Look right, look left, look right again. Quoted by Major and Blair, a hero of Republican hawks in America, an anti-Stalinist, a "Tory Socialist" - Orwell's politics remain endlessly open to interpretation. Why?

Orwell's Politics

John Newsinger <em>Macmillan, 224pp, £42.50</em>

Although great writers have always been open to widely differing readings and interpretations - it's one of the things that makes them great - the art of intellectual grave-robbing has been a speciality of this century. And no illustrious corpse has been fought over so vigorously as George Orwell's.

This summer sees the 50th anniversary of the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and next January sees the 50th anniversary of Orwell's death. By dying at 46, he preserved the purity of his reputation, but he also left behind a legacy to be appropriated by political opportunists. In this country he became a secular saint, his works an all-purpose sacred text to be quoted by opposing sides. One day Tony Blair invokes Orwell, another John Major does. (Or his speech-writers do: could Major have placed his finger on the passage about "old maids biking to communion"? Had he actually read the essay from which it comes?)

Beside that, Orwell died just as he had become rich and famous; and he died just as the cold war was entering its chilliest phase. His prewar books were wonderfully unsuccessful. Homage to Catalonia, subsequently one of his most admired and influential books, sold all of 700 copies in its first year, a figure even the habitually glum author himself at first thought must have been a mistake on his publisher's statement. But Animal Farm did well, and Nineteen Eighty-Four was an international best-seller.

As a consequence, Orwell posthumously became the dialectical version of an intercontinental warhead. Not merely cold war liberals, but conservatives of more or less extreme stripes tried to bag him. In 1983, the American neo-conservative Norman Podhoretz asked what Orwell would have become if "he were alive today", to which he answered, roughly speaking, "Orwell would have become me". And Podhoretz is pale pink compared with some of those who have claimed St George's inheritance.

As John Newsinger reiterates in his stimulating new book, we cannot in truth know what Orwell would be if he were still alive, except that he would now be very old. It is dishonest or futile to speculate what Orwell's precise response to the 40 years of the cold war would have been. We have seen many strange political transmogrifications and tergiversations in our time, most commonly what Nabokov called the balletic parabola from left to right. It is possible that Orwell would have followed that path. It is also possible that he would have remained the democratic socialist that he insisted on calling himself. Until his death he maintained that he was a supporter of the Labour government, that he hoped for a socialist United States of Europe, and that he even recognised why the working class continued to admire Soviet Russia.

While Newsinger's purpose is to reclaim Orwell for the democratic left, he is honest enough to recognise that anti-Stalinism was the ruling passion of his last years, and that Nineteen Eighty-Four is not, as some have speciously claimed, an attack on "totalitarianism of left and right" but rather a specific satire on Stalinist Russia. As Newsinger dimly apprehends, Orwell was too idiosyncratic and sui generis to fit into any conventional categories. He fought with the Trotskyist (or Trotskyish) POUM in Spain, and he had friendly connections in New York with the, likewise Trotskyish, Partisan Review, and Dwight Macdonald's Politics, but he was never in any formal sense a Bolshevik-Leninist. He wrote for Tribune and has been called "a Tribune socialist", but that, too, is inadequate.

So what were Orwell's politics? One description I might hazard is what some Oxford undergraduates called themselves earlier this century, a "Tory socialist". The Tory part means that he had grown up with various prejudices and predilections of his class and generation which he didn't easily outgrow, as he sometimes recognised. In some ways a literary cosmopolitan (for all his attenuated formal education, and his dogged Englishry, he read and wrote French better than contemporaries with "French flu" like Cyril Connolly and Philip Toynbee), he was also a sentimental English patriot. Not least, he was the founding father of the "fogeyism of the left", still much in evidence in the pages of the Guardian ("radicals for cricket and countryside, railways and real ale"). Sometimes this can indeed be quite wearisome, when he bangs on in his columns about the sixpenny roses he bought from Woolworths, or tells us his Pooterish little jokes. For all Orwell's exalted reputation, one can't help feeling that David Mackie and Matthew Engel do this sort of thing rather better.

