Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Was Orwell a Socialist?

One of the most contested questions surrounding George Orwell’s career as a journalist and novelist was whether or not he was a “socialist”. He claimed to have started off his political journey as a conservative anarchist but what had he become at the end of his life? Was he a socialist, a social reformist or still a conservative with an anarchist bent? What if anything did Orwell contribute to socialism? To answer such questions first requires a clear understanding of what socialism means.

What does socialism mean?

Socialism has to be conceived as a social system. not as a philosophy. And to give any meaning to socialism we need to start from a clear understanding of capitalism.

Capitalism is a global system characterised by the worldwide class struggle, arising from the conflict of interests between the working class and the capitalist class, the class that owns the means of production and distribution. Production and exchange takes place for profit from the exploitation of the working class: a class defined as anyone employed or who is dependent upon someone in employment for either a wage or salary. Poverty, war, periodic high levels of unemployment and social alienation are all social problems caused by capitalism.

Socialism (or communism since both words mean exactly the same thing) will resolve the economic and social problems caused by the profit system. Production within socialism will take place to meet human needs. Socialism will also be a global social system without nation states or artificial boundaries preventing the free movement of people.

Marx gave some ready definitions of socialism: “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO), “from each according to ability to each according to need (CRITIQUE OF THE GOTHA PROGRAMME) and the “communistic abolition of buying and selling” (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO). These quotations give a broad outline of socialism as a cooperative social system where social labour is creative, free and voluntary.

Socialists draw a distinction between socialism and nationalisation or state capitalism. A worker has no interest in any form of capitalism. It makes next to no difference to a worker’s class position whether or not they sell their physical and mental ability to work to a business owned by an individual, a family, one listed on the stock-market or one owned by the state. Class exploitation and the class struggle take place in all of these forms of businesses. Socialism is not the same as nationalisation.

Some of the founders of the Labour Party, like Keir Hardie, agreed with Marx’s conception of socialism. But, unlike the Labour Party, socialists do not aim for “social justice”. Socialism is not a moral or ethical world-view. And “democratic socialism” has an unnecessary adjective. Socialism is democratic or it is not socialism, and it is not argued for on grounds of “decency”, “fairness”, “justice” and a “changed moral behaviour” towards other people. The case for socialism rests on the fundamental material defects of capitalism where the profit system prevents the forces of production and distribution, including social and co-operative labour, from being used and developed to meet the needs of all society. Capitalism prevents production from being used to solely and directly meet human need. Socialism, however, is dependent on the formation of a socialist majority within a socialist party having socialism as its sole objective not in changes to the moral behaviour of individuals.

For the Socialist Party of Great Britain, socialism means the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution. Within this new social framework production and distribution would take place to meet human need and to allow men and women to become creative social beings fully participating in the democratic affairs of society.

Orwell on socialism in his novels and in his journalism

Orwell started off as a well-meaning conservative who rebelled against British Empire’s brutality, racism and plunder. He first came to critical attention as a journalist with the publication of two books: THE ROAD TO WIGAN PIER (1937) which gave an outsider’s account of living conditions of the working class in Wigan during the depression and HOMAGE TO CATALONIAomage to Catalonia (1938) which described his time in Spain fighting Franco’s fascists.

The Road to Wigan Pier

Commissioned by Victor Gollancz, a left wing publisher, Orwell visited the Lancastrian town of Wigan in the North of England at the height of the economic depression in February 1936 where he carried out research in the local Library on working conditions in the town. Orwell also saw for himself the poverty of the North of England. He lodged with a family in Darlington Road and spoke to them and other workers about the conditions in which they lived and he even went down the local coal mines to experience working class life.

Orwell’s experiences did not lead him to formulate a political critique of capitalism as a social system. His comments on the lives of the workers he met were generally condescending and patronising. Nor did Orwell see the working class as a potential political force for self-liberation. He saw the workers as a “mass” to be moved by politicians one way or the next, incapable of thinking for themselves. Writing of a meeting led by the fascist Oswald Mosely, Orwell concluded:

It struck me how easy it is to bamboozle an uneducated audience” Orwell Diary, 15 March 1936, in CEJL, Volume I, p. 203

Nowhere in his political writings did he ever argue that the working class had the capacity to establish socialism through their own conscious and political action.

