The socialist fallacy

Reputations - Scott Lucas argues that Orwell's status as the secular saint of socialism is built on

On 2 May 1949, George Orwell, battling against tuberculosis in a sanatorium in Essex, wrote a very special letter to Celia Kirwan, the sister-in-law of Arthur Koestler and a former editorial assistant for the journal Polemic. Three years earlier, Orwell had proposed marriage to Kirwan; now he offered something even more important: a list of 35 names, taken from the author's notebook of 130 "crypto-communists, fellow-travellers, or inclined that way". Kirwan had more than a literary interest. She worked for the Information Research Department, a secret agency that the government had created in the previous year for anti-communist propaganda at home and abroad.

Last November, in a lengthy comment on life and politics in post-communist eastern Europe, the historian Perry Anderson stated in passing that Orwell had supplied "officialdom with a secret list of suspect acquaintances". Christopher Hitchens, Washington's favourite British scribe, and scourge of Bill Clinton and Mother Teresa, came to Orwell's rescue. He reassured worried readers that the incident "was actually more of a party game" between Orwell and his friend Richard Rees. Anyway, "informing, and heresy-hunting, and applause for judicial murder, were political obligations for a large number of the people who feature on Orwell's list".

The list that was passed to Kirwan is still classified by Her Majesty's Government. Orwell's 130 threats to the state (36 names are still withheld from public view) included not only Labour MPs, but also the future Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, the New Statesman editor Kingsley Martin, the author J B Priestley, the actor Michael Redgrave, the singer/actor Paul Robeson, the actor Orson Welles, the historians Isaac Deutscher and A J P Taylor and the political theorist G D H Cole. One member of the list, the poet Stephen Spender, would later become an editor of the CIA-subsidised journal Encounter.

George Orwell was not a socialist.

Let's reiterate that for those advocates who hail Orwell as a good socialist but, in Orwellian doublethink, do so without examination of any of the political or economic tenets of socialism. Take, for example, the pre-eminent biographer Bernard Crick. He reassures us that Orwell is in the lineage of "English" socialists simply because of the belief that "only in a more egalitarian and fraternal society can liberties flourish and abound for the common people". Nasty old Marxism is marginal to this philosophy: no need for messy concepts such as redistribution of income or common ownership of property. Or how about the chronicler Michael Shelden who, in almost 500 pages, deals with the issue with the passing comments that Orwell was an "individualistic" socialist and "every movement needs its divisionists"? Or Peter Davison, the editor of the 20-volume set of Orwell's writings, who reduces his subject's "passion for what he saw as social justice" to the epitaph: "He was human (his most endearing characteristic)"?

Let's reassert it to turn back the dilution of socialism to Orwell's "decency" or "the indivisibility of citizenship and culture". For there is nothing peculiarly socialist about being decent. Those with no interest in politics - and even readers of the Spectator - can be kind to children and small animals. What "decency" does, as in John Atkins's statement that "the special connotation of this English word is a complex of English living and English attitudes", is draw a pernicious line between the "English" Orwell and those unfeeling, "intellectual" European socialists who are too concerned with scientific concepts such as surplus value and economic imperialism to be decent.

There was a brief time when Orwell was vehement in his left-wing views. He returned from service in the Spanish civil war in June 1937 proclaiming: "I have seen wonderful things and at last believe in socialism, which I never did before." The problem was that Orwell had already sabotaged his socialist revolution. The Road to Wigan Pier famously established Orwell's disdain, long expressed in reviews, essays and novels, for left-wing "intellectuals" with their theories, speech-making and posturing. The book also vividly demonstrated, for all his two months of life with the working classes, Orwell's unwillingness or inability to fill the vacuum with his own political and economic programme. Instead, he offered two facts: "One, that the interests of all exploited people are the same; the other, that socialism is compatible with common decency." Heaven help any socialists who went further, however, for this might provoke conflict; let's "go easy and not frighten more people than can be helped".

There was always the hope that the "common people" would rise on their own accord to fight for decency, but Orwell had little faith in that possibility. The working man, "the slave of mysterious authority", had little time and less confidence. On the off chance that a proletarian rose up from the mass, the very act of rising would take him away from his working-class roots; "By fighting against the bourgeoisie, he becomes bourgeois." Thus, "people of the higher class [would] always tend to come to the front in times of stress, though not really more gifted than the others".

So Orwell's common people of Wigan Pier, not just the valiant miners, but the chronically lazy, "astonishingly dirty" and "desperate, hopeless" specimens (and Yorkshiremen coming to London "in the spirit of a barbarian looking for loot"), were trapped. They could only wait for liberation with middle-class direction, but middle-class socialists were bound up in a Marxist doctrine that inevitably brought repression. The possible leadership of the revolution had been reduced to one: Orwell himself.

