George Orwell - socialist, anarchist or what...?
On George Orwell's political development


Table of contents

1. Introduction
2. Politics
2.1 Fascism
2.2 Socialism stalinism trotskyism
2.3 Anarchism
3. Timetable
4. Orwell's political development
4.1 Burma
4.2 Down and Out in Paris and London
4.3 The Road to Wigan Pier
4.4 Homage to Catalonia
4.5 Orwell and the Independent Labour Party
4.6 Coming up for Air
4.7 Orwell and World War 2
4.8 Animal Farm
4.9 Orwell on the road to Nineteen Eighty-Four
4.10 Nineteen Eighty-Four
5. Conclusion
6. Bibliography
7. Notes


1. Introduction

Published in 1949, Nineteen Eighty-Four is the conclusion of George Orwell’s writing; it was the last book he wrote because of his premature death, and it was the book that most of his writing had been a preparation to. Politically Orwell belonged to the Left, and many Leftists accused him of joining the reactionaries with Nineteen Eighty-Four because the book was so obviously anti-communist. But anti-communism is not necessarily a very precise concept as one can be anti-communist in various ways and for various reasons. This essay looks at Orwell’s political development and attempts to find out who Orwell was as a political being.

Apart from his novels Orwell wrote numerous essays and articles. This essay mainly deals with the novels except for the period 1940-48 during which Orwell exclusively wrote essays and articles (Animal Farm published in 1945 excepted).

The following notation will be used in connection with quoted works by Orwell:

Animal Farm = AF
Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters = CEJL
Coming up for Air = CUA
Down and Out in Paris and London = DOPL
Homage to Catalonia = HTC
Nineteen Eighty-Four  = NEF
The Road to Wigan Pier = RWP


2. Politics

George Orwell’s writing covers a politically very chaotic period. His first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, was published in 1933, only 16 years after the Russian revolution. Till 1949, when Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, the world would see the Spanish Civil War, nazism in Germany and fascism in Italy, stalinism and the Moscow show trials in the USSR, and World War 2.

The following is a brief description of the dominant political ideologies at that time; ideologies to which Orwell took a personal stand, and which constituted the background of his writing.


2.1. Fascism

Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler
Fascism arose in the 1920s and 1930s in Italy and Germany (here under the name nazism) as the countermove of the Right to the political alternative that socialism had become with the Russian Revolution. At the core of the fascist movements were groups whose objective was power and who were anti-parliamentary. Instead of parliamentarism they wanted action; a dictatorship where the active and strong were the leaders, and where the need of the population for an unconditional faith was fulfilled by the state propaganda, which furthermore had the function to ensure the quiet submission of the population.

One of the reasons for the anti-parliamentary position of the fascists was their idea of the nation. The nation was a concept in itself and existed independently of time. The Nation was not the same as the people, and therefore the people could not lead the nation. The Leader, however, could. Fascism presupposed one Leader as the root of the organisation. All others were to be considered his entourage. The Leader myth furthermore contained an element of mysticism, as the Leader was the embodiment of the national idea, and there was no contradiction between Leader and Nation.

The Nation was seen as an organism. Just as the human being has a brain that is in control and limbs that carry out the "orders" of the brain, the Nation had a leadership and various social groups that carried out the orders of this leadership. Parliamentarism was the same as the limbs giving orders to the brain, and the class struggle, which the fascists claimed was a result of parliamentarism, was the limbs fighting each other.


2.2. Socialism - stalinism - trotskyism

Karl Marx                   V. I. Lenin
Socialism is usually defined as "common ownership of the means of production". Broadly speaking the State, representing the entire nation, owns all the means of production, and everybody is "employed" by the State. This does not mean that you have no private possessions such as clothes and furniture, but it means that land, mines, ships, etc. are collective. In the end, the State is the only producer. Contrary to capitalism, it is claimed that socialism can solve the production and consumption problems. Normally, a capitalist economy cannot consume all that it produces. There is always a surplus production going to waste, and there is always unemployment. In a socialist economy these problems allegedly do not exist. The State simply "calculates" which products are needed and then does its best to produce them.

But to define socialism as "common ownership of the means of production" is not sufficiently exhaustive. You also have to add equality of income, political democracy, equal opportunities of education. These are claimed to be the necessary safeguards against the return of a class society. Centralised ownership means nothing unless people have fairly equal living standards and control with the government. The "State" may simply end up meaning a self-elected political party, and an oligarchic form of government with privileges based on power and money may return.

According to the original marxist theory, socialism is just a transitional phase to be replaced by communism, which in many ways is like anarchism, among other things in its statelessness. But when Orwell talked about communism he meant the system that had arisen in the USSR, which could be called state capitalism and stalinism.

In the early 1920s, a new economic policy was adopted in the USSR which led to a partial reintroduction of capitalist production methods, which in turn were under the control of a political organ, the communist party. Since then, the development had, in the opinion of some, led to nothing else than that the State had become the general capitalist; hence the name state capitalism.


Josef Stalin
Stalinism is based on, among other things, a number of writings by Josef Stalin, but any real stalinist theory does not exist. The closest we get is the doctrine of "socialism in one country", with which Stalin in the late 1920s claimed that it was possible to implement socialism in one isolated country alone – as opposed to the teachings of the original marxism. And not even this doctrine can be wholly attributed to Stalin, as V. I. Lenin had toyed with the same idea earlier.

During Stalin’s reign a bureaucracy developed along with a small clique of leaders and a terror regime with persecutions and purgings of all critical elements. This is what is normally meant by stalinism – for Orwell, as well.


Leon Trotsky
Trotskyism refers to Leon Trotsky’s contribution to the marxist theory. Trotsky did not believe that socialism could be implemented in one country alone. Neither did he believe that the revolution came in different phases – e.g. first a bourgeois revolution, then a proletarian one. The proletarian revolution had to be on the political agenda everywhere, also in less developed countries – hence the concept of the permanent revolution. After Trotsky had been driven from the USSR in 1929, trotskyism was founded as a political movement, which among other things was characterised by a sharp criticism of the USSR.


2.3 Anarchism

Pjotr Kropotkin                Mikhail Bakunin
Anarchists may agree on the basic principles of anarchism but no overall theory exists, and there are 7–8 different ideas about how an anarchist society should be organised. With regard to the basic ideas Italian anarchist and writer Errico Malatesta has expressed the goals of anarchism as:

[. . .] the complete destruction of the domination and exploitation of man by man. [Note 1]

English-Canadian anarchist and writer George Woodcock defines anarchism as:

[. . .] a system of social thought, aiming at fundamental changes in the structure of society and particularly – for this is the common element uniting all its forms – at the replacement of the authoritarian state by some form of non-governmental co-operation between free individuals. [Note 2]

The word anarchy comes from the Greek anarchos, meaning "without ruler". Anarchism is against any form of authority no matter at which level it may be found. Anarchists are against the State because the State is the biggest authority in a society. They want people to decide over their own lives. Normally, you hear that not all people are so good that they can control their own lives; therefore they need some administrative body, e.g. a government, to do this for them. To this the anarchist response is that if people are so bad that they have to be governed by others, then how can some people be so good that they can do this? However, anarchists are not against organisation as such; they are only against organisation based on authority, i.e. a hierarchical form of organisation.

Two other concepts mentioned by Woodcock are freedom and the individual. Anarchists demand the freedom of the individual. No one should prevent a person from doing what he wants, as long as he himself does not prevent others from doing what they want.

Although anarchists want a radical change of society, they do not accept just any means. Therefore they have always been in opposition to marxists or authoritarian socialists, who, broadly speaking, believe that the end justifies the means. On the contrary, to anarchists the means define the end. To use force to do away with force, as marxists mean when they talk about the dictatorship of the proletariat, is an impossibility for anarchists, a self-contradiction that cannot be solved.


3. Timetable 

Eric A. Blair is born in India. His father works for the Indian Civil Service.

The Blairs move to England.

Eric Blair is sent to St. Cyprian’s, a private preparatory school.

Blair starts at Eton.

Instead of, as expected, to continue at university Blair joins the Indian Imperial Police in Burma.

Blair leaves Burma.

Blair goes to Paris, where he starts writing articles.

Blair works, among other things, as a dishwasher in Paris.

Blair plays tramp in England. For a period he also works as a private teacher.

