Tuesday 29 January 2013

George Orwell: a literary revolutionary?

It was the 52nd anniversary of George Orwell's death on 21st January and someone decided to make it George Orwell Day. To mark it, I'm reposting my review (more an essay) of John Newsinger's book from 1999.

George Orwell: a literary Trotskyist?


A review of John Newsinger, Orwell’s Politics (Macmillan Press, 1999), £42.50

By Anna Chen


The millennium will mark be fiftieth anniversary of the death of George Orwell, critic, novelist, essayist and polemicist, and one of the best loved and most frequently quoted British authors of the century. The political consciousness pervading his writing makes him a touchstone for a wide range of readers and “one of the major literary protagonists in the Cold War era”. [1] His last two novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four, are acknowledged as modern classics, while his experience of working class life in Down and Out in London and Paris and The Road to Wigan Pier, and of revolutionary struggle betrayed in Homage to Catalonia, continue to inform and inspire generations of socialists.

Orwell’s writing was the source of as much controversy during his life as it was when left and right fought over his literary corpse after his death. The right claimed him for themselves, “embracing him as an emotional conservative who had given terrible warning of the totalitarian logic inherent in the socialist cause [2], while the Stalinist dominated left were willing to give away the man H.G. Wells once described as the “Trotskyist with big feet”. [3] Nineteen Eighty Four, Orwell’s final novel and a satire of Stalinist Russia, has been defined as “the ‘canonical text’ of conservative anti-Communism, as ‘the key imaginative manifesto of the Cold War’ and gives Orwell the dubious honour of having ‘invented ... a complete poetics of political invective’.” [4] Isaac Deutscher, Marxist historian, famed anti-Stalinist and biographer of both Trotsky and Stalin, weighed into the debate, dismissing Orwell as “a ‘simple minded anarchist’ for whom any movement ‘forfeited its raison d’etre the moment it acquired a raison d’etat’.” [5] The 1970 publication of Orwell’s miscellaneous writing under the title The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters provided a context for Orwell’s best known books and put the Stalinists and right wingers on the back foot as a new generation of socialists, unfettered by loyalty to the Communist Party, broke through the claims and counter-claims. And in 1980 Bernard Crick’s exhaustively researched biography, George Orwell: A Life, lifted Orwell out of the quagmire of malice and misinformation and placed him firmly on the left, albeit as a Tribune socialist grown shy of revolutionary politics.

However, even this mild reclamation of Orwell for the reformist left proved too much for adherents to the Communist tradition. Their reaction plumbed new depths with the publication in 1984 of Inside The Myth: Orwell – Views from the Left, a collection of essays attacking Orwell, edited by Christopher Norris and published by Lawrence and Wishart, a book which Newsinger calls “an unholy alliance of feminists, cultural theorists and old fashioned Stalinists, dedicated to reversing his influence”. [6]

Orwell’s Politics by John Newsinger moves the debate a critical step further. Taking the end of the Cold War as “an ideal context for a reassessment” of Orwell’s political ideas [7], Newsinger gives us a map of Orwell’s intellectual terrain, and deftly orientates the reader around the key Orwellian debates- He examines how Orwell’s politics developed in a changing world, and extracts a through-line strung like a piano wire through volatile circumstances, warring ideologies and intellectual sleight of hand in the century that promised workers in the saddle. Newsinger’s thesis is that, although Orwell’s politics shifted throughout his lifetime, the one constant was his unwavering socialism. What detractors – and even some admirers – have missed is that he never ceased to write from within the left, attacking the betrayal of the revolution rather than the revolution itself.

Orwell gets a life

George Orwell was the name adopted by Eric Blair, the Eton educated son of a government official overseeing the opium trade. Born in India, Blair returned to the east to serve as an imperial policeman in Burma. He was by no means a socialist at this point. Conservative MP Christopher Hollis observed, following his visit to Burma in 1925, That Blair exhibited “no trace of liberal opinions” and felt a particular loathing for Buddhist monks. [8] However, something was eating away at his conscience. In the opening chapter, entitled Pox Britannia, Newsinger charts Blair’s changing attitude to the dirty job of maintaining order and breaking strikes. Prisons overflowed and villages were burnt to the ground. He returned to England in 1928 and later expressed his growing disgust with imperialism in fictional form in his first novel, Burmese Days, as well as in numerous articles and letters. His atonement was to put himself through the ordeals described in Down and Out in London and Paris, working as a dishwasher in a Paris hotel, and as a hop-picker in Kent when he wasn’t living as a tramp. In The Road to Wigan Pier, written in 1936, before he fought in Spain, and published in 1937, he stated his opposition to “every form of man’s dominion over man. I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against the tyrants.” It is this determination to side with the oppressed that Newsinger sees setting Orwell on the road to socialism. [9]

Five years in Burma had transformed Eric Blair into “George Orwell”, a man who “hated the imperialism I was serving with a bitterness which I probably cannot make clear”. [10] Step by step Newsinger shows us the developing line of Orwell’s politics initially fuelled by that loathing. In one of his later As I Please columns in Tribune [11], Orwell was to connect the ruling classes’ need for racism with their justification for imperialism. Satirising the British colonialists’ absurd claims to racial superiority, he settled on the pith helmet as an “emblem of imperialism” as it protected the supposedly thinner skull of the white master from the sun, whereas, we assume, Asiatic natives could happily fry while labouring like animals, their tiny brains protected by thick, simian, cranial bone.

Although Orwell acquired a small degree of fame with his first books, it was his experiences in Spain when he fought against Franco’s fascists in the civil war, and the publication of his account of them in Homage To Catalonia and numerous articles, that put the revolutionary socialist cat among the Communist apparatchik pigeons. What he personally witnessed in Spain, above all else, turned Orwell against the Soviet Union and the international Communist movement, paradoxically driving him deeper into revolutionary socialism at the same time as he was being turned into a pariah among the left.

