Commentary Magazine

Orwell in Perspective

The ordeal of reading a new book about George Orwell1 drove me to riffle through my copy of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. I was looking for the word “symbol.” Webster says it is derived from the Greek term for a token of identity, verified by comparing a thing’s two halves. This is peculiarly apposite to the case of Orwell, since there are two distinct halves of his public identity, and one has tended to inflate the other out of all proportion. He stands high now among the archetypal literary figures we have today of simple men who hate and oppose political tyranny—though in the odd way these things sometimes work, his name has entered the language as an epithet for the horrors associated with state oppression of the individual. Since the publication of Animal Farm and especially 1984, a gaggle of commentators, critics, hacks, and (despite Orwell’s last wish) biographers have made it their business to hang onto this status while using it to distort and amplify Orwell’s other half, i.e., his work as a professional journalist and novelist.

T.R. Fyvel’s memoir seems to be an example of the hanging-on species; but the puffery which it does contain adds nothing to the sum of what others have claimed for Orwell as journalistic sage and political philosopher. Neither does the book add anything special to the sum of reading matter in general. I will give my reasons for this opinion, but first I should like to try and disentangle some of the confusion which Orwell’s symbolic role has thrown over his actual work.

For all that he threw in his lot with the “common man,” George Orwell was no proletarian himself. His background was Edwardian upper-middle class, with a colonial civil servant for a father and a mother whose family were European merchants in Burma. Orwell was born in Bengal and brought up in England by his mother. His education was private and very upper-crust; he attended Eton as a King’s Scholar, though he did not continue on to Oxford or Cambridge in the normal way. He returned instead to Burma for a brief spell as assistant district superintendent in the Imperial Indian Police. In 1927, back in England on leave, he decided to resign and did so on New Year’s Day 1928, settling down then to the hard grind of a rather unsuccessful writer’s life.

Though Orwell published a good deal of journalism, including essays and many book reviews, and one book a year from 1933 until 1941, he remained more or less a fringe figure on the London literary scene. From the very beginning he showed an intense interest in the lower classes, and at various times tried to share their conditions of life. (His first book was Down and Out in Paris and London.) But it was the experience of reporting on unemployed workers in the north of England that aroused his sympathy for socialism and the Left, in 1937. This hardened into a commitment when he fought in the Spanish Civil War with a Marxist splinter group on the Aragon front.

His reports on this experience and on Soviet Communist betrayal of such groups were rejected by fellow-travelers in Britain, most notoriously by Kingsley Martin of the New Statesman and the publisher Victor Gollancz. Orwell managed to get the material into print under other auspices, confirming his curiously contrary role as a dissenting leftist wholly committed to the Left. To the fury of his peers, he compared Soviet tyranny to Nazism, and his fable Animal Farm, completed during World War II when Russia was allied with Britain and America, ran into political trouble with British and American publishers. It was brought out by Secker & Warburg in 1945, and when Harcourt and the Book of the Month Club took it up in America the following year, Orwell found himself an international success, really solvent for the first time in his life. With the appearance of 1984 three years later, the legend of Orwell as political prophet and philosopher began to gather force, and grew with the worldwide sales of his two famous books. Despite occasional murmurings of dissent, it continued to grow after his death in 1950, at the age of only forty-six.



There are writers, like politicians, who find their best voice in opposition. George Orwell was one of these, but used his voice inside as well as outside the group to which he belonged. He was said to have concerned himself with “the delousing of the Left” and to function as “the conscience of the Left,” which is a fair description of his stance. In view of his reputation, it is all the more sad that he failed so badly in these tasks. Totalitarian “lice” on the British Left are more numerous and aggressive today than they were in Orwell’s time, and have—as they did not have then—a real chance of overrunning the Labor party altogether. It is one of the unfortunate characteristics of British politics that Orwell’s type of cri de coeur did and still does infuriate Stalinists, Trotskyists, and fellow-travelers instead of shaming them, and more often than not hardens their opinions. Animal Farm even angered a number of “liberal” American publishers and leftists. It is surprising that this brilliant little fable did not attract the wrath of American conservatives, too, since its moral, if unwritten, is quite clear: capitalism is the exploitation of man by man; (Soviet) Communism is the reverse.

