Tuesday, 6 February 2018
Orwell And Irony
It is a persistent source of amusement for me that so many of the people, left and right, who revere Orwell today have not only never really read him, but are also the kind of people he held in utter contempt.
Understanding Orwell is not a simple matter of reading 1984 and Animal Farm. This is really only a way of accessing his literary persona. Orwell was a highly intelligent, emotionally conflicted, and politically and philosophically very complex individual. Unlike so many commentators of his and our time, he sought first hand and active experience of the things in which he took an interest. As a journalist he spent months living with tramps and the Parisian demi-monde, as an activist he literally put skin in the game in the trenches of the Aragon Front, and as a political philosopher and commentator he attracted controversy, hatred, and even government oppression by the simple means of deciding to tell, unflinchingly and completely, the truth as he saw and felt it.
This is revealed more in his essays than anywhere else, and it's typical of the way he was treated in life that his final wish that they be burnt was not honoured. Orwell first and foremost believed in The Revolution. He was intelligent enough to understand that this could come in many forms, but one of the many parts of the great man's memory we gloss over today is the fact that he was cheerfully resigned to the possibility that change might in fact involve the murder of the bourgeoisie and blood in the streets of London. His attitudes to homosexuality (possibly formed during a childhood at Eton, where he was miserable), women, the free market, and race would horrify the intelligentsia and insipid latte socialists of our times. And his bitter hatred for the compound word 'onto' would be simply confusing. But what I really want to zero in on is his attitude to Stalin and Soviet communism in general.
It's hard for us to imagine nowadays, but Joseph Stalin was quite a popular figure in the years just after WWII. Hollywood has re-written history in the popular mind to cast the USA as Europe's white knight, but before this process was complete, it was Stalin's Russia who wore that laurel. Popularly referred to as 'Uncle Joe' (Big Brother, anyone?), Stalin was the darling of a surprisingly broad range of British social classes and affiliations. The 'Soviet Miracle' was often gushed over in leftist circles, and what can only be understood as a deliberate blind eye was turned to the rumours and hints of horrific atrocities that were leaking out of the Eastern Bloc in those early days.
Orwell, being a revolutionary socialist, was surrounded by people eagerly participating in the lionisation of one of history's most appalling mass murderers. As a journalist and veteran of Spain, he knew at first hand what the Soviet regime was actually like, and he frankly and fearlessly spoke out against it. Animal Farm and 1984 were his literary reaction, but it's in his essays and journalism where we see the most direct and unflinching attacks on the Russian state. Of course, the result of this was to alienate him from his natural leftist allies, even while his undiminished enthusiasm for social revolution kept him firmly in the sights of the establishment and the right. One critic describes him as "a permanent political misfit", and this is very apt. But if we think about why that is, I think we get to the core of why Orwell should be the example every one of us tries to follow.
Orwell never made the mistake of conflating political right and left with moral right and wrong. He never once made the mistake of conflating that which was popular with that which was good. Not once in his life did he confuse taking a political position with joining a political tribe. He was guided solely by his conscience, his beliefs, and the gnawing sense that any slavish adherence to any pre-fabricated ideology was simply a louder and more annoying way to reinforce the existing hierarchy - to slot oneself neatly into current power structures and connive at maintaining all their present injustices, immorality, and inequalities. This, more than anything, is what separates him from the obtuse and mindless evils of both his times and ours.