a complex and in many ways contradictory writer who drew on a vast range of personal experience and reading, constantly developing his ideas. He did this, moreover, not primarily by issuing political manifestos but by way of fiction and cultural criticism, much of it designed as satire or polemic to provoke real or imagined critics and enemies and thus notably open to multiple interpretations. For all Orwell’s famous clarity and simplicity of style, much of his writing is deeply politically ambiguous. If it is clear that Animal Farm is an allegory for the Bolshevik revolution and its aftermath that is unequivocally anti-Stalinist, it is by no means obvious what its lessons are. That all revolutions are doomed? That Trotsky was right, or that the anarchists were, about 1917?
Much the same can be said of Nineteen Eighty-Four: the novel is unmistakeably a satire on key characteristics of world politics in the 1930s and 1940s, notably the seeming permanence of war and the emergence of totalitarian states that rule by propaganda, surveillance and terror, with Stalin’s Russia as the exemplar. But to what extent was it intended as predictive? How far does it pick up on trends Orwell perceived in 1940s Labour Britain or in the United States? It is impossible to give definitive answers to such questions. Even Orwell’s apparently straightforward political journalism of the 1940s leaves a lot hanging. He is, for example, explicit in his denunciation of leftist fellow-travellers and crypto-communists in Labour’s ranks. Whether he saw them as genuine potential contenders for political power is Britain, however, anything but evident.
Nevertheless, my contention is that the best description of Orwell’s mature politics is still that given by the late Bernard Crick more than 30 years ago: that Orwell was ‘a pretty typical Tribune socialist’. Orwell was a regular contributor to Tribune, the Labour left weekly, from 1940; was the paper’s literary editor from 1943 to 1945; and from 1943 to 1947 (with a couple of gaps) contributed a column, mostly under the title ‘As I Please’, that occupied the most prominent spot in the paper and is to this day the model of how to write opinion journalism for many practitioners of the craft. From 1947 until his death in 1950 he remained sympathetic towards the paper (though not uncritically) and engaged with his friends on the staff. Some writers – most notably the brilliant and charming Polish exile journalist Leopold Labedz in a rumbustious piece in Encounter in 1984 – have tried to dissociate Orwell from Tribune by showing that he was at odds with the paper’s editorial line more often than not. But he wasn’t: for the last years of his life Orwell was as much a member of the Tribune club as anyone could be.
But what is Tribune socialism? When Orwell wrote for the paper, Tribune was – as today – the organ of the democratic left in the Labour Party, independent of the party leadership but unswerving in its support of Labour at election time. But it had not always occupied this political space. It had been founded by the left-wing MPs Stafford Cripps, Aneurin Bevan and others in 1937 – bankrolled by Cripps and to a lesser extent by the Labour MP George Strauss – as the weekly organ of a quixotic attempt to create a ‘united front’ against fascism, war and the National government, the Unity Campaign. The campaign involved Cripps’s Labour-affiliated Socialist League, the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Independent Labour Party, and it lasted a few weeks before it foundered in the face of the hostility of the Labour Party establishment, which expelled the Socialist League. What remained of it disintegrated within months after the CPGB and ILP fell out irrevocably over Spain and over Stalin’s show trials. Tribune survived the debacle with the help of Cripps’s cash and the support of Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club. But it continued to flog the dead horse of communist-Labour unity, adopting the Communist Party policy in favour of a ‘popular front’ of Labour, communists and ‘bourgeois’ anti-fascists – a platform that got Cripps and Bevan expelled from the Labour Party – and wholly uncritical of the Soviet Union.
It was not until 1939-40, in the wake of the Nazi-Soviet pact and the outbreak of war in Europe, that it shook off the CP’s baleful influence. By spring 1940, with Cripps off the scene, Strauss in charge of the purse-strings and Bevan as political director, it had broken definitively with the Moscow line – rather tardily for Orwell, who claimed (diplomatically, in a piece he wrote for its 10th anniversary) to have been only vaguely aware of its existence before then. And ever since its break with the CP it has been where the democratic Labour left has argued and sometimes fought its campaigns.
Of course, many aspects of Tribune’s politics have changed over time, and it is difficult to find consistency in its approach in some crucial areas – most importantly here the cold war and Soviet communism, on which right to the end in 1989 it was always a battleground between optimists who hoped for the best from every new Soviet bloc leader and pessimists who despaired that the Soviet model would bury all hope for democratic socialism. On this, Labedz’s 1984 polemic in Encounter hits some targets.
