Orwell’s Homage to Socialism

George Orwell has been mostly a name to me. I’ve seen adaptations of his works, but I don’t recall ever having read anything by him. I found a cheap copy of Homage to Catalonia which more than intrigued me. I didn’t know anything about his life, but maybe that book is a good way to learn of one of the most important experiences of his life and how he sought to make sense of it.

Homage to Catalonia is about his time spent fighting fascists in Spain. Like many others, Orwell got caught up in the rhetoric of communism. He wanted to fight with the communists, but for various reasons he ended up fighting with the communist-allied anarchists and social trade unionists in Catalonia. The communists eventually took over and eventually wiped out their former allies (imprisoning, torturing and killing them) which, to say the least, was a self-defeating maneuver and cost them the war. For Orwell, this meant he was now perceived as an enemy by the communists and so he escaped across the border.

This disillusioned him about the communists which made his support of socialism all that more stronger, having remained a socialist for the rest of his life. Maybe he was taught a lesson by those he fought with, those who suffered at the hands of the communists. Most right-wingers and maybe most people in general think communism (in its form as authoritarian statism) is the same as socialism, but it would be hard to convince those anarchists and trade unionists who were perceived as a greater threat to communism than even their supposedly shared enemy of the fascists.

Orwell was no friend of any kind of absolutist ideology and he understood how it led to ruthless oppression. He realized this was as true for British imperialism as for communism. This put him in an odd position when, during the Cold War, he became an informant for the British government:

“In The New York Review of Books of September 25, 2003, Garton Ash published an article called ‘Orwell’s List’. In this article, Garton Ash gives an account of his research concerning an astonishing list of thirty-eight names of journalists, politicians, and others compiled by Orwell. In some cases, Orwell appended com-ments, some being anti-Semitic or homophobic, as well as vocational information. Those on the list were generally labeled as “crypto-communists” or “fellow travelers”. Others were said to be merely “appeasers” (of the U.S.S.R.), “reliably pro-Russian” or “sympathizers only”. Quite a few on the list are well known to those in Russell studies, for they include such figures as E.H. Carr, Isaac Deutscher, Kingsley Martin and J.B. Priestley.”

It’s rather sad that he let himself be used that way. The very people who were critical of British oppression became potential targets of that oppression because of Orwell’s collusion:

“But what Garton Ash does not mention is that in case of need, this list was also to be used to ferret out suspicious intel-lectuals and others, perhaps in a political crisis, though there is no indication Orwell himself knew this. Accordingly, in a telephone interview conducted by Francis Stonor Saunders, Adam Watson, a senior IRD veteran and Celia Kirwan’s supervisor, would not cat-egorically deny that the list was to be used against those on it. He would only say in an artfully qualified way that “Its immediate usefulness was that these were not people who should write for us,” but went on to add that “[their] connection with Soviet-backed organizations might have to be exposed at some later date”.[1] It thus seems to have been intended that the list could be concomitantly used as a tool of ideological suppression or even political control under certain unspecified untoward circumstances.”

The only explanation I can think of is that he saw the British government as the lesser of two evils and, besides, his loyalty was to his native country. Orwell was no Thomas Paine who would fight a revolution against his own country, despite his criticisms of it. I’m sure he reasoned that the British government might be reformed from within whereas he saw communism as unamenable to any reform. Rationalizations aside, my respect for him is tarnished by his collusion with power.

This Cold War angle made a lot of sense of Lionel Trilling’s introduction to Homage to Catalonia. Trilling wrote it in 1952, two years after Orwell’s death. The book had been some combination of ignored and suppressed prior to that. When it first was published, not many copies were printed and they didn’t sell. His criticisms of communism at that time were unpopular. Then during WWII, his criticisms of “Uncle Joe” were politically inconvenient. Only when his work became useful for Cold War propaganda did it see the light of day.

Reading Trilling’s introduction, I kept getting this sense that Trilling was projecting his own beliefs and opinions onto Orwell. It is a very strange introduction that offers little in the way of in-depth analysis or evidence supporting it. Trilling just uses Orwell as a way to make claims that have little to do with Orwell. Discussing Trilling’s introduction, Noam Chomsky bluntly stated, “Orwell, who had died already, would have hated it.”

I’m not sure what Orwell would have thought of how his name would be used as a propaganda tool. I doubt it would have made him happy. If he had lived longer to have seen the Thatcher-Reagan Era, I’m sure his criticism of the Cold War would have matched his criticism of the communists. The Cold War was ultimately used by Western state governments to attack socialists like Orwell.

4 thoughts on “Orwell’s Homage to Socialism

    • Well, there are some issues that I don’t know about. It’s all new to me. I’m sure numerous detailed scholarly works have been written about Orwell’s life. I was mostly just curious about Trilling’s strange introduction. It makes me wonder if Trilling was on the government payroll. Or did he do Cold War rhetoric just for the fun of it?

      • His flirtations with British nationalism and his outing many communists to the government was quite controversial. He believe that the British spirit was somehow unique, and actually used it as an argument against James Burnham. So it is hard to say how much he was still in line with his earlier political works by the end of his life.

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