Spartacus Blog

George Orwell would have voted to leave the European Union

I have just spent a week staying at Riva on Lake Garda. I took with me some books written by George Orwell. This included The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell: 1920-1940 (1968). One of Orwell's major concerns, during the 1930s, was similar to those facing the left during the EU referendum debate.

Orwell became a socialist and an anti-imperialist while serving in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. "This increased my natural hatred of authority and made me for the first time fully aware of the existence of the working classes, and the job in Burma had given me some understanding of the nature of imperialism." (1)

Over the next few years he used his left-wing friends such as Kingsley Martin, John Middleton Murry and Richard Rees to publish articles and reviews in journals such as the New Statesman, New English Weekly and The Adelphi. Orwell also became friends with the left-wing publisher, Victor Gollancz, and in 1933 he published Down and Out in Paris and London. (2)

However, Gollancz came under attack from some of his Jewish customers. S. M. Lipsey wrote: "As a Jew it is to me inexplicable that one of the most eminent and honourable names in Anglo-Jewry should bear the imprimatur of a publication wherein are references to Jews of a most contemptible and repugnant character. I feel bound to enter a very earnest and emphatic protest." Gollancz replied: "I detest all forms of patriotism, which has made, and is making, the world a hell: and of all forms of patriotism, Jewish patriotism seems to me the most detestable. If Down and Out in London and Paris has given a jar to your Jewish complacency, I have one additional reason to be pleased for having published it." (3)

Over the next few years he published three novels, Burmese Days (1934), A Clergyman's Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). The books did not sell well and Orwell was unable to make enough money to become a full-time writer and had to work as a teacher and as an assistant in a bookshop.

Orwell had been shocked and dismayed by the persecution of socialists in Nazi Germany. Like most socialists, he had been impressed by the way that the Soviet Union had been unaffected by the Great Depression and did not suffer the unemployment that was being endured by the workers under capitalism. However, Orwell was a great believer in democracy and rejected the type of government imposed by Joseph Stalin.

Orwell decided he would now become a political writer "In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer... 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. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows." (4)

Orwell was commissioned by Victor Gollancz to produce a documentary account of unemployment in the north of England for his Left Book Club. In February, 1936, Orwell wrote to Richard Rees about his research for the book that was eventually published as the The Road to Wigan Pier. "I have only been down one coal mine so far but hope to go down some more in Yorkshire. It was for me a pretty devastating experience and it is fearful thought that the labour of crawling as far as the coal face (about a mile in this case but as much as 3 miles in some mines), which was enough to put my legs out of action for four days, is only the beginning and ending of a miner's day's work, and his real work comes in between." (5)

The Spanish Civil War began on 18th July, 1936. Despite only being married for a month he immediately decided to go and support the Popular Front government against the fascist forces led by General Francisco Franco. On his arrival in Barcelona he met John McNair, a leading figure in the Independent Labour Party, who encouraged him to serve with the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) an anti-Stalinist organisation formed by Andres Nin and Joaquin Maurin. (6)

On 10th May, 1937, Orwell was wounded by a Fascist sniper. He told Cyril Connolly "a bullet through the throat which of course ought to have killed me but has merely given me nervous pains in the right arm and robbed me of most of my voice." He added that while in Spain "I have seen wonderful things and at last really believe in Socialism, which I never did before." (7)

Joseph Stalin appointed Alexander Orlov as the Soviet Politburo adviser to the Popular Front government. Orlov and his NKVD agents had the unofficial task of eliminating the supporters of Leon Trotsky fighting for the Republican Army and the International Brigades. This included the arrest and execution of leaders of POUM, National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT) and the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI). Edvard Radzinsky, the author of Stalin (1996) has pointed out: "Stalin had a secret and extremely important aim in Spain: to eliminate the supporters of Trotsky who had gathered from all over the world to fight for the Spanish revolution. NKVD men, and Comintern agents loyal to Stalin, accused the Trotskyists of espionage and ruthlessly executed them." (8)

As Orwell had been fighting with POUM he was identified as an anti-Stalinist and the NKVD attempted to arrest him. He managed to escape into France on 23rd June. Many of his fellow comrades were not so lucky and were captured and executed. When he arrived back in England he was determined to expose the crimes of Stalin in Spain. However, his left-wing friends in the media, rejected his articles, as they argued it would split and therefore weaken the resistance to fascism in Europe.

Orwell was particularly upset by his old friend, Kingsley Martin, the editor of the country's leading socialist journal, The New Statesman, for refusing to publish details of the killing of the anarchists and socialists by the communists in Spain. Left-wing and liberal newspapers such as the Manchester Guardian, News Chronicle and the Daily Worker, as well as the right-wing Daily Mail and The Times, joined in the cover-up.

Orwell did managed to persuade the New English Weekly to publish an article on the reporting of the Spanish Civil War. "I honestly doubt, in spite of all those hecatombs of nuns who have been raped and crucified before the eyes of Daily Mail reporters, whether it is the pro-Fascist newspapers that have done the most harm. It is the left-wing papers, the News Chronicle and the Daily Worker, with their far subtler methods of distortion, that have prevented the British public from grasping the real nature of the struggle." (9)

In another article in the magazine he explained how in "Spain... and to some extent in England, anyone professing revolutionary Socialism (i.e. professing the things the Communist Party professed until a few years ago) is under suspicion of being a Trotskyist in the pay of Franco or Hitler... in England, in spite of the intense interest the Spanish war has aroused, there are very few people who have heard of the enormous struggle that is going on behind the Government lines. Of course, this is no accident. There has been a quite deliberate conspiracy to prevent the Spanish situation from being understood." (10)

