Monday, February 20, 2006

The Political Ideas of George Orwell (1986)

From the October 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

George Orwell is the pseudonym of Eric Blair who was born at Mothari, India on 25 June 1903; educated at St Cyprian's preparatory school, Eastbourne where he won a scholarship to Eton and. after completing his education, worked as a policeman in Burma, attaining the rank of sub-divisional officer, a private tutor, school teacher and an assistant in a book shop. He fought against the fascists in Spain in 1935-37, worked for the BBC for a time during the Second World War and for Tribune after the war. From about 1930 he tried to earn his living as a writer, finally achieving outstanding success with his last two novels Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty Four ( 1949). His last years were dogged by tuberculosis and he died in London on 21 January 1950.

Orwell was a fine, though somewhat confused, journalist who became famous for the plain style of writing evident in his essays; his successful attempt to make political writing an art; his famous satires on totalitarianism; his search for objectivity and honesty in journalism depicted most graphically in Homage to Catalonia (1938). Many of Orwell's experiences are captured in his books and essays. Indeed any study of Orwell must keep in mind the fact that there is some fiction in all his autobiography and some autobiography in all of his fiction.

Orwell described himself as lower-upper-middle class, failing to realise that there are only two classes: the capitalist class which possesses but does not produce and the working class which produces but does not possess. Nevertheless, the myths that have sprung up about his poverty are incorrect. His father's pension was 438-10/- (438.50) a year compared with the average annual wage of about l00 for a skilled manual worker in 1913-14.

Some twenty years later Orwell was commissioned by Victor Gollancz to write about conditions in the coal mining areas of the industrial north with an advance of 500 spread over two years a considerable sum when Orwell himself stated that the miners earned less than 3 a week in 1934 (even allowing for expenses incurred in obtaining material for the book). Although Orwell did not make a great deal of money from his writing until the publication of Animal Farm in 1945, he was able to keep his head above water with a standard of living, although far from luxurious and certainly spartan by today's standards, that would have been the envy of many miners in the 1930s.

Throughout his novels, documentaries, essays and journalism Orwell relentlessly and uncompromisingly criticised imperialism, nationalism, capitalism, political dishonesty, power, totalitarianism, privilege and private education. He claimed to be a democratic socialist, joining the Independent Labour Party in June 1938 until after the outbreak of the Second World War, but his confused notions of socialism can be read in The Lion and the Unicorn (1941) in which he states:
"In England there is only one Socialist party that has ever seriously mattered, the Labour Party. It has never been able to achieve any major change, because except in purely domestic matters it has never possessed a genuinely independent policy. It was and is primarily a party of the trade unions, devoted to raising wages and improving working conditions. This meant that all through the critical years it was directly interested in the prosperity of British capitalism."
Thus Orwell describes the Labour Party as "socialist" and continues in the same paragraph to describe, quite accurately, why it is not and cannot be socialist. He also suggested that there should be "Limitation of incomes, on such a scale that the highest tax-free income in Britain does not exceed the lowest by more than ten to one", which even the majority of Conservatives would recognise as unsocialist. He also described Russia as "the only definitely socialist country", although it is true he had many harsh things to say concerning the perversion of socialism in Russia in many of his other books.
Nevertheless in this, arguably his worst book, Orwell describes the inefficiency and contradictions of capitalism when he wrote of British capitalists selling war materials to Germany:
"Right at the end of August 1939 the British dealers were tumbling over one another in their eagerness to sell Germany tin, rubber, copper and shellac - and this in the clear, certain knowledge that war was going to break out in a week or two. It was about as sensible as selling somebody a razor to cut your throat with. But it was "good business"."
In an article in the 1983 Socialist Standard, Brian Rubin argues that Orwell's "socialism" was in fact little more than a moral stance, a call for "justice" and "liberty" and a more humane and decent world. Rick Hales, in the 1980 Socialist Standard ("Literary lefties in the 1930s") claims that the literary left-wing tried to expiate their class-guilt mostly by becoming Communists or fellow travellers except for the two heretics of the left-wing Julian Symons, who became a Trotskyite, and George Orwell who became a tramp.

