Notes on Orwell and Democratic Socialism

“Make Orwell Fiction Again.” So read t-shirts and hats mimicking Donald Trump’s infamous 2016 campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” in a not-so-subtle dig at a president who openly styles himself as something of an authoritarian leader. In 1984, Orwell’s famous dystopian novel—sales of which soared in the wake of Trump’s election—surveillance is ubiquitous, truth is malleable and coincides with whatever the Party needs it to be, and the forces of repression are readily deployed to stamp out even the faintest glimmer of dissent. Trump may not exactly be Big Brother (and to the extent that he is, the way has been paved for him by his two immediate predecessors, who created and entrenched the surveillance-deportation-police state that Trump now helms); nevertheless, Trump’s deployment of federal forces in Washington D.C. and Portland to quash protests, his suggestion to postpone the presidential election, and his evident intention to engage in voter suppression during a pandemic by sabotaging the United States Post Office do genuinely raise the specter of incipient Orwellian dystopia.

Photo courtesy of Open Culture.

Trump isn’t the first U.S. president in recent memory to demonstrate an affinity for the Orwellian, of course. The term was widely applied to George W. Bush between 2000 and 2008. It wasn’t just Bush’s dubious claim to being legitimately elected to a first term that earned him his Orwellian reputation. The dystopian moniker acquired its real meaning with the rise of the post-9/11 national security state and the push to make war on Iraq, which involved a startling amount of lies, propaganda, and trampling on individual rights and freedoms in the name national unity. The run-up to the Iraq War, for example, was rife with the sort of duplicitous language Orwell famously deplored. As the philosopher Douglass Kellner remarks, “Bush’s discourse…displayed Orwellian features of [doublethink] where war against Iraq is for peace, the occupation of Iraq is its liberation, destroying its food and water supplies enables ‘humanitarian’ action, and where the murder of countless Iraqis and destruction of the country will produce ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy.’” With the advent of legislation and organizations like the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security, we can also see the logic of doublethink at work: American patriotism and its associations with freedom are called upon to license incursions on privacy and the chilling of thought (the Patriot Act famously allowed individuals’ library records to be examined); the defense of the “homeland” from foreign enemies is predictably used to crack down on domestic protest. Like the antagonistic power blocs of 1984 in which the constant threat of war is mobilized as a means of domestic control, the open-ended War on Terror was invoked to justify suspending civil liberties and the rule of law.

As these examples show, invocations of the “Orwellian” almost invariably refer to the threat of sprawling state power; it is the rise of unaccountable executive authority and an expansion of the apparatus of state surveillance, propaganda, and repression that most readily conjure Orwellian associations. While the reasons for these associations are obvious, they are a gross simplification of what Orwell himself considered the dystopian tendencies of modern society. Orwell saw the baneful effects of power and hierarchy in capitalist societies as well as communist, in interactions between private individuals as well as those between individuals and the state. When we narrowly equate the Orwellian features of contemporary U.S. society with state power, we neglect the authoritarian aspects of so-called civil society to which Orwell himself attributes the rise of fascism and totalitarianism. To appreciate Orwell’s insights, we must reacquaint ourselves with a part of his legacy that has remained obscure: his democratic socialism.

If you only knew about Orwell from ambient cultural references, you could be excused for thinking he was a man of the libertarian right. If one takes 1984 as the canonical statement of Orwell’s political views, for example, then one might easily come away with the impression that there can be no power more oppressive than the state, an inherently totalitarian entity whose growth must be resisted at all costs. An article published last year by the libertarian think tank Foundation for Economic Freedom is a case in point. Aiming to push back against readings of 1984 as primarily a harbinger of the dystopian potential of technology to become a form of ubiquitous surveillance, the author states correctly that Orwell intended 1984 specifically as a warning about the threat of totalitarian Soviet communism; however, she assiduously avoids mentioning Orwell’s many criticisms of capitalism. While she does make passing reference to Orwell as a writer on “the left,” one would never know from the article that he wrote a sympathetic book about socialism and joined with socialists, communists, and anarchists to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, much less that he intended his criticisms of the Soviet Union as necessary for the defense of his own understanding of socialism. The Orwell of anti-communist lore probably wouldn’t have uttered these words, which the Orwell of flesh and blood wrote in his 1946 essay “Why I Write”: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” Now that the Soviet Union is a thing of the past, the inadequacies of capitalism are all the more apparent; Orwell’s positive vision of a democratic socialism is all the more timely and urgent.

