Coming up for Orwell
The various collections of George Orwell’s essays and short pieces reached their ultimate point in the four volumes published at ten guineas in 1968, and now brought out by Penguin for ten shillings each*. The writings are presented chronologically, and to them are added a great many letters which Orwell wrote to various people. Each volume has a few pages’ biographical notes on the writer in the period it covers. George Woodcock’s book# is a personal and critical study rather than a life-story (it was Orwell’s wish that no biography of him should be written) and as such goes well with the collected work. Together these books display the author of Homage to Catalonia, Wigan Pier and Nineteen Eighty-Four fully enough for some assessment to be made. What should the verdict on Orwell be?
At his worst — in the preposterous naïveté of The Lion and the Unicorn, or the hack propagandizing of his war-time contributions to Partisan Review — it is simple enough: a muddle-head or a penny-a-liner, or both. The problem arises because nearly everyone has not only enjoyed other writings of Orwell, but warmed to their sentiments. He had a knack of putting his finger exactly on an ordinary person’s feelings in an unfair or idiotic world. It is illustrated perfectly in an essay about the pleasures of spring in London. At the end he remarks:
“How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t.”
Who has not had the same thought in a hundred situations — or can resist a writer who expresses it so lucidly?
This is the prime appeal of Animal Farm. Despite his harsh experience in Spain of Communist motivation, it is doubtful if Orwell ever had enough knowledge of political theory and history for Animal Farm to have the depths attributed to it. In reality it is a quite unsophisticated book, a plain man’s bitter-funny version of how things were in Soviet Russia. Its sparkle comes partly from Orwell’s skill with words and phrases, partly from that talent for touching on how people felt about it all. Moses the Crow is a perfect image for organized religion as apprehended by the working class; rulers do look like pigs to underdog eyes. Likewise, The Road to Wigan Pier derived much of its success from describing explicitly how the fad-ridden Left of the ‘thirties looked to hard-up working men —” … every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist and feminist in England . . . This kind of thing is by itself sufficient to alienate plenty of decent people.”
Orwell’s fluent fellow-feeling is what makes him such a likeable writer. It is also, however, the wallpaper over the cracks and inadequacies of three-quarters of his thought. The phrases and sentences quoted here do not stand up, for all their first-glance attractiveness. To speak of important persons wanting to prevent one’s enjoyment is really playing to the gallery, and a piece of gross misdirection about the nature of social grievances. The phrase “plenty of decent people” means politically uncommitted people specifically, the miners he had been among and admired so much; but if one grants the admiration for their role in society, does that make their opinions superior? The attack on fruit juice, sandals, feminism etc. has to be seen in the context of attitudes in the ‘thirties, of course. But Orwell follows it with his well-known story about the two I.L.P. men in shorts and pistachio shirts on a bus, displaying in their dress the Bohemian crankiness associated with the Left. One, he says, was “obscenely bald” as well; and this pointless, shoddy item in the diatribe serves to cast doubt on the sense of all the rest of it.
In many ways, Orwell is like a man marching to throw open some pearly gates and abolish mendicancy, who never gets near the gates because he keeps stopping to tell beggars he is on their side. Every discussion of him makes much of his obsession with “class”, his upbringing and early life as a police officer in the East. The common theory is of his trying to expiate Eton and Burma by identification with the working class — certainly be referred to that background often in his writings, apart from the pieces specifically about Burma. The fact is, however, that Orwell had no comprehension of what class meant in society.
It is worth digressing here to point out that Orwell’s presumed attempt to atone for a well-to-do upbringing is by no means unique. Among the leadership of the agitating Left today there are professional and business people whose main-spring is compunction over not having horny hands and greasy overalls, the stigmata of the bona fide exploited worker. Anyone who has observed them has seen the idealizing of the factory-bench man, the conviction that he has an instinctive wisdom about society that is denied them. This is exactly what Orwell felt. But one has to see that the guilt and the consequent radical outpourings arise from failure to understand what class really is.
Woodcock, while pointing out and criticizing many of Orwell’s weaknesses, passes this one. Indeed, he falls into it himself. Writing about Orwell’s experience in Spain, he quotes a piece from the essay “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” where Orwell describes a militiaman shaking his hand in Barcelona:
“When I remember — oh, how vividly! — his shabby uniform and fierce, pathetic, innocent face, the complex side issues of the war seem to fade away and I see clearly that there was at any rate no doubt as to who was in the right. In spite of power politics and journalistic lying, the central issue of the war was the attempt of people like this to win the decent life which they knew to be their birthright.”
