Raymond Williams on Orwell

Ed George edgeorge at usuarios.retecal.es
Thu Nov 28 08:57:49 MST 2002

Apropos of our little discussion on Orwell, I am appending below Raymond
Williams' extremely pertinent comments on Orwell as they appear in the
book _Politics and Letters_, a superb book-length series of interviews
carried out over 1977-78.  In fact, for me, Raymond Williams is about
the only person - apart perhaps from Isaac Deutscher - who ever really
understood what Orwell was about; the chapter 'England whose England?'
in Williams' _Orwell_ (London, 1971) is indispensable to a study of the
latter's political and artistic trajectory.

For my part, I can only add the following comment.  It is not so much,
as James Daley put it, that Orwell's response to Stalinist machinations
in Spain led him to embrace English (for which, here, read 'British')
nationalism: the fundamental point to grasp about Orwell's political and
creative trajectory is that he remained steeped in British nationalism
for his entire life.  He didn't embrace it or even re-embrace it at the
outbreak of the Second World War: he had never broken from it in the
first place.  Now it is certainly true that Orwell's vision of
'Englishness' was shrouded in a certain liberalism, yet the resulting
conception of 'English decency' was chauvinistic to the core.  It is
commonplace to regard Orwell as an 'enigma', and the standard account on
the left views the otherwise apparently inexplicable transition from
revolutionary socialist in Spain to social patriot in Second World War
Britain with disgust at Stalinism cast as explanans.  Yet this is to
miss the point.  At best Orwell's socialism was an 'empire socialism',
and his chosen political enemies those who he perceived as the greatest
threats to 'traditional English decency', be they Spanish fascism or
Russian 'communism' (and the fact that such ideologies were indeed
'alien' was for Orwell salient; and that they were also 'ideologies'
particularly repugnant to his pseudo common-man empiricism).  It must in
this respect not be forgotten that his pre-Spain writings reek of
contempt for what he called 'communism' (which for him included
Trotskyism as well), a contempt he maintained for his entire remaining
political life.  It is not so much that disgust at Stalinism kept Orwell
from maintaining revolutionary socialism but that his nationalism would
always prevent him from embracing revolutionary socialism in the first


NLR: Your political writings since 1956 have taken a number of different
forms. Before discussing the general evolution of your positions on the
major issues of socialist politics within Western capitalism, we would
like to start by asking you some questions about those texts which
confront problems of the Cold War, and of the revolutions in the East.
Firstly, can we take up your study of Orwell, written in the early
seventies?  This is a very attractive and powerful piece of writing,
which unites 'politics' and 'letters' perhaps more closely than anything
else you have written.  It also represents a significant extension of
the range of your political writing, in that it is the first book where
you reintegrate the facts of empire and imperialism absolutely centrally
into your vision of English society as a whole.  They appear elsewhere
in your work only in asides, but in the Orwell book they move right to
the centre of the picture in a very compelling way.  What was the
background to its composition?

RW: In the Britain of the fifties, along every road that you moved, the
figure of Orwell seemed to be waiting.  If you tried to develop a new
kind of popular cultural analysis, there was Orwell; if you wanted to
report on work or ordinary life, there was Orwell; if you engaged in any
kind of socialist argument, there was an enormously inflated statue of
Orwell warning you to go back.  Down to the late sixties political
editorials in newspapers would regularly admonish younger socialists to
read their Orwell and see where all that led to.  This seemed to me
false.  The Orwell history seemed to me more complex and contradictory.
Here was a man who said that every word he had written was for
democratic socialism, and who fought for it in Catalonia as a
revolutionary, yet so much of whose writing is clearly anti-socialist in
a general way and not just on particular questions, and indeed has had
an enormous anti-socialist effect.  I had been wanting to write a short
general book on Orwell from the early sixties.  The opportunity for that
precise form came only at the end of the decade.  The part of the book I
am most satisfied with is the attempt to define the peculiar question of
the plain style of Orwell's prose, which has been extraordinarily
influential as a convention well beyond literature.  It has become a
reportorial format and a television style.  I share with my friends the
modernists a profound suspicion of anything that appears so natural.
The chapter that I would not have missed writing was the one where I
discuss the creation of a character called Orwell who is very different
from the writer called Orwell - the successful impersonation of the
plain man who bumps into experience in an unmediated way and is simply
telling the truth about it.

