Some Are More Equal Than Others: Why Orwell Matters

February 15, 2013 6:12 pm

George Orwell

Anyone interested in political writing who has not been listening to BBC Radio 4’s ‘George Orwell Season’ has been missing a real treat.

George Orwell is one of our foremost writers – novels, essays, journalism, reportage, short stories, newspaper columns – he left behind a body of work for us to step back and admire. His work was grounded in the world around him. He was sharp, observant, clear, concise, political and, at times, painfully brutal and honest.

Orwell, born Eric Blair, had to work hard at becoming a writer. He came from what he described as the ‘lower upper middle class’. They had the accent, the attitude and morals of the middle class, but not the money.

His father worked in the government’s opium service based in India in the days of Empire. Back home, Orwell was sent to boarding school, then to Eton, the pre-ordained path many of his class were expected to follow.

The likes of Eton School were traditional institutions where our ruling class sent their privileged offspring to be  prepared to undertake the ‘burdens’ of administering the colonies of an empire that covered a quarter of the globe. Diplomats, civil servants, soldiers (officer class, of course), ambassadors, all were indoctrinated at places like Eton – a process that continues to this day.

‘A queer fellow’

Orwell, or Blair as he was known then, rejected such a future mapped out for him. His family couldn’t afford to send him to university anyway. He successfully applied to become an imperial police officer in the far flung outpost of Burma. He arrived there to take up his post in 1922. He was just nineteen.

He served for five years. Though he was conscientious and dutiful, off duty, he was a noted loner and preferred the company of the local natives rather than his fellow officers whose racial outlook and arrogance of ‘superiority’ appalled him. In turn, most of his fellow officers thought him ‘a queer fellow’.

In 1927, while on sick leave in England with his family, he decided to resign and ‘try to become a writer’. Many of his contemporaries at Eton had, in the intervening years, gone on to Oxford or Cambridge. Some of them were, by then, part of the journalistic and literary establishment, working at newspapers or in publishing. Had he chosen to, Orwell could have called in favours via the ‘old boy network’. Instead, he preferred to establish himself on his own merits.

While living at his parent’s home, he decided to do something unheard of for a man of his class, what was described as ‘going native in his own country’. In Burma, he had observed how the idea of ‘Empire’ worked. It was based on the oppression of one race by another for the purposes of exploitation and he recognised that, back in England, the class system worked in very much the same way.

He began to explore his country from below. He would disappear and live among the impoverished, the homeless, the destitute, for weeks at a time. He intended to gain firsthand insight for himself. He once got himself arrested and spent two nights in a police cell, just for the experience.

Shooting and hanging

 He wrote his first books, ‘Burmese Days’ – the novel of his time as an imperial police officer- and ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ in which he lived among the homeless in both cities. He began to find literary magazines that would accept some of his essays and short stories while he worked on his manuscripts.

Of note, were stories based on his experiences in Burma: ‘A Hanging’, where he describes the process of a Burmese man being executed, and ‘Shooting an Elephant’, a police officer is called to shoot an enraged, runaway elephant. He finds the animal calmed down, but the gathering crowd of Burmese expect him to fulfil his ‘duty’ and he is pressured to make the kill. He also sold articles about his ventures into the world of poverty in ‘The Spike’ (homelessness) and ‘How the Poor Die’, an account of a run down hospital in Paris.

His articles allowed him to earn just enough money to scrape by as he continued to write novels. His first two books sold poorly, as did his subsequent two: ‘A Clergyman’s Daughter’ and ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’. Both were stories of individuals on the fringes of society who are finally forced to conform to what drab compromises life has to offer them. Orwell himself was forced to take a part-time job in a book shop and a teaching job until he could make enough progress with his writing to support himself.

That opportunity came when he was offered a commission by Victor Gollancz, a leftwing publisher who asked him to journey north to record living and working conditions there in 1936.

