'Making Political Writing Into An Art' - Celebrating the Centenary of Orwell's Birth
by Jean-Christophe Peuch
Radio Free Europe, June 2003


The 100th anniversary of the birth of George Orwell, the maverick British novelist whose works Animal Farm and 1984 have left an indelible imprint on world literature, will be marked on 25 June. RFE/RL takes a look at the life of a man who, according to his biographer, turned political writing into an art.


Prague, 23 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "In a peaceful age, I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer."

These words, taken from George Orwell's 1946 essay Why I Write, sound almost like an apology. The author of "Animal Farm" goes on to say that, were it not for his strong political views, he might never have fulfilled himself as a writer.

"Looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives, and humbug generally."

Some critics, such as D.S. Savage, have argued that Orwell could never rank among the world's best writers because his political views stripped him of "the integrity of the pure artist."

But others, who endorse Orwell's view that no book is genuinely free from political bias, consider him a major literary figure of the 20th century.

Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in Bengal on 25 June 1903, the second child of a British civil servant in the Opium Service. A few months after his birth, he moved with his mother and elder sister to England.

After an unhappy period at Eton College -- which he would describe bitterly in a 1947 essay called Such, Such Were The Joys -- Orwell failed to win a scholarship to university and, in 1922, enlisted in Burma's Indian Imperial Police. Yet, his growing dislike of British imperialism led to his resignation and, almost penniless, he returned to Europe five years later.

Sir Bernard Crick, a professor emeritus of politics at London's Birkbeck College, is the author of "George Orwell: A Life," an authoritative biography of the British novelist. He tells RFE/RL that very early in life, Orwell showed an interest in the working class.

"Orwell was a very austere and puritanical kind of man," Crick says. "He went to one of the most famous private schools in England, but he was very skeptical of the system and he always wanted to know how the poor lived. He served for a while in the Burma police in the old imperial days and he sort of came back to England saying he wanted to know if we treated our natives -- meaning our working class -- the way we treated the natives in Burma. And, on the whole, he thought we did."

For some time after his return, Orwell lived a hand-to-mouth existence, disguising himself as a tramp and working odd jobs in both England and France.

The experience provided him with unique material for his first novel, Down and Out in Paris and London. Published in 1933, the book met with critical acclaim despite suffering from the flaws inherent to many first books. Written as a series of sketches, "Down and Out" describes life on the fringes of British and French societies and some of its characters have been compared to those of 19th century British novelist Charles Dickens.

Four years later, Orwell published another vivid account of Britain's lower class in the non-fiction The Road To Wigan Pier. The work was the result of a two-month pilgrimage through the mineshafts, docks, and shabby neighborhoods of Lancashire and Yorkshire.

It was during this period that Orwell developed the taste for the simple, bohemian lifestyle that marked the rest of his years. It was also the time that spawned his deep political commitment. The former British colonial policemen had already nurtured a profound distaste for any form of imperialism, but had not yet begun to think of himself as a socialist.

"The Road To Wigan Pier" ends with a profession of faith in socialism, which Orwell saw as the only rampart against the rising tide of fascism. Yet in the book the writer strongly warns against slavishly imitating the Soviet Union and contemplating the world through the distorting prism of orthodox Marxist ideology.

"We need intelligent propaganda. Less about 'class consciousness,' 'expropriation of the expropriators,' 'bourgeois ideology,' and 'proletarian solidarity'...and more about justice, liberty, and the plight of the unemployed. And less about mechanical progress, tractors, the Dnieper dam, and the latest salmon-canning factory in Moscow; that kind of thing is not an integral part of the Socialist doctrine, and it drives away many people whom the Socialist cause needs, including those who can hold a pen," Orwell wrote.

When The Road To Wigan Pier was published in 1937, Orwell was in Spain, fighting fascist troops on the Aragon front.

Orwell had departed from England with the intention of merely reporting on military operations for British left-wing newspapers, but it wasn't long before he had joined the armed militias of the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM).

Despite being a devoted socialist who believed in a classless society, he never really identified himself with any particular political group. He joined the Independent Labour Party after his return from Spain only to leave it within just a few months. Years later, he would claim that "a writer can only remain honest if he keeps free of party labels."

In Aragon and later in Barcelona, Orwell was a direct witness to the repression of the anarchist movement by the Soviet secret police. POUM was brutally suppressed by Spain's Republican government under pressure from Moscow. Facing arrest by agents of Josef Stalin, Orwell and his wife Eileen hurriedly left Spain through France.

Published in 1938, Orwell's Homage To Catalonia is not only a first-hand account of the Spanish Civil War, it is also a fierce denunciation of Stalin's thirst for domination over the left-wing movement worldwide. The book, now considered a classic, at the time received a lukewarm reception -- in part because public opinion in England believed that telling the truth about Stalin and Spain might serve fascist interests.

