He is lauded as one of the most influential authors of the 20th century, but was this prolific writer always on the right side of history?
In the spring of 1937, on the Huesca front of the Spanish Civil War, a small group of republican soldiers crept across open ground under the cover of night. With bayonets fixed, they were ready to storm an enemy trench. Half of this band was made up of British volunteers – ideologically driven foreigners come to help Spain’s republic in its fight against the nationalist rebels.
Once the group was discovered, and the shooting began, one volunteer found himself caught in a deadly crossfire between his own side and the enemy: “I flattened myself out and dug my face into the mud so hard that I hurt my neck and thought that I was wounded… The fascists were firing, our people behind were firing, and I was very conscious of being in the middle.”
This volunteer was an Englishman named
Eric Blair, though later he would be better known through his writing as George Orwell. His time fighting in the Civil War is just one of many chapters that defined, and then redefined, the world views, political stances and ideological commitments of one of the most important writers of the 20th century.
In the decades since his death in 1950, Orwell’s writing has been endlessly recontextualised and re-assessed, bringing forth renewed laudation for his political foresight and perception, but also condemnation and criticism of his faults.
Born into a lower-middle class family in 1903, Orwell’s upbringing was largely unremarkable given his later achievements. He attended Eton on a scholarship, where he exhibited no great enthusiasm for academia. Instead of going to university as might have been expected, he emigrated to Burma, where he joined the colonial police force – the law and order on the frontier of the Empire. His experiences during this time, from 1922-27, would prove to be definitive.
Despite WWI greatly denting Britain’s power in the world – leaving not only a whole generation lost in the bloodbaths of Loos, the Somme, and Passchendaele, but also a mountain of financial war debts – the Empire still desperately clung on to its territories across the globe. Still under the grip of the British Raj, India remained the biggest and most important of these colonies, and by far the largest “Indian” province was Burma. It was here, during this time of Imperial decline that Orwell was both witness to, and a participant in, the ugly, brutal realities of colonialism.
As assistant district superintendent, Orwell was one of 13,000 civil policemen, supported by some 10,000 troops. This force was tasked with enforcing law over 36 districts of the province, with a population of 13 million people. In 1936 he
“The Fascists were firing, our people behind were firing, and I was very conscious of being in the middle”
published a revealing account from this period of his life, recounting an event where he killed a rogue elephant that had trampled a Burmese man and destroyed property. “It was at this moment,” he wrote, “as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East.”
Orwell openly describes the contradictions in his outlook, on the one hand deploring the oppressive and ridiculous system of the British Raj, while on the other expressing his disdain for the “sneering yellow faces” who harassed him daily in his work. Although he would later temper and rectify this language, his attitudes towards race remain one of the critical battlegrounds on which his work is debated. His semi-autobiographical novel, Burmese Days, also points to these contradictions – simultaneously criticising colonialism, while detailing his own intimate knowledge of its practices and dirty secrets. The “gentleman’s club” at the heart of the book, is a place for “white men only” and is inhabited by a sorry, drink-soaked, clueless group of ex-pats, with little understanding of, but frequent disdain for, the country they inhabit. This is a satire of the colonial system Orwell experienced, in which he perhaps feared he could easily become fully assimilated.
After quitting the police force and moving back to England, Orwell began seeking a career as a writer, contributing articles and reviews for literary journals and leftwing newspapers. It was during this time that he began living rough, sleeping in workhouses, and even getting arrested in order to fuel his writing – drawing on these experiences in his articles and essays on class, poverty and society’s poorest extremes. Later he moved to Paris in 1928, living in the city’s impoverished, bohemian areas and working as a porter in restaurant kitchens. His first published book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), dealt with these themes, recounting his time living below the breadline.
In December 1936 Orwell travelled to Spain to fight for the republican government in the country’s civil war. He was one of thousands of foreign volunteers, including many intellectuals and writers, who saw the conflict as the frontline against fascism in Europe – Italy and Germany both supported the nationalist rebels. Orwell chose to join the
Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista (the Worker’s Party for Marxist Unification, or POUM for short), one of the numerous fringe militias that existed alongside several Anarchist, Communist and Socialist armed groups. All these separate organisations were armed with diverging ideologies, that would later spark fierce in-fighting on the republican side and suppressions.
