No political event in memory has been as shocking and bewildering as Donald Trump’s election. It doesn’t seem to belong to our history, the history we had and thought we would go on having. How to figure out what’s happened? Where to turn?
Strange as it may seem, many of us turned to George Orwell. In the wake of Trump’s victory, Orwell’s famous, post-World War II dystopian novel, 1984, shot to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list.
But I doubt whether many of those who read, or reread, Orwell found quite what they were looking for. His messages are too ambiguous, too bleak, to help us face Trumpism.
There are, let’s say, two Orwells.
First, the author of Animal Farm and 1984: prophet of totalitarianization, the thought police, and doublespeak; probably the most famous 20th-century writer of them all.
Second, the less well-known Orwell: participant witness of depression-era poverty; the down-to-earth, truth-telling, socialist journalist; the sometime revolutionary and caustic critic of Left pieties.
Let’s make that three Orwells. For there is also the bohemian (but an upright bohemian) seeker of satisfactions in a capitalist society, which—as he sees it—is losing religion, tradition, beauty, and communal spirit, a society administered by posers, liars, and thieves. A critical celebrant of ordinary English culture, not just in his writing but in his life. It is this third figure that the one-time imperial policeman Eric Blair began to inhabit when he published his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) as “George Orwell.”
Orwell attempted to live and write as a combative, independent, classless, unpretentious bohemian in a failing society.
Is it easy to connect these various Orwells? Less than you might expect. But we can try by telling the story of Blair’s career, in which, as it turns out, they appear in reverse order.
Blair was born in 1903 to a bourgeois family who served the Raj. After attending Eton on a scholarship, he skipped Oxbridge to join the Indian Imperial Police, marking himself out from most other writers of his class. But on realizing that he couldn’t stomach practical imperialism, he quit after five years to make his way in Europe as a writer. He soon found himself working in casual jobs to support himself. At this time too he sometimes passed as homeless in the search for experiences that he could write up. This is when our third Orwell emerges—the bohemian participant in, and searcher for, ordinary ways of life.
In 1931, he uncovered what would become his characteristic, direct, colloquial style. He did so in two essays, “The Spike” and “A Hanging,” which are versions of each other, even though the first is about an experience as a tramp in England and the second about overseeing a criminal’s execution in Burma. “The Spike” begins: “It was late-afternoon. Forty-nine of us, forty-eight men and one woman, lay on the green waiting for the spike to open,” and “A Hanging”: “It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains. A sickly light, like yellow tinfoil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard. We were waiting outside the condemned cells …” In both, a “we” waits passively for a grueling event. In both, that “we” covers all participants of whatever race, class, or gender. In both, the narration will be interrupted by an “I,” as well as, more surreptitiously, by judgments and expressions of disgust, which, despite everything, express a bourgeois or literary sensibility (that “sickly” Burmese dawn-light, that surreal “yellow tin-foil”). Both essays end, however, with all the event’s participants being drawn together again after their bad experience, if only for a moment. This structure, whose logic is sacrificial, also organizes Orwell’s most famous essay, “Shooting an Elephant,” which appeared some years later.
In 1933, a version of “The Spike” was republished in Down and Out in Paris and London. Down and Out loosely fictionalized Blair’s experiences both as a dishwasher in Paris and as an itinerant in England, consolidating his transparent style by connecting it to his persona as a cross-class adventurer. This is not to say that the style was Blair’s invention. He inherited it from two writers he had admired as a schoolboy and whose resolutely secular ethos he imitated as an adult: the Tory writer Samuel Butler (perhaps the first modern English upper-middle-class man publicly and programmatically to refuse the office of “gentleman”), and the American socialist Jack London, who specialized, among other things, in communicating proletarian conditions to a wide readership. But this inheritance did not yet lead Blair to a politics. In his early works, he was trying to strip precarious experience down to where it stopped being classed, locating it as much as possible in the body and senses, and especially (famously) in smells.
