Whether you were a supporter or not the New Labour era was widely associated with preferring pragmatism to principle: what matters is what works, and so forth. For good or ill this suppressed a lot of leftist impulses that, buried for so long, have now re-erupted. One of these involves the contrast between purity and pluralism. When called upon, Jeremy Corbyn will typically invoke democracy, grassroots participation and the need to listen (whether this will involve non-party members is yet to be seen). But many of his supporters – particularly on social media – demonstrate yearnings for certainty that easily give rise to intolerance and dogma.
This is not surprising. The left has always been riven by such tendencies. This is one of the reasons why people return, in both fascination and frustration, to George Orwell. For there is no single Orwell. There are multiple Orwells. He is both frustrating and fascinating because the left recognises in him a mirror for itself. Here’s why.
Orwell was always ambivalent about community. In A Clergyman’s Daughter, Dorothy is on the receiving end of Orwell’s gentle mockery, though her eventual loss of faith is also a cause for regret. Will she cope without the religious community with which she has so closely identified? In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Gordon experiences a journey away from isolation and towards the community of a family that may or may not help him to be a better person – the book ends on a satirical note, leaving the reader unsure.
These parallel journeys suggest that a community can provide individuals with the security they need in a life which is often “meaningless, dark, and dreadful” (Orwell, 1963: 259). Yet communities can also be sources of dogma; leviathans that swallow individuality. So much of Orwell’s work is a struggle with the implications of this.
For instance, in Animal Farm Sugarcandy Mountain represents the religious believer’s hopeless yearning for an eternal, never-changing community (heaven). But a simple rejection of that dream is not enough if doing so only resurrects religion’s worst features – submission and the submergence of individuality – in other forms, i.e. Communism.
Catholics in particular are repeatedly accused by Orwell of accepting prevailing injustices because ‘that’s just the way the world is’. Communists are accused of recreating the world before the animals’ revolution – witness Animal Farm’s famous ending. In their various ways, all have little time for the integrity of individuals struggling to understand how to live together while improving the world around them. Socialism is nothing, Orwell thought, unless it makes room for the ‘bourgeois’ qualities of decency, respect and civility.
Orwell appreciated the difficulty of being both an individual and a member of a community because he so often argued against positions that he himself had occupied. There are at least two Orwells.
There is, firstly, the Orwell who shares certain traits with the Communism he despised and who is bullying, intolerant and dogmatic. In July 1939 Orwell (1970: 425) berated most of the Left for not being sufficiently pacifist and internationalist: “Nothing is likely to save us except the emergence within the next two years of a real mass party whose first pledges are to refuse war and to right imperial justice.”
Yet in April 1940 he could just as insistently berate the Left for not being sufficiently patriotic and militaristic. This Orwell is that preferred by those, like Christopher Hitchens, who desire a reflection of their own certainties: Orwell the neoconservative or Orwell the liberal militarist. The politics of this Orwell is alarmist, scathing and uncompromising.
Yet there is also another Orwell who would eventually succeed this earlier version and who was more philosophical, nuanced and reflective. If – by fulfilling everyone’s basic needs – Socialism allows individuals to engage with difficult questions of humanity’s role in the order of things, then there is no room for dogmatic certainties. This Orwell is still political but is once more willing to view the world through the eyes of a novelist, occupying several perspectives at once.
The two Orwells wrestled with one another across several arenas. Take his comments on language and politics, for instance. Orwell’s prescription for good writing is well known: prose should be transparent and so embody the virtues of scientific objectivity, common sense and personal freedom. But this very conception of ‘window pane’ prose implies a subtle complexity. For politics implies a commitment to alter the world that we see through the window pane. Political language must reflect an objectivity while engaging with the ideological battles of competing principles and values.
Good political language is therefore not only a matter of honest representation but of a narrative framing that encourages certain actions and practices. For example, as his diary has long revealed, Orwell edited and ‘recreated’ some of his experiences in northern England while still being able to claim The Road to Wigan Pier as a truthful account. Honest representation certainly has to be defended against those ideologues who attack it but once we recognise that language is also a matter of recreating the world around us then we also have to grapple with its fogginess. Language does reflect but the reflections are often opaque. Clarity is needed because the cleaner the surface the more honest our view of the murkier depths. In Nineteen Eighty-Four Newspeak is frightening because it is too transparent, too clear, in assuming that there are no depths below the surface of language and that language should function only as a mirror. Clarity per se is a tool of totalitarian minds striving for simplistic meanings.