During his time in Spain, Orwell not only experienced combat on the frontline, he received a near-fatal bullet wound in late May 1937, but also the ruthless, totalitarian control that the Soviet Union held over its allies. In Homage to Catalonia (1938), he describes the fighting that broke out inside republican-held Barcelona during 3-8 May 1937. Communist and government groups accused several of their allies of being Fascist sympathisers, resulting in deadly street fighting between factions.
By the war’s end, and with the government facing defeat, Soviet-controlled groups had begun suppressing their former Anarchist and Marxist allies, making widespread arrests and declaring the groups illegal. Orwell himself escaped Spain, although several of his comrades were held in Soviet prisons – some were even tortured and killed. It was this experience of treachery and deceit by the Communists that fuelled his later writing
“Later he moved to Paris in 1928, living in the city’s impoverished, bohemian areas and working as a porter in restaurant kitchens”
and some of his most famous work. Returning to England, Orwell was quick to enter the debate surrounding the government’s appeasement policy with Nazi Germany.
Much of the country, and many politicians, could not conceive of another conflict after the horrors of WWI, and for a time Orwell added his pen to the anti-war cause. Even the same year war was declared in 1939, he remained opposed, viewing Hitler’s Germany as a fascist menace, but as he saw it in no way worse than the vast oppressive Empires of Britain and France. “What meaning would there be, even if it were successful, in bringing down Hitler’s system in order to stabilise something that is far bigger and in its different way just as bad?” he wrote in a review in literary journal The Adelphi, published July that year.
By 1940, with the Battles of France and Britain poised to begin, Orwell appeared to shift his stance. “It is all very well to be ‘advanced’ and ‘enlightened’,” he wrote in April that year, “but a time comes when the sand of the desert is sodden red and what have I done for thee, England, my England?” Later the same year, with the threat of invasion a real fear in the nation, he even attempted to join up for military service, but due to ill health could only become a member of the Home Guard.
In August 1941 he joined the BBC’S Eastern Service, becoming staff number 9889 and delivering a regular radio show, Talking to India. This program, as well as a number of pamphlets and newsletters produced by Orwell, was part of a propaganda campaign to boost Indian support for the British war effort. Orwell became familiar with the Ministry of Information, which organised Britain’s wartime publicity and propaganda output, and for which his wife Eileen worked in the Censorship Department.
To his critics, Orwell’s participation in this propaganda was hypocrisy, and to some he is seen as supporting the very system he had once claimed to oppose. In his resignation letter to the BBC he claimed he never uttered a word on the air that he would not have said in private.
However, Orwell did not entirely toe the line with the establishment. Despite the UK and USA’S alliance with Stalin, he persisted in his vehement opposition to the Soviet regime, producing his ultimate satire, Animal Farm, in the very month WWII came to an end in 1945. This allegorical and satirical re-telling of the origins of the Russian Revolution, and the emergence of the Soviet Union, is widely read to this day and remains one of the most acclaimed refutations of Stalin’s regime. It would later be turned into an anti-communist propaganda film, under the direction of the CIA.
In 1949 Orwell was in and out of hospital, and remained mostly bed-ridden as he struggled with tuberculosis – the disease that would finally kill him in January 1950. He spent this time tirelessly editing his dystopian novel 1984, in which he delivered his grim outlook on a future dominated by totalitarian world powers, signs of which were already apparent in the early years of the Cold War. Considered his greatest achievement, the book is not only a chilling prediction of life under a totalitarian state, it also holds an important lesson for our understanding of history: “Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.”
Orwell pictured while he worked as a broadcaster for the BBC during WWII
Members of the POUM militia, which Orwell joined in 1936
George Orwell at his typewriter in early 1946
Actor Edmund O’brien in a scene from the film 1984
Ronald Pickup as George Orwell in BBC drama Crystal Spirit: Orwell on Jura