George Orwell: Socialism and Utopia

By White, Richard | Utopian Studies, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

George Orwell: Socialism and Utopia

White, Richard, Utopian Studies

George Orwell is usually regarded as the prophet of false utopias. In Animal Farm and 1984, he warns us of the future possibilities of totalitarianism, and he remains skeptical of every version of the ideal society that isn't ultimately connected to ordinary life as we know it. Less well-known is Orwell's profound commitment to socialism as the only proper basis for the society of the future. This article will show how much of Orwell's work is informed by liberty, equality, and fraternity, or the basic values of socialism. Orwell was always suspicious of revolutionary millenarianism; but at the same time, he believed in the possibility of progress towards an ideal community of the future, and he thought that such a utopia could only be socialist in character. Before considering Orwell's own views, however, I shall look at the possibility of "ethical socialism," its relationship to Marxism, and the authentic meaning of liberty, equality, and fraternity.


In the third part of The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels skillfully situate their own theory of "scientific socialism," or communism, against the other varieties of socialism which existed in their day. They distinguish the three basic forms of "reactionary socialism," "bourgeois socialism," and "Utopian socialism" with all their variations, and in a brilliant tour de force they demonstrate how their socialist competitors are all reactionary to some extent (Marx and Engels 106-118). Marx and Engels also comment that "The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered by this or that would-be reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes" (Marx and Engels 95). In other words--although this is to focus on only one polemical text--socialism is inevitable and all ethical considerations are strictly beside the point. Sometimes this position is referred to as "vulgar Marxism," and while it is misleading, it is also the case that scholars and revolutionaries have often interpreted Marx in this straightforward deterministic way. (1) Now, Marx rose above his socialist rivals, and for some time Marxism was perhaps the only version of socialism or communism to be taken seriously as a political philosophy. However, with the collapse of the Soviet communist system the historical necessity of socialism seems to have been discredited by history itself. At this point, though, it is possible to return to the tradition of ethical socialism that Marx himself rejected when he condemned his socialist rivals. It can be asked whether socialism is ethically necessary; and if it can be justified in terms of basic values--such as justice, freedom, or equality--that most people would be likely to affirm.

There are many writers who could be described as "ethical socialists," including Robert Owen, Proudhon, Fourier, Bernstein, R.H. Tawney, and the novelist George Orwell, who is the specific focus of this paper. (2) In opposition to the adherents of vulgar Marxism, one thing they all have in common is their rejection of the historical inevitability of socialism. For Orwell and all the others, socialism is morally necessary since it is the most obvious manifestation of freedom, justice, and equality. However, socialism is not historically necessary--as Orwell puts it, the triumph of Hitler proved that nothing is historically inevitable--and this absence of necessity means that the success or failure of socialism must be more closely tied to the moral character and policies of those who support it (The Road to Wigan Pier 185). Marx believed that revolutionary violence was inevitable since those in power will never voluntarily relinquish their position, and he viewed the future communist society as the redemption of that nightmare of history that we have had hitherto. However, the ethical socialist remains suspicious of an absolute break between the present situation and the future ideal: using violence to end violence or to achieve freedom is problematic at best, and the experience of the Soviet Union suggests that the revolutionary society that is thereby created will remain inherently violent and opposed to individual freedom. …

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