Orwell: against dictatorship.

The ruins of empire

Orwell: earlier novels and documentaries.


Homage To Catalonia.

Most foreign volunteers, for the Spanish Republican cause, were ushered into the ranks of the communists. By an unlikely chance, Orwell found himself among a small anarchist brigade. This is the story of Homage to Catalonia ( 1938 ), of which I share the opinion it is one of his best books. It also should be read to appreciate his famous two final anti-totalitarian works.

These Spanish anarchists called themselves Marxists but they were not communists. They accepted Marx's view of class society. They were against the socialists' route to 'the withering away of the state' via state regulation. The anarchists were correct in that state socialists proved to be control freaks. Also they were right in that scrapping rules, as in the capitalist deregulation of economies, has weakened state power, indeed made it the tool of 'global capitalism.'

The current anarchist riots against global capitalism, when the most powerful economies' heads of state meet, are really a family quarrel, in terms of the history of political theory. The political anarchists and the laisser-faire economists are branches of an originally shared ideology.

Orwell's six foot-two height embarrassed him in Spain, as it had embarrassed him in a visit down the mines. Travel along the low galleries was an exhausting torture to him. In the Spanish civil war trenches, his height got him shot thru the throat and hospitalised.

He was to say afterwards that, in Spain, he came to believe in socialism. That is not just as a theory but as workable in practise. An Encyclopedia Britannica article says that Orwell's socialism was not the centralised socialism of the British Labour party.

Brought up among race and class distinctions, as if they were the natural order, Orwell was deeply impressed to find himself in a Catalonian city with all kinds of flunkeyism conspicuous by their absence. It was a liberating experience, whose working class drabness could not be rivaled by all the gaudy charms of romantic royalism and hierarchical deference.
To this day, the region has retained some of its anarchist tradition, as in the Mondragon worker co-operatives.

Orwell's attitude to class may have been a bit ambiguous. Alan Ayckbourn has said: 'Put three Englishmen on a desert island and within an hour they'll have invented a class system.' Orwell's list of reforms, on reaching the question of the monarchy, decided to probably keep it. But the old feudal system hangs on the royal family at the apex.

At the end of a letter, Orwell said, on buying a left wing periodical, the working class seller had called him 'Sir'. He finished the letter with 'Good old England.' No doubt, there was a grin on his face.
A nineteen seventies British satire show pretended a knighthood accepted by a 'Sir George Orwell.'

American political scientists have approved of this ambiguity in political loyalties or 'cross-cleavage' in a country's political battle-lines. When all the people are dogmatists divided into two clearly opposed camps, as nothing more than enemies, they are not going to make progress as a community.

Republican Spain had the worst of both worlds. There was an irreconcilable split between Republicans and Royalists. The Popular Front should have been a compromise of left wing doctrines, held together against fascism. But it was being systematically under-mined by the communists to replace it with a state monolith, like the Soviet Union. They were steadily picking off their left wing allies, in order to take complete control of Spain. In provoking this war within a war, they helped destroy the Spanish Republic.

A search party, in Orwell's lodging, uncovered Mein Kampf. Orwell heard the sensation this created, commenting, that because he was reading Mein Kampf he, of course, was a Nazi.

Orwell's homage published a chapter on the deceit of British news-papers in defaming the republican regime. One siren voice of a friend suggested he had spoiled the literary form of a good book, by the inserted chapter, showing-up these lies. Orwell agreed but the truth was too important to over-look for reasons of either political or esthetic expedience.
He was detested by much of the Left for exposing communist tactics, as if he were to blame for its self-defeating consequences. It reminds of the line in Kipling's poem If, about all, around, losing their head and blaming you.

Animal Farm

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Not much needs to be said about the short fable Animal Farm. Its theme is anticipated by Aesop's fable, The Kingdom of the Lion. This book would be the one, I'd guess might still be widely read in a couple of thousand years time -- if civilization survives that long.
As Malcolm Muggeridge said: It will always be of interest -- as long as people want to tell each other stories.

