George Orwell was serious about politics.
That might seem obvious, given the pervasively political valence of “Orwellian” discourse and the politically charged touchstones of Orwell’s famous novels, the Bolshevik revolution in Animal Farm and totalitarian thought control in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But the degree to which Orwell was steeped in the crosscurrents of radical politics has been routinely underestimated. So much has been said about Orwell’s legendarily plain speech and his free-thinking worldview that he now figures, for many, as an icon of non-doctrinaire and even anti-doctrinaire thought.
George Orwell, whose most celebrated novel features a thirty-page tract by a fiery Trotsky-like ideologue on “the theory and practice of oligarchical collectivism,” is often treated as a quixotic naïf whose socialism was moral rather than theoretical, intuitive rather than intellectual. The truth is more complex.
Orwell was an iconoclast, but within the socialist tradition, not outside it. His satires of ideological excesses rang true because he knew those excesses intimately — ideologically, culturally, and theoretically.
As we now know, thanks to his Complete Works published between 1986 and 1998, Orwell was very much at home in the arcana of left politics. In 1945, when he rebuked pro-Soviet writers for exaggerating Stalin’s role in the Russian revolution, he drew his evidence from an unexpected source: the man who had served as Stalin’s Foreign Minister from 1930 to 1939 and who had returned to the foreign ministry after serving as Russia’s ambassador to the United States during World War 2.
“I have before me,” Orwell wrote, “what must be a very rare pamphlet, written by Maxim Litvinoff in 1918 and outlining the recent events in the Russian Revolution. It makes no mention of Stalin, but gives high praise to Trotsky, and also to Zinoviev.”
Readers who may have casually noticed, in passing, that characters inspired by Leon Trotsky are central to both Nineteen Eighty-Four (Goldstein) and Animal Farm (Snowball) are often surprised to encounter discussions of Trotskyism in Orwell’s letters and essays — unfiltered, heretical Trotskyism. In his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism,” Orwell offered a regular catalogue of political tendencies, including “3. Trotskyism,” in which he said that this term is frequently “used so loosely as to include Anarchists, democratic Socialists and even Liberals. I use it here to mean a doctrinaire Marxist” and “hostility to the Stalin régime.”
He warned, further, against confusing the doctrine with its namesake: “Trotskyism can be better studied in obscure pamphlets or in papers like the Socialist Appeal than in the works of Trotsky himself, who was by no means a man of one idea.” He was equally interested in many other currents, major and minor.
This was not an eccentricity. Orwell never romanticized left groups, even those he favored, like the Independent Labour Party in Britain or the militia of Spain’s Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, with which he fought in the Spanish civil war. But he admired dissent, and he knew that building an oppositional force, however small, is an achievement. “I have never seen him so enthusiastic,” Arthur Koestler later reminisced, as when they decided to work together to found a human rights organization in 1946.
When groups he opposed but respected were victimized, he rallied to their defense, both privately and publicly. During the war he was sharply critical of anarchist war resisters, but when Scotland Yard raided their press in 1944, Orwell published a stinging criticism in the socialist Tribune.
When Vernon Richards and others were jailed for opposing the war, Orwell accepted their invitation to serve as vice chair of the Freedom Defence Committee. Upon their release, he helped Richards and Marie Louise Berneri set themselves up as photographers. He was newly famous as the author of Animal Farm, and the photos they took (of the reticent author and his son Richard) were commercially valuable. They also remain our best photos of Orwell.
Organizing takes effort and courage, and Orwell saw no shame in starting small. He collected pamphlets from even the smallest groups, and he took them seriously. The 214-page inventory of his 2,700-item collection includes pamphlets by the All-India Congress Socialist Party, the People’s National Party (Jamaica), the Polish Labour Underground Press, the Leninist League, the Groupe Syndical Français, the Workers’ Friend, Freedom Press, Russia Today, the Meerut Trade Union Defence Committee, the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, and myriad others.
This is not how Orwell is ordinarily understood. His publishers, and his…