George Orwell is a name everyone learns, at least in the West as far as I know, during school. Animal Farm and 1984 are the two books written by him that we are told to read and write some analysis of. They are both antitotalitarian works, with Animal Farm being based on the Russian Revolution and led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, and 1984 being a scary predictor of surveillance. And that’s about it. That’s all I learned about him in school. Of course, there’s much more, and not all of it is good.
The Twitter hellscape was quick to mob me on that.
What I Knew
Who knew that well known and even venerated public historical figures were human beings and filled with all the complexity and contradictions that entails? Many, like Churchill to use another British example, are quite worthy of derision and criticism. But having looked into the charges against Orwell, his case is a little more nuanced. My knowledge of Orwell since high school has more been a staggered learning, finding out bits and pieces along the way and never really taking the time to look up more. I read the two books, what more do you want?
My next exposure to him was, if I recall, some random interview or lecture by Noam Chomsky who was talking about him in relation to the Spanish Civil War that took place in the 1930’s. From that I found out hey, this Orwell guy wrote more than two books, let’s see what he’s got – so I bought and eventually read Homage to Catalonia. (I also have Burmese Days and The Road to Wigan Pier, maybe another, but haven’t gotten to them yet).
Not only was Orwell some dude who wrote books, but he was a socialist who sympathised with the Spanish anarchists and syndicalists. He said it was them who made him realise socialism was possible and could work. The anarchists ended up being suppressed by the USSR-backed Republic, a move that Orwell denounced and was shocked the British press back home was also supporting. The British, while seeing fascism as a potential barrier to communist influence from the Soviet Union, was more than happy to assist them – or at least stand aside – when examples of genuine socialism were trying to flourish.
So for quite some time, this was the extent of my knowledge. Socialist, against totalitarianism (whether it was Soviet “communism”, German fascism, or the very real possibility of British totalitarianism which he detailed in 1984 based on the first two), and sympathised with the anarchists in Spain while fighting fascists there. What’s not to love – unless you’re a communist who deifies the likes of Lenin and Stalin, of course. People told me “to read just one book on Soviet history” or the Revolution. Maybe I haven’t religiously read every sympathetic account and dived into Twitter bubbles collectively praising dictators, but my opinion of Lenin and the Bolsheviks is because I’ve read enough of the history.
Back to Orwell. This is where some of the, still dismissive or even abusive, responses were somewhat helpful in highlighting some flaws I was unaware of. It’s almost like educating people on blind spots in their knowledge (that is, actual blind spots, not seething when people say maybe the Soviet Union was authoritarian and therefore bad) can be a productive exercise and attacking people for not knowing as much as you is not.
I deleted the tweet because I easily had over 100 notifications and growing, and I honestly couldn’t care what every mad Twitter profile had to say. I did take the time to look into the worthwhile stuff, however, and agree with most of. For instance, Orwell was homophobic – unsurprising given it was Britain in the 1900’s, but obviously not good and also obviously something I disagree with. It is weird that people took my support of Orwell in specific instances as support of his homophobia, an absurd assumption to make of an anarchist.
I’ve argued with religious people over LGBT+ topics – including some from when I went to church who cut contact with me over it – and tried to educate friends who have discussed it with me, where I give what information I can and defer to voices actually from that community. As a contemporary to Orwell, when I learned about the story of Alan Turing watching The Imitation Game with my friends, I broke down in the cinema at the end. I am quite aware, and am extremely angered by, historic attitudes towards LGBT+ people. Orwell is no exception.
Anti-Semitism and Hitler
Next was the charge of being anti-Semitic – again, something that Orwell indeed was. This was an interesting case, because from what I read, he was very aware of his prejudice and almost seemed dismayed he couldn’t overcome it. That obviously does not excuse it, and it also seemed to seep into some of his writing as well, including the self-awareness where a man called Goldstein was the mysterious “enemy” figure in 1984, highlighting anti-Semitic conspiracies as a cornerstone of totalitarian propaganda. Again, goes without saying I denounce that as well.
As an aside, someone did try to make it seem as though Orwell supported Hitler by quoting what seemed to be sympathy for the fascist dictator. Looking into it, Orwell wrote a review of Mein Kampf in which he describes the self-portrait Hitler tries to display:
“He is the martyr, the victim, Prometheus chained to the rock, the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds.”
That is the quote sent to me, which is missing the preceding context:
“It is a pathetic, dog-like face, the face of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs. In a rather more manly way it reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ crucified, and there is little doubt that that is how Hitler sees himself.”
