The Orwell quotes right-wingers never mention

George Orwell. Photograph from Vernon Richards' 'George Orwell at Home'.

If you’ve ever expressed a political view to the left of Tony Blair, chances are you’ve been met with a response along the lines of: ‘Haven’t you ever read any Orwell?’ The irony of this statement is usually in how little Orwell that person has actually read.

Scratching the surface a little, it’s pretty much always limited to some combination of the following:

  • Something from Animal Farm i.e. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” or similar
  • Some catchphrases from Nineteen Eighty-Four i.e. “Thought Police”, “Thoughtcrime”, “Big Brother” or similar
  • A general idea they remember from school that those books were against the Soviet Union and, therefore, all socialism ever

This obvious flaw here is that Orwell was, in fact, a socialist himself1, who took part in a literal revolution as part of a Marxist militia (the POUM, whose name translates to ‘Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification’).

So in the hope that the ‘read some Orwell’ crowd might shut up with their half-baked anti-socialism they absorbed at school without giving it a second thought, here are some Orwell quotes they never mention. Maybe they might even end up actually reading some Orwell as well!

1. Orwell did not write Animal Farm to be anti-socialist or anti-revolution

Writing to his friend, the American writer and critic, Dwight Macdonald, Orwell explained:

Of course I intended it primarily as a satire on the Russian revolution. … I meant the moral to be that revolutions only effect a radical improvement when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job. The turning-point of the story was supposed to be when the pigs kept the milk and apples for themselves (Kronstadt). If the other animals had had the sense to put their foot down then, it would have been all right. If people think I am defending the status quo, that is, I think, because they have grown pessimistic and assume that there is no alternative except dictatorship or laissez-faire capitalism.

2. Orwell actually took part in a revolution

As mentioned above, contrary to his supposed anti-socialism, Orwell actually took part in the revolutionary events which accompanied the Spanish Civil War, writing about it in his excellent book, Homage to Catalonia. In chapter one, he describes his experiences of Barcelona under workers’ control:

Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties … All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.

However, though fighting with the Marxist POUM, he never formally joined the party itself. He did, however, express sympathy for the anarchists, explaining (in chapter nine) that he only decided not to join as a result of his desire to go to the Madrid front:

As far as my purely personal preferences went I would have liked to join the Anarchists. If one became a member of the CNT it was possible to enter the FAI militia, but I was told that the FAI were likelier to send me to Teruel than to Madrid. If I wanted to go to Madrid I must join the International Column, which meant getting a recommendation from a member of the Communist Party.

In chapter ten of Homage to Catalonia, Orwell also declares himself very much as ACAB:

I have no particular love for the idealized ‘worker’ as he appears in the bourgeois Communist’s mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.

Orwell’s experience in Spain would stay with him for all his life, as he wrote in ‘Why I Write’, published in 1946 (i.e. after Animal Farm and just before he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four):

The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.

3. Orwell didn’t believe centrism could defeat fascism

While we might not agree with all of Orwell’s politics, it’s just indisputable that he believed in some form of socialism (even if his precise definition may be up for discussion) and that it was through socialism that fascism could be defeated. In chapter five of Homage to Catalonia he explains how Franco’s fascist forces were initially beaten:

by a huge effort, mainly of the working class, aided by some of the armed forces (Assault Guards, etc.) who had remained loyal. It was the kind of effort that could probably only be made by people who were fighting with a revolutionary intention — i.e. believed that they were fighting for something better than the status quo.

Orwell follows a similar line of argument2 again in his 1941 essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’:

We cannot win the war without introducing Socialism, nor establish Socialism without winning the war.

And, in case the point needed clarifying:

The difference between Socialism and capitalism is not primarily a difference of technique. One cannot simply change from one system to the other as one might install a new piece of machinery in a factory, and then carry on as before, with the same people in positions of control. Obviously there is also needed a complete shift of power. New blood, new men, new ideas – in the true sense of the word, a revolution.

4. Orwell believed in killing fascists

When arguing that modern-day fascists should be met with physical force, the response is often something along the lines of ‘who gets to decide who’s a fascist?’, pulling out a line from Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’:

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable”.