As for the “socialists” Orwell came across, and we are never told who they were or where he met them, he despised them all. If the “socialists” were from the working class they were good-natured but politically ignorant. If they were educated they were either insincere, boorish and forever “spouting Marxian quotations” or they were “cranks” which included every “fruit-juice drinker, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist and feminist in England”.

Orwell did not explain how to solve the very real social problems he came across in Wigan. He said that:

Everyone who uses his brain knows that socialism as a world-system and wholeheartedly applied, is a way out (THE ROAD TO WIGAN PIER, Chapter 11).

Yet, Orwell did not explain what world socialism would entail or what form of political means was to be applied or what political agency was necessary to bring about a socialist revolution.

Orwell made have found his way to a fictional Wigan Pier but he was never able to find any realistic political answers to resolve the social and economic problems he came across.

Homage to Catalonia

Orwell went to Spain in December 1936 on the grounds that “someone has got to kill fascists”. When he arrived he was confronted not with one unified anti-fascist front but fragmented groups often hostile to each other.

There were three main groups; the Worker’s' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM – Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) influenced by Trotsky, the anarcho-syndicalist Confederación, Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) and the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia. The latter was under the control of the Spanish Communist Party and was backed by Soviet arms and aid.

Orwell's accreditation in Spain came from the Independent Labour Party (ILP), of which he was a member for a short period of time, which supported the POUM. He joined the POUM militia, and fought with it on the Aragon front at Alcubierre, Monte Oscuro and at Huesco.

Orwell's account of his experience of the Civil War covers four distinct periods of his time in Spain. The first is his time in the trenches on the Aragon front. The second covers the factional in-fighting in Barcelona in May 1937 between the Stalinists on the one hand and the Trotskyists and anarchists on the other. The third period concerns Orwell's experience of engaging with the enemy and being shot in the throat by a sniper. Finally, Orwell comments on the suppression of POUM which forced its members either to go into hiding or to be imprisoned and murdered.

Orwell was forced to leave Spain for England just in time, but he was nevertheless charged in his absence as a “fascist”. He saw his trial in Valencia as a mirror-image of the show trials then taking place in Moscow. He noticed, too, how the pro-Stalinist press outside Russia slavishly went along with the Moscow line that the POUM were “fascists”. Orwell hated everything to do with Stalin and with good reason. And that hatred was channelled into the publication of the political satire, ANIMAL FARM, and the dystopian novel, NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR.

Orwell, the Soviet Union and its fellow travellers

After Orwell returned from Spain his sights were set on the British supporters of Stalin’s dictatorship. He singled out two types of supporter: members of the Communist Party of Great Britain and Moscow’s fellow travellers like the Webbs and George Bernard Shaw. Orwell was relentless in his criticism of those who supported Stalin’s Russia, whether they were in the ILP and the Labour Party, in the world of art and literature like the poet W. H. Auden, in publishing like his own publisher Victor Gollancz, within the universities, the trade unions, and in the media, particularly magazines like THE NEW STATESMAN, who had refused to publish his essay “EYE WITNESS IN BARCELONA” on his experiences of the Civil War. Orwell despised them all.