Blair starts writing articles for various periodicals. He starts on Burmese Days.

Down and Out in Paris and London
by George Orwell [Note 3] is published in January by Victor Gollancz.

Orwell begins A Clergyman’s Daughter. He works in a bookshop from October. Burmese Days is published in the USA, because no English publisher wants to publish it.

Orwell starts on Keep the Aspidistra Flying. A Clergyman’s Daughter is published by Gollancz in April. Burmese Days is published by Gollancz in June.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying
is published by Gollancz in April. Orwell travels to the North to collect material for The Road to Wigan Pier. He marries Eileen O’Shaughnessy in June, and they go to Spain in December to take part in the civil war on the republican side.

The Road to Wigan Pier
is published by Gollancz in March. Orwell and his wife escape from Spain and are back in England in July. Orwell begins Homage to Catalonia.
is published by Gollancz in March. Orwell and his wife escape from Spain and are back in England in July. Orwell begins Homage to Catalonia.

Homage to Catalonia is published by Secker & Warburg in April. Orwell joins the Independent Labour Party (ILP). He goes to Morocco for health reasons, where he starts on Coming up for Air.

Orwell returns from Morocco in March. Coming up for Air is published by Gollancz in June. In the beginning of WW2 Orwell leaves the ILP.

Orwell begins to write for Tribune, a left-wing weekly.

Orwell writes the first London Letter to the Partisan Review. He begins working for the BBC in August and becomes leader of the broadcasts to India.

During this period, while working full-time for the BBC, he only writes essays and articles. In November 1943, he begins Animal Farm. He quits his job as talks producer with the BBC and starts as literary editor at the Tribune. In December 1943, he writes his first As I Please.

Orwell stops at the Tribune and becomes war correspondent for the Observer. Eileen Blair dies in March. In August Orwell becomes vice-chairman of the Freedom Defence Committee, which will concern itself with violations of civil liberties. Animal Farm is published by Secker & Warburg.

Orwell begins working on Nineteen Eighty-Four and starts writing for the Tribune again.

Orwell is hospitalised with tuberculosis.

Orwell writes a few essays and works on Nineteen Eighty-Four. His tuberculosis gets worse.

In January, Orwell is admitted to a sanatorium. Nineteen Eighty-Four is published by Secker & Warburg in June. He marries Sonia Brownell in October.

Orwell dies in January.


4. Orwell's political development

4.1. Burma

Burma – Orwell last row, third from the left
Contrary to all expectations, Orwell did not continue at university after Eton but joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma in 1922. Already when arriving at Rangoon, he experienced something in the harbour that would be instrumental in changing him. From the ship he saw a coolie being kicked by a white officer. The other passengers applauded this loudly; that was the proper way to handle things like that.

Again Blair was shocked into a new awareness [. . .] shocked not only by the physical brutality to the coolie, so automatically applied, but by the callous reaction of the white onlookers, in its own way as automatic, even from the women, as though the wretched creature were not even human enough to deserve a murmur of sympathy. [. . .] For the first time the literary experience of The People of the Abyss was being translated into life: that people could be treated as though they were things.  [Note 4]

Orwell stayed in Burma for five years, and eventually he had to leave the police. What had happened was that he had had his eyes opened to imperialism and its effect on people. As a policeman he was part of the empire’s apparatus of oppression, and the short story A Hanging tells of Orwell’s disgust by being ruler over life and death, by being able to treat people as things. Orwell had begun sympathising with the oppressed. In Shooting an Elephant he says:

Theoretically – and secretly, of course, I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. [CEJL vol. 1, p. 266]

In The Road to Wigan Pier from 1936 Orwell writes:

In the end I worked out an anarchist theory that all government is evil, that the punishment always does more harm than the crime and that people can be trusted to behave decently if only you will let them alone. [RWP, pp. 128-29]

However, in 1936 he rejects this as sentimental nonsense. He had realised that it would always be necessary to protect peaceful people from violence. In a society where crime pays, a harsh and ruthlessly administered criminal law is necessary; the alternative is Al Capone.

Already here we see a characteristic of Orwell that is to reappear in several of his texts. Many of his political ideas were never thought through properly. An anarchist would claim that Orwell’s theory is a poor one, because he only wants to do away with authorities. Orwell has no constructive ideas about a different social structure where the reasons for crime would be removed or at least reduced.

Having left Burma Orwell felt great guilt that had to be atoned.

I felt that I had got to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man. I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants. [RWP p.130]

Among other things, it was this escape and need for atonement that led Orwell to Paris.


4.2 Down and Out in Paris and London

Having returned from Burma, Orwell went to Paris in 1928, living in a working-class area and working as, among other things, a dishwasher. This was to be the background for Down and Out in Paris and London, which is a book about poverty.

The central theme in the first half of the book, which takes place in Paris, is Orwell’s work as a plongeur, i.e. dishwasher. In the end, this work leads Orwell to ask the question: Why do thousands of people spend their waking hours washing dishes? In an attempt to answer this question Orwell wants to look at the social importance of the life of a plongeur. First of all, Orwell says, a plongeur is the slave of our time.

Not that there is any need to whine over him, for he is better off than many manual workers, but still, he is no freer than if he were bought and sold. His work is servile and without art; he is paid just enough to keep him alive; his only holiday is the sack. [DOPL p. 103-4]

Why does this slavery continue, Orwell asks further. People have a tendency to think that all work has a purpose. Coal mining is hard, but necessary – we need coal. Working in the sewers is unpleasant, but someone has to keep the sewers in order. The same with a plongeur. Some people eat in restaurants, therefore someone else has to wash dishes 80 hours a week. This is civilisation, and there is nothing further to discuss. But is the work of a plongeur necessary for civilisation, Orwell asks. Where is the real need for big hotels and fancy restaurants? There may be a need for hotels, but is it necessary that they have hundreds of people toiling for them? If you assume that the work of a plongeur is more or less useless, you have to ask yourself why someone wants him to continue working. Orwell tries to go beyond the immediate economic causes (which he does not go deeper into) and he concludes that

[. . .] this instinct to perpetuate useless work is, at bottom, simply fear of the mob. The mob (the thought runs) are such low animals that they would be dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them too busy to think. [DOPL p. 108]

This fear of the mob is a superstitious fear, Orwell thinks. It is based on the idea that there is something fundamentally different between rich and poor, as if they were two different races. But actually there is no other difference than income. The average millionaire is just a dishwasher in a new suit. Anyone who has been on equal terms with the poor knows that. The problem is, however, that the intellectual and cultured person, from whom you would expect liberal ideas, never mingles with the poor. The educated person imagines the mob as a horde of people who only want a day’s freedom to plunder his house, burn his books and make him mind a machine or clean toilets.

‘Anything,’ he thinks, ‘any injustice, sooner than let the mob loose.’ He does not see that since there is no difference between the mass of rich and poor, there is no question of setting the mob loose. The mob is in fact loose now, and – in the shape of rich men – is using its power to set up enormous treadmills of boredom, such as ‘smart’ hotels. [DOPL p. 108]

In the end of 1929, Orwell returned to England. Here he spent some time playing tramp, imitating Jack London in The People of the Abyss [Note 5]. He dressed in tattered and dirty clothes and joined the poor. His experiences were turned into the second half of Down and Out in Paris and London.

Orwell tells that his life among tramps and beggars has taught him that they are actually ordinary people. This makes him wonder about society’s attitude towards them. Apparently people seem to think that there is a fundamental difference between beggars and ordinary "working people". Beggars are a different race, outcasts like criminals and prostitutes.

Working men ‘work’, beggars do not ‘work’; they are parasites, worthless in their verynature. It is taken for granted that a beggar does not ‘earn’ his living, as a bricklayer or a literary critic ‘earns’ his. [DOPL p. 154]

But what is work, Orwell asks. A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by doing sums. A beggar works by standing outside in all kinds of weather and getting varicose veins, bronchitis, etc.

It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course – but, then, many reputable trades are quite useless. [DOPL p. 154]

Why are beggars so despised? That is, Orwell thinks, simply because they fail to earn a decent living. Nobody cares whether a work is useful or not, as long as it pays. Money is a standard of measure, and in this respect beggars do not make it. If you could earn 10 pounds a week by begging, it would immediately become a respectable trade.