In a recent article Norman Podhoretz wrote that Orwell “underwent several major political transformations” (“If Orwell Were Alive Today,” Harper’s, January 1983). This refers in part to Orwell’s rediscovery of patriotism early in World War II, and to his previous assumption of a socialist label. To me it appears likely that the tags Orwell adopted were little more than attempts to find a verbal framework for his romantic attitudes, which never altered from the time he became a political animal. By his own account, the anti-establishment, anti-colonial, pro-underdog passions which characterized his politics were already taking shape during his police service in Burma. What appears to have happened later is that his brand of “socialism” provided him with a clear focus for this blend of prejudice and emotion; some of his early targets were much the same as those of today’s radical chic—but he, without fear or favor, also took aim at the socialist “establishment,” which at that time was jelled around the Soviet Union and its blinkered fellow-travelers. For him, truth as he saw it was always more important than the solidarity which is crucial to active political commitment.

Because of the popular bracketing of Orwell with anti-Communism, it is often forgotten (by Americans more than most) that he placed himself firmly among left-wing socialists, and specifically rejected attempts to involve him with the Right. Like the use of his name in political abuse, this is a paradox, since he remained a stubbornly uncollectivized loner all his life. His socialism was never the highly bureaucratized and centrally directed form of government which is the stock-in-trade of today’s far Left. He never did explain clearly what it was. His writing suggests a harking back to Edwardian middle-class socialism, which urged that everyone should be better clothed, fed, and washed, and—most important—should be decent to each other, and so ameliorate the human condition.2

Because Orwell remained insistently left-wing, but ruthlessly condemned the folly, cowardice, hypocrisy, cruelty, and treachery of those who called themselves socialists, it has been claimed that he was an unusually fierce paragon of honesty. Certainly his species of frankness was uncommon among left-wing British litterateurs, but it has to be said that his honesty was, in journalistic matters at least, not much more than normal by the curious standards of the profession. He was capable of publishing obviously false rumors as fact, and when this was thrown up to him on one occasion, he brushed aside the complaint with the remark that his story was “essentially true.” (In the British mandarin vernacular this means that the literal truth of the story is irrelevant; one feels it ought to be true, and that is enough.) Orwell also published, in his first book and later, a certain amount of what is now called “faction,” some with due warning and some without. I am not suggesting that he was a hypocrite. On the contrary, I believe that he was probably as artless in such matters as it was possible to be, and he clearly did have a formidable hatred of hypocrisy. But it is no service to him to exaggerate this by claiming that he had the rectitude of a saint.



One of the fascinating and amusing aspects of Orwell’s life and work was the bizarre pleasure he took in trying to èpater his peers. This was evident in his personal behavior and in his writing. He was liable to embarrass and irritate middle-class company by pouring his tea into a saucer and then slurping it up loudly, in “working-class” fashion. In 1940, with a candor that could be described as either stunning or mischievous, he wrote this:

I should like to put it on record that I have never been able to dislike Hitler. [Orwell then says that he would kill the Führer if he could, but] the fact is that there is something deeply appealing about him. . . . [His face] reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ crucified. . . . He is . . . the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds. . . . One feels, as with Napoleon, that he is fighting against destiny, that he can’t win, and yet that somehow he deserves to.

This is not quoted in order to show that Orwell was being simply frivolous or (as T.R. Fyvel puts it) silly on this occasion. The passage from which it is taken is a slightly bemused exploration of personal feelings, and for all its apparent political reference, the quotation is not about politics at all. It has to do with a particular type of melodramatic hero, and points up the fact that melodrama was a very important part of Orwell’s equipment as a writer.