Many great writers have lived much longer and written much more, but Orwell has the distinction of having written a perfect work of art, a flawless little master-piece. J R R Tolkein's Lord of the Rings is romance on a hugely greater scale, a gothic cathedral compared to the pure classical lines of a puritan chapel. But Tolkien's ideal, of loyal stooge, against every menace, is the reactionary distraction of a glamorised feudalism.
Indeed, the 1984 Big Brother is essentially the feudal ideal of subservient loyalty to a military master. Lacking in capitalist enterprise, it brain-washes the masses with production propaganda.

Animal Farm only took a month or so to write. Orwell contemptuously called it 'a squib' he had been working on. The development of this counter-strike, to all-conquering communist propaganda, probably took much longer.
The squib was too hot to handle for four publishers, in 1944. One demurred at the portrayal of the betrayers of the revolution as pigs! Good business-man tho he was, the idealistic Left Book Club publisher Victor Gollancz never regreted passing up its sales, because of the need to finish the war with the help of those satirised.
When Gollancz asked to be Orwell's publisher again, the author sympathetically declined, admitting Gollancz had come close to his views, but naturally wanting to reward Secker and Warburg for their support. Gollancz was the author of a post-war plea for humanity to the defeated, Our Threatened Values.

Animal Farm was the answer to Orwell's mockery of a title, 'Marxism for Infants'. Orwell's fable is usually found in the children's section of libraries. It is the ultimate in his desire to write prose clear as a window pane.
This was also an ideal of one of the world's most prolific writers, Isaac Asimov. He pointed out that the poetic style of writing, colorful and obscure, is like mosaic cathedral windows, of the middle ages. But plate glass, one can see thru flawlessly, is a modern invention.
That is to say one shouldnt under-rate the literary accomplishment of clarity in prose, compared to ingenious but obscure poetry.

However, Orwell respected poetry, not least modernism. Moreover, his tale reminds of Geoffrey Chaucer's Chaunticleer. The latter parodied the chivalrous romances.
The undone romance of the revolution, even one conducted by animals, is a tragi-comedy. Orwell's love of animals is apparent straight-away from the naive joy of the farm animals in their supposed liberation from the farmer -- an impossible idealism the author still makes us regret being betrayed, step by step, even while we laugh at the illogical but self-serving after-thought to 'All animals are equal': 'but some animals are more equal than others.'
We pity the poor dumb animals, who are so easily confused and deceived. They are just like a modern electorate of the 'inattentive', as H G Wells would call them.

The human ability with words extends to turning intelligence against itself, to arrive at a sub-animal stupidity and destructiveness.

Animal Farm outlines the main features of the Russian revolution's betrayal but it is really about the typical take-over of revolutions by dictators. The fact, that the pig dictator is called Napoleon, confirms this in a word. His henchman, called Squeeler, sums up the use of informers to cowe the public, in any nasty police state.

Animal Farm was not the total condemnation of 'the Russian experiment' it seemed in its day. The fable stresses the devastating effect of the war. Orwell allows, at first, there was much genuine idealism. He shared it. Whereas, some of the soviet elite would come to admit ( at first in private ) that the revolution had been a total failure.

More than this homely satire was needed to spell out the peculiar horror of the twentieth century slave state. Hence, 1984, the arbitrary setting of a date for the arrival of a tyranny more monstrous than the world has ever known.


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You dont have to agree with this reference: Bush's Orwellian Address; Happy New Year: It's 1984, by Jacob Levich, whose style is worthier than mine of Orwell. ( http://www.commondreams.org/views01/0922-07.htm ). But one must admit that however over-used an inspiration, 1984 can still create controversy.

As Britain's Daily Mail said: If America's enemies wanted to provoke a knee-jerk reaction to the twin-towers atrocity, they have been brilliantly successful. The Mail, a conservative paper, subsequently deplored excessive bombing resulting in much loss of civilian life in Afghanistan.