In the end of Down and Out in Paris and London Orwell wants to say a few words about tramps in general. Before you start to consider the problems in this connection, you have to get rid of some of your prejudices, he says. Tramps are seen as blackguards who would rather die than work or wash themselves, and who only want to beg, drink and steal chickens. But why are there beggars at all? Contrary to the accepted belief, a tramp is not a tramp because he likes it, but because there is a law that forces him to be one. A person without any means of subsistence, unless he gets help from the parish, can only get help from the casual wards, and since he is allowed to stay at a ward for one night only, he is forced to be on the road all the time.

Orwell has a suggestion how to improve the situation of the tramps. The problem, as he sees it, is how to make a bored half-alive vagrant into a human being with self-respect. You could give him work, e.g. by having a small farm at each working house, where the tramps could work and thus keep themselves with food. Of course you must allow them to stay there for more than just one day.

But what has Orwell learnt from being among poor dishwashers and tramps?

Still I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, not expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, not enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning. [DOPL p. 189]

In the book Orwell talks about a lot of things, e.g. the class system and social economy; subjects that with a bit of thinking could show the connection between the social structure and the misery. In that light it is rather strange that Orwell does not think he has learnt more.


4.3. The Road to Wigan Pier

In 1936, the Left Book Club asked Orwell to write something about the economically stricken industrial areas in Northern England. The Left Book Club had been founded in May 1936 by Victor Gollancz, who was the publisher of Orwell’s previous books. The attitude of the book club was anti-fascist and pro-Soviet. What Orwell wrote became The Road to Wigan Pier, and the book was not quite what the editors of the book club had expected.

The book has two sections and only one can be said to have something to do with what Orwell had been asked to write, i.e. a report on the conditions of the miners in Northern England. The other section is to some extent an autobiography in which Orwell describes his background and explains why he is in Northern England. He is there, he says, because he wants to see mass employment at its worst. Also, he wants to experience the most typical part of the English working class. Orwell sees this as an attempt to define his own relationship to socialism and what he means by socialism. This was one of the reasons why Victor Gollancz thought it necessary to pacify the readers of the left Book Club with a preface to the book, because Orwell’s description of socialism is at the same time a sharp criticism of the orthodox Left in Britain.

In his description of socialism Orwell begins by giving a picture of the world he is living in:

We are living in a world in which nobody is free, in which hardly anybody is secure, in which it is almost impossible to be honest and to remain alive. For enormous blocks of the working class the conditions of life are such as I have described in the opening chapters of this book, and there is no chance of those conditions showing any fundamental improvement. [RWP p. 149]

Anyone who thinks about it will, according to Orwell, realise that socialism is the solution to the problems. This is so obvious that Orwell sometimes wonders why socialism has not been implemented yet. The question must therefore be why socialism is on the retreat instead of on the advance. Not only are people not socialists, in certain cases they are even directly hostile towards socialism. Orwell will try to play the devil’s advocate and argue like a person, who is positive towards socialism and who is sensible enough to realise that socialism can work, but who always withdraws whenever socialism is mentioned. (It is obvious that Orwell is also expressing his own views).

First of all, people are not so much against socialism as they are against the socialists. The typical socialist is not, as imagined by the old ladies, a wild-looking worker in dirty trousers and with a hoarse voice. On the contrary, socialists are middle-class people. Furthermore, it is a fact that while they talk about the classless society, middle-class socialists cling to their class status. This is among other things reflected in socialist literature, which is far removed from the working class in language and expression.

You should always remember, Orwell says, that a worker, if he is a real worker, is seldom or never a socialist in the full logically consistent sense. The worker’s idea of socialism is very different from that of the schooled socialist higher in the social hierarchy. To the worker socialism means little more than better wages, shorter working hours and no one to boss you around.

Often, in my opinion, he is a truer Socialist than the orthodox Marxist, because he does remember, what the other so often forgets, that Socialism means justice and common decency. [RWP p. 154]

Regarding the revolution, for many socialists it is not a question of the masses liberating themselves and the socialists joining the movement. To them, the revolution is some reforms that "we", the clever ones, impose on "them", the lower classes. Orwell knows that it is not fair to judge a political theory from its followers. The problem, however, is that most people do (including Orwell himself) and that is why socialism is on the retreat.

There are people who are against socialism for ideological reasons, Orwell continues. They are against socialism, not because "it can’t be done" but precisely because it can be done. You have to realise that socialism is connected to mechanisation. Socialism arose from the industrialisation, and socialism will lead to mechanisation simply because some of its demands are irreconcilable with a more primitive way of life. But no sensible person is happy with the machine. Of course anyone can see that the machine is here to stay, but it is unfortunate that socialism is associated with increased mechanisation, not just as a means but as an end in itself, almost like a religion. It is okay that we let the machine do all the hard and dreary work, but Orwell believes that human beings like to work with something manually. You may call that work or not, but if machines were to do everything, what should people do? Orwell believes that

[t]he sensitive person’s hostility to the machine is in one sense unrealistic, because of the obvious fact that the machine has come to stay. But as an attitude of mind there is a great deal to be said for it. The machine has got to be accepted, but it is probably better to accept it rather as one accepts a drug – that is, grudgingly and suspiciously. [RWP p. 178]

And because the thought normally goes "Socialism – progress – machinery – Russia – tractor – hygiene – machinery – progress", it is usually the same person who is against the machine who is also hostile to socialism.

When you present these arguments to the socialists, Orwell says, you are told that no one really wants to abolish the machine and return to a primitive agrarian society, which would be the equivalent to hard work. Certainly not anyone who has tried hard work. Furthermore, you are met with the old argument that socialism will come anyway, whether people like it or not, because of the comfortable concept of historical necessity. But historical necessity, or rather the belief in it, has not been able to do anything about Hitler, Orwell says.

Fascism in Germany and Italy was the threatening background of Orwell’s analysis. He saw it spread, also in England. It was not necessarily Oswald Mosley and his "pimpled followers", Orwell was thinking of, but the fascist attitude of mind of people who should know better.

If you present Socialism in a bad and misleading light – if you let people imagine that it does not mean much more than pouring European civilization down the sink at the command of Marxist prigs – you risk driving the intellectual into Fascism. You frighten him into a sort of angry defensive attitude in which he simply refuses to listen to the Socialist case. [RWP p. 186]

To fight fascism you have to understand it, which means that you have to admit that it has its positive sides. In practical terms it is nothing but tyranny. But with a bit of thought anyone can see that the average fascist is often a well-meaning person who e.g. is worried about the situation of the unemployed. More importantly, fascism gets its strength from the good and bad sides of conservatism. Anyone who is for tradition and discipline will find fascism attractive. And if you are tired of certain aspects of socialist propaganda, it is very easy to see fascism as the last defence of everything that is good in European civilisation.

We have got to admit that if Fascism is everywhere advancing, this is largely the fault of the Socialists themselves. Partly it is due to the mistaken communist tactic of sabotaging democracy, i.e. sawing off the branch you are sitting on; but still more to the fact that Socialists have, so to speak, presented their case wrong side foremost. They have never made it sufficiently clear that the essential aims of Socialism are justice and liberty. [RWP p. 188]


4.4. Homage to Catalonia

Spain – Orwell, last row, third from the right; Eileen Blair sitting in front of him
The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936, and having finished The Road to Wigan Pier Orwell went to Spain with his wife in December 1936. Orwell wanted to collect material for newspaper articles and perhaps join the fight. Before leaving he had been told that to cross the Spanish frontier he needed papers from a left-wing organisation. Orwell came in contact with the English communist party that did not want to help, because they regarded Orwell as politically unreliable. He therefore contacted the Independent Labour Party [Note 6], which he knew from the magazine Adelphi that followed the line of the ILP. The ILP provided Orwell with introductory letters and this, more than any political sympathies, was the reason why Orwell was attached to the POUM [Note 7].