George Orwell wrote about his experiences of the Spanish Civil War in Homage to Catalonia. The book was rejected by Victor Gollancz because of its attacks on Joseph Stalin. During this period Gollancz was accused of being under the control of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). He later admitted that he had come under pressure from the CPGB not to publish certain books in the Left Book Club: "When I got letter after letter to this effect, I had to sit down and deny that I had withdrawn the book because I had been asked to do so by the CP - I had to concoct a cock and bull story... I hated and loathed doing this: I am made in such a way that this kind of falsehood destroys something inside me." (11)

The book was eventually published by Frederick Warburg, who was known to be both anti-fascist and anti-communist, which put him at loggerheads with many intellectuals of the time. The book was attacked by both the left and right-wing press. Although one of the best books ever written about war, it sold only 1,500 copies during the next twelve years. As Bernard Crick has pointed out: "Its literary merits were hardly noticed... Some now think of it as Orwell's finest achievement, and nearly all critics see it as his great stylistic breakthrough: he became the serious writer with the terse, easy, vivid colloquial style." (12)

Orwell was also appalled by the way the left-wing press had reported the trial of Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev. It was claimed that they had plotted and carried out the assassination of Sergey Kirov and planned the overthrow of Joseph Stalin and his leading associates - all under the direct instructions of Leon Trotsky. They were also accused of conspiring with Adolf Hitler against the Soviet Union. The Observer reported: "It is futile to think the trial was staged and the charges trumped up. The government's case against the defendants (Zinoviev and Kamenev) is genuine." (13) The New Statesman agreed that "very likely there was a plot" by the accused against Stalin. (14)

Orwell complained that the Daily Herald and the Manchester Guardian went along with this idea that there was this world-wide "Trotsky-Fascist" plot. He estimated that there were 3,000 political prisoners in Spanish prisons who were accused of being involved in this preposterous plot, but this was not being reported in the media. "The result was that there was no protest from abroad and all these thousands of people have stayed in prison, and a number have been murdered, the effect being to spread hatred and dissension all through the Socialist movement." (15)

In 1938 Orwell was an isolated figure on the left. He rejected the policies of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Labour Party. This was partly over the issue of Spain but saw Clement Attlee as a leader of a party that would probably "fling every principle overboard" in order to get power. He therefore joined the very small Independent Labour Party: "It is vitally necessary that there should be in existence some body of people who can be depended on, even in the face of persecution, not to compromise their Socialist principles." (16).

Orwell also supported rearmament in order to take on Adolf Hitler in the fight against fascism. In a range of different issues, from anti-communism and his opposition to appeasement, he found himself in the same camp as Winston Churchill and other right-wing political figures in the Conservative Party. The vast majority of those on the left in Britain were sympathetic to the Soviet Union and were willing to do whatever was needed to avoid a war with Nazi Germany.

Orwell was in a similar position to those on the left who support leaving the European Union. He found it embarrassing but as he pointed out in an article written in July 1938, why those on the right were willing to do deals with Stalin in order to combat Hitler. The main reason was that the "Fascist powers menace the British Empire". He goes onto argue that the function of the "Conservative anti-Fascists... is to be the liaison officers. The average English left-winger is now a good imperialist." The Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism in Europe "has had a catalytic effect upon English opinion, bringing into being combinations which no one could have foreseen a few years ago". (17)

Orwell decided that he was not going to be put off by his unpleasant bed-fellows. He believed the best defence against fascism was democracy. But he feared that the British people, like those in Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain, would be persuaded to give up their democratic rights in order to be led by dictators. "The radio, press-censorship, standardized education and the secret police have altered everything. Mass-suggestion is a science of the last twenty years, and we do not yet know how successful it will be." (18) This was of course the theme of his later novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

In 1939 Clarence Streit published a book called Union Now: A Proposal for a Federal Union. He suggested that the 15 major countries that had democratic institutions should join together to form "a common government, common money and complete internal free trade". Other countries would be admitted to the Union when and if they "proved themselves worthy". Streit goes on to argue that the combined strength would be so great as to make any military attack on them hopeless. Orwell, agreed that Streit was probably right about the protection such a system would give Britain in the short-term but totally rejected the idea of a "political and economic union". He disliked the idea of being ruled by an un elected bureaucracy that in "essence" was a "mechanism for exploiting cheap labour - under the heading of democracies!" Orwell ends the review by stating that the best defence people have in a capitalist world is the democratic form of government. I think there is no doubt that if alive, Orwell, would have voted "leave" in today's referendum. (19)


(1) George Orwell, Why I Write (September, 1946)

(2) Bernard Crick, George Orwell : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(3) Dudley Edwards, Victor Gollancz: A Biography (1987) page 215

(4) George Orwell, Why I Write (September, 1946)

(5) George Orwell, letter to Richard Rees (29th February, 1936)

(6) George Orwell, letter to Victor Gollancz (9th May, 1937)

(7) George Orwell, letter to Cyril Connolly (8th June, 1937)

(8) Edvard Radzinsky, Stalin (1996) page 392

(9) George Orwell, New English Weekly (29th July, 1937)

(10) George Orwell, New English Weekly (2nd September, 1937)

(11) Dudley Edwards, Victor Gollancz: A Biography (1987) page 246

(12) Bernard Crick, George Orwell : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(13) The Observer (23rd August, 1936)

(14) The New Statesman (5th September, 1936)

(15) George Orwell, letter to Raymond Mortimer (9th February, 1938)

(16) George Orwell, The New Leader (24th June 1938)

(17) George Orwell, New English Weekly (21st July, 1938)

(18) George Orwell, New English Weekly (12th January, 1939)

(19) George Orwell, New English Weekly (27th July, 1939)

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