George Orwell is one of the true artists of English prose. Two of his pieces in particular, Why I Write and Politics and the English Language, essays on the uses and abuse of our common language, should be compulsory reading for all those in public life.
As a writer he has long been a favourite of mine, ever since I discovered him early in my school days. I’ve recently had cause to think specifically about his political commitments, his commitment to what he calls ‘democratic socialism.’
It seems to me that his choices are at variance with his deepest sympathies: he says he is a socialist, yes, but he does not seem to like socialists or socialism. I would go even further: he seems to despise the practitioners and distrust the promise.
For me Orwell is a natural conservative in the way I would like to perceive all conservatives: clear-sighted, honest and direct; people who embrace and preserve what is good in the past while always looking for ways of improving the present.
Most important of all, Orwell has a deep commitment to honesty and sincerity. I feel sure that he would have loathed so much of our present-day politics, loathed the modern forms of Newspeak. He would have hated the lies, the hypocrisy, the spin and the deceit, negative qualities that have become such a part of public life.
Consider this. Orwell’s utopias are past and conservative; his dystopias are future and socialist. Take, for example, Coming Up for Air, his last pre-war novel. In this George Bowling, disillusioned with modern life, with his life, comfortable as it is, goes off in search of the past, his memories of a particular time and a given place: a piece of Edwardian England just before the First World War, the world of his childhood.
But Lower Binfield, the place he returns to, has changed beyond recognition. The thing he came to look for in particular, a pond full of fish, has gone, replaced by a rubbish dump. It’s there to serve a new housing development, populated by progressive oddities: vegetarians, nudists and socialists! Bowling retreats, with echoes of Nineteen-Eighty Four in his head.
Orwell’s experience of socialism is one of constant and continuing disillusionment. So, why did he embrace it at all, and why did he adhere to it? First, I largely suspect for personal reasons, rather than reasons of deep conviction. If one reads Such, Such Were the Joys, his account of his time at Saint Cyprian’s, his prep school, it’s clear that Orwell, who came from a respectable but rather down-at-heel family, felt slighted by the prevailing snobbery of the place, the cult of money and connections.
He became something of an ‘outsider’, if you like, amongst his own class, the better-off members of his class. He did well enough in crammers to get into Eton, one of the great English public (meaning private!) schools, but he did not shine at Eton, deepening his sense of alienation. Socialism became the political expression, if you like, of his mood of personal resentment.
So, to take the second dimension, why did he continue to embrace socialism when he saw what socialism was in practice? Simply because he was filled with a bogus sense of historical inevitability, the sense that the old had to give way to the new, and the new had to take the form which left him and others like him looking for a place in a brave new world.
He held to socialism because he hoped to humanise socialism. If he had lived just a little longer I feel sure that he would have returned to his natural political home. But, whatever direction he may have travelled in, he deserves to be placed alongside Edmund Burke and Jonathan Swift, alongside the best of our critics and the greatest of our satirists.