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Comrade and Critic

By: Ron Capshaw
October 18, 2017

rwellian” conjures a draconian regime that oppresses its citizens with surveillance technology, the manipulation of language, and even torture. But it can mean something completely different―the intellectual courage to refuse to surrender one’s critical thinking for a political cause.

The former meaning comes from George Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949); the latter, from Orwell’s own virtues. By criticizing his socialist comrades as vehemently as he did his political opponents, Orwell consistently risked―and often received―ostracism from the Left. Frequently moved by the suffering individuals he encountered as a journalist, Orwell disdained the kind of party loyalty that elevated causes over humans.

The late Christopher Hitchens noted that Orwell, uniquely among British and American leftists in the 1930s, never went through a Stalinist phase. He was also unique in becoming a socialist and fierce critic of the Left at the same time. Orwell's socialism began in 1936, after his exposure to Northern England’s brutal mining conditions. Assigned by the Left Book Club to document miners’ lives, Orwell used statistics and his own experiences with the miners to reveal their vicious exploitation. The resulting book, The Road To Wigan Pier, provided verifiable propaganda about capitalism’s horrors.

But Orwell exceeded his brief. Although Wigan Pier movingly documented the miners’ plight, Orwell horrified the Left Book Club's Stalinist publisher, Victor Gollancz, by including a broadside against socialists. Orwell asked questions that other socialists, fearful of providing ammunition to the enemy, dared not ask. The most pressing question was why socialists lost support throughout the 1930s, despite economic depression and fascism’s rise. The answer, he argued, lay in the sheer unattractiveness of middle-class socialists. Orwell described them as “inhuman types,” composed of “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.”

He illustrated his analysis with personal experience. “[T]wo dreadful-looking old men,” Orwell reported, boarded a bus he was riding:

They were both about sixty, very short, pink, and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in the Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple. Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on top of the bus. The man next to me, a commercial traveler I should say, glanced at me, at them, and back again at me, and murmured “Socialists,” as who should say, “Red Indians.”

The emotional impression middle-class socialists conveyed―the sense that they didn’t “love anybody”―was as unappealing as their appearance. Such socialists were less interested in “justice and liberty,” or helping the individual proletariat, than in expounding abstruse economic theories and defending totalitarian Russia. Orwell faulted these socialists as seeing the working class as simply “pieces” to be moved across a “chess board.”

Orwell, who himself came from the middle class, was determined to approach the working class in a more humane manner. He didn't see the workers as a teeming, manipulable mass, but as individuals suffering under miserable conditions:

At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her—her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever-seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that “It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us,” and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her—understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.

His close friend Richard Rees believed witnessing such moments made Orwell a committed socialist. But it was his observation of, and participation in, the Spanish Civil War that cemented both his socialist beliefs and his anti-Stalinism.

Orwell traveled as a journalist to Spain in December 1936 to cover the conflict between the legally-elected (and Soviet-controlled) Loyalist government and Francisco Franco's Hitler-backed military revolt. He was galvanized into military service for the Loyalists by his exposure, in Catalonia, to the kind of socialism he faulted British middle-class socialists for not promoting:

It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle…every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle…every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized…. All this was queer and moving…. I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.

But it was Orwell's contact with an “illiterate” Italian soldier―whose willingness to “throw away his life for a friend…[typified] the special atmosphere of the time”―that moved him to join the Communist-dominated International Brigades. Thankfully for posterity, he was rejected for being “politically unreliable.” His eventual enlistment in the Marxist―and anti-Stalinist―military unit, the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), gave him a unique vantage point from which to witness, and expose, the hunting down and execution of the ruling Loyalist Party’s critics. The easily-invalidated rationale for the Loyalists’ murders was that the POUM, and other antifascist groups, formed a fascist fifth-column. Orwell actually supported the Loyalist government’s call to delay a communist revolution until the war was won―until he witnessed first-hand the Stalinist put-down of his POUM unit in a behind-the-lines street fight.

Orwell turned his observations of such police state witch hunts into two literary masterpieces, first with his autobiographical Homage To Catalonia (1938), and next as raw material for life under Big Brother. For decades, Homage was the only primary source exposing Stalinist treachery in Spain. As in so much of his writing, Orwell used a lone individual to typify Spain's unjust executions, lamenting the secret police’s murder, by brutal stomach kicks, of Bob Smillie, a sincere anti-fascist. Orwell never forgot Smillie, whose death fueled his anti-communism.

Orwell was literally chased out of Spain by the Stalinists (luckily for him―declassified Soviet documents later revealed he was targeted for arrest and execution), and denounced by western communists, eager to promote the Loyalists’ false history. Experience of this doctored history obsessed him for the rest of his life, and led him to write Nineteen Eighty-Foura powerful account of the degradation party loyalty can impose on an individual. He died in 1950, a year after it was published. To the end, Orwell refused to sacrifice truth for a political cause.