But there are two counters to Labedz: first, that he misunderstands Tribune’s political culture; and secondly that he doesn’t get the politics of the late 1940s.
For all its wavering, there is an underlying consistency to Tribune. Since 1940, the paper has always been a voice for common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, egalitarianism, anti-colonialism, free elections, support for the Labour Party – and for a culture of libertarian freedom of expression. It has never published only Labour loyalist writers, and has always been open to the non-Labour left – particularly to anarchists, pacifists and Trotskyists but also sometimes to communists and, latterly, the Greens – as well as to all sorts of single-issue campaigner. Labedz doesn’t grasp that, except for its first three years, Tribune has always been pluralist.
Labedz makes a particular meal of the 1940s, when Orwell wrote for it. The paper was broadly anti-communist throughout that period, viscerally so after 1947 – and Labedz doesn’t realise. Yes, during the war, it was all-out for Allied victory just like every newspaper in Britain, supporting the heroic efforts of the Red Army on the eastern front. Yes, in 1946-47 – with Bevan in government and the paper’s editorial direction under his protégé Michael Foot – Tribune briefly argued for Britain and Europe to form an independent bloc, aligned with neither the US nor the Soviet Union – a position radically at odds with the Labour government but also with the communists.
Tribune’s enthusiasm for non-alignment was, however, fleeting: it collapsed in the face of the hostility of the Labour leadership and of the Soviet suppression of democratic socialist parties and independent trade unions in eastern Europe. Tribune embraced the west. From summer 1947 the only key question on which the Foot Tribune disagreed with Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary, was Palestine, on which the paper took a Zionist line. The paper condemned unequivocally the Soviet crushing of democracy in Hungary (1947) and Czechoslovakia (1948) and the Soviet blockade of west Berlin (1948-49); and it enthusiastically supported the creation of Nato as an anti-Soviet military alliance in 1947-48.
A Labour libertarian leftist
Orwell’s politics cannot be reduced to ‘Tribune socialism’ – or vice versa. He and Tribune disagreed, notably on its position on the cold war in 1946-47 and Zionism. He took a harder line than Tribune on Soviet fellow-travellers in Labour’s ranks, particularly the MP Konni Zilliacus. But these were niggling differences. For the last decade of his life, Orwell was a free-thinking but hardly atypical Labour libertarian leftist, and to situate him otherwise – as John Newsinger and Robert Colls both do in their different ways, Newsinger by exaggerating Orwell’s dissidence from Labour, Colls by playing it down – is a mistake. When he wrote, in ‘Why I Write’ – published in the small magazine Gangrel in 1946 and read by next to nobody at the time – that ‘every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it’, he was telling the truth. And ‘democratic socialism’ as he understood it was neither, at least from 1941-42, a revolutionary creed nor a matter of accepting that, as Herbert Morrison is supposed to have put it, ‘socialism is what a Labour government does’.
Orwell’s journey to Tribune socialism was not straightforward. Born in India, the son of a colonial official, in 1903, Eric Blair was educated at a southern England prep school and Eton, then took a job in the imperial Indian police force. There is no indication that the young Blair had much interest in politics until he decided to become a writer, dropped out of the police and adopted the pen-name George Orwell. What made him do what he did is an intriguing question, but unless a new cache of letters is discovered in some Southwold attic that provides new evidence we shall be in the land of guesswork here forever.
It is nevertheless incontestable that the Orwell of Down and Out in Paris and London, Burmese Days and A Clergyman’s Daughter was a young man raging against the complacency of the English middle classes about poverty and imperialism. It is also incontrovertible that he was increasingly influenced in his politics by the Independent Labour Party milieu of the small-circulation review Adelphi, owned by John Middleton Murray and co-edited by Richard Rees and Max Plowman, although he was still working out exactly where he stood.
But was Orwell being serious in the early 1930s when he told his Adelphi ILP friends – Rees and Jack Common – that he was a ‘Tory anarchist’? In a recent article in Political Studies, Peter Wilkin tries to show that he was, and that he remained a ‘Tory anarchist’ for the rest of his life – though Wilkin says that ‘this does not represent a theoretical framework; it is not an ideological response to social change’, which rather spoils his case. He goes on: ‘On the contrary, Tory anarchism is a stance, usually driven by artistic or literary ambitions, and a practice that reflects a certain temper that is in significant part a reaction to profound changes in Britain’s place in the world system’, in particular the decline of empire. For Wilkin, ‘Tory anarchism’ is moral and cultural conservatism based on disdain for modern fads that undermine or underestimate the inherent common decency of the British working class, on pessimism and empiricism, on patriotism, with a penchant for satire and contrarianism.