For quite some time the leaders of the Second Republic [Note 8] had ignored the signs that a military insurrection was underway, and they had refused to issue weapons to the population. Therefore the republicans were completely unprepared when the rebellion broke out. During the first months it was not the government but the people who offered resistance to the insurrectionist forces of General Franco. Trade unions had immediately answered the rising by calling a general strike, and after weapons had been issued militias were formed. As a continuation of the fight against Franco a new political structure had spontaneously sprung up with an abundance of committees and workers’ councils that took over the organisation of the various areas of society. In this way the fight against Franco developed into a revolutionary mass movement with collectivisation of agriculture and industry. Catalonia in the north-east of Spain was the province that to the greatest extent carried out the social revolution, which among other things could be attributed to the fact that Catalonia with the city of Barcelona, its capital, was the stronghold of the CNT-FAI [Note 9]. During the first months of the Civil War, the anarchists controlled Catalonia, and that was why Orwell, when he arrived in Barcelona, experienced anarchist conditions; conditions that for the most part attracted him.

It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or the red and black flag of the Anarchists; [. . .] Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. [HTC p. 8]

There was much in it 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. [HTC p. 9]

Orwell knew nothing, however, about the political side of the war and was not particularly interested either. He had come to Spain to fight against fascism and for common decency.

Orwell went to the front in a POUM militia [Note 10]. For the most part the POUM militias consisted of CNT people, but there were also quite a few from the UGT [Note 11], In theory, perfect equality existed in the militias and in practice this was also so in most cases. To Orwell it was a prelude to socialism.

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. [HTC p. 102]

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. [HTC p. 103]

After about three months at the front Orwell returned to Barcelona. The city was much changed from the last time he was there; the revolutionary atmosphere had gone.

No doubt to anyone who had been there in August, when the blood was scarcely dry in the streets and the militia was quartered in the smart hotels, Barcelona in December would have seemed bourgeois; to me, fresh from England, it was liker to a workers’ city than anything I had conceived possible. Now the tide had rolled back. Once again it was an ordinary city, a little pinched and chipped by war, but with no outward sign of working-class predominance. [HTC p. 103]

Already in late 1936 the revolution had begun to swing to the right. At that time, the USSR began supplying arms to the government troops. Along with Mexico the USSR was the only country that helped the republicans, which made it possible for the USSR to dictate the development, The Soviet foreign policy at that time was determined by the fear of fascism in Europe. Therefore the country wanted to ally itself with especially France and England. For Spain it meant that in order to receive arms from the USSR they must keep within the bourgeois-democratic lines and not make any revolution. Thus a division arose among the republicans. The PCE-PSUC [Note 12] talked about defending democracy and about winning the war against Franco first and then carrying out the revolution. The POUM said that the revolution and the war were inseparable. You could not fight fascism in the name of bourgeois democracy, because bourgeois democracy was just another form of capitalism, like fascism. The CNT-FAI were of the same opinion.

In May 1937, Orwell says, the situation in Barcelona had reached a point where something violent had to happen. The immediate cause of the unrest was that the government had ordered all privately held arms handed in. At the same time it was decided to set up a heavily armed "unpolitical" police force from which trade unions would be excluded. Also there was an increasing antagonism among people because of the greater and greater difference between rich and poor along with a feeling that the revolution had been sabotaged. On May 3, the government decided to take over the telephone exchange, which since the beginning of the war had been controlled by the CNT. Trucks with armed civil guards were sent to the central. At the same time other groups of Civil Guards had taken over various strategic buildings in the city. The population thought that this was the signal to a major attack on the CNT by the Civil Guards and the PSUC, and the anarchists counterattacked. That was how the street fighting that Orwell took part in began [Note 13].



What happened when the street fighting broke out, Orwell continues, was that the rank-and-file anarchists spontaneously countered the communist attack. The leaders followed suit later, more or less reluctantly [Note 14]. The only group talking about revolution was the Friends of Durruti, a group in the FAI. But this only happened some days later, and these groups were in no way in a leading position; they just followed. Later, the communist and pro-communist press would claim that the POUM was responsible for the street fighting, that the POUM was Franco’s fifth column, and that the POUM was trotskyist – the worst form of defamation to the communists after Stalin had won over Trotsky in the power struggle and expelled him from the USSR.

Shortly after the street fighting had stopped Orwell returned to the front. He now had reservations about the republican government. But however bad it was, Franco would be worse, and therefore fighting still had its justification. While at the front, he heard rumours that POUM members and others who had been associated with the party were being put in jail.

Orwell was shot by a sniper and returned to Barcelona after having been hospitalised in Tarragona, south of Barcelona.

In Barcelona, during all those last weeks I spent there, there was a peculiar evil feeling in the air – an atmosphere of suspicion, fear, uncertainty, and veiled hatred. The May fighting had left ineradicable after-effects behind it. With the fall of the Caballero Government the Communists had come definitely into power, the charge of internal order had been handed over to Communist ministers, and no one doubted that they would smash their political rivals as soon as they got a quarter of a chance. [HTC p. 186]

Prisons overflowed with people who had participated in the May fighting, and anarchists and POUM people were still sent to jail. As far as Orwell knew, no charges were ever brought against them, not even the charge of "trotskyism"; they were just thrown in jail. Some time later, after Orwell had been away from Barcelona, the POUM was officially forbidden, and Orwell and his wife had to go underground. After a while, they had to flee across the frontier to France, and they returned to England in July 1937.

Orwell’s experiences in Spain would occupy him for the rest of his life and in the end lead to Nineteen Eighty-Four. Later Orwell said to his friend Arthur Koestler that history stopped in 1936. Koestler knew at once what Orwell meant, and agreed. In 1936, objective history disappeared. Orwell did not believe that history was 100 per cent objective, but there had always been events that you with reasonable certainty could assume had taken place. But in Spain he saw that newspaper articles had no relation to reality. History was written, not according to what had happened, but according to what should have happened in accordance with the various party lines. And when he returned to England, he saw English newspapers repeat the lies of the Spanish press. Especially the left-wing newspapers with their more subtle form of distortion had been the main cause why people did not know what it was all about, but the bourgeois press had not kept back, either.

In Spain he also saw a form of censorship that alarmed him. Instead of just censoring articles and leaving an empty space, something else was inserted so that it was impossible to see what had been censured and not.

Orwell understood that the world was moving towards the totalitarian state. The enemy was of course still Hitler and Mussolini, but especially the USSR was dangerous, because the country was usually believed to be socialist. Orwell did not distinguish between fascism and Soviet communism, or stalinism as it was also called. About the communist regime in Spain Orwell said the following in Spilling the Spanish Beans from September 1937.

The logical end is a régime in which every opposition party and newspaper is suppressed and every dissentient of any importance is in jail. Of course, such a régime will be Fascism. It will not be the same Fascism Franco would impose, it will even be better than Franco’s Fascism to the extent of being worth fighting for, but it will be Fascism. Only, being operated by Communists and Liberals, it will be called something different. [CEJL vol. 1 pp. 307-8]

Orwell had written to Victor Gollancz that he was writing a book about the war in Spain; a book that would tell the truth because what you read in the papers were lies. When Gollancz learned that Orwell had been with the POUM, he did not want to publish the book. That is the reason why Homage to Catalonia was published by Secker & Warburg, who were also called the "trotskyist publishers".


4.5. Orwell and the Independent Labour Party

In 1938, Orwell joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP). In the article Why I Joined the Independent Labour Party he explains why. First, he is a writer and the era of freedom of speech is coming to an end. For some years, Orwell has succeeded in making the capitalists pay him to write against capitalism, but Orwell is not so naïve to think that this can go on. Just look at what happened to freedom of speech in Germany and Italy – the same will sooner or later happen in England, as well.

I have got to struggle against that, just as I have got to struggle against castor oil, rubber truncheons and concentration camps. And the only régime which, in the long run, will dare to permit freedom of speech is a Socialist régime. [CEJL vol. 1 p. 373]

One has to be actively a Socialist, not merely sympathetic to Socialism, or one plays into the hands of our always-active enemies. [CEJL vol. 1 p. 374]

The reason for choosing the ILP, Orwell says, is that it is the only British party – big enough to be worth considering – that advocates something that he sees as socialism. It is not because he has lost all faith in the Labour Party, but they are about to throw everything overboard and prepare for an imperialist war. Orwell believes that the ILP is the only party that will take the right position on the imperialist war and on fascism, when it turns up in its British version. Furthermore, Orwell was with the POUM in Spain, and their policy was more or less the same as that of the ILP. At that time, he did not particularly agree with the POUM, but the party’s policy turned out to be the right one in the long term.