When Franco attempted the military coup on 17 and 18 July 1936, it had been held off only by a spontaneous uprising of the working class in many towns and cities. The Republican government remained paralysed. An armed working class took power in many Republican areas, and was particularly strong in Catalonia whose chief city was Barcelona. In his book The Spanish Cockpit, favourably reviewed by Orwell, Franz Borkenau describes revolutionary Barcelona. He notes the absence of any bourgeoisie or their agents, the police, who were replaced by armed workers’ militias: “Practically all the factory owners, we were told, had either fled or been killed, and their factories taken over by the workers.” [12] And all the churches had been burnt. It was so promising that Trotsky commented that in “its political and cultural level, the Spanish proletariat stood on the first day of the revolution, not below, but above the Russian proletariat at the beginning of 1917”. [13] As Newsinger points out, “Whether this revolution should be continued or reversed was to be the great political debate within the Republican camp, a debate finally settled by the Communists with police, torture chambers and execution squads”. [14]

The ensuing split among the anti-fascist forces broke down roughly along three lines. The first – Largo Caballero of the Socialist Party left wing, the socialist organisations, and the anarchists (FAI) and their trade union confederation, the CNT – took the initially dominant position that the revolution should be put on hold while Republican forces defeated the fascists. Caballero did not want the Republic overthrown by a workers’ state but they agreed that once the military was crushed the revolution would continue. Adopting this attitude left the leaders of these organisations increasingly incapable of resisting the pressure they came under from the second group.

The second line was the deliberate slamming of the revolutionary process into reverse, liquidating all the revolutionary gains of July 1936, and re-establishing the bourgeois state. This was the policy adopted by the Republican middle class, but more surprisingly, this was also the line taken by the Spanish Communist Party, the Catalan Communists (PSUC) and supported by the Russian military-political machine. Communist policy in the 1930s was to unite left and centre parties as a Popular Front against right wing movements, which inevitably meant diluting the revolutionary content of their politics. Although the revolutionaries and the bourgeoisie were fighting against the same thing, i.e. fascism, they were fighting for mutually exclusive goals, i.e. capitalism and socialism. “It is a combination,” wrote Orwell, “with about as much vitality, and about as much right to exist, as a pig with two heads or some other Barnum and Bailey monstrosity”. [15] Orwell eventually realised, along with many others, that Russia was seeking a compromise with international capital in the form of an alliance with Britain and France. Russian foreign policy interests took precedence over supporting left wing movements in Europe: the revolution was marked for death.

Arguing against these positions were many individual anarchists and a small independent revolutionary party called the POUM, translated as the United Marxist Workers’ Party, whose general secretary, Andreas Nin, was a former secretary to Trotsky. They believed that if the war was to be won the revolution had to be completed through the overthrow of the bourgeois state together with the continuation of the process of expropriation.

These, then, were the circumstances of Orwell’s arrival in Catalonia to fight the fascists.

Orwell in Spain

Orwell’s arrival in Barcelona, the reddest of Spanish cities, was, according to Crick, an accident. [16] Turned down for the International Brigade by the British Communist Party, Orwell eventually travelled to Spain under the auspices of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in December 1936. Once in Barcelona, he signed up to the ILP affiliated POUM militia as “Eric Blair: grocer”. He enthused over the tell tale signs of workers at least superficially in charge – or “in the saddle” – finding them “startling and overwhelming”. Newsinger describes it thus:

Buildings were draped with red flags or with the red and black flags of the anarchists, the walls were covered with the hammer and sickle and the initials of revolutionary organisations, and almost all the churches had been destroyed. The shops and cafes had been collectivised and the waiters and shop workers treated customers as equals. The trains and taxis were all painted black. Crowds of working class men and women filled the streets while loudspeakers played revolutionary songs. What particularly struck him was that as far as he could see the rich had disappeared. This was, he recognised, something worth fighting for. What Orwell had encountered in Barcelona was a working class that was becoming a class for itself [17]

The thrill wore off once he hit the front line. Orwell was dismayed by the conditions. As he says often in Homage to Catalonia, it wasn’t so much the squalid state of the muddy trenches and drenched dugouts, or the terrifying abundance of rats, or the infestations of lice, or the human excrement caked everywhere that lowered his spirits – that was just war. It was the incessant boredom while waiting for action, the inadequate training, and the antiquated weaponry with which they were meant to fight the fascists stationed within eyesight that he found frustrating. His sympathies were by no means set when he arrived: he initially thought the Communists were right to concentrate on fighting Franco by building a more disciplined army. However, what kept him fighting for the POUM – even regretting later that he didn’t join – was the realisation that the Communist line was effectively a counter-revolutionary one. It didn’t merely stop the revolution in its tracks. It actually meant putting back the clock.

Orwell was deeply engaged in the debate around what to do about the revolution, siding with the most revolutionary line – to take the revolution forward. He thought it a mistake that the Republican government had been left in nominal control and was critical that, “in spite of various changes in personnel, every subsequent government has been of approximately the same bourgeois-reformist character.” He explained that at first it didn’t seem to matter, because the government was “almost powerless”. The bourgeoisie were lying low, even disguising themselves as workers. But then, as power was grabbed by the “Communists and right wing Socialists” and used in the interest of the Popular Front, “the government was able to reassert itself, the bourgeoisie came out of hiding and the old division of society into rich and poor reappeared, not much modified”. [18] One by one the different parties composing the government were edged out by the Communists. Once Russia began to supply arms, a grateful Communist led Government came to heel and the success of the Spanish Communist Party was assured. Orwell explains how the Catalan Communists, the PSUC, were then able to recover power through “a policy of pinpricks”:

In every case, needless to say, it appeared that the thing demanded by military necessity was the surrender of something the workers had won for themselves in 1936... The process of [land] collectivisation was checked, the local committees were got rid of, the workers’ patrols were abolished and the pre-war police forces, largely enforced and heavily armed, were restored, and various key industries which had been under the control of the trade unions were taken over by the Government ... finally, most important of all, the workers’ militias, based on the trade unions, were gradually broken up and redistributed among the new Popular Army, a “non-political” army on semi-bourgeois lines, with a differentiated pay rate, a privileged officer caste, etc, etc. [19]

He returned to Barcelona to find it just another bourgeois city, unrecognisable from the vibrant centre of workers’ control he had seen only a few months earlier.

