Paul Anderson, George Orwell Studies, vol 2 no 1, 2017
No political writer of the 20th century has been subject to more analysis, controversy and speculation than George Orwell – and for good reason.
Many see Orwell as the greatest political writer in the English language of the past 200 years, a consummate stylist, always direct and provocative, and many of his big concerns have continuing resonance even though he died nearly 70 years ago.
He wrote a lot, and in a multitude of genres: fiction, criticism, reportage, poetry, polemical essays and columns. His conception of what is political was breathtakingly broad, he changed his mind over time (and in public), and there are innumerable tensions and contradictions in his life and work. Since his death in 1950, partisans of every political tendency, apart from fascists and Stalinist communists, have tried to claim Orwell as one of their own.
Orwell stated in 1946:
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 (Orwell 1946a).
But that has not stopped anyone trying to enter the Orwell appropriation industry. Some (most recently Peter Wilkin) have made a great deal of Orwell’s reported self-description in the early 1930s as a ‘Tory anarchist’ (Wilkin 2013). Others, following Leopold Labedz in a feature in Encounter more than 30 years ago (Labedz 1984), have detected signs in his late-1940s writings, in particular Nineteen Eighty-Four, that he was losing faith in democratic socialism and have speculated that he would have become a staunch Cold War liberal (or perhaps even some sort of conservative) had he lived through the 1950s. Still others seem to believe that no one who enjoyed the small pleasures of English everyday life as Orwell did – afternoon tea, warm beer, the crime and sex scandals reported in the Sunday popular press – could really be only the most milk-and-water kind of socialist (Colls 2013).
Some of this is legitimate. There are ambiguities in Orwell’s published work and more in his private correspondence and behaviour. There are indications in his letters that by 1948-1949 he had grown weary of the British left (though also plenty of signs that he still considered himself part of it) – and, of course, there is the infamous list he gave to Celia Kirwan, a friend then working for a newly created government propaganda operation, of communist-sympathetic writers and artists he thought it should not hire (Anderson 2014: 93). But there are limits to what we can extrapolate. We shall never know what Orwell would have said after he died, and it is asinine to claim that Orwell was never a serious socialist because he was friends with anarchists and Tories, wrote a not completely dismissive review of Friedrich von Hayek or took James Burnham seriously. There is no evidence at all that he ever gave up on socialism. And the names he gave Kirwan constitute less a McCarthyite blacklist than a written-down version of what every commissioning editor on a political publication keeps in the back of his or her head. Which is not to say that he should have handed it over, just that it does not invalidate Orwell’s claim to have been a democratic socialist for most of his short adult life. So let’s take him for a democratic socialist. But what sort of democratic socialist was he?
ORWELL’S SOCIALISM IN THE THIRTIES
On this question, we should be grateful to several people for clearing detritus over the years, but none more so than John Newsinger, whose Orwell’s Politics (1999) makes it crystal clear how Eric Blair of St Cyprian’s prep school, Eton College and the Indian imperial police became a radical socialist journalist and novelist in the early 1930s – in part through his direct experience of British colonialism and his participant-observation of the lives of the poor in Britain and France, but also through his involvement with the intellectuals around the Independent Labour Party review, the Adelphi, edited by the radical pacifist poet and critic John Middleton Murry.
Newsinger’s account of Orwell’s political journey through the 1930s and early 1940s is difficult to fault. He situates Orwell as a player – at first marginal, later central – in a long-lost left intellectual and political culture. The ILP was hostile both to the dirty compromises of the Labour Party’s electoral and trade union politics and to the much dirtier games of the Moscow-affiliated Communist Party of Great Britain as it danced to Stalin’s tune (though it was not averse to joining forces with Labour and the CP to oppose ‘fascism and war’). The ILP had disaffiliated from Labour in 1932, and Orwell did not join it until 1938, after the ILP had more-or-less given up on the idea that it could form an anti-fascist united front with the CP because of the CP’s support for Stalin’s show trials and its perfidy over Spain (where those under Moscow’s command effectively destroyed the revolutionary left on the Republican side). But it was through Orwell’s ILP contacts that in 1935 he met the northern English industrial workers he wrote about in The Road to Wigan Pier and in 1936 joined the far-left (and Trotskyist-influenced) POUM militia in Spain, which gave us Homage to Catalonia.