Now established as George Orwell, Blair published three novels in quick succession—Burmese Days in 1934, A Clergyman’s Daughter in 1935, and Keep the Aspidistra Flying in 1936. Written in a conventionally novelistic voice, they (with the partial exception of A Clergyman’s Daughter) avoid modernism. Two of them are pretty imitative: Burmese Days of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924) and The Clergyman’s Daughter of Butler’s The Way of All Flesh (1903). None are, I think, wholly successful in literary terms: their stories veer into implausibility; they contain one-dimensional characters; their plot and characterization are insufficiently harmonized. But for all that, they make important contributions to the period’s literature.
That’s because they are about alienated individuals who function as vehicles for wide-ranging critique. Keep the Aspidistra Flying concedes little even to, well, Adorno’s Minima Moralia in its denunciation of capitalism’s depredations on beauty, nature, and society (to say nothing of its denunciation of a complacent literary establishment).
Actually this is to understate the novels’ effect. In the end, they remain powerful because they are so skeptical. It is not just that they too do not commit to a politics, but that they don’t even uphold the value of being a particular person who undergoes particular experiences, a belief that had long carried the novel genre as a whole.
All Orwell’s novels set in England end with their alienated heroes losing their individuality and being reconciled to the social order. They were, as was said, conformist. Yet because their characters’ personalities are so flimsy not much is at stake in this. Characters suffer psychological and social abasements that elude moral and political judgment. The novels’ critiques are, we might say, haunting in their emptiness.
In 1936, following a suggestion by his publisher, Victor Gollancz, Orwell visited depressed Northern mining districts to report on conditions there. This trip politicized him at last. He became a socialist, although, importantly, not a humanist socialist, since he seems never to have believed that a collective will to justice might fulfill human potential.
When his account of his northern trip was published as The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), it came as a shock. Its first half was, as expected, a concrete description of what it is like to live and work in mining communities during a period of mass unemployment; a description which (from across a class divide) affirms the northern working-class’s warmth, solidarity, and loyalty.
But the book’s second half mounted a multipronged attack on bourgeois socialism. Metropolitan socialists, so said Orwell, live off the profits earned from workers’ labor as well as from imperialism. Because of this, they are constitutively unable to imagine a world not based on oppression, and their worldview is streaked by “soggy sentimentality.” They are routinely smitten by ameliorative projects that don’t take reality into account. They tend to be “cranks” who lack the intellectual and moral resources to convert workers to their cause.
For Orwell, bourgeois socialism is also a dead-end because its vision of the future is barren. At the best it offers a future in which technology sets people free from work. But, Orwell insists, workers don’t want to be freed from work. They don’t want progress. Nor do they want to live in a world seconded to machines. They want to live in a world more like the one they that have inherited: one that honors religion, tradition, patriotism, military virtues, but does so decently, justly. A world more like the one that fascism, not socialism, promises.
By the time that The Road to Wigan Pier sparked a controversy among the Left, Orwell was in Catalonia. Arriving in a revolutionary workers-republic, he immediately enlisted as an anti-fascist fighter. By chance, he joined the militia organized by the anti-Bolshevist Marxist Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM). This intensified his skeptical analysis of the Left. As he saw it, the Communists (Stalinists, backed by Russia) along with the leftist Spanish government were, unlike POUM, counterrevolutionaries, despite being at war with Franco. As such, they were incapable of establishing a society capable of resisting fascism. Now his contempt for bourgeois Socialists was joined by his hatred of official Communist parties, and so the second of our Orwells—the socialist critic of socialism—was at last fully formed.
It is ironic that Orwell’s secular, left-wing, fictional prophecy points, if anywhere, to values like those of his longtime opponent T. S. Eliot.
When Orwell returned to England he was famous. In 1940 he published Inside the Whale, a collection of literary-critical essays that (as Alex Woloch notes) counts among his most solid achievements. During the war, in a mood of critical patriotism, he wrote two more books on England’s culture and spirit, neither of which reads well now. He thought of writing a study of Joseph Conrad, in an effort (as I think) to produce a more critical and serious literary culture.
