George Orwell: Enigmatic Socialist,
Paul Flewers (ed.), George Orwell: Enigmatic Socialist, Socialist Platform, London, 2005, pp192, £6.00
I RECENTLY returned from a week in New York. Invited to lunch by a friend, he chose to treat me at an expensive French restaurant. The walls were decorated with images of film stars, artists and musicians, including Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol, each of whom had dined at the seats where we now sat. The largest, signed photograph was a 20-year-old image of the once-radical Christopher Hitchens. Indeed Hitch even had a dish on the menu, named in his honour. It was the most expensive meal you could buy. I start with Hitchens because of the strong danger that the George Orwell who goes down in history will be the Orwell of Hitchens’ recent book Orwell’s Victory: the anti-Stalinist who epitomised anti-Stalinism both left and right, the author who exposed the hypocrisies of a counter-revolution that would not speak its own name and the dying misanthropist who named Charlie Chaplin and Orson Wells to an agent of British intelligence as fellow-travellers of communism and therefore to be watched. Squish together both Orwells, and it is the right-wing one who risks dominating: how many copies have been sold of Homage to Catalonia and how many of Nineteen Eighty-Four?
The Hitchenses and the Cohenses and all their ilk want an Orwell shorn of paradox, who excuses their own journey from left to right. There are as many Marxist theories of Orwell as there are Marxist theories of anything else, but common to the best of them is a sense of Orwell’s dual character, and that must mean a lingering on the moments of Orwell’s real achievement: the brilliance, for example, of Orwell’s essay Not Counting Niggers, which explained that the author could not simply support Britain in war, not when ‘Britain’ meant the British Empire, which had perfected repression not just at home but right across the world. I still remember reading the piece for the first time 15 years ago and being shocked by its simple truth.
Paul Flewers recruits for his collection a number of lively contributors, John Molyneux, John Newsinger, Paul O’Flinn, Peter Sedgwick and Ian Birchall. With the exceptions of the brief essay by the latter, all the pieces here have been previously published, the majority of them in the International Socialism journal or its predecessor. Still, the collection is justified: if only because the two most memorable pieces, Sedgwick’s and O’Flinn’s are respectively 35 and 20 years old: many veterans of the movement will have copies of them somewhere, few new activists will even know that they exist.
It is worth asking why Paul Flewers has selected his contributors from this relatively narrow source. Flewers’ own training was in a very different party, Frank Füredi’s Revolutionary Communist Party. (I, too, was briefly in its orbit: when I explained to my handler that I’d joined them from a background in CND and from reading Orwell, she replied, carefully, that such politics as those were the very opposite of socialism. Two weeks later, I’m proud to say, I’d left.)
Flewers’ introduction cites a very wide range of left-wing analyses, before settling on the Socialist Workers Party because ‘this organisation has taken Orwell seriously and has dealt with his works and historical legacy with a skill and sensitivity that has often been absent amongst other sections on the left’. If that is true, then it would still be interesting to ask why? The first explanation that struck me was the presence within the SWP and its forerunners of several talented journalists, including Laurie Flynn, Roger Protz, Nigel Fountain and above all Paul Foot, who may have encouraged their colleagues to think about the significance of radical journalism. Yet the SWP was hardly alone in this boon: you need to think only of Peter Fryer. Have the Workers Revolutionary Party’s successors produced nothing of quality on Orwell? Or has the SWP been in some other way better equipped to deal with the duality of Orwell’s contribution?
The two most memorable pieces here (beyond Paul Flewers’ own) are those of Sedgwick and O’Flinn. The former gains from the unmatchable Sedgwick style, including his familiar stock of psychological metaphors. ‘The shifts and constancies of Orwell’s politics reflect, anticipate, and may be used to cure’, Sedgwick writes, ‘the moodiness of Marxism.’ Reading Sedgwick again, it is striking to see how carefully he reads Orwell’s politics not through the prism of revolutionary Barcelona (the too-obvious starting point), but through the preceding history of the British left: identifying Orwell not as a ‘literary Trotskyist’ (another recent formulation), but as a loyalist and also critic of a particular Independent Labour Party socialism, with the contributors to The Adelphi magazine providing the closest thing to an Orwell generation. ‘In the files of The Adelphi’, Sedgwick writes, ‘themes constantly recur, which detected in Orwell’s work alone, have come to be thought of as peculiarly his.’
O’Flinn’s essay is something different: the contribution of someone who has worked for many years teaching English in a university. He has fine shots at the GCSE-syllabus, probably most readers’ first introduction to Orwell, and the emphasis it puts on the pseudo-science of reading a novel, asking abstract and meaningless questions such as: ‘Is Orwell’s style appropriate to the subject matter?’ The right and necessary criticisms are made: ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four is in the main a reactionary book.’ How many other socialist reviewers have fallen shy of writing that sentence, for fearing of appearing too obvious, too Dave Spart? O’Flinn’s antithesis is not between different readings of Nineteen Eighty-Four (‘a guide to what can happen to a potentially revolutionary politics at a time when it thrashes around in despair looking for and failing to find a base’). Instead O’Flinn contrasts this, Orwell’s most despairing book, to the earlier, more optimistic period: ‘We still have access to another Orwell, an earlier Orwell not blundering in detached fantasy in that way, but one whose work was motivated and informed by participation in actual battles for socialism.’
At Julien’s restaurant in Manhattan, dinner à l’Hitchens means baked squab. A squab, I learn from my dictionary, is ‘an inexperienced young bird’. That seems right for Hitchens: the very personification of Churchill’s jibe about people progressing from socialism in their twenties to Conservatism in old age. Orwell as ‘youth’ speaks also to my own experience of the writer: as practically the only discussion of socialist politics that was allowed in the school syllabus, the Orwell of the Collected Journalism and of the first half of Animal Farm. Reading and transcending Orwell was for me a fast road to activism. So which, then, is the authentic figure: the young Hitchens or the old Hitchens, the young Orwell or the old Orwell? In Flewers’ lively collection, the most persuasive brief answer is provided by Ian Birchall: ‘Orwell is one of those writers like Camus, Bernard Shaw, etc., who has one foot in the socialist camp and one somewhere quite different … If centrism is unambiguously pernicious on the political level, it is much more productive in literary terms. It is a strange dialectician who is afraid of contradictions.’