The ILP after disaffiliation from Labour was a strange beast. It was a shadow of its former self, reduced in membership to the low thousands and represented in parliament by just five MPs, led by James Maxton. It had lost many of its most important intellectuals and no longer had the must-read left weekly of the day as it had in the 1920s when Clifford Allen and H. N. Brailsford edited its New Leader. (The 1930s was the decade of the New Statesman, edited by the Soviet fellow-traveller Kingsley Martin.) But the ILP had a cachet, nevertheless, as the keeper of the socialist flame, and after disaffiliating from Labour in 1932 appeared refreshed and principled: a revolutionary party, no less. The Adelphi crew was hardly the Bolshevik leadership of 1917 – it was more sandal-wearing days of discussion in medium-sized country houses near Letchworth and Colchester owned by rich sympathisers – but it was open and fertile. Orwell made the ILP his political home for the best part of a decade.
The Orwell of the 1930s was as sceptical about the Labour Party as any ILPer – which is hardly surprising. There was little about Labour in the 1930s to attract anyone without a career as a trade union bureaucrat or local government representative (or both). Following two spells of at-best-lacklustre minority government, the first in 1924, the second from 1929, Labour had been utterly humiliated in the 1931 general election. The debacle came about after its leader and Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, abandoned the party in the face of a largely media-created budget crisis. MacDonald and his chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Snowden, formed a National government in coalition with the Tories rather than refuse to impose massive cuts to balance the books. Led by Arthur Henderson after MacDonald jumped ship, Labour won just 52 seats out of 625 in the Commons, down 225 on its 1929 result, with the Tories taking 470, up 210. Henderson was among the Labour candidates who lost in the Tory landslide which, nevertheless, kept MacDonald as Prime Minister, the leader of a 13-strong National Labour contingent.
In the wake of the defeat, Labour all but imploded. A majority of the ILP voted to disaffiliate from Labour (of which it had formed the activist base in much of the country, with MacDonald and Snowden its key leaders only a decade before). The parliamentary Labour Party was reduced to electing George Lansbury, the veteran pacifist left-wing MP for Bow and Bromley in the East End of London, already in his 70s, much-loved but completely ineffectual, as leader. It was not until 1934 that there was any sign of Labour electoral recovery – when Labour won a majority on the London County Council for the first time, under Herbert Morrison – and it took an extraordinary political coup (engineered by the leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, Ernest Bevin) to get rid of Lansbury before the 1935 general election. Labour did better than in 1931, under Clement Attlee, but increased its representation in the Commons only to 154.
On the ground, Labour was for the most part sclerotic throughout the 1930s – the party of local trade union bigwigs on the trades council that mobilised only at election time, complacent and parochial, culturally conservative. The activist left among individual party members in the constituencies, largely comprising ex-ILPers organised in the Socialist League (led from 1933 by the immensely rich barrister and MP for Bristol East, Stafford Cripps, and Labour-affiliated until 1937), was marginal and fractious (Pimlott 1977).
Orwell’s take on 1930s Labour pervades everything he wrote on Britain in the period, but it is summed up in his remarks in The Road to Wigan Pier, researched in 1936 and published in 1937, on ‘the type who becomes a Labour MP or a high-up trade union official’:
This last type is one of the most desolating spectacles the world contains. He has been picked out to fight for his mates, and all it means to him is a soft job and the chance of bettering himself (Orwell 1937).