But his future lay elsewhere.
His hatred of Stalinism led him to write the two speculative fictions that have made him, to this day, a household name, admired not least by conservatives. At this point, of course, our first Orwell appears.
Animal Farm (1945) is, as we know, a Swiftian animal fable that supposes that inequality can (or will?) continue under state socialism, so much so that socialism may become indistinguishable from, or merge into, capitalism. This was a prophecy that history was not quite to betray.
1984 is more murky. It is set in a totalitarian future in which the state is run in the interests of an “inner party” who, using advanced technology, command people’s lives and subjectivities. For the educated at least, there is no past, no future, no culture, no language, except those ordained by the state. Indeed, the state controls thoughts and emotions so thoroughly that it can compel people to know one thing but believe another (so-called “doublethink”). Only the masses, so-called “proles,” live outside all this. Ignorant, submissive, apolitical, they continue to live ordinary, hardscrabble lives.
Formally 1984 has the same plot as Orwell’s early realist novels. It ends when an alienated minor party-functionary—Winston Smith—becomes reconciled to the hegemonic order, this time under torture. In the English novels, conformity occurred when flimsy individuals succumbed to solid, if cruel, social structures. This time fundamental human feelings—sexuality most of all—are crushed by totalitarian socialism. The full extent of the state’s power is revealed in its capacity to eliminate what, for Orwell (and his historical moment), is most human of all: sexual love. That’s how, paradoxically, the novel asks us to perform our own form of doublethink. We readers—even in 2017— know that our society is not, in fact, like 1984’s, but the novel encourages us to see it as if it were. Which, I think, helps account for why it became Amazon’s number one best-seller after Trump’s recent victory.
Deep down, 1984 turns around something else: its examination of what drives totalitarian socialism. Why, in this dystopia, is a small group compelled to crush humanity? After some awkward narrative maneuvers, an answer is given: socialism is motivated just by the elite’s will-to-power. This to say that the socialist leaders share the skepticism that Orwell himself had long circled around. They don’t believe in freedom, justice, progress, culture, humanism, or religion. All they believe in is their own—that is to say, the Party’s—dominance.
So the Party is the ultimate enemy. What stands against it? Nothing that an intellectual like Winston Smith can say or do. Revolution is off the table. Hope exists only, and very vaguely, in the proles’ human vitality.
If we step back from the fiction into Orwell’s historical moment, this signals a then quite widely accepted understanding of the political situation. That understanding went like this: British capitalism was indeed merging with socialism under the guidance of Fabian social planners, and was doing so as welfarism. But welfarism contains a risk: it may become democratic totalitarianism (to use Christopher Dawson’s term). How to prevent this? By turning to and celebrating the ordinary, passed-on “whole way of life”— to use the phrase that the religious conservative T. S. Eliot invented to make his version of this argument in his pathbreaking Notes Towards the Definition of Culture the year before 1984 was published.
It is one of literary history’s ironies that Orwell’s secular, left-wing, fictional prophecy points, if anywhere, to values like those being articulated by his longtime opponent T. S. Eliot. As in Animal Farm, old enemies—one revolutionary, the other conservative—become hard to distinguish from one another.
In sum then: if the three Orwells can be brought together, it is only around the abyss that opened up once he, a modern individualistic/bohemian sceptic—passing more or less ironically both in his life and his writing as a plain-spoken, de-classed guy—unmasked institutional socialism and thereby reimagined liberal or “democratic” socialism (the only political formation that he thought could establish a fair society) as a patriotic embrace of English culture.
All Orwell’s novels set in England end with their alienated heroes losing their individuality and being reconciled to the social order.
