John Newsinger, Orwell’s Politics, MacMillan, Basingstoke, 1999, pp178, £42.50
LENIN once complained that revolutionaries often suffer the posthumous fate of being turned into harmless icons by their political foes, their names hallowed in order to fool the lower orders, and their ideas blunted and vulgarised. George Orwell has suffered particularly badly in this respect. In the half-century since his death, conservatives have purloined and distorted his legacy in order to put him in the front line of their anti-Communist crusade, whilst faculty-loads of academics have pored over his every word, producing a veritable deluge of books and weighty articles of varying quality, and all too often losing the real Orwell in the process. Moreover, how many people shared my experience of studying Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four at school without ever being told that the author was in fact a radical Socialist?
John Newsinger’s book is most welcome. It brings to the reader a sharp and concise portrayal of Orwell’s politics as they were, cutting through both the dishonesty of the conservatives and the opaqueness of much of the academic discourse on him, as well as aiming some timely blows at the Stalinists, who have hated Orwell ever since he dismissed them in The Road to Wigan Pier as ‘half-gangster, half-gramophone’, and condemned ‘the stupid cult of Russia’.
Orwell’s Politics brings out all the key facets of his political odyssey, including the essential features of his concept of Socialism, his opposition to colonialism, his attitude towards intellectuals, his revolutionary defencist stance during the Second World War, and, of course, his strong opposition to Stalinism. There is a useful section on the ‘Searchlight’ series of books of 1941-42 with which Orwell was involved, and to which he contributed The Lion and the Unicorn. Newsinger makes the important point that Orwell was a sort of barometer of radicalism, reflecting the trends on the left. Hence, he moved leftwards in the 1930s, started to backtrack during the Second World War, and slipped into a rather pessimistic retreat by the late 1940s.
A couple of minor points apart, there is only one topic, albeit a major one, where I would take issue with Orwell’s Politics. The biggest task facing anyone analysing Orwell is explaining how his last two novels were effectively commandeered by the forces of conservatism, and I feel that this book falters a little on this point.
The main problem with Animal Farm is that it does not explain how the pigs became a ruling élite. They just did, with the implication that this was an automatic process. I can’t agree with Newsinger when he says that Animal Farm ‘offered little comfort to the conservative right’ (p116), because the whole feel of the book is that a revolution will merely lead to the emergence of a new ruling élite, and a new form of exploiting society. Indeed, Newsinger cites Orwell’s reply to Dwight Macdonald that assured him that he did not think that revolutions were doomed to fail, but surely the very fact that Orwell had to say this shows that Animal Farm had not been clear on this issue.
As for Nineteen Eighty-Four, the frightful totalitarian system is already there, ruled by a ruling élite comprised of intellectuals, managerial and technical personnel and former upwardly-mobile working-class elements. There is nothing to explain why the British revolution became a super-Stalinist dystopia, why the revolutionary leadership became a ruling élite, and why the proles allowed them to do so. The implication is that this is the ineluctable course of revolutions. It is hard to see, as Newsinger does, the proles in Nineteen Eighty-Four as embodying the possibility of an optimistic future, as they are clearly unable to do anything about their condition. Newsinger rightly shows that Orwell’s latter-day journalism was less pessimistic than Nineteen Eighty-Four, and that Orwell protested about the way his novel was being used by his political enemies, and no doubt would have complained all the more had he lived. But the damage had been done. For every reader of his journalism, there are hundreds, if not thousands, who have only read his last two novels. And if having one book misinterpreted is an accident, having a second treated likewise looks like carelessness...
With the half-century commemorations of Orwell’s death upon us and his centenary rapidly approaching, and with the urgent need to counter all the usual distortions and clichés about him, John Newsinger has done the man’s memory a splendid turn by presenting him as he really was. Let us hope that a sensibly-priced paperback edition will be published.