Orwell's imaginative writing was not as good as his autobiographical or documentary work, but it was in his political journalism and polemical essays that he excelled. He was not an original writer, however, and many of his ideas had been written about previously; The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) in which he discovered poverty in the industrial north and Down and Out in Paris and London in which he became a tramp had been written about by Jack London in The People or the Abyss (1902) and W. H. Davies in The Autobiography or a Super-Tramp (1908). The section in A Clergyman's Daughter in which the central character, Dorothy, spends the night in Trafalgar Square with a group of tramps is an attempt to emulate the stream-of-consciousness style of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) and fails artistically. It was an experiment which Orwell did not repeat. Bernard Crick, Orwell's biographer, has drawn attention to similarities between Jack London's The Iron Heel (1907) in which is written "By virtue of that power we will remain in power . . . . We will grind you revolutionists down under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces", and Nineteen Eighty Four: "The party seeks power for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power . . . We know that no-one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it", and "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face for ever". Animal Farm owes much to Swift's satire and, indeed, Orwell wrote an excellent essay "Politics vs. Literature: an examination of Gulliver's travels" in 1946. Nineteen Eighty Four owes a debt to Evgeny Zamyatin's book We (1925), which Orwell acknowledged in a letter to George Woodcock (1967), in which he stated that he had only been able to obtain a copy of the book in French and was looking for an English translation. However, it would be unfair to accuse Orwell of plagiarism because he borrowed ideas. Most topics and human emotions have been written about previously and genuine originality is difficult to achieve. It is sufficient to say that most of Orwell's work was well written and all of his work has survived him.

A common view held by the political right-wing is that Orwell exposed the horrors of "socialism" by predicting what would happen under a regime of the Stalinist model which the right-wing claims to be representative of all socialist ideals, conveniently ignoring the fact that he was writing about state capitalism represented as socialism and that the book was intended to be satire and not prediction. Also conveniently ignored are his other writings depicting the evils of imperialism, the inherent unfairness of privilege and the inefficiency and self-interest of capitalism.

The Communists had good reason to detest Orwell for exposing their treachery in Spain, during the civil war, with the publication of Homage to Catalonia in 1938 in which he stated:
" . . . among the parties on the Government side the Communists stood not upon the extreme Left, but upon the extreme Right . . . In particular, the USSR is in alliance with France, a capitalist-imperialist country. The alliance is of little use to Russia unless French capitalism is strong, therefore Communist policy in France has got to be anti-revolutionary."
In 1940 Orwell wrote, in his long essay Inside the Whale:
"The more vocal kind of Communist is in effect a Russian publicity agent posing as an international socialist. It is a pose that is easily kept up at normal times, but becomes difficult in moments of crisis, because of the fact that the USSR is no more scrupulous in its foreign policy than the rest of the great powers."
As a result, the Communists tried to portray Orwell either as a traitor who played into the hands of the right-wing or as the work of a disillusioned and desperately ill man. Brian Rubin quotes Llew Gardner of the Daily Worker: "When he wrote 1984, the anti-socialist work that shocked the nation on television, George Orwell was sick in mind and body, a fast dying man" (18 December 1954.) Although Orwell had been seriously ill with tuberculosis since 1947 and his health had not been good before that he acknowledged in a letter to George Woodcock that the book was gloomy because he had been feeling so ill when he wrote it it is a gross distortion to suggest that he was mentally ill. Orwell had been making plans for a further novel and arranging for treatment in a Swiss clinic when he had his fatal lung haemorrhage. Certainly, he was expecting to live a little longer. Apart from the obvious political tactic of trying to denigrate Orwell, to see Nineteen Eighty Four in psychological terms is to ignore the fact that the book draws together ideas that Orwell had been expressing for more than ten years.

Orwell had some harsh words to say about political careerists: ". . . the type who becomes a Labour MP or a high-up trade union official. This last type is one of the most desolating spectacles the world contains. He has been picked out to fight for his mates, and all it means to him is a soft job and the chance of bettering himself" (The Road to Wigan Pier). He also referred to "Labour Party back-stairs crawlers", and Bolshevik commissars as "half gangster, half gramophone". In the same book, Orwell criticised elitism: "The truth is that to many people calling themselves Socialists, revolution does not mean a movement of the masses with which they hope to associate themselves; it means a set of reforms which 'we', the clever ones, are going to impose upon 'them', the Lower Orders".

