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Orwell among the anarchists

Vernon, Richards George Orwell at Home (and Among the Anarchists): Essays and Photographs, (1998) London: Freedom Press. Photographs by Vernon Richards. Essays by Vernon Richards, Colin Ward, and Nicholas Walter.

Review by Raymond S. Solomon

There are few people who had the knowledge and understanding of George Orwell as did the three contributors to George Orwell at Home (and Among the Anarchists) Photographs and Essays; Vernon Richards, Colin Ward, and Nicholas Walter. Their understanding was both personal and academic, and their writings show it. Also, Vernon Richards’ and his wife Marie Louise Berneri’s photographs of Orwell, and his adopted son Richard, are of great historical interest. These photographs show Orwell in the role of a very loving father. The book is filled with very good and extensive quotations from Orwell. The quotes come from, among other sources, The Road to Wigan Pier, Homage to Catalonia, “Such Such Were the Joys,” Tribune articles, and Nineteen Eighty-Four. In George Orwell at Home, Orwell’s voice is heard very clearly.

Orwell was one of the first non-anarchists to write about the great accomplishments of the Spanish anarchists during the Spanish Civil War. He also wrote about the betrayal of the Spanish Revolution by the Communists. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell gave witness to both of these truths, as well as many other facts. Four Parts (I, II, III, & VII) of the seven parts, of his great essay “Looking Back on the Spanish War” were first published in the anarchist magazine New Road, which was edited by Alex Comfort. “How the Poor Die” was published in George Woodcock’s anarchist magazine Now. Orwell’s writings have for years, both before and after his death, been reviewed in the anarchist press, world-wide. Orwell had very close friends among the anarchists, including George Woodcock, Marie Louise Berneri, and Richard Vernon. Including, his time in Spain, in 1936 to 1937, until his death, Orwell was among anarchists.

Orwell was not only among anarchists; he knew scores of people, including people in The Independent Labour Party, which he was a member of for a brief period of time, and the left-wing of the Labour Party, which he supported. He knew people in the literary and publishing world. He also met scores of people, including coal miners, one person from the American union United Automobile Workers (UAW). Orwell was friends with Arthur Koestler. But he was consistently among anarchists from late 1936 until his very untimely death in 1949.

Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Vernon Richards’ Lessons of the Spanish Revolution both give major play to the 1937 May Days, which were initiated when the Communists and Barcelona police tried to seize the Barcelona telephone exchange which was run by the anarchists. This led to a brief civil war within a civil war. On the one side were the Barcelona police and the Spanish Communist Party; on the other side were the anarchists and the POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification). This led to significant refinements in Orwell’s political orientation. Italian anarchist Camillo Berneri was murdered by Communists during the May Days. He was the father of Marie Louise Berneri, and a close friend of Vernon Richards, Marie Louise Berneri’s husband.

Orwell was a strong supporter of Vernon Richards’ short-lived anarchist magazine Revolt, which followed Spain and the World, in place of Freedom. Revolt emphasized the Spanish Civil War from the anarchist point of view; and it opposed the approaching Second World War.

Towards the end of The Second World War, Orwell was involved in the defense of the anarchist editors of Freedom Press who were arrested by the British government. As I had written in Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, in “Orwell’s Solidarity with Imprisoned Anarchists” the crisis of civil liberties were described thus:

“The case against the anarchist editors of War Commentary was made under Great Britain’s ‘emergency’ laws. Up to that point Orwell was highly critical of the anti-War stance of many British anarchists. Among the people arrested were Orwell’s dear friends, Vernon Richards and Vernon Richards’ wife Marie Louise Berneri. Maria Louise Berneri obtained her freedom because under British law a woman cannot conspire with her husband. She kept the anarchist newspaper Freedom functioning during the period of the trial and imprisonment of the three other anarchists.”

The three male Anarchists served nine months in jail. The sentences would have been more severe, but for the great public outcry. Orwell could be critical of anarchists, but when the chips were down, he stood by the imprisoned anarchists standing trial for their anti-war activities.

Orwell was as close to being an Anarchist as one could without actually being one. Orwell’s objection to anarchism was that a society run by public opinion can be as tyrannical as one based on physical force. Orwell’s dear friend George Woodcock responded that anarchists were as opposed to societal tyranny as to physical force based tyranny. Canadian-English author George Woodcock expressed opposition to both sides during the Second World War in Anarchy or Chaos. In later years Woodcock became very interested in Buddhism. Woodcock was sympatric to Tibetan suffering under Chinese rule. He was also involved in relief efforts for Tibetan refugees in India. This is consistent with his pacifistic inclination, as the Tibetans are not using force, as per the teachings of the Dali Lama. Woodcock believed that Orwell’s critical comments about anarchism in “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool,” and in “Politics vs. Literature: An examination of Gulliver’s Travels” and elsewhere, was do the fact that Orwell was not well read on anarchist theory or anarchist history. He did not seem to know the history of Russian anarchism, nor its great role of the anarchists in the Russian Revolution.

Vernon Richards observed that in 1938 George Orwell became a sponsor of the anarchist SIA—International Anti-Fascist Solidarity, which Emma Goldman had introduced him to. It was there that he met Vernon Richards. Although Orwell is not known as a public speaker, he did give speeches in his day. He gave speeches for socialism. Before the Nazi-Soviet agreement of August 23rd, 1939, he gave many anti-war speeches. And as Vernon Richards recalls, he spoke on behalf of amnesty for World War Two deserters, “and later at a protest meeting organized by the FDC, [Freedom Defense Committee] on behalf of Spanish anti-Fascists interned at Chorley Lancs.”

