The author is an instructor at the SBCC School of Extended Learning. He lives in Goleta.
Calla Jones Corner’s opinion piece, “Thank You, George Orwell…” (Voices, July 7) shows the consequence of failing to thoroughly research a writer’s views before appropriating that writer to advance a political argument.
Ms. Corner suggests that in his most famous novel, “1984,” Orwell is warning that a “leftist socialist agenda” promising to create a “helping society” must inevitably devolve into totalitarianism. “If Americans don’t wake up to the left’s agenda, the future of our country is indeed Orwellian,” Ms. Corner writes.
The problem with invoking Orwell to alert us about the perils of socialism is that Orwell was neither a conservative nor a lapsed leftist, but rather an ardent socialist who, while working on “1984,” wrote: “Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism as I see it.”
Far from viewing socialism as the gateway to despotism, Orwell believed that democratic socialism was the only antidote to communism, fascism and what he saw as the inherent inequities of capitalism.
While Orwell’s views are light years to the left of mine and might even make Bernie Sanders seem like a Heritage Foundation conservative by comparison, I share Ms. Corner’s admiration for him and her regard for the relevance of his writing nearly 70 years after his death. I am sure Ms. Corner did not intend to mislead, but by omission and commission, she mischaracterizes his political views. I would hope that she would agree that we owe this great writer a more complete presentation of his beliefs.
In 1928, British writer George Orwell (1903- 1950), born Eric Arthur Blair, joined the Independent Labor Party, which was to the left of the more mainstream British Labor Party. The ILP supported nationalization of major industries, expropriation of large estates, a cap on incomes for the wealthy, and a guaranteed living wage — views that would not win an invite to Fox and Friends today.
Orwell’s support for democratic socialism was rooted in a belief that a redistribution of wealth was an essential precondition to democracy. Economic and political inequality perpetuated one another, and he believed that only by establishing a system where all alike share in society’s rewards is political equality possible. Orwell’s advocacy of equality of outcome, anathema to conservatives, as a prerequisite for democracy is laid out in a passage from “1984,” which Ms. Corner cites favorably without appearing to understand its plain meaning: “For if leisure and security were to be enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings, who were normally stupefied by poverty, would become literate and learn to think for themselves.”
In 1936, Orwell volunteered to fight for the Spanish Popular Front republican government in the civil war against Franco’s fascists, who were aided by Hitler and Mussolini. The Popular Front was composed of a number of socialist parties and a small communist party, backed by Joseph Stalin. Orwell’s commitment to democratic socialism was reinforced by his relationships with fighters in his militia, but he witnessed the Stalinists usurp and betray the revolution in Spain. He himself was denounced by the communists as a Trotskyist and forced to leave. Leon Trotsky, the military hero of the Russian Revolution, had lost a power struggle with Stalin after Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924, went into exile and was assassinated by a Soviet agent in Mexico in 1940. Trotskyists believed, naively in my view, that the Russian Revolution would have taken a democratic turn had Trotsky prevailed. Trotsky was Stalin’s boogeyman, the pretext for purging millions of alleged collaborators with this alleged arch-criminal.
Orwell came to view Stalin as a counter-revolutionary and Stalinism as a form of state capitalism in which one ruling elite had been replaced by another. His two most famous works were allegorical treatments of the Russian Revolution and the split between genuine socialists and counter-revolutionary Stalinists.
In “Animal Farm” (1945), the barnyard animals at Manor Farm live in abysmal conditions under their besotted and incompetent owner, Mr. Miller (Czar Nicolas II). An old pig named Major (Lenin) urges revolution. After he dies, Snowball (Trotsky) and Napoleon (Stalin) lead a revolt that drives out Mr. Miller. They institute an egalitarian society governed by commandments such as “All animals are equal” and “All things with four legs or wings are friends.” Napoleon plots against Snowball, denounces him as a traitor and expels him from the farm. Napoleon and the other pigs then begin walking on two legs and behaving like humans, establishing themselves as the new ruling elite. The commandments are changed to “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” and “Four legs good, two legs better.”
In “1984” (1949), Stalin, aka Uncle Joe, is represented by Big Brother and Trotsky by the mysterious arch enemy of Big Brother and rebel leader Emmanuel Goldstein. Like Goldstein, Trotsky was a Jew and a target of anti-Semites and, like Goldstein, had secretly circulated a treatise against the leader, whose mere possession was punishable by death. Thus, in both of Orwell’s most famous works, the characters that represent hope and liberation are stand-ins for the socialist Trotsky.
Orwell was a free thinker, unafraid to challenge opinions coming from his own side; a contrarian, who debunked Mahatma Gandhi in a famous essay when virtually every other Western writer was conferring sainthood on him; and a paradox, a socialist revolutionary, yet unapologetically traditional and sentimental, as reflected in the protagonist in “1984,” Winston Smith, who wanders the forbidden zone in London searching for memorabilia of ordinary life before the nuclear apocalypse.
Because of these complexities, polemicists on both the left and right should be wary of cherry-picking Orwell to score political points against the other side. Ms. Corner is quite right to criticize progressives for weaponizing “1984” to conflate President Trump with Big Brother. But reinventing a diehard socialist who admired Leon Trotsky as Ayn Rand, as Ms. Corner attempts, is playing the same game. And it is also a bit Orwellian.