This is a theme worth exploring, not least because there is a grand tradition from Jonathan Swift to Private Eye of just such an attitude to life, but there are real problems with it too. Wilkin’s parameters are drawn too widely: who is not a ‘Tory anarchist’ on this definition apart from the desiccated calculating machines of Fabian socialism, orthodox communism, free-market economics, university quality assurance administrations – all right, and the whole of the professional political class that has grown up over the past 40 years addicted to opinion polling?
As Wilkin almost admits, you can be a Tory anarchist in these terms and at the same time a revolutionary socialist or a Labour Party cabinet minister – or a crusty voter for an anti-immigration party in the saloon bar. On Wilkin’s definition, Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot were Tory anarchists and so was Karl Marx. The problem is the catch-all notion of ‘cultural and moral conservatism’. Ambiguity about ‘progress’ is the norm among thinking people in any advanced capitalist society – and was felt by Orwell in the 1930s and 1940s, as it was by Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, by John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos. If Orwell was a ‘cultural and moral conservative’ who regretted much that had been lost, appreciated warm beer, and was intolerant of the cant of the day, he was also a bohemian rebel against moral conservativism and a critical enthusiast for the modern in culture. Orwell dropped out from respectability when he left the Indian police and for the rest of his life lived unconventionally, avoiding the trap of a traditional career, travelling to Spain to fight for his vision of communism, escaping London for crazy experiments in subsistence in rural Hertfordshire and later Jura, hanging out with poets in wartime Fitzrovia, perhaps even having extramarital sex. For all his dislike of W H Auden and his circle and his antipathy to the elitism of much high modernism – and for all his enthusiasm for Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens and George Gissing – he was as engaged as anyone with the serious modernist and experimental literature of the first half of the 20th century (Joseph Conrad, D H Lawrence, T S Eliot, James Joyce, Henry Miller and so on), and his fiction was influenced both by high modernism and by the anti-elitist reaction to it of the 1930s. He was also an enthusiast for contemporary popular culture, ahead of his time in taking seriously pulp fiction, sport, mass holiday resorts, boys’ weeklies and a lot else besides. He reviewed film as it became part of everyday life, and he worked as an international radio broadcaster in the early 1940s when radio was newer than the internet is today. He was a man as at ease with his times as he was uneasy.
Which is not to say that anarchism didn’t play a role in Orwell’s intellectual life. He was sympathetic to the anarcho-syndicalist CNT in Spain in the 1930s – ‘As far as my purely personal preferences went I would have liked to join the anarchists,’ he writes in Homage to Catalonia – and he was friendly with many anarchist contemporaries from the late 1930s until his death. But these anarchists, in Britain as in Spain, were revolutionary libertarian socialists – and they hated the Tories or anyone like them. In Spain, they killed them.
The wretched of the earth
Enough, though, of ‘Tory anarchist’. It is clear from Orwell’s earliest published work that he identified with the left – though by no means uncritically or unambiguously. And I would say, with the benefit of hindsight, that his engagement with the wretched of the earth (the exploited poor of the colonies and the casual and itinerant labourers of the imperialist homelands, Marx’s lumpen proletariat) was remarkable. It indicates a commitment that was different in crucial respects from that of many other leftist writers of his time., whose interest was much more focused on the respectable working class.
If he had died in 1935, however, Orwell would have been forgotten or at best a minor cult figure for left-wing enthusiasts for reportage and modernist-influenced realist fiction, one of several writers who, touched by Marxism and far-left ethical socialism, tried to tell how capitalism and imperialism exploited the proletariat and the peasant masses in the colonies, a footnote to Jack London and Upton Sinclair. What changed that, what made Orwell different, were two things: his experience researching The Road to Wigan Pier, where he first confronted (albeit tentatively) the idea that a lot of the left was at best useless and that some of it represented a threat to working-class interests; and, most importantly, Spain.
