Orwell Looking Down on British Workers

Orwell On Workers & Other Animals

By Gwydion M. Williams

George Orwell was born into Britain’s colonial elite, at a time when the barriers extremely wide. He sounds as if he genuinely regretted the barriers between him and his fellow Britons:

“All the men at the N.U.M.W. [National Unemployed Workers Movement] very friendly and anxious to supply me with information as soon as they heard I was a writer and collection information about working-class conditions. I cannot get them to treat me precisely as an equal, however. They call me either ‘Sir’ or ‘Comrade’. (The Road to Wigan Pier Diary).

It might be that he was not trusted because he wasn’t trustworthy, of course. The book itself doesn’t live up to the potential of the diary. Orwell could only really ‘bridge the gap’ by seeing everyone as equally degraded and dirty. There was plenty that was hopeful and self-respecting amidst the poverty, stuff that Orwell’s diary records him as seeing. Thing which his published writings unfortunately omit.

Orwell could be an acute observer of inequalities that would take a long time to set right:

“I was surprised by Mrs S’s grasp of the economic situation and also of abstract ideas – quite unlike most working-class women in this, though she is I think not far from illiterate. She does not seem resentful against the people who employ her – indeed she says they are kind to her – but sees quite clearly the essential facts about domestic service…

“She said that in the North working-class men never offered any courtesies to women (women are allowed to do all the house-work unaided, even when the man in unemployed, and it is always the man who sits in the comfortable chair), and she took this state of things for granted, but did not see why it should not be changed.” (Ibid.)

I began studying Spain and Orwell just to vindicate my father’s reputation, and hopefully trash Hitchens’s at the same time. But a lot of other interesting topics opened up in the process. Orwell has some intelligent observations. And since Orwell was suspicious of Bolshevism as such—not just its ‘Stalinist’ mainstream—has he been justified by events?

No, he definitely hasn’t. Although clever, Orwell is horribly dated, an interesting member of a dead line of development, socialism run and regulated Britain’s Almost-Ruling Class. There were many such, most of them much nicer people than Orwell, intellectually more substantial, though without his journalistic flair. Orwell was an oddity, a man who quit the service of the British Empire without having any clear idea what he wanted to do next, except he did want to write.

Orwell fits best if you see him as a believer in the Edwardian vision of socialism, the sort of thing that H G Wells advocated. The middle class would moderate the plight of the workers and also admit some of them to the elite, though not many. Both Animal Farm and the world of 1984 have considerably less social mobility than actually existed in Edwardian Britain or in Nazi Germany (never mind Soviet Russia, where every top leader since Lenin has risen from quite humble beginnings). Orwell’s future was ‘forward to the past’, and he was not the only one. Brave New World assumes that the English class structure as it stood between the World Wars will stay unchanged even when human biology is radically altered. In the 1950s, The Rise Of The Meritocracy – another dystopia – assumes a social gulf in a mobile society. It also supposed that women would be docile and keep their 1950s position. Writers were almost the last people to come to terms with a changing world.

Nor can you really credit Orwell with being honestly mistaken. He gives the appearance of honesty, but this appearance does not survive a cold hard look at the way he worked. As my father put it:

“Orwell’s strategy Is always to try to write as if any decent person standing where he was would be bound to see things this way… There is briefly something of this in the trip down the mine in The Road to Wigan Pier, but it is preceded by his suppression of how he got to go down the mine, and how he stayed in the homes of working-class socialists, who he then denied ever existed…

“The recruitment of very private feelings against socialism becomes intolerable by 1984. It is profoundly offensive to state as a general truth, as Orwell does, that people will always betray each other. If human beings are like that, what could be the meaning of a democratic socialism? But this dimension of Orwell’s writing is also part of a very large form which has even deeper roots that the neutral observer. For the mode of an extreme distaste for humanity of every kind, especially concentrated in the figures of the working class, goes back after all to the early Eliot – it was the mode of probably two successive generations and it has not yet exhausted itself. You can see it in Orwell’s choice of the sort of working-class areas he went to, the deliberate neglect of the families who were coping – although he acknowledged their existence in the abstract – in favour of the characteristic imagery of squalor: people poking at drains with sticks. His imagination always and submissively goes to that…

“As for 1984, its projection of ugliness and hatred, often quite arbitrarily and inconsequentially, onto the difficulties of revolution or political change, seem to introduce a period of really decadent bourgeois writing in which the whole status of human beings is reduced…

“The impression of consistent decency and honesty that Orwell gave went along with the invention of a character who comes up new in each situation, who is able to lose his whole past, and again be looking as the frank, disinterested observer who is simply telling the truth. When he does that to fellow socialists whose position he recently shared, I can see the basis for a much harder assessment of this kind of man and this kind of writing. The book was the last stage of working through a sense of questioning respect. I am bound to say, I cannot read him now: at every point it is these bad moves he made that stick in my mind. (Politics and Letters, New Left Review 1979, chapter on Orwell.)

