Orwell’s Left: Hope Lies in the Proles

Book Review: Hope Lies in the Proles: George Orwell and the Left by John Newsinger, (Pluto Press, 2018)

George Orwell’s relationship to the Left was complicated while he lived, and only grew more so after his death.  Always determined to find out what he himself thought, rather than align with a particular party or doctrine, his criticism spared neither enemies nor allies.  He both denounced and was denounced by the Communist Party, he traded public jabs with pacifists and anarchists, and he rather cruelly mocked the pretensions of middle-class socialists (like himself), remaining all the while a steadfast opponent of capitalism, imperialism, and all forms of totalitarianism.

In Hope Lies in the Proles: George Orwell and the Left, John Newsinger examines the complexity of this relationship and its changes over time.  Individual chapters address Orwell’s views on the working class, pacifism and war, the Labour Party, political spying, and similar topics, and consider the various and shifting attitudes the Left has taken toward Orwell.  The result is not a biography, or even a typical literary study, but more of a history — though an exceptionally narrow one.  It is not a portrait of George Orwell; it is a history of the British Left as it relates to George Orwell.

Orwell was a trenchant critic of the Left, in both senses of the phrase.  He was, he insisted throughout his life “of the Left,” and it was that same Left of which he was often critical.  But what was that Left?  It speaks to the power of Orwell’s writing that we can generally understand his point, and even recognize the problems he identified, often without knowing anything at all of the particular actors or the specific circumstances he was addressing.  Still, the fact remains that there were immediate and pressing issues demanding his attention, and particular people and policies he was attacking.  And, though he had a tendency toward the sweeping generalization, recognizing the specificity of the circumstances can help us to understand Orwell’s thought.

In this respect Newsinger has done a service for both the scholar and the casual reader.  Hope Lies in the Proles positions Orwell in the debates and intrigues of his time. The best use of this book is as a kind of companion to Orwell’s writing, illuminating especially his essays and journalism and his two final novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.  The context Newsinger details is often enlightening.  For instance, the conditions of mine workers, which Orwell reported in The Road to Wigan Pier, was of special interest in the aftermath of the Great Lockout of 1926, which, given the miners’ crucial role among the trade unions, represented a major defeat for the entire movement.  Or, to offer a very different example: it turns out that Orwell was not merely slinging mud when he accused pacifists of craven power-worship and fascist tendencies: The Peace Pledge Union had published a pamphlet describing both Communist Russia and Nazi Germany as “progressive improvement[s] over liberal capitalism.”

The virtues of Newsinger’s approach are both numerous and obvious.  And at its strongest points the book is very solid.  It proves its value, for instance, in its substantive digression to consider Orwell’s contact with the intelligence services of various countries; likewise, in its concise but thorough deconstruction of E.P. Thompson’s hostile views on Nineteen Eighty-Four. There are many such moments, scattered throughout the book’s slim 163 pages.  However, there are equally many weaknesses, or simply absences, mostly falling in the first half of the text.

Again, the question is, What is the Left?  Or perhaps, Which Left?

The book is particularly concerned with the Left in the UK, for obvious reasons, though it also ventures into Spain and inevitably examines the politics emanating from Moscow (though, probably wisely, the political machinations internal to the Soviet Union are touched on only briefly).  More precisely, the Left that Newsinger deals with is in some respects the official Left, the Left of organizations and newsletters.  He is quite concerned with various sectarian “lines” and party policies, but less so with the experience of rank-and-file members, to say nothing of the conditions and activity of ordinary working people.  Thus his treatment of The Road to Wigan Pier is much more occupied with the motives of the publisher and with the reactions of the Communist Party than with Orwell’s relationship to the miners whose lives he was documenting.

