George Orwell Was a Temperamental Conservative and Ideological Radical

George Orwell managed to combine a conservative temperament with a socialist rejection of oppression. A lively new biography of the English radical explains how he held these contradictions together.

George Orwell in 1949. (Levan Ramishvili / Flickr)

Complete ideological coherence is rarely a sign that someone has thought through every issue; more often, it proves that they haven’t thought at all. Few writers have produced a body of work as riven with contradiction as George Orwell. His friend, the literary critic V. S. Pritchett, said of him that “It was impossible to know such a straying and contradictory man well.” He seems to have compartmentalized his life, keeping even friends from seeing his whole personality. A fellow World War II Home Guard member only realized that he was a left-wing writer after several months. To another friend, he would speak of nothing but goats and geese.

The task which D. J. Taylor sets himself in Orwell: The New Life is to hold together Orwell’s many contradictions. Perhaps chief among these was that Orwell was the authentic voice of English radicalism, but by temperament he was a conservative — a “bohemian Tory,” as his friend Richard Rees called him. Eileen Blair, his first wife, said that The Lion and the Unicorn could be summarized in the following single sentence: “How to be a socialist while Tory.”

Orwell liked Milton’s phrase “by the known rules of ancient liberty” but unlike Milton, Orwell — the socialist republican soldier — said that if he had lived through the English Civil War he’d rather have been a Royalist Cavalier than a Republican Roundhead because the latter were “such dreary people.” As Taylor puts it, “Most of the really revealing moments in his work come when his convictions collide with his upbringing: the incongruity of criticising the Attlee government for not abolishing the House of Lords while putting up your adopted son for a public school seem scarcely to have occurred to him.” If the strength of Orwell’s prose stems from his seeing both sides of every issue, then it is Taylor’s triumph to have shown the lineaments of how Orwell’s convictions related to his upbringing.

From Toff to Socialist

Though there have been numerous biographies of Orwell, Taylor’s stands out for its style, which clearly betrays the enthusiasm he has for his subject. Like Orwell, Taylor has a talent for pacing anecdotes. He is at his most lively when writing about the culinary tastes of a writer who, let’s remember, once wrote a column in defense of English cooking.

“Eileen once went out for the night,” Taylor writes, “leaving a shepherd’s pie in the oven for her husband and a dish of eels on the floor for the cat, and came home to find that Orwell had eaten the eels.” There are, Taylor continues, “countless stories of Orwell avidly consuming food that even ration-hunted Londoners would happily have left on their plates.” During a Fleet Street luncheon with the anarchist essayist George Woodcock, consisting of boiled cod and turnips so foul that Woodcock sent them back to the kitchen, Orwell patted his stomach and remarked, “I never thought they’d have gone so well together.”

Why is the mental mood of every Orwell book that of a grim Monday morning, never of a lively Saturday evening? For instance, it has frequently been remarked of The Road to Wigan Pier that while Orwell excelled at conveying the working life of miners, he completely ignored their social life. Throughout the book there’s no mention of clubs or pubs, sport or music. It was, one critic said, as if he went out of his way not to notice the fact that working people could have fun.

Orwell had no love of the high life. It is of course rather easy for a man who thinks nothing of eating cat food from the floor to renounce fine wines, but one gets the impression that at least part of Orwell’s puritanism was for show. He liked nothing as much as publicly rebuking friends if he thought they enjoyed expensive things rather too much.

On one occasion he reproached a friend for ordering a “glass of beer” rather than a “pint of bitter,” thus proving himself insufficiently schooled in working-class language; when the friend replied that he was after all middle class, Orwell tutted that “there’s no need to boast about it.” But as Taylor writes, Orwell himself got found out when he took his friend Peter Vansittart to lunch on Fleet Street:

The thing was, Orwell told him, that with an accent like that and a tie like that you will never get the working classes to accept you as one of themselves. Sound advice, no doubt, but instantly undermined by the advent of the landlord, come in search of the next drinks order, who immediately addressed Vansittart as “Peter” and Orwell as “sir.”

Orwell, who obsessed about class in a distinctly English way, claimed that he belonged to the “lower-upper-middle class.” His family, he said, lived on “the shivering verge of gentility.” But this was a claim he made in The Road to Wigan Pier, his classic study of a poor mining community, where he had obvious interests in not seeming too posh.

Playing the Prole

Laziness prevented Orwell from going to Oxford. While his Eton classmates were reading Proust, he paged through staid if classic nineteenth century novels. He was the great-great-great-grandson of an earl, though as Taylor notes, that earl “was not some blue-blooded exquisite but a one-time Bristol merchant who inherited the title from his childless second cousin at the age of sixty-two.” His family had slid into the financial middle strata. He was from a social milieu in which people hunted and had household servants, but in practice his family was too skint to afford to do either; instead, their money went to keeping up appearances. That was why, Orwell noted, so many people in his circumstances served in the colonies. There one could play at being a gentleman on the cheap.