NLR: Many bourgeois readers will have found your study scandalously,
even impiously, sceptical of George Orwell.  It must stand as perhaps
the only principled critique of Orwell from the left. Nevertheless in
the last resort you seem to let Orwell off rather lightly, granting him
an indulgence which your own evidence does not appear to warrant.  The
general argument of the book is to suggest that while the sum effect of
Orwell's work has been on the whole very reactionary, both in the
ferocious anti-communism he helped to unleash in the Cold War period
and-possibly yet more so in the regressive social patriotism he stoked
up in war-time and post-war England, nonetheless Orwell was a man who
became a revolutionary socialist for a significant period of his life,
and then tragically but perhaps inevitably went wrong, but even so left
certain writings which have an enduring force and relevance to us
today.  Now the crux of this case for Orwell is the sudden change in his
political outlook at the outbreak of the Second World War.  In your
account he came back from Spain a revolutionary socialist, and then
became a solid patriot virtually overnight.  Quoting his regret that he
had not participated in the imperialist war of 1914-18, feeling less of
a man because he had missed it, you remark: 'On this explanation,
Orwell's abrupt change is simply a reversion to type. And in a sense
this is true. But under the simple readjustment which was traditionally
available, a more profound process of discouragement had been
occurring.' What, then; was this deeper process? Your answer is as
follows.  'He had exposed himself to so much hardship and then fought so
hard; had got a bullet in Spain; had been severely ill with a tubercular
lesion; and had given so much of his energy to what seemed a desert of
political illusions, lies and bad faith. Between the myth of "England"
and this profound European disillusion he had to make what settlements
he could find.'  This is really your only substantive judgement on
Orwell's volte face.  In fact what you are saying is that Orwell got
very tired and his energy ran out.  But your language - 'He had exposed
himself to so much hardship and then fought so hard' - strikes a note of
pathos which seems designed to exculpate him.  Now it is of course true
that Orwell had fought creditably in Spain, but it is not the case that
there weren't other contemporaries who had fought longer and harder for
socialism than Orwell, who did not switch sides so easily.  Think of
someone like Isaac Deutscher, who had worked in the revolutionary
underground in Poland, who had much more direct experience of the
devastations of Stalinism in the Ukraine, and was a refugee in England
at the time. He didn't break under the pressure of Stalinism, become a
social patriot, let alone a violent anticommunist.  He knew Orwell well
after the war, and wrote one of the most penetrating assessments of him
to date.  One scarcely need speak of Trotsky himself who was still
alive, in conditions of incomparably greater adversity, when Orwell was
celebrating the myths of British social unity and characteristically
opining that he was 'as much responsible for the Russian dictatorship as
any man now living'.  Why should Orwell's collapse be excused merely on
the grounds that he was tired? Surely that is the wrong way to approach
the problem?

RW: I think it probably is wrong.  Once you put Orwell in a fully
internationalist context, then of course it is true that there were
people who sustained more.  I suppose there is something sentimental in
simply saying that he was tired and wounded.  But what is interesting is
that he had available to him a way of being tired, so to speak, which
was unthinkable for a Deutscher or Trotsky.  That was the notion, which
was extraordinarily widespread in England, that British society could be
transformed through the conduct of the war.  There was then a crucial
slippage from that position to social patriotism, in the sense which
connects with a later labourism and chauvinism.  Many people in my
generation underwent that slippage.  The question is then whether you
try to understand that process as it were sympathetically, and so
pulling the punches, or whether you draw right back from the process and
simply say what it was, in a much harder way.  We had the same
discussion about my treatment of some of the figures in _Culture and
Society_.  Between the late forties and the early seventies I usually
tended towards the former procedure.  I'm not defending it, I'm just
saying that this is what I then came to do.

