The left has always had a strange relationship with George Orwell. He was and always was a solid socialist or social democrat. One of them, I’m not entirely sure what sub-genre of left political movements is which.
He was briefly a communist, but his dalliance with that part of left politics was short and unhappy. Out of necessity, he joined the Communist Party in order that he could fight for the Republicans in Spain.
Despite the common goal of fighting fascism, more battles were fought between the Republicans themselves as the Communist (under the support of Stalin) fought for leadership. Ultimately, using propaganda to portray all non-communist Republicans as traitors and spies. Orwell took a bullet in the neck for his principles.
Even from the early days of publication, the right has taken Orwell’s most well know works, Animal Farm and 1984 as parables against the left. Specifically, communism.
Orwell constantly checked his own beliefs and values. His opposition was Stalinism, not communism. His opposition to the Communist Party was their blind devotion to Stalin. They opposed fascism when Stalin did. Supported it when Stalin did and went back to opposing it when Stalin joined the allies in World War Two.
Orwell, at least initially, saw himself as a Trotskyite. Essentially, more anarchy and trusting people to be inherently good, less totalitarianism and genocide.
However, his one constant was that he opposed totalitarianism in any form. Stalinism and Fascism were held in equal contempt by Orwell.
He repeatedly stated he was a socialist democrat. Not liberal, not centrist, left. He saw his works being selectively quoted by the right, in the same way Darwin’s whole theory would be used by Capitalists and Libertarians when it suited them. You can’t teach evolution in schools, but we can throw out “survival of the fittest” to justify right wing social policies.
Orwell was rooted firmly on the left. He put socialist principles and support of the needy at the top of his values..He was also a raging homophobe. Like, hated them. Which is awkward. But it doesn’t come up much in conversation.
Bertrand Russell, a brilliant mathematician, eminent and important philosopher, gave the world a summary of Western Philosophy so we could all have a nice thick book on our bookcases and pretend we were smart. Also gave the world the greatest portrait picture in the world. An atheist who could deconstruct religion and its beliefs without the egotism, aggression and “look at me I’m so smart” of Dawkins and Hitchens. Wrote a gripping review of the inherent features and worrying aspects of power, those who seek it, those who gain it.
Then spends a chapter, right in the middle of the book stating why women will never be able to attain or hold power, because, you know, all that wimmin stuff. It doesn’t come up much in conversation.
Norah Elam was a leading figure in the Suffragette movement. Imprisoned three times (alongside Emmeline Pankhurst) for her political activities. She was labelled a terrorist for daring to go out in public and say that women should vote.
She was also Irish, born in Dublin. She was part of the few that changed the world. She rightly celebrated for being a Suffragette, a feminist and even back in the early 20th Century the founder of the anti-vivisection movement.
She was also a fascist. A literal Feminazi. She wasn’t alone. There were a few others who actively took part in the Suffragette movement who went on to join Oswald Mosely’s British Union of Fascists (Black Shirts). It doesn’t come up that much in conversation.
I bring this up, not necessarily as a criticism of the people, though that is part of it, but by way of a follow up to an issue I left hanging in my last article.
I made an effort to add some nuance to the issue of people voting for Far-Right parties. Arguing, after long winded irrelevant personal anecdotes, that it may not be as easy as saying everyone is racist.
There is no doubt that a consequence of this voting pattern is that it has empowered those who are racist, but more importantly: if those who voted aren’t racist, they were willing to overlook overt racism when casting their votes. That is true. That is a concern. The implication is that they may not think they are racist, but by virtue of overlooking racism, they are racist.
As is apparent from the opening paragraphs of this piece. I will bore people for hours on Orwell, his politics and his works.
He managed to write about poverty without patronising those he wrote about. He managed to explain his politics objectively. You knew what he stood for (if you cared to read his work unlike most right-wing commentators who selectively quote him). He had proven how far he will go to defend his principles.
In part my obsession with Orwell was fuelled by the Communist’s Party’s rejection of Orwell. He was my rebellion, my punk. But in the main, I understood, agreed with and wanted his vision of a socialist democracy.
But, again, he was a raging homophobe. He made no secret of it. It was known at the time. It is known now. Am I homophobic for overlooking his homophobia in favour of politics that suit me and my roots?
Granted, it is a weak comparison. Orwell didn’t put his homophobia at the front of his beliefs. He didn’t push for socialist democracy for all except homosexuals. His answers didn’t revolve around blaming homosexuals for the plight of the working class. But it is still a big thing to overlook.
My only comfort is that the cognitive dissonance required to overlook on-the-record behaviour that clearly contradicts my own morals and ethics to like Orwell isn’t some intellectual defect on my part, it’s just another aspect of who we are.
There are some good descriptions of this in two books for those interested, “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harai and “Built on Bones” by Brenna Hassett. These chart the rise and development of the human species.
There were certain ideas we needed to go along with as a collective before we could evolve into what we were to become.