The Road to Wigan Pier was excoriated by left critics when published for its supposedly snobbish antipathy to the working class – and Orwell’s publisher, Victor Gollancz, disagreed with it enough to add an introduction disassociating himself from Orwell’s arguments in the second part of the book. It is usually seen by commentators as a vicious attack on sandal-wearing vegetarian leftists, but is just as critical (if not more so) of the complacency of official Labour. The book became a best-seller and continues to work as a plea for the left to get real about the conditions of the people it purports to represent. It demands rejection of illusions – not just the self-deception of a radical left that, starry-eyed about the prospect of revolution, knows nothing of working-class everyday life, but also the Labour narrative of everything going swimmingly in this great movement of ours. It is no surprise, as the CP used to say in the 1930s, that Orwell refers to Morrison’s LCC only to note its meanness towards tramps, or that there is no evidence that he even voted in the 1935 general election, when Labour lost the inner-London constituency in Camden where he lived.
Orwell during the 1930s was never at ease with what Marxist writers have long dismissed as ‘Labourism’ – the party’s hodgepodge of pragmatic incremental social-democratic reformism and trade union leaders’ self-interest. Like others in and around the post-disaffiliation ILP, he saw himself as a revolutionary socialist (even if he had little but scorn for a lot of professed revolutionaries, including those in the ILP). And if Labour was where the workers were to be found – mostly – and was generally preferable to the Tories when it came to voting, Labour’s failure to articulate a properly socialist programme, the conservatism of its trade union base and its plodding electoralism were anathema.
But the main problem with Labour for Orwell was that it was preparing for war. As he put it in 1938:
The ILP is the only British party – at any rate the only one large enough to be worth considering – which aims at anything I should regard as socialism. I do not mean that I have lost all faith in the Labour Party. My most earnest hope is that the Labour Party will win a clear majority in the next general election. But we know what the history of the Labour Party has been, and we know the terrible temptation of the present moment – the temptation to fling every principle overboard in order to prepare for an imperialist war. It is vitally necessary that there should be in existence some body of people who can be depended on, even in the face of persecution, not to compromise their socialist principles (Orwell 1938).
AFTER THE ILP
Orwell’s anti-war stance was always anti-imperialist rather than pacifist – unlike much of the ILP, which was straightforwardly pacifist. And Orwell abandoned his opposition to war, along with his affiliation to the ILP, after the announcement of the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939. In the wake of Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, Moscow and Berlin agreed, apparently out of the blue, to non-belligerence and co-operation (and to carve up Poland and the rest of east-central Europe, though that was not obvious for a few more weeks). It was a shamelessly cynical deal that made war all-but-inevitable between Nazi Germany and the major western European democratic powers, Britain and France. Orwell prepared to support the lesser evil. His account of his change of mind – an instant conversion after a premonitory dream on the night the pact was signed – should be taken with a large pinch of salt, but the shift was undoubtedly sudden and unexpected by his ILP and anarchist comrades. From the outbreak of war, Orwell supported the British war effort against Hitler and abjured the defeatists and pacifists of the left, remaining on good personal terms with most of his onetime political allies but directing polemical venom at the communists and others who had supped with the devil. From early 1940 he took up a position of ‘revolutionary patriotism’, backing the creation of the Home Guard as a would-be workers’ militia that might just form the force to undertake a socialist revolution (Orwell 1940).
For anyone alive today, the idea that ‘Dad’s Army’ was a potentially revolutionary workers’ militia seems faintly ridiculous – but Britain in 1940 was in a state of extraordinary political flux, and Orwell was not alone in his belief that radical socialist change was imminent (his view was shared, inter alia, by Francis Williams, former editor of the Daily Herald and a Labour loyalist who was later Clement Attlee’s press secretary, and Tom Wintringham, a former International Brigades commander in Spain who had fallen out irrevocably with the CP). The failure of Britain’s military involvement in western Europe had destroyed the credibility of the National government even before the fall of France in May 1940 – it was the disastrous Norway campaign that led to the collapse of the Chamberlain administration and Churchill’s elevation to office with Labour backing – and through the Battle of Britain and the Blitz in 1940-41 popular confidence in the political class, the ‘Guilty Men’ of Michael Foot, Frank Owen and Peter Howard’s best-selling July 1940 polemical pamphlet, was at its lowest point (‘Cato’ 1940).
