Paul Flewers, ‘I Know How, But I Don’t Know Why’: George Orwell’s Conception of Totalitarianism, New Interventions, Coventry, 1999, pp35, £2.00
IN only 35 pages, Paul Flewers nevertheless manages to provide an interesting, well-written discussion of George Orwell’s thinking with regard to Socialism and totalitarianism. His contribution to the debate regarding Orwell’s political development is most welcome, and deserves a wide readership. Did Orwell end up as an enemy of Socialism, as both right-wing commentators and the Communists and their fellow travellers have long argued? Had he moved to a left-reformist Tribune stance? How influential were revolutionary ideas on his thinking? This debate is likely to continue to be of interest to people on the left for as long as Orwell remains a popular writer. Flewers’ robust assessment of Orwell’s development, chronicling both his strengths and his weaknesses, is a valuable intervention, thoughtful and provocative, reclaiming the man for our side.
Rather than rehearse Flewers’ arguments, let me focus on one of the areas where, I suspect, he and I would be most likely to disagree.
Orwells’ trajectory from the revolutionary Socialism of the late 1930s to the left reformism of the late 1940s is not seriously in dispute, although there is considerable room for argument over the details. His increasing hostility to Stalinism has to be placed in this context, moving from his criticism of a cynical deal to divide up the world concluded between the Soviet Union and the Western Powers (Animal Farm) through to the more full-blooded assault on totalitarianism (Nineteen Eighty-Four). Instead of the postwar years being a period of working-class revolt, heralding the rise of an independent Socialist movement throughout Europe, the Communists were able to capture control of the most advanced sections of the working class. For Orwell, this involved not only the disappointment of his hopes for Socialism, but the danger of Stalinist rule extending throughout Eastern Europe and into Western Europe. He viewed such a development with horror. My own view is that whilst Animal Farm warned of a wartime rapprochement between the rulers of the Soviet Union and of the West, by Nineteen Eighty-Four he was engaged in a literary assault on Stalinism. This assault drew on the bureaucratic collectivist critique of the Soviet Union, on a Trotskyist heresy, and was intended as a contribution to the debate on the left. He hoped to break the left from ‘the Soviet myth’. Instead, the book was taken up by the right as a weapon in the Cold War, and Orwell’s premature death at the age of 46 prevented him from doing anything about it.
Flewers identifies ‘the structure’ of the novel, the fact that it looks like ‘an anti-Socialist work’, as making this confiscation possible. My own understanding is somewhat different. First of all, we have to recognise that as far as Orwell was concerned (quite correctly), the Soviet Union had nothing whatsoever to do with Socialism. Nineteen Eighty-Four gives expression to this belief. For much of the British left, however, this was anathema. Here we are not only talking about the Communist Party and its fellow-travellers. The orthodox Trotskyist view of the Soviet Union and its satellites as some kind of workers’ states (degenerate, deformed or whatever) was also an obstacle to understanding the real relation of Russian Communism to Socialism. It was the full-blooded and uncompromising nature of Orwell’s assault on Stalinism that led to the left handing the book over to the Cold Warriors. Isaac Deutscher’s attitude is a good example of this.
Having said this, Orwell’s embrace of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism also involved problems. If the Soviet Union was worse than Western capitalism, then there was a danger of ending up embracing Western capitalism as the lesser evil. Max Shachtman’s political trajectory demonstrates this danger. At the time of his death, Orwell was himself beginning to wrestle with the problems that this raised. The issue had by no means been decided despite sensationalist discussion of his relation with the Information Research Department. There were indications that his anti-Stalinism was clouding his political judgement, but there were also equally important indications to the contrary. This was the situation when he died. We just don’t know how his politics would have developed had he survived another decade. The view one takes seems to depend on how sympathetic one is to the man.