Orwell, Taylor remarks, was self-mythologizing, and one of the most persistent myths was of his poverty. There’s no doubt that Orwell, when he quit the Burma imperial police, was pretty strapped for cash; but his poverty has been rather overstated. Christopher Hitchens, for instance, said that Orwell died a “Dickensian death,” too poor to travel to the United States to receive new pharmaceuticals for tuberculosis. In fact, Labour’s Aneurin Bevan, then minister of health, personally helped secure the import of streptomycin for Orwell’s treatment.

Orwell had been comfortably off since he started working for the BBC in 1941 and outright rich once Animal Farm was published. But even when, in P. G. Wodehouse’s phrase, moths nested in Orwell’s wallet, he would frequently be accused of “selling out” because he had criticized “the cause,” although Soviet sympathizers tried to bar him from profiting from his labors — the NKVD agent Hans Peter Smolka, or “Peter Smollett,” blocked the publication of Animal Farm.

Still, by the end of his life Orwell wasn’t nearly as hard-up as his curated image would’ve led one to believe. He’d make a point of showing up to smart cocktail parties in his shabby corduroy suit, but everyone could plainly see that it had been cut by an expensive tailor. He never mentioned in Down and Out in Paris and London that his aunt lived a few blocks from the hotel where he was supposedly starving — he might, Taylor notes, have popped in for the occasional meal. And he likewise forgot to mention that he was only reduced to working as a plongeur because a prostitute nicked his wallet. Poverty, it seems, suited his melodramatic streak: he once chopped up his son’s toys for firewood, which struck one of his friends as rather excessive, as if he wanted to write, “Things had got so bad in the winter of 1945–6 that. . .”

Orwell had no belief in god but was intensely superstitious — throwing salt over his shoulder, consulting horoscopes. He revered, moreover, the Anglican liturgy and was a regular churchgoer well into the ’30s. I hadn’t known before reading Taylor’s biography that he was unusually well-versed in contemporary theological disputes, and as Taylor remarks, he objected strongly to blasphemy. Of course, Orwell was by no means the only unbeliever who found Christian poetry moving, but he linked society’s loss of faith to the looming threat of totalitarianism. On the very last day of his life, he wondered: “Can we get men to behave decently to each other if they no longer believe in God?” He hoped that socialism could hold society together, but should it fail, the loss of religion would lead to fascism; his friend Malcolm Muggeridge convinced him that “the modern cult of power worship is bound up with modern man’s feelings that life here and now is the only life there is.” Orwell thus trod the path every conservative “cultural Christian” would follow.

One might have expected Orwell, with his famous belief in the “power of facing unpleasant facts,” to have taken the socialists’ line that the revolution had to be postponed until the war had been won, but instead he sided with the Trotsky-influenced POUM (The Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification). Orwell blamed the Soviet Union for betraying the Spanish revolutionary spirit by killing its critics. Homage to Catalonia was a profoundly brave book. It sold pitifully, but it nonetheless earned Orwell the Stalinists’ hatred. The publisher Victor Gollancz refused to print it, claiming that though he concurred with Orwell’s views of the Soviet Union, it would be put to propagandistic use by the political right. Contemptible? Certainly. But Gollancz was right that it’d be instrumentalized to blacken the Republic’s image. It is invariably cited to shore up the view that the Spanish Civil War was fought between two equally bad totalitarian sides.

Homage to Catalonia is by far the most widely read book on the Spanish Civil War. More importantly, it’s often the only book people read on the subject. That, of course, isn’t Orwell’s fault; but when people say that Orwell got the Spanish Civil War “right,” what they fail to notice is that Homage to Catalonia had very little to say of the conflict itself or its precipitating factors. As reportage of what it was like for a foreign fighter in Spain, Homage is near perfect, but Orwell had no larger picture: for instance, he completely misunderstood the Barcelona May Days. Despite, however, every crime perpetrated by the Spanish Republic, he still remained on its side. “The question,” he said, “is very simple”:

Shall the common man be pushed back into the mud, or shall he not? I myself believe, perhaps on insufficient grounds, that the common man will win his fight sooner or later, but I want it to be sooner and not later — some time within the next hundred years, say, and not some time within the next ten thousand years. That was the real issue of the Spanish war.

That passage is classic Orwell. The language is immediate; the metaphor is forceful; there’s the invocation of “common decency,” Orwell’s favorite virtue; and above all, there’s the insistence that things are simpler than they seem. Intellectuals tell people that every issue is riven by complexities, but Orwell belonged to the tradition of polemical pamphleteers who saw it as their obligation to cut through obfuscatory babble. There’s something to be said for that tradition. Doesn’t everyone know that when intellectuals speak of something’s “complex history,” they’re preparing to invite us to shrug passively in the face of oppression? It is, in other words, up to intellectuals to be reductive from time to time. But Orwell can’t be entirely cleared from the charge of anti-intellectualism. He famously said that some things were so stupid that they could only be believed by intellectuals; and he claimed that seeing a sailor steal a meal taught him more than a handful of socialist pamphlets ever could — it sounds good until one asks what precisely he learned, at which point it sounds silly.