The anarchists tend to hold Orwell in high regard, appreciating his criticism of totalitarian regimes of both the right and left and his understanding of imperialism and capitalist values which can be seen in his earliest books, In 1933 he wrote: "Why are beggars despised? for they are despised universally, I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living, In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic, the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable . . . Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised", and one of Orwell's characters, Bozo, the Parisian tramp tapped his forehead and said: "I'm a free man in here" (Down and Out in Paris and London).

Despite having strong words to say against authoritarianism, Orwell had an acute awareness of the dangers that could arise from the apparent renunciation of power and the nature of moral coercion and the force of public opinion. In 1946, in an essay entitled Politics vs. literature he wrote:
"In a society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals is less tolerant than any system of law. When human beings are governed by "thou shalt not", the individual can practise a certain amount of eccentricity: when they are supposedly governed by "love" or "reason", he is under continuous pressure to make him behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone else."
Animal Farm, the book that launched Orwell to fame, is a clever satire on the perversion of revolutionary aims. The plot of the book concerns the rebellion of the animals against their human oppressors and taking over the farm to be run for the benefit of animals. Gradually the pigs take over the management of the farm and make all the decisions, first publicly, but later in private. Eventually there is a power struggle between the pigs and Snowball is driven off the farm by dogs trained by Napoleon. Animals considered traitors are slaughtered and trade with other farms is re-established. The farm grows richer without making the animals richer, except for the pigs and dogs. At the end of the book when the men and pigs play cards and cheat leading to a quarrel the other animals, consumed with curiosity, look through the window: "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which". The comparison with Stalinist Russia and the purge of Trotsky is irresistible. The book also introduced the famous and frequently quoted phrase: "All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others".

Nineteen Eighty Four depicts a nightmare future in which all the citizens of a totalitarian state live under constant surveillance from telescreens controlled by Big Brother. The central character, Winston Smith, embarks on a clandestine love affair with Julia, a party member, and joins The Brotherhood, an illegal organisation dedicated to the overthrow of Big Brother. He is caught, tortured and brainwashed. He ends up loving Big Brother. Orwell enlarged on the theme of the falsification of history in this book:
"If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death?
And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed if all records told the same tale then the lie passed into history and became truth. 'Who controls the past', ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future who controls the present controls the past'.
And when memory failed and written records were falsified when that happened, the claim of the Party to have improved the conditions of human life had got to be accepted, because there did not exist, and never again could exist, any standards against which it could be tested."
The Nineteen Eighty Four theme of the two minutes Hate period each day had been written about by Orwell in 1939: "It was a voice that sounded as if it could go on for about a fortnight without stopping. It's a ghastly thing, really, to have a sort of human barrel-organ shooting propaganda at you by the hour. The same thing over and over again. Hate, hate, hate. Let's all get together and have a good hate. Over and over. It gives you the feeling that something has got inside your skull and is hammering down on your brain" (Coming Up for Air).

It is surprising that Orwell should get so near the truth in Nineteen Eighty Four by having Winston Smith read in The Brotherhood's forbidden book: "But no advance in wealth, no softening of manners, no reform or revolution has ever brought human equality a millimetre nearer. From the point of the Low, no historic change has ever meant much more than a change in the name of their masters", without drawing the conclusion that a socialist movement without leaders would solve the contradictions of power.

