The radical socialism of George Orwell

George Orwell is remembered as an enemy of fascism and Stalinism and for his totalitarian dystopia, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

But, a friend of mine asked, what was Orwell’s utopia?  What did he advocate?

It’s important to remember that Orwell was not only a hater of tyranny and lies.  He also was a hater of inequality and of social and economic class privilege.

George Orwell

His idea of a good society was a society of equals, which honored the moral values of the working class.

In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), his book about coal miners and the unemployed in England in the 1930s,  Orwell drew a word portrait of a working class family—dad reading his racing form, mum doing her sewing, children happily amusing themselves and the family dog lying before the fire.  

Provided dad had steady work at good wages, that was probably as good as life got, Orwell wrote.  It was better than typical middle-class life, with its  status seeking, worship of success, fear of poverty and lack of solidarity.

But he said his picture of a working class family sitting around a coal fire after kippers and strong tea was something that could only have existed at this particular moment in time.

He said it would not exist in the imagined utopian future of 200 years hence, with no coal fire, no manual labor, no gambling, no horses or dogs, everything hygienic, sterile and made of steel, glass and rubber.  

But such a home could not have existed in the medieval past.  There would have been no chimney, moldy bread, lice, scurvy, “a yearly childbirth and a yearly death” and “the priest terrifying you with tales of hell.”  (Orwell, by the way, had no use for religion.)

Orwell regarded class distinctions are inescapable, something baked into the nature of British consciousness.  He accepted that he himself was a middle-class person and that he could never make himself think and behave as a working-class person did.  

But he did not agonize over it, as many white liberal Americans nowadays do over their inescapable “whiteness.”  And in other writings, he celebrated middle-class virtues and the widening of the British middle class.

In Homage to Catalonia (1938), his book about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, he said he experienced for the first time a society truly committed to equality

When he arrived in Barcelona, he said, he was in the midst of a true workers revolution.  Every building had been seized by workers and draped with Communist or anarchist flags.   Every church had been gutted and its images destroyed.  

Every restaurant had a sign saying it had been collectivized.  There were no private automobiles; they had all been collectivized, too.

Nobody called anybody “señor” or “don,” just “comrade.”  Nobody said “buenos Dias,” just “salud.”  Nobody wore suits, just overalls or other work clothes or a militia uniform.  Waiters looked their customers in the eye and took no guff from them..

“I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for,” Orwell wrote.  Later he served in a Spanish militia, in which officers had to argue with troops to get them to agree to follow orders, but the troops fought bravely.  He admired this, too.

Orwell denounced the Communist faction in the Spanish government not just because of their crackdown on anarchist and other left-wing parties, but also because they were not revolutionaries.  Using the government’s need for Russian aid as a lever, they subordinated the needs of the Spanish workers and peasants to the geopolitical aims of Stalin’s Russia.  A different policy might have led to victory, he wrote.

Later on,  in The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (1941), he laid out his program.  Socialism, he wrote, consisted of common ownership of the means of production, approximate equality of incomes, political democracy and abolition of hereditary privilege, especially in education.

 Specifically, he favored:

  1. Nationalization of land, mines, railways, banks and major industries.
  2. Limitation of incomes, on such a scale that the highest tax-free income in Britain does not exceed the lowest by more than ten to one.
  3. Reform of the educational system along democratic lines.
  4. Immediate Dominion status for India, with power to secede once the war is over.
  5. Formation of an Imperial War Council, in which the colored peoples are to be represented.  [etc.]

Without democracy and limits to inequality, he wrote, nationalized industry would just be another form of oppression.

He approved of wartime austerity because it was a first step toward elimination of class privilege.  He hoped that the spirit of patriotism and unity inspired by the war would carry over into peacetime, and make it possible to achieve an egalitarian society without the need for revolutionary violence to suppress fascist coups.

He wrote, “The stock exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children’s holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten, but England will still be England… ,” 

Some of what Orwell advocated came about, some didn’t.  Some of what he advocated had the results he hoped for, some didn’t.  He changed his mind about some things, and I don’t know where he would have wound up if he hadn’t died at the age of 46.

Orwell has long been a hero of mine, but, like any writer, he was wrong about some things and had mixed feelings about some things.  He was an outstanding literary intellectual, but not an economist nor a policy analyst.

He thought economic planning was more straightforward than it is.  “The State simply calculates what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them.”  Easier said than done!

He was at the opposite pole from the Fabian intellectuals, who thought hard about things like how to make sure school children drink pasteurized milk, but sometimes failed to see the broader picture.

But he was a brilliant social and literary critic.  Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four weren’t his only good novels.  He spotted many of today’s intellectual and social trends in their infancy.  

Most importantly, he was willing to face up to inconvenient facts with honesty, and to tell the truth as he saw it even when it went against the grain.   That’s an example to follow.

My friend said it well.  “I think the spirit of Orwell is something we need today.  But I think the world he lived in was very different from the world we inhabit today, and that what Orwell, with difficulty, saw in front of his nose is no longer, in detail, what we see in front of our noses.”


The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius by George Orwell via The Orwell Foundation. [Hat tip to Gene Zitver]

 Unreported Britain series of articles on The Orwell Foundation site.  Contemporary articles in the spirit of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier.  

Can Socialists Be Happy? by George Orwell (1943) via The Orwell Foundation.  “Socialism is not happiness.  Happiness hitherto has always been a byproduct and for all we know it may always remain so.  The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood.”

George Orwell (1903-1950).  Another good Orwell site, this one in Russian and English.


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