However, Taylor is surely correct when he says that Orwell’s generalizations serve a purpose. “The sheer provocativeness of Orwell’s writing is one of his greatest merits,” Taylor says, which is exactly right. Taylor notes that Pritchett, “inspecting a specimen sentence which began ‘It is unquestionably true that,’” remarked that the best thing about that rather controvertible statement was the notion of unquestionable truth. Orwell littered his prose with, in Taylor’s phrase, “grotesque generalizations,” like the sentence that “All tobacconists are fascists,” but they’re perhaps not as grotesque as they seem:

At one level this is simply a kind of effrontery, a writer daring you to take issue with something which is so obviously worth taking issue with, but there’s also something insidious about it, the hint of a deeper purpose unobtrusively at work. As Muggeridge put it, when confronted with the line about all tobacconists being fascists, you begin by dismissing it out of hand, only to end up wondering if there isn’t something supremely odd about that tribe of sequestered middle-aged men brooding away behind their duty shop-counters.

Small business owners have, of course, been one of the social bases for fascist parties, and Orwell, in his typically provocative style, had a way to tease at this point playfully.

Naming Names

The experience of Spain shaped Orwell fundamentally. “He went to Spain,” Taylor writes, “politically naive and came back disillusioned by some of the deceits he had witnessed but also determined that the mass idealism of which he had been a part could be exported to his own country’s politics.” It was, for example, significant that he only joined a political party — the Independent Labour Party — after he returned from the war. He had been on the left before going to Spain, but it was there that he became a proper socialist: he learned what totalitarianism meant by seeing how the history of the Soviet Union’s crimes in Spain had been falsified. In short, it was in Spain that he became a committed anti-Stalinist. This, however, meant that for Orwell his move to the left was bound inextricably to an anti-Bolshevism which occasionally took ugly forms.

It is, I think, in that light we must see his so-called “list.” Towards the very end of his life, when his lungs had all but collapsed, Orwell was approached by his old flame Celia Kirwan, then in the employ of the Information Research Department (IRD), the Foreign Office’s propaganda outfit tasked with countering Soviet influence in eastern Europe. Could he, Kirwan asked, provide the names of people he thought ill-suited to write anti-communist pamphlets? Naturally, he could: he sent Rees to bring him a notebook with a list of crypto-communists and fellow-travelers that he wanted to “bring up to date.” This episode has often been cited as evidence that Orwell was a government informant — the ultimate tu quoque.

Taylor, however, calls such charges “nonsense.” There was, he writes, a “need for such a compilation in a world where, as Celia once recalled, one of her colleagues on the nearby China Desk was none other than Guy Burgess,” the British diplomat who was later discovered to be a Soviet double agent. Besides, “most of those named on the list were merely being quietly excluded from a job which their political sympathies disqualified them from performing.” And the list bears the mark of its origin as, in Rees’s words, “a sort of game we played — discovering who was a paid agent of what and estimating to what lengths of treachery our favourite bêtes noires were prepared to go.” Most of the people on the list weren’t Orwell’s personal acquaintances but public figures, like Charlie Chaplin or the Scottish Marxist poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and the only one Orwell accused of being a Soviet spy, Smollett, was of course a spy. The rest were treated much like New Statesman editor Kingsley Martin: “Too dishonest to be outright ‘crypto.’”

That’s not exactly comparable to the NKVD’s inquisitorial tactics. Still, I’d perhaps be a shade less categorical than Taylor. Orwell couldn’t know how the IRD would use the information, and we’re not likely to learn the precise consequences for the people on the list: we can hardly expect the Foreign Office to tell us if they had someone surveilled or someone else’s visa revoked because of it. And when officialdom recruits a new informant, they make the first stem seem as casual as possible — in that regard, the parlor-game notebook is entirely typical. And yet, it is hard to imagine Orwell ever becoming a proper informant because he was firmly opposed to secretive, official interrogations. He involved himself with the Freedom Defence Committee, which campaigned to protect government employees suspected of communist sympathies: they argued that no information provided by the secret services should be used unless corroborated, hostile witnesses should be open to cross-examination, and the accused should at all times have either a lawyer or a union representative.

Orwell’s time in Spain illustrates yet another contradiction: he was on the one hand keenly English, even provincially so, while on the other hand he was genuinely internationalist. He traveled to Spain, but it was really only once he came back to London that he bothered learning anything about Spanish culture or history. He lived far more happily in British backwaters than in cosmopolitan London. He liked Englishness, with its eccentric customs and traditions: the cheap tea brewed the proper way, the pubs with local casks. Yet he was one quarter French and spoke it fluently; moreover, he learned a few local languages when he served in the Burmese Imperial Police. But except for his time in the colonies, he lived nearly his whole life in England. He remained suspicious of American culture, in the supercilious yet vulgar way that was so common in mid-century Europe. It is, I think, the fact that Orwell was a provincial internationalist that has made it so easy for both the political left and right to claim him for their side.