There’s a lot of proxy wars going on at the moment, and one – still running strong after several decades – is over St George Orwell. St George bears little relation to George Orwell, the mid-century novelist and writer whose work is full of the contradictions of a bizarre period.

So, the Guardian could rely on an easy laugh when it dug up MI5 reports that suggested that some doofus had said that Orwell (or Orewell as the report sometimes spelt it) had “advanced communist views”.

What a laugh? St George, scourge of the totalitarians, a commie? How dumb could the plod be?

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Only trouble is, Orwell did have “advanced communist views” – it’s just that most expressions of them were edited out of the four volume Penguin collected journalism that, in 1968, made the modern Orwell.

Take this bit from the Left Book Club newsletter in 1941:

It is not claimed by Socialists that the change-over to a collectivist economy will make human life happier, easier or even freer immediately. On the contrary, the transition may make life very nearly unbearable for a long period, perhaps for hundreds of years. There is a certain goal we have got to reach — cannot help reaching, ultimately — and the way to it may lead through some dreadful places. What socialists of, I should say, nearly all schools believe is that the destiny and therefore the true happiness of man lies in a society of pure communism …. Socialism — centralised ownership of the means of production plus political democracy — is the necessary next step towards communism, just as capitalism was the necessary next step after feudalism. It is not in itself the final objective and I think we ought to guard against assuming that as a system to live under it will be greatly preferable to democratic capitalism. (Item 782 in the Complete Collected Works)

That is clearly not only a Marxist analysis of history, it is a pretty Leninist view of what needs to be done – and unquestionably Orwell writing as a socialist for fellow socialists.

The easy laugh got from the hapless spook’s – as it turns out – accurate description of Orwell’s views is because we live the mini-series view of the period, with WW2 as a crusade against the radical evil of Nazism, rather than a big war blundered into. Orwell campaigned against the war – he was in a Trotskyist internationalist phase at the time – until the day it was declared, after which he joined the fight hoping that it could be turned into a revolutionary struggle and that “we would see Red Guards billeted at the Ritz”.

All this is inconvenient for the Christopher Hitchens and Pamela Bones of the world, who love to quote Orwell’s attacks on the pacifist movement during the war – who love to invoke him in the struggle against Islamofascism, Baathofascism, Inuitofascism, whatever – even though he always described WW2 as “imperialist”, but would later make a list of probable communists for a contact at MI5 (an inconvenient fact Hitchens – whose writing on Orwell reads like the biography of John The Baptist by Jesus Christ – explains away as “a parlour game”).

What does it all prove? That the man was a bundle of contradictions and no argument is advanced by invoking him. It won’t stop people worshipping at the shrine however. After all, some things are so stupid only a neo-con could believe them.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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