Orwell on Fascism

Article excerpt

George Orwell is recognized today as one of the most original political writers of the twentieth century, particularly in his understanding of the evils of communism, most famously expressed in Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). While Orwell's anticommunism dates back to the mid-1930s, especially his experience during the Spanish Civil War, he was at first less insightful about the other great totalitarian movement of that "low, dishonest decade," fascism. (Orwell rarely distinguished between fascism and Nazism.) The outbreak of war in September 1939 and, in particular, the fall of France in the summer of 1940 clarified Orwell's recognition of the danger that Nazism posed for England.

Orwell's critique of communism is both incisive and original. He was among the first writers to recognize that communism was not a revolutionary force but instead was a new, dangerous form of totalitarianism, a powerful tool for controlling the masses. Conversely, his initial comments on fascism were curiously flat and imitative of the standard left-wing interpretation--that is, fascism was nothing more than the capitalist system in extremis.

Despite his personal, if somewhat idiosyncratic, commitment to socialism, Orwell's critique of communism, and especially his belief that Stalin was a bloody-minded monster, made him anathema in leftist circles throughout his life. His own position as a strong leftist made his criticism of communism and its fellow travelers in England sting even more.

Orwell's political education was a gradual process. Five years as a member of the Imperial police in Burma (1921-27) left him with views that can best be characterized as vaguely radical. In fact, he was described in the early 1930s as a Tory radical, someone in the mold of William Cobbett or Orwell's personal hero, Charles Dickens. As he admits in the autobiographical section of his analysis of poverty in the north of England, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937): "I seem to have spent half the time in denouncing the capitalist system and the other half in raging over the insolence of bus-conductors" (141). (1)

Orwell's political education began when he ventured among the poor, the downtrodden, and the tramps after his return from Burma. His book Down and Out in Paris and London was an attempt to show the impact of his time among the lowest rungs of society. He wrote that he wanted to purge himself from all the evils of imperialism and thought that by immersing himself among the poor he would do so. His first serious publications appeared in the unconventional English left-wing journal Adelphi, which provided an outlet for him to develop his ideas and where the evidence of his unique direct prose style first appeared. He also wrote occasional pieces for the New English Weekly, which, like Adelphi, was idiosyncratically socialist. These contacts put him in touch with individuals drawn from all parts of the leftist spectrum: anarchists, pacifists, socialists, Trotskyists, and communists. His political ideas were unformed but definitely radical and anticapitalist.

By the time Orwell left to take part in the Spanish Civil War, in December 1936, his emerging left-wing views had been sharpened by his time among the unemployed in the north of England. In Wigan Pier, which appeared while he was in Spain, he elaborated some of his unique opinions about socialism. For socialism to prevail, he wrote, it must lose its image as appealing to "unsatisfactory or even inhuman types" (182). In an oft-quoted passage, he wrote that most people regarded socialists as a collection of the strange and the odd. "One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist and feminist in England" (174).

One of his most original insights from his experiences in Wigan was that for socialism to triumph, the middle classes must show empathy for, and merge their interests with, those of the proletariat. …