This was the first and the last time that Orwell was a member of a political party, and it may perhaps be a sign of how serious he took the problems of the time. Two years earlier, he had fiercely attacked the orthodox Left in The Road to Wigan Pier, and he had seen the monstrosities that can result from following the party line. And now he himself joined a political party that – no matter how right its line was to Orwell – would entail a certain form of orthodoxy. Orwell was so worried that he had realised that it was no good fighting alone.


4.6. Coming up for Air

Coming up for Air was written in 1939 while Orwell was in Morocco because of his tuberculosis. In Coming up for Air the war is just around the corner, and the main character George Bowling is convinced that the world will not be the same afterwards. The book is filled with nightmare visions of how it will be after the war; visions that would become Nineteen Eighty-Four,

But it isn’t the war that matters, it’s the after-war. The world we’re going down into, the kind of hate-world, slogan-world. The coloured shirts, the barbed wire, the rubber truncheons. The secret cells where the electric light burns night and day, and the detectives watching while you sleep. And the processions and the posters with enormous faces, and the crowds of a million people all cheering for the Leader till they deafen themselves into thinking that they really worship him, and all the time, underneath, they hate him so that they want to puke. [CUA p. 149]

It is interesting to see that the atmosphere of Nineteen Eighty-Four was already described in 1939, among other things because many critics have written off Nineteen Eighty-Four as just a dying man’s hysterical nightmare.

Coming up for Air also shows Orwell’s longing for the time before 1914 with its completely different atmosphere.

It was simply that they didn’t think of the future as something to be terrified of. [CUA p. 106]

Also, Orwell continues his criticism of the Left, which he began in The Road to Wigan Pier. George Bowling is a member of the Left Book Club, and one night he and his wife attends a meeting arranged by the local Left Book Club section. Listening to the speaker George Bowling suddenly realises what it is all about.

I saw the vision that he was seeing. And it wasn’t at all the kind of vision that can be talked about. What he’s saying is merely that Hitler’s after us and we must all get together and have a good hate. Doesn’t go into details. Leaves it all respectable. But what he is seeing is something quite different. It’s a picture of himself smashing people’s faces in with a spanner. [CUA p. 148]

Hitler’s after us! Let’s all grab a spanner and get together, and perhaps if we smash in enough faces they won’t smash ours. Gang up, choose your Leader. Hitler’s black and Stalin’s white. But it might as well be the other way about, because in the little chap’s mind both Hitler and Stalin are the same. Both mean spanners and smashed faces. [CUA p. 149]


4.7. Orwell and World War 2

In 1939, Orwell saw the coming war as capitalist-imperialist. In a letter to the English anarchist and writer Herbert Read he writes that it would be a good idea to start organising anti-war activities. It is clear that when the war has first started it will be impossible to do anything. If they do not start making pamphlets, etc. now, they will not be ready when the moment comes.

Orwell was against the war because he thought it would lead to some kind of fascism in England. To him it was a repetition of Spain where some people during the civil war wanted to fight Franco in the name of bourgeois democracy. In England, now, they wanted to fight Hitler, but what was the idea of fighting against nazism in the name of England?

If one collaborates with a capitalist-imperialist government in a struggle ‘against Fascism’, i.e. against a rival imperialism, one is simply letting Fascism in by the back door. [CEJL vol. 1 p. 318]

Furthermore, a defence of democracy would lead away from that very same democracy.

But in 1940 Orwell writes in My Country Right or Left:

But the night before the Russo-German pact was announced I dreamed that the war had started. It was one of those dreams which, whatever Freudian inner meaning they may have, do sometimes reveal to you the real state of your feelings. It taught me two things, first, that I should be simply relieved when the long-dreaded war started, secondly, that I was patriotic at heart, would not sabotage or act against my own side, would support the war, would fight in it if possible. [CEJL vol. 1 pp. 590-91]

In The Lion and the Unicorn from 1941 Orwell says that there is nothing conservative in patriotism. Actually, patriotism is the opposite of nationalism, because it is an affection for something that is in constant change, and yet seems mysteriously unchanged. Patriotism is a devotion to a certain place, a certain way of living, which you think is the best in the world but which you do not want to force upon others. Patriotism is defensive, militarily as well as culturally – contrary to nationalism which is inseparable from lust for power. As a matter of fact, no real revolutionary has ever been internationalist, and with this Orwell implies that the English Left is not revolutionary. On the Left it has been the fashion for the past twenty years to sneer at patriotism and physical courage. And in an era of Leaders and bomber planes this is a disastrous attitude. If Hitler is to be fought, there is only one way!

Despite the sharp turn regarding the war Orwell was not as reactionary as it may seem. To him the war marked the beginning of the English revolution. In the same essay he writes:

But since a classless, ownerless society is generally spoken of as "Socialism", we can give that name to the society towards which we are now moving. The war and the revolution are inseparable. We cannot establish anything that a western nation would regard as Socialism without defeating Hitler; on the other hand we cannot defeat Hitler while we remain economically and socially in the nineteenth century. [CEJL vol. 2 p. 113]

The new socialist movement, however, had to take into consideration facts that so far had been unpopular with the Left, Orwell says. England was more united than most countries, and the English workers had more to lose than just their chains. The Left had to realise that the old-fashioned "proletarian revolution" was an impossibility. In all the years between the wars there had been no socialist program that was both revolutionary and feasible, which in Orwell’s opinion was mainly because no one really wanted any change.

The Labour leaders wanted to go on and on, drawing their salaries and periodically swapping job with the Conservatives. The Communists wanted to go on and on, suffering a comfortable martyrdom, meeting with endless defeats and afterwards putting the blame on other people. The left-wing intelligentsia wanted to go on and on, sniggering at the Blimps, sapping away at middle-class morale, but still keeping their favoured position as hangers-on of the dividend-drawers. [CEJL vol. 2 p. 113]

At the beginning of the war Orwell had left the ILP. He thought that the ILP’s policy would make it easier for Hitler. The ILP was pacifist, and Orwell now thought that pacifists were "objectively pro-Fascist", as he put it. Being against the war and trying to fight wartime activities in England, they indirectly helped Hitler. Orwell did not believe that you could remain neutral in this war. It was an illusion to feel above the war while eating the food that English seamen risked their lives for to bring to the country. Pacifist propaganda could only exist in countries with a certain freedom of speech, and the propaganda could only be effective against the very same countries. Orwell was not interested in pacifism as a moral concept, as this was useless in the present situation, in which Hitler’s violence could be only fought with violence [Note 15].

The English revolution that Orwell had expected did not happen. In Letter from London from 1943 to the Partisan Review [Note 16] he writes:

Well, that crisis is over and the forces of reaction have won hands down. Churchill is firm in the saddle again, Cripps has flung away his chances, no other left-wing leader or movement has appeared, and what is more important, it is hard to see how any revolutionary situation can recur till the western end of the war is finished. [CEJL vol. 2 p. 317]

Orwell’s texts from the first years of the war show a typical side of him, i.e. how his political views depended on the immediate situation he was in. It did not bother him to criticise the pacifists for views that he himself had advocated only a few years before and which he probably still held. But now the situation was such that these views were useless. The same applied to his attitude to political parties in general. If you are to follow the party line and be a good party member, you have to deny sides of yourself, and Orwell could not do that. That is why he left the ILP although he at another time and in another situation might have agreed with the party’s ends and means.


4.8. Animal Farm

In 1943, Orwell felt that the people in England, because of their admiration for the Russian war effort, consciously or unconsciously overlooked the faults of the communist regime in the USSR. He also felt that the English communists used their position as unofficial representatives of the USSR to prevent the truth from coming out – just as they had done in connection with the Spanish Civil War.

Indeed, in my opinion, nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of Socialism as the belief that Russia is a Socialist country. [. . .] And so for the past ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement. [CEJL vol. 3 p. 458]

That was why Orwell wrote Animal Farm, which the story of the revolution betrayed. The tale is based on Orwell’s experiences in Spain, which had subsequently led him to study power structures during revolutions, especially the Russian.

Although Orwell was an anti-communist, he was not on the side of traditional ruling class, neither so in Animal Farm. Throughout the book he is on the side of the animals. But from the very first day of the revolution it is clear that a new elite is about to replace the old rulers. The new elite are the pigs (read the communist party). It was the boar called Major (read Marx and Lenin) who had come up with his revolutionary theories, and who had died before the revolution. After the outbreak of the revolution, which happened spontaneously, the pigs assume leadership with Napoleon (read Stalin) and Snowball (read Trotsky) in front. The pigs assume privileges and end up telling the other animals what to do and eating the best food.

