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Saturday, June 26, 2004
Orwell the anti-socialist trumps Orwell the socialist

Over at Harry's, American leftie Gene Zitver notes that yesterday would have been George Orwell's 101st birthday, and expresses an understandable exasperation with the degree to which the Right has laid claim to the memory of this leading twentieth century socialist.

One of the frustrations of being a left-wing admirer of Orwell is dealing with those on the Right who -- because of his devastating depictions of Soviet totalitarianism -- try to claim him as one of their own

As with the much longer post Gene quotes, the suggestion is that Orwell's professed politics should trump any claims made on him by those not of his democratic socialist tradition. I'm not so sure.

First, it should of course be noted that there is no reasonable sense in which one political camp could ever lay claim to a particular figure to the exclusion of all outside it. People can draw inspiration from all manner of sources, and the capacity to do so is surely a good thing. Despite my obviously conservative credentials and views, I can see features worth admiring in such left-wing, liberal and radical figures as Oliver Cromwell, William Ewart Gladstone, John Stuart Mill, Nye Bevan, Hugh Gaitskell, Richard Perle and Nick Cohen. I don't understand any view that would lay claim to the views and thinking of these men to the extent that my respect for them would cease to exist or to count. I'm with Jonah Goldberg when it comes to those narcissists who love to beat their chests about how their own carefully-judged independent views won't fit into any party box, as if anyone who does go along with a particular party is some thoughtless drone. But that doesn't mean huge numbers cannot find inspiration in the actions and writings of those not of their side. Political thought is a continuous spectrum, not a discrete series of mutually exclusive theologies. There is no good reason to deny that a conservative can claim inspiration and motivation from a thinker as complex and contemplative as George Orwell.

Second, one has to ask why Orwell is so important, why he remains a household name half a century after his death. It seems difficult to argue that it has anything to do with his socialism. I'd certainly lay no claim to expertise when it comes to his ideas, but I've read enough of his works to make the sort of judgement that would be common to most people familiar with some of what he has written.

And in none of those works, in none of what I have read of his ideas as described by others, have I come across a case for socialism either remarkable or memorable. His sympathetic portrait of tramps in Down and Out in Paris and London sticks in my mind, but only an already convinced socialist would argue that the discovery that poor people have a hard time of it provides in itself an argument that the Left have the means of solving such problems. Orwell's socialism was in many ways among the least interesting, least informative things about him. He is remembered and revered not for holding some left-wing views, but for his phenomenal and piercing insights into what we can broadly call his fellow travellers. It wasn't merely communists, but fellow left-wingers too, whom he was able to criticise so vigorously and devastatingly. The details of his two great works warning against (especially communist) totalitarianism won't require repeating. But what of his comment that "as with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for socialism is its adherents"? What of his deep and rebellious patriotism, even more lacking in the British Left today than then, a quality whose absence led Orwell to charge that "any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during 'God save the King' than of stealing from a poor box"? It was this legacy that made Orwell a legend, that confirmed his place in literary and political history. If he'd remained simply a very experienced and eloquent polemicist for socialism all his life, would all his books be in print today?

Set against this reality, the fact that Orwell was himself a socialist is almost an irrelevance, rather like the fact that Karl Marx denied he was a Marxist. By their words and deeds are both judged. And Orwell's words and deeds may have formed the basis of constructive criticism, may well have improved the left, and probably did form in the back of most minds a slight wariness of any move towards the ultimate compassionate nanny state, Big Brother. But the most important parts of Orwell's legacy have more to comfort Right than Left. While different people could quite legitimately say that reading George Orwell led them to feel more secure either as lefties or as conservatives, I suspect that the latter group would be far larger, and rightly so.

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