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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Update

There hasn’t been much activity on this blog all month, mainly because I’ve been involved in a few things and haven’t had the time to update as frequently as I used to. At the moment my time is being taken up by a couple of unrelated projects.

For one, I’m participating in a reading group of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit at the Brecht Forum. In these weekly sessions we work through one of the most notoriously difficult texts in the history of Western philosophy. The Phenomenology is dense, full of unusual terminology, and probably makes more sense when understood as within the larger context of Hegel’s entire philosophical system. Although the seminar started off a bit slow, with the first two sessions being more general discussions of the emergence of humanism, modern philosophy, and positivism as the attempt of bourgeois society to understand its new place in the world, in the last few classes we have done a fairly close reading of the text and so far it’s been very worthwhile. While this class is meant more as a basic introduction to the book and to Hegel’s philosophy rather than an in-depth analysis, it has provided me with some great insights on his arguments about the nature of knowledge and consciousness as it interacts with the world. In the last session we worked through the famous chapter on the Master/Slave dialectic – a moment in the emergence of self-consciousness wonderfully captured by Hegel. I previously read sections of the book, but now feel like I didn’t really penetrate into the heart of its argument – much less so, for example, than with his Philosophy of History (on which I wrote my senior thesis as an undergrad) or the Philosophy of Right. As a result, I’m working through the book very slowly, reading each paragraph and the commentary by J.N. Findlay (using the standard A.V. Miller translation) and taking notes throughout.

The other thing that I’ve been working on (at a slower pace than I’d like) is a study of George Orwell, the patron saint of some on the modern Left. Today, Orwell has become somewhat of a mythical figure for liberals, socialists, and neoconservatives alike. People admire his frank, no-nonsense style of writing, and his passionate beliefs and willingness to defend the causes he identified with (what he actually identified with, and whether there was any consistency to it, is an entirely different matter). Still, I feel like there’s a case to be made that Orwell’s legacy now entirely overshadows the substance of his work. As I read more and more of his books and essays, I can’t help but feel that I’m reading the thoughts of an insightful but ultimately confused man. While I think Orwell was more of a literary master than he gets credit for, I’m less impressed with his opinions on the politics of his time, which too often give off the impression of an impatient man too intent on taking things “as they really were” and therefore reluctant to think deeply about the political problems he witnessed during the most tumultuous decades of the past century. The strain of conservatism in his opinions (his diatribes against homosexuals and “fruit juice drinking” socialists, his unwillingness to see patriotism as related to the nationalism he criticized, and his blatantly racist colonial writings) can certainly be attributed to a man being a product of his times; but I think not entirely. The fact that those on the interventionist liberal “Left” (Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen, etc) have spent the last decade admiring him as an anti-fascist crusader and a paragon of what real socialism should be makes a reevaluation of Orwell an important task. I don’t know yet what form this project will take; at the moment I have written excerpts on Orwell’s colonial experience, his views on nationalism and patriotism, and his influence on modern liberal hawks. However, a single overarching argument is still not entirely formed.

Stay tuned.