The Road to Wigan Pier was Orwell’s first big-selling book, a major success for Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club despite Gollancz’s unease about some of Orwell’s criticisms of the left. And, as John Newsinger has made very clear, Spain was a crucial watershed in Orwell’s politics. He went out as an independent-minded but not particularly critical united fronter – all socialists should get together and fight fascism, a standard position whatever his quirks – and returned convinced by his experience that the Soviet Union and its communist clients were not just unreliable allies but enemies of the revolutionary socialist and anti-fascist cause. He started off despairing at the anarchists’ and radical leftists’ lack of serious military organisation – while he admired the social revolution that was taking place in Catalonia, he considered leaving the POUM militia with which he had joined up as an ILP sympathiser (though not actually a member) for the communist-controlled International Brigades. He ended up in horror at the communists’ suppression of the revolution (from which he escaped by the skin of his teeth). Homage to Catalonia, rejected by Gollancz for telling awkward truths, was the result.
All the same, Orwell was in the middle and late 1930s a fairly orthodox ILPer – which means that he was a revolutionary socialist attracted by Trotskyism and by an anarchism that was anything but Tory. He even joined the ILP after returning from Spain. He was against British rearmament to counter Nazi Germany (which would give the British bourgeoisie the means to attack the workers) and still a sceptical supporter of an international alliance between Britain and the Soviet Union against Hitler despite his Spanish experience. But his affiliation to the ILP lasted only until the Hitler-Stalin pact of summer 1939. His account of the breach is too good to be true – he claimed to have had a dream on the eve of the pact in which war came and he realised that his only option was to fight for Britain – but the breach was certainly for real. Like quite a few others on the far left, he was disgusted by the Soviet betrayal and appalled by the ILP’s official position of pacifism once war began, though he remained personally friendly with many former ILP comrades.
Orwell in the 1940s
What, though, of the 1940s? I think there are three phases: 1939-41, 1941-47 and 1947-50. The first was when Orwell settled accounts with the 1930s left, in particular the Communist Party. Even if you take sceptically his account of how his eyes were opened by the Hitler-Stalin pact, there’s no doubt that the event propelled him into a radical change of political position: the pact was another watershed, almost as important as Spain. From 1939-40, he was a socialist patriot, a supporter of the war effort – and someone who saw the war as a means of effecting revolutionary socialist change in Britain, seeing the Home Guard as a nascent revolutionary militia. He was not alone in this. His friend Tosco Fyvel took a similar point of view; so did Tom Wintringham, Aneurin Bevan and Francis Williams. This patriotic revolutionary left did not sweep all before it in 1940-41, but Orwell’s contributions to Gollancz’s collection of essays against the Hitler-Stalin pact, Betrayal of the Left (published in early 1941), undoubtedly caught something of a mood. This is when Orwell started to write for Tribune under the editorship of Raymond Postgate, though the relationship cooled a little after Postgate attacked Orwell’s contributions to Betrayal of the Left, soon after which Aneurin Bevan fired Postgate and appointed himself as Tribune editor, though actually the work was done by Jon Kimche, a former ILPer who had worked with Orwell in a Hampstead bookshop in the 1930s.
The second phase was from some time in 1941, when Orwell’s sense of the revolutionary possibilities in Britain waned, until the beginning of the cold war. I don’t think there was a particular turning point, rather a series of events. The anti-Soviet temper of the left weakened after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union; and Orwell himself got a job at the BBC, working as a propagandist for its India service. He gave that up in November 1943 to join Tribune as literary editor, however, and for the next 18 months, while writing Animal Farm, he was employed by the paper, leaving it briefly in spring 1945 to work as a war correspondent for the Observer and returning to its pages in the autumn of the same year as a freelance columnist, a role he continued until spring 1947 Orwell’s contributions to Tribune, notably the ‘As I Please’ columns, generally steered clear of mainstream politics – but he wrote plenty on British politics both for other publications in the UK (the Observer, the Manchester Evening News and various little magazines) and in his London Letters for Partisan Review in the US, and his sympathies are very clear. He was engaged in a string of arguments with former Trotskyist, pacifist and anarchist friends and was growing closer and closer to the mainstream Labour left. He was an admirer of Bevan (as well as a colleague) and in 1945 he actively campaigned for Labour in the run-up to the party’s extraordinary landslide.