And it was his Civil War experiences and anti-Stalinism which were useful at the time for socialists within the SPGB who were almost alone in Britain in publishing articles against “Uncle Joe" from a socialist perspective. If Orwell was labelled a “fascist” by the Stalinists, then it should be recalled that the Communists in the 1930s referred to the members of the SPGB as “social fascists”. Robert Barltrop, in his book THE MONUMENT (Pluto 1975), gave an account of the local Communist secretary in West Ham refusing to debate with the SPGB on the grounds that:

The Communist Party has NO dealings with murderers, liars, renegades or assassins” (p120)

From the 1920s, the Communist Party made repeated efforts to break up the SPGB’s outdoor meetings and to prevent the Party’s speakers being heard. Also in 1943, when the SPGB had booked a hall in Soho Square for its annual conference, the DAILY WORKER announced that:

… a fascist organization was conferring at that place, and hinted strongly that loyal Britons could do no worse than smash up the proceedings” (op. cit. p. 120)

Animal Farm

ANIMAL FARM was never meant to be an anti-socialist novel. In the Introduction to the Ukrainian edition Orwell wrote: In my opinion, nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of socialism as the belief that Russia is a socialist country and that every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imitated (The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell: As I please, 1943-1945 (1968)

ANIMAL FARM was the first volley in Orwell’s attack on Stalinism. He parodied the 1917 Russian coup d’etat by dividing the animals in the novel into two main groups: the pigs that represented the Bolshevik Party and the remaining farm animals that represented the Russian workers. Every section of the book described an act of betrayal by the pigs. The aim of the revolution is distorted. A secret police of killer dogs protects the pig leadership; there are show trials and denunciations; the hardworking animals are cynically and ruthlessly exploited; and in the climax, in the last the farm’s name of Animal Farm reverts back to its original name of Manor Farm and the pigs are seen by the animals as being little different from the previous farmers.

Despite Orwell’s remarks that he never saw the Soviet Union as a socialist country this has not stopped some commentators from viewing ANIMAL FARM as a warning about the political dangers of revolution, and an argument that revolutionary change is impossible.

To make matters worse, ANIMAL FARM is often used uncritically in schools as a text-book warning against socialism/communism and has become part of state propaganda sending out the message that capitalism is here to stay because any alternative is so much worse. The animated film of the book, made in the 1950s, was financed by the CIA. There is another, later animated cartoon version of ANIMAL FARM by a conservative broadcasting company which shows the pigs being evicted by the animals and later, rather than the animals owning the farm in common under the original principles of “Animalism”, a nice all-American apple-pie family drive into the farm to take over its ownership for the purpose of making profit.

However not all is doom and gloom. In the final scene of the novel, where the animals are looking in through the window of the farmhouse at the pigs and the farmers, they collectively see no difference between them. There has clearly been a development in class consciousness. The animals now see the pigs as a ruling class no different than from the farmers. Surely this is a positive step. They would have also learnt not to trust leaders thereby preparing the ground for a successful revolution. They would have learnt from their previous mistakes.

Nineteen Eighty- Four

NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR was about Orwell’s political theory on totalitarian power for its own sake. However there is a problem with Orwell’s novel.

Orwell abstracts the concept of political power from Stalin’s totalitarian dictatorship and invests this political power with absolute qualities. He puts the following in the mouth of the inner Party member O’Brien who tortures the protagonist Winston Smith in the infamous Room 101:

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake...; we are only interested in power…pure power…Power is not a means, it is an end…The object of power is power ... Loyalty to the Party is everything

So omniscient and omnipotent is this totalitarian political power that history can be erased and language reconstructed to suit the interests of the ruling elite. Everyone comes to love “Big Brother”. The political party in NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR has no interest in pursuing political programmes and exists only for the pursuit of totalitarian power in its own right.

However by the 1930s Stalin’s Russia was going nowhere. The Bolshevik coup d'état in 1917 did not introduce socialism but state capitalism. The Bolshevik party from Lenin to Stalin may have enjoyed supreme political power but it could not do anything with this power except take Russia along a capitalist road of economic development which included being drawn into the Second World War in which millions of Russians lost their lives. The failure of Lenin and Stalin to be able to do anything constructive with absolute political power led to the gulags for the old Bolsheviks, peasants and workers, orchestrated state trials, forced confessions, torture and execution. The Bolsheviks under Lenin had seized power as a minority and so could only hold power by dictatorship and force.