The implication being that anti-fascists just call anyone they don’t like ‘fascists’ and, by extension, that the people being called ‘fascists’ are actually ‘patriots’ who believe in ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ who don’t deserve physical opposition.

Conveniently, these people don’t mention the next sentence which reads: “The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another” and that “Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way.” The point, part of a section titled ‘Meaningless Words’, is that political buzzwords are used to conceal real meanings.

One example Orwell gives: “Marshal Pétain was a true patriot”. Marshal Pétain was a Nazi collaborator who led German-occupied France during World War Two. Orwell’s point is therefore as much that fascists like to conceal themselves behind words like ‘patriot’ as it is that the word ‘fascist’ is sometimes misused.

Interestingly, while these types like to pull out the ‘fascism has no meaning’ quote, they rarely mention the following one from chapter five of Homage to Catalonia:

When I joined the militia I had promised myself to kill one Fascist — after all, if each of us killed one they would soon be extinct

5. For Orwell, there was no such thing as a right-wing intellectual

A fun one to remind those Jordan Peterson sycophants and other perusers of the so-called ‘intellectual dark web’ is a statement from Orwell which only seems to get truer with time:

It should be noted that there is now no intelligentsia that is not in some sense “Left”. Perhaps the last right-wing intellectual was TE Lawrence.

TE Lawrence (aka ‘Lawrence of Arabia’) died in 1935.

  • 1. Of course, the kind of socialist Orwell was fluctuated over time: from revolutionary with anarchist leanings to left-wing social democrat. These complications are also compounded by his inexcusable decision to pass on names of Communist Party members and sympathisers to British intelligence, often put down to some combination of anti-Stalinism, wanting to help the Labour government and not being of entirely sound mind as a result of the tuberculosis which killed him a few months later.
  • 2. Though by now his idea of a break with the status quo had changed significantly from the possibilities he saw in revolutionary Catalonia towards a far-left social democracy/democratic socialism.

Posted By

Ed
Jan 9 2019 21:40

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  • When I joined the militia I had promised myself to kill one Fascist — after all, if each of us killed one they would soon be extinct

    George Orwell

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Comments

zugzwang
Jan 9 2019 22:46

I did a blog thing about this a while back myself (of probably not the best quality/research). It's always strange to me when right-wingers invoke Orwell and his works to lend support to their views, especially when he plainly called himself a democratic socialist (for whatever that's worth) in "Why I Write," as you point out. Nice to see articles/blogs addressing this, to put right-wingers in their place when they try bringing him up.

There's also this passage from Homage to Catalonia which effectively dispels any idea Orwell was "anti-Socialist/Communist".

Quote:
I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality. In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy ‘proving’ that Socialism means no more than a planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the ‘mystique’ of ‘Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all. And it was here that those few months in the militia were valuable to me. For the Spanish militias, while they lasted, were a sort of microcosm of a classless society. In that community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no boot-licking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like. And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me. The effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before. Partly, perhaps, this was due to the good luck of being among Spaniards, who, with their innate decency and their ever-present Anarchist tinge, would make even the opening stages of Socialism tolerable if they had the chance.
MrSickNoodle
Jan 10 2019 08:52

I love this. I'm always trying to explain to people that Orwell was a socialist and they just spout nonsense about 1984 and cant seem to move past the narrative they were given in highschool.

Ed
Jan 10 2019 09:08
zugzwang wrote:
There's also this passage from Homage to Catalonia which effectively dispels any idea Orwell was "anti-Socialist/Communist".

That's an amazing quote and I should have included it in the original blog post!

In fact, now that I think about it, there are lots of passages in 1984 that are actually more of a critique of capitalism generally rather than Soviet Communism/state capitalism specifically. Might have to do an update with those at some point in which case I might nick your suggestion!

LeninistGirl
Jan 10 2019 09:45

Don't forget the best quotes, like when he called Paul Robeson "anti-white". Very cool, Orwell!