Of course, Orwell continued to be influenced by all sorts of things outside the narrow confines of the British left. He was a voracious consumer of small magazines and pamphlets, and it’s clear that he took very seriously the pessimistic visions of recently Trotskyist American writers such as James Burnham and Dwight Macdonald, the right-libertarian polemics of Friedrich von Hayek and a lot more besides. Burnham is particularly important: The Book in Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein, draws heavily on Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, which Orwell wrote about in a column in Tribune in early 1944 and returned to in 1946 (very critically) in one of his greatest political essays, ‘Second Thoughts on James Burnham’, published in Humphrey Slater’s Polemic in 1946. But he was by no means alone on the Labour left at the time in taking Burnham seriously – it’s notable that ‘Second Thoughts…’ was republished as a pamphlet by the Socialist Book Centre, a small left-wing bookshop on The Strand near Tribune’s office that published several pamphlets by the paper’s writers – and there is no evidence at all that Burnham’s book caused Orwell to rethink his commitment to democratic socialism. Unlike Burnham, who became a mainstay of the American cold-war right, Orwell never embraced conservative defeatism.
Phase three, 1947-50 is where it starts to get much more difficult, for two reasons. First, Orwell was from 1946-47 increasingly detached from orthodox political engagement. He stopped writing his column for Tribune in May 1947 to finish Nineteen Eighty Four, and although there were still occasional journalistic contributions to other periodicals, they were fitful. He was ill, and spent most of his time when not in sanitoriums in splendid isolation in Jura. Secondly, there was much greater ambiguity to his political interventions. This was partly because the most important of them, Nineteen Eighty Four, was a great work of satire that was and remains open to infinite interpretations, but it was also because Orwell, like everyone else at the time, was faced with a massively changed world in which old certainties had been destroyed by nearly six years of total war and the emergence of an armed stand-off between capitalist west and communist east. In Britain, Labour was engaging in implementation of a socialist programme of nationalisation and creation of a welfare state – which had been almost unthinkable before 1939. It was doing so, moreover, technocratically and joylessly, in conditions of extreme austerity and in the face of an effective collapse of Britain’s role as a world power. Meanwhile, both the US and the Soviet Union were on the march: the US as the only country until 1949 with the atom bomb, the only major economy that had done well out of the war, with global military commitments; the Soviet Union as the new master of east-central Europe, and from 1949 the second power with the atom bomb and the apparent hegemon in China. These were world-historical events, and Orwell was trying to make sense of them. He got some things right and some things wrong.
How Orwell called the early years of the cold war is, of course, what all the arguments are really about today. Did he sell out his principles? Or was he the greatest sage of the era? Or maybe both or neither?
The cold war ended 25 years ago, but it still casts a shadow over contemporary geopolitics and intellectual life. Our understandings of its early years are mediated through nearly 70 years of hindsight, and hardly anyone who was a participant in the politics of the time is still alive. It is very hard to get to grips with what it was actually like to live through the late 1940s – and easy to forget that at any time in history no one knows what’s going to happen next. When Orwell died, in January 1950, the Soviet bomb was four months old, the People’s Republic of China three months old. Alger Hiss had yet to be convicted of espionage, Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenbergs were yet to be arrested. A statement of the obvious, perhaps, but it matters because Orwell died before the democratic left consensus in support of the west in the cold war came into question except from communists.
Until 1951 – when it looked as if the Americans might be prepared to escalate the Korean war into an all-out global nuclear conflict – there was little dissent from the cold war in the west from the non-communist left. Orwell was certainly one of the most consistent and effective anti-communist voices on the left, but apart from a brief period in 1946-47, when he poured scorn on the Labour left’s short-lived proposals for a ‘third way’ foreign policy, there was very little to separate him from what Tribune was saying about the immediate need to resist Soviet expansionism in eastern Europe and support the creation of a transatlantic anti-communist alliance. It is true that he had a much more pessimistic – and realistic – view than most of what was wrong with Soviet communism (it wasn’t enough to hope for a replacement of Stalin and democratic elections), but the biggest difference he had with his friends on the paper was over their support for the creation of the state of Israel, which he saw as colonialism of a new kind. There was no point at which Orwell dissociated himself from Tribune: he remained a reader and supporter of the paper, as far as anyone knows, until his death.