As socialists pointed out, leaders of political parties, particularly dictators, can do anything with political power. They can imprison and torture their opponents. They can kill them. They can do almost anything except one thing: they cannot establish socialism. Without a class-conscious taking political action the establishment of socialism is. This was the failure of the Bolshevik coup d’etat and Stalinism was the consequence. The idea that a minority could establish socialism top-down is simply utopian nonsense, a dangerous nonsense which could only lead to a dictatorship which would be destroyed by the contradictions it unleashed as it faced international competition on the world market.

Orwell’s error was not to see this contradiction. He saw the absolute power of Stalin as the basis for NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR rather than a totalitarian being a fundamental flaw in Stalinism itself, cracks that only became wider and wider until 1991 when the entire Bolshevik project collapsed into a free-for-all, Wild West capitalism under the Presidency of Boris Yeltsin. Think about it: only 51 years separates the publication of NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR from the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Historically, it is a mere fleeting passage of time. Yet we still live in an oppressive class divided society faced with environmental degradation, wars and poverty while the future Orwell sketched out for us is in NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR is now in the past. Where are the novels satirising world capitalism?

The economist, Alan Kliman (RE-CLAIMING MARX, 2008), calls the error made by Orwell and others “Political determinism”; the misguided belief, often held by intellectuals, that politicians determine the system rather than the system determining and severely limiting their actions. And there was a glaring omission in Orwell’s writings. Totalitarianism for Orwell was fascism, Stalinism and the “racket” of the British Empire, not the tyranny of capital and the workings of the market invading into every facet of human life. Capitalism gets off lightly in Orwell’s writing. There is no systematic critique of the profit system. It is either the moral behaviour, actions and outlook of individuals which is wrong or it is the totalitarian State which is the villain of the piece not the capitalist system itself.

What of the working class? If there is a form of optimism at the end of ANIMAL FARM, none exists in NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOURINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR. The problem of the novel for socialists is Orwell’s depiction of the Proles. They are like the Roman Proletariat only breeding new workers because that is their only usefulness to the state. They are fed, like Juvanal’s mob, on a diet of poor food and pornography. The proles in NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR aspire to nothing. They want no change to their miserable lives. They are an incoherent mass not even capable of organising into trade unions. Orwell is saying if you think this class can free itself then think again.

Orwell and the Socialist Party of Great Britain

Orwell was a keen collector of political pamphlets which included several published by the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The pamphlets are held in catalogued boxes by the British Museum and date from between 1915 – 1945

Orwell wrote an essay in the New Statesman and Nation on pamphlets. He was not particularly keen on political pamphlets because:

The normal way of publishing a pamphlet is through a political party, and the party will see to it that any ‘deviation’ — and hence any literary value – is kept out (January 9th, 1943)

It can only be assumed, although not proven, that Orwell actually read the pamphlets published by the Socialist Party of Great Britain. It seems incomprehensible that Orwell would not go out of his way and buy the pamphlets and then not read them. After all, he had a political interest in the content of the pamphlets: questions around socialism, war, trade unions and current political events.

Below are the SPGB pamphlets cited in the Orwell collection:

* Should Socialist Support the Federal Union? Report of the Debate between Barbara Wooten & E Hardy (1940 edition and 1943 edition)
* War and the Working Class (1936)
* The Next Step for Trade Unionists (1939)
* Socialism (1941)
* The Socialist Party Expose Mr Chamberlain and his Labour Critics (1938)
* The Socialist Party: Its Principles and Policy (1934)
* Family allowances Socialist Analysis (1943)

Orwell, therefore, knew of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. And if he read the pamphlets he would have known the SPGB’s case for socialism.