On the surface, Orwell's socialist manifesto was The Lion and the Unicorn, published in 1941. For the first and only time, Orwell puts forth a programme. At home, there would be nationalisation of land, mines, railways, banks and major industries; limitation of incomes to a 10:1 ratio from the highest-paid to the lowest-paid; and educational reform. Abroad, there would be dominion status for India and a General Council to discuss the future of the British empire. But Orwell's real revolution, as the title suggests, would be for Englishness, an insular Englishness because "few Europeans can endure living in England, and even Americans often feel more at home in Europe", an Englishness (don't even bother asking if the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish get a look-in) that reads like a British Council pamphlet of the 1930s. The English may not be gifted artistically, or "intellectual", but they have "a certain power of acting without taking thought". They have the liberty to enjoy a home and their "addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations", including their love of flowers. The English "common people", who are not puritanical and are without definite religious belief, are never "caught up with power politics". Thus, "the gentleness of the English civilisation is perhaps its most marked characteristic" with its "hatred of war and militarism".

Much of Orwell's wartime writing was a variation on the theme. "Notes on Nationalism" was penned to distinguish his "patriotism" from the "nationalism" of all his opponents: political Catholics, communists, "Celtic" nationalists, "neo-Tories" and the left-wing British intelligentsia. A critique of Kipling softened criticism of English imperialism while attacking the "middle-class left": "The 19th-century Anglo-Indians . . . were, at any rate, people who did things. It may be that all that they did was evil, but they changed the face of the Earth (it is instructive to look at a map of Asia and compare the railway system of India with that of the surrounding countries), whereas they could have achieved nothing, could not have maintained themselves in power for a single week, if the normal Anglo-Indian outlook had been that of, say, E M Forster." And when Orwell looked at Charles Dickens, he found himself - a writer with the "almost exclusively moral" outlook that, "if men would behave decently, the world would be decent".

Little wonder, then, that Malcolm Muggeridge, who saw Orwell frequently during the war, called him "deeply conservative", or that George Woodcock, another friend, later wrote of his simultaneously radical and conservative Englishness. Little wonder also that, when the common man and his Home Guard did not shoulder arms for the New Society during the war, Orwell was stranded, his programme of "socialist" war aims in ruins: "The forces of reaction have won hands down . . . as to the real moral of the last three years - that the right has more guts and ability than the left - no one will face up to it."

George Orwell was not a socialist.

Let's hold this up to the spirit of Orwell, whose socialism consisted primarily of bashing other socialists; Orwell, who gave his admirers their lead when he wrote: "The direct conscious attack on intellectual decency comes from the intellectuals themselves"; Orwell, who even as he penned the nightmare of a state brooking no dissent, provided a list of the politically suspect to the British secret services.

Orwell had personal cause for animosity towards the British left. While serving with the Republican side in the Spanish civil war, he had been caught up in the acrimonious split between the communists and erstwhile allies such as the anarchists and the United Marxist Workers' Party (POUM); he and his wife narrowly escaped arrest by the Spanish authorities when they fled to France in June 1937. Homage to Catalonia is a vivid account of Orwell's time in Spain, but it is also a damning indictment of the press's prejudice against POUM and its whitewashing of communist actions.

However justified the anger, it sharply distorted Orwell's views. Even if communist manipulation, rather than political miscalculation or naivety, defined the left in 1938, Britain after Spain and after the Second World War was a far different country. Orwell never took the time to examine the changes. Instead, he used the same logic as experts such as the FBI director J Edgar Hoover, writing: "The actual number of communists and 'fellow travellers' is still only a few score thousands, and has no doubt dwindled over the past year. But while they have somewhat lost ground with the general public, they have now succeeded in capturing the leadership of several important unions, and in addition there is the group of 'underground' communist MPs - those MPs elected as Labour men, but secretly members of the CP or reliably sympathetic to it." The reds (and parlour pinks) were not only under the bed, but in parliament, the editorial office, the classroom, the labour union and most certainly among the literary elite; and when someone such as the left-wing MP Konni Zilliacus denied that he was a "crypto-communist", Orwell had the unanswerable rebuttal: "What else could he say?"

Orwell banged away in a negative key, his positive melody reduced to vestiges of Englishness - the perfect cup of tea, the consummate pub, the common toads - and the mantra of "freedom". An essay comparing crime fiction in Britain and the US, "Raffles and Miss Blandish", digressed to explain: "The countless English intellectuals who kiss the arse of Stalin are not different from the minority who give their allegiance to Hitler." In a critique of Jonathan Swift, he asserted that the author's "greatest contribution to political thought . . . is his attack . . . on what would now be called totali-tarianism". Orwell's essays on politics and literature not only shot arrows at Soviet communism, but targeted non-communist writers on the left, such as his long-time nemesis Harold Laski, as "unfree".

