“Orwell? Yeah, we read a couple of his books at school. Really great. He’s the bloke who showed that revolution couldn’t work – all it means is going round in circles, swopping one lot of bosses for another – you know: ‘Big Brother’s watching you’. Because you can’t change human nature, you see. There’ll always be those on top and the mugs underneath, always has been and always will be: ‘All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others’.”
Everyone’s come across this argument in various forms. Orwell’s phrases have dropped into everyday speech and everyday newspaper editorials to become, as Isaac Deutscher put it, “an ideological super weapon in the cold war. Keep your nose clean, pay your bills and when you hear some hairy half-wit going on about socialism, look up from your Daily Express and shout “1984!” at him. Soon shut the blighter up.
And yet Orwell claimed shortly after the publication of Animal Farm that he wrote “for democratic Socialism”; and shortly after the publication of 1984 he insisted: “My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism ...” 
So what are we to make of this socialist who for the past generation has supplied the Right with a whole armoury of blunt instruments with which to attack the Left? More important, what’s useful in Orwell’s ideas and Orwell’s warnings for the present generation of socialists?
One way of starting to answer these questions is to have a look at some dates:
General Strike defeated.
September: Orwell decides to resign front the Indian Imperial Police.
October: Trotsky expelled from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Wall Street crash, unemployment starts to soar.
July: Spanish Civil War begins.
December: Orwell to Spain – enlists in the militia of the semi-Trotskyist POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista).
March: Road to Wigan Pier published.
June: POUM declared illegal by the Spanish Government – Orwell flees from Communist-organised purge in Barcelona.
Second World War.
Animal Farm published.
Orwell’s tuberculosis diagnosed.
Briefly the point here is that, after police work in Burma, Orwell coincidentally shifted to the Left and decided to leave the police just a few weeks before Trotsky’s expulsion from the Communist Party – an expulsion that marks a decisive tightening of Stalin’s hold on what had been the crucial revolutionary movement. And then, a generation later, Orwell died three years before Stalin. In other words his life as a socialist matches almost exactly the era of Stalinist domination and frustration of revolutionary hopes. In Barcelona he had vivid and embittering personal experience of that domination and frustration. His work therefore stands as a direct reflection of that generation of despair.
More than that; his life as a socialist also coincides almost exactly with an era of defeat for the British working-class movement. The loss of the General Strike in 1926 was deeply demoralizing: trade-union membership, over eight million in the years before 1926, was nearly halved in the years that followed and didn’t recover properly till the eve of Orwell’s death. The number of working days spent on strike in the nineteen thirties and forties was often as low as ten per cent of the peak in the early twenties. Mass unemployment in the thirties was a further blow, and the apathy and depression that this battering induced in sections of the working class is sharply recorded by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier.
In short what we have here is not St. George who taught us abiding moral truths about Human Nature and Revolution as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, but rather a writer theorising gloomily out of the centre of a period of combined and interconnected Stalinist stranglehold and broken working-class militancy. All that is now changed. The Stalinist monopoly is broken and not many would accuse, say, the miners of being insufficiently militant. What then is left of Orwell’s analysis?
However, the problem that remains with Animal Farm is that it’s a fable and can therefore be directed at any revolution. It presents itself not as a direct attack on Stalinism but rather as a parable about the necessary failure of revolutions. This is indeed how a generation since 1945 have been encouraged to read it. But this is far from Orwell’s intentions as spelled out by him in the Preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm:
Indeed, 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.
And so for the past ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement. 
The publishers who turned down Animal Farm were quite clear that what they were being offered was an attack not on socialism or on revolution but on Stalinism. Victor Gollancz remarked: “We couldn’t have published it then. Those people (the Russians) were fighting for us and had just saved our necks at Stalingrad.” Jonathan Cape also rejected Animal Farm, telling Orwell that after consulting the Ministry of Information, he realised that:
it might be regarded as something which it was highly ill-advised to publish at the present time. If the fable were addressed generally to dictators and dictatorships at large then publication would be all right, but the fable does follow, as I now see, so completely the progress of the Russian Soviets and their two dictators, that it can apply only to Russia, to the exclusion of the other dictatorships. 
The Soviet Union was then an ally, so direct assaults on Stalinism were not on. Orwell did it indirectly, through a thinly disguised fable. Indeed he had to – it was either that or no publication. Even so four publishers still refused to handle it before Secker and Warburg finally agreed to take it.
And then the world changed. The Second World War ended in 1945, the Cold War began and by 1946 Animal Farm was a bestseller. The capitalist party line had taken one of its frequent U-turns and Orwell from being “highly ill-advised” and poor found himself U.S. Book of the Month Club choice and rich. And thus an attack on Stalinism, mounted in a veiled way because of historical circumstances, becomes, because of a sharp shift in those circumstances, an apparent attack on the whole notion of revolutionary change.
