Paul Foot revisits George Orwell, in the July issue of Socialist Review

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at
Sun Jul 27 05:37:30 MDT 2003

(...) George Orwell was the earliest and most eloquent British writer to
call himself a revolutionary socialist and yet denounce the influence and
propaganda of the most powerful force to describe itself as socialist -
Stalinism. As he admitted himself, he showed little or no interest in the
Russian Revolution when it happened when he was 14. He wrote almost nothing
on the subject until he went to Spain in 1936. In Barcelona he was bowled
over by the workers' revolution there. The first few pages of his book
Homage to Catalonia, where the 'working class was in the saddle', are still
one of the finest pieces of inspirational revolutionary writing. On the
front, alongside Spanish and British fellow-fighters, he observed with
mounting horror the crushing of that revolutionary fervour by agents of the
Russian government. Such people, he deduced, were not socialists at all but
ruthless envoys of a 'mean state capitalism with the grab motive left
intact'. He watched while his comrades were hauled off one by one to be
questioned, tortured and in one case murdered by the Stalinist secret
police. His fury at this process lasted for the rest of his short life. With
it came an understanding, utterly at odds with conventional left wing
thinking at the time, that any politics that emerged from Stalinists was no
more or less than propaganda for the Russian government, and therefore was
as likely as not to be reactionary and anti-socialist.

On his return from Spain he joined the ILP - the only mainstream
organisation opposed to the war, but as the fascist armies lined up for
invasion of Britain he swung right over. Yet even his most nationalistic
expressions were tempered with a yearning for the sort of democratic and
socialist revolution he had seen in Spain. The war could not be won, he
reckoned, wrongly, without such a revolution in Britain. And among the
enemies of such a revolution were the Communists, who campaigned for Tories
and imperialists in by-elections.

Orwell got a job with Tribune where he wrote a weekly column full of
unorthodoxy. All the staff there were supporters of Zionism, but not Orwell.
He opposed it for the effect it would have on the people living in
Palestine, and of course was denounced then and later for being
anti-Semitic. His satire Animal Farm was equivocal about the revolution that
starts it. 'Old Major', the revolutionary pig who inspires it, is not Lenin,
but neither is he or the revolution reactionary. Orwell never set out his
views on the familiar question, 'Did Lenin lead to Stalin?' On one occasion
he thought 'yes'; on another he agreed that Lenin would have opposed the
Stalinist agenda. Either way, his support for the idea of revolution lasted
right until the end of his life, when he finally surrendered to Cold War
gloom and tuberculosis.

Socialists who are (as I have been) inspired by Orwell's outspoken fervour
and his clear writing style, but puzzled by the questions he never answered
would be better off reading John Newsinger's Orwell's Politics than any of
the interminable biographies now available. John shows how a proper
appreciation of Orwell's work owes a lot to the late Peter Sedgwick, a
founder of the International Socialists, forerunner of the Socialist Workers
Party. Sedgwick's article in International Socialism (another one was
promised but it never materialised) was the first real effort on the left to
explain the attraction, the inspiration and the contradictions in Orwell's
work. For many of us socialists at the time, the article was an intellectual
liberation. It led in my case to further reading and enjoyment of Orwell's
works, and a much greater understanding of the revolutionary inspiration and
reactionary contradictions in them. One of Orwell's many free speech
campaigns was for the publication of Victor Serge's Memoirs of a
Revolutionary, a book eventually published in the early 1960s, beautifully
translated by Peter Sedgwick. Like Orwell, Serge was part of a submerged
tradition of anti-Stalinist socialist and revolutionary thought, a tradition
that the combined obfuscation from both sides of the Cold War cannot
suppress forever.


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