My father didn’t go in for polemics, the seeking of clarity by taking apart someone else’s ideas. Me, I have a background in sectarian Marxism, and I retain the habits even though my thinking has moved on. (I would also assert that there is nothing better than Marxism to have moves on from. The only substance in the New Right comes from people on the rebound from the Hard Left.)

Orwell had a talent for finding the dross of life, and is nowadays associated with the decline of the British Empire. But Britain has not declined; Britain has benefited a great deal from being free of all that Imperial clutter. It just discarded Orwell’s ‘Almost-Ruling’ class, along with the real Ruling Class, leaving the scattered members of the fallen order to find their own level in a changed world.

Orwell’s vision of power existing for its own sake is a peculiarity of his own class, the people whose importance is dependent on the degree of control they possess over other people’s lives. The actual rulers are much more interested in the resources they can draw from the ruled; control is a means to an end.

Behind Orwell’s far-left language you find a lot of resentment that unreconstructed workers were exercising more authority than they had. Workers should ‘know their place’, but also they should be living comfortably in that traditional place. Fascism was an extension of this older attitudes to the new reality, in which the Great War had smashed many traditions and left others horribly weakened. (Contrary to Nietzsche, that which does not kill you often leaves you wishing it had.) The old order was weak and unpopular: a lot of people knew that benevolent methods just were not going to achieve anything. But Fascism did also affirm that people had a right to be looked after and guaranteed the basic minimum of life.

Germany under Hitler had come back from the brink of civil war and economic collapse. Knowing nothing of economics, he applied the methods later known as ‘Keynesianism’, with the government ignoring market signals and creates jobs to break out of a spiral of decline. Orwell never showed the foggiest notion of what it was that made Nazism attractive to those Germans who were racially and politically acceptable. What he did notice was that it was something foreign and unpleasant, and also a likely future threat to Britain. If Germany had been wrong in World War One—a point which Orwell never doubted—then a revived and militaristic Germany was bound to offend again.

Orwell resented the system, but in a vague unfocused way. I agree with those who see Orwell as nostalgic for the pre-1914 world in which he’d grown up. When he speaks of his admiration for the cheery cleaning ladies at the BBC, that absolutely fits a pre-1914 patriarchal viewpoint. He always avoids talking about independent and effective working-class power, at least in England. Likewise he omits positive self-action by colonial peoples.

The difference between patriarchal Tories and Thatcherites is simple. Patriarchal Tories assumed that they were Superior Persons, and that they had a duty to look after people. Thatcherites see the whole world as one big rat-race, with themselves as the Rats-In-Chief. Confusingly, the label ‘Tory Anarchist’ can be applied to both of these groups, which only shows the limits of all human-devised labelling. Orwell has been called a ‘Tory Anarchist’ in the older sense, and was not out of place in the Socialist Movement, which picked up a lot of people from the declining elite.

Orwell’s own class needed the Empire: the rest of the society didn’t. Britain’s economic growth from 1950 to 1975 was actually its best ever, marginally better than the years of Thatcher / Major / New Labour and much better than the decades of ‘Imperial Glory’. But as I said, Orwell normally looked backward, and the only sort of socialism he favoured was the sort that might have happened in the pre-1914 world had continued uninterrupted. This made him blind to the way the world was going.

We can’t know whether or not Orwell would have fully grown out of his colonial attitudes if he’d lived longer. There was certainly a lot to unlearn. In Shooting An Elephant; the beast had killed someone, but he speaks of it as ‘working machinery’. He shows some sympathy for the victim:

“He was an Indian, a black Dravidian coolie, almost naked, and he could not have been dead many minutes. The people said that the elephant had come suddenly upon him round the corner of the hut, caught him with its trunk, put its foot on his back and ground him into the earth… His face was coated with mud, the eyes wide open, the teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony.”

But between the black man and the beast, Orwell was entirely neutral:

“As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him. It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant – it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery – and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided. And at that distance, peacefully eating, the elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow. I thought then and I think now that his attack of “must” was already passing off; in which case he would merely wander harmlessly about until the mahout came back and caught him.”

Every human culture has a solid rule that an animal that kills a human must die for it. In pet-loving Britain, a dog can be forgiven one bite, if there was no serious damage. It will unfailingly be executed for a second. The habit is to say ‘destroyed’ when a pet animal is killed, whereas food-animals are ‘slaughtered’. But most of our pet animals are sentient creatures with some notion of right and wrong, and ‘execution’ is exactly the right word when they are killed.

To move from real animals to animal fables, Orwell claimed to have derived Animal Farm from the ‘actual history of the Russian Revolution’. He takes enough to make the target obvious, but also leaves out a great deal, beginning with the Great War. Russians didn’t overthrow the Tsar arbitrarily: Tsarism collapsed under the strain of a war that killed millions. A war that Germany wanted to end and which the British Empire insisted on fighting until Germany was crushed. Not only the Tsar was sacrificed to this: so too was the moderate government that took over from February to October 1917. Lenin would not have been listened to if the moderates hadn’t been persuaded by Britain to keep on sacrificing Russian lives in a deadlocked war.