NLR: Beyond the question of Orwell's political turn, of course, lies the
problem of an overall assessment of his value as a writer.  Disregarding
his posthumous reputation, in the final analysis we have to ask
ourselves three questions.  Did he produce new theoretical knowledge
about society or history?  Fairly obviously not; few even of his
admirers, apart from apologists on the far right, would claim that he
did.  _1984_ will be a curio in l984.  Did he then produce, first-rank
works of creative imagination: novels of major literary value?  Again,
the answer is evidently no: his novels range from the mediocre to the
weak.  The thinness of works like _Keep the Aspidistra Flying_ is
generally acknowledged.  Did he provide faithful accounts of what he
witnessed or experienced - documentation of an outstanding accuracy?
The most frequent claim for Orwell's accomplishment as a writer today is
that this was his forte.  The case can certainly be made for _Homage to
Catalonia_, a very fine reportage, whatever its limitations as a general
view of the Spanish Civil War, but it cannot be made in any simple way
for _The Road to Wigan Pier_, on which his fame primarily rests, because
of the elements of suppression and manipulation you show in your book.
Orwell's recurrent resort to bully and bluff to impose his prejudices on
the reader as if they were plain if disagreeable facts, a technique not
dissimilar to that of ordinary Fleet Street journalism, often renders
his actual reports untrustworthy.  But if Orwell had few or no original
ideas, a limited creative imagination, and an unreliable capacity to
recount information, what remains of his achievement?  The answer seems
to be the invention of the character of 'Orwell', a process of creation
which you describe very well in the book.  But what you abstain from is
any judgement of this failure, and the element of masquerade in it - not
in the sense that the real writer was a different person, but in the
sense that under the guise of frankness and directness the writing
posture is more than usually dominative.  In the short run, the main
charges against Orwell are political - his decline into his own versions
of social chauvinism and anti-communism.  But in the long run, the
cultural damage done by his lack of literary scruple has probably been
more lasting.

RW: I was reminded, as you were putting that, of Cobbett - a case I
often reflect on in this way.  There is no doubt that in the matter of
language Cobbett is very often doing the same thing to the reader.  But
equally there is the distinction that there is a constant, almost
lifelong flow of personal reporting in Cobbett which is not there in
Orwell - Cobbett doesn't always fully disclose how he came to be in the
position of observer, but he does so far more and is much franker about
his prejudices than Orwell.  For the key point about the convention of
the plain observer with no axes to grind, who simply tells the truth, is
that it cancels the social situation of the writer and cancels his
stance towards the social situation he is observing.  In that sense it
is simply the popular journalistic expression of the whole mode of
objectivist social study.  Orwell's strategy is always to try to write
as if any decent person standing where he was would be bound to see
things in this way.  So you're left with the case of _Homage to
Catalonia_, where I get the impression that because Spain was not
England or Burma he was much more capable of writing what was happening
as something of which he himself was a part, rather than 'our man on the
spot' reporting on it, and that he that he felt the change in himself.
There is briefly something of this in the trip down the mine in _The
Road to Wigan Pier_, but it is preceded by his suppression of how he got
to go down the mine, and how he stayed in the homes of working-class
socialists, who he then denied ever existed.  I would want to widen the
discussion now, because this is the way my own thinking has gone, to the
dominant form of which his work is one famous example: in other words,
not Orwell writing, but what wrote Orwell.  I think if you put it in
that way you can reach, not so much an estimate of him as a novelist, a
critic or a political journalist, but a more genuinely historical
estimate of a collective form.

NLR: The comparison with Cobbett is slightly amiss in that Cobbett's
language has an exuberance, a generosity which is a long way from the
bleakness of Orwell - he had a greater range as a writer.  The other
point is surely that Cobbett had a relationship through his own
background with the rural society which he was describing and with the
popular movement of the time, which makes him a very different figure
from Orwell.

