Words After My Own Heart

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”

-George Orwell, “Why I Write”

I came across this essay while browsing through Orwell’s works and was particularly struck by this passage.  I have always loved Orwell’s prose, and this encapsulates his style as well as any. His utterly unqualified statement “Good prose is like a windowpane” is at once completely genuine and completely disingenuous.  It is Orwell’s constant striving to approach matters in an objective and unflinching manner that unmistakably marks his prose as his own.  It is at once both utterly unpretentious and utterly unmistakable.  When reading Orwell one is immediately seized with a sense of claustrophobic proximity to the truth and searing self-criticism.  Yet at the same time every one of Orwell’s passages betrays a fierce commitment to his art and to those around him.  The almost subterranean fire of Orwell’s prose, which occasionally bursts into open flame, is a quality he shares with all the best socialist writers.

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5 responses to “Words After My Own Heart

  1. Haha, would you call Orwell a socialist writer?

  2. Of course! Even in the same essay he writes:

    “The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. 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. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.”

    Animal Farm and 1984 are usually taught from a Liberal perspective (Socialism is a nice thought but look what it gets you!) which completely misses the point of both books. Try reading Homage to Catalonia to get a clearer perspective on Orwell’s socialism.

  3. Hmm. Well I always considered Orwell as someone who misunderstood their own views. I recognize that most of his utopianism was actually closest to socialism, but as his books typically denounce socialism (or what carries the name of ‘real-world socialism’), I assumed he was some kind of democrat/libertarian.

    I’ll read Homage for interest’s sake.

  4. His socialism was closest to Trotsky (AKA “Snowflake” AKA “Emmanuel Goldstein”). He fought for the Left Communist POUM militia in Spain, wrote Animal Farm as a pro-Trotsky argument, and 1984 is basically consistent with a pessimistic take on Trotsky’s criticisms of the USSR (along with some additions of the ideas of James Burnham).

    Orwell certainly was a democrat and a libertarian, to the extent that any (non-Stalinist) communist is a democrat and a libertarian. Communists agree with Anarchists (and libertarians, which are essentially the same thing in Europe) that the state (as an alien force commanding society) is oppressive and should be done away with, they just disagree about how to do it. To put it very simply Communists think that some kind of worker state is needed in order to fight off bourgeois counter-revolution and reorganize production, with the state gradually withering away to form a truly classless society, while Anarchists think that any attempt to build a worker state will be just as oppressive as previous states (if not more so) and so society should be reorganized in the most democratic manner possible from day one of the revolution. This is a debate that goes back to the 1st International, where Marx (the Communist) and Bakunin (the Anarchist) had it out, with Marx eventually defeating Bakunin. Reading their polemics against each other is pretty interesting.

    The two forms of “socialism” that really don’t fit into the democrat-libertarian frame are Stalinism (which takes the one-party state as the end of the revolutionary process) and right-wing Social Democracy (of the recent NDP variety) which rejects any transition out of capitalism into socialism and argues instead for a mixed economy. Clearly Orwell was not for either of these forms.

  5. The notion that Orwell was confused about his socialist beliefs is pretty hard to believe considering how consistently pro-socialist (yet anti-Stalinist) he was through all of his mature writing.

    For example consider this passage from his wartime essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius”

    “Socialism is usually defined as ‘common ownership of the means of production.’ Crudely: the State, representing the whole nation, owns everything, and everyone is a State employee. This does not mean that people are stripped of private possessions such as clothes and furniture, but it does mean that all productive goods, such as land, mines, ships and machinery, are the property of the State. The State is the sole large-scale producer. It is not certain that Socialism is in all ways superior to capitalism, but it is certain that, unlike capitalism, it can solve the problems of production and consumption. At normal times a capitalist economy can never consume all that it produces, so that there is always a wasted surplus (wheat burned in furnaces, herrings dumped back into the sea etc. etc.) and always unemployment. In time of war, on the other hand, it has difficulty in producing all that it needs, because nothing is produced unless someone sees his way to making a profit out of it.

    In a Socialist economy these problems do not exist. The State simply calculates what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them. Production is only limited by the amount of labour and raw materials. Money, for internal purposes, ceases to be a mysterious all-powerful thing and becomes a sort of coupon or ration-ticket, issued in sufficient quantities to buy up such consumption goods as may be available at the moment.

    However, it has become clear in the last few years that ‘common ownership of the means of production’ is not in itself a sufficient definition of Socialism. One must also add the following: approximate equality of incomes (it need be no more than approximate), political democracy, and abolition of all hereditary privilege, especially in education. These are simply the necessary safeguards against the reappearance of a class-system. Centralized ownership has very little meaning unless the mass of the people are living roughly upon an equal level, and have some kind of control over the government. ‘The State’ may come to mean no more than a self-elected political party, and oligarchy and privilege can return, based on power rather than on money.”

    This is basically a fair summary of a Trotskyist position. See Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed for a full description of his views:

    http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1936/revbet/index.htm

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