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George Orwell for real

November 25, 2011 - Harry Eagar
Lil Zeke, commenting on my review of “Rural Russia under the Old Regime” (Nov. 24), notes that “Animal Farm” is a good look at the origins of Bolshevism, which is true enough; but it gives me a chance to correct what I take to be a widespread – and deliberate – misreading of George Orwell in America.

Orwell to the end of his life was a socialist, and not an easygoing one, either. He belonged to the Independent Labour Party, not the trade union socialists of the British Labour Party. He was also a lifelong antifascist.

It must have come as a shock to him when he was embraced by rightwing and fascist-friendly anticommunist zealots in America like Henry Luce and had his late books, “Animal Farm” and “1984,” made into Book-of-the-Month Club mainstream American political fodder.

He hadn't gotten such a warm response from those quarters when he wrote about fighting-- with real bullets – Fascists in Spain in “Homage to Catalonia.” In that book, he excoriated Stalinism, having seen it so close that he had to flee Spain to escape Red hitmen, but in “Homage,” as well as in his wartime propaganda broadcasts for the Ministry of Information, he never let up on his contempt for capitalists, especially capitalist fellowtravelers of fascism.

When I was growing up, “Animal Farm” and “1984” were thought to be appropriate, often required, reading for high school students, but we were not exposed to “Homage to Catalonia” (especially not in vehemently profascist Catholic schools like St. Pius X High School – named after a leading protofascist of the early 20th century); still less to Orwell's searing exposes of capitalist mistreatment of workers that he wrote for the Left Book Club in the '30s, “The Road to Wigan Pier” and “Down and Out in Paris and London.”

In fact, when I decided in the early '70s to read everything Orwell ever wrote – which I did – it was not so easy to find “Wigan Pier” or, especially, “Down and Out.” I had to order them from Blackwell's in Oxford.

His essays and journalism, and especially his long piece about being abused as an out-of-work laborer, “The Spike,” were available in America, if you looked hard enough for them. But I doubt that many American admirers of “Animal Farm” have ever heard of “The Spike.” (“The Spike” would repay reading right now, in the context of the vile criticism being thrown by the rightwingers at the Occupy movement. Staying in once place, even for a night, was illegal for the unemployed in England in the '30s.)

After reading all his novels, essays, reviews, political tracts and wartime propaganda, I turned to his letters. Same story. The Orwell sponsored by American rightwingers was not the real Orwell.

But even Orwell did not fully understand Orwell. He first came to attention with his essay “Shooting an Elephant,” probably the only essay of his that was widely circulated in America. In it, George Orwell the writer told the story of Eric Blair the colonialist policeman in Burma, (they were the same man), who shot a rich man's elephant that was destroying the food stalls of some poor Burmese hawkers.

Orwell/Blair was guilt-ridden, but he need not have been. Not about that, anyway. The British regime in Burma was well-hated, and for good reason, so that when the Imperial Japanese Army arrived in 1942, the Burmese were enthusiastic. The fact was – and still is, as you will see if you pick up your daily newspaper – that except for the short 70 years or so of British administration, poor Burmese had never had, and still do not have, equal standing before the law and justice compared with the privileged classes.

So far as I know, Orwell never rethought “Shooting.” Time was pressing and he was dying of tuberculosis. Toward the end, he regretted that his generation had been so overwhelmed by political events that he had never had the opportunity to fulfill his life's ambition of being a literary novelist. (He did not say but I assume he wanted to be of the type, but not like, of E.M. Forster, whose “Passage to India” had all the subterranean literary gewgaws that “Burmese Days” did not have; for my money, “Burmese Days” is far the better novel.)

In America, Orwell was adopted by liberals as an anticolonialist and by rightwingers as an anticommunist. It would be better to appreciate him for what he was: a democrat who stood up first and last for the little guy.


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