The importance of George Orwell as a writer lies in his questioning of institutions, power structures and political statements. The state, law, religion, charity, public schools, political parties and the media all came under his scrutiny. The morals behind individual beliefs were questioned in essays such as Raffles and Miss Blandish:
"People worship power in the form in which they are able to understand it. A twelve-year-old boy worships Jack Dempsey. An adolescent in a Glasgow slum worships Al Capone. An aspiring pupil at a business college worships Lord Nuffield. A New Statesman reader worships Stalin. There is a difference in intellectual maturity, but none in moral outlook" (1944).
Despite Orwell's influence political journalism is as corrupt as ever. However, if we, individually, question what we read and try to be honest and objective in what we write then it is a start. Above all it is important that our socialism is not compromised and that we do not put our trust in leaders but our confidence in the power of the working class.
Carl Pinel

Smash Cash

Published in the June 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard, as part of a special issue to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

(Article by a then Socialist Party member that was published in 1968 in issue 17 of the sixties counter-culture magazine Oz .)

400BC: Hey all you thirsty people, though you've got no money, come to the water. Buy corn without money and eat. Buy wine without money and milk without price. (Isaiah).

1652: There shall be no buying and selling . . . If any man or family want grain or other provisions, they may go to the storehouse and fetch without money. (Gerrard Winstantley).

1968: The Abolition of Money. The abolition of pay housing, pay
media, pay transportation, pay food, pay education, pay clothing, pay medical help and pay toilets. A society which works towards and actively promotes the concept of "full unemployment" . . . (Yippie election leaflet).

Abolition of Money! Down through the ages this wild and visionary slogan has been whispered by a subversive few. Ever since human beings discovered cash, they have hated it and tried to rid themselves of it whilst their own actions have kept it alive. In this respect, money is like syphilis.

Today the whisper has become a shout though still the shout of a tiny minority. Tomorrow it will be the roar of the crowd, the major topic of discussion in every pub and coffee house, factory and office.

The abolition of money is an ancient dream, the most radical demand of every social revolution for centuries past. We must not suppose that it is therefore destined to remain a Utopia, that the wheel will simply turn full circle once more. Today there is an entirely new element in the situation: Plenty.

All previous societies have been rationed societies, based on scarcity of food, clothing and shelter. The modern world is also a society of scarcity, but with a difference. Today's shortages are unnecessary; today's scarcity is artificial. More than that: scarcity achieved at the expense of strenuous effort, ingenious organization and the most sophisticated planning.

The world is haunted by a spectre the spectre of Abundance. Only by planned waste and destruction on a colossal scale can the terrifying threat of Plenty be averted.

Money means rationing. It is only useful when there are shortages to be rationed. No one can buy or sell air: it's free because there is plenty of it around. Food, clothing, shelter and entertainment should be free as air. But the means of rationing scarcity themselves keep the scarcity in existence. The only excuse for money is that there is not enough wealth to go round but it is the money system which makes sure there cannot be enough to go round. By abolishing money we create the conditions where money is unnecessary.

If we made a list of all those occupations which would be unnecessary in a Moneyless World, jobs people now have to do which are entirely useless from a human point of view, we might begin as follows: Customs officer, Security guard, Locksmith, Wages clerk, Tax assessor, Advertising man, Stockbroker, Insurance agent, Ticket puncher, Salesman, Accountant, Slot machine emptier, Industrial spy, Bank manager, before we realized the magnitude of what was involved. And these are merely the jobs which are wholly and utterly useless. Nearly all occupations involve something to do with costing or selling. Now we should see that the phrase "Abolition of Money" is just shorthand for immense, sweeping, root and branch changes in society. The abolition of money means the abolition of wages and profits, nations and frontiers, armies and prisons. It means that all work will be entirely voluntary.

Of course, the itemizing of those jobs which are financial does not end the catalogue of waste. Apart from astronomical sums spent on the Space Race, and the well known scandal of huge arms production, we have to realise that all production is carried on purely for profit. The profit motive often runs completely counter to human need. 'Built-in obsolescence' (planned shoddiness), the restrictive effects of the patents system, the waste of effort through duplication of activities by competing firms or nations these are just a few of the ways in which profits cause waste.

What this amounts to is that ninety per cent (a conservative estimate) of effort expended by human beings today is entirely pointless, does not the slightest bit of good to anybody. So it is quite ridiculous to talk about "how to make sure people work if they're not paid for it". If less than ten per cent of the population worked, and the other ninety per cent stayed at home watching telly, we'd be no worse off than we are now.