The power struggle between Napoleon and Snowball does not mean that the pigs are divided. When it comes to defending their privileges against the other animals, they stick together. It is even probable that the situation would have been no different, had Snowball won instead of Napoleon. In Catastrophic Gradualism from 1945 Orwell writes:

[. . .] a resulting tendency to make all bad developments date from the rise of Stalin; whereas one ought, I believe, to admit that all the seeds of evil were there from the start and that things would not have been substantially different if Lenin or Trotsky had remained in control. [CEJL vol. 4 p. 35]

As in Spain during the Civil War, objective truth or history is disappearing from Animal Farm. Historical facts change according to what suits the pigs, as in the case of the windmill. Originally, it had been Snowball’s idea, and Napoleon had of course been opposed to the windmill. But after Snowball has been driven away, the mill is to be built after all. Those animals that vaguely remember how things were are told that actually it had been Napoleon’s idea, and that he had opposed Snowball for tactical reasons. The seven commandments that change concurrently with the pigs resembling human beings more and more are another example. Eventually, the seventh commandment, "All animals are equal" has had the following added: "but some animals are more equal than others."

In Animal Farm Orwell is not on the side of the humans. The pigs are the villains of the tale, and they become more and more like humans. In the end of the book, pigs and humans are playing cards. When someone cheats, at row starts.

Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which. [AF p. 119]

In other words, old and new tyrannies are the same. Authoritarian forms of government, whether based on social or political castes, are basically alike, and they are all a danger to freedom – as has always been claimed by anarchists. Orwell argues against the Russian revolution that was betrayed in the same way that anarchists did as early as the 1920s. The anarchist side of Orwell was to become more pronounced and form an essential part of Nineteen Eighty-Four.


4.9. Orwell on the road to Nineteen Eighty-Four

Animal Farm took Orwell’s thoughts about the totalitarian state further. In 1943, it was clear that Germany would lose the war, and that may have been the reason why Orwell became less occupied with the war and instead resumed writing about the increasing totalitarianism, as he saw it. His thoughts had become more focused and were to be the background of Nineteen Eighty-Four

In February 1944, Orwell writes in As I Please:

The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits ‘atrocities’ but that it attacks the concept of objective truth: it claims to control the past as well as the future. [CEJL vol. 3 p. 110]

It was at that time that Orwell read Russian writer E. I. Zamyatin’s book We from 1923 which would be a major influence on Nineteen Eighty-Four. We takes place in the twenty-sixth century when almost everyone lives in a kind of Single State consisting of cities spread all over the world and separated from the surrounding countryside by fences. This isolation from nature is quite deliberate on part of the rulers. They want to turn humans into machines, to replace the organic by the inorganic, to create synthetic happiness by eradicating all that may evoke natural passions and personal inclinations. In this single state all buildings have walls of glass so that the actions of the occupants are visible. Only during sex are the curtains drawn for a brief moment, sexual behaviour being strictly controlled by the Sexual Bureau. This soulless society is ruled by a dictator, the Benefactor, who is supported and helped by a political police, the Guardians, that hover above the cities with surveillance equipment. Confessions are extracted by torture, and criminals are simply liquidated. Informing, even on family members and friends, is a sacred duty.

In As I Please from April 1944 it says:

The fallacy is to believe that under a dictatorial government you can be free inside. [. . .] The greatest mistake is to imagine that the human being is an autonomous individual. The secret freedom of the mind which you can supposedly enjoy under a despotic government is nonsense, because your thoughts are never entirely your own. [CEJL vol. 3 pp. 159-60]

The Prevention of Literature from January 1946 is about the connection between the totalitarian state and history. Orwell wrote about this already in the 1930s but now seems to be even more clear on the subject.

A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened. Then, again, every major change in policy demands a corresponding change of doctrine and a revaluation of prominent historical figures. [CEJL vol. 4 p. 86]

Orwell believed that totalitarianism and the decay of language were connected. He focused especially on political language ,where you distorted events and concepts by calling them something else. You said things in such a way that you avoided producing an inner picture of them. As an example, in Politics and the English Language from April 1946 Orwell imagined how an English professor would defend Russian totalitarianism. The professor cannot say outright, "I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get results by doing so." Therefore he will probably say something like:

While freely conceding that the Soviet régime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigours which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement. [CEJL vol. 4 p. 166]

If thoughts can corrupt language, language can also corrupt thoughts. This idea would eventually lead to Newspeak. In an editorial in Polemic [Note 17] Orwell writes:

[. . .] because the connexion between totalitarian habits of thought and the corruption of language is an important subject which has not been sufficiently studied. Like all writers of his school, Professor Bernal has a strong tendency to drop into Latin when something unpleasant has to be said. [. . .] To say ‘party loyalty means doing dirt on your own conscience’ would be too crude: to say ‘(virtues) based on excessive concern with individual rectitude need reorienting in the direction of social responsibility’ comes to much the same thing, but far less courage is required in saying it. The long, vague words express the intended meaning and at the same time blur the moral squalor of what its being said. [CEJL vol. 4 p. 188]

In May 1946, Orwell wrote Second Thoughts on James Burnham [Note 18]. Among others, it was Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution that gave Orwell the idea of Oceania. In his book Burnham writes that capitalism is about to disappear but that it will not be replaced by socialism. Instead, a new centralised society will appear; a society that will be neither capitalist nor democratic. The leaders will be those people who in effect control the means of production, i.e. business executives, technicians, bureaucrats and military people, whom Burnham lump together under the common label managers. These managers will wipe out the old capitalist class, crush the working class and organise society in such a way that all power and economic privileges remain in their own hands. The managerial societies will consist of huge super states grouped around the industrial centres of Europe, Asia and America. The super states will fight each other over the uncaptured areas, but they will probably not be able to beat each other completely. Internally, the societies will be hierarchical with an aristocracy of talent at the top and a mass of half-slaves at the bottom.

The protagonist of Coming up for Air from 1939, George Bowling, says somewhere:

Old Hitler’s something different. So’s Joe Stalin. They aren’t like these chaps in the old days who crucified people and chopped their heads off and so forth, just for the fun of it. They’re after something quite new – something that’s never been heard of before. [CUA p. 157]

Orwell was now forming his ideas about what "they’re after". In As I Please from November 1946 it says:

It is not easy to find a direct economic explanation of the behaviour of the people who now rule the world. The desire for pure power seems to be much more dominant than the desire for wealth. [CEJL vol. 4 p. 289]  


4.10. Nineteen Eighty-Four

Edmond O’Brien as Winston Smith in the film 1984 from 1956
Nineteen Eighty-Four was Orwell’s last book. It was published in the middle of 1949, and Orwell died in January 1950. But also in a figurative sense was this his last book. Nineteen Eighty-Four is the conclusion of almost everything that Orwell had written since 1936, when he with The Road to Wigan Pier began criticising the orthodox Left and when he went to Spain. In Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell created a totalitarian universe, Oceania, with its own history and inner mechanism.

In the fourth decade of the twentieth century, Orwell says in the book, all main political ideologies were authoritarian. Paradise on Earth had been rejected at the precise moment it became feasible. Every new political theory, whatever its name, led to hierarchy and regimentation. After wars, civil wars, revolutions and counterrevolutions all over the world, Ingsoc (Newspeak for English socialism) and its rivals appeared as fully developed theories. They were a continuation of various political systems, generally called totalitarian, and the development had long been obvious.

What kind of people would control this world had been equally obvious. The new aristocracy was made up for the most part of bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organizers, publicity experts, sociologists, teachers, journalists, and professional politicians. [...] As compared with their opposite numbers in past ages, they were less avaricious, less tempted by luxury, hungrier for pure power, and above all, more conscious of what they were doing and more intent on crushing opposition. [NEF, p. 164]


After the revolutionary period of the 1950s and 1960s, Orwell continues, society had as always returned to the old class system with an upper, middle and lower class. But the new thing was that the upper class had realised that collectivism was the only way of ensuring the oligarchy. Private property was "abolished" by expropriating the capitalists, and in this way private property was concentrated on fewer hands, namely one; the Party was the new owner.

