Essays (George Orwell)

Orwell, George. Essays ed. Carey, John. New York: Everyman’s Library, 2002.

Eric Blair, otherwise known as George Orwell, was a victim of his own success.  His two dystopian novels defined the genre for generations to come. Animal Farm is the most important book a student will read in high school.  1984, while nowhere near Animal Farm in terms of perfection, is the final word on dystopian literature.  As a result, when people think of Orwell, they think of those two novels.  They rarely read his essays, which is a shame.  Orwell was a master of English prose and he didn’t flinch from hard topics, willing even to subject his fellow socialists to brutal criticism.  These essays are organized chronologically, beginning in 1928 and ending in 1949.

Several themes emerge from this 1,300 page volume: Hitler, Pacifism, Socialism, and Literature. Regarding Hitler and Socialism, Orwell has strong opinions, but his conclusions might surprise you.

Hitler

Review of Mein Kampf

Orwell explains, no doubt in terms that will be unintelligible to today’s intelligentsia, Hitler’s rise to power. Like all demagogues, Hitler captured the sentiments against the prevailing world order, this one being the decadence of progressive living.  If all one desires is comfort and ease, it’s hard to imagine a world of patriotism and virtue.  As Orwell notes, “The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do” (251).

Pacifism

Orwell, rightly, has nothing but contempt for bourgeois pacifism.  Leaving rhetoric and emotion aside, the position is ultimately incoherent.  Pacifists know they do not really have an answer to the “Hitler problem.”

The pacifist will not resist Hitler. So far, he is consistent.  If he lives in Germany he has a few choices: roll over and probably be arrested, or he can move to an Allied country.  That seems logical.  Here is where the problem is: in order for the pacifist to continue to believe in ideals like democracy, he has to hope that war-like countries can defeat Hitler.  By force.  If killing is a moral wrong, then for the pacifist it must be just as wrong for Churchill as for Hitler. In the following line, Orwell skewers the pacifist on the horns of a dilemma:

“You can let the Nazis rule the world; that is evil; or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil.  Whichever choice you choose you will not come out with clean hands” (389).

Socialism

Orwell’s socialism is simple: abolish private property.  What he never connects, at least I have not seen him connect, is that such an abolition entails the statism he so eloquently condemns elsewhere.  Orwell is quick to assure us, though, that the abolition of private property does not entail a stripping of private possessions (316).  Technically, he is correct but if the State were to do so, it is hard to see on what grounds Orwell would oppose it.

It is actually refreshing to see a Socialist come to grips with the key problem of socialism.  Orwell writes, “The State simply calculates what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them” (316).  I said Orwell wrestles with this problem.  In fact, I do not think he does.  As every serious free market economist has pointed out, “By what criteria does the State know what will be needed?”  Even worse, at what price should these goods be charged?  This question is unanswerable on socialist grounds.

Literature

Politics and the English Language

Orwell’s insights on modern literature pervade this volume and probably deserve their own review.  His most important essay, moreover, is “Politics and the English Language.” He does two things in this piece: exposes garbled prose and shows how that such prose warps reality. The death sentence for any writer is “You sound like a textbook” or “You sound like a sociologist.” Orwell gives you pointers for avoiding this fate.

“Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes” (954).

Modern English prosody prefers catchy phrases than precise words (956ff). Verbs now become phrases. “Noun constructions are preferred to gerunds (‘by examination of’ instead of ‘by examining’)” (958).

A good writer, therefore, follows:
a) avoid pretentious diction

b) avoid meaningless words

c) prefer the concrete over the abstract.

A good writer asks the following questions:

a) What am I trying to say?

b) What words will express it?

c) What image or idiom will make it clear?

d) Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

Orwell suggests, though he understands its limits, the following maxim: use the fewest and shortest words to convey one’s meaning (965). There is a danger to this.  If applied too strictly, the writing loses all elegance and begins to look like an outline in prose form.

Conclusion

Readers of all political and cultural backgrounds should read Orwell.  He serves as a model for clarity in writing and in thinking.  In politics he is brave enough to avoid the party line.  He is a socialist, but socialists come under far worse criticism than nationalists or conservatives. These are the ideas that formed his more famous dystopian novels.

The Road to Wigan Pier (Orwell)

Orwell, George. The Road to Wigan Pier.

Originally planned as a Leftist expose of “capitalist society,” Orwell actually gives us a fine expose of mass-industrial society, whether capitalist or socialist. To whatever degree northern British society was actually capitalist is a question beyond my expertise. Orwell’s remarks, however, show a society essentially at the same level of (non) flourishing as any you would find in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

The real enemy is any impersonal system. This goes beyond mere economics, whether socialist or capitalist. Orwell could not have imagined how advanced technology is today (or maybe he could have). His observations are even more relevant.

Orwell explains the psychology of the working poor, and unlike the rest of world socialism, he actually cares about the poor. Unlike today’s socialists, Orwell believes in work. He believes in a welfare state, to be sure, but for him it was a necessary evil. Man did not want to be on the dole. He wanted to work and would cry to God for work. Today’s socialist, by contrast, believes that welfare is of the very essence of the Good.