Orwell’s sense that Britain was ripe for revolution faded as the war ground on – and so did his antipathy to Labour (though much more slowly). His revolutionary patriotism and disdain for Labour are still very much alive in The Lion and the Unicorn, written in autumn 1940 and published in February 1941 under the aegis of Searchlight Books, an initiative of the publisher Fredric Warburg (who had published Homage to Catalonia) and the young ex-ILP journalist Tosco Fyvel:
In England there is only one socialist party that has ever seriously mattered, the Labour Party. It has never been able to achieve any major change, because except in purely domestic matters it has never possessed a genuinely independent policy. It was and is primarily a party of the trade unions, devoted to raising wages and improving working conditions. This meant that all through the critical years it was directly interested in the prosperity of British capitalism (Orwell 1941a).
Later in the pamphlet he declares:
Within a year, perhaps even within six months, we shall see the rise of something that has never existed before, a specifically English socialist movement. Hitherto there has been only the Labour Party, which was the creation of the working class but did not aim at any fundamental change, and Marxism, which was a German theory interpreted by Russians and unsuccessfully transplanted to England (ibid).
But by the time of ‘Patriots and Revolutionaries’ – one of two Orwell contributions to Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club edited collection of polemics against the Communist Party’s 1939-41 defeatism, Betrayal of the Left, written only a couple of months after The Lion and the Unicorn (of which it is largely a rehash) and published a few weeks later, Orwell was of the view that the revolutionary moment of 1940 had passed (Orwell 1941b). He saw signs of hope over the next two or three years of something of the same, notably in the summer of 1942, when he declared to the readers of Partisan Review in the US that ‘people are now as fed up and as ready for a radical policy as they were at the time of Dunkirk, with the difference that they now have, or are inclined to think they have, a potential leader in Stafford Cripps. … We are back to the “revolutionary situation” which existed but was not utilised’ (Orwell 1942a). But Orwell never returned to the insurgent optimism of 1940.
Orwell’s enthusiasm for Cripps in Partisan Review, published by a group of Trotskyist-influenced (though increasingly post-Trotskyist) intellectuals in New York, was very guarded (‘I can’t yet say that Cripps is not a second-rate figure to whom the public have tied their hopes’) and he qualified even that with contempt for Labour in 1940 (‘no guts’) and for Attlee (a ‘tame cat’). But it was significant in Orwell’s softening towards Labour. Cripps had been expelled by Labour in 1939 for advocating an anti-fascist electoral popular front alliance between Labour, the Communist Party and Liberals, and had not been readmitted (unlike the MPs Aneurin Bevan and George Strauss, his most loyal lieutenants, who had supported him on the popular front). In 1940, Cripps had been sent to Moscow by Churchill as the British emissary most likely to convince Stalin that Britain was not unfriendly, and he had returned home in early 1942 – at the nadir of Britain’s war effort, with the empire in the far-east cut apart by Japan and the Germans positioned to take Egypt – acclaimed as the man who ‘got Russia on our side’ (as Orwell described the popular perception). But Cripps remained a Labour figure despite being outside the party, as Orwell recognised. And for a short while, Cripps seemed the people’s choice to take over from the flailing Churchill as wartime leader. Churchill cannily responded by making him a member of the war cabinet and then almost immediately packed him off to India to solve one of the the most difficult problem confronting his government, converting Indian nationalists to the allied cause against Japan with promises of jam tomorrow – a doomed effort that led directly to a resurgence of Indian nationalist demands for Britain to get out at once, the ‘Quit India’ movement of civil disobedience initiated in August 1942 by Mahatma Gandhi, which was met in turn by a vicious British programme of mass detentions.