Trotsky had by now split with the POUM over their refusal to break away from the far greater numbers of anarchists and “build their party as the revolutionary leadership of the Spanish working class ... Instead, they hoped to persuade and influence the anarchists, who were the decisive force in Catalonia, into completing the revolution”. [20] Following a police attack on the CNT controlled telephone exchange in Barcelona on 3 May, working class Barcelona took to the barricades in defence of their rapidly eroding bastions of power. Unfortunately, both the POUM and CNT leaders vacillated instead of going on the offensive, giving the counter-revolutionary forces the upper hand. In a perverse twist of logic, the Communists accused Trotsky of leading the POUM alongside the fascists in a conspiracy against the Popular Front, his living several thousand miles away in Mexico and not being in touch with the Spanish comrades notwithstanding. The POUM was similarly slandered, firstly, as being “objectively pro-fascist” because it was contradicting the Communist line to abandon the revolution, and then accused of actually fighting alongside the fascists, of sabotage and treason under Trotsky’s orders. The official term for the POUM was “Trotsky-Fascist”, a libel that was repeated in newspapers across the world and used in support of the Moscow Show Trials. The Daily Worker called the ILP volunteers in Spain, many of whom were killed or wounded fighting fascism, a “stain on the honour of the British working class”. [21] The propaganda war was vicious, the body count high and rising. Many were tortured by the dreaded secret police, languished in jail or were executed. Andreas Nin, a leading member of the POUM, was reportedly skinned alive. All were hounded by the Communists.

Orwell narrowly escaped but he had gained a whole new perspective. While convalescing from a fascist bullet in the throat, Orwell wrote to Cyril Connolly, telling him, “I have seen wonderful things and at last really believe in Socialism, which I never did before”. [22] Although from his earlier publication The Road to Wigan Pier it was clear that he was at least intellectually committed to socialism, it was Spain that gave his socialism an emotional bedrock and dictated the course his socialism would take. Having witnessed the destruction of the revolution in Spain, and lost comrades in the Communist persecution of the POUM, that course would never lead to Moscow. In the preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm he wrote:

Nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of Socialism as the belief that Russia is a Socialist country and that every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imitated. And so for the past ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement. [23]

He returned to Britain to find that his association with POUM and his hostility to the Communists had left him alienated and marginalised in left circles. It was all but impossible to challenge the Communist version of events. His own publisher, Victor Gollancz, who controlled the Left Book Club with its massive readership, declined to publish Homage To Catalonia despite the success of The Road to Wigan Pier but Orwell refused to be gagged. His may have been a lone voice, but it was also a loud and clear one powered by a will to make itself heard through a torrent of articles and reviews.

Revolutionary patriotism and the Second World War

The Spanish Civil War was a pivotal point in Orwell’s political development and the lessons learnt there coloured his politics for the rest of his life. The Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939 – effectively carving Eastern Europe up between Germany and Russia – was another seismic world event that was to shake up his outlook and that of many Communists. Until that point Orwell had taken the ILP line of pacifism and internationalism but the pact reversed his position. He became staunchly pro-war, arguing in Tribune, the American literary journal Partisan Review, and his wartime broadcasts for the BBC that “this war is a race between the consolidation of Hitler’s empire and the growth of democratic consciousness”. [24]

Newsinger stresses the importance of the wartime Searchlight series of books, a platform for left writers to discuss “war aims for a better future”, co-edited by Orwell, and sees “the whole series as a political intervention by Orwell at a time when he believed socialist revolution both imminently possible and urgently necessary”. [25] Orwell’s own contribution, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, the first of the series, propounded the view that patriotism was a material reality that overshadowed class hatred and internationalism. Orwell argued that the British working class had never acted internationally, citing the generally cool response to Franco’s rise to power as an example, and so could not be relied upon to further the revolution alone. He dismissed the idea of an “old fashioned” proletarian revolution in England and contended that any English socialist revolution would have to include the expanding middle class of professionals, higher paid skilled workers, media producers and technicians. These people, he insisted, were kept down by the ruling class and the system of private capitalism. “Capitalism, he proclaimed, ‘simply does not work ... cannot deliver the goods’ and would have to be replaced by socialism if England was to defeat Hitler.” [26] Newsinger makes allowances for Orwell’s patriotic excesses as a product of the times and as something he questioned towards the end of the war. For Newsinger, the core problem was that The Lion and the Unicorn was predicated on a faulty premise – that England in 1940-1941 was ripe for revolution. There were no signs of power moving into workers’ hands even as late as 1942.

Orwell started to speak of a third way between the “timid reformism” of the Labour Party and “the 19th century doctrine of class war” of the Communists and Trotskyists. “This third way, between reform and revolution, would, he believed, make it possible to carry through a socialist transformation of Britain that would nevertheless leave intact what he considered to be the essential qualities and character of the British national culture,” writes Newsinger, who adds:

It is this that makes Orwell such an uncomfortable political thinker: he was serious about both the desirability anti necessity for socialism and about preserving national culture and character, propagating an almost mystical patriotism. Most commentators have focused on his contribution to the elaboration of the “English Genius” ... and have neglected his call for a new socialist movement that would reject both Communist-style revolution and Labour Party reformism in favour of a third way to socialism, a third way that he continued to call revolutionary but that was adapted to modern conditions. [27]