RW: But that would begin to answer the question, what was writing
Orwell, what was writing Cobbett?  That does not mean that a particular
generational form comes en bloc - there is a general form, and there are
variations of instance within it. I mean to write an essay called
'Writing in the Thirties: Blair, Mitchell, Sprigge', discussing Orwell,
Grassic Gibbon and Caudwell, which would be a sketch towards this.  But
it would also be important to study that whole generation, specifically
including the people largely lost from sight who didn't make Orwell's
move - who were not crushed by the experience of the thirties.  This is
a very significant phenomenon which is only now coming into view.  But
the British people of that generation who did not change direction were
also, I feel, to some extent silenced by the contradictions they
experienced. Edward Upward's trilogy is an attempt to work through that
experience.  Although it is not a successful one, because in a way it is
an even more complete regression than Orwell's, to the aesthetic
self-preoccupations of the twenties, it does otherwise represent a more
honourable political course.  The key question, however, is what deep
structures of consciousness and pressure were producing the shifts
during the thirties and forties which in Orwell's case resulted not in
an isolated major individual, but what was to be a widely imitated
style.  The next generation received that form as wisdom, achievement
and maturity, although it was false to the core.  So far as Orwell
himself is concerned, once the plain style goes, the centrality goes and
this is the question about what was writing him.

NLR: If that is the question to be posed, then one answer to it at least
seems fairly clear.  During the Cold War, the international bourgeoisie
had an objective need for extremely potent and, above all, popular works
of a blatantly anti-communist direction.  Of all the countries in
Europe, England was a particularly strong candidate for producing them,
because it had no experience of a mass revolutionary movement in the
20th century, the local ruling class was less affected by internal
upheaval than any of its continental counterparts, and the social order
was the most traditional and stable.  It is unlikely to be an accident
that it generated the two best-sellers of anti-communist literature on
an international scale - Orwell and Koestler.  The case of the latter is
particularly suggestive since he was of course himself not English.  It
is always necessary to remember the enormous international resonance of
the later Orwell. To this day, for example, tens of thousands of copies
of _Animal Farm_ and _1984_ are sold every year in West Germany, as
obligatory texts in the school system.  That is not to mention the
broadcasting of his catchwords over the various émigré radio networks to
Eastern Europe.

On the other hand, if you ask what was it in Orwell that allowed him to
fulfil the summons of the conjuncture, so to speak, you refer to a quite
separate order of determinants.  Here the sort of analysis which Sartre
has sought to make of Flaubert would be a relevant model: he first tries
to reconstruct the constitution of Flaubert's personality within his
early family experience, and then to explore the reasons why the society
of the Second Empire should have conferred such a signal if paradoxical
success on _Madame Bovary_. In the case of Orwell, what his writing
seems to suggest is an active predisposition from the start to see - not
specifically about socialism in the first instance - the dark side of
his subject.  That was to bring him a certain kind of truth, when he was
later writing about The English left or about Soviet Russia.  But what
is striking is that Orwell seems to have been temperamentally in his
element when he was vituperating causes which in another part of himself
he hoped to advance.  His very tense and ambiguous relationship to
socialism is the most obvious, but not the only example of this strain.
It pre-existed the political demand, to which Orwell himself never
voluntarily accommodated, for parables of the Cold War.