Woodcock goes on to quote a poem Orwell wrote about the same episode. It is, he says, “a lyrical summary of all that he [Orwell] learned from the Spanish Civil War”; the title of his own book is taken from its ending. Yet, for all their ardent feeling, both the passage and the verses are nonsense. Could Orwell or Woodcock really tell from looking at a soldier’s rig-out and his face that his side was “in the right”; or — vide the poem — see something “no power can disinherit”? As for “the central issue of the war”, Woodcock says only four pages earlier that Orwell was “still politically rather green’ when he went to Spain and was under a series of misapprehensions as to what was going on.
To say Orwell’s chief talent was for the commonplace is not to denigrate his ability as a writer. His tours de force are the essays on boys’ weekly papers, comic postcards and so on. He was able to see clearly enough the ideals and life-patterns they represented without having to go too far under the surface. For all his introspection, his analytical capability stopped near the surface. One of his least successful essays is “Decline of the English Murder” where, having described the social characteristics of some popular murder cases, he appears not to know what to say about them. More seriously, Orwell’s justifications for supporting the war and working as a BBC propagandist were almost too superficial to be worth argument: that whoever in Britain refused to support the war was by default supporting the Nazis, that war propaganda was less dirty if “decent” people helped in it.
The greatest part of his reputation, however, rests with Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is a melancholy thought that the reputation has derived largely from the things which have been read into the book, even wrongly attributed to it. It was taken by the Right as a massive indictment of Russia, by many of the Left as a guide to the doom awaiting us if the Right had its way; twenty-odd years after its publication its name is still a popular cry against bureaucracy. Nevertheless, the forms taken by society in Nineteen Eighty-Four were not generally Orwell’s invention. They were a compound of Zamyatin’s We, which had already contributed to Huxley’s Brave New World several years before, and James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution. In the present volumes essays by Orwell on both these books are re-printed, showing how strongly they affected him.
The impact of Nineteen Eighty-Four comes not from the hypothesis of a power-structure, but from the recognisability of the detail. Woodcock says: “The elements of this horrific new world Orwell saw existing in the world around him.” They are in fact all extensions of agencies and tendencies in 1948, when the book was written; or today. The spying and hate-fomenting, the distortion of language and history for political ends, the exploitation of psychological knowledge, the State regulation of sexual life, are all arguable further developments from things happening in the present. This is usually seen as giving the book an impressive plausibility. Yet they bring it back also to Orwell’s perennial identification with the everyday man’s surface thoughts on life. What he is saying in innumerable instances, put simply, is “If it goes on like this, the next thing will be . . . “
The failure of such logical-conclusion, this-is-how-we’ll-end-up prophecies is that they attribute dominance to what in fact are subsidiary motives in society. One could say with equal logic, for example, that if the motives of most Conservatives were carried out there would be nothing on television but cricket and public hangings. If that sounds absurd, it is actually a parallel with Orwell’s prediction of the city environment in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is the shabby, bomb-damaged austerity of 1948: evidently, Orwell thought the maintenance of such a standard suited the Labour Party and the bureaucracy, and had no hesitation in projecting it as a future inevitability.
But the book’s most fundamental weakness is the lack of any consideration of production and the class struggle. The characters in Nineteen Eighty-Four are all administrative workers. We gather that the “proles” booze and sing and do the necessary work. Do they acquiesce in it all the time? Is there no labour trouble or resentment of a chronically squalid life? Orwell’s two chief characters rebel because of intellectual doubt in the man’s case and sexual vitality in the woman’s. These are fair enough sources of rebellious feeling, but they do not represent the substance of social unrest. True, Orwell has Winston Smith gaze admiringly at a blowzy, Florry-Capp prole woman and reflect vaguely on “people who had never learned to think but who were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world”. This is not at all concrete, however, and does not answer the questions. (Nor does Woodcock’s assertion of a “hidden truth which Bakunin once knew and which the Marxists have obscured — that the love of power is stronger and more perverting than any material or economic motive”.)
Politically, Orwell described himself as an anarchist at some times and a socialist at others: and both these avowals were qualified by a strong patriotism. He was not a socialist at all, of course — for him the word carried simply connotations of decency, brotherhood and the working man being admirable. Commentators invariably praise his refusal to accept political commitment, as showing his integrity. Perhaps; but it is also a luxurious position, in which one has one’s cake and eats it without having to think about the ingredients. One has to wonder in what direction Orwell would have moved had he lived. It is hard to see his having become anything other than another of the writers who are rootless social critics, advancing commentaries with no standpoint of their own.
* The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, 4 vols
The Crystal Spirit, A Study of George Orwell, by George Woodcock, Penguin Books