Commentators have suggested that Orwell moved away from revolution towards despair or reformist Tribune socialism some time towards the end of 1942, but Newsinger shows him pursuing another route. Certainly, faced with the reality that there would be no revolution in wartime Britain, Orwell reached an accommodation with British Labourism. However, when assessing this period, Newsinger points out, what is often overlooked is the absence of a British equivalent of the American literary journal, Partisan Review, for which Orwell wrote the London Letters series of articles between 1941 and 1946. While the Communist line may have dominated British left politics, it had no such clear run in America. Originally committed to the viewpoint of “the revolutionary working class” and to “defence of the Soviet Union” [28], the Partisan Review, like Orwell, emerged from the fallout of 1936-1937 with a hostility to Stalinism and a broad sympathy for Trotsky’s ideas. This certainly qualifies Orwell as a “literary Trotskyist”, “a creative writer and commentator broadly influenced by Trotskyist ideas”. [29] Newsinger also lists the catalogue of numerous Trotskyist pamphlets in Orwell’s archive to show that he had more than a passing acquaintance with Trotsky’s politics: “Clearly Orwell had a familiarity with Trotskyist politics that academic commentators on his work have singularly lacked, with the result that they have missed the extent to which much of his own political writing was a debate with the politics of the revolutionary left”. [30]

From 1941 Orwell fought for a “revolutionary patriotic” line in the anti-war Partisan Review against the “revolutionary defeatist” editorial line. [31] For Orwell and many others on the left the fate of the war was inextricably bound up with the success of the revolution and the two were inseparable. The crisis of the war came to a head in the early summer of 1942 when it seemed possible that the left Labour politician Stafford Cripps would provide significant leadership. By the end of the summer the Conservatives had won power and the longed for growth in popular consciousness failed to materialise. In January 1943 Orwell wrote in Partisan Review that the “crisis is over and the forces of reaction have won hands down”. [32] He later apologised in his December 1944 London Letter for his “many mistaken predictions”, and went into a lengthy self critical analysis of his “very great error”. The war had been won but the peace was lost. The survival of the ruling class had ended any hope of socialism:

Britain is moving towards a planned economy, and class distinctions tend to dwindle, but there has been no real shift of power and no increase in genuine democracy. The same people still own all the property and usurp all the best jobs. [33]

What Newsinger crucially detects in this article is:

Orwell in the process of abandoning any serious hope of revolutionary change in the foreseeable future and coming to terms with the prospects of a Labour Government ... as a “lesser evil”. What he did not do, however, was repudiate his belief in the need for revolutionary change, for socialism, but merely acknowledged that he had been guilty of wishful thinking in believing it to be imminent. There was no lessening of his opposition to “class distinctions and imperialist exploitation, no defection to “the forces of reaction”. [34]

Skewering the Soviet myth

The accusation that he had abandoned socialism altogether intensified with the publication of Animal Farm. This allegorical fable, which Orwell wrote in response to Stalin’s dissolution of the Comintern in 1943, earned him much enmity and a deliberate distortion of his very clear warning that Stalin was “genuinely aiming at a closer tie up with the USA and Britain”. [35] The growing Russophile feeling in Britain since the Nazi invasion of Russia finished the Hitler-Stalin pact in June 1941 gave an added urgency to Orwell’s objective. Animal Farm was finally published by Warburg in 1945 at the outset of the Cold War. Newsinger explains:

The fable offered little comfort to the conservative right. Not only did it wholeheartedly endorse the initial revolutionary act, it also went on implicitly to condemn the Soviet Union, not for being socialist, but for betraying socialism, for becoming indistinguishable in its conduct from the other great powers, for exploiting its own people and joining in the division of the world. [36]

Orwell’s original intention was that Animal Farm should be an attack on the 1943 Tehran Conference and its aim that Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill should carve the world up between them. When their alliance broke down the book was interpreted as an attack on revolution and socialism. Orwell later clarified his position, writing, “I meant the moral I to be that revolutions are only a radical improvement when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job”. [37] Although Orwell placed responsibility for Stalin firmly with the Bolsheviks, even extending his criticism to Lenin and Trotsky, Newsinger is clear that he did not oppose revolution itself, having called for exactly that on numerous occasions over many years: “All revolutions are failures,” he quotes Orwell’s famous epigram, “but they are not always the same failure”. [38]

His last novel, the disturbing dystopian vision of the future, Nineteen Eighty Four, written in 1948, was influenced by the Trotskyist critique of the Soviet Union. Originally written to attack both Fascist and Communist tyranny, the defeat of Nazism allowed Orwell to focus on the totalitarianism of the Russian state and the slavishness of the left intelligentsia that allowed the myth of Soviet “socialism” to take hold. For Orwell it was the managerial class, of which the intelligentsia was one section, who would make the revolution alongside the working class, but who would also be repelled by the Soviet myth. He was appealing to them, warning what it would be like to be “rigidly policed and controlled by an omnipotent terroristic apparatus that aspires to thought-control”. [39] He dissects the mentality of this “middling” group and recounts Winston Smith’s failed rebellion against Big Brother.

In Big Brother’s world, the primary antagonist of the Party is “Emmanuel Goldstein”, once part of the Party’s leadership, but subsequently expelled for a dizzying variety of crimes and betrayals. Goldstein is either the Party’s greatest enemy, or else simply a bogeyman created by the Party as a focus for the society’s fears, and as bait to lure potential rebels into showing their hands. The mysterious figure of Goldstein, object of the “three minute hate” sessions, is a hybrid of Trotsky and the martyred Andreas Nin. [40] Goldstein’s secret book at the heart of the story – entitled The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism – was drawn from the Workers Party in America and their debates in the pages of Partisan Review, which argued that the Soviet Union was a bureaucratic collectivist society, rather than capitalist or socialist. Newsinger takes great pains to distance Orwell from James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution (which another Blair and his Third Way mentor seem to have swallowed wholesale), which claimed that the managerial class was the new ruling class, and locates, instead, Nineteen Eighty Four’s chief political influence in the writings of American Trotskyist Dwight Macdonald. For Macdonald, who debated fiercely with Burnham in Partisan Review, “the bourgeoisie have been replaced by a new ruling class, the bureaucracy; capitalism has yielded to bureaucratic collectivism”. [41] In Russia and Germany, he insisted, supreme power lay with the political bureaucrats who directed the lowly managerial class to do their bidding. This is the world, recreated as Oceania with O’Brien as the personification of the ruling bureaucracy, inhabited by Winston Smith and his fellow managerial drones. According to the theory of state capitalism, the Russian bureaucratic ruling class needed to accumulate capital in order to compete with the superpowers rather than out of a simple lust for power. [42] The novel was also a fictional account of the nuclear stalemate Orwell dreaded, leading to “the division of the world among two or three vast super-states, unable to conquer one another and unable to be overthrown by any internal rebellion”. [43] At the end of a pessimistic view of the future Winston Smith reaches the conclusion that hope for social transformation ultimately lies with the “proles” when they realise their own massive potential. Winston the individual is broken, finally agreeing with Big Brother that two plus two does indeed make five.