How did Orwell understand democratic socialism? Although he left behind no systematic elaboration of his political ideas, fruitful hints at what Orwell considered socialism’s main elements are scattered throughout his voluminous writings. One book in which the reader encounters frequent explicit statements on socialism is The Road to Wigan Pier, a work which Orwell published in 1937 as part of the Left Book Club series edited by the socialist intellectual Victor Gallancz. “Socialism,” Orwell says there,

is such elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed that it has not established itself already. The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions, seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.

Orwell worries, however, that despite its obvious appeal, socialism is not gaining ground while fascism is. He blames this on socialists’ poor communication and off-putting sub-cultural tendencies, which conspire to keep it a marginal force. He famously spends the second part of Road to Wigan Pier railing against socialists and proffering a series of unkind caricatures of them to explain why socialism lacks the appeal he thinks it ought to have. “As with the Christian religion,” Orwell drily remarks, “the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents.” Orwell was so rude toward socialists that Victor Gallancz was compelled to include a rejoinder as a foreword to the Left Book Club edition of the book. (Gallancz’s foreword remains a salutary antidote to some of Orwell’s more rebarbative caricatures.)

Left Book Club edition of The Road to Wigan Pier. Photo courtesy of Publishing History. Learn more about the Left Book Club here.

Though opponents of socialism sometimes seize on these passages as support for their own hostility toward socialism, it shouldn’t be supposed that because Orwell attacks socialists, he opposes socialism. To the contrary, to ably expound socialism, he explains, one must get “inside the mind of the ordinary objector to Socialism,” or at least regard them sympathetically, in order to know how to reply. “Therefore, rather paradoxically,” he concludes, “in order to defend Socialism it is necessary to start by attacking it.” Orwell’s objections to socialism ultimately serve to strengthen his case for it by understanding how to better communicate its appeal. It is best to keep the message simple, straightforward, and intuitive rather than elaborately theorized, he concludes. “To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night,” writes Orwell, “socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about.” Socialism’s underlying ideals are justice and liberty according to Orwell. “Socialism means justice and common decency,” he declares.

While it is possible to take exception to Orwell’s formulations on account of their lack of specificity, the wisdom of his advice is evident in the success with which Bernie Sanders has used similar rhetoric to describe his own brand of democratic socialism. Interspersed with myriad concrete policy proposals, the rhetoric of freedom and common decency has been used by Sanders to great effect: he came within striking distance of the Democratic nomination for president—a hitherto unimaginable feat for an avowed socialist—and helped to galvanize a popular movement on behalf of major social democratic reforms. Where opponents of Medicare for All have wielded the rhetoric of freedom in defense of the private health insurance companies, raising the specter of “big government” encroachment on the individual’s choice, Sanders has effectively countered by appealing to a different vision of freedom in which the production of universal public goods like healthcare would free people from dependence on whatever private benefits their boss does (or doesn’t) happen to provide. Based on a solid foundation of rights to such public goods, individuals would be freer to pursue happiness on their own terms. Although Sanders’ campaign did not ultimately prevail, it popularized support for both specific policies and a broader democratic socialist vision. Sanders’ success suggests that Orwell’s instinct to eschew theoretical jargon and make the case for socialism in terms of widely held values like liberty and justice is probably correct and worth bearing in mind.

As Orwell was concluding The Road to Wigan Pier, he was concerned by fascism’s rapid advance. Indeed, this was one of the reasons he was so critical of socialists; he wanted them to be strong and popular in order to thwart the fascist challenge. In 1936, the most important front in the fight against fascism was in Spain, where an alliance of monarchist and Catholic forces, which soon came to be led by General Francisco Franco, had attempted a coup against the democratically elected Popular Front government, leading to a civil war that pitted Franco and his army against a coalition of republicans, anarchists, socialists, and communists. Many of them, like Orwell, came from abroad. Orwell went in association with the British Independent Labor Party and fought with the Party of Marxist Unity (P.O.U.M.). In his book Homage to Catalonia, in which he recounts his experiences fighting fascism, Orwell writes enthusiastically about the spirit of socialist solidarity that pervaded the ranks of the militias:

[T]he Spanish militias, while they lasted, were a sort of microcosm of a classless society. In that community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no boot-licking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like. And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me. The effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before.

