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