Although Orwell abandoned his pacifism in fighting the Spanish Civil War, chronic respiratory problems and the after-effects of a wound received in Spain kept him from enlisting in the British army during World War II. After two years with the BBC's Far Eastern Service, he joined the left-wing "Tribune" newspaper as an editor, where he remained until the war ended.

The immediate postwar period brought Orwell both artistic maturity and worldwide fame.

In August 1945, just days after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a little book called "Animal Farm" appeared in London bookstalls.

Orwell said he first conceived of the novel in 1937, but didn't write it until the end of 1943. It is arguably his finest work.

A biting satire of the Soviet Union, the book tells the story of a group of farm animals who declare war on mankind, rebel against their master, and establish a phalanstery in which all animals would be equal. Gradually, the group's pigs -- led by the chillingly sinister characters of Snowball and Napoleon -- take charge of the revolution and rule over the other animals through coercion and privation. The book shows the evolution of an elite group into a personal dictatorship as the ruling pigs turn into human beings.

In "Why I Write," Orwell admitted that his experience during the Spanish Civil War had exerted a great influence on his political thinking and, consequently, on his writing.

"The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.... My book about the Spanish Civil War, 'Homage to Catalonia,' is of course a frankly political book, but in the main it is written with a certain detachment and regard for form.... 'Animal Farm' was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole."

Between the lines of "Animal Farm" the figures of Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky emerge, as does the Kronstadt uprising, political propaganda, censorship, shortages, five-year economic plans, forced collectivization, the 1932 famine in Ukraine, Stalin's pre-war ties with Hitler's Germany, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and other grim milestones of Soviet history.

Orwell never concealed that his book was primarily intended as a critique of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. But, as he himself wrote in a letter to Dwight MacDonald, the editor of the New York magazine "Politics," his satire was generally aimed at "violent conspiratorial revolutions, led by unconsciously power-hungry people," which can only "lead to a change of masters."

Orwell's biographer Crick says, "'Animal Farm' is a lament for a revolution that failed, a lament for the destruction of the old Bolsheviks by the Stalinists, a lament for the destruction of freedom of artistic expression, of all the hopes that were attached to the early stages of the Russian revolution. It is a bitter lament on the corruption of idealism by power."

Orwell's second masterpiece, "1984," was published in 1949, a few months before his death.

This nightmarish vision of the future bears the traces of Irish-born 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift and two of Orwell's contemporaries -- British novelist Aldous Huxley and Russian writer Yevgeni Zamyatin. It portrays a world divided into three rival superstates -- Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia -- and constantly at war. Britain, now known as Airstrip One, is part of a vast empire in which the lives of citizens are regulated by the ministries of Peace, Truth, Love, and Plenty -- respectively responsible for war, propaganda, security, and a centralized economy.

Oceania's ruling power is known simply as "the Party." Giant portraits of its omnipresent leader, Big Brother, cover every public building.

In Oceania, Party members express themselves in Newspeak, a new language made of abbreviations and acronyms, whose aim is "to narrow the range of thought" and erase all reminiscences of the past because "orthodoxy means unconsciousness."

In Oceania, the apartment houses of the masses smell of cabbage from top to bottom, water pipes regularly burst, and chocolate is "dull-brown crumbly stuff that tastes like the smoke of a rubbish fire." But Oceania's Party elite live in luxurious flats and enjoy sugar, white bread, and fresh coffee beans.

All aspects of life in Oceania are permeated with the principles of "Ingsoc," or English Socialism in Newspeak. It is the ideology of the ruling party, which inculcates in every single citizen that 2 + 2 = 5 and that "War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength."

Although "1984" was widely regarded as one of the fiercest attacks against the Soviet system ever written, Orwell maintained the work was meant as a warning against the threat of totalitarianism anywhere in the world.

As Orwell once said, "1984" is not a denunciation of socialism -- up until his death he remained faithful to his political ideal. Instead, he said it was an assault on the perversions of socialism generated by both communism and fascism. Neither was it a prophecy, contrary to what its title -- an inversion of the last two digits of 1948, the year the book was completed -- might suggest.

Crick says, "[In 1984], the revolution has taken place but it has turned completely sour. The party that came to power, whoever [it is], has been completely corrupted by power. Now, I don't think for one moment that Orwell thought [this vision of the future] was particularly likely to happen. [The novel] is a mixture of a satire and a warning. [It] is certainly not a prophecy. It is an artistic achievement of pessimism, just like -- indeed, very like -- Jonathan Swift's 'Gulliver's Travels' was a picture of a debased humanity."

While Orwell was polishing "1984" on the Scottish island of Jura, he became ill and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He died in a London hospital on 21 January 1950, at the age of 46.

In the words of his biographer, Orwell has marked his place in the history of literature as a man who succeeded in "making political writing into an art."

But for him, politics and literature were equally important. "Orwell tried [both]," Crick says. "And I think he succeeded in that."


- RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke contributed to the audio version of this report.






Note: The copyright for this article is held by the original content creator.