In spite of this spirit of camaraderie—or perhaps because of its exuberant independence—his party affiliations got him in trouble with the Stalinists, who wouldn’t tolerate an alternative to Soviet authority among the anti-fascist forces. His near liquidation at the hands of the Stalinist terror—Andres Nin, the leader of the P.O.U.M., was not so lucky—left a deep impression on him, and 1984 and Animal Farm are the product of his encounter with totalitarian Soviet communism. In the larger context of his life, however, they are clear rebukes of the Soviet system in the name of democratic socialism.

A P.O.U.M. postcard. You can learn more about the P.O.U.M. and see more postcards like this one here.

Take Animal Farm, for example, which is widely known as an anti-communist allegory and cautionary tale about the propensity of revolutions to devour their children. While in one respect this is a perfectly accurate interpretation of the story, to describe it in this way is to overlook its central irony, which is that the ultimate crime of the pigs who rule the farm with an iron fist is to become indistinguishable from capitalists. The pigs are bad because they contradict the stated principles of the animals’ rebellion, not because they are true to them. They gradually revise the revolution’s initial reforms to permit themselves to engage in behaviors that had been the reason for rebelling against human rule in the first place, culminating in the absurd proposition that all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. The pigs violate the spirit of solidarity embodied in “Beasts of England,” the animals’ anthem of revolution, and they finally outlaw the song altogether lest it inspire rebellion against their own oppressive class rule. Eventually, even the name of the farm reverts from Animal Farm to Manor Farm, and the pigs begin to walk on two legs. Indeed, the initial vision of revolution is inspiring and persists among the rank and file animals in spite of its perversion in the hands of the pigs. The silent meditations of Clover, one of the farm’s two carthorses, are representative:

As Clover looked down the hillside her eyes filled with tears. If she could have spoken her thoughts, it would have been to say that this was not what they had aimed at when they had set themselves years ago to work for the overthrow of the human race. These scenes of terror and slaughter were not what they had looked forward to on that night when old Major first stirred them to rebellion. If she herself had had any picture of the future, it had been of a society of animals set free from hunger and the whip, all equal, each working according to his capacity, the strong protecting the weak.

Passages like this suggest that the degeneration of the original values of the revolution into an oppressive order indistinguishable from the status quo ante under Mr. Jones is the real tragedy of the story.

One might still wish to argue that part of Orwell’s lesson is however good the principles of revolutions are in theory, in practice they tend more or less inevitably toward dictatorship, so it is almost categorically better not to aspire to them in the first place. Yet even if the animals’ revolutionary ideology is depicted as ill-fated, human society and its prevailing attitudes are not presented as any more attractive (in the end, they may in fact look worse). The humans appear as selfish, competitive, and authoritarian. Mr. Jones is a drunk who forgets to feed the animals and blasts a shotgun to silence their obstreperous singing. His ouster is the just and predictable result of his behavior. The other humans are concerned to suppress any yearnings for animal self-management on their own farms, by punitive and heavy-handed means if necessary, while also scrambling amongst themselves for bigger shares of the pie. After Jones is ousted, he retreats to the tap room of the Red Lion pub to nurse his wounds. Rather than genuinely caring about his plight, his fellow farmers privately scheme to make his loss their gain: “The other farmers sympathized in principle, but they did not at first give him much help. At heart, each of them was secretly wondering whether he could not somehow turn Jones’s misfortune to his own advantage.” Orwell’s depiction of the humans as ruthless competitors is reminiscent of Marx’s observation that “capitalists are like hostile brothers who divide among themselves the loot of other people’s labor.” Revolution has its risks, but it’s not clear that the status quo is any more desirable.

While Animal Farm is clearly more complex than its interpretation as a simple anti-communist allegory suggests, it is understandable how one might come away from it without realizing the extent of Orwell’s socialist sympathies. To get a firmer grasp of Orwell’s socialist views, it is necessary to read his works more widely than they are usually read. Take, for example, his review of The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek’s famous warning that anything more substantial than the most minimal welfare state presages the extinction of freedom and individuality altogether.  While Orwell does not dismiss Hayek’s concerns, he finds them one-sided, and he cautions that Hayek “does not see, or will not admit, that a return to ‘free’ competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the State.” For those accustomed to the libertarian view that tyranny is synonymous with state power, this remark should be eye-opening; as Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier, an elemental aspect of socialism’s appeal is the freedom from the boss that it promises. Higher wages and shorter hours mean less time at work under the thumb of another and more time to spend as you like. (The caution against concentrations of private power is all the more relevant today as major tech companies like Facebook control an ever-greater amount of public discourse while they simultaneously conduct mass surveillance.) Ever the pragmatist, Orwell is skeptical of the glories of free competition as described in theory as opposed to how it operates in reality: “The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them. Professor Hayek denies that free capitalism necessarily leads to monopoly, but in practice that’s where it has led, and since the vast majority of people would far rather have State regimentation than slumps and unemployment, the drift towards collectivism is bound to continue if popular opinion has any say in the matter.” Indeed, it is just this drift of opinion in the face of market failures—and the directions toward which it can be channeled—that concerns Orwell about capitalism and makes him see the necessity for a democratic form of socialism: “Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war. Communism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war. There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can be somehow combined with freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.”

