Bruno Waterfield reviews a recent “intellectual biography” by Robert Colls, George Orwell: English Rebel:
Orwell, or rather Blair, was of the British upper class, but he could clearly see that human equality was a fact. It transcended class and nationality, and was palpable even in the briefest of encounters between people. It was the ‘crystal spirit’ that had bought a young Italian, and Orwell, to fight for democracy in Spain, just as it was the same human quality that made life in a slum unbearable. Equality for Orwell was not a merely a measure or a statistic; it was a quality that all living humans have, a resistance to fate even at its most blind.
These two encounters also reveal a man with a deep belief in the character and qualities of living humans, something that Robert Colls understands in his excellent ‘intellectual biography’ of Orwell. No book about Orwell can be perfect; the man was too contradictory, too contrarian and too bloody minded to be an easy study. But Colls (with some limitations) really gets it. Orwell refused ideology in a century defined by it, and that was his strength and brilliance. Setting out his stall, Colls, a professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University, puts his finger on why Orwell despised ideology as a ‘form of abstract knowledge which, in order to support a particular tendency or regime, has to distort the world and usually does so by drawing off, or separating out, ideas from experience. Ideology, in Orwell’s eyes, could never afford to get too close to the lives of the people. The more abstract the idea and the language that that expressed it, the more ideological the work and vice versa’, he writes at the book’s beginning.
‘[Orwell] knew that if he was saying something so abstract that it could not be understood or falsified, then he was not saying anything that mattered’, Colls continues. ‘He staked his reputation on being true to the world as it was, and his great fear of intellectuals stemmed from what he saw as their propensity for abstraction and deracination – abstraction in their thinking and deracination in their lives. Orwell’s politics, therefore, were no more and no less than intense encounters turned into writings he hoped would be truthful and important. Like Gramsci, he believed that telling the truth was a revolutionary act. But without the encounters he had no politics and without the politics he felt he had nothing to say.’
Orwell was on a collision course with the intelligentsia to which he, as a rebel and a modernist radical, instinctively belonged, but which, due to its embrace of social engineering, the state and Stalinism, he was starting to oppose. His dissidence appears early in The Road to Wigan Pier where, as Colls wisely remarks, ‘Socialism emerges not as the solution but the problem, and the unemployed and exploited emerge not as a problem but the solution’. Colls paraphrases Orwell: ‘The battle of the classes… will not be won in the abstract, or in some future state, but in the present, in how people actually are and what they actually think of each other.’ Orwell despised the ‘Europeanised’ intellectual British Left because they had become wilfully displaced and removed, uprooted from the lived life of their country. Even worse, the deracinated intellectuals, divorced from the majority, wanted to refashion the people in their image. In the world of Beatrice and Sidney Webb and Fabian socialism, gaining political power also meant using the state to engineer the people, through eugenics and public health.
Orwell returned to Britain in time for the beginning of the Second World War. Apart from taking up the cudgels on behalf of the truth in Spain, without which the historical record would have been badly damaged by the falsifiers, he was not immune to much of the confusion that plagued the left in the run up to hostilities. Should socialists refuse to take sides in a conflict between imperialist powers? Should socialists sabotage the war efforts and oppose rearmament in the face of the threat from Nazi Germany? George Orwell was as confused as anyone else and his writings of 1939 and early 1940 are full of the turmoil and contradictions of the day.
But then in 1940, Orwell took another one of his leaps away from the lines and orthodoxies of leftish ideology which had led many intellectuals into pacifism or the defeatism of toeing the Stalinist line on the Soviet Union’s 1939 pact with the Nazis. In a way, Orwell’s experiences in Wigan and Barcelona, prepared the ground. In the Second World War, he would side with the British people, and an imperfect British state, because Britain’s political and wider culture reflected a way of living better than the fascism or Stalinist communism preferred by many of the intelligentsia. He reserved and exercised his right to criticise British imperialism, which he continued to attack throughout the war and his life. Again, his instincts were right or, at the very least, less wrong than most on the left. Instead of abstract ideology, distorted and twisted to suit either a Marxism that was synonymous with Stalinist tyranny, or the elitist social engineering of the Fabians, Orwell advocated a patriotic defence of a way of life that could not be trusted to intellectuals or, by implication, the state.