One was empathy, as demonstrated with caring for elderly and sick rather than leaving them behind to predators, one was a moral code of acceptable behaviour that would make it easier to live as a collective, cooperative group and one was cognitive dissonance. We wouldn’t have formed in groups with leaders without it. We wouldn’t have equated power and leadership with wealth material possessions without it. We wouldn’t pin our colours and support to obviously flawed and corrupt leaders who do not have our interests in mind without it.
The entire construct of power and leadership relies on cognitive dissonance (but not women according to Bertrand Russell). Any power, any political party, any person held in esteem for their opinions gets there in part on their words and actions, but also because a group of people are prepared to ignore obvious hypocrisies. Left, Right, Centre, all of us.
Just how racist were the working class Brexit voters? According to the London-based media: very. Not just racist, but stupid and uneducated (the BBC still has its breakdown of the Brexit vote based on those who never went to college}.
They were taken by surprise with both the turnout in these areas (over 80% in many) and the strength of voting to leave (over 60% in many). It’s the same shock the coastal media had in America. The same the West German-based media had this week.
Less than a year after Brexit, there was a general election and the London-based media decided that this would be the death of the Labour Party. All those uneducated, racist working-class northerners have moved away from Labour (the Labour party that has always had its roots in Euroscepticism before its centrist shift). They would now show their true colours as Tories or UKIP.
Labour gained 34 seats. Jeremy Corbyn increased Labour’s share of the vote by more than any other of the party’s election leaders since 1945.
UKIP gained no seats and returned no MPs. Bloody racist Brexiters, suddenly not being racist like everyone expected. Maybe they weren’t quite as racist as is reported.
Sadly, maybe racism isn’t as big a deal-breaker to them as it is to many of us. That they aligned with the principle of Leave, rather than those who were behind Leave.
Trump’s rallies show his true base. The true, ugly, white racist misguided patriotism that existed before him and has been empowered by him. But that base couldn’t have got him elected and won’t sustain him as he isolates more and more.
It was the other blue-collar workers, like the miners in Philadelphia. I’m not sure how pointing out that there’s thousands of jobs in California installing solar panels, that coal is bad, that their bosses are evil, helps them find work or feed a family.
Only one person said they’d help them. It was a lie. But after a decade after the economic collapse being told they should vote for a “greater good” that would inevitably see them slip further behind wasn’t going to be a strong message. It’s easy to be less selfish when you are comfortable and doing ok.
None of this justifies the decision to overlook racism and far-right politics, but it does show how much the left moved away from speaking to and for these people. There was only one side offering them hope, even though that hope was hung on dangerous, odious hate.
With a very short campaign in the last UK general election, Corbyn went from a perceived joke to a viable candidate. Little or no media support, little or no Labour “elite” support, little or no “twitterati” support. Those that were supposed to have been ignorant racists who had switched to Tory or UKIP got behind a campaign that offered them hope.
Ireland has repeatedly rejected every attempt at a far-right party, but there was something in the water protests that is telling. Like Brexit, the issue was important, but it was also a cause and an opportunity for those who have been left behind to protest against those who have ignored them.
It was a rejection of the Government, more importantly a rejection of Labour, a party that is no longer their voice.
That voice is being filled, whether you like those who are filling it or not. The pattern isn’t so much far-right, the pattern is activity among those who have been hit the hardest by austerity rejecting the status quo. When there is a party on the left offering that rejection, people side with them.
The overriding motivation isn’t bigotry, its hopelessness and desperation. If we let that gap be filled by those who peddle hate, then we will see the rise of a strong far-right. If, like in the last UK general election, we offer a viable alternative, then people drop the far-right like a hot stone.
To varying degrees we’re all influenced by cognitive dissonance especially when it comes to politics. What we decide is acceptable dissonance depends on both our own sense of “red-lines” and our circumstances. The more desperate, the greater our sense of injustice, the more we’re willing to overlook for a message that we align to.
State your heroes and in no time I’ll be able to show up some hypocrisy. Left, Right, Centre, they’re all flawed. It is just a matter of how much you’re willing to overlook.
Hang down your head for sorrow, hang down your head for me. I’m no better.
Listrade can be found on twitter @Listrade.
This is a brilliant article.
Is racism a social construct? Is it more of a white persons thing that other races? In many societies it doesn’t carry the same societal taboo as it does in “white” societies. We tip toe around the issue here, or else we over react- what is the fear? Is it white person’s guilt?
The fact that racism is mostly seen as a right wing thing also muddies our thinking as far as capitalism, conservatism and other traditional isms of the right are concerned. the new policing of language and tone dont in fact help discussion, they hinder it by deeming what is “acceptable” in discussion on a totally different metric to what is helpful.
Does that make it any less damaging because other cultures are okay with it?
I dont know to be honest. You would have to ask other races. Again, its a cultural thing. Some cultures find racism very damaging, others don’t have as much of a problem with it. We probably obsess more than another race.
Not to sound trite, but I think a lot of the concept of race is a largely cultural construct. There are just differences in cultures. I would also suggest that the cultures who don’t find racism damaging are probably the ones benefiting from it.
I disagree. The “white” culture is obsessed with race and racism. Its not