GEORGE ORWELL AND THE LEFT: BUT WHAT SORT OF DEMOCRATIC SOCIALIST WAS HE?

Paul Anderson, George Orwell Studies, vol 2 no 1, 2017

George Orwell at work in the 1940s

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.

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DEAD CATS DON’T BOUNCE

The new conclusion to Moscow Gold? The Soviet Union and the British Left by Paul Anderson and Kevin Davey. Published by Little Atoms, 28 December 2015

By the end of the 1990s, to most observers of the British left, the Leninist era seemed to have come to an end. The Socialist Workers Party, quasi-Trotskyist and owner of a competent offset press in east London, still had some life about it, but not a lot.

The Scottish Socialist Party – essentially the renegade Glasgow office of the Trotskyist Militant Tendency, which had been expelled by Labour in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with SWP and independent barnacles hanging on – had some support in urban western Scotland. And the hardline Communist Party of Britain, the main Stalinist splinter from the ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain (which had given up the ghost in 1991, 70 years after its launch with a giant subvention from Moscow), was still influential in a few trade unions. The CPB still had a daily paper, the Morning Star, though hardly anyone read it any more. Continue reading

LABOUR TRAITORS?

Tribune, 18 October 2013

The Daily Mail’s assertion that Ralph Miliband, father of Labour leader Ed, was a stooge of the Soviet Union who ‘hated Britain’ has created a massive storm. But it is only the latest in a long line of right-wing smears against the Labour left – with Tribune as a particular target – claiming it kow-towed to communist Russia … or worse. In an exclusive extract from their new book, Moscow Gold? The Soviet Union and the British left, Paul Anderson and Kevin Davey tell the grisly story of the lies of the 1960s and 1970s Continue reading

RIGHT AND WRONG

Review of Robert Colls, George Orwell: English Rebel (Oxford University Press, £25), Tribune, 4 October 2013

I started Robert Colls’s new biography of George Orwell with some trepidation. Colls is a writer I like who has written intelligently and provocatively on working-class history and the creation of an English national identity – but I was wondering what a new biography could possibly add to the already massive literature on Orwell.

I was wrong to worry. Continue reading

FOREIGNERS NOT WELCOME HERE

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 7 September 2012

The crisis at London Metropolitan University, which has had its right to educate non-EU foreign students withdrawn by the UK Border Authority, is by far the biggest faced by any UK higher education institution in living memory. According to its vice-chancellor, Malcolm Gillies, if the university’s legal appeal does not overturn the UKBA’s decision, it stands to lose nearly one-fifth of its income, more than £25 million. That’s enough to make it go bust.

If the UKBA decision is upheld by the courts, some 2,600 students and prospective students will be directly affected, of whom nearly 500 will be deported – with the rest given four weeks to find another course. Several courses with large numbers of non-EU foreign students will cease to be viable, with knock-on effects for UK and EU students and for staff.

It is difficult to imagine a more heavy-handed and ill-timed response to what the UKBA says is London Met’s problem – that it has admitted large numbers of students who are inadequately qualified or have the wrong visas, and has given places to people who aren’t students at all but are using student visas as a means of getting into the UK to work.

 I’ve no idea whether London Met is guilty of any of these things – though if it has never recruited sub-standard overseas students in order to pocket their fees it is unique among British universities. But it has the means to weed out students who shouldn’t be there because they aren’t up to it or aren’t there because they registered at the start of the academic year and didn’t turn up again.

At the very latest, the useless and the bogus are caught when they fail or do not show either for their first-year exams or for the resits, at which point they are unceremoniously chucked out. Of course, it might be that London Met’s assessment system is or has been slack and needs to be tighter. But that is not what it is being pulled up for. The UKBA’s complaint is that it has not been checking students’ visas with sufficient rigour and has failed to keep detailed records of student attendance – essentially, that it has failed in its duty of immigration control.