Bernard Crick’s recent biography of Orwell3 offers the idiotic if fashionable opinion that Orwell was “a political thinker of genuine stature” and draws a totally daft parallel between 1984 and Hobbes’s Leviathan. It is true that dissenters from behind the Iron Curtain have noted Orwell’s insight into some details of Soviet tyranny, but 1984 is not an accurate or comprehensive picture of how such a society and/or system maintains itself, or is likely to in the future. With his lack of feeling for the ambiguities of political reality, Orwell never grasped, for instance, why in the Soviet Union (as in Nazi Germany) there were and still are millions of “common people” living more or less undramatic lives, and supporting their government in a manner not quite explained away by cant about brainwashing or “prolefeed”; and that this support from the common man (supposed by Orwell to have a specially decent moral code)—and not a mere lust for power as such—is what made possible the staggering Soviet crimes of the 30’s, the atrocities of Nazism during World War II, and sustains today’s “socialist” regime in Russia, with its labor camps, psychiatric abuses, tortures, and secret police. The point, and the awful tragedy, is that the tyranny of a “centralized economy” (Orwell’s words) does not need all the melodramatically creaking machinery of 1984. The book is not a political treatise but a novel in the genre of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, though less easy to read.

Because it is now the fashion to despise Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous work, this comparison may startle or even offend some readers. They may have forgotten that Uncle Tom’s Cabin intensified public feelings about slavery in much the same way 1984 did where totalitarianism was concerned. Both books contributed terms of political abuse which are still current, and Orwell himself wrote that Uncle Tom’s Cabin did “try to be serious and deal with the real world” and that it was still possible to take it seriously. The two books share the flaws of excess melodrama and more than a little sentimentality; but each is also alive with an intense hatred of principled human cruelty. In both cases the political effect of the latter was far more important than the aesthetic faults—something the American literary sensibility is liable to overlook. In order to praise Orwell’s political contribution and his hatred of oppression it is not necessary to labor a fatuous comparison with a major philosopher. Indeed, this is harmful because it makes (or tries to make) Orwell into something he was not, and so invites discredit.



The sanest description of Orwell that I have seen was written by the American critic Isaac Rosenfeld in 1950, a few months after Orwell’s death. He was, Rosenfeld wrote, “a writer in a small way” as distinct from a minor writer. If one looks behind the immense façade of symbolism which has been erected in front of Orwell’s name and work, this is a fair picture of what he accomplished in his chosen profession. Despite the resonance of his polemics against tyranny, he was by no stretch of the imagination a major novelist or even a very good one, as he himself admitted. He published four novels before Animal Farm, none of them particularly distinguished or interesting, except where they touch upon his later political concerns. His essays on literature, on the artifacts of demotic culture (comic books, rude seaside postcards), and on the media are still absorbing and entertaining. As few other writers have done, he understood and approved of the popular appeal of “Good Bad Books,” his literary equivalent of what Noël Coward once called the potency of cheap music. He wrote savagely and usefully upon the aperçu that ideological bigotry tends to breed an ugly form of euphemistic pleonasm; and in 1984 he satirized brilliantly the foul acronymic jargon which is now taken for granted in political discourse.

In his willingness to look squarely at and write about the odious and criminal tyranny that was being perpetrated in the name of socialism, Orwell tried to stake out what George Steiner, writing about him, labeled “the beleaguered middle of truth.” It was a point of view from which the injustice and beastliness of any political camp could be dissected and exposed in the name of a wider humanity. As it happened, the fables and billingsgate which Orwell contributed to politics were (and still are) most easily used against the excesses of the Left; this is undoubtedly because he never abandoned his commitment to the Left, aiming his harshest invective and satire at those closest to him who spoiled his own political hopes. But at its finest, his literary anger (which was an expression of deep personal conviction) transcended the parochial concerns of political parties, raging impartially against the cruelty and stupidity which human beings inflict upon each other in the name of “smelly little orthodoxies” and political salvation. This made him a superb polemicist and, near the end of his life, a satirist of some power and great popular appeal—but not a political philosopher.

