Reclaiming Orwell?

A new article in Jacobin by Scott Poole argues that we need to reclaim “Comrade Orwell” from conservatives who invoke his two most famous works, 1984 and Animal Farm, when speaking of the dangers of socialism.

Orwell (third from right) in Catalonia, 1937

Orwell’s place on the Left has always been a matter of controversy. As Poole argues, his other works like Homage to Catalonia and The Road to Wigan Pier demonstrate an obvious commitment to socialism (or, as in the case of Homage, to a vaguely-defined anarchism). It is this Orwell, who commonsensically proclaimed that we could do “with a little less talk about capitalist and proletarian and a little more about the robbers and the robbed,” that needs to be upheld as one of the preeminent speakers for the Left in the twentieth century.

I’m not as enthusiastic. Never mind that Orwell’s legacy has suffered in the last ten years thanks to writers like Christopher Hitchens and Nick Cohen, who filtered his ideas into their own arguments for hawkish liberalism. Even more so, I think many of Orwell’s writings reveal him to be less of a modern Leftist, and more a social critic who was the last remnant from the era of Victorian moralism. Behind his appeal to “common sense” and his suspicion of the obscurantism of socialist doctrine, there lay a set of attitudes that were often nationalistic and paternalist.

Orwell was a strong opponent of imperialism. His first novel, Burmese Days, at once humorous satire and tragedy, is a brilliant condemnation of British colonial attitudes. But another work derived from his experience as a police officer in Burma, the short story “Shooting an Elephant”, perpetuates the myth of the colonial experience. There Orwell the individual juxtaposes himself against an amorphous multitude of “sneering yellow faces” and “evil spirited little beasts,” who appear entirely alien to the white European narrator at the center of the story.

Alongside this inability to fully see the native as a moral subject without defining him vis-a-vis the European, Orwell’s anti-imperialism is made even more problematic by his own Englishness. In his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism” he defined patriotism as “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.” For Orwell, patriotism was a virtue, being unlike nationalism in that it was defensive, and therefore lacking the desire for power.

This distinction between nationalism and patriotism is odd to see from a writer who for the last fifteen years  witnessed authoritarian and expansionist regimes effectively blur any line dividing a confidence in one’s way of life and a desire for power. What’s more, the defensiveness of patriotism and devotion to a way of life also often give way to ugly xenophobia, as the plight of migrant workers across the European Union tells us today.

The question of how to reclaim Orwell for the Left necessarily raises the much harder question of what kind of Left do we want? Orwell was a master stylist and an earnest opponent of injustice. But he was also a product of his times, his writing better for understanding the final days of the British Empire than guiding us in the current moment. He was far from a reactionary, but his love for the quaintness of small-town English life, his suspicion of cosmopolitanism, and his insistence on casting socialism in a moralistic framework all read as the work of a man forcefully resisting modernity.

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