The implication is clearly that nothing short of regular inspections of students’ visas and registers in every lecture would suffice to persuade the UKBA that London Met deserves to be allowed to educate non-EU students. This in itself represents a drastic curtailment of the university’s autonomy – and the idea that non-EU foreign students should be subjected to special status checks and attendance controls is insulting to them because it rests on the assumption that they are up to no good unless they prove otherwise.

But the UKBA didn’t just insist on the university adopting more intrusive surveillance of non-EU foreign students. It is demanding that it throws out all of its non-EU foreign students a few weeks before the start of the academic year. Even if all 500 of those slated by the UKBA for deportation had registered for a course at London Met purely as a scam for getting into the country and had never done a day’s study – and of course that isn’t the true picture – that still leaves more than 2,100 students and prospective students who have been expelled from a university where they were studying or hoping to study in good faith and at considerable expense.

The UKBA’s action has sent a message loud and clear to anyone outside the EU who might be thinking of coming to Britain to study: if you don’t want to risk being arbitrarily thrown off a course you’ve paid thousands of pounds to take, go elsewhere.

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The question of whether there should be a statue of George Orwell placed outside the BBC headquarters at Broadcasting House briefly engaged the upmarket papers last month after Joan Bakewell said that outgoing BBC director-general Mark Thompson had dismissed the idea because Orwell was far too left-wing. I was annoyed that nearly everyone who expressed an opinion said either that Orwell wasn’t left-wing, which is simply untrue, or that he was but his politics are irrelevant to his enduring appeal, which I think is quite wrong.

What really got me, however, was that no one said that Broadcasting House is completely inappropriate as the site for an Orwell statue. True, he worked for the BBC broadcasting to India in 1942-43 – but he hated it, describing it as “two wasted years”, and left to join Tribune (which was then, as now, left-wing) and for the next four years contributed to it some of his best journalistic work. The best place for a central London statue would be close to Tribune’s then offices at 222 The Strand. There’s plenty of space opposite, on the pavement outside the Royal Courts of Justice.

SOMETHING MIGHT JUST TURN UP

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 2 October 2009

Every ambitious young journalist has a dream job or five, and in my early 20s, my top target was editor of the New Statesman. I didn’t get there de jure but did de facto, because, after three years as deputy editor of the magazine, I took the chair for six issues in the interregnum between Steve Platt and Ian Hargreaves when the oleaginous Geoffrey Robinson became proprietor in 1996. And before that I edited Tribune, which was dream job number two, after a long stint as Tribune reviews editor, which was third on my list.

So I’ve not got a lot of complaints, really. I’ve reached the age of 50 and have done the jobs that used to be done by George Orwell, Michael Foot, Dick Crossman and – OK, I’m pushing it – Kingsley Martin. I might have been useless in all of those roles, I might be a washed-up has-been. But I’m not, at least in my own mind, a never-was. I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody, as Marlon Brando put it in On the Waterfront, even if I’m now a bum.

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Enough, though, of me, me, me and my birthday-induced sense of angst. This column was supposed to be about the New Statesman, which has a new – or newish – editor, Jason Cowley, and which relaunched last week with a redesign and a raft of new contributors.

The design is clean and smart, a cross between the Berliner Guardian and Time Out in the early 1980s. I don’t much like slab serif fonts myself, but they seem to be all the rage again, and at least they’ve not gone for Rockwell Bold.

The content is a different matter. The Statesman is, like Tribune, primarily a political weekly of the left, whatever it might do with its back end. And the current issue is not short of must-read material for politicos: Steve Richards is as insightful as usual on the Labour Party and there’s a big, though typically unrevealing, interview with Gordon Brown.

But something isn’t quite right. I’m sorry, but no one who publishes Neil Clark, an apologist for Slobodan Milosevic, can be taken seriously; and announcing that Phillip Blond, the “red Tory” policy-wonk, will be a regular columnist is not – how shall I put it? – a turn-on.

