Hope Lies in the Proles
George Orwell and the Left
London: Pluto Press, 2018
Paperback. vi+186 p. ISBN 978-0745399287. £16.99
Reviewed by Peter Stansky
This is an intelligent and perceptive discussion of George Orwell’s intense and at times somewhat paradoxical relationship with the Left. Orwell is such a skillful and forceful writer who enunciates his views with such conviction that they seem to be established for all time. But yet, as John Newsinger effectively demonstrates, he not infrequently changes his mind and has a different but generally equally insightful view on a political situation. He evolved into a figure of the Left at a slower pace than one might think. He had profound doubts about British imperialism when he returned on leave in 1927 from being a police officer in Burma. But it is an exaggeration, I believe, as some have said that he went “down and out” in order to expiate his guilt about being an imperialist. He was more in search of material to write about.
For what this book is about the sub-title of this study seems to me is much more accurate than its title. I agree completely with the author that Orwell is absolutely in favor of a democratic socialist society. At the same time he was profoundly pessimistic that it could ever come about on a permanent basis. The great tragic lessons of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are that unless leaders are continually replaced their lust for power and control destroys the socialist state and transforms it into a totalitarian society. In this study there is comparatively little attention paid to the question whether or not Orwell really did have his hope placed in the proles. They are unable to prevent the dominance of the pigs in Animal Farm. He would seem to idealize the proles in Nineteen Eighty-Four. “Out of those mighty loins a race of conscious beings must one day come”—those who would one day create a better state. But did Orwell think that would really happen? John Newsinger thinks he does. I am not so sure. It seems to question that assumption that the moment after the expression of this hope Winston and Julia are arrested in their love nest. He had discovered the antique shop where he rented a room just after walking through a poor part of London where he ruminated, after pointing out how the proles were tricked and beguiled by the state Lottery that “if there was hope, it lay in the proles. You had to cling on to that.” But it is certainly not borne out by the novel and it seems to me very doubtful that Orwell believed it himself.
But he did believe that there could be a better society and this book pursues that line in Orwell’s thinking. He sees the need for it when he visits the north of England in The Road to Wigan Pier and then he senses that it is possible when he experiences Barcelona being taken over by the working class in the early days of the Spanish Civil War. That is so powerful that he abandons his original intention to report on the war. This is a world that he must fight for. The communists betray this new world, leading to his accurate belief that the communists are the enemy of a true social revolution. When the war breaks out he eloquently enunciates in The Lion and the Unicorn that Britain only will win if a new socialist society is created, by a bloody revolution if necessary. He later admitted that he was wrong. If anything, the discussion here seems to suggest that Orwell actually believed that the hope was that the middle class would realize that their interests lie with the workers and that with their support a better socialist state might be created. Even then Orwell doesn’t wish for a total transformation as suggested in his famous remark that the country is a family with the wrong members in control. Newsinger makes clear Orwell’s ambivalences about the Left in Britain. He held varying views of the Labour Party; at times he sees it as enabling capitalism to continue and at others as creating a commendable Welfare state. These are ambivalences that Newsinger himself legitimately shares. He also discusses the vexed question of Orwell’s submitting a black list to the government of those who should not be asked to take part in the verbal fight against the Soviet Union, not that any on the list, with perhaps a few exceptions, were likely to be asked to do so. He correctly condemns Orwell for doing so, but not in an overly vehement way, understanding how it was driven by Orwell’s intense anti-communism. The action does not undercut Orwell’s socialism and his distress that his two famous novels, in the atmosphere of the Cold War, could be taken as arguments against the necessity to strive to create a socialist society despite the likelihood that it was an impossible dream. I think that his friendship with Celia Kirwan, who was at the International Research Department, and his being in the late stages of his fatal illness were more important factors in clouding his judgement than the author allows.
He is also very good on the question of the relevance of Orwell today. It is not fruitful to speculate on what Orwell might have said about the innumerable vexing particular issues that have plagued the world since his death in 1950. On the other hand, reading Orwell in his many varied writings is immensely useful in providing insights and help on how we should think about present-day questions, particularly on how the Left should view, try to understand, and act on what is going on today. I would disagree with the author’s last sentence. “Nothing in Orwell’s writings prepares us for the Trump phenomenon.” On the contrary, the extraordinary upsurge in the sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four is not only explained by the increased power of the surveillance state that has been with us for some time. We now live in a world of “alternative facts” and “fake news.” We are much closer to the world of the Two Minute Hate than we have been in a long time. A dear friend sent me a baseball cap, clearly inspired by Trump, having on it the message: “Make Orwell Fiction Again.”
Cercles © 2018
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.
Please contact us before using any material on this website.