Orwell did battle scourges such as laissez-faire capitalism in the initial chapters of Animal Farm, and the machine society of 1984. Moreover, there are passing references in Orwell's columns and essays to his distrust of the American cultural and political monolith (even if Orwell has a strange reverence for the 19th-century United States as a liberal's paradise) and the possibility of a United States of Europe to counter both Washington and Moscow.

All this was overshadowed, however, as Orwell's obsession with the "vegetarians and communists whom one cannot answer" fostered gleeful readings of his work as not only anti-communist, but also anti-socialist. It wasn't just the newspaper vendor who excitedly told the historian Isaac Deutscher: "You must read [1984], sir. Then you will know why we must drop the atomic bomb on the Bolshies." Even 1984's publisher, Fredric Warburg, thought it "a deliberate and sadistic attack on socialism and socialist parties generally", which would be "worth a cool million votes to the Conservative Party". Orwell could only splutter that the Ingsoc of 1984 might stand for English socialism, but it didn't really stand for English socialism.

The grim reality was that Orwell had nothing left to offer, even as he issued a call "to make democratic socialism work". Instead, he would either jump or be pulled into an orchestrated campaign to discredit the left. He may have written in 1946, "The less spy-hunting that is indulged in, the better", but soon he would be influenced by allies of his crusade against communism. Crick, in a desperate defence of his subject, complained about Orwell being "claimed for the camp of the cold war, Encounter magazine and the CIA". Unfortunately, Orwell happily became one of the campers.

In the United States, "experts" such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr were helping foster McCarthyism long before Joseph McCarthy, writing in Life magazine: "With history breathing down their necks, communists are working overtime to expand party influence, open and covert, in the labour movement, among Negroes, among veterans, among unorganised liberals." Orwell echoed: "If [the communists] could get inside the Labour Party as an organised body, they might be able to do enormous mischief . . . The important thing to do with these people . . . is to sort them and to determine which one of them is honest and which is not." After no doubt carefully sorting "them", he happily joined Schlesinger and contacts such as Dwight Macdonald in the concerted attack on Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party's candidate in the 1948 US presidential campaign, as a fellow-traveller: "I am afraid W may well cause 'our' man [President Truman] to lose the election."

Schlesinger and Orwell would try to distinguish themselves from later red-hunters by claiming that the threat from communists and fellow-travellers was not a takeover of power, but a siphoning of support from the Democratic and Labour parties, allowing the right to take power in the US and Britain. By 1949, however, Orwell was in the company of more ardent cold-warriors. Arthur Koestler, with whom Orwell had spent the Christmas holidays in 1945 and developed a scheme for the "League for the Dignity of the Rights of Man", had become more strident in his anti-communism after a tour of the US in 1948; eventually, he would become one of the founding members of the CIA-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom. Celia Kirwan, Koestler's sister-in-law and the target of Orwell's affection in 1946, had moved from the London literary world to the shadows of the Information Research Department.

So, Orwell found his true calling as an anti-communist liberal, telling Kirwan that "he was delighted to learn of [the IRD's work] and expressed his wholehearted and enthusiastic approval of our aims". So he not only gave her his list, apparently annotated by Koestler, and laid out for her a network of anti-communist writers including "hordes of Ameri-cans" through journals such as Commentary, New Leader and Partisan Review; he also approached the Voice of America and the US Army in Germany to ask them to finance the dissemination of his work.

And so he had posthumous success. His new friends in the IRD turned Animal Farm into a comic strip for the "deve-loping" world of Asia and Latin America. By April 1951, Animal Farm and 1984 were the leading books in the State Department's psychological offensive, translated and published both overtly and covertly by American agencies. A year later, the US intelligence services obtained the rights to turn Animal Farm into a film. The price? Arranging for Orwell's widow, Sonia, to meet Clark Gable.

George Orwell was not a socialist.

Let's state this not as an intellectual exercise in "J'accuse" or as the ritual toppling of an icon. These are, as Christopher Hitchens might put it, "a party game" compared to the struggle for Orwell's reputation. When Orwell wrote of the image of Dickens in 1940, he idealised himself: "[This] is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry in other words, of a 19th-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls."

Praise, if you will, Orwell's fighting spirit, praise his generous anger, praise his free intelligence. Just remember that, no matter how smelly the orthodoxies, 19th-century liberalism and 20th-century anti-communism did not, and still do not, constitute socialism.

Scott Lucas is a specialist in culture and foreign policy at the University of Birmingham. He is currently working on a book about the life and writings of George Orwell

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.