Nineteen Eighty Four was immediately seized upon by the right to attack socialism which was equated with Stalinist Russia. In refusing to recognise that the Soviet Union was not socialist, the left found themselves wide open to these attacks. The most schizoid reaction must be Raymond Williams’s dismissal of Orwell as an “ex-socialist” in the same breath as he was apologising for Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and Pol Pot and the Cambodian Khmer Rouge campaign: “The revolutionary movement has to impose the harshest discipline on itself and over relatively innocent people in order not to be broken down and defeated.” [44] Orwell was never able to complete his defence of the book – that it was never intended as an attack on socialism or the British Labour Party – due to his illness from TB and his early death in 1950.

The fight over Orwell continues. He has been (mis)quoted by Thatcher, John Major, Rupert Murdoch and a bizarre raft of conservatives. Even recently centre-left columnist and Marx’s biographer Francis Wheen invoked Orwell in The Guardian to justify the bombing of former Yugoslavia. [45] Comparing the tiny Balkan state of Serbia with Germany, which was the world’s second most powerful industrial country at the outbreak of World War Two, and the petty nationalist dictator Slobodan Milosevic with Hitler, who represented the ideological last stand of capitalism in crisis, Wheen quotes Orwell on Hitler after the Hitler-Stalin pact and adds: “Orwell would, I’d guess, be contemptuous of those who blame Nato for the horrific exodus from Kosovo.” Orwell believed in calling all sides of a conflict to account for their actions, and it would indeed be interesting to know if he would have had as much faith in the judgement and motives of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation as Wheen. What we do know is that, on the subject of the left and war, Orwell had this to say:

Bullets hurt, corpses stink, men under fire are often so frightened that they wet their trousers ... A louse is a louse and a bomb is a bomb, even though the cause you are fighting for happens to be just ... Our memories are short nowadays, but ... dig out the files of New Masses or the Daily Worker, and just have a look at the romantic warmongering muck that our left wingers were spilling at the time. All the stale old phrases! And the unimaginative callousness of it! The sang-froid with which London faced the bombing of Madrid! ... But here were the very people who for 20 years had hooted and jeered at the “glory” of war, at atrocity stories, at patriotism, even at physical courage, coming out with stuff that with the alteration of a few names would have fitted into the Daily Mail of 1918. If there was one thing that the British intelligentsia were committed to, it was the debunking version of war; the theory that war is all corpses and latrines and never leads to any good result. Well, the same people who in 1933 sniggered pityingly if you said that in certain circumstances you would fight for your country, in 1937 were denouncing you as a Trotsky-Fascist if you suggested that the stories in New Masses about freshly wounded men clamouring to get hack into the fighting might he exaggerated. And the Left intelligentsia made their swing over from “War is hell” to “War is glorious” not only with no sense of incongruity but almost without any intervening stage. [46]

But then, as Bernard Crick has cautioned and Newsinger reminds us, “all we can say with any degree of certainty is that if George Orwell was alive today, he’d be very old.” [47]

Originally published in International Socialist journal, Issue 85


1. J. Newsinger, Orwell’s Politics (Macmillan Press Ltd, 1999), p.ix.

2. Ibid., p.155.

3. B. Crick, George Orwell: A Life (Secker and Warburg, 1981), p.294. To be precise, Orwell’s feet were size 12. In Catalonia his boots had to be specially made.

4. J. Newsinger, op. cit., p.122.

5. Ibid., p.123, quoting Isaac Deutscher, 1984 – the Mysticism of Cruelty, in Raymond Williams (ed.), George Orwell: a Collection of Critical Essays (New Jersey, 1974), pp. 126-127.

6. Ibid., p.156.

7. Ibid., p.ix.

8. Ibid., p.4.

9. Ibid., p.4.

10. G. Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, quoted in J. Newsinger, op. cit., p.3.

11. G. Orwell, As I Please, Tribune, October 1944, in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, vol.3 (Penguin, 1970). p.299.

12. F. Borkenau quoted in J. Newsinger, op. cit., p.43.

13. L. Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution (New York, 1973), p.322, quoted ibid., p.43.

14. Ibid., p.43.

15. G. Orwell, Spilling the Spanish Beans, The Collected Essays. Journalism and Letters, vol.1 (Penguin, 1970), p.303.

16. B. Crick, op. cit., p.208.

17. J. Newsinger, op. cit., p.45.

18. G. Orwell, Spilling the Spanish Beans, op. cit., p.304.

19. G. Orwell, Homage To Catalonia (Penguin, 1989), p.197.

20. Newsinger, op. cit., p.163.

21. Ibid., p.54.

22. G. Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism arid Letters, Volume 1 (Penguin 1970), op. cit., p.269.

23. G. Orwell, Author’s Preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, vol.3 (Penguin 1970), p.455. The Penguin edition notes, “Orwell’s original text has not been traced and the version given here is a recasting back into English from the Ukrainian translation.”

