The relevance of George Orwell today: Standing up for democracy and against fascism
Scottish Review, 1 June 2022
George Orwell’s influence as a writer has grown since his death in 1950 at the age of 46, particularly in recent decades. He was unashamedly a voice on the left – independent minded, an iconoclast and unafraid to stand against the hypocrisies and tyrannies of both his own side, as well as of the right.
In today’s challenging world – from climate change to the war in Ukraine and rise of despotism, demagoguery and a nascent fascism from Russia to the US, not to forget our own domestics and Boris Johnson’s degenerate Toryism – Orwell provides a powerful example of a moral compass and the importance of principle.
Last Saturday I had the rare privilege and opportunity to have a two-hour public conversation with Orwell’s adopted son Richard Blair in Garnethill Multicultural Centre, Glasgow.
Blair had a difficult childhood. He was born in May 1944 and adopted by Orwell and his wife Eileen as a baby. Eileen subsequently died in March 1945; Orwell married again in October 1949 to Sonia, and then died three months later in January 1950 leaving Blair to be brought up by Orwell’s sister Avril. After school in Scotland and England, Richard went on to have a career in industry before upon retirement setting up The Orwell Society, as well as being a patron of The Orwell Foundation and the prestigious Orwell Prize.
Richard Blair remembers his father well, even though he was taken from him when he was five and a half years. He recalls a man with many qualities and contradictions, who loved ‘telling me stories, with a clarity of thought knowing that simple words can convey a deep meaning.’
Orwell had a vivid sense of humour and deep love of the outdoors, animals and gardening. Central to this and Blair’s memories are Barnhill Farm on the island of Jura – owned then as it is now by the Fletcher family – where he and his father spent much time from the summer of 1946 onward.
Blair reminisced about spending time there with his father, saying it was ‘a wonderful place for children. You could open your front door and you are free’. He recounted memories such as when their car broke down on the way from Jura to Glasgow, or the time their dinghy sank whilst they were navigating the Corrievreckan whirlpool and they had to take refuge on a nearby island. This became a story at the time in the Scottish Daily Express – with Blair adding ‘just in case anyone didn’t think it was true.’
Orwell and writing
Blair described Orwell’s journey as a writer struggling at first to make a living in the 1930s, and his identification with the marginalised and exploited that he set out in such accounts as Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937).
Another formative experience for Orwell was joining the Indian Colonial Police in Burma which made him an enforcer for British imperial rule. Burma turned Orwell into an anti-imperialist, seeing at first hand the brutality, inhumanity and pettiness of the British Empire, which formed the background to his first novel Burmese Days (1934). In Blair’s words ‘he began to realise what imperialism is all about and how the Burmese were oppressed by the British.’ This was a political awakening for Orwell and influenced his anti-authoritarianism, opposition to power and dominance and belief in libertarianism – all of which were to inform his brand of democratic socialism.
Blair took us on a travelogue of Orwell’s commitment to fight in the Spanish Civil War showing his solidarity with the democratically elected Republican Government against Franco’s fascist insurrection supported by Hitler and Mussolini. He risked his life being shot and injured by a sniper while witnessing the division and infighting on the Republican side which was aided by Stalinist Russia and the Communists on the ground who sought to eliminate sections of the left such as Trotskyites.
Orwell wrote about this in Homage to Catalonia (1938) – the need to stand for democracy, against fascism and its want to overthrow democracy, while acknowledging the brutality of Soviet Communism and the authoritarian anti-democratic practices of the official Communist tradition which took its orders from Moscow. Some on the left would have preferred less searing honesty while others, even with Spain and the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s, were fellow-travellers and refused to engage in any criticism of the Soviets.
Orwell saw the fight against fascism gather in the 1930s – a cause which the British establishment and mainstream political sentiment tried to avoid confronting through UK Government policy of non-intervention in the war and the appeasement of Hitler and Mussolini. But he also saw the need to stand in opposition to Soviet Communism: a perspective which only grew as the Second World War began and then engulfed millions.
In 1944, Orwell wrote his classic tale Animal Farm (published 1945) – a fable about revolution and egalitarianism gone wrong which is based on post-1917 Russia. Such was pro-Russian sentiment in Britain that several publishers turned it down before it eventually saw the light the year the war ended.
Blair says of Animal Farm that ‘a lot of it came from Eileen. It is such a different book from anything else he had written. There is something unique about it.’ In its audacious imagination it is a book to entrance children and adults with a story that has deep political resonance – of the revolution betrayed.
Animal Farm was an immediate commercial success and gave Orwell the money and freedom to plan Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – a novel inspired by his revulsion of omnipotent authority and power and belief in individualism and dissent. It was inspired by Eileen who had previously written a poem entitled End of the Century: 1984 (1934) and there are common themes with her husband’s later work: the march of authoritarianism and threat of all-pervasive technology. Blair believes that the title of Nineteen Eighty-Four was not, as many contend an inversion of 1948, but ‘in memory of my mother’.