Orwell was a long-standing opponent of British imperialism. Working at the BBC for its Far Eastern Service between 1941 and 1943, had little choice but to back the ‘Cripps mission’. ‘Everyone in Britain is delighted to see such an important mission as the one which Cripps in undertaking conferred upon a man whom even his critics admit to be gifted, trustworthy and self-sacrificing,’ he said in his BBC weekly talk in March 1942 (Orwell 1942b). But this was not just propaganda. Orwell believed Cripps was a man of goodwill who had been set up to fail by Churchill and Halifax, and he was sympathetic when he met him at a long private meeting in June 1942 (‘About 2½ hours of it, with nothing to drink,’ according to Orwell’s diary, though Cripps was ‘very human and willing to listen (Orwell 1942c). He saw Cripps’s failure in India and the subsequent draconian response to Quit India as little short of disastrous. ‘The way the British government is now behaving in India upsets me more than a military defeat,’ he noted in his diary (Orwell 1942d).
Orwell resolved to get out from the propaganda game, leave the BBC and finish his new novel, what became Animal Farm. And it was a Cripps initiative – though one of many years before, the weekly paper Tribune – that gave him his means of escape.
ORWELL AT TRIBUNE
Tribune had been set up by Cripps in 1937 as the organ of the Unity Campaign, the Socialist League’s quixotic attempt to secure a united front of Labour, the ILP and the Communist Party ‘against fascism and war’. The Unity Campaign was a fiasco – the Labour leadership rejected it and threw out the Socialist League in 1937, and the ILP and CP fell out over Spain and the Moscow trials – but Tribune survived precariously over the next couple of years, despite losing Cripps a small fortune, by becoming an adjunct of the Left Book Club and adopting an uncritically pro-Soviet popular-frontist line, with a secret member of the CP as editor, H. J. Hartshorn. Cripps had effectively withdrawn from the paper by late 1939, when he embarked on a bizarre semi-official (but self-funded) world tour meeting key political leaders – taking in China, the Soviet Union and the United States – and he ceased any formal relationship with it in spring 1940 on being sent to Moscow by Churchill. His role as sugar daddy was taken over by George Strauss, Labour MP for North Lambeth since 1935, who owed his considerable wealth to his family’s metal merchant business, while Aneurin Bevan, Labour MP for Ebbw Vale since 1929, became its effective political director. Between them, Strauss and Bevan changed the political line, replacing Hartshorn with the independent-minded Raymond Postgate – until Postgate and Bevan came to blows in 1941, when Bevan himself took on the title of editor, employing the former ILP journalist Jon Kimche as assistant editor to do the actual editing.
The post-Hartshorn Tribune was more-or-less in line with Orwell’s politics, and he became an infrequent contributor under Postgate, though they fell out over a hostile Postgate review of Betrayal of the Left and Orwell subsequently dropped most of his left journalism work to concentrate on a job working in radio for the Eastern Service of the BBC, broadcasting highbrow cultural programmes and news analysis to India. Kimche’s arrival made the Tribune-Orwell relationship much closer again: he was someone Orwell knew well (though it seems they did not like one another very much), having worked together in a Hampstead bookshop in the early 1930s and met again in Spain during the civil war, and was good friends with Tosco Fyvel, Orwell’s collaborator on Searchlight Books in 1940-1941.
Orwell became a regular in the paper’s pages in 1942-43, and when John Atkins, the literary editor, resigned in autumn 1943 to join Mass Observation, the organisation that pioneered the monitoring of public opinion in Britain, Fyvel lobbied Kimche to take on Orwell in his place. Kimche and Bevan agreed; Orwell was hired, starting in November 1943.