R Totale
Jan 10 2019 11:08

On a related note, has anyone read the new AK book on Orwell, Between the Bullet and the Lie? Sounds good: https://www.akpress.org/between-the-bullet-and-the-lie.html

Also, Looking Back on the Spanish War is a good companion essay to Homage..., and it's annoying that iirc the current Penguin issue doesn't include it: https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/looking-back-on-the-spanish-war/

R Totale
Jan 10 2019 11:10

From Looking Back:

"The backbone of the resistance against Franco was the Spanish working class, especially the urban trade union members. In the long run – it is important to remember that it is only in the long run – the working class remains the most reliable enemy of Fascism, simply because the working class stands to gain most by a decent reconstruction of society. Unlike other classes or categories, it can’t be permanently bribed.

To say this is not to idealize the working class. In the long struggle that has followed the Russian Revolution it is the manual workers who have been defeated, and it is impossible not to feel that it was their own fault. Time after time, in country after country, the organized working-class movements have been crushed by open, illegal violence, and their comrades abroad, linked to them in theoretical solidarity, have simply looked on and done nothing; and underneath this, secret cause of many betrayals, has lain the fact that between white and coloured workers there is not even lip-service to solidarity. Who can believe in the class-conscious international proletariat after the events of the past ten years? To the British working class the massacre of their comrades in Vienna, Berlin, Madrid, or wherever it might be, seemed less interesting and less important than yesterday’s football match. Yet this does not alter the fact that the working class will go on struggling against Fascism after the others have caved in. "

Juan Conatz
Jan 10 2019 14:38

Is Orwell really worth defending though? In the end, he was a typical Cold War-era social democrat who partnered with the security services to inform on Communists. So he indeed was anti-Communist. Lots of people had issues with the Stalinists, not all of them saw the security apparatus of the State as an ally against them though.

Mike Harman
Jan 10 2019 14:45

Kropotkin supported the first world war, this does not necessarily undermine everything he did prior to that. It also does not mean that if someone tried to use Kropotkin to justify the war on Iraq that it would be worth just letting it slide (more or less what happens with Orwell these days).

We should probably host the list on here though, because it is fucking terrible http://www.openculture.com/2015/02/george-orwell-communist-list.html especially the note calling Paul Robeson 'too anti white', after he'd been directly attacked by the far right in the Peekshill riots https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peekskill_riots

Working Class H...
Jan 10 2019 14:50
Juan Conatz wrote:
Is Orwell really worth defending though? In the end, he was a typical Cold War-era social democrat who partnered with the security services to inform on Communists. So he indeed was anti-Communist. Lots of people had issues with the Stalinists, not all of them saw the security apparatus of the State as an ally against them though.

Don't see this blog as defending Orwell, but rather in pointing out how he was no fan of the far right, or the capitalist right, even though in the UK they always cite him in their arguments.

In terms of his informing on Communists, basically what Mike says, this was right at the end of his life, and doesn't invalidate everything he did beforehand. Kropotkin is a good example – and he didn't even have the excuse that he was sick and dying at the time of his supporting World War I, whereas Orwell was dying. And that can mess with your mind. Of course though the list, especially the comment on Robeson, is inexcusable

zugzwang
Jan 13 2019 09:35
R Totale wrote:
On a related note, has anyone read the new AK book on Orwell, Between the Bullet and the Lie? Sounds good: https://www.akpress.org/between-the-bullet-and-the-lie.html

I'd also be curious if anyone's read Woodcock's, anarchist friend of Orwell, biography of Orwell Crystal Spirit. I found this, but it's "borrowed" at the moment so can't read anything. https://archive.org/details/crystalspiritst00wood

R Totale
Jan 13 2019 12:33

This is a good example of how Orwell is misused, and how to challenge it:

"Here is Peterson describing an important political awakening he experienced from reading George Orwell, who he says finally convinced him not to be a socialist:

My college roommate, an insightful cynic, expressed skepticism regarding my ideological beliefs. He told me that the world could not be completely encapsulated within the boundaries of socialist philosophy. I had more or less come to this conclusion on my own, but had not admitted so much in words. Soon afterward, however, I read George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier. This book finally undermined me—not only my socialist ideology, but my faith in ideological stances themselves. In the famous essay concluding that book (written for—and much to the dismay of—the British Left Book Club) Orwell described the great flaw of socialism, and the reason for its frequent failure to attract and maintain democratic power (at least in Britain). Orwell said, essentially, that socialists did not really like the poor. They merely hated the rich. His idea struck home instantly. Socialist ideology served to mask resentment and hatred, bred by failure. Many of the party activists I had encountered were using the ideals of social justice to rationalize their pursuit of personal revenge.

