POLITICS by Michael RoartyNews Weekly
Understanding Orwell: the dangers of ideology
, May 23, 2015
George Orwell is well known as a passionate socialist whose life was a testament to his beliefs. Greater than his belief in social justice, however, was his commitment to honesty, always telling the truth as he saw it. Unfortunately, this got him into trouble will the far left, the Marxists.
Unlike many intellectuals of his generation, Orwell was very critical of communism and, in the last few years of his life, devoted his writing to exposing the myth of Soviet ideology. By retaining his political integrity and refusing to jump on bandwagons, Orwell greatly contributed to our understanding of totalitarianism and why the Soviet Union eventually collapsed. Indeed, according to Christopher Hitchens (Why Orwell Matters, 2003), Orwell predicted the collapse of the Soviet regime as early as 1946. In a passage of great prescience, Orwell wrote:
“It is too early to say in just what way the Russian regime will destroy itself … But at any rate, the Russian regime will either democratise itself, or it will perish.” (quoted by Hitchens, p96)
Corruption of language
As a writer, Orwell believed the corruption of language for propaganda purposes was the ultimate threat to our civil liberty. While propaganda normally contains an unequivocal message that our political leaders want to promote, in a totalitarian state this does not go far enough to win hearts and minds. Consequently, as in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, there is an attempt to control our thoughts as well. In his last novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, a disturbing dystopia set in the future, part of the totalitarian mechanism for managing the media is the invention of a new language, Newspeak, designed to simplify the language and make the ideology of the ruling party indisputable. More sinister, however, is the way the totalitarian state endows new meaning to words so that its ideological aims can transcend the truth. The intention is clear: to remove the vocabulary of dissent, making it impossible to challenge the Party and discover the truth.
“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” (the character Syme in Nineteen Eighty-Four)
Indeed, under the control of the Ministry of Truth, propaganda and truth are now one and the same; the ministry’s purpose is to rewrite history by changing the facts to match Party doctrine. On the outside wall of the Ministry of Truth the three slogans of the Party are proclaimed: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” The corruption of language is complete.
Orwell was a critic of Marxism, which he believed was an alien, continental philosophy that could not be reconciled with British values of justice and tolerance. His personal experience of fighting on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil war was to confirm his mistrust of Marxism. Orwell joined a Trotskyite brigade, the POUM, which fought alongside communists and others as part of an International brigade. Although they were fighting against a common enemy, fascism, the communists pursued their own agenda under the direction of Stalin.
The revolutionary ideals of the POUM soon fell foul of the communists, who sought to control the struggle and insist upon loyalty to Moscow. This fractured the unity of the Republican side and led to the suppression of those groups critical of Stalin’s aims.
Eventually, the POUM was banned and Orwell was forced to flee Spain to save his life. The betrayal of Orwell and his comrades in the POUM by Stalinist agents is less well known. A British communist, David Crook, wrote reports on Orwell and his wife living in Barcelona and, according to Stephen Schwartz (The Pursuers of Orwell, New York Sun, 10 June, 2003), “It seems a miracle that he survived to tell the truth.”
Orwell’s account of his experience in Spain was reported in his book, Homage to Catalonia, published in 1938. Orwell had learned an important lesson from his experience in Spain: the ruthlessness of communism and the treachery of its followers proved that it was more concerned with keeping power than pursuing any socialist ideals. Indeed, individuals were expendable and ideals were distorted by the brutal exercise of power: the ends always justify the means.
Orwell’s condemnation of Stalinism, brilliantly satirised in Animal Farm, was the culmination of his growing suspicion of communist parties masquerading as saviours of working people. Indeed his experience of political surveillance and repression in Spain, including the betrayal, torture and murder of his comrades and friends, became the raw material for Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s last novel, written as he was dying of tuberculosis, reflects the urgency of his message: to alert the world to the danger of communism and the path it was taking towards a totalitarian society. For Orwell, values were more important than ideals, and he believed that two values he cherished most, liberty and honesty, were both at risk from the ideology of communism:
“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” (Nineteen Eighty-Four)
Many people don’t really think for themselves, they accept another person’s version of the truth without proper scrutiny. Propaganda and prejudice can easily colonise the mind, limiting understanding and distorting personal judgement. It takes effort, openness and vigilance to search out the truth. Unfortunately the truth seems to fight a losing battle with propaganda and prejudice, enabling dictators to make false claims and retain support, long after events force a reality check.
