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Double book analysis: Peter Davison on George Orwell

In this review and analysis piece, Raymond S. Solomon discusses works by George Orwell and annotations by Peter Davison in two of the Orwell expert’s books, exploring the turbulent 1930s including issues around Palestine, the Spanish revolution, and the beating of Oswald Mosely’s British Union of Fascists.


  • Davison, Peter (ed.) (2013) George Orwell: A Life In Letters, Selected and Annotated. New York, London. Liveright Publishing
  • Davison, Peter (ed.) (2009) George Orwell: Diaries. New York, London. Liveright Publishing

Orwell’s Visit to Parliament

Peter Davison’s comments and annotations are excellent; and informative about George Orwell. The historical information in his annotations constitute mini-encyclopedias. Whether it was among unemployed Wigan coal miners, POUM members in Catalonia, poor Arabs and Jews in Morocco, or Indian coolies, Orwell’s empathy was with the exploited, those unjustly accused, and economically marginal people.

Palestine, 1939

In his August 11th, 1939 diary entry Orwell wrote about attending a “House of Commons reception for Menna Schocat, representing the League for Jewish-Arab Unity.”

Peter Davison notes: “Menna Schoct was a pioneer revolutionary in tsarist Russia who suffered imprisonment and exile. She escaped and went to Palestine, where she was active in various workers’ movements. She insisted on Jewish-Arab workers’ unity and championed the cause of Arab peasants.

The Independent Labour Party proposed to work for the unity of Jewish and Arab masses against British imperialism, in the hope of setting up a workers’ state federated with neighboring states. It also championed the right of persecuted Jewish workers in Europe to enter not only Palestine, but all countries, including Britain and the Dominions.”

Others had the idea of a Middle East federation. During World War I Agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn, who fought against the Ottoman Empire, hoped to create an anti-colonial alliance of Jews, Arabs, and Armenians, against the occupying Ottoman Empire.

In 1947 and 1948 a regional federation was proposed by Uri Avnery. As Avnery Biographical Notes explains, in “September 1947, on the eve of the Israeli-Palestinian war, Avnery published a booklet entitled War or Peace in the Semitic Region, which called for a radically new approach: An alliance of the Hebrew and Arab national movements in order to liberate the common ‘Semitic Region’.” Semitic Region is a term coined by Avnery in order to accurately describe the area and replace the British colonialist term “Middle East.”

Asturias, 1939

In a diary entry on August 8th 1939, Orwell wrote, “Again reported that largish numbers of Asturian soldiers are still holding out in the mountains. [Daily Telegraph].”

Davison comments: Miners in Asturia, in the North of Spain had [a] revolution in 1934 … a feature there during the Spanish civil war, in September and October 1937 was Germany’s practice of ‘carpet bombing,’ regardless of civilians below. Although Franco’s forces were successful in obtaining for the Nationalists the coal resources of the region, guerrilleros continued to fight until 1948.” These resources were put to use by Nazi Germany during World War Two. 

The Asturia miners’ revolution of 1934 itself was crushed by troops led by General Francisco Franco, during the reactionary period of the Spanish Republic (1933-1936). In Rebel Voices, IWW activist Raymond Galstad, who fought on the side of the Spanish Loyalist, describes the heroism of Asturia miners both as miners and as fighters in the Spanish Civil War. In the prefatory comments to Galstad’s article it is mentioned that (a) many Wobblies fought in CNT units during the Spanish Civil War; and (b) the IWW had an assessment for support of the CNT. The Spanish revolution of 1936 was one of the most far-reaching revolutionary events of the 20th century, and possibly in world history. It was very much in accordance with IWW philosophy.

There was an Asturia miners’ strike in 1962. Many people hoped that this would lead to Franco’s downfall. The Communist Party of Spain called for a Spanish general strike. During the summer of 1962, the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade put an ad in The New York Times with the headline, “Anti-American Feeling is Growing in Spain” and called for a change in American policy, i.e. ending American support of Franco. United States Senator Stephen Young (Dem., OH) spoke against American support of Franco. But Franco remained in power until his death in 1975. However, the 1962, Asturian miners’ strike in Spain was an important revolutionary event.

Orwell and the BUF

In his March 16th, 1936 diary entry, Orwell described a speech by the demagogic leader of the British Union of Fascists, Oswald Mosley and quotes Mosley as saying, “We fought Germany before in a British quarrel; we are going to fight them now in a Jewish one.”

Davison’s notation is: Seven months later, in October, Mosley attempted to force the BUF (British Union of Fascists) through the East End of London in an anti-Jewish protest march. The ensuing violent opposition led to what later became known as the Battle of Cable Street.”

Police in London co-operated with Mosley’s BUF. But one source of the biggest forces of opposition to Mosley were the London dock workers. This was because during the 1889 dock workers strike, and again during the 1926 British general strike, Jewish workers in Whitechapel took in, and cared for strikers’ children. This type of labor solidarity that was demonstrated by the Whitechapel Jewish workers in taking in dock workers’ children was also shown during the 1912 Bread and Roses strike, when New Yorkers took in children of strikers from Massachusetts. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn has written about that in The Rebel Girl— IWW member Flynn was one the movers behind this deed of solidarity.

