George Orwell (1903-1950) arguably did more than any other writer to set socialism back.
His fable “Animal Farm,” a satire of the Bolshevik revolution published in 1945, depicts a revolution that creates a tyranny even more oppressive than the one it overthrew. His novel “1984,” published in 1949, is a dismal parody of how thought and imagination are obliterated in a totalitarian state.
Animal Farm and “1984” are commonly interpreted as monumental assaults on socialism. The irony is, Orwell was an avowed socialist.
Though we know Orwell for his two great novels, in his time he was best known for his essays and journalism.
In an 1946 essay, “Why I Write,” Orwell declared, “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.”
Orwell had a dim view of capitalism. In one essay he described capitalism as “a free-for-all in which the worst man wins.” In another he described the economic liberty in capitalism as “the right to exploit others for profit.”
For Orwell, socialism meant a society without class distinctions. Class, to Orwell, was not simply a matter of wealth, it was fundamentally a matter of one’s attitude toward fellow human beings. He found upper and middle class contempt for the lower class abhorrent.
Though a committed socialist to the end, Orwell was haunted by the politics of socialism.
Under socialism, the state determines what is to be produced, how much, and how. It also determines people’s incomes. That is extraordinary power.
How to prevent such power from being abused? Would democracy be enough to check the ruling elite in a socialist state from abusing their power? Is socialism inherently despotism?
Orwell never resolved those questions. He worried that while capitalism was an “oligarchy based on money,” socialism might be worse: “an oligarchy based on power.” In a 1944 essay he wrote, “Despotism based on power instead of money is the inherent danger of socialism.”
He seemed to grow more pessimistic about the compatibility of socialism and democracy with time. One reason was socialists themselves.
“As with the Christian religion,” he wrote, “the worst advertisement for socialism is its adherents.”
Orwell accused many socialists of having a false concern for the working class. He charged that for many socialists, socialism did not mean ending class distinctions, it meant “a set of reforms which ‘we,’ the clever ones, are going to impose upon ‘them,’ the lower orders.”
Orwell also attacked many of his fellow intellectuals on the left for willfully ignoring, excusing or lying about Soviet atrocities to protect the socialist cause. He castigated left intellectuals for their “Russian mythos,” as he called it, the belief that because Russia was socialist, “every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imitated.”
Orwell was especially troubled by the larger reality that the line between the desire for justice and the desire for power is thin and blurry. “Of revolutionaries,” Orwell wrote in 1945, “the longing for a just society has always been fatally mixed up with the intention to secure power for themselves.”
Mr. Orwell is as relevant today as ever.