George Orwell: imagining the totalitarians

Submitted by AWL on 22 July, 2003 - 11:30

Chris Hickey concludes his feature on the politics and work of George Orwell. For the first part see Part 1
George Orwell: documenting the Spanish Civil War

Written on the cusp of the Cold War Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four launched Orwell’s international reputation and made him the most politically fought over English writer of the 20th century.

Written in the form of a fable, Animal Farm is a satirical demolition of the 1940s’ Soviet Union. In the book, the animals on Manor Farm (Czarist Russia) overthrow the humans (the capitalists) to set up Animal Farm (Soviet Russia). They are led by the pigs (the communists) who then betray the rest of the animals.

In the preface to the 1947 Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm, Orwell explained: “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. On my return from Spain I thought of exposing the Soviet myth in a story that could be easily understood by anyone…”

Orwell’s experiences in Spain (fighting for the beleaguered Republic soon to be over-run by the fascist General Franco) had taught him the extent to which the western socialist movement was suffused with, and corrupted by, Stalinism.

In Animal Farm the animals’ revolution is depicted warmly and sympathetically. Indeed, the picture of Animal Farm, with “…the parasitical human beings gone…”, is powerfully reminiscent of Orwell’s “foretaste of socialism” among the militia on the Aragon front, where “the ordinary class-division of society had disappeared…”

With Animal Farm sending out pigeons to tell its inspirational story, a wave of animal rebelliousness grips the countryside. The human farmers flog any animal caught singing the revolutionary anthem Beasts of England. “And yet the song is irrepressible…And when the human beings listened to it they secretly trembled, hearing in it a prophecy of their future doom.”

The fable only works because of the stark contrast between the heroism and hope of the revolutionary upsurge and the ugliness of its betrayal. The pig’s leader, Napoleon and his twisting propagandist Squealer distort and erase every revolutionary principle until only one perverted concept prevails: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.

But, to Orwell, the only extant alternative society, the “parasitic” human one, is awful. The overthrown Jones is negligent and self-pitying. Jones’ neighbouring farmers are calculating and money-grubbing. They try to keep the news of the overthrow from their animals, expecting Animal Farm to collapse. When it does not, they spread vile lies about it. The farmers launch an invasion of Animal Farm (the armies of capitalist intervention in Russia) — which is only repelled by an heroic defence. Of course, our hearts are entirely with the defence.

In the last act Napoleon and his cabal meet with a number of human farmers in the house on Animal Farm, satirising Stalin’s 1943 meeting with Churchill and Roosevelt in Tehran. Napoleon renounces any interest in animal rebellion on neighbouring farms and announces that Animal Farm had been renamed Manor Farm and is jointly owned by the pigs alone. Humans and pigs drink a toast and resume a game of cards but then uproar breaks out (the Cold War).

Pilkington and Napoleon, swindlers both, have simultaneously played the ace of spades. As the other animals peer through the window and look from pig to man and man to pig, they realise it is impossible to tell them apart.

The promise of the revolution — equality, collective ownership, and a degree of comfort for all — shines like a beacon on the two gangs of cut-throats who can only agree on how to handle their “labour problem”.

The animals’ realisation that there is no difference between the pigs and the humans was the beginning of socialist wisdom. In the 1940s millions of people were under Stalinist domination and many would-be socialists looked to Russia with dewy-eyed admiration. Orwell’s contention — that the revolution had been betrayed and that the communists looked pretty much like the capitalists — was a beacon of truth in a world shaped by capitalist lies and Stalinist falsification. We are still trying to scrape off the decades of Stalinist shit in which every socialist concept was gutted of its meaning and filled with poison. Orwell’s work still has great relevance.

On one level Animal Farm does not explicitly advocate anything. But the dénouement would lose its dark, dramatic effect if, instead of finishing with the pig-human conflation, it moved on to a didactic advocacy of a new revolution or some other socialist “way forward”.

Orwell told American Dwight Macdonald, at the
time editor of Partisan Review, that the book was meant to have “…a wider application in so much that…that kind of [Russian — CH] revolution (violent, conspiratorial revolution, led by unconsciously power-hungry people) can only lead to a change of masters. I meant the moral to be that revolutions only effect a radical improvement when the masses are alert and know when to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job… you can’t have a revolution unless you make it for yourself; there is no such thing as benevolent dictatorship…

“If people think I am defending the status quo, that is… because they have grown pessimistic and assume that that there is no alternative except dictatorship or laissez-faire capitalism.”

Many socialists will have a different understanding of the evolution of the Soviet Union, but the basic argument for “revolution from below” and for revolutionary alertness is surely right even if it leaves unanswered a thousand and one questions about the “how”.

That is why I think the absence from the story of a revolutionary rearguard, or the fact that Snowball (Trotsky) goes along with reserving the milk and apples to the pigs (a detail expressing Orwell’s serious misgivings about Trotsky), is essentially beside the point. In a wonderfully simple way the tale of a revolution betrayed is told, but with all the ideals intact.

If Animal Farm is the revolution betrayed, then Orwell’s 1984 is the totalitarian in power. Here is a world of permanent pain and ugliness in which the Party is everything.

The Party turns children into snitches against their parents and seeks to destroy everything that may cut across party loyalty and control — including sexual feelings.

The Inner Party totalitarians ruling over Oceania have a battery of (horribly memorable) weapons to control society — Big Brother, Thought Crime, Thought Police, Newspeak, Doublethink, Facecrime, telescreen, Ministry of Truth, Ministry of Love, permanent war — all of which parody in an extreme form the big lies, the witch hunts, the ever desperate search for ever greater control, of the Stalinists and the Nazis.