During the 1930s, with capitalism in crisis and traditional politics unable to offer a solution, many intellectuals were seduced by Marxism and even became its most zealous advocates. On the political left, Orwell stood as a lone critic of the fellow travellers, unwilling to compromise his values despite the stark choice that confronted him: either to support communism or fascism.
He believed that the fellow travellers were prepared to turn a blind eye to Stalin’s transgressions for fear of undermining the cause of socialism; however, this merely encouraged repression and invited despotism. Through his political satire, Orwell was able to expose the true nature of communism and for this critique Marxists accused him of betrayal and giving succour to fascism. They believed in a simple, binary world where a person either supported or opposed communism; if you oppose it, you are supporting the fascists on the other side.
This explains why Orwell found it difficult to get Animal Farm published, with four publishers refusing the book, including his regular publisher, Gollancz. Orwell complained in a letter to the Partisan Review (1944): “[It is] now next door to impossible to get anything overtly anti-Russian published.”
Eventually it was published by Secker and Warburg in 1945, despite hostility in the publisher’s office and the political climate of sensitivity towards Russia that came with the new alliance between the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union.
The accusation of political betrayal lingered years after Orwell’s death and, according to Christopher Hitchens, explains the contempt in which he is still held by many on the left. One notable Marxist, distinguished academic Raymond Williams, literary critic and doyen of cultural studies at Cambridge University, showed particular hostility to Orwell.
Williams’ critique of Orwell has been summarised by Hitchens in Why Orwell Matters. Like his Marxist
fellow travellers, Williams was prepared to turn a blind eye to Stalin’s murderous repression because of his loyalty to communism. Critics such as Orwell were treated with contempt because they were considered disloyal and accused of ‘letting the side down’. Consequently his critique of communism had to be rebutted.
Orwell’s account of the Spanish Civil War, reported in Homage to Catalonia, was denounced as a misrepresentation of events as it conflicted with the Soviet version. Orwell had fought alongside the revolutionaries in the POUM, which sought to establish workers communes in Catalonia; later, this was brutally crushed by the communists acting on orders from Moscow.
Orwell’s Animal Farm satirises the failure of the Russian revolution, yet Williams dismissed it as unrealistic and implausible. However, the lofty Marxist fails to understand even the basic plot, which concerns the uprising of the downtrodden animals against their cruel master, the farmer Jones. Perhaps his failure to master the plot is simply the result of ideological blindness: it does not conform to the revolutionary change outlined by Marx, and its eventual betrayal by one group of animals, the pigs, suggests a counter-revolutionary movement that could not be entertained by loyal Stalinists.
One of the most memorable quotes from the novel must be the ultimate indictment of Stalinism: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
Williams was equally disdainful of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The pure terror inflicted by Ingsoc (Newspeak for English socialism) on its citizens bore a close resemblance to the Soviet state to which Williams was in thrall. Under the ruthless dictatorship of Big Brother, fear of speaking out to criticise party orthodoxy silences all but a tiny minority of brave dissidents.
Individuals become morally impotent, even submitting to accusations of acting against the Party. Some seem almost relieved when they are betrayed by neighbours or friends, accepting that any adverse judgement of their behaviour must be correct and their ensuing punishment justified.
When Parsons is denounced by his daughter, he seems relieved that his treachery has been discovered before matters got worse:
“Of course I’m guilty! ... You don’t think the Party would arrest an innocent man, do you?
“Thoughtcrime is a dreadful thing; it’s insidious. It can get hold of you without your even knowing it. Do you know how it got hold of me? In my sleep! ... I started talking in my sleep. Do you know what they heard me saying? ‘Down with Big Brother!’ I’m glad they got me before it went any further. Do you know what I’m going to say to them when I go up before the tribunal?
“Thank you for saving me before it was too late.” (Nineteen Eighty-Four)
In warning of the dangers of ideology and its slide towards totalitarianism, Orwell was on a moral crusade to make us more aware of our personal responsibility. He seems even to suggest that if evil tyrannies exist it is because we have allowed them to develop; our political impotence a sign of moral decline.
By facing the truth and combating political ideologies, Orwell was trying to make us reclaim responsibility for what happens in society. Against the tide of intellectual opinion, he worked to expose the myth and cruelty of communism and, by staying true to his belief in freedom and equality, proved that these principles should never be compromised by any ideology.
Michael Roarty was for 30 years a teacher of economics and has published extensively on the subject.