The world of 1984 is divided into three super states that are at perpetual war with each other; the two against the third with the alliances changing constantly. Orwell says that it is a war with limited objectives in which none of the warring parties is capable of destroying the others. There are no material causes for fighting nor any ideological ones of any importance. What matters is to consume the products of the machine without raising the standard of living.

The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent. [NEF p. 154]

Furthermore, a general increase in the standard of living would destroy the hierarchical social structure since wealth would no longer be something dividing the classes.

At the top of Oceania’s hierarchy is Big Brother, who is infallible and all-powerful.

Every success, every achievement, every victory, every scientific discovery, all knowledge, all wisdom, all happiness, all virtue, are held to issue directly from his leadership and inspiration. [NEF p. 166]

No one has ever seen Big Brother; he is a face on posters, a voice on the telescreen. Big Brother is the guise in which the Party has chosen to appear to the world. Big Brother is somebody to whom you direct your love, fear and affection, as these are feelings more easily felt towards a person than an organisation.

Below Big Brother in the hierarchy is the Inner Party followed by the Outer Party. The Inner Party is the brain and the Outer Party the limbs.

The Party is not a class in the old sense of the word. It does not aim at transmitting power to its own children, as such; [. . .] The essence of oligarchical rule is not father-to-son inheritance, but the persistence of a certain world-view and a certain way of life, imposed by the dead upon the living. A ruling group is a ruling group so long as it can nominate its successors. The Party is not concerned with perpetuating its blood but with perpetuating itself. Who yields power is not important, provided that the hierarchical structure remains always the same. [NEF pp. 167-68]

And at the bottom of the hierarchy are the Proles, constituting about 85 per cent of the population. Orwell writes that nobody really knows anything about the Proles. Left to themselves, they have reverted to a way of life that seems natural to them and that belongs to the past. They are born, grow up in the gutter, start working at the age of twelve, have a short blooming period of beauty and sexual desire, and mostly they die at the age of 60. They are not difficult to control. All the time, agents from the Thought Police are among them, spreading false rumours and removing those individuals who might become dangerous. But no attempts are made to indoctrinate them with the Party’s ideology; it is not desirable that the Proles have strong political emotions.

The regime of Oceania has several methods of controlling the population. Agents from the Thought Police are everywhere. In all houses are telescreens capable of receiving as well as transmitting, so that the occupants are under constant surveillance. Every day there is the Two Minutes Hate. People gather in front of the telescreens and watch a program that makes them scream and shout with hatred. To the book’s protagonist, Winston Smith, the terrible thing is not so much that you are forced to participate but that it is impossible not to get carried away. The contents change every day but the main character of the program is always Emmanuel Goldstein.

Goldstein was the renegade and backslider who once [. . .] had been one of the leading figures of the Party, almost on a level with Big Brother himself, and then had engaged in counterrevolutionary activities, had been condemned to death, and had mysteriously escaped and disappeared. [. . .] All subsequent crimes against the Party, all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly out of his teachings. [NEF p. 13]

According to the Party’s propaganda, Goldstein is the leader of the Brotherhood, a huge underground army, working for the overthrow of Oceania. Goldstein has written a book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, in which the history and inner mechanism of Oceania are explained. At the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four, it turns out that Goldstein is the invention of the Party and that his book is written by among others O’Brien, who represents the Party and who is the villain of the book. Goldstein is used as a scapegoat to divert discontent and for exposing rebels like Winston, who confides in O’Brien whom he thinks is a member of the Brotherhood.


A major reason for the hysteria during the Two Minutes Hate is repressed sexuality. The Party is against sex, and the goal is not just to prevent men and women from feeling loyal to each other, which in turn will prevent the Party from exercising its control. The real purpose is to remove pleasure from sex.

[. . .] sexual privation induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war fever and leader worship. [NEF p. 109]

Apart from the mentioned concrete forms of control, the Party also employs a more subtle form, which is harder to fight against because it is aimed at the mind. First, the entire system is based on falsification of history – for two purposes: Outwardly, the Party is infallible and is forced to change all information when it has been wrong in some connection or other. The falsification of history takes place in the Ministry of Truth where Winston works. Of course he knows what he is really doing, but that does not worry him because so many changes have already been made that he is just replacing one lie with another.

The second purpose is to eradicate memory from the minds of people. The only reason why people put up with their miserable conditions is that they have been told that it was much worse before the revolution. And as no correct information about the past exists, nobody knows if it is true. Perhaps it really was worse before, and then you shouldn’t complain.

If it is necessary to manipulate with history and your own memory, it is equally necessary to forget that you have done so. This is accomplished with a mental technique, which in Oldspeak was called reality-control and in Newspeak is called doublethink

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink. [NEF pp. 31-32]

Newspeak is the official language of Oceania and its purpose is to fulfil the ideological demands of Ingsoc. In 1984, no one employs Newspeak as the only way of expression, but it is expected that Newspeak will have replaced Oldspeak around 2050. Newspeak consists of abbreviations, and Orwell writes in his Appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four on Newspeak that already early in the twentieth century abbreviations were part of political language. It was especially widespread in totalitarian countries and organisations. As examples he mentions Nazi, Gestapo, Komintern, Inprecorr, Agitprop. From a totalitarian viewpoint, the advantage of abbreviations like these is that their meaning is limited and altered so that all associations are removed.

The purpose of Newspeak is not only to be a medium for the ideas and world view of Ingsoc; it is also meant to make all other ways of thinking impossible and thus remove all heretical thoughts.

‘Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. [. . .] Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. [. . .] In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.’ [NEF pp. 45-46]

At one point Winston writes in his diary that he understands how but not why. This why George Bowling already asked in Coming up for Air in 1939, and in Nineteen Eighty-Four O’Brien gives him the answer.

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. [. . .] Power it not a means, it is an end. [NEF p. 211]

First of all you have to realise, O’Brien says, that power is collective. The individual only has power if he ceases to be an individual. Alone and free, man will always suffer defeat. It has to be this way because man is mortal. But if the individual can subject himself completely, if he can escape from his identity, if he can let himself be engulfed so much by the Party that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal. Next, you have to realise that power is power over people, over the body and especially over the mind.

"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever." [NEF, p. 215]  

Oceania is the result of a socialist revolution; it is a continuation of Animal Farm. Orwell’s description of Oceania contains everything that the anarchists have said about the State, particularly the marxist state, ever since Russian anarchist and founder of the historical anarchism, Mikhail Bakunin in 1873 wrote:

For its self-preservation, the State must necessarily be externally powerful, but if it is so in its relations with the outer world, it must equally certainly be powerful internally. Every State has to be inspired and guided by a special morality conforming to the particular conditions of its existence, a morality which is a negation of human and universal morality. The State must make sure that all its subjects, in thought and above all in deed, are inspired only by the principles of this patriotic and particular morality, and that they remain deaf to the teachings of a purely human and universal morality. Hence the need for State censorship, since too much liberty of thought and opinion is – as Marx believes with good reason if one accepts his eminently political point of view – incompatible with that unanimous adherence which security of State demands. [Note 19]

It was also Bakunin who said that the lust for power is stronger and more perverting than any material or economic motive.  

Because of the obvious anti-communism in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the book was a great success in the USA where McCarthyism had just reared its head. It was overlooked, however, that Orwell in the book says that all ideologies in the mid-twentieth century were authoritarian. Because Nineteen Eighty-Four was misinterpreted and in some cases misused, Orwell wrote in 1949:

My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable and which have already been partly realized in communism and Fascism. I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences. [CEJL vol. 4 p. 564]  


5. Conclusion

On the surface, Orwell’s political development may seem filled with contradictions. After his time as a policeman in Burma, he was an anarchist; a superficial and not very consistent one perhaps, but that was how he felt. In the early 1930s, he became more critical of society, and in The Road to Wigan Pier we see him as a socialist. But he is an undogmatic socialist, who does not care much for the theories and who criticises the doctrinaire socialists, who precisely because of their theories have forgotten that socialism first and foremost is about liberty and justice. After Spain, he was very sympathetic to anarchism and was even more undogmatic after having seen what dogmatism can lead to. The membership of the ILP therefore seems inconsistent since party membership will always to some extent result in dogmatism. But this must be seen in relation to the war, which at that time was just around the corner. Orwell was against the war and he felt that the ILP was the only party that would adopt the right attitude to the war, most likely because of the party’s pacifism. With the war a drastic change in Orwell took place. Having been against the war he was now for it; he criticised the pacifists for views that he himself had held just a few years before; and he left the ILP. With Animal Farm he took up the themes from Spain and Homage to Catalonia and elaborated on them. Orwell’s anti-authoritarianism became more pronounced as he came closer to Nineteen Eighty-Four, where we see Orwell as a fairly consistent anarchist who saw the dangers of the State and leaders in general.