In principle it is bad for a writer to be made into a hero. The role and the work invariably clash, and it is always the work which suffers. (We have enough well-known American examples.) In this respect Orwell has been, so to speak, posthumously unlucky, in that something of this effect still haunts him and his work, some thirty-three years after his death. And yet, though the attempts to exploit his image still continue, they should not be allowed to obscure his solid, if modest, achievement in literature. Besides the near-perfect fable Animal Farm, the essays I have mentioned, and some of his journalism, the non-fiction books (especially Homage to Catalonia, a vivid account of his Spanish Civil War service) can still be read with pleasure.

These works have, in addition to their political flavor, an unassuming charm and a curiously comforting quality—the same virtue that Orwell mentioned in his essay “Good Bad Books” as “a sort of literary vitamin” which made a book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin “deeply moving and essentially true.” It is surely because of this, as much as for the really fortuitous symbolic import of his name and his last (actually dull and depressing) novel that most of Orwell’s good work will continue to be read, after the real year 1984 has taken some of the vatic gloss off his most famous book. He died a young man by contemporary standards. With more time he might well have grown beyond the mainly negative obsessions of 1984 to write something on the level of, say, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. He had that type of temperament and talent. Whether his mantric professional boosters would have allowed these to survive is another question.



This brings me back to T.R. Fyvel’s memoir. It is said that Fyvel knew Orwell as a friend. If that is true, this irksome little book is something in the nature of a betrayal of that friendship. This is not because it denigrates Orwell or his writing—though its portrait of Orwell himself is indifferent and blurred. On the contrary, it takes the standard quasi-hagiographic view of his late work; it also picks over ground already covered by Crick and others, with no new insight or comment to offer except stale and implausible dissent on minor details.

In the first part of the book Fyvel’s speculation about Orwell’s character is generally turgid, banal, not very enlightening, and given to annoying non sequiturs:

Perhaps Orwell was ambivalent about the role in life he saw for himself at this time [when he went to Burma]. His second wife Sonia told me that not long before his death she asked him: “George, why not Oxbridge [i.e., Oxford or Cambridge University]? Why the Burma police?” Orwell replied that this was a long and complicated story and he would tell her some time. But he never got around to it.

The second part of the book, covering the years in which Fyvel actually knew Orwell (it reads more like the record of an acquaintance), seems to contain more material about Fyvel himself and his unoriginal political opinions than it does about the ostensible subject of the book. There is of course some anecdotal material about Orwell, his publisher Frederic Warburg, the literary ambience of the time, and a comment from Arthur Koestler that Orwell’s imagination was “limited” when it came to Nazi atrocities. What there is of real interest in all this could (and should) have been contained in a magazine article of medium length.

Where the book does treat Orwell directly it is pocked with petty inaccuracies and judgments which are (when they do not echo the exaggerations of others) highly arguable. Thus Fyvel twice has Orwell signing himself “A.E. Blair” for his work on the Adelphi (one of the first magazines to publish his writing). His real name was Eric Arthur Blair, and in those days he signed himself “E.A. Blair,” or “Eric Blair.” The memoir claims that Orwell in his last year at Eton “with much heartache temporarily gave up the idea of being a writer.” The source given for this assertion is the essay “Why I Write.” It actually says: “I tried to abandon the idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.” There is no mention of “heartache,” and the idea was clearly not given up at all. Fyvel’s claim that Orwell was a “gifted novelist” was contradicted by Orwell himself. As a writer he was not “gifted” to any great degree, but developed what talent he had by extremely hard and persistent work.

In a list of Orwell’s targets for abuse in the 1930’s, Fyvel names, in quotes, “Auden & Co.,” as if this were Orwell’s preferred term. He actually called them “the pansy Left,” an expression avoided in this book, perhaps to make Orwell seem more “liberal” on this subject than he was. T.S. Eliot is said to have rejected Animal Farm when he was a director at Faber & Faber “because it was Trotskyism” Eliot’s rather muddled letter of rejection mentions in passing that he took the point of view to be Trotskyist, but his specific objection to the book was that its effect was “simply one of negation.” He also referred to “the political situation at the present time,” suggesting that Faber, like other publishers, did not want to insult the Soviet Union while it was Britain’s ally in World War II.