But there would be no need for them to watch telly all the time, because without the profit system work could be made enjoyable. Playing tennis, writing poems or climbing mountains are not essentially any more enjoyable than building houses, growing food or programming computors. The only reason we think of some things as 'leisure' and others as 'work' is because we get used to doing some things because we want to and others because we have to. Prostitutes despise love. We are all prostitutes. In a Moneyless World work would be recreation and art. That work which is unavoidably unhealthy or unpleasant, such as coalmining, would be automated immediately. Needless to say, the only reason these things aren't done by machines at present is because it is considered more important to lower the costs of the employer than to lower the unhappiness of his slaves.

The money system is obsolete and antihuman. So what should we do about it? In years to come, with the increasing education and increasing misery of modern life, together with growing plenty, we can expect the Abolition of Money to be treated more and more as a serious issue, to be inserted into more and more heads. The great mass of individuals will first ridicule, then dare to imagine (Fantasy is the first act of rebellion Freud), then overthrow.

In the meantime, as well as propagating the notion of a Moneyless World, those of us who see its necessity have a responsibility to sort our own ideas out, in order that we may present an intelligible and principled case. We must stop thinking of the Moneyless World as an 'ultimate aim' with no effect upon our actions now. We must realise that the Abolition of Money is THE immediate demand. A practical proposition and an urgent necessity not something to be vaguely 'worked towards'.

Unfortunately those who want the Moneyless World frequently wade in a mire of mystification. Above all it is necessary to understand the workings of this society, capitalist society (Moscow, Washington and Peking are all in the same boat) if we are to know how to destroy it.

For example there is a commonly held view that Automation is going to settle all our worries, that money will expire automatically as part of a "natural process of evolution". This is quite wrong. As pointed out above, this society only automates to increase profits and for no other reason. Employers even take machines out and put workers back in if they find that labour-power is cheaper. Any gain from automation these days is more than cancelled out by the waste explosion. Do not imagine that the slight increases in living standards of the last twenty years are the beginning of a smooth transition to Abundance. Another huge world slump is approaching.

A different illusion, also popular, is that cash can be abolished by example, by opening giveaway shops or by starting small moneyless communities which are parasitical upon the main body of society. These experiments accomplish little. Those people, for instance, who open stores to give and receive books without payment, face a predictable result: a large stock of lousy books.

These projects stem partly from a belief that we need to prove something. Relax. We don't need to prove anything. The defenders of this insane society, it is they who stand accused, they who have to supply the arguments arguments for poverty and enslavement in a world of Plethora!

All theoretical constructions which relate to wages, prices, profits and taxes are ghosts from the past, as absurdly outdated as the quibbles about how many angels could dance on the point of a needle. 'Incomes policy' is irrelevant we want the abolition of incomes. "Fighting crime" is irrelevant we want the abolition of the law. 'Workers' control' is irrelevant we want the abolition of 'workers'. 'Black Power' is irrelevant we want the abolition of power over people. 'The national interest' is irrelevantwe want the abolition of nations.

And let no one raise the banal cry: what are you going to put in their place? As though we would say to a research scientist: "And when you've cured Cancer, what are you going to put in its place?"

Then there is the myth of the small-scale. We cannot go back to being peasants and we should not want to. Keeping several thousand million people alive on this planet necessitates railways, oil wells, steel mills. Only by intricate organization and large-scale productive techniques can we maintain our Abundance. Do not be afraid of machines. It is not machines which enslave, but Capital, in whose service machines are employed. McLuhan represents the beginning of the New Consciousness of man-made artifacts. Computors are warm and cuddly creatures. We will have a beautiful time with them.

Many of the worst errors which retard the development of the New Consciousness, the Consciousness of Plenty, are to be found in Herbert Lomas' piece on "The Workless Society" in International Times 43. This at least has the merit that someone is putting forward a case for the removal of money in specific terms. Unfortunately, they are specific non-starters.

According to Herbert Lomas, a political party is to be formed which will take power and proceed as follows. Useless workers in industry will be gradually be laid off and paid for not working. The process will be extended until money can be abolished. In the meantime, those being paid for doing nothing will do what they like. To begin with many of them might play Bingo; eventually more and more would aim at higher things.