What is the essence of Anarchism? What do anarcho-communists, social anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists, individualist anarchists, pacifist anarchists, Tolstoyian anarchists, Catholic anarchists, anarcho-Kabbalists, Jewish anarchists, Mennonite anarchists, Christian anarchists, Punk anarchists, etc. have in common? What core values binds all of them? (A) Mutual Aid; (B) Egalitarianism; and (C) a profound respect for the individual. When I was fifteen Esther Dolgoff told me that the big point in anarchism was the individual. You may disagree with me, but that’s my opinion, having known dozens of anarchists for many years, I have observed that these are the basic core values of anarchism. Friendship is very important in anarchism, as Murray Bookchin wrote in his great history book The Spanish Anarchists. Let us consider George Orwell on these values:

  • Mutual Aid: Orwell said of the proles in Nineteen Eighty-Four that they were not loyal to an idea, party or country. They were loyal to one another. Thus these near ideal people in Orwell’s world practiced mutual aid.
  • Egalitarianism: What attracted Orwell to the Spanish anarchist-POUM society, as narrated in Homage to Catalonia, was equality. Before the revolution was betrayed in Animal Farm, one of the seven commandments was “All Animals Are Equal.”
  • The Individual: Orwell’s “The Prevention of Literature” is a brilliant statement in defense of the rights of individual thought, expression, freedom, and development. George Orwell, in Nineteen Eighty-Four narrates the development of the individual rebellions of Julia and Winston Smith, and their joint rebellion.

So Orwell shared the basic core values of anarchism. You should read George Orwell at Home (and Among the Anarchists) Photographs and Essays, and George Woodcock’s The Crystal Spirit. Read Orwell’s “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” and Homage to Catalonia. I also suggest Vernon Richards’ Lessons of the Spanish Revolution. Especially read Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.

Where Orwell differed with the British anarchists was that he supported the Allies in the war against the Axis powers. The British anarchist group Freedom opposed both sides during The Second World War, although they hated the Nazis. Spanish anarchist refugees in France fought as part of the French resistance. Spanish anarchists of the Durruti Column drove tanks into liberated Paris.

The Four Freedoms spoken of by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as the goals for a post-World War Two world without fascism, and the Atlantic Charter, signed by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, do not exactly contain the same vision for the world as envisioned by anarchist Peter Kropotkin in Fields, Factories, and Workshops. But they represent excellent goals for a good world, as do the ideas and ideals of Wendell Willkie expressed in his book One World. These have not been realized in the post-World War Two world. One of Orwell’s major concerns during The Second World War was what would happen to Russia and Chine in the event of Axis victory. He also loved England, with all its faults. But he did not love the Empire.

Even though there was an Allied victory, the world since then has been nothing like what was envisioned in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Speech: (1) Freedom of Religion; (2) Freedom of Expression; (3) Freedom from Want; and (4) Freedom from Fear.

Instead of the full realization of the four freedoms, the world has come to the brink of nuclear war. Among the leaders in the anti-nuclear weapons movement were Bertram Russell, Norman Thomas, and Women’s Strike for Peace in the United States. Would Orwell have been a leader in that movement if he had lived? In “Reflections on Gandhi,” Orwell looks for a way out from nuclear war. Could it be non-violence? This could have been a turning point in Orwell’s thinking, that he did not get to develop.

Colin Ward shows us turning points in Orwell’s development. From his unhappy childhood at a boarding school, as narrated in “Such Were the Joys,” his days in Burma, the confessional aspects of The Road to Wigan Pier. There is Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm, and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Turning points in Orwell’s life included, leaving Burma and not being an employee of the Empire any more, voluntary poverty in London and Paris, and his trip to Wigan, where he encountered the plight of employed miners, unemployed miners, and their families.

Orwell’s biggest turning point was The Spanish Civil War. A big part of the roots of Nineteen Eighty-Four had their origin in the lies told about the Spanish Civil War—see Part Four of “Looking Back on the Spanish War.” Orwell especially mentioned the big lie about a Russian army being in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. That army did not exist. It was in Part IV of “Looking Back on the Spanish War” that he talked about a “totalitarian nightmare,” and a world where the leader could change the past, and say that two plus two equals five.

Nicholas Walters and Colin Ward both had a great understanding of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. There are a couple of passages of hope in Nineteen Eighty-Four, as observed by Nicolas Walter:

“First are the proles: ‘They were not loyal to a party or a country or an idea, they were loyal to one another…the proles had stayed human….’ Then on Winston Smith’s dead mother: ‘She had possessed a kind of nobility, a kind of purity, simply because the standards were private ones. Her feelings were her own, and could not be altered from outside.’”

So there may even be redemption in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith hoped that the common people throughout the world would continue to produce offspring, i.e. children, and thus a new type of human “race” would arise, and a new society would arise—from the Proles and people like them world-wide. One of the signs of hope was that these common people sang, like the birds sang. They probably danced. African-American enslaved persons in the United States used to sing a lot. In Russia, people sang and danced. Orwell mentioned people singing Paris, in China, in Russia, and in New York City. Real people sang. This is all emphasized in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

What is Orwell’s most important theme? Colin Ward says this:
“Stay human: love one another. This is Orwell’s ultimate message. It is not revolutionary, it is not political, it is not even original. But it is the most important message of all.”

We can call this George Orwell’s 10 Commandments, or George Orwell’s version of the golden rule. “Stay human: Love one another”—“the most important message of all,” said Colin Ward of George Orwell’s basic message.

Vernon Richards, who knew Orwell well, understood him as few people can. The contributors to George Orwell at Home understood Nineteen Eighty-Four as few have. What difference does it make that Orwell was not an anarchist? Orwell was close enough.

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