In his introduction to Rebel Voices Fred Thomson says: The Industrial Workers of the World was founded in Chicago in 1905. It took its name to declare its hope that the organisation could end the use of workers against each other anywhere—in the same plant, or in the same industry, or across oceans, in peace or in war, either to cut each other’s pay or to kill each other’s kids. That is still its aim today.”

The Communist Party

The British Communist Party also played a key role in resisting Mosley’s brown-shirt fascist uniformed goons. The Independent Labour Party (ILP) played also a significant role in physically resisting Mosley’s goons in the Battle of Cable Street. Anarchist Marie Louise Berneri wrote about the deep rooted anti-fascism of the British working class and how that was manifest in blocking Mosley’s fascists from entering Whitechapel during the Battle of Cable Street.

Orwell was, for a brief period, a member of the British Independent Labour Party (ILP.) In 1938, he give his reasons for joining the Independent Labour Party as, “The tempo of events is quickening; the dangers which once seemed a generation distant are staring us in the face. One has got to be actively a socialist, not merely sympathetic to socialism.” The ILP was the only group close enough to what he believed, and although relatively small, was the only party “big enough to matter.” They were less likely to blindly lead him into a war. At that time he was planning to resist the upcoming War. But as the war approached, he knew that Hitler had to be stopped, and although the ILP was anti-Nazi, it did not support Britain’s efforts in World War II, and continued to believe that revolutionary resistance in occupied countries would defeat the German and Italian fascists. But before the Second World War, the ILP had fought fascism in the streets of Whitechapel and in the trenches of Spain.

In “The Road to Wigan Pier” Orwell asserted that “All people with small insecure incomes are in the same boat, and should be fighting on the same side.” This is still a principle goal of the IWW. In part Five of “Looking Back On The Spanish War,” Orwell writes about the defeat of the workers in the labor struggles after the Russian Revolution through illegal violence, “in country after country.” For example, during the 1926 British general strike, London was turned into an armed camp by the government. Tanks were patrolling the streets of London. Orwell blamed this defeat after defeat, in part, on a lack of solidarity among workers. This shows the importance of labor solidarity.

Meeting Sonia

Was Orwell’s radical-labor heritage to continue? One of the most personal letters in the “Letters” book is from Arthur Koestler. Koestler advised him to marry Sonia Brownell, without delay. Koestler said that Sonia Brownell (1918-1980) was one of the nicest people he knew in Britain.

Sonia Brownell was of great comfort to George Orwell in the last months of his life and married in in 1949. She was primarily responsible for the publication of the various collections of Orwell’s writings that were published after his death, and therefore for Orwell becoming more famous then he was after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-four, and for his left-wing views being much more widely read. In promoting Orwell’s heritage Sonia Orwell worked with David Astor, Richard Ress, and Ian Angus. Ian Angus edited with her the four volumes, Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, first published by Seeker and Warburg in 1968. 

During Orwell’s lifetime Homage to Catalonia sold under a 1,000 copies. Under Sonia Brownell’s influence not only was it republished but various collections containing such essays as “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” “Reflections On Gandhi,” “England Your England,” and “The Prevention of Literature” were widely read throughout most of the non-totalitarian world.

On Russia, and in conclusion

After World War II many Russians soldiers were forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union, where many of them were executed. In a letter to Koestler, Orwell reported that American repatriation authorities had seized the Ukrainian language edition of Animal Farm from the displaced persons camp in Belgium, which was populated by Ukrainians. The copies were handed over to the Russian authorities. In his essay “The Prevention of Literature,” Orwell deals with the historical cover up of the forced repatriation of people to the Soviet Union.

In endorsing Nineteen Eighty-Four, Bertrand Russell said that it warns against totalitarianism and not just in the narrow sense of fear of Soviet Russia. And US citizens have learned over the years that the government has secretly engaged in totalitarian activities involving such things as our involvement in the murder of Patrice Lumumba, attempts on the life of Fidel Castro, the Phoenix Program in Vietnam which may have killed as many as 40,000 people, and lies about such things as the Gulf of Tonkin incident. As the Pentagon Papers illustrate, Presidents Johnson and Nixon lied about the Vietnam War, to Congress and to the American people.

George Orwell: A Life in Letters and George Orwell Diaries are valuable sources of information for scholarly researchers on Orwell and 20th century history. These books open new vistas, even for seasoned Orwell readers and students.

I conclude this review with the story of how the Queen of England obtained her copy of Animal Farm. As told by George Orwell in a letter to Dwight Macdonald, and reprinted in George Orwell: A Life in Letters, the first printing of Animal Farm was sold out. Even Orwell did not have a copy of Animal Farm left. So the Queen of England sent a messenger to George Woodcock’s anarchist bookstore. This is how Her Majesty the Queen of England acquired her copy.

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