Soviet-style communism and capitalism, are, in Orwell’s view, two sides of the same coin. They reside near each other on the extremely unequal end of a continuum of social hierarchy; communism, along with fascism, is a totalitarian reaction to the initial hierarchical set-up of capitalism, in which a small minority controls a disproportionate amount of resources, living extravagantly, while the vast majority exists at the whim of volatile market oscillations, constantly facing the forced choice of work or starvation. Orwell’s proposal for a planned economy combined with freedom of the intellect may be light on details, yet it is not difficult to imagine the type of society he has in mind—it is clearly one in which democratically accountable government policy has a significant role to play in arranging economic activity and institutions so that everyone has enough to live a life of dignity and purpose. The threat of totalitarian communism may have subsided, but capitalism remains as crisis prone as ever, leading to festering resentments which all too often manifest as nationalist rivalries.

One of those who recognized that Orwell’s disdain for authoritarianism and propaganda applied to capitalist societies as well as communist was the philosopher Erich Fromm. As Fromm wrote in his 1961 afterword to 1984, Orwell’s dystopian novel applied not just to Russian and Chinese communism but also to Western societies, who are purveyors of doublethink of their own style. In Western societies, in addition to the central authority of the state, there also exist large private corporations which wield considerable political and economic power. Their decisions, insulated from democratic accountability, affect countless lives, and they engage in the perpetual propaganda campaign known as advertising. As Fromm writes, “We present our society as being one of free initiative, individualism, and idealism, when in reality these are mostly words. We are a centralized managerial industrial society, of an essentially bureaucratic nature, and motivated by materialism which is only slightly mitigated by truly spiritual or religious concerns.”

Although Fromm wrote during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union still existed and the threat of nuclear war between it and the United States seemed an imminent possibility, and we inhabit a post-Cold War world today (or at least so we are told), he still offers valuable insights. After all, we are returning to an era of “great power” competition in which “Communist China” plays a main role. Thanks to the revival of tensions with Russia via the “Russiagate” scandal, any post-Cold War peace dividend we gained has been resolvedly spent, and even the imagery of the Soviet Union has re-emerged as a way of imagining the Russian other. Fromm’s reading of Orwell is a timely reminder to look to our own behavior as well as the behavior of those we deem adversaries. Our society practices many of the same authoritarian tactics we accuse other nations of engaging in, and we support unabashedly authoritarian allies who commit sundry violations of democratic rights and principles. We refuse to acknowledge the authoritarianism and conformity promoted by our own capitalist society, and when it begins to break down under the weight of its own contradictions, we turn to nationalism, projecting our internal tensions onto an external foe.

As Fromm understood, Orwell remains vital because his critique of authoritarianism is so comprehensive that it entails private authoritarianism and concentration of power in addition to the state’s abuses; he understands, moreover, the dynamic set in train by the turbulence of the market, which leads as inexorably toward totalitarian nationalism as toward socialist collectivism. Orwell is reminiscent of Tom Paine: both are plainspoken figures of the left whose emphasis on liberty and democracy has been appropriated by the right and distorted to serve anti-egalitarian purposes by excising the socialist and social democratic sympathies they espoused. Yet both are important precisely because their sense of freedom and democracy is closely connected with their egalitarian economics, which is in turn related to their abhorrence of orthodoxy and nationalist prejudice. Far from being opposed, as they are in the conservative view, freedom and equality, in the view of Orwell and Paine, are mutually reinforcing and ought to belong inalienably to all. When wealth (and thus power) is as unequally distributed as it is in contemporary U.S. society, those without it do not have a meaningful say in how their own lives are run. To honor Orwell’s legacy and heed his warnings, we must continue to struggle for a socialist economic order—one which safeguards freedom from want—while never forgetting that we do so in order to further human freedom in general.