Miss Paine the Younger made me the perceptive gift of this book. I read Orwell's books and many of his essays at school, but knew nothing until now about the man himself. So influential were his words on my young mind that Shelden's biography explains me almost as much as his subject.
Orwell is one of few famous socialists I could have liked. There are many I know in everyday life and am not such a bigot as to discard, but I hold influential men to higher standards.
Those acquainted only with 1984 or Animal Farm might not even think of him now as a Socialist. Both books parody Soviet Communism with which most British Socialists (with reservations varying inversely with their immorality) sympathised. So, in fact did Orwell.
I think that if the USSR were conquered by some foreign country the working class everywhere would lose heart, for the time being at least, and the ordinary stupid capitalists would be encouraged ... I want the existence of democratic Socialism in the West to exert a regenerative influence upon Russia.
He thought the Russian Revolution good, but that it had been hijacked by the power hungry. He was sage enough to realise those are the very people likely to lead revolutions but naive enough to imagine
that revolutions only effect a radical improvement when the masses are alert and chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job
How could an intelligent man harbour such a fantasy? Any chucking 'the masses' did would be at the suggestion of leaders out to replace the revolution's victors! Surely any fool could see they would not only be nastier and more cunning but at least as power-hungry? Socialism, whether achieved by revolution or democracy, requires enormous state power. Such power will attract the scum of the Earth. That's not a bug, it's a feature.
The most interesting passages, scattered through the book, deal with Orwell's romantic imaginings of a democratic Socialist England, somehow untinged by authoritarianism. His biographer writes that
The England that Orwell declares his loyalty to is a place where tyranny cannot easily establish a foothold because of the deep commitment to what he calls 'private liberty', by which he means 'the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above'.
He loved freedom as much as the fieriest modern Libertarian but, economic illiterate that he was, failed to see that the only alternative to incentive is force. He imagined a society in which no-one could earn more than ten times than the lowest paid, but gave no thought for the violence required to prevent them earning more or seize their surplus. Not only did he think men had only to be shown what was right in order to do it, he ludicrously imagined that, in a free society, all would meekly accept a single view of 'what was right'. He romantically imagined
... a specifically English Socialist movement, one that appeals to the English character, and is not tainted by Marxism which was a German theory interpreted by Russians and unsuccessfully transplanted to England. His Socialism would not be 'doctrinaire, nor even logical', and would leave 'anachronisms and loose ends everywhere' - the lion and the unicorn will still be resplendent on the soldiers' cap buttons, the old judge will still wear 'his ridiculous horsehair wig.'
In his day successful Socialism was perhaps, if your understanding of economics was sufficiently limited, vaguely plausible. He probably expected the industries nationalised in 1946, for example, to perform much better under state control. There is no such excuse for Labourites today.
Most of all, he and his generation failed to grasp that if the state is player rather than referee in the national game, it will soon no longer be 'cricket'. Pretty much everything he hoped for was achieved by post-Orwellian Labour governments, with disastrous economic consequences. In the process "the English character" he so admired has been profoundly damaged.
Part of me, liking this well-meaning corduroyed buffoon of a provincial schoolmaster as I do, is glad he didn't live to see what nonsense it all was. Part of me wishes he had not died so young so that he could have satirised it with all his skill.