Getting 20 worthy pressure-group types to say what they want from the Labour manifesto was not an inspired idea – and nor was making the cover story for the relaunch issue a list of the 50 most important people in the world. Hey, surprise, surprise, Barack Obama is number one. No one at an editorial conference appears to have made the obvious point that not a single reader gives a damn how New Statesman staffers rank the importance of, er, important people.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. I know from experience that it’s very easy not to get relaunch issues quite right. And the Statesman is hardly alone on the British left in appearing confused about what it is there for and hopelessly lacking in self-confidence – as anyone who was at Labour conference in Brighton this week will tell you.

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I’m writing this on Tuesday before Gordon Brown’s keynote speech – the downside of Tribune’s glossy full-colour transformation is that the deadlines are earlier – and by the time you read this, his efforts might have transformed everything, but so far this has been the most surreal Labour conference since the 1970s.

In public, nearly everyone apart from the (utterly marginal) hard left has been on message. I never thought I’d witness delegates giving Peter Mandelson a standing ovation, but on Monday I did, after he delivered quite the weirdest speech I’ve heard from a conference platform since the heyday of Margaret Thatcher.

In private, however, there are very few in Brighton who think that Labour’s “fightback” will work. Even a year ago, there was a hard core of Labour optimists who really believed that the party had a decent chance of winning the next general election. Now, although everyone is still talking the talk about the election being up for grabs, most of last year’s optimists admit that it will take a miracle for Labour to win.

All the same, the mood has been a lot less downbeat than I expected, particularly after that Mandelson speech. There’s no sense that we might as well throw in the towel: if Labour goes down next spring it will do so fighting, not quitting. And who knows? Something might just turn up.

Richard Vinen, Times Literary Supplement

Orwell in Tribune: ‘As I Please’ and other writings 1943-47 edited by Paul Anderson (Methuen, £14.99)
Orwell and Marxism:The political and cultural thinking of George Orwell by  Philip Bounds (I. B. Tauris. £52.50)

More than any other British author of the twentieth century, George Orwell has escaped from his own time. Every schoolchild who gets as far as GCSE English will have read at least one Orwell novel, and the one that they are most likely to have read (Nineteen Eighty-Four) is, ostensibly at least, not set in Orwell’s own lifetime. Orwell was fascinated by children’s literature and some of his books have a special appeal to children (particularly, I suspect, boys in their early teens). This means that most people read Orwell before they have any sense of the period in which he wrote; indeed, before they have much sense of why it might matter to understand the period in which a writer worked. Continue reading

Peter Stothard, Daily Beast

Classics are timeless—or so we think. In the case of George Orwell, the distinguished historian Richard Vinen points out in the TLS this week that he has “escaped from his own time”: “Every school child who gets as far as GCSE English will have read at least one Orwell novel…. This means that most people read Orwell before they have any sense of the period in which he wrote; indeed, before they have much sense of why it might matter to understand the period in which a writer worked.” A volume of his writings for the Tribune from the years before 1984, and a new study about Orwell and Marxism, put Orwell rewardingly back in his historical place–-and show how the timeless work of literature emerged from the messy business of writing to the moment.

Sebastian Shakespeare, Evening Standard

With the future of the left-wing weekly hanging in the balance, there could be no more timely reminder of its importance to British culture than the reissue of Orwell in Tribune, a collection of George Orwell’s essays edited by Paul Anderson. Continue reading

Tom Widger, Sunday Tribune (Dublin)

The questioning mind in me has always loved Orwell. The Orwell who just about escaped death from the Soviet NKVD at the close of the Spanish Civil War, the Orwell of Wigan Pier, the creator of the Thought Police, the pigs in Animal Farm. The Orwell who scoffed at tidied-up language, such as “friendly fire”. The book to hand is a collection of essays that came out in left-wing literary weeklies. Orwell usually had three or four deadlines a week to meet, including the “As I Please” column, and despite the years of publication – the mid 1940s – they are as fresh as though they were written last week. That said, of course, the themes – the class war, the structure of society – are still topical, and always will be.