What is wrong with this projection? Many things, but chiefly two. First, it fails to take account of the systematic nature of society. Second, it assumes that present-day society exhibits a harmony of interests.

In the first place, Lomas says: "Why are these people working? They are not working for the sake of production, for the truth is that if they were removed production could be increased beyond measure". He concludes that they are working because of their attitudes, the attitudes of their employers, the attitudes of the rest of society. But the fact of the matter is that these workers are working for the sake of production not the production of goods but the production of profits. The reason why things are "made with great ingenuity to wear out" is not because of the attitudes of the people involved. The management may think it's criminal but they are paid to optimize profits. If they produced razor blades to last for centuries, the firm would go broke. It is not the attitudes which are crucial, but economic interests. If a teetotaller owns shares in a brewery, it does not make booze less potent.

Which brings us to the second point. Today's world is a jungle of conflicting vested interests. The Abolition of Money will represent the liberation of slaves, yes but also the dispossession of masters, i.e. the employing class. We cannot view the government as an impartial panel which looks after the best interests of everybody; it is an instrument used by one set of people to oppress another.

On one point Herbert Lomas is correct. The movement for the Abolition of Money must be political, because when we destroy money we destroy the basis of the power of our rulers. They are unlikely to take kindly to this, so we must organize politically to remove them.

For the moment though, what is needed is more discussion and more understanding. We must be confident that the movement will grow. We must think, argue, and think again but never lose consciousness of the one, simple, astounding fact: Plenty is here. The Moneyless World is not an ultimate millennium. We need it now.

DAVID RAMSAY STEELE, OZ, 1968.

6 Million (2006)

Editorial from the January 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Let 2005 rest then, as a monument. A gravestone for the 6 million children the Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates died in the hideous torture of starvation and starvation related disease that year. The FAO report, released on 22 November, also informs us that malnourishment also contributes to holding back educational attainment and brings about a cycle of poverty and death. This in a world where we are embarrassed by riches of food and farmers are paid to let fields fall fallow.

The figure 6 million is highly evocative – the same number as the usual estimate of Jews that were murdered in The Holocaust – possibly the most heinous act of mass murder in history as these millions were gunned down in pits or gassed in specially built camps for the extermination of a whole people. A crime of such infamy that its like has never been known and to this day in many parts of the world – as renowned liar David Irving is finding to his cost in Austria – it is considered a crime to deny that it happened.

What historians can and do dispute, though, is the extent to which The Holocaust was planned out in advance – whether Hitler always intended for the mass murder of Jews or whether slaughter grew out of local pragmatic responses to dealing with local populations in conquered territories. The so-called Intentionalist versus Functionalist accounts of The Holocaust.

The debate is complex – and probably irresolvable now. What is, perhaps, clear, is that the Functionalist case is somehow more horrifying. It would be comforting to human minds to know that a handful of monsters dreamed up and guided the mass-murder from their bunker – but it is more dreadful to conceive of low-level local officials going about their business : Item 5 – Merits of Gas over Bullets for extermination. Literally getting rid of some inconvenient people.

Perhaps, though, in future years, people will look back on the functionalist holocaust of our times – sit agog as they hear of committees sitting down to make policies knowing they will lead to millions of preventable human deaths because they can't, won't, daren't raise the lives of these people above holy private property, the sovereignty of nation states or even God.

The autogenicide of the human race is why 6 million must die each year and why 850 million must live undernourished.

We will be as equally deserving of opprobrium as those who stood by and let the Holocaust happen if we do not act as soon as we may to end this preventable waste. If we lend our voices or our votes to political parties that put trade, business, capital and property before the rational good of distribution according to needs, we are contributing as culpably as the lowliest corporal genocide.

We urgently need to build a worldwide movement to bring a speedy halt to the carnage. The easy thing – the functionalist thing – is to go on supporting parties that offer small, possiblist solutions within the current system. But the right thing to do, the necessary thing, is to demand the impossible and turn the whole system over. Let's make 2006 the monument to the beginning of the end of a murderous system.