If we take as an example the SPGB’s pamphlet “SOCIALISM: IT'S PRINCIPLES AND POLICY”, the pamphlet sets out the basis of capitalism, why the class struggle takes place, the need for common ownership, that socialism would entail the emancipation of all mankind, the necessity for the conquest of political power by a socialist majority through parliament and the control of the machinery of government, including the armed forces and why, for socialists, there must be no compromise of the socialist position in relation to other political parties. Orwell would not have seen this unique socialist argument in the pamphlets of the Labour Party, Independent Labour Party, of which he was a member for a short time, and the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Another pamphlet which would have aided Orwell’s understanding of socialism was the debate between Barbara Wootton of the Federal Union and E. Hardy of the Socialist Party of Great Britain held at Conway Hall, London on the 6th May, 1940. Hardy said this:

I might add that the Socialist Party of Great Britain is, and always has been, democratic. We have always aimed at achieving Socialism by the one way in which it can be done, that is, first, by making socialists, and then by gaining control of the political machinery of society. But it is, of course, a very important point that we do not believe we can get socialism by short cuts, by accumulation of reforms, by pacts with other organisations: in short, we shall never get socialism until we have socialists. Also, we have never toyed with dictatorship, either Nazi or Communist, and we have never adopted the pernicious view of merely aiming at power. We have never supposed that socialism was a question of getting rid of one ruling class in order to put another ruling class in its place. We have always aimed at building a better world for the people who live in it, and we have never supposed that socialism was something that could be forced on the world against the wishes of the inhabitants of the world (p. 15).

If Orwell actually had read the pamphlets published by the Socialist Party of Great Britain he either ignored their socialist content or dismissed what was written as either irrelevant or against his own politics. In particular, the SPGB would have been written off by Orwell during the Second World War as “pacifists” for not supporting the war. Orwell did support the Second World War and was an active propagandist for the British State by working at the BBC to broadcast war propaganda to India.

The charge of pacifism against the SPGB was wholly unwarranted. The Socialist Party of Great Britain has never been a pacifist organisation. The sixth clause of the DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES stands as a clear statement that the SPGB aimed at converting the armed forces “from an instrument of oppression” into the “agent of emancipation”. The SPGB opposed the war on the grounds of working class interests. Workers had no interest in killing each other when the war was a direct result of the clash of interests between rival capitalists and their politicians.

One SPGB pamphlet Orwell did not have in his possession was QUESTIONS OF THE DAY published in 1942. There he would have found a political critique of the Labour Party and the ILP (ch. v) and the Communist Party of Great Britain (ch. Xi). And he would have found a chapter on “The Russian Dictatorship” where he would have read the following:

If inside Russia the dictatorship has failed –as Socialists knew it must –to impose Socialism on an unready population, so outside Russia the scorn which Communists poured on parliamentary democratic institutions and methods played a considerable part in helping other opponents of democracy – the Nazis – to power

The whole of chapter xi can be read at:

Yet in his article PAMPHLET LITERATURE he dismissed political pamphlet writing with the following put-down: “the circulation of any pamphlet which is ‘party line’ (any party) is likely to be spurious” (NEW STATESMAN loc cit). Clearly, this is evidence of a dogmatic and conservative closed mind. For the only politics that mattered to Orwell was his own.

Sometimes Orwell almost gets on the right track. Here is a passage from HOMAGE TO CATALONISA:

In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy 'proving' that Socialism means no more than a planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the 'mystique' of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all

Orwell is almost there in understanding that nationalisation is state capitalism, but not quite. In 1937 this “vast majority of people” supposedly attracted to “socialism” was a fiction. Two years later most of the working class in Britain supported the war against Germany. A clear understanding of socialism during the 1930’s was only held by small minority of the working class in and around the Socialist Party of Great Britain. And it did not include those in the various left-wing and anarchist militias in Spain “killing fascists”.

Although Orwell attacked Stalinism at a time when it was not fashionable to do so, the Socialist Party of Great Britain had seen through Stalin much earlier. From 1918 onwards, the SPGB had rejected the claim that socialism had been established in Russia and later went on to described the economic system there as state capitalism. Orwell chose to ignore this historical fact about the SPGB for his own political reasons even though this fact was available in Party pamphlets he had collected. There is no mention of the SPGB in any of his major political writings which is strange since he wrote at length on virtually every other political organisation that claimed to be “socialist”. His contribution to socialism and the advance of socialism was nothing to write home about. In short, it amounted to absolutely nothing.

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