Tribune was not an official Labour publication in the 1940s and has never been one – though it has come close. But it was very firmly in the Labour camp when Orwell joined its staff and throughout his association with it. It took its own independent line and was willing to criticise the party leadership (which it did regularly) but its goal under Bevan’s direction was unambiguously to agitate for a Labour government at the next general election – the date of which was unknown but assumed to be soon after the war’s end. With the wartime coalition, Bevan had become the de facto one-man leader of the opposition and a media star – and in Tribune he had his pulpit, writing a column most weeks, dictating the editorial line (for the front of the paper at least) and dominating discussions about commissioning. Although Orwell was as literary editor between 1943 and 1945 in charge of the ‘back half’ of the paper, towards which Bevan took a hands-off approach, and although the column he wrote for Tribune between 1943 and 1947 (mostly under the rubric ‘As I Please’) deliberately steered clear of the stuff of everyday politics, his joining the paper marked his joining the Labour tribe.
It is true, as Newsinger argues in Orwell’s Politics, that it is questionable how far Orwell embraced left Labour reformism even as he joined Tribune. Orwell’s political thinking was influenced by several different left traditions, only partly shared with Bevan and most of the Labour left. In particular, Orwell was still engaged with the dissident libertarian and Trotskyist anti-Stalinist revolutionary socialist left that was obsessed with the degeneration of the Bolshevik revolution, the influence of which is apparent not only in his journalism but also in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. He was not fundamentally a parliamentary socialist: in spring 1944 he told the readers of Partisan Review: ‘As a legislative body parliament has become relatively unimportant, and it has even less control over the executive than over the government. But it still functions as a kind of uncensored supplement to the radio – which, after all, is something worth preserving’ (Orwell 1944). Nor was he optimistic about Labour’s electoral prospects before 1945. Unlike Bevan, who in 1944-45 was insistent that the tide of public opinion was running to the left and that Labour would win a famous general election victory if only it broke with the coalition, Orwell took the view that because of the ‘weakness of the Labour leaders’ the party probably wouldn’t break with the coalition and, even if it did, it would not make a ‘serious effort to win’ the general election (ibid). ‘I have predicted all along that the Conservatives will win with a small majority,’ declared Orwell just before Labour won a massive landslide (Orwell 1945a).
But all this is compatible with Bernard Crick’s description of Orwell’s 1940s political stance as ‘Tribune socialism’ (Crick 1980). Socialism might not be ‘what Labour governments do’, in Herbert Morrison’s immortal phrase, but ‘Tribune socialism’ was never more or less than what the paper has done. Orwell, as literary editor for 15 months, during which time he controlled a third of Tribune’s pages and occupied its most prominent bylined space, defined Tribune almost as much as Bevan. The wartime Tribune was a far more eclectic and open paper than it had been in its first three years and far less attached to left Labour parliamentary socialism than it became after 1945. As George Woodcock put it, ‘Tribune gave space, particularly in its literary pages, to many writers far closer in their views to the independent attitudes of the anarchists, Trotskyists and Independent Labour Party than they were to the policy of the official Labour Party’ (Woodcock 1953). Orwell was by no means the only revolutionary or former revolutionary far-leftist who found a berth there. Others included the editor who first commissioned Orwell to write for the paper, Postgate; Orwell’s contemporaries on the journalistic staff when he was literary editor, Kimche and Evelyn Anderson; his successor as literary editor, Fyvel; and, among contributors, Arthur Koestler, Tom Wintringham, Hugh Slater, Franz Borkenau, Reg Reynolds, Alex Comfort and Herbert Read. The paper was in the mid-1940s at the height of its circulation, shifting 40,000 copies a week (about half the circulation of the rival New Statesman), and at the height of its prestige, a must-read paper for the political class and literary-cultural intellectuals as well as Labour activists. The circulation, boosted in part by wartime paper rationing, which limited the space available for comment and reviews in the daily and Sunday press, was sufficient to keep the paper afloat without too much help from Strauss’s pockets (though Strauss supplied it with an almost-Fleet-Street office on the Strand, and he held editorial meetings at his millionaire pad next to Hyde Park). In Bevan, it had the most effective journalist-politician of his generation – and when he joined the cabinet in 1945 with responsibility for health and housing, his replacement as hands-on political director of Tribune was the most effective journalist-politician of the next generation, Michael Foot, a protégé of both Cripps and Bevan who had been elected in the 1945 Labour general election landslide as MP for Plymouth Devonport (and was already, in his early 30s, a former Fleet Street editor and noted controversialist left columnist and pamphleteer).
