George Orwell

The year 1945 saw the publication of Animal Farm, Orwell's powerful allegory exposing the cruelty and hypocrisy of the Soviet régime which grew out of the Bolshevik revolution. Curiously, Animal Farm itself seems distinctively English. As we look back at Orwell, himself looking forward from a Europe just emerging (but was it really emerging?) from the horrors of war, we might judge that events have proved him too pessimistic, seeing the greatest dangers in the wrong directions. The fear of nuclear annihilation which haunted us from the 60s to the 80s and which has now somewhat receded, is not realised in the nightmare world of 1984, and neither is the fear of ecological disaster which now looms larger. The more blatant kinds of totalitarian thought-control and state terrorism, and the perpetual grind of mechanised war fought by dehumanised conscript armies, which Orwell presents in 1984 and which summed up his experience of both the Spanish Civil War and of the World War which followed, have not (either) exactly materialised; but it would be premature to dismiss Orwell's vision. He still has a lot to teach us. He detected and described the spiritual, political and cultural viruses which, though they have mutated differently from his expectations, still warp us. To understand this we should return to follow the line of enquiry suggested by Animal Farm's Englishness.

Orwell lived out the noble tradition of English radical nonconformity which goes back to the Peasants' Revolt, the Lollards, and Piers the Ploughman - to the discontents of the fourteenth century (and, if we looked closely, a good deal further back). He wrote under an assumed English pen-name (the patron saint of England whose Greek name means "a tiller of the soil" for the secularised Christian name, and an English river for the surname), discarding the Scottish name of Blair. He saw the grip on power by British conservatives of all complexions as an usurpation of a particularly vicious and irresponsible kind, all the worse for the wonderful potential which it thwarted - the gentleness, tolerance and infinite individuality of all things English from Stilton cheese to seaside postcards. Yes, England was a family, but it was "a family with the wrong members in control". Considering this power élite as a collection of individuals, there could in each case be only two possible explanations for their stubbornness: wickedness (if they know what they were doing) or stupidity (if lack of intelligence or cultural conditioning had effectively blinded them).

As a radical, Orwell didn't expect to keep his hands clean either. He supported the war against Hitler as he had fought for the Spanish Republican government against Franco. Reflecting on the earlier conflict, he rejected the bogus radicalism that sneered at physical courage and patriotism, though he was never in the least danger of glamourising war:

We have become too civilised to grasp the obvious. For the truth is very simple. To survive you often have to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself. War is evil, and it is often the lesser evil. Those who take the sword perish by the sword, and those who don't take the sword perish by smelly diseases.

"Smelly diseases" characterises the poverty into which (again wrongly) Orwell expected England to decline after the war. His pessimism is, then, fed from at least two directions - entrenched conservatism and compromised radicalism. If you were to read through the essays and journalism of this period (see the various Penguin editions) you would find much fuller evidence for this - and of the most positive and resilient side of Orwell. Before the desolation of Hitler's "final solution" dawned fully, you will find him dissecting English anti-Semitism. After the war you will encounter a sturdy defence of the English culinary tradition, as he looks forward to the resumption of tourism. He still writes about a predominantly Anglo-Saxon, Christian England and did not live long enough to see the emergence of our multi-cultural, multi-faith and no-faith society.

His greatest strength rests in his truthfulness to things as he saw them, his artistic integrity, and his conscience. He enjoins us to look for the wickedness and stupidity in ourselves, and at our compromises in this world of greater and lesser evils.

Robert Cockcroft
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 31st July 1997