24. Ibid., p.338.

25. J. Newsinger, op. cit., p.72.

26. Ibid., p.75.

27. Ibid., p.77.

28. Ibid., p.91.

29. Ibid., p.91.

30. Ibid., p.90.

31. Ibid., p.93.

32. Ibid., p.95.

33. Orwell quoted ibid., p.96.

34. Ibid., p.96.

35. G. Orwell quoted ibid., p.98.

36. Ibid., p.116.

37. G. Orwell quoted ibid., p.118.

38. Ibid., p.118.

39. Ibid., p.121.

40. B. Crick, op. cit., p.246.

41. D. Macdonald quoted in J. Newsinger, op. cit., p.126.

42. For more on state capitalism, Newsinger recommends T. Cliff, Russia: a Marxist Analysis (London, 1963), and C. Harman, Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe (London, 1974).

43. G. Orwell quoted in J. Newsinger, op. cit., p.152.

44. R. Williams quoted ibid., p.124.

45. F. Wheen, Why we Are Right to Bomb the Serbs, The Guardian, G2 section, 7 April 1999, p.4.

46. G. Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, vol.2 (Penguin 1970), Looking Back on the Spanish War (Penguin 1970), p.288.

47. B. Crick paraphrased in J. Newsinger, op. cit., p.ix.

A BAD CASE OF THE TROTS by Anna Chen, first published in Tribune September 2003.

Monday 28 January 2013

Wilko Johnson he say yes to Reaching for my Gnu

I was, am and will continue to be thrilled by this encouragement from meister songwriter Wilko Johnson for my poetry. Here he is saying nice things about Reaching for my Gnu at his house last week.

So looking forward to his gigs in March — a farewell tour to beat all farewell tours. Bless you, Wilko. x

Saturday 26 January 2013

An afternoon with Wilko Johnson: Charles Shaar Murray interviews his mate

Spent Tuesday afternoon with one of the two most beautiful men in rock 'n' roll, the other one being David Bowie. Three if you include the lovely Charles Shaar Murray who I drove through the snow to Wilko Johnson's house in Southend. We found him in awesome mood for a man who's just announced he has terminal cancer that will end his life before the year is out. It's the pancreatic one, the one that got Bill Hicks at the ridiculously early age of 32.

Charles was interviewing his old friend for Classic Rock magazine and, yet again, was let down by his HD Zoom (bring back tape). Luckily, I had my Lumix camera on me so I was able to video them chatting in the living room: mugs of Jamieson coffee and chessboard on the coffee table, walls lined with books and pictures including two Matissesque ones painted by our Renaissance man when he was weighing up whether to become an artist in a garret or a music hero with money, adoration, women and a gold Cadillac.

"I'm euphoric," he told CSM. Knowing where his exit lies has liberated him from his usual grumpiness and a tendency towards depression, putting life gloriously into perspective. He's looking forward to his gigs, the farewell tour of which there will be no repeats like the ones the Stones seem to specialise in. It all seems so bloody unfair, just as the Dr Feelgood guitar supremo and songwriter was finding new audiences and an acting career as Ilyn Payne in Game of Thrones following Julian Temple's Oil City Confidential movie about the band. This is the real deal, the last we'll get to see of him and I can feel myself welling up.

Wilko, though, is the happiest person in the room, floating on his cloud of bliss. I found him bouncy, tigger-like and charming. He even told me he'd loved reading Reaching for my Gnu, my poetry book that I'd sent him for Christmas: "Fuckin' brilliant. I couldn't put it down." Squee!

He's been giving a series of interviews and there's a lovely one he did for BBC Radio 4's Front Row that you can listen to on iPlayer.

The universe requires balance so every sublime expresson of the best of humanity has its dark side. Scummy scalpers have moved in on Wilko's farewell dates. He'd kept the price of the Camden Koko's tickets to £17.50 to give his fans the chance for one last party with him but one friend reports that five minutes after they went on sale, they were sold out. Same the next day when an extra date was added. We know that tickets are being sold on eBay and elsewhere for £165 each. Not that Wilko believes in an afterlife, but I know where these creeps will be going.

Wilko departs this world knowing he's loved, his life's account balanced and with his big soul intact. But not for months. OK. Let's party.

Friday 25 January 2013

"Shergar burger" Anna Chen with a prescient poem about what's in your burger

Tescos, Burger King and now Waitrose have been caught in the adulterated food scandal where up to 29 per cent of some burgers have been found to contain horsemeat. Less worrisome than the squeamishness about eating my friend Flicka is the obvious problem that racehorse flesh will contain various cancer-causing nasties injected over careers shorter and sadder than the average X-Factor winner.

Here I am at the St Ives festival reading "Burger" (at 1m 30s) about the unpleasant things that can happen to your fast food.

Soylent grins from the veggies all round.

Video shot by Louise Whittle.

Thursday 24 January 2013

We're all in it together: no recession for the top 1 per cent

This bra costs £1.6 million in London's Bond Street.
Half a milion quid's worth of handbags owned by one woman, bras costing £1.6 million, diamond encrusted EVERYTHING. The super-rich have never had it so good.

I'm dizzy from all this high altitude spending while we have to juggle fixing pot-holes with keeping libraries open. The world's richest 100 people could end world hunger now. The 358 people with assets of more than $1bn were worth more than the combined annual income of 45 per cent of the world's people. There are 447 billonaires January 2013.

This pattern of wealth accumulation continues in the UK, according to SK Walker's blog: "from 1997 to 2007 the average income of the top 1% of UK earners increased from £187,989 to £301,325 – an increase of just over 60% (income of the top 0.1% almost doubled). ... The wealthiest are now paying substantially less toward our national upkeep than they were 15 years ago, relative to their wealth."

Which means that it's the poor who are funding that wealth splurge.

We have to end the deficit myth. It's an excuse for the reverse Robin Hood policies impoverishing us. The wealth is there but it's the rich who are nicking what was ours.

It does horrify me when I hear low paid people wanting to stick it to the poor instead of the rich who are laughing at their stupidity — shall we have the turkeys voting for Christmas or the duck shoot in a barrel, Smithers?