Levich focuses on Orwell's theme of the age-old use of war to crush dissent within nations. Carl Jung treated the Cold War conflict between East and West as like the dissociated personality of a neurotic. We project our dark side or Shadow on someone else, blaming only them and not ourselves for the bad state of the world.

This self-righteousness makes it acceptable to wage war on opponents as a means of supposedly eradicating the evil in the world. But it only prevents conflicting sides from correcting their respective mistakes and putting the world to rights.

Very simply, the continuing fault of the West is economic expoitation and corruption. Its feeble political democracy is too compromised to tackle greed's endless crimes, great and small. Genuine political economic democracy is an essential condition to make amends. That means two chambers, scientifically matching political theory to economic practise, with community representatives and occupational representatives, effectively chosen by the scientific method of elections.

I believe any reform platform must include those couple of planks to stand. The West's one-dimensional 'democracy' of party-rigged elections wont do. Parties have been turned into oligarchy's Fifth Column to strike down democracy.

Instead of the world religions of a brotherhood of man, the religion of 1984 is the worship of 'the Party'. Big Brother is as all-knowing and all-powerful as a god. He is like the Victorian deity who always saw what you were doing wrong: Big Brother is Watching You. He is supposed never to do wrong and is always to be obeyed.

In modern society, crimes and sheer vandalism do Big Brother's work ( just as international terrorism provokes a world police state. ) Television camera surveillance is ever being extended to keep up with the trail of greed and destruction. Keeping the public under observation does nothing to make for self-restraint and good-will, either in the watchers or the watched. It is a stop-gap to defend some of the innocent some of the time.

In all areas of the community, genuinely democratic elections would empower the public shrewdness in judging character, to pick the best leaders to lead by good example, so that everyone behave decently to each other, because they want to.
Mass obedience may seem docile but is as capable of mass atrocity.
J B Priestley said that nations, behaving like a flock of sheep at home, turned into a pack of wolves abroad. Military Germany was an obvious example.

In a way, Orwell under-states the down-grading of reasoned criticism. In his novel, mystifying changes of policy are covered-up by destroying history: old news is rubbished so inconsistencies can never be checked. In contemporary politics, consistency is treated as an over-rated virtue.

( Speaking on BBC radio 4, Malcolm Muggeridge delighted in repeating that Orwell got his ideas on news manipulation from working at the BBC. He was in the over-seas service. )

The purpose of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago was to reclaim history. He secretly gathered well over a hundred sources on the slave labor regime. Before 'the Wall' was pulled down between East and West Europe, Andrei Sakharov, 'the father of the Russian H-bomb', stated publicly that the Soviet regime was like one vast prison camp.
Solzhenitsyn admitted he never dared say that.

Solzhenitsyn, especially, complained about the West's condoning of human rights abuses under communism. The rabid Right were not credible critics because the wealthy obviously were passionately opposed to being expropriated, by some other elite, in the name of 'the state'. US foreign policy was dominated by a hatred of communism, instead of a love of democracy, with deplorable consequences for poor countries caught-up in the world power struggle.

Thomas Jefferson couldnt have put it better, when Orwell said: If democracy means anything, it means saying things that people dont want to hear.

In his three-volume master-piece on the Gulag, Solzhenitsyn jeered: all you Western Lefties think this is just a waste of time.
He gives only an unexplained mention to 'the Kravchenko trial'. Yet this anticipates his mission. Viktor Kravchenko was the Soviets' most senior defector after the second world war. In I Chose Freedom, his story of the regime anticipates Solzhenitsyn's books in all important details.

Kravchenko's book was said, by communist propagandists, to have been written by the CIA ( the US Cental Intelligence Agency ). So, he used the proceeeds of the book sales to hold a trial in Paris to prove its truth. It was an opportune time because there were many post-war refugees, who testified as witnesses. This provided independent evidence and documentation, later published in I Chose Justice.

Whatever the West's weakness towards communist human rights abuses, such 'leaks' explain why Orwell was able to write so authentic a picture of a totalitarian world. It is perhaps apparent already that most, if not all, of the historic works of the dissidents will not live on in the popular mind as well as Orwell's science fiction.