Bevan liked Orwell a lot, and the feeling was reciprocated, though they never became close. In October 1945, Orwell wrote a profile of Bevan anonymously for the Observer:
Bevan thinks and feels as a working man. He knows how the scales are weighted against anyone with less than £5 a week. … But he is remarkably free – some of his adversaries would say dangerously free – from any feeling of personal grievance against society. He shows no sign of ordinary class consciousness. He seems equally at home in all kinds of company. It is difficult to imagine anyone less impressed by social status or less inclined to put on airs with subordinates. … He does not have the suspicion of ‘cleverness’ and anaesthesia to the arts which are generally regarded as the mark of a practical man. Those who have worked with him in a journalistic capacity have remarked with pleasure and astonishment that here at last is a politician who knows that literature exists and will even hold up work for five minutes to discuss a point of style (Orwell 1945b).
Orwell’s relationship with Foot was more distant – as a columnist from 1945 Orwell was not part of the staff and they disagreed on several key issues of foreign policy as the cold war got under way, most importantly the 1947 pamphlet by Foot, Richard Crossman and Ian Mikardo, Keep Left, demanding a ‘third way’ foreign policy for Britain (neither pro-American nor pro-Soviet), which Orwell thought naïve, and Foot’s late-1940s enthusiasm, shared by just about all of Orwell’s Tribune friends, for a Jewish state in Palestine.
THE 1945 LABOUR GOVERNMENT
But this is to get ahead of events. Tribune was how Orwell joined the Labour tribe, but he never joined the Labour Party, as far as we know, and Orwell left Tribune as an employee in spring 1945 to become a foreign correspondent for the Observer, well before the 1945 UK general election or indeed the end of the war – though he was to return as a freelance columnist. The Observer job did not last long: his wife Eileen died after a botched operation, and he came back to London in late spring 1945, utterly emotionally devastated, just before the defeat of Germany and the subsequent election, and just before publication of Animal Farm. There is no doubt that Orwell supported Labour in 1945 and no doubt that he covered the campaign as a journalist – and he might even have canvassed for Labour, a story that many biographers tell but of which there is no evidence beyond the anecdotal.
But what did he think of the Labour government? He was writing for Tribune – he took up the column again in autumn 1945, which he kept up until May 1947. But to what extent was he signed up for the whole Labour package? In a ‘London Letter’ to Partisan Review, written just after the election, Orwell was ambiguous: ‘One cannot take this slide to the left as meaning that Britain is on the verge of revolution,’ he declares. ‘The mood of the country seems less revolutionary, less utopian, even less hopeful than it was in 1940 or 1942.’ But:
A Labour government may be said to mean business if it (a) nationalises land, coal mines, railways, public utilities and banks, (b) offers India immediate dominion status (this is a minimum), and (c) purges the bureaucracy, the army, the diplomatic service etc, so thoroughly as to forestall sabotage from the right… If these don’t happen, it is good bet that no really radical economic change is intended (Orwell 1945a).
Orwell warns that the next few years will be tough because voters had not been warned of the austerity that would inevitably accompany war reconstruction and the end of colonialism. But, he goes on:
The new government starts off in a very strong position. Unless the party suffers a serious split, Labour is secure in office for five years, probably longer. … The people who are in power this time are not a gang of easily-bribed weaklings like those of 1929 (ibid).