My reading of that is Orwell is clearly ridiculing how “pathetic” and self-aggrandising the man was, while also recognising that his rhetoric obviously had immense appeal to the population. It’s not support, just fact, to say Hitler was extremely popular – in the same way Trump is today. Wretched figures with horrifying effects on their countries and surrounds, yet they garnered incredibly loyal followers. Given Orwell’s opposition to totalitarianism and his own service fighting against fascism, it seems very unfair to paint him as a Nazi fan.
The most interesting and shocking charge was that Orwell was a “snitch”, a “fucking rat” that sold out communists to the government. And it is true – Orwell had a detailed list of people he knew or believed either associated or sympathised with the communists and the Soviet Union that he handed over to an arm of the British Foreign Office known as the Information Research Department (IRD). This is all kinds of things, ironic, tragic, and contradictory being three major adjectives I would use to describe it.
Ironic because he willingly went along with a Big Brother style line of work collating and handing over information about suspected communists to the British government. For a man who had the term Orwellian named after him being synonymous with the surveillance State, he played his own part in contributing to that. The contradiction is two-fold. Not only was he opposed to the totalitarian tendencies of the Soviet Union, hence starting his list, but he clearly recognised that the British government was not only susceptible to, but actively taking part in similar practices. Why, then, would he agree to be a part of this effort?
I imagine most of it was due to his deep mistrust and opposition to the Soviet Union, which on its own is a perfectly reasonable position, and some have theorised his rather one-sided relations with Celia Kirwan also tugged at him to take on this contradictory role within the IRD. For me, this is a case where the reasoning – opposing the Soviet Union – is fine, but the aims and methods absolutely weren’t. If he had kept the list private that may have been an intriguing footnote, but he shared that information with the IRD.
It appears his negative opinion of the Soviet Union took precedent over his own views of homegrown surveillance and totalitarianism. For me this isn’t a “you’re either on this side or that side” – both, to different extents, are bad. Orwell was right to criticise the Soviet Union, as he did in Animal Farm and elsewhere, but he absolutely should not have worked with the IRD in their efforts to spread anti-communist propaganda and monitor suspect individuals.
A slight distinction should be made between the UK and the US in this regard too. In the US, anti-communist fervour, the McCarthyism and Red Scare that took over the country, had serious effects on US labour and civil rights movements, much of which continues up to today. The article linked above tentatively concluded that Orwell’s list did not result in any such negative outcomes for individuals, pending further investigation. That he collaborated with a Foreign Office department at all, however, is disgraceful, and not something I condone.
Another distinction worth noting is that the use of works such as 1984 and Animal Farm as propaganda by the UK and the US, particularly the CIA, is not the fault of Orwell. Both of those works are brilliant and have context. That this is abused by government agencies in the West for their own political purposes – purposes entirely at odds with Orwell’s own socialist views – shouldn’t be surprising, that’s just typical tactics.
Whether it was the CIA at the beginnings of the Cold War or the modern education system, the history and context of those works are left out and leave readers and students – and a great many Marxist-Leninist and Stalinists, it seems – with a wildly inaccurate portrayal. Ironically, the communists hate him for the same reason the modern neocons like Ben Shapiro or PragerU love him – he’s anti-communist. It’s funny, because the USSR, as Orwell points out, was not actually socialist – it was a dictatorship. Sure, the Soviet regime may have improved the living standards of much of its population (just don’t be gay or Ukrainian I guess), but that’s not difficult to do when you succeed the Tsarist regime, and it did very little for the freedoms of the people and workers they ostensibly support. That is kind of the whole purpose of socialism.
George Orwell is certainly a fascinating person – far more so than the simple, mild butchering of him the education system portrayed, and clearly not the “saint” previous posts or tweets I’ve written about him may have portrayed either. I certainly still stand by my previous stances of him regarding the Soviet Union, the value of Animal Farm and 1984, and his role and commentary in the Spanish Civil War. But now, as with many things one learns in the endless and joyous experience of learning, I can attach nuance to my critiques and praise.
Homophobia, anti-Semitism, what seemed to be a borderline (if not actually) creepy approach to his relationships in the aftermath of illness and the death of his first wife, and his role in assisting the IRD’s collection of information about suspected communists are all things worthy of condemnation and recollection when discussing him. It is not wrong to cite the good work and positions he did and had, but it would be dishonest in a holistic overview of the man to neglect reference to his flaws.
As usual, Twitter showcases itself as a hellscape where discourse is not only impossible, but where intellectual and ideological gatekeeping is rampant and abusive. I’m personally indifferent to it all – one can simply ignore or delete the source, and I don’t care how people (particularly “authoritarian communists”) perceive me. But hey, at least I got some useful information out of the following mini research binge and expanded my own understanding.
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