BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Socialist or Tory anarchist?
, March 15, 2014
by Robert Colls
(Oxford University Press)
Hardcover: 356 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
George Orwell was not perfect. Blasphemous though it might sound, he was not the Saint George created by some of his disciples, who was consistently right on all the issues with which he was involved.
What is more, tell it not in Gath, but as a person he could be something of a solemn and unsociable bore.
He sympathised with the working-class, but his descriptions of his interactions with them have little or nothing to say about their sports, songs, concerts, pubs, clubs, movies, hobbies, dances, outings, gambling, religion and, despite all the things in their lives militating against it, their humour. “He looked like an outsider, talked like a toff… a night out in Blackpool would have done him the world of good.”
In 2003, on the centenary of his birth, a raft of biographies appeared, most of them with something worthwhile to contribute. Ten years later, Robert Colls has written another life — at any rate, it is chronological — which penetratingly analyses Orwell’s character, thought and writings. It is critical, in the best sense of the word, without being unsympathetic.
Colls is no latter-day left-wing Cold Warrior, out to flagellate Orwell for failing to toe the party line. For example, in his treatment of Orwell’s controversial 1949 list of Soviet sympathisers, he is more concerned to expose the fatuities of some of the Stalin admirers named in it (such as J.B. Priestley) than to agonise over whether or not Orwell should have compiled it.
However, he is not prepared to gloss over his inconsistencies and, on occasion, sheer silliness.
From 1938 until 1940 Orwell pursued an insane “moral equivalence” policy. Arguing that Britain’s conservative elements were no better than the Nazis, he opposed rearmament on the grounds that it would facilitate the emergence of the fascism for which bourgeois, democratic capitalism was just a thin, temporary and implausible cover.
The next minute (as it were) following the volte face which saw him supporting the war effort and joining the Home Guard, he was accusing pacifists of being “objectively pro-Fascist”!
Even his atheism was not straightforward. On one level he had an aesthetic appreciation of Anglicanism, and asked to be buried according to the rites of the Church of England. At a deeper level, he recognised the Dostoevskyian threat of moral vacuity which accompanied the decline of Christianity: “He believed there was no God, but no end to the need for God either.”
Most people would regard leftism, or socialism (albeit a democratic and liberal socialism), as Orwell’s “religion”, but this is not a simple matter either. According to Colls, Orwell paid lip service to the socialist ideal, but only ever produced one concrete prospectus, which included nationalisation of basic industries and progressive income tax but, oddly enough, omitted a national health scheme.
Most of his references to socialism are sceptical, warning of the dangers of what he saw as its bourgeois provenance, its tendency to control freakery, its cultural nihilism, its grey, impersonal asceticism, and its attraction to cranks: “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex maniac, Quaker, Nature Cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England”.
As Colls comments with regard to The Road To Wigan Pier (1937) and Homage To Catalonia (1938): “He goes to Wigan with grave doubts about capitalism, and leaves it with grave doubts about socialism. He goes to Spain an out-and-out anti-Fascist, and leaves it an out-and-out anti-Communist.”
So who and what was the essential Orwell, then?
As the book’s title indicates, Colls places enormous emphasis on his Englishness. Despite his angry awareness of his country’s faults and deficiencies, and despite his demand for revolution (albeit of a constitutional and legal nature), Orwell came to acknowledge his patriotic love for England, and to recognise, in a manner reminiscent of Burkean conservatism, its historical continuity and organic unity. “Like Cobbett, he wanted nothing brand new,” writes Colls.
He neither limited England to its proletariat, nor aspired himself to be a deracinated citizen of the world. “Orwell advocated an Englishness that was socialist in that it defended the poor, liberal in that it looked for liberty, and Tory in that it could take in the other two and believe in Englishness just the same.”
He believed in the intellect but not intellectuals, in reason but not rationalism, in tradition and convention but not reaction, and in individuals but not individualism.
At one point in his life he referred to himself as a Tory Anarchist, and Colls concludes that “beyond party politics he was more Tory Radical than anything else”. Hence the word “rebel” in the book’s title, because he was as much a rebel against the shibboleths of the left, as against the class privilege, imperialism and laissez-faire capitalism of the establishment.
Orwell cannot be neatly fitted into any system, and was often changeable and contradictory.
He was a writer, not a social scientist, who reacted to situations as he met them, without feeling any need to conform to any ideological consistency.
In the end, however, he was for the most part on the side of the angels, which is why just about everybody (apart from a handful of residual Neanderthal Stalinoids) wants to claim him for their team. As Colls observes, “He did not always get things right, but unlike some who lived through the 1930s and 1940s, he did not have to recant, or excuse, his former associations.”
This is a rich and thoughtful book, to which a review can scarcely do justice. It is highly recommended for all those who appreciate Orwell without feeling the need to apotheosise him.