The first six chapters or so are grim reading. It is England at its ugliest. The next seven chapters turn into a savage critique of modern “bourgeois socialism.” Think of the Starbucks socialist today. This is Orwell at his literary best. He writes,

“I have known numbers of bourgeois Socialists, I have listened by the hour to their tirades against their own class, and yet never, not even once, have I met one who had picked up proletarian table-manners.”

He made many socialists uncomfortable with his critique of industrialism. Industrialism had long been the Holy Grail of world communism. The problem, though, is that increases in technology seemed to make work, and by extension man, unnecessary. The more advanced the technology, the less needed for man’s muscle and skill. As a result, anyone who wants to learn a skill will be perceived as anachronistic.

Orwell also saw the connection between poverty and bad diets. Why do most people below the poverty line choose to gorge themselves on junk food, when healthy food is often cheaper? He notes,

“Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food.

Conclusion

One of socialism’s PR problems was reversed expectations. The early socialist believed that the working man would want to make his working condition better. What actually happened, at least in America, is that the working man became patriotic, largely religious, and violently anti-communist. Socialism was relegated to university professors and social media activists.

Homage to Catalonia (Orwell)

Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia.

I enjoyed this book more than I expected. I hate communism with all of my heart. I am not sympathetic to the republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine any way Orwell could have better written one of his books. Every word and sentence is perfectly crafted. What surprised me the most is that Franco wasn’t the real enemy. The background in which we find every war was the real danger: Heat. Cold. Lack of supplies. Friendly fire. Disease. To top it off, the book ends, not with Franco’s crushing victory, as would happen a few months later, but with the Communists and republicans purging the ranks. It ended with betrayal, though Orwell should have seen it coming, since the essence of communist leadership is to kill anyone who might have helped some years earlier. This book defined Orwell’s later political outlook and is key to understanding his later fiction works. Orwell was a socialist, to be sure, but he was primarily an anti-Stalinist.

Orwell fought as a militiaman in the Workers’ Party for Marxist Unification (POUM). This was only one of the Marxist and anarchist fronts fighting Franco. He notes how the militia did most of the fighting while the Army trained away from danger. The biggest problem from the POUM, as for most of Republican Spain, was the lack of decent supplies and weapons. If they got a rifle–if–it would have been an old German rifle predating WWI. Revolvers were needed for trench fighting and were almost impossible to come by. The first casualty Orwell saw was not from a Fascist bullet, but from a rifle misfiring (if it fired at all). He notes,

“In trench warfare five things are important: firewood, food, tobacco, candles, and the enemy. In winter on the Zaragoza front they were important in that order, with the enemy a bad last.”

Truth be told, the Marxist factions never had much of a chance. Part of this was due to the nature of Marxist ideology. If we are all equal and if we are all “comrades,” then how can I as a senior officer command you to do something? I’m being serious. Orwell notes how ideological soldiers spent five minutes arguing with their superior officer. Communist militaries, to be sure, can be quite successful. They have to have what Trotsky called “The Necessity of Red Terror.” Of course, that further aggravates the problem of just how we can be equal in a communist society.

The book ends with betrayal. Various militia groups were accused of collaborating with Fascists or Trotskyites. Orwell and his wife (why would you bring your wife into the middle of a foreign civil war?!?) barely escaped.

As in all of Orwell’s works, it is filled with savage irony. We will look at a few quotes:

“The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think worth describing in detail.”

“Philosophically, Communism and Anarchism are poles apart. Practically—i.e. in the form of society aimed at—the difference is mainly one of emphasis, but it is quite irreconcilable. The Communist’s emphasis is always on centralism and efficiency, the Anarchist’s on liberty and equality.”

“The Spaniards are good at many things, but not at making war. All foreigners are alike appalled by their inefficiency, above all their maddening unpunctuality. The one word that no foreigner can avoid learning is mañana.”

“No one I met at this time — doctors, nurses, practicantes, or fellow-patients– failed to assure me that a man who is hit through the neck and survives it is the luckiest creature alive. I could not help thinking that it would be even luckier not to be hit at all.”

“Fortunately this was Spain and not Germany. The Spanish secret police had some of the spirit of the Gestapo, but not much of its Competence.”

The Strange Case of Tory Anarchism

Wilkin, Peter.  The Strange Case of Tory Anarchism. Faringdon, Oxfordshire: Libri Publishing, 2010.

What relevance does a niche subculture from 20th century Britain have for Americans today?  Sociologists have pointed to the phenomenon of “the empty self,” the reduction of happiness to my own personal feelings.  A corollary is a mindless conformism to consumerist society.  The Tory anarchists, by contrast, show how one can resist such mindless conformism. 

Summary statement: The Tory Anarchist is the “Young Fogey.” As Wilkin notes, “To be a Tory anarchist is to share a conservative moral and cultural critique of the modern world, rather than a right-wing political ideology” (Wilkin 12).  This allows Wilkin to label a socialist like George Orwell as a “Tory.” If I may translate into American lingo, a right-wing conservative simply wants to “own the libs” or get the next interventionist Republican into office.  A Tory, by contrast, wants to preserve a nation’s cultural practices.