As for his socialism, its distinctive feature was that it was emotional and moral rather than cerebral, which is precisely why it has worn so well. While he had read enough Marx to understand him and defend him from vulgar anti-Marxists, he was more influenced by the great tradition of radical literature from Zola to Jack London, which not everyone still read 50 years ago, and no one reads today.

Above all, his politics were based on direct human experience. His time as a colonial policeman gave him a visceral personal distaste for imperialism, his time spent writing Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier gave him an intense sympathy for the poor, and his time fighting for the Spanish republic made him understand the working class struggle for justice.

But Spain also famously taught him something else, as he discovered at first hand: that there were no limits to the brutalities the Stalinists were capable of committing, and no limits to the lies their supporters in London were prepared to tell. Newsinger primly says that "Orwell's assault on communist intellectuals and fellow-travellers as power-worshippers often seems over the top". On the copious evidence given here of what some of his adversaries said and wrote at the time, the assault might seem almost understated.

Newsinger defends Orwell against his more despicable opponents on the left, and commends him for both his socialism and his anti-Stalinism. But he has his own terms of censure, and very tiresome they are in their political correctness. While recognising "something distasteful about the way feminist members of the Communist Party [up to and including the ineffable Beatrix Campbell] accused Orwell of misogyny while they remained members of an organisation that denied and covered up the mass rape of German women by Red Army soldiers in 1945", Newsinger also complains that in The Road to Wigan Pier Orwell "never questions the notions of masculinity and male superiority that had been bred into him".

Actually, Orwell was something of a misogynist, who had awkward relations with women, who laddishly remarked in print how plain officers in the women's services were, and who would say of Joseph Conrad that "one of the surest signs of his genius is that women dislike his books". Still, if you do want to pick a quarrel with Orwell, there are better grounds than his failure to engage exhausted Lancashire miners in a dialogue about feminist theory.

Newsinger rightly praises him for condemning, at the time, the expulsion of 12 million Germans from east and south of the Oder in 1945, and the comrades' horrible double standards on the subject, but Orwell occasionally showed double standards of his own. He was too brisk and even brutal in his defence of the conduct of the war. It was one thing to denounce those he called "fascifists", some of whom justified that description (D S Savage claimed in 1942 that there was no difference between Hitler and Churchill, that Nazi Germany, unlike England, had "a real historic dynamic", and that a German victory would be "a profound justice"). It was another to ignore any moral force at all in the pacifist position; and Orwell, in striking contrast to Macdonald, not only did not criticise but actively defended the terror-bombing campaign which killed several hundred thousand civilians.

Despite that bellicosity, perhaps the best description of his politics may in the end be "George Orwell, 19th-century liberal". That was the title of an essay by his sparring partner turned friend, the anarchist writer George Woodcock. The phrase was not intended by Woodcock as an unalloyed compliment. Speaking as one myself, I concede the failure of such antique liberals "to penetrate the fundamental causes of social evils, to present a consistent moral and social criticism of the society in which they lived," as Woodcock put it. Then again, at the end of century in which the Soviet socialist Stalin exterminated more innocent people than the "National Socialist" Hitler, and Mao killed more than the two put together, perhaps the virtues of that liberalism, with its concern for freedom, fairness and the individual, may look more salient than when Woodcock wrote.

In his last years, Orwell had an odd friendly acquaintance with Evelyn Waugh, based on wary mutual admiration. Orwell was planning an essay in which he proposed to call Waugh as good a writer as it was possible to be while holding impossible opinions. In return, Waugh deplored Orwell's irreligion and "unreasoned animosity of a class war". But he also recognised something more important than any animosity or "ism", his "unusually high moral sense and respect for justice and truth". That perhaps describes better than any longer analysis the politics of George Orwell, and why we still love and revere him.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's most recent book is "The Controversy of Zion: how Zionism tried to resolve the Jewish question"

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