Ge­orge Or­well

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?

All About History - - HERO OR VILLAIN? -

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

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