Two important points about 1984. The first is that it projects uninterruptedly into the future all the negative tendencies Orwell saw around him in the nineteen forties. Winston Smith’s London is very much forties London, blitzed, dirty and shortage-riddled, after forty more years of the same only more so. All the decaying freedom and growing intrusions of the war and the post-war years are seized on and magnified in the novel. We need to argue against this version of the future that history doesn’t work that way, with graphs moving ever upward or ever downward, with tendencies unfolding unchallenged. History is a dialectical process.
So what does that mean? Take a simple recent example. In 1971 no dockers went to prison but in that year the Conservative government passed a law limiting trade-union rights so that in 1972 five dockers landed in Pentonville for organizing a picket. Projecting this trend we might say that by 1975 picketing would be extinct, 413 dockers would be in prison and holding a union card would be on the way to being a capital offence. In fact this is not so: the Industrial Relations Act has gone and, once again, no dockers are in prison. Why? Because several hundred thousand people went on strike and got the dockers out in less than a week. What happened was that men and women saw a trend developing that threatened them and their organizations and so acted decisively to halt it. Action of this kind is not allowed for in 1984. The proles, after forty more passive years, are an apathetic, ignorant lump. They retain a certain potentially subversive life but for the most part they are, like Boxer in Animal Farm, hard working, thick and manipulated into slavery with laughable ease. But engineers know and have shown, dockers know and have shown, miners know and have shown, that such a picture is false.
The truth is that governments can design all sorts of sophisticated halters and handcuffs, can get them approved by Parliament and issued to judges and policemen. But if people don”t like wearing them they can and do break them soon as they are clapped on.
Orwell, then, is pessimistic about the possibility of direct working-class action to preserve and extend freedom. Part of the reason for this is that he lived in and so drew his experience from a period with the unique and shattering limitations outlined at the start of this chapter. But there’s more to it than that, and this is the second important point out 1984: it is that by the time he came to write it Orwell as a socialist with almost no contact with the socialist or working-class movement. Such a man is very vulnerable to the misconceptions that that kind of isolation can create.
There are various reasons for this isolation. In the thirties Orwell had been a member of the ILP (Independent Labour Party) but resigned shortly after the start of the Second World War when they took up a pacifist position. In 1943 he became literary editor of Tribune, the paper of the Labour Party left, and he remained a supporter of that group for the rest of his life. So we find him remarking in 1949: “If only I could become Nye’s (Aneurin Bevan’s) éminence grise we’d soon have this country on its feet.” It’s a curious and a giveaway thing for a socialist to say. Socialism, after all, is supposed to be about working-class on leading to full freedom, not the sort of cloak-and-dagger manoeuvres by a tiny elite that this remark suggests. But the point is, where in 1949 was the socialist party to stir up and grow out of that sort of mass activity? The answer is nowhere. The Communist Party remained Stalinist and, as such and by definition, part of the problem rather than its solution. The Labour Party as usual had run out of nerve and ideas and was drifting towards electoral defeat. Other left alternatives were then undeveloped.
Add to this the fact that Orwell was by that date dying of tuberculosis and the depressing picture is complete. Socialism in such a context becomes not a shared activity, sharpened at meetings, warmed at demonstrations, revised through conflicts, cheered by the occasional victory. Instead it becomes a lonely dwindling faith, challenged every time you open a newspaper, switch on the radio, go to the cinema or overhear what Orwell called the “constant bah-bahing” of those Tory voices passing to and fro in the private sanitoria where his tuberculosis took him. In such a context working-class action stops being something seen and tried with its possibilities realised and soberly estimated in day-to-day experience. It becomes a dim, half-forgotten doctrine overwhelmed by a sense of all the forces working against it. In such a context you write 1984.
In the very different context of the seventies do Animal Farm and 1984 have anything left to offer? Obviously they do. Orwell knew that the future was not inevitably socialist as Fabians used to believe. He knew with Engels that there’s a choice – socialism or barbarism. At a time when the working class seemed stalled and revolutionary organisations didn’t exist barbarism seemed likeliest, so he wrote to warn. It’s still a valid warning. Either we build the socialism that Orwell believed in or they build the 1984 that Orwell was afraid of.
1. See Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, London 1968, Vol.I, p.5 and Vol.IV, p.502.
2. op. cit., Vol.III, p.405
3. Quoted in George Orwell, The Freedom of the Press, Times Literary Supplement, Sept. 15, 1972.
Last updated on 14.7.2001