Orwell made his way largely on foot from Macclesfield, via Manchester towards Wigan, staying at the homes of contacts given him by Gollancz, trade unionists and members of the Independent Labour Party. There, he observed and researched conditions that ordinary working class people had to endure – the poverty, unemployment, working  and housing conditions.

The finished product was ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, a book of two parts. In the first part, Orwell discusses social deprivation, while in the second part, he looks at his own more privileged background and how it contrasted with the lives of the majority.

Orwell BBCSoulless lives

But a more perilous journey awaited him while ‘Road’ was being edited. The Spanish Civil War broke out that year. Orwell had been following it keenly. The leftwing Republican government was being attacked by fascists, led by General Franco, and international forces of both Left and Right were squaring up.

In 1937, Orwell decided to go to fight for the Republic. While there, he had firsthand experience of the betrayal of the revolution by the Stalinist-dominated communists who acted as a brake on the genuine socialist forces.

Orwell narrowly escaped ahead of being arrested, tortured and shot like many of his fellow fighters had been. He, and his wife Eileen, managed to escape across the border into France. He recorded his experiences in his book, ‘Homage to Catalonia’. Gollancz refused to publish it as it was critical of the Stalinist left. Orwell found another publisher. It only sold 1500 copies at the time but has since become a classic piece of political reporting.

As the prospect of a more tumultuous war approached, Orwell wrote another book – ‘Coming up for Air’ – that expressed a deep foreboding of a modernity that shackled workers to soulless lives, where a ‘green and pleasant land’ may be swallowed up in the name of ‘progress’.

Unfit for military service when WWII broke out, he enlisted in the Home Guard. He then found work with the BBC, broadcasting propaganda to India. It was a thankless task as he was to learn that hardly anybody in India listened to his programmes! However, his journalism was now in demand, particularly as a columnist for the Tribune newspaper.

He began work on his first best-selling book, the (now) world famous ‘Animal Farm’. Basically, it was the story of the Russian Revolution betrayed, told in the form of a children’s story. Oppressed animals expel their owners from the farm and run things themselves. After a period, an elite arises (the pigs) and takes control, and compromise with humans who combine to control the farm between them.

The book was criticised by some as being critical of Russia’s dictator, Joseph Stalin, who was regarded as a valuable ally in the war against Hitler. It wasn’t until the war was all but over that ‘Animal Farm’ was finally published. It made Orwell financially independent.

‘The political lie’Orwell 1984

His next book was to firmly establish him as a successful, world famous author – ‘1984’. Both ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’ were his most celebrated books, and acted as the gateway to his other work.

Most of his earlier writings were decisively positioned, polemically, on the left. They criticised the debilitating effects of capitalism and imperialism. After ‘Homage to Catalonia’ and his experiences in Spain, Orwell did not flinch from criticising many on the left.

Indeed, many capitalist commentators have pointed at ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ as Orwell, a socialist, rejecting socialism itself. They attempt to claim that Orwell appears to be ‘renouncing his socialism’ as a failed totalitarian system. Those claims were made on the books’ publication and still carried through to this day.

What these commentators misconceive – whether deliberately or otherwise – is that Orwell remained true to his socialist beliefs. What his later writings warned against was the ‘political lie’, propaganda. What we today call ‘spin’.

He not only wrote his column for the Tribune newspaper, he was a tribune in the real sense of the word. He warned against the dictatorship of left and right. Since ‘Homage to Catalonia’, most of Orwell’s writings were warnings of what might become of us – if we failed to remain vigilant.

Today, we need new ‘Orwells’ instead of the millionaire-dominated media such as the Murdochs provide.

In a world where a Labour prime minister can invent a lie to go to war in Iraq; or where a Tory prime minister can utter ‘doublethink’ claptrap such as ‘We’re all in this together’ when we are so clearly not; we would do well to remember Orwell’s determination to expose the fakery of politicians and his irrepressible optimism for progress.

In that sense, Orwell has no equal among his peers – and that’s why Orwell matters.

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