Orwell could not have made good propaganda if he had stuck closer to the facts, represented the revolutionary animals struggling for stability after their first revolution.

At no time in Animal Farm is there any democracy. The Russian reality was a system of Soviets was subverted by party control, under conditions when conquest by Russia’s anti-democratic White Guards was a very real danger. Written out of Orwellian history are the Anarchists, Social-Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks, the Constitutional-Democrats and the Brest-Litovsk peace.

The Bolshevik government began by abolishing the death penalty and released various rebellious military officers who later became formidable as White Guard leaders. It was Russian right-wingers with British government support who turned politics into a matter of mass killing. If they had won, Russia would have become another Military-Rightist regime keen to restore the pre-1914 order. Though the loss of independent working-class democracy was tragic, the context should not be forgotten, and is forgotten in Orwell’s untruthful fable.

People suppose that Animal Farm is missing a Lenin figure.. I can’s agree with this. The despot ‘Napoleon’, who is joint leader of the initial uprising, seems to stand equally for Lenin and Stalin, as Orwell saw them. Maybe even for aspects of Trotsky. Orwell said:

“It is probably a good thing for Lenin’s reputation that he died so early. Trotsky, in exile, denounces the Russian dictatorship, but he is probably as much responsible for it as any man now living, and there is no certainty that as a dictator he would be preferable to Stalin, though undoubtedly he had a much more interesting mind. The essential act is the rejection of democracy; once you have decided upon that, Stalin – or at any rate someone like Stalin – is already on the way. (Review of Russia under Soviet Rule, by N. de Basily. January 1939.)

Orwell is also typically little-England in seeing all the enemies of England as monsters. Much of Europe saw Napoleon as a liberator: Poland especially. Many nations spent much of the 19th century trying to get back what they had lost with his fall. He did damage in Spain, certainly, and might have done worse had he got as far as England. But Ireland conquered by Napoleon could have moved to small-farmer agriculture much sooner and would have avoided the potato famine of the 1840s, in which millions died while grain was exported.

The error in Soviet Russia was not the 1917 suppression of constitutional rule, but the elevation of party rule to a fixed principle, which Khrushchev enshrined at the same time he denounced Stalin. If they’d agreed to multi-party elections in the 1960s, when the system was still vigorous, they’d probably have won them. In those days, the Western system called itself ‘Mixed Economy’, and only its foes called it capitalism.

As I’ve said elsewhere, capitalism is an economic method that can flourish within a number of different political systems. In emerged in the British Empire at a time when it was dominated by a comfortable and progressive-minded gentry that had no respect for official Christianity. Free-flowing capitalist forces ate their way right through that stratum, which was substantially replaced during the 19th century by a mostly-puritan middle class that wasn’t at first sure it wanted the Empire. Gradually it was seduced. The Boer War – pure aggression by the British Empire against Afrikaners who wanted only to be left alone – was opposed by a big portion of the Liberal Party. By 1914, they had largely been won over. Lloyd George had opposed the Boer War but supported the vastly more dangerous war in Europe and actually kept it going when he should have recognised that a victory would be as damaging as a defeat. That was almost the end of British Liberalism. Brief signs of a ‘return to normal in the later 1920s had faded by the 1930s, blighted by the massive economic crisis. Vigour and coherence were to be found mainly in fascism and communism, and partly also in the USA after Roosevelt broke conventional rules to get the economy going again. But the massive political and resistance to Roosevelt’s tax-and-spend policies looked likely to tip the USA back into another recession by 1938, when Hitler obligingly provided a crisis for him. Both the USA and USSR proved much stronger than Hitler had expected.

Orwell produced 1984 in reaction to the disruption produced by World War Two – actually a temporary disruption that soon turned to unprecedented stability and comfort. Orwell showed too much concern for internal left squabbles and too little for the wider world. He protested when Animal Farm was read as anti-Socialist, but repeated the same error in 1984, with deadly effectiveness. It wouldn’t be out of place for Winston Smith to have discovered that Britain had once had a democratic socialist government elected by the people. Have him meet an old man who could tell of a brief period of hope after 1945, when Britain gave up its Empire and was advancing social equality within a democratic framework (rather than babbly incoherently about top hats). He could have changed the whole tone of 1984 by one rather small addition. But that’s not what Orwell actually did. It can’t have been what he wanted.

To have mentioned a lost opportunity for Democratic Socialism would have matched the purpose that Orwell claimed to have had. But it would also have detracted from the book’s utter bleakness, Orwell’s protest against life in general. He was dying, certainly, fatally infected with TB at a time when it was incurable. But he could have faced death in a rather more generous spirit, as many others have done.

You can’t say that Orwell ceased to be a man of the left because he devoted a lot of his efforts to criticising other left-wingers. It’s a very normal occupation, after all. But you can say he was a careless, short-sited fool. And that he never wholly got over the prejudices of his class.

First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2005.

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