Echoing Stalinist and fascist propaganda (“…history written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various party lines”, Orwell), the Party constantly remakes the past to fit the party’s purpose. The principal would-be rebel, Winston Smith, earns his living as an Outer Party member by doing just this dirty work of defrauding history.

Winston’s rebellion begins with his recording an entry into a furtively purchased diary. The very idea of a diary, in a society in which the Party controls all records so that it can continuously “alter” the past to accord with current party policy, is subversive. In his diary Smith sends greetings “to the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free…when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone”.

These totalitarians are not communists (or fascists). The world has moved way beyond them to a political regime that neither believes nor pretends that it is holding power for the good of humanity.

The Inner Party intellectual/torturer O’Brien rhapsodises: “The object of power is power…How does one man assert his power over another …By making him suffer…If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever…The heretic…will always be there, so that he can be defeated over again.” (Allowing for the extreme parody, the passage is reminiscent of Trotsky when he points out that the Stalinist state and its terror grows at the same time as it is claiming the onset of the classless society and the final liquidation of mere remnants of class enemies).

The Party of Oceania remakes its victims and heretics until they believe their own smashed out confessions and love Big Brother. Winston’s horror — that of an isolated, defeated man, who is physically and mentally smashed up by an all controlling regime whose purpose is in fact “power” and which seeks to break his mind as an exercise in that power — makes him betray the woman he loves. The sheer terror in the story gives the book its power.

Terror is the aspect of the novel that has lead some people on the left to ascribe to 1984 an enormous power of recoil — filling people’s heads (millions according to Isaac Deutscher) with fear and providing a scapegoat for all the world’s ills. These people, it is said, are thereby lost to the socialist cause.

But if anything put workers and sections of the middle class off socialism it was the real facts of the Soviet Union and the left’s voluntary identification of Russia with their own vision of socialism. The right could use the folly of the left, and the fact that these self-same politicians and media hacks were invariably hypocrites is neither here nor there. As Orwell once said, something is no less true because of who said it.
Orwell intended to make the story a painful one.

In his essay ‘Inside the Whale’ he argued that the intellectuals were soft on totalitarian politics because they had never known what it was like to live in such a society — they could not imagine what it would be like. Purges, secret police, summary executions, imprisonment without trial.

It was all too remote from their secure lives in
liberal England. Orwell wanted people to feel what a totalitarian society would be like as part of the destruction of the Russian myth.

Orwell failed to convince much of the left, we continue to have an uphill job doing that today. When a “leftwing” Labour MP can sup with a senior member of an Iraqi regime akin to fascism — without incurring any real opprobrium from the “left” — Orwell’s view that the left needs to be able to “feel” the pain of such a regime remains valid.

The left needs imagination as part of its political armoury. Orwell’s room 101 — where all our worst fears come together — is the bloody torture room of rotten regimes around the world. It is a basic act of solidarity to feel the fear, pain and loss of the victims — it is part of knowing ourselves, why we are politically active.

Orwell created a lexicon of political ideas and that lexicon was seized on by every right-winger, every journalist, the CIA (leaving aside “reality” TV programme makers) to use against the left. But these people seized on anything and everything that showed the Soviet Union/Communist states for what they were, putting their own political gloss on things.

The only sure way — then as now — of avoiding being used and abused by people with wildly different politics and purposes is not to open your mouth. Yet it is precisely this attitude — of the Stalinists and fellow travellers — that Orwell rightly objected to (“don’t say that comrade, it will give ammunition to the right-wing”).

The left and the wider labour movement could have cut across the right-wing propaganda if it had presented an independent alternative to the Soviet Union — an egalitarian, self-directing, bottom-up socialism. But the left and the labour movement has far too often woefully failed.

After Solidarnosc, a genuine, independent, mass movement of the Polish working class, had been driven underground in Poland, the British TUC proposed to proceed with a visit to the official, state run, unions which had backed the Stalinist military coup of General Jaruselski. In 1984 Solidarnosc “…issued a clandestine Orwell stamp, illegal calendars and suppressed editions of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four…” (Jeffrey Meyers, Orwell). It wasn’t the British labour movement with which Solidarnosc identified — it was the unusual figure of an Old Etonian who said something of the truth about the type of regime they lived under.

Decisions taken by the left for seeming expediency — denouncing those who insist on the primacy of our principles (not on dogma or sectarianism) — will chip away at our identity, making the next “expedient” decision so much the easier until people forget why they came into socialist politics in the first place. What we do, what we say and who we lash up with does matter.

1984 is a dark book. It lacks the clear alternative of Animal Farm’s revolution. Orwell said that he “ballsed it up rather” writing it while suffering from his tuberculosis. Yet I have always thought it was an amazing, if somewhat uneven, novel and not as dark as I first thought. Winston may be defeated but despite all, he and his lover Julia knew the Party was full of shit and they both rebelled knowing full well the incredible risks. Winston insists on his rightness against “intellectuals” with more learning and more ability but who he knows to be wrong. And he has enough human solidarity to want to communicate with the future.

Many of the “left-wing” criticisms of Orwell are criticisms of his strong points: the refusal to bow down to the Soviet Union; the refusal to fit into the left of his day by keeping his trap shut about the events in Spain and Russia; the insistence that collectivism, in and of itself, does not equal socialism; the insistence on egalitarianism and freedom as essential components of any worthwhile socialism.

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