Orwell’s dislike of bureaucracy and systems had been strengthened by his experience in the war working in the BBC for two years, comparing the corporation according to Blair to a cross between ‘a girl’s school and lunatic asylum’. He drew from this and created such terms as ‘Newspeak’, ‘The Ministry of Truth’ and ‘Room 101’ which have entered everyday language and contributed to the term Orwellian.
Nineteen Eighty-Four was written in Barnhill on Jura, where Orwell originally went to be with his son to get ‘rid of all of the problems of London. Now he could sit down and concentrate.’ But Orwell went and undermined his search for solitude by ‘inviting all of his London friends to come and stay in Jura’ – something that Richard as an only child, who had recently lost his mother, appreciated.
The human side of George Orwell
Blair conveys a very human side to his father, of his life and writing, and of being a loving parent – and perhaps because of this does not want to labour on the political side. He said at one point: ‘Start taking sides and you end up in trouble’ which I suggested might have been the motive for much of Orwell’s political writing. Blair however stated very firmly that one key message from his father concerning those in public life was: ‘Don’t believe the lies people in power tell you and that if they tell them often enough they become the truth.’ This is as important to note today as it was in his father’s time.
Orwell’s writing conveys angst, anxiety and insecurity about the English class system. There is the fear of what Blair calls ‘the upper lower middle classes’ – always conscious that they do not have a secure foothold in the comfortably off middle classes, often racked by financial worries, and the even bigger fear that they may drop into the even more insecure sections of the working class.
Such characteristics are evident in his fiction. There is the deep frustration at the hierarchical class system, its cultural expressions and social mores, and how it suffocates and represses the potential of human beings. This can be seen in Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) centred on a struggling writer; A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) on a woman trapped by poverty and convention; and Coming Up for Air (1939) with its tension between the oppressions of capitalism and the coming war.
On Scotland, Blair observed that while some thought his father ‘anti-Scottish’, he had ‘a lot of sympathy for the Scots’ and in particular their opposition to lairds and landlords, always having common cause with those who are ‘downtrodden or disadvantaged’ and that part of Scotland.
Orwell did not just write on politics but addressed the everyday aspects of life and the minutiae with an eye for detail, curiosity, eccentricity and humour. Through these explorations in many essays and reviews Orwell showed his fascination with and grasp of many aspects of human nature, character and British life.
The passing of time and the publication in 1968 of Collected Essays put together by Sonia Orwell, and then the twenty-volume Complete Works compiled by Peter Davidson at the end of last century have brought a deeper appreciation of these to the fore. Blair mentioned as amongst his own favourites his father’s essay on the pleasures of life’s small pleasures – A Nice Cup of Tea (1946) and other pieces including A Hanging (1931) and Shooting an Elephant (1948) about Burma, and on Orwell’s childhood and schooldays Such, Such were the Joys (finished 1948; published posthumously 1952).
Orwell and the Big Issues of Today
Orwell understood that the left has to stand unapologetically for its principles, comprehend the nature of power and authoritarianism whether from right of left, and the shadow of imperialism and the British Empire.
It is impossible to elicit what Orwell would have made of the present-day Britain and world, but he would have no doubt been shocked by the shallow nature of politics and political discourse. He would have seen Boris Johnson’s Toryism – a grotesque, irresponsible, entitlement culture – as the worst of that tradition. He would have noted Labour’s timidity – scared of alienating polite society and wary of being seen as unpatriotic – and thought that for all the change in the world some things remain constant. And he would have recognised the self-serving nature of the British state as similar to the one he witnessed in the 1930s.
But he would also have noted that politics is about recognising the big calls and refusing to be diverted: climate change, inequality and the widespread prevalence of poverty in a land of plenty such as Britain, and the inhumanity of the British class system with some people thinking they have the unchallengeable right to shape and decide the lives of others.
What Orwell would have also recognised and been mobilised to act upon would be the rise of fascism, recognising that there can be no accommodation with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine – an attack on a democracy which invites comparison with the Spanish Civil War. He would have had no truck with what the Kyiv-based historian Taras Bilous calls ‘the anti-imperialism of idiots’ found in sections of today’s left which because it opposes Western imperialism ends up in the sewer of being apologists for Putin’s imperialism.
Orwell’s is always there to remind us that we must have a moral conscience in difficult times. Otherwise we are quite literally lost and have to stand against tyranny and hypocrisy wherever it comes from. It was a pleasure to meet and talk with Richard Blair who is dedicating his life to protecting his father’s legacy and making it and the man come alive in the present.