[Note: The value of Tamara Ecclestone's handbags have dipped strangely since her TV show displayed the most bonkers waste of wealth since Marie Antoinette tried to feed cake to the peasants. Daddy has apparently advised her not to show-off as spoilsports like me will call for the liberation of her Christain Louboutins for the masses.]

Tuesday 15 January 2013

Priscilla Queen of the Desert: minority wars

In the light of the current Lobstergate row currently engulfing Suzanne Moore, Julie Burchill, and now Julie Bindel, I am reposting the piece I wrote in 2010 about the film Priscilla Queen of the Desert. If there are trans-women who have critiqued the movie, I would be delighted to hear from you and post links here.

The stage musical version of The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert opened this month in London’s West End.

I saw the original film when it opened at the 1994 Edinburgh Film Festival. I’d been looking forward to it as I’d always warmed to the men and women I’d met in the gay community who were full of the exuberance of challenging their oppression and winning major battles. I found them to be great role-models and lots of fun. Here, at last, was a movie made about them.

Imagine my surprise to see the all-white troupe of drag queens at the centre of the story looking after their own interests as a minority; cast as heroes, not against their enemies in the real world, but against Cynthia, an evil East Asian woman who is a Filipino import bride with a manic compulsion for firing ping-pong balls from her vagina. Depicted as the shrewish scourge of Bob, the beloved blue-collar mechanic, in reality the women she represents make up one of the most pitiful, least powerful minorities on the planet. Cynthia fulfils every dirty sleazy lazy stereotype conceived around the Yellow Peril and their sexuality.

What’s more, we are manipulated into identifying with Ralph/Bernadette (Terence Stamp), a solid-built pre-op male when he savagely beats up a woman in a bar. But that’s OK, it’s a butch bull-dyke he’s so bloodily putting in her place.

With both of these women, their differences puts them beyond the scope of our sympathies and legitimises them as targets. They are a far cry from the model “normal” woman the film finds acceptable: the white businesswoman, also a gay mother, possessing all the confidence her class and colour confer. You can be a lesbian but you must be feminine and able to thrive as one of the bourgeoisie. If you are feminine, as Cynthia unmistakeably is, then no jungle-fucking allowed: you must have control over your sexuality. The message is clear: transgressive outsiders are objects to be feared, hated and bashed up. Conform or suffer the consequences.

A passing group of Aborigines is let off because they agree to dress up in the heroes’ tranny garb, revealing yet more egotism from the filmmakers; they’re alright because they are like me.

The film can squeal and flaunt its self-proclaimed courage on the surface all it likes: it screams to me of cowardice and failure, of picking on those weaker than yourself, of a desperation to be taken into the fold as “one of us” rather than standing proudly by your identity and taking the consequences. A film that’s supposed to celebrate the cult of individuality is undermined by its deeper message that you must conform to some pretty basic sheepherding. Underneath the flamboyence there is a reactionary thrust to its values. It uses fear of Other to condition its audience which I find quite hypocritical when you consider who’s making this film and about what.

Madam Miaow as Suzy Wrong

The 1994 Edinburgh film festival coincided with the fringe festival debut of my solo show, Suzy Wrong — Human Cannon, in which I’d directed maximum firepower at some of the nastier stereotypes of East Asian women littering the joint: happy hookers Suzy Wong and Juicy Lucy from Virgin Soldiers, dragon ladies Madam Mao and Imelda Marcos, and assorted sex myths. The show’s climactic “coup de theatre”, following a wind-up where I hinted that I might put out ping-pong balls, was my appearance with a kapok-stuffed sex-doll, cunningly concealing a pump-action ping pong ball gun whose muzzle fired out of the business end of my blow-up friend: Suzy and her Uzi. Night after night I enjoyed reversing expectations and mowed down the expectant audience who were gagging for it, dahlings.

But I had been wondering whether in 1994 it was still worth bothering satirising stupid outmoded depictions of us Pacific Rimmers.

Priscilla was a sharp reminder that the battle was still on.

Oh, I would have liked a Q& fuckin’ A session with writer and director Stephan Elliott that night, all right.

This was gay liberation lite. The original Gay Liberation movement had a connection with all the other groups struggling for their emancipation. There was a sense of purpose, a political and philosophical basis to their activities and outlook. You can see the vestiges of that golden age in Peter Tatchell, whose political nous and humanity puts many of us to shame.

Now, if you’re East Asian, or the wrong sort of woman, you can be portrayed as a monster deserving of beatings and abuse with hardly a dissenting murmer. You don’t count. The characters in the film and those involved in the making of the film may be part of a minority that’s suffered, but they’re OK – the boot is now on the other foot and in everyone else’s face. Their comradeship only extends to anyone who happens to be built in their image. Screw empathy and compassion, it’s their turn now and they’re going to enjoy kicking down from their elevated status a rung or two up the ladder.

But it looks pretty and spectacular and we can ignore the sick messages pouring out.

So. There I sat in the Edinburgh Filmhouse — dehumanised as a woman, dehumanised as an East Asian, dehumanised as a human being. But audiences will love it and make Mr Elliott a shedload of money. After all, We Will Rock You is still running against all good taste.

UPDATE: London reviews of Priscilla, the Musical here

UPDATE Tues 15th January 2013: One thing learned from the Lobstergate row — is that "trannie" is now deemed to be an insulting term for trans-women. As language moves around (I feel uncomfortable with "oriental" and "Chinaman" but gleefully use "Pacific Rimmers" whenever possible) I am happy to be sensitive to to the use of "trannie". Solidarity is a two-way street.

Tuesday 8 January 2013

UK most unequal country in the West

It's official: the United Kingdom is the most unequal country in the West according to a UN report.

The report shows that the poorest 40 per cent of Britons share a lower proportion of the national wealth - 14.6 per cent - than in any other Western country. This is only marginally better than in Russia, the only industrialised nation, east or west, to have a worse record. Measurements of the gap between rich and poor tell a similar story. The richest fifth of Britons enjoy, on average, incomes 10 times as high as the poorest fifth.
The income gap in Britain and Australia is exactly the same as in Nigeria, much worse than in Jamaica, Ghana or the Ivory Coast and twice as bad as in Sri Lanka or Ethiopia.