The more I think about it, a Tory anarchist is basically a hipster who has style and class and is usually quite favorable to religion. With hipsters they protest bourgeois culture, but they probably wouldn’t join the Democratic Socialists, nor would they approve of the soycialist attack on religion. As Evelyn Waugh notes, “The disillusioned Marxist becomes a fascist; the disillusioned anarchist, a Christian” (Brideshead Benighted: 206).

A Tory disbelieves in revolutions because what will come next will usually be worse.  A Tory anarchist strongly disapproves of all politicians. Tory anarchism is not a political ideology or program.  It is a set of social practices.  It will come as no surprise that a Tory is a traditionalist.  He takes it a step further:  he believes in classes in society. Their opposition to things like the welfare state is merely to oppose the encroaching power of the state.  Otherwise, they are quite comfortable with “safety nets” on the market.

A Tory anarchist take on the market is a bit more complex.  They see market forces as reducing man to a philistine culture.  Nonetheless, most Tories, Orwell excluded, make peace with capitalism as it is the least of all evils.

Tories have championed both high and low culture.  There is a unifying theme, though.  Both Waugh and Orwell agree that culture cannot be reduced to mere preference.  Beauty is objective, even if pretty is not.

The Tory, like the real conservative, prioritizes the local over universal theorising (29).  This means that neo-con nation-building was never conservative.  The anarchist label is a bit more troubling, as anarchism not only protests the existence of the state, but that of class distinctions as well.  Tory anarchism, if such there be, remains a rebellion within limits, rather than without, and often possesses a reactionary cultural perspective” (33).

The Tools of the Tory Satirist

Tory satire embodies silliness, empiricism, irony, and the surreal (49).  Silliness simply exaggerates the manners of a certain class.  The best example is Monty Python. Empiricism is a bit more challenging, as empiricists were basically skeptical of authority and religion.  For the Tories, however, empiricism was a style of writing that aimed to be clear and precise (59).  So far, that is good.  I do think there is a contradiction in the project at this point: Tory anarchists, at least on this reading, want to be both surreal and empirical/clear.  I maintain you can’t be both, since that is more or less the point of surrealism.  Dream-like writing and thinking is by necessity ephemeral.  It avoids clarity.

Wilkin’s examination of the Empire and Tory is particularly good.  The British Empire was neither all bad or all good.  Rather, it embodied contradictions that revealed the best of British culture, although usually at the expense of other cultures.  There is an even more pointed contradiction. Tory anarchists embodied the real Britain, the local Britain at home.  Empire, however, is always an amalgamation of various cultures.

Although most Tory anarchists would gladly see the demise of the Empire, they realized that its replacement, the Nanny State, is just as malignant to human liberty and flourishing.  Instead of a traditional class at the top, society would now be ruled by elite “experts.”  

The expert class came as a result of global capitalism.  It’s not that capitalism per se is the enemy for Wilkin; rather, “the state tried to take the risk out of capitalism by shifting the burden of research and investment costs onto the general population–in effect, the socialization of risk” (146).

Orwell was the most interesting.  On the surface he appeared a man of contradictions.  He was a socialist who warned against Soviet intrusion in the West.  Moreover, he seemed to support the British monarchy.  Most startingly, at the end of his life he gave a list of communist sympathizers to MI6.  I think, rather, that Orwell was more or less consistent in all of this.

For Orwell, the monarchy played a unifying role in national life (As I Please: 1943-1945, 102).  On socialism, for whatever else its faults, Orwell wanted a uniquely British socialism that resisted the threat of Sovietism.  He saw that both Thatcherism and Sovietism reduced man to a faceless blob.

Some sections are savagely funny. While many Tory anarchists revered the military and the crown, they could poke fun at their own stereotypes. See for example:

Commanding Officer: Sorry to drag you away from the fun, old boy. War’s not going very well, you know. War is a psychological thing, Perkins, rather like a game of football. You know how in a game of football ten men often play better than eleven?

Perkins: Yes, sir.

CO: Perkins, we are asking you to be that one man. I want you to lay down your life, Perkins. We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war. Get up in a crate, Perkins, pop over to Bremen, take a shufti, don’t come back.

Goodbye, Perkins., I wish I was going too.

Perkins: Goodbye, sir – or is it – au revoir?,’

CO: No, Perkins.

List of Tory anarchists:

Evelyn Waugh

George Orwell

Peter Cook

Michael Wharton

Auberon Waugh

Richard Ingrams

Chris Morris

Spike Milligan

Alistair Sim

The Chap magazine.

Criticisms:

The printing is somewhat odd.  The first chapter begins in verso, or on the left-hand side of the page.  Also, the book repeats itself.  Many times we are told that Tory anarchism is “a form of English nonconformism.”

Notwithstanding, the book is a fascinating exploration into 20th century British culture.