Orwell’s early novels are altogether missing from the discussion, presumably because Newsinger sees them as not being “Left” in the appropriate sense.  Down and Out in Paris and London is mentioned twice, once to fault Orwell for anti-Semitism, and once to suggest that in Paris Orwell “encountered a left-wing culture that is missing from the book.”  This is a strange assertion.  In the eighth chapter of Down and Out there is a comical episode in which the narrator-protagonist attempts to contact a Communist “secret society” with an eye to writing for their newspaper.  More importantly, though, the book is thick with characters whose attitudes fall somewhere in the grey zone between radicalism and crime.  Perhaps the most notable of these was Bozo, a sidewalk artist who considered himself “an enemy of society” and who would not allow his poverty to affect his pride and therefore “refused on principle to be thrifty.”  At one point he draws “a cartoon of a boa constrictor marked Capital swallowing a rabbit marked Labour,” but the police forced him to rub it out.

This sort of informal politics is present, as well, in the tenuous happiness Dorothy Hare finds among the migrant hops-pickers in A Clergyman’s Daughter.  Other of Orwell’s characters have something of a broadly anti-capitalist outlook, and even some tenuous connection with the organized Left. Gordon Comstock, in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, suffers a kind of private war against the “money-god,” aided by an aristocratic Socialist who publishes a radical magazine, but treats it almost as a private charity to benefit his literary friends.  In Coming Up for Air, George Bowling attends a lecture of the Left Book Club, only to be disappointed by the poor example presented by the revolutionaries.  These fictional vignettes reveal something of Orwell’s real attitude about the organs of the Left — the Communist conspiracies, the book club lectures, the pretentious journals — and their failure to appeal to the masses of well-meaning ordinary people whose interests such bodies claim to represent.  For Orwell, that was the central question facing the Socialist movement.  But Newsinger only seems interested in one side of the equation.

What might have been a just matter of emphasis proves to be an absolute limitation, and a distortion. There is but a passing mention of Burmese Days and no attempt to relate it to the British Left’s anti-imperialism, or Orwell’s complaints about their hypocritical complicity in international exploitation, not to mention its connection to anything that the Burmese might have thought or done.  (Luckily, we have another book that situates Orwell in the Burmese context, Emma Larkin’s fascinating travelogue, Finding George Orwell in Burma.)  Because Newsinger understands the Left in terms of its institutions, rather than the admittedly vaguer spirit of solidarity and the hatred of oppression, he overlooks the politics implicit in much of Orwell’s writing and misunderstands the ways that Orwell’s politics connect to, and conflict with, the Left’s official parties and newspapers and doctrines.

Homage to Catalonia cannot be understood solely in terms of the conflict between the Communist Party and the POUM; equally important is the silent handshake between Orwell and an Italian militiaman, introduced in the very first lines of the book.  The two men exchanged exactly as many words as needed to determine that they had no language in common, but as Orwell started to leave, this foreign comrade “stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard.”  Orwell at once felt “as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy.”

Orwell begins Homage to Catalonia by introducing this minor figure, because “With his shabby uniform and fierce pathetic face he typifies for me the social atmosphere of that time.”  That feeling was to last, despite everything.  Years later, in “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” Orwell was to reflect,

“When I remember — oh, how vividly!– his shabby uniform and fierce, pathetic, innocent face, the complex side-issues of the war seem to fade away and I see clearly that there was at any rate no doubt as to who was in the right.  In spite of power politics and journalistic lying, the central issue of the war was the attempt of people like this to win the decent life which they knew to be their birthright. . . .  This man’s face, which I saw only for a minute or two, remains with me as a sort of visual reminder of what the war was really about.”

The lines of the various parties, the sectarian power plays, even the outright betrayals — in short, “the squalid farce of leftwing politics”– were all secondary.  The real issue “is very simple”:  “Shall people like that Italian soldier be allowed to live the decent, fully human life which is now technically achievable, or shan’t they?”  For Orwell, Socialism, if it meant anything at all, had very much to do with the Italian militiaman, the Parisian side-walk artist, the migrant hops-pickers, the Wigan miners, the Burmese peasants, and even sad types like the nostalgic salesman George Bowling and failed poet Gordon Comstock.  For Newsinger, in contrast, politics is a matter of organizations, leaders, official pronouncements and the like.  That is ironic, given the book’s title:  Hope lies in the proles, after all, not the party.

Kristian Williams is the author of Between the Bullet and the Lie: Essays on Orwell (AK Press, 2017).