And here is George Orwell, in The Road To Wigan Pier, which Peterson says convinced him that socialism was folly because socialists were resentful:

Please notice that I am arguing for Socialism, not against it. […] The job of the thinking person, therefore, is not to reject Socialism but to make up his mind to humanize it…For the moment, the only possible course of any decent person, however much of a Tory or an anarchist by temperament, is to work for the establishment of Socialism. Nothing else can save us from the misery of the present or the nightmare of the future […] Indeed, from one point of view, Socialism is such elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed it has not established itself already. The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all co-operate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions, seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that nobody could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system. […] To recoil from Socialism because so many socialists are inferior people is as absurd as refusing to travel by train because you dislike the ticket-collector’s face.

Orwell flat-out says that anybody who evaluates the merits of socialist policies by the personal qualities of socialists themselves is an idiot. Peterson concludes that Orwell thought socialist policies was flawed because socialists themselves were bad people. I don’t think there is a way of reading Peterson other than as extremely stupid or extremely dishonest, but one can be charitable and assume he simply didn’t read the book that supposedly gave him his grand revelation about socialism."

redschlog
Jan 17 2019 13:45

“One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England”: Pacifist? Feminist? Sandals? *Fruit juice*? He hates all of us. Then look at his condescending picture of the working class in 1984 and Animal Farm - thoroughly lumpen proles. And it's all very well quoting anything from his left period (basically Spain) but what about his enthusiasm for the Second World War? He coined the word "fascifist" - in his view anyone who wasn't incinerating Hamburg babies was a Nazi sympathiser.

R Totale
Jan 17 2019 18:46

I mean, if we're saying that Orwell is cancelled for having a go at sandal-wearers, then the same goes for every class-struggle anarchist who's ever done a variation on the "leaving the subcultural lifestylist ghetto behind and facing outwards towards the class" bit, it's essentially the same rant.

More broadly, I can understand the point of the original blog, or something like that extract I posted about Peterson, showing why right-wing or centrist arguments that cite Orwell are relying on a misreading of him; I don't really get what the purpose of all this "your fave is problematic" stuff when the target is someone who died before most of us was born - are we supposed to get in a fight with him next time we see him at the bookfair, or to agree that his immortal soul didn't get into the good place, or what?

To me, if someone reads Orwell's arguments for socialism, or his first-hand depiction of worker's power in Barcelona, and comes away being more sympathetic to the case for libertarian communist revolution, then that's a positive thing, but judging from half the comments here it feels like that's getting it wrong, and we're meant to be telling people "OK, if you like Orwell's writing, that means that you should be a statist social democrat at best"?

Juan Conatz
Jan 22 2019 13:45

I would think when engaged in a discussion about Orwell's legacy, which is exactly what you're doing when you're trying to refute right-winger's usage of him, it's fair game to bring up things that are a part of that legacy. I don't understand the point of your comment, R Totale.

R Totale
Jan 22 2019 19:12

I guess we'll have to agree to disagree at this point. I still think that describing someone who fought to defend a revolution against attempts to disarm it, and then went on to publish one of (maybe the single most?) widely-read positive first-hand accounts of a working-class revolution in the 20th century as "a typical Cold War-era social democrat" is about as accurate and useful as referring to Lucy Parsons/Bill Haywood/Elizabeth Gurley Flynn/various other early-20th-c anarchists and syndicalists as "a typical Leninist party-building hack".

Noah Fence
Jan 23 2019 03:24

When I first read Down and Out around five years ago, I was pretty shocked by some of Orwell’s views but whatever he may have been I don’t really give much of a fuck - 1984 is still a wonder to read and I’ll never forget the night around 35 years ago when I read HTC in one sitting, absolutely enthralled with the imagery he painted for me. The fact that I was a barber at the time only enhanced the experience!

161
Jan 25 2019 18:04

If someone's takeaway from Animal Farm is "see! this is why you should never have a revolution!" then they've definitely failed the reading comprehension test