Orwell and the ‘little list’ controversy
None of this is to overlook the much-discussed question of the list of Soviet-sympathetic writers and artists Orwell handed over in 1949 to Celia Kirwan, a friend to whom he had once proposed marriage, who had asked his advice on who should and who should not be asked to write by the Foreign Office propaganda unit for which she worked, the newly established Information Research Department. This has been a bone of contention for nearly 20 years, and the canard that it was a blacklist has now entered popular mythology. What actually happened was rather more mundane. With his friend Richard Rees, Orwell in the 1940s compiled a notebook listing people prominent in literary and political circles, mainly in Britain and the US, who they thought might be ‘crypto-communists’ (secret members of the Communist Party) or ‘fellow-travellers’ (non-members of the CP who publicly defended Stalin’s Russia). There were – are – 135 names in this notebook, and most were published in a volume of Peter Davison’s edition of Orwell’s Collected Works in the 1990s.
There are four important factual points here:
• This was a speculative list two friends put together for their own amusement. It was not intended for wider circulation, let alone publication.
• Although some of the names in the notebook have notes appended that identify them as probable covert CP members or even Soviet agents, far more are defined as merely naïve, dishonest, sentimental or silly in their attitudes to the Soviet Union and the CP.
• Orwell and Rees were largely accurate in their assessments. Nearly everyone in the notebook had expressed gushing admiration for Stalinist Russia or participated in CP-run campaigns.
• The list in the notebook was not the list Orwell gave to Kirwan. The IRD list contained only ‘about 35’ names, according to Orwell, and a definitive version is yet to be published.
Of course, the facts aren’t what are really at stake. The big questions are first whether Orwell was right to compile his notebook for his own purposes; and secondly whether he was right to hand over the shorter list to the IRD. On the first, can anyone object to a political journalist keeping tabs on his or her subjects’ political affiliations and backgrounds? Every political journalist does it, and should do it. Unless you know, say, that the chair of campaign A is a member of the central committee of a Stalinist micro-party, or that the leader of trade union B is affiliated to a Trotskyist groupuscule, or that the columnist for respectable broadsheet C was once a lobbyist for Slobodan Milosevic, or that the Tory MP for D has repeatedly taken freebie holidays in Northern Cyprus, or that the Labour MPs calling for Ed Miliband to take a tougher stance on immigration have histories of Euroscepticism going back decades, you miss important stories.
Handing over the shorter list to the IRD is more controversial – but did it amount to more than an error of judgment? The purpose of the list was to advise the Foreign Office about whom not to hire to write articles, pamphlets and books for a new outfit that had been set up by the Labour government to counter Soviet propaganda abroad with arguments for democratic socialism. Now, it’s perfectly possible to argue that the IRD should never have been set up on the grounds that a democracy should have no recourse to propaganda – and there is no doubt that in later years its role in spreading rumour and disinformation was reprehensible. But in 1949, the idea of the IRD did not seem at all shady. There was good reason to fear Stalin’s intentions in Europe. The Soviet Union had ruthlessly suppressed nascent democracies in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, imposing pliant puppet dictatorships and imprisoning democratic socialists. West Berlin was under Soviet military blockade, and it seemed to many that Stalin was preparing for all-out war. Orwell was by no means alone on the left in thinking a British socialist propaganda effort justified. If there is a case against Orwell’s action, it is that he did not know to what use his list would be put by the state. That was certainly a risk – but in the circumstances of the time it was an understandable one to take for a Tribune socialist.
So, to sum up: Bernard Crick is right: Orwell was for the last decade of his life a Tribune socialist, and there’s little to suggest that he was having second thoughts even on his deathbed.
But what does it matter today? Well, in some ways not a lot. The Orwell who advocated a planned economy and pored over Trotskyist and anarchist polemics against Stalinism and supported the Attlee government is in some respects a figure of historical interest who does not speak to our time, however much we admire his style, or his contrarianism or certain other aspects of his political engagements. The democratic socialism for which Orwell stood is now a marginal current in British politics, at least as it is portrayed in the media – and it would take an extraordinary leap of faith to consider it likely in the near future to be adopted explicitly by the Labour Party leadership, which is still beholden, as it has been for 20 years or more, to broadly neoliberal economics and a concern for the interests of big business and ‘aspirational’ middle-class voters. But it’s not far off the common sense of the Labour Party on the ground or indeed of much of the British public – and there have been signs that Labour’s neoliberalism is cracking. I’m not holding out great hopes, but the prospect of Labour fighting elections on a platform that would have been recognised by Orwell and by Crick as democratic socialist is better now than it has been for more than 20 years.
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