Orwell's relevance today
For a socialist who was better known for his fiction than his theoretical contributions, some of George Orwell’s ideas have been enormously enduring. A recent blogpost from Another Angry Voice, about how Theresa May’s reception at the EU Salzburg summit was reported in some tabloid papers, was headlined “’Humiliation is Victory’ - Orwell would be proud”. This reminds us that Orwell was on to ‘fake news’ long ago. He also gave us ‘Big Brother’, ‘groupthink’ and ‘thought police’ – all from 1984 alone.
This book, an updated version of Orwell for Beginners, with a thoughtful addition about Orwell’s ideas today, is an engaging introduction to his work. But how relevant is Orwell’s understanding of socialism to activists today?
In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell asks whether the conditions of working class life he describes are tolerable or not. (They are not). So given that only socialism can improve these conditions, why are there not more socialists?
Orwell offers a number of answers. One is that many socialists promote a very restricted understanding of class, perhaps based on a limited reading of Marx, that elevates the manual worker over other layers which are oppressed by capitalism. For those not on the proletarian A list, this is off-putting. Equally alienating is the belief of many socialists in a deterministic ripening of the objective conditions that makes the overthrow of capitalism almost inevitable. If only!
But Orwell reserves his most acerbic comments for another behaviour entirely: “Many people who are not repelled by Socialism are repelled by Socialists. Socialism… is unattractive largely because it appears… to be the plaything of cranks, doctrinaires, parlour Bolsheviks, and so forth.” Elsewhere he says, “As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents.”
Orwell’s targeting of ‘cranks’ here has a very specific meaning and should not be mistaken for a broader mental health insult. Academic studies define crankiness as an overestimation of one’s own knowledge and a need to talk about one’s own beliefs, often in inappropriate situations. Cranks tend to be bad listeners, uninterested in anyone else's experience or opinions.
Orwell also believed that the ardour of revolutionary intellectuals contained an alienating pessimism. “Every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a secret conviction that nothing can be changed,” he writes in Wigan Pier.
“The job of the thinking person,” concludes Orwell, “is not to reject Socialism but to humanize it.” This appeal led to Orwell’s last observation as to why socialism was not more popular, again something for which socialists themselves must take responsibility – a failure to concentrate on the basics. Socialism should be about common decency and fair shares for all rather than political orthodoxy or philosophical consistency. “Socialists,“ argues Orwell, “have… never made it sufficiently clear that the essential aims of Socialism are justice and liberty.”
Many socialists, corresponding precisely to Orwell’s portrayal of them, would argue this is simplistic. Yet Orwell’s proposed reframing of socialism in more libertarian and humanistic terms became all the more important as the full horrors of Soviet Stalinism emerged. Orwell himself wrote in 1947, “Nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of socialism as the belief that Russia is a socialist country and that every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imitated. And so for the last ten years, I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the socialist movement.”
The idea of a more freedom-focused humanised socialism draws on a number of different traditions. The great American socialist Eugene Debs wrote, “I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough.”
A century earlier the utopian socialist Saint-Simon said the goal of socialism is “to afford to all members of society the greatest possible opportunity for the development of their faculties.”
Or, as the revolutionary anarchist Bakunin, from a very different tradition, said, the goal is to “ensure that all who are born on this earth become fully human in the fullest sense… to be free and happy, in equality and through fraternity!”
Orwell’s reframing of socialism was also arguably a lot closer to Marx than to the guardians of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy he criticised. The Communist Manifesto describes communism as “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” And much of Marx’s early work wrestled with what it means to be truly human, leading Marx to describe communism as “the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement, and therefore as…the complete return of man to himself as a social (ie, human) being.”
These ideas should be at the forefront of trying to build a more inclusive movement for social change.