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.
- 1Of 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.
- 2Though 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.