RW: I think the other condition of Orwell's later works was they had to
be written by an ex-socialist.  It also had to be someone who shared the
general discouragement of the generation: an ex-socialist who had become
an enthusiast for capitalism could not have had the same effect.  The
qualification one must make is that the composition of these writings
predates the outset of the Cold War: he wrote _Animal Farm_ during the
period of maximum popularity of the Soviet Union in this country.  There
was an oppositional element in him which made him the first in the

The recruitment of very private feelings against socialism becomes
intolerable by 1984.  It is profoundly offensive to state as a general
truth, as Orwell does, that people will always betray each other.  If
human beings are like that, what could be the meaning of a democratic
socialism?  But this dimension of Orwell's writing is also a part of a
very large form which has even deeper roots than the neutral observer.
For the mode of an extreme distaste for humanity of every kind,
especially concentrated in figures of the working class, goes back after
all to the early Eliot - it was a mode of probably two successive
generations and it has not yet exhausted itself. You can see it in
Orwell's choice of the sort of working-class areas he went to, the
deliberate neglect of the families who were coping - although he
acknowledged their existence in the abstract in favour of the
characteristic imagery of squalor: people poking at drains with sticks.
His imagination always and submissively goes to that.  There is a
powerful sense, which I think is theoretically very interesting, but
difficult to understand, in which certain literary conventions really
dictate modes of observation, not just of writing, although it's in the
writing that the effective dictation comes and that what is taken as
vivid and convincing and truthful is actually prescribed.  In Orwell's
Lancashire it is always raining, not because it often does or doesn't,
but because it has to do so as a condition of convincing local detail of
the North.

NLR: That convention could move, in certain cases, in the opposite
direction. For example, the same themes of pervasive disgust can be
found in the early Graham Greene.  There is a remarkable comparative
analysis of Greene and Orwell as novelists, in point of fact, in Terry
Eagleton's _Exiles and Émigrés_.  Yet although their initial sensibility
was not dissimilar, the ideological conclusions were widely divergent,
interestingly, on precisely the two questions of British patriotism and
international communism.  The mediation of a kind of Jansenism has
something to do with Greene's development, of course.

RW: It is also that there was more to write Greene than to write
Orwell.  Because if you take Greene's writing after 1950, you are
talking about a different kind of work.  Who knows what kind of novel
Orwell would have written if he'd turned up in Saigon or in Haiti, where
Greene brings that convention to bear on an imperialist situation?  We
just don't know, and there isn't any point in speculating.  A pathetic
aspect of the literary world of the fifties and early sixties, in fact,
was the imaginary competition to be the heirs of Orwell in the next

NLR: Your book is very controlled and sympathetic in tone towards
Orwell, through all its criticisms.  Some of your comments now seem
sharper. Have you altered your views on his work?

RW: I must say that I cannot bear much of it now.  If I had to say which
writings have done the most damage, it would be what you call the social
patriotism - the dreadful stuff from the beginning of the war about
England as a family with the wrong members in charge, the shuffling old
aunts and uncles whom we could fairly painlessly get rid of.  Many of
the political arguments of the kind of labourism that is usually
associated with the tradition of Durbin or Gaitskell can be traced to
these essays, which are much more serious facts than _Animal Farm_.  For
all its weaknesses that still makes a point about how power can be lost
and how people can be misled: it is defeatist, but it makes certain
pointed observations on the procedures of deception.  As for _1984_, its
projections of ugliness and hatred, often quite arbitrarily and
inconsequentially, onto the difficulties of revolution or political
change, seem to introduce a period of really decadent bourgeois writing
in which the whole status of human beings is reduced.

I would not write about Orwell in the same way now, partly because I
have had more and more doubts about the character he invented.  For
example, there was no objective reason at all for the disgraceful
attacks he made on pacifists or revolutionary opponents of the war in
American periodicals, denouncing people here who were simply in his own
position of three or four years before.  The impression of consistent
decency and honesty that Orwell gave went along with the invention of a
character who comes up new in each situation, who is able to lose his
whole past, and again be looking as the frank, disinterested observer
who is simply telling the truth.  When he does that to fellow socialists
whose position he so recently shared, I can see the basis for a very
much harder assessment of this kind of man and this kind of writing.
The book was the last stage of working through a sense of questioning
respect.  I am bound to say, I cannot read him now: at every point it is
these bad moves he made that stick in my mind.

From: Raymond Williams, _Politics and Letters_ (London, 1979), 384-92.

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