He is dismissive of Attlee – who lacks ‘the magnetism that a statesman needs nowadays’ – but ‘the other people in a commanding position in the government, Bevin, Morrison, Greenwood, Cripps, Aneurin Bevan, are tougher and abler than their opposite numbers in the Conservative Party’ (Orwell 1945b). In an essay in the US journal Commentary in late 1945 he declared that ‘the Labour government has at least five years in hand, and the men at the top of it, as a body, are at least as able and determined as any government we have had for decades past. It is too early to cheer, but a hopeful attitude is justified’ (Orwell 1945c]). His main worries in 1945-46 were that the government was insufficiently committed to maintaining civil liberties and was not moving quickly enough to introduce socialism. ‘Even allowing for the fact that everything takes time,’ he wrote in Partisan Review in 1946:
… it is astonishing how little change seems to have happened in the structure of society. In a purely economic sense, I suppose, the drift is towards socialism, or at least state ownership. … But in the social set-up there is no symptom by which one could infer that we are not living under a Conservative government. No move has been made against the House of Lords, for example, there has been no talk of disestablishing the Church, there has been very little replacement of Tory ambassadors, service chiefs or other high officials, and if any effort is really being made to democratise education, it has borne no fruit as yet. … I think almost any observer would have expected a greater change in the social atmosphere when a Labour government with a crushing majority had been in power for eight months (Orwell 1946b).
Orwell’s sense of disappointment with Labour’s failure to shift the mood of the nation, shared with every Tribune writer, never left him – but nor did his support for the Attlee government’s broad programme. And in one respect, on foreign policy, he was more pro-government than almost anyone else on the paper. On the biggest contested international issues of the day – the emerging cold war and the future of Palestine – Orwell supported Ernest Bevin as foreign secretary against Foot, Bevan and their closest comrades on Tribune. He argued from early on that there was no alternative to a military alliance between America and the western European democracies against the Soviet Union and that in Palestine Bevin was right to resist the creation of a Jewish nation-state that dispossessed the Arab population. He also took a particularly hard line against communist fellow-travellers in the Labour Party, though little of it was published in his lifetime.
He remained a regular reader of the paper, referred favourably to it in print on a couple of occasions and stayed on good personal terms with his Tribune friends Evelyn Anderson and Fyvel, with whom he kept up a frequent correspondence. He asked Fyvel to remember him to ‘everyone at the office’ in December 1948, and when, on the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four in June 1949, the paper ran a short item wishing him a speedy recovery asked Fyvel to ‘thank the others at Tribune for putting in such a kind par’.
But Orwell was not really an active player in the political world of the late 1940s. He decided to move out of London in May 1946, to an almost ridiculously isolated farmhouse on the Scottish island of Jura, and spent most of the rest of his life there, increasingly disabled by his tuberculosis, writing the novel that became Nineteen Eighty- Four. Whenever he left Jura after 1947 it was for sanitoriums: after two years of enjoying life in one of the most beautiful remote locations in the world, he became terminally ill and died.
The argument about Orwell’s relationship with Labour is not over. But the idea that he was anything other than a democratic socialist for all of his life as a public intellectual is nonsense. He was not at any point an orthodox Labourite and was always sceptical about the Labour Party even though he supported it in the 1940s. But that is a position shared, rightly or wrongly, by many others in his own time and since.
Paul Anderson (2006), ‘Introduction’, in Paul Anderson (ed), Orwell In Tribune: ‘As I Please’ and Other Writings, London: Methuen, pp 1-56
Paul Anderson (2015), ‘In Defence of Bernard Crick’, in Richard Keeble (ed), George Orwell Now!, New York: Peter Lang, pp 83-98
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Pete Wilkin (2013), ‘George Orwell: The English Dissident as Tory Anarchist’, Political Studies, Vol 61 No 1 pp 197-214
George Woodcock (1953), The Crystal Spirit: A Study of George Orwell, Boston: Little Brown