Orwell the Leftist
David Ramsay Steele, a libertarian activist, an author, and the editorial director of Open Court Publishing Company, has produced a truly extraordinary work on the English novelist and political critic George Orwell. It's not the case that there aren't other studies of Orwell, whose two allegorical novels Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm are still widely read and whose strictures on totalitarian collectivism are well known, even if frequently ignored. But the problem Steele addresses in Orwell, Your Orwell: A Worldview on the Slab is the stereotypical nature of biographical treatments of his subject. Contrary to the overwhelming evidence that Steele adduces "that Orwell's key positions were held by many on the Left and usually by the majority," there is a veritable cottage industry for singing the praises of Orwell. In these tributes Orwell is celebrated as a uniquely independent thinker and a "habitual dissident," who just happened to be a socialist until his last day on Earth.
Steele correctly identifies this reading with a certain type of center-leftist, who considers himself a progressive but rejects totalitarian solutions. Not surprisingly, neoconservative literature provides the same kind of reading of Orwell. Indeed, Norman Podhoretz has just published an article in Harper's, "If Orwell Were Alive Today," (1983) claiming the English socialist as a precursor. But the author whom Steele seems to be contending with directly or indirectly throughout his polemic is the late Christopher Hitchens. Among his flowing tributes to Orwell, Hitchens in 2002 published a tome with Basic Books, Why Orwell Matters. The appearance of that tribute may have contributed to Steele's decision to write his revisionist work. Like Hitchens, he believes that Orwell "matters." "Although Orwell was not an original thinker, and his ideas, broadly characterized, were all fairly standard for his time and social position, he had a superb gift for formulating these ideas sharply, so that their implications appeared fresh and startling. These writings sparkle with polemical virtuosity; they throb with life. They will make entertaining and enlightening reading for centuries to come."
Where Steele clearly parts company with his fellow atheist and onetime companion on the socialist left is in Hitchens's glorification of Orwell as an infallible defender of political morality and historical truth. Steele observes that although Orwell was a "great writer," his greatness "does not reside in his being right while others were wrong." "Orwell was sometimes wrong to the point of silliness where some of his contemporaries were right. And Orwell never – not once – adopted a dangerously isolated position." Orwell's writings, most memorably Nineteen Eighty-Four, are full of warnings about collectivism. Further, the one permissible party in the tyrannical region of Oceania was Ingsoc (named for English Socialism). Yet, as Steele notes, the man who wrote that grim warning against collectivism was a dyed-in-the-wool socialist. He continued to distinguish between "oligarchical collectivism" and "socialist collectivism," assuming that the latter was superior to the former. Moreover, like Marxists, he believed that the replacement of capitalism by socialism was historically inevitable and morally just.
When Nineteen Eighty-Four came out in post-World War II England, Orwell was still deploring the fact that the Labor Party, which was then in power, didn't go far enough in nationalizing production and redistributing earnings. Throughout the 1930s, as Steele demonstrates, he never deviated from the standard leftist politics of the time. Orwell was against war with "fascism" when others on the left took that position, and he changed his mind when they did. Although on the left, Orwell opposed Stalin's rule in the Soviet Union, but he did so without renouncing his attachment to other revolutionary socialist causes. In 1937, he went to fight in the Spanish civil war with a Trotskyist Marxist organization, POUM (Partido Obrero Unificación Marxista), against the right-wing Nationalists. The autobiographical work that came out of that experience in 1938, Homage to Catalonia, helped create a legend on the anti-Stalinist left that has remained operative until the present. The supposed good guys, the anti-Stalinist left, lost that war to "fascism" because the Stalinist communists turned on them on orders from Moscow.
As the historian Stanley Payne has documented, it was the non-Soviet-controlled left that caused the right-wing insurgency after unleashing an orgy of murders and bombings directed against Catholics and the left's political opposition. Much of what the Muscovites did was aimed at limiting the destruction caused by anarchists and others on the Republican side. Neither side in that struggle was tolerant or forgiving; both engaged in reckless killing throughout the bloody conflict, although the Nationalists did most of their slaughtering after they won the war. The continued praise of the good "loyalists," the non-Stalinists on the Republican side, has remained a mantra even among those who today style themselves "conservatives." That long-lived fiction makes an appearance on the closing pages of Homage to Catalonia. There Orwell portentously asserts that the just cause had lost in Spain, but presumably this would not have happened if the Soviets had not undermined the true leftists engaged in the war against fascism. In the first American edition, published in 1952, this legend is reinforced in Lionel Trilling's iconic introduction. Here, in what Trilling calls "one of the most important documents of our time," we learn from an observer of supposedly impeccable judgment about how the communists betrayed "a defense of democracy from a fascist enemy." Among the charges that Trilling and Orwell both level against the communists in Spain is their decision to withhold military supplies from anarchist units. Given the havoc wrought by those units, we may be permitted to congratulate the communists on that call.
There are two misjudgments in Steele's otherwise magnificent study that warrant mention. First, the author insists that the left in Orwell's day was much more leftist than it is today, but the evidence he offers is limited. Steele tells us that under the leadership of Hugh Gaitskell between 1951 and 1964, the Labor Party moved away from earlier plans to continue its program of nationalization. Although under Tony Blair's tenure as prime minister from 1997 until 2007 the Labor Party was far less socialist in the classical sense than it had been after the Second World War, the English left was more radically leftist in other ways. It became interested in imposing political correctness at the price of traditional civil liberties, and it criminalized what it considered hate speech. What has happened is not that the left has become less leftist since Orwell's life. Rather it has changed the manner in which it intends to restrict liberty. It has also actively encouraged third-world immigration as a way of changing England culturally.
Steele also insists that Orwell decided against democracy when he opted for socialism. But there is no reason to believe that socialist programs are "undemocratic" if a majority votes for those who favor such programs. The steady expansion of suffrage and the creation of massive welfare states have occurred simultaneously in the West. Like his libertarian heroes Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, Steele gives us a carefully massaged concept of democracy, which he identifies with the protection of private property. What all these defenders of economic liberty are describing is the bourgeois liberal stage of Western political development before the advent of modern democracy. Steele would have been on firmer ground if he used the phrase "traditional liberal freedoms" instead of "democracy" when he clearly meant the former.