English Departments have not been kind to Orwell. It is true that critics like Lionel Trilling, Q. D. Leavis, Richard Hoggart, Richard Rorty, and even (with reservations) the young Raymond Williams, praised him. But especially after about 1970 he has been, let’s say, neglected. Orwell’s affirmation of the political potential of ordinary English ways of life; his casual misogyny and homophobia; his insistence that class was the category around which a radical politics must turn; his sense that being bourgeois (as all academics are) constitutes a barrier to being radical; his suspicion of “critical jargon” and speculation, along with his notion that radical politics requires plain, truth-telling prose: all this was contrary to a discipline increasingly committed to “theory,” and to emancipation projects based not on class but on race, gender, and sexuality.
It is this situation that Alex Woloch wishes to redress. About time, too. Orwell has too much to tell us for us to continue to ignore or condescend to him. And Woloch has been canny in his act of recovery. Following a thoroughly Orwellian logic, he has chosen to reconcile Orwell to a certain orthodoxy; in this case, to established literary method and theory.
He has produced a revisionary analysis of Orwell’s style based on close readings of just a few texts (none of them, sadly, fictions) to show that Orwell’s famous “window pane” style is actually a self-reflexive, experimental, performative, displaced, and delayed practice of writing, one worked out in search of an elusive, fractured object—democratic socialism.
This, then, is an Orwell incarnated as literary form, or, perhaps better, as a reflection on literary form. Not at all like the Orwell—the three Orwells—I’ve just sketched in all their messy, disconsolate, historical embeddedness. Admittedly, history and politics do appear in Woloch’s account, and they’re treated subtly. But they are marginalized. His Orwell is primarily textual, and textual in the way that deconstruction, at least in a polite mode, tells us that good writing is textual. An Orwell suitable—indeed, exemplary—for an English department graduate seminar.
These remarks are not intended to be dismissive. As far as I am concerned, any book that brings Orwell to the attention of the academy is worthwhile. And Woloch’s analysis of Orwell is, on its own terms, wonderful: it is one of the most intelligent and careful works of criticism I have read in years, not least because it is genuinely illuminating to be shown how far from plain Orwell’s plain style was—and why. Woloch’s Or Orwell deserves to be widely known and to be incorporated into all future understandings of Orwell’s achievements. As I am sure it will be.
But for all that, it tames Orwell. As I hope is clear even from my truncated account of his career, Orwell’s importance is not to be located in his style. It is to be found, rather, in his persistent, destabilizing, uncontainability.
Which is to say that it is to be found in the way that his scepticism was joined to his will for justice and decency, compelling him in the end to look for grounds of hope and change where politics falter: in prejudiced, filiative, vernacular culture.
His importance also lies in his prophetic sense of how difficult it is for class and labor to remain at the centre of bourgeois left orthodoxy. (Tellingly, class does not lie at the center of Woloch’s attention).
Orwell remains important, too, because his political project emerged from an ethical one. His politics were driven by his attempt to live and write as a combative, independent, classless, unpretentious bohemian in a failing society; and as such, uncomfortably gives the lie to the liberal presumption that what your politics are can be independent of how you live.
His importance is to be found, last, in his bleakness. For example, in the way that his scepticism and his difficulty in finding reasons to be socially optimistic merge into an understanding of how important sacrifice is to group solidarity. Why in 1984 (to mention just one case) is Winston Smith kept alive by the party after abandoning his resistance? Why is it important that he comes genuinely to love Big Brother too? It’s not just to display the party’s control, but because (like the executed man in “A Hanging,” or the elephant in “Shooting an Elephant,” or all those abased characters in the English novels who end up conforming) he stands as a reminder of how cruelty, our cruelty, draws us together and keeps us going—all of us who prosper in this society. More than that: he stands as a reminder of how we also sacrifice ourselves to get on. One way or another we must all abandon ourselves to a Party. That way, Winston Smith, a living sacrifice, is one of us too.
The more you think about it, the darker that message is.
I shouldn’t complain that Woloch hasn’t written a different book from the very good one he has. But still, it is likely that a book that, instead of treating Orwell as a style, engaged with him as a force—in all his contradictions, nerviness, and obduracy—would miss the attention and praise that this one will surely attract.
Which is to say that it isn’t obvious that the English department is quite ready for Orwell.
Or even that it can be.