Most people may not have read Orwell's 'dreary classic'; the telling phrases live on. The year, 1984 recedes; 1984 remains invested with prophetic menace.

Another number, Room 101, has become the epitome of the terror state. Pain is more powerful than pleasure. For that reason, Winston Smith knows that his lover will betray him as he betrays her. We are not talking about heroic exceptions. Orwell has no answer to this fatal weakness of the human condition, tho the Buddhist philosophy, he must have met in Burma, says: I will show you suffering, and the end of suffering.

Orwell's celebrated poem The Crystal Spirit suggests he was not always so hopeless a humanist, as in his last illness, writing 1984. 'No bomb that ever burst shatters the crystal spirit' ends this tribute to the comradeship he found in Spain.
Also from this period of 1936, Orwell made the well-known statement, that every word, he had written since, was against dictatorship.

Orwell and Stowe.

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Orwell may not have had convictions of an immortal soul, to sustain him in his mission against all-powerful oppression. The disillusion with imperialism did not prevent a certain fervor to his patriotism and with that went the usual English sympathy for protestantism. The attitude, that there was life in the old dog yet, tells of a faith that has moved on.
He was scathing of Catholic writers who dealt in sentimental miracles, thinking they should grow up. He noted with some surprise 'the usual left-wing scenery' in Graham Greene's novels.

Orwell the reviewer could have more fluency than judgement. He dismisses Uncle Tom's Cabin as 'a good bad book'. Its influence on nineteenth century political opinion was perhaps greater than 1984 on twentieth century attitudes. Notice that Orwell himself was prone to use 'doublespeak' before he satirised the corruption of intellect in such terms.

Stowe had an easier task as a reformer in one respect: she was seeking to extend an already recognised principle, equality before the law -- not only to an enslaved race, but also, one feels, to women and even to children, in her Christian optimism. Orwell's humanist pessimism may not be any nearer the truth, and may be a good deal less robust a belief system.

1984 could not succeed nearly so well as Stowe's classic because Orwell does not have a clear idea of the democratic reforms to replace the dictatorship. Nor, in his fatal illness, does he have the vivacity of Stowe, that makes her novel work on more than one level, as a compelling case for emancipation, and a story full of incident, containing vivid characters drawn with humor, compassion and consideration or charity even for the villains.
Orwell's villains are irredeemable. They have reduced themselves to a souless party machine that does not know how to dismantle itself.

Orwell found his mission in life, in some sense a spiritual conviction of human worth, in defiance of its degradation. And he just got on with the job. He did not trouble himself with inconclusive religious speculations, that brought about David Hume's disdain for metaphysics.

Uncle Tom on the plantation 'gulag' dreads to lose his immortal soul more than life itself. This is in line with Christ's admonition to fear those who can take away the former rather than the latter. But Tom is admitted to be 'a moral miracle'. We are not strong enough for an endurance test such as Christ in prayer would have put off.

1984 rests on the reality that we are ruled by our weakness. The novel was to be called The Last Man, because there was no-one else left with common poetic feeling for nature or courtship or whatever. When Winston Smith has been broken in spirit, the shot in the back, at end of story really feels like 'end of story'. There is not the most tentative question of life after death.

In practical terms, the difference between Stowe and Orwell may not be so great. If one's humanity is easily broken, we may value the more what we may lose -- especially if no store can be set by an after-life. Freedom of the individual is violated, it seems, in an effort to leave nothing sacred, to remove the knowledge of the sacred, that is conscience.
The sacred, in some sense, 'heaven' exists. As the reformed atheist C S Lewis said: It is more important that heaven should exist than that we should get there.

Freedom of conscience may also be under-mined by hedonism, portrayed in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World ( as discussed, in relation to conditioning, on a web page on my democracy site ). Hedonist conditioning for a consumer society afflicts and endangers the world.

Richard Lung.
27 july 2002.

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