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George Orwell: a literary revolutionary? - page 1

An essay and review of John Newsinger's book, Orwell's Politics (Macmillan Press, 1999), £42.50, by Anna Chen

This essay and review of George Orwell originally appeared in a left periodical in 1999.


George Orwell Anna Chen


The millennium will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of George Orwell, critic, novelist, essayist and polemicist, and one of the best loved and most frequently quoted British authors of the century. The political consciousness pervading his writing makes him a touchstone for a wide range of readers and "one of the major literary protagonists in the Cold War era". [1] His last two novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four, are acknowledged as modern classics, while his experience of working class life in Down and Out in London and Paris and The Road to Wigan Pier, and of revolutionary struggle betrayed in Homage to Catalonia, continue to inform and inspire generations of socialists.

Orwell's writing was the source of as much controversy during his life as it was when left and right fought over his literary corpse after his death. The right claimed him for themselves, "embracing him as an emotional conservative who had given terrible warning of the totalitarian logic inherent in the socialist cause [2], while the Stalinist dominated left were willing to give away the man H.G. Wells once described as the "Trotskyist with big feet". [3] Nineteen Eighty Four, Orwell's final novel and a satire of Stalinist Russia, has been defined as "the 'canonical text' of conservative anti-Communism, as 'the key imaginative manifesto of the Cold War' and gives Orwell the dubious honour of having 'invented ... a complete poetics of political invective'." [4] Isaac Deutscher, Marxist historian, famed anti-Stalinist and biographer of both Trotsky and Stalin, weighed into the debate, dismissing Orwell as "a 'simple minded anarchist' for whom any movement 'forfeited its raison d'etre the moment it acquired a raison d'etat'." [5] The 1970 publication of Orwell's miscellaneous writing under the title The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters provided a context for Orwell's best known books and put the Stalinists and right wingers on the back foot as a new generation of socialists, unfettered by loyalty to the Communist Party, broke through the claims and counter-claims. And in 1980 Bernard Crick's exhaustively researched biography, George Orwell: A Life, lifted Orwell out of the quagmire of malice and misinformation and placed him firmly on the left, albeit as a Tribune socialist grown shy of revolutionary politics. However, even this mild reclamation of Orwell for the reformist left proved too much for adherents to the Communist tradition. Their reaction plumbed new depths with the publication in 1984 of Inside The Myth: Orwell - Views from the Left, a collection of essays attacking Orwell, edited by Christopher Norris and published by Lawrence and Wishart, a book which Newsinger calls "an unholy alliance of feminists, cultural theorists and old fashioned Stalinists, dedicated to reversing his influence". [6]

Orwell's Politics by John Newsinger moves the debate a critical step further. Taking the end of the Cold War is "an ideal context for a reassessment" of Orwell's political ideas [7], Newsinger gives us a map of Orwell's intellectual terrain, and deftly orientates the reader around the key Orwellian debates- He examines how Orwell's politics developed in a changing world, and extracts a through-line strung like a piano wire through volatile circumstances, warring ideologies and intellectual sleight of hand in the century that promised workers in the saddle. Newsinger's thesis is that, although Orwell's politics shifted throughout his lifetime, the one constant was his unwavering socialism. What detractors - and even some admirers - have missed is that he never ceased to write from within the left, attacking the betrayal of the revolution rather than the revolution itself.

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© 1999 Anna Chen