As said, this development may seem contradictory, but this is because Orwell lived in the present. His views were always to some extent shaped by the situation he at any given time was in. Perhaps he only had one view: In 1936 Orwell said that to him socialism first and foremost meant liberty and justice, and this view he never left. The contradictions were in many ways a consequence of this basic belief.

It is difficult to put a political label on Orwell, precisely because he was undogmatic. Unlike the doctrinaire socialists, Orwell saw socialism as the social aspect of an all-encompassing moral attitude; a view that undoubtedly was caused by meeting the Spanish anarchists to whom anarchism was a moral attitude with political consequences.

It would, however, be an exaggeration to say that anarchism was Orwell’s all-encompassing moral attitude, although there are many anarchist aspects in Orwell’s criticism of society, of the communists, the professional politicians and the elitist socialists, who believed they were the vanguard of the working class. But one of the most basic tenets of anarchism, the rejection of the State, Orwell could not accept. Orwell meant that some form of state was necessary to maintain freedom. In his view, the stateless society of anarchism contained totalitarian tendencies. In Politics vs Literature from 1946 he says:

This illustrates well the totalitarian tendency which is implicit in the Anarchist or pacifist vision of society. In a society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law. When human beings are governed by ‘thou shalt not’, the individual can practise a certain amount of eccentricity: when they are supposedly governed by ‘love’ or ‘reason’, he is under continuous pressure to make him behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone else. [CEJL vol. 4 p. 252]

Although rejecting the alternative society of anarchism Orwell did not have anything better to put instead. He was against the society of the day but had no ideas about how and to what it should change. The importance of Orwell as a political writer is not as a theoretician but as a critic, the guilty conscience and loyal opposition of the Left. To Orwell socialism was the only solution. It would not lead to a perfect world but at least to a better world. But in order for that to happen constant criticism was necessary.

We cannot really put a political label on Orwell. He had so many facets and aspects that he escapes any unequivocal definition. And since he himself tried to maintain his individuality and avoid the dogmas with their unresolved contradictions, this seems only fair. At one point, Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four writes in his diary:

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted all else follows. [NEF p. 68]

Let these words in their seductive simplicity be the conclusion of Orwell’s political development.


6. Bibliography


Orwell, George:

Animal Farm (Harmondsworth 1977)
Burmese Days (Harmondsworth 1977)
A Clergyman’s Daughter (Harmondsworth 1975)
Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, vol. 1-4 (Harmondsworth 1976, 1977, 1978, 1978)
Coming up for Air (Harmondsworth 1977)
Down and Out in Paris and London (Harmondsworth 1977)
Homage to Catalonia (Harmondsworth 1975)
Keep the Aspidistra Flying (Harmondsworth 1978)
Nineteen Eighty-Four (Harmondsworth 1978)
The Road to Wigan Pier (Harmondsworth 1988)


The Anarchist Reader, edit. George Woodcock (Glasgow 1977)
Dokumenter til den spanske arbejderklasses og arbejderbevægelses udvikling 1880-1976 (Viborg 1977)
George Orwell, edit.
Raymond Williams (Englewood Cliffs 1974)
George Orwell, The Critical Heritage, edit. Jeffrey Meyers (London 1975)
Jesper, Bente: Det lille roede leksikon (Copenhagen 1974)
Kubal, David: Outside the Whale (London 1972)
Lief, Ruth Ann: Homage to Oceania. The Prophetic Vision of George Orwell (Columbus 1969)
Meyers, Jeffrey: A Reader’s Guide to George Orwell (London 1978)
Politiske ideologier, red. Sven Erik Stybe (Copenhagen 1972)
Rees, Richard: George Orwell, Fugitive from the Camp of Victory (London 1961)
Revolution og kontrarevolution i Spanien 1800-1976 (Aarhus 1976)
Den roede kalender 1976 (Viborg 1975)
Stansky, Peter and William Abrahams: The Unknown Orwell (Bungay 1974)
Tingsten, Herbert: Nazismens og fascismens ideologi (Copenhagen 1967)
Twentieth Century Interpretations of 1984, edit. Samuel Hynes (Englewood Cliffs 1971)
Walter, Nicolas: About Anarchism (London 1967)
Williams, Raymond: George Orwell (Glasgow 1975)
Woodcock, George: Anarchism (Harmondsworth 1975)
Woodcock, George: The Crystal Spirit (Harmondsworth 1970)
Vorhees, Richard: The Paradox of George Orwell (Lafayette 1961)
The World of George Orwell, edit. Miriam Gros (London 1971)
Zwerdling, Alex: Orwell and the Left (New Haven 1974)


Clark, John: "What Is Anarchism?", Freedom, February 24 1979


7. Notes

Note 1: Malatesta, Errico: Anarchy, London (publishing year unknown). My quote is from: Clark, John: "What Is Anarchism?", Freedom, February 24, 1979, p. 10.
Note 2: Woodcock, George: Anarchism (Harmondsworth 1975), p. 11.
Note 3: In the rest of the text the name "Orwell" will be used, also when it concerns the period before 1933.
Note 4: Stansky, Peter and William Abrahams: The Unknown Orwell (Bungay 1984), pp. 149-150.
Note 5: In 1902, American writer Jack London was in London on his way to South Africa, where he was to write about the Boer War. However, the assignment was cancelled and he decided to write about the slums in London. For seven weeks he walked the slums, talked to people and lived like them. The result was The People of the Abyss.
Note 6: Independent Labour Party, British socialist party founded in 1883. Continued as a faction within the Labour Party after the foundation of that party, but broke with it in 1932. Politically to the left of the Labour Party; of humanist and pacifist orientation.
Note 7: POUM, Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, a small revolutionary party aiming at the complete victory of socialism in Spain and the entire world. The POUM was not trotskyist even though the party, like the trotskyists, advocated world revolution.
Note 8: The Second Republic was founded in 1931. During the first years power lay with the left-wing parties. They separated state and church and in every way tried to fight the influence of the reactionary Catholic church. But in none of the issues could the parties agree, and a slide to the right took place. For fear of a fascist uprising the republican parties united in a popular front that won the majority in parliament in 1936.
Note 9: CNT, Confederación Nacional de Trabajo, anarchist-syndicalist organisation with a long tradition in Spain. They wanted the organisation of the anarchist society to be based on trade unions. FAI, Federación Anarquista Ibérica, an "elitist" group within the CNT, founded in 1927 to combat revisionism within the CNT and preserve the pure anarchist ideals.
Note 10: The militias were organised by trade unions and political parties. Since POUM was just a small party, many members of their militia came from other organisations.
Note 11: UGT, Unión General de Trabajadores, socialist trade union.
Note 12: PCE, Partido Comunista de España, the Spanish communist party. PSUC, Partido Socialista Unificat de Catalunya, the Catalan section of PCE.
Note 13: This was only one incident in a long process, Orwell explains. Throughout the past six months the movement had been away from the direct power of the trade unions and towards centralised control that would lead to state capitalism and possibly the reintroduction of private capitalism.
Note 14: Orwell gives three reasons for this: 1) The CNT was represented in the government and thus the leaders were more conservative than were the rank-and-file members. 2) The CNT was about to enter an alliance with the UGT and unrest would not be beneficial to that relationship. 3) The leaders of the CNT feared that if the situation got out of hand and the workers took control, a foreign intervention would take place; for example, British war ships were in the harbour of Barcelona.
Note 15: In 1944, however, Orwell admitted that this was a dangerous way to argue.
Note 16: Partisan Review, American literary magazine of trotskyist observation.
Note 17: Polemic, a magazine on philosophy, psychology and aesthetics.
Note 18: The article was later published as a pamphlet titled James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution.
Note 19: Bakunin, Mikhail: from Oeuvres, vol. IV, 1910, translated by George Woodcock and printed in The Anarchist Reader, edit. George Woodcock (Glasgow 1977), pp. 140-141.