According to Fyvel, Orwell was “unimpressed” by the British fascist Oswald Mosley. In Bernard Crick’s more accurate account, Orwell was very impressed by Mosley’s demagogic flair for capturing a working-class audience while orating rubbish. Several of Fyvel’s pages are devoted to inconclusive waffle around the subject of Orwell’s anti-Semitism, together with a denial that Fyvel (as Orwell supposed) thought him anti-Semitic. It is a solecism Orwell himself would have been unlikely to commit; he knew well enough (as Fyvel must) that a casual anti-Semitism was normal among his class and generation and, as Crick makes very clear, Orwell was anti-Semitic in this way himself. Crick claims that Orwell “purged himself” of this prejudice, but the assertion is not very convincing.



Flying in the face of much evidence, Fyvel attributes to Orwell a “special talent for recognizing the underlying trends of his age.” This is of course precisely where Orwell failed most often and disastrously—predicting, for example, that World War II would bring fascism to Britain. In fact it brought the welfare state. In this and other predictions about “underlying trends” Orwell tended to lean too heavily upon the writings of James Burnham, having almost no original political ideas of his own to draw on. In this memoir there is also the mystifying affirmation that Orwell “judged everything on its own merits”; the most desultory survey of his writing (as opposed to his commentators) shows unmistakably that he saw and judged politics above all through thick anti-authoritarian lenses, and in terms of the bias of his class and generation of middle-class socialists—that is to say by a set of left-wing platitudes which are well summed up in a verse of the British music-hall song “She Was Poor But She was Honest”:

It’s the same the whole world over,
it’s the poor wot gets the blame.
It’s the rich wot lives in clover,
isn’t it a bloody shame!

I should stress that this very simplicity was the great strength of Orwell’s work. It gave his famous fable and much of his political polemic a power and emotional weight which greater sophistication would have watered down or destroyed. This is even true of the strain of irrationality which appeared now and then in his political thought and took him down strange byways. (He was known to remark, seriously, that “all tobacconists are fascists” and he regarded the Jews in the Middle East as colonialist “white men” who were oppressing the “colored” Arab population.)

My guess is that he would have been bemused to see his famous anti-utopia more fully embodied in Cambodia and (today) in Iran than in the Soviet Union. Of course he would have condemned the horrors, but given the patterns of his prejudice, it would not surprise me to see him put the blame for these grim examples on past oppression by “White Men,” oil interests, etc.



Nevertheless Orwell’s surest literary and political flair was founded on a highly charged compassion for human suffering, plus what was once called a sense of decency. In the era when he was born and raised this formula had a meaning which was sharply if intuitively understood. I take it as an apparent sign that this understanding has decayed that so much overinflated praise, so much specious sanctification has been heaped upon Orwell and his work.

His greatest achievement was to focus in the popular mind a powerful instinctive hatred of tyranny and a sense of individual integrity, and to do so on a scale that is almost unique in our time. It is no discredit to him that this was made possible as much by the peculiar circumstances of the cold war as by his talent as a political writer. Whatever the circumstances, we have reason to be grateful to Orwell, and precisely for that reason we owe it to his memory to try and see clearly what he was—including eccentricities and contradictions—and not to magnify him into a plaster giant.


1 George Orwell: A Personal Memoir, by T.R. Fyvel, Macmillan, 221 pp., $14.95.

2 I cannot agree with Norman Podhoretz's belief that had he lived, Orwell would now be a neoconservative, because in Britain this would make him a Thatcherite Tory—something obviously impossible for such a man. He was too awkward, too contrary, too suspicious of any kind of aggressive leadership, particularly if it could—justly or unjustly—be blamed for something like today's high unemployment in Britain. I suspect he would indeed have shied away from what is now called the fascist Left, but that this would have landed him either on the left wing of Britain's new Social Democratic party, or among those like Denis Healey and Michael Foot who now cling to the shreds of the old Labor party. If Orwell's consistent sympathies are any guide, he would also have welcomed strongly the aim of suppressing today's nuclear weapons, though with much searing of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other unilateralists for their anti-Western bias.

3 George Orwell: A Life, Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1981.

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