The intolerant, impatient Orwell therefore stands apart from the Orwell who saw through language to a more complex world. For this second Orwell, political attempts to improve the wellbeing of the social community must reflect that any community contains multitudes.
From language we go to another arena important for Orwell: memory. Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty Four are replete with images of nature. The objective reference points of the past are crucial to the maintenance of memory and so of personal identity and social freedoms, i.e. a means by which individuality is retained in a collectivist age.
Yet O’Brien is also correct to insist that the past is necessarily subject to editing, and memory and identity therefore subject to reinvention: O’Brien is merely the ruthless culmination of Winston’s (and Orwell’s) recognition of this. O’Brien and Winston both acknowledge the inevitability of ambiguity and uncertainty, but the latter is free because he values these whereas the former desires to expel them and achieve logical purity.
Like language, memory is therefore both objective and yet also subject to reframed according to the demands of the contemporary. The community is rooted in the past but those roots are subject to reinvention by the community’s present-day needs.
For instance, in Coming Up for Air Orwell sympathises with but ultimately disapproves of Bowling’s earlier nostalgia: his flight into childhood. The book therefore refutes any simple description of Orwell as a sentimental conservative. If Nineteen Eighty-Four reveals how the thinning of memory (amnesia) risks us losing contact with the past, excessive memory (nostalgia) may mean we lose contact with the future. His vision of a Britain still characterised by red pillar-boxes and warm beer is of a Socialist Britain and not a resource for misty-eyed conservatism (as it was for John Major).
In the case of both language and memory, then, Orwell demonstrates a more complex and profound approach to objectivism and truth than often appreciated. In 1941-42 the bullying Orwell was describing pacifism as ‘objectively pro-fascist’, as if objectivity does not admit of grey areas. By 1944 he had come to regret such ‘blanket accusations’ as unconducive to social freedoms, e.g. in his essay ‘Freedom of the Park’. And by 1946 he felt able to engage in a philosophical discussion with a hypothetical flat-earther. By then, Orwell accepts that to some extent our knowledge must depend upon convention, precedent and expertise and therefore upon a leap of faith that any simplistic objectivism cannot accommodate. Orwell denounced the wilful perversions of knowledge precisely because he recognised the fragility of knowledge.
So what Orwell proposes as an alternative to totalitarian impulses is not only ‘common sense’ but a politics of ‘creative fallibility’ where objectivism consists of being allowed to get things wrong. Objective truth depends upon us recognising that facts are more than an embodiment of what is in our minds – an obvious point, but one that religious and ideological totalitarians ignore. We interpret and narrate the world around us and there is no guarantee any of us will be right all of the time. But our moral commitment is to honesty and to avoid telling lies. Objectivity is not automatic. It is itself a struggle.
This politics means that a just distribution of wealth is the beginning not the end of Socialism defined as a halting, explorative journey – like that of Dorothy, Gordon, Winston and Orwell himself. Both art and politics are the means by which we inquire into what is beyond ourselves. If art implies the uncompromising vision of the individual, politics implies commitment to systems of ideas that we believe approximate to at least some portion of the truth. Orwell attempted to balance the artistic and political, to speak to an ideological set of beliefs and loyalties while retaining the right to refuse orthodoxies. His work therefore ends (in ‘Writers and Leviathan’) in an acknowledgement that life is so often divided into two compartments, one which searches for truth through personal creativity and the other which does so by allegiance to communal frameworks. There is the self that stands to one side refusing to be deceived and the self which accepts that consensus and solidarity as social necessities. To be an individual is to be always semi-submerged in your social environments.
Purity versus pluralism. Orwell was driven towards the former not simply because of war but because of the left’s impatience that things not only change radically but swiftly. Equally, the reemergence of the pluralist Orwell happened at a time when Attlee’s government was dominant. A socialist future seemed assured. But the future no longer belongs to the left alone. That being the case, with so much uncertainty at play, which of those two tendencies will predominate in the years to come?
Orwell, G. (1963) Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Middlesex: Penguin.
Orwell, G. (1970) The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters: Volume 1, Middlesex: Penguin.
Tony Fitzpatrick is Reader in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham. Among other books, he is the author of A Voyage to Utopia (2010) and Climate Change and Poverty (2014)