Orwell and the Left

Eric Arthur Blair was born on June 25th, 1903. The world knows him by his pen-name, George Orwell, named from the Suffolk river not far from where he'd lived. He is best known today for his two satirical novels, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), both critiques of the brutal Stalinism that ruled the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

Orwell wrote much more than those two works, however. In addition to them he wrote four more novels, three non-fiction books and literally dozens of essays and newspaper columns. His style is distinctive in that he speaks in plain, everyday language, avoiding any pretentiousness or jargon. He tells things as they are, with a searing insight and honesty.

To find out what life was like for the poor, he took to living rough, like a tramp, first in London, then Paris. He describes how putting newspaper inside your shirt keeps out the cold of winter nights. While discarded cigarette ends can be reassembled into cigarettes, matches to light them with are rarer, and become a valuable currency on the streets. His experiences formed his first book, "Down and Out in Paris and London" (1933).

His "Road to Wigan Pier" (1937) describes what life was like in the North of England, the daily struggle, the occasional sense of hopelessness, and the minute details of the shabby furniture and the plain diet that was all they could afford. It brought home to his educated readers how the majority actually lived, in a way that Cobbett's "Rural Rides" had done in the early 1820s.

Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War and was wounded. He chose to join the POUM, a Workers' Party of Marxist Unification, and described the chaotic and under-supplied struggle against Franco's forces. His book, "Homage to Catalonia" (1938) caused disquiet on the Left because he described how the Communists had denounced the POUM as Trotskyists and betrayed them.

Orwell's disenchantment with the Soviet Union reached breaking point when the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed in 1939, paving the way for Hitler to wage war in the West. He reviewed Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon" (1940), which covered Stalin's 1930s show trials, and remarked, "What was frightening about these trials was not the fact that they happened – for obviously such things are necessary in a totalitarian society – but the eagerness of Western intellectuals to justify them."

Orwell was very English. He was a heavy smoker, rolling his own from strong tobacco. He liked strong tea, beer, roast beef, kippers and marmalade. He wrote about the mythical ideal English pub, "The Moon Under Water," and had a deep affection for the patriotic and unpretentious English working class. He wrote, "people can be trusted to behave decently if you will only let them alone."

He led a full life, working at times as an empire policeman, a teacher, in a second-hand bookshop, for the BBC, and as a full-time writer. His experiences come through and colour his writing. Several of his essays achieved legendary status, and some feature in school syllabi today. He set out the rules of good, precise, clear writing:

* Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

* Never use a long word where a short one will do.

* If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

* Never use the passive where you can use the active.

* Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

* Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

He is still highly relevant, rewarding us not only with his fluent prose, but with his honesty. He self-identified as a socialist and a man of the Left, yet he saw and wrote about what people actually did in the name of socialism. His refusal to excuse the cynical brutality of those who claimed to carry its banner but betrayed all of its ideals, made him many enemies on the Left. If Orwell were alive today, he would have no time for the squirming around the brutality and squalor of the anti-Western regimes and movements that many on the Left are so ready to act as apologists for.