And the Tories with the help of their Lib Dem human shields aren't finished yet. Unless there's a concerted defence of the British people — whether this comes from leadership from Labour or the TUC (some hope!) — we're looking forward to feudalism.

Otherwise people are going to have to start doing it for themselves. And, do you know, maybe that's not such a bad idea.

Monday 7 January 2013

South China Morning Post: RSC The Orphan of Zhao

Royal Shakespeare excludes British East Asians from their own culture: maids, dogs and ghosts all right, though.
by Anna Chen — (written 30 November 2012)

South China Morning Post magazine

When the hallowed Royal Shakespeare Company cast east Asian actors in a miserly three roles out of 17 in the Chinese classic, The Orphan of Zhao, (AKA,"the Chinese Hamlet") , they sparked an uprising of British east Asians that was to gather support from as far afield as the Americas and Australia. Their production was a British courtship of Chinese moolah that included research trips to China and ads in Mandarin, and yet we were virtually excluded from both cultures.

Given the roles of maid, ghost, and working the dog puppet, the three young actors of east Asian heritage were left with their noses pressed against the glass while all but one of the leading roles were hogged by white actors. So much for "colour-blind casting" whose original purpose was to open up the acting profession to us ethnic minorities.

The excuse for this slap in the chops was that the other two plays in the trilogy — reworkings of Brecht's Life of Galileo and Pushkin's Boris Godunov — had "no Chinese connection". You could be forgiven for thinking that a play set in a nation spanning the landmass of Europe and Asia might have included characters with features closer to our lovely high cheekbones rather than the neanderthalesque eye ridge so beloved of western beauty standards. Or questioned if Brecht was in fact so much of a realist. Or even wondered why a white gal could play a Chinese princess but a Chinese could not play a heretical scientist, as if white was somehow the universal default for humanity.

Perhaps it was the claim that RSC artistic director Gregory Doran had interviewed "lots and lots" of east Asian actors when our investigations uncovered eight auditioned out of a possible hundred plus candidates, that set us off. Or the charge of "sour grapes", because one vociferous complainant had been one of the auditionees.

Invisible and neglected, we'd been sagging under the weight of our own ineffectuality under the remorseless onslaught of the yellowface monster swallowing yet another generation of Chinese, east Asians, Pacific rimmers — call us what you will.

Suddenly, here we were, the barbarian horde, camped outside their gate and wanting to play nice but also quite looking forward to the odd head on a stick if they didn't. The RSC have now acknowledged under-representation of east Asians in theatre and have promised to address it, but they've yet to recognise their casting was a shambles. And until I see results, I ain't budging.

"Successful Orphan taps into Shakespearean vein in Chinese classic." Highly selective puff review in the SCMP thankfully corrected in the comments. So much for all the lip service.

Anna Chen's article on the RSC The Orphan of Zhao casting at the Guardian.

Anna Chen's review of The Orphan of Zhao in the Morning Star.

Review by academic Amanda Rogers.

British East Asian Actors release a statement.

Thursday 3 January 2013

End of the Enlightenment: New Internationalist column

My festive season column in NEW INTERNATIONALIST magazine December 2012.

Bah, humbug!

2012 was the end of reason

Roll up, roll up for the End Of The Enlightenment Show! You there, in the best seats right up front, watch in wonder as the world as you know it comes crashing down, the pillars of civilization torn asunder by neocon Samson and his delightful assistants! The Mayans may be wrong about 2012 marking the end of the world, but it’s the end for us – and what a spectacle it’s turning out to be.

Quake in your DM boots as tectonic shifts in consciousness thrust whacko pundits to the fore! Marvel at the multitude of business shills speaking of false profits and naysaying tax-collectors explaining why we have to pay while the super-rich go forth and multiply!

Hear US Republican nasty Charlie Fuqua calling for a return to slavery and the death penalty for ‘rebellious’ children because it says so in the Bible… if by ‘Bible’ you mean the Rorschach inkblot of Christian fundamentalist imaginings. ‘No critical thinking, ’cause that challenges your parents and the Family!’ they cry. Verily, the British Conservatives stare in envy and trail in their wake – or wail at their take.

Luckily, the Tories have politicians like Michael Gove, who is Minister for Education in the same way as Orwell’s Ministry for Truth does what it says on the tin. With our schools being handed over to businesses, we’ll soon be plummeting down the literacy rankings just like Sweden. Watch Gove hard-wire young brains for unquestioning obedience: no music or arts in the game of Baccarat replacing our exam system. History will be transformed into facts ’n’ data mined for system-buttressing tropes and filtered for subversive elements. A generation will say, ‘Karl Marx? Who he? Any relation to Santa Claus? Can I have an X-Box, Santa, just like my parents used to have in ye olden days before it all turned to shit?’

With enhanced baboon-bum lips and PIP breast implants (before they explode in your chest), girls can marry wealth and get themselves a half-million-dollar shelf of Birkin bags, just like socialite Tamara Ecclestone, daughter of Formula 1 supremo Bernie. The rest of us will have to slap on a ‘will work for food’ placard and head for our local dollar or 99p store, our dreams of becoming scientists or astronauts up in smoke.

Still, there’s always the entertainment biz, traditionally the exit from drudgery for talented boys and girls. Nope, that’s sewn up as well. Dynastic succession in the arts is now reserved for the offspring of the cultural aristocracy, while YouTube and Spotify function as windows into a world denied the rest of us. Yes, you may get three million viewers of your music video (hewn out of sweat, toil and a unique vision of our place in the cosmos that sends our spirits soaring) but your royalty cheque for $94 isn’t going to get you very far.

So, as capitalist production moves from the West to Asia and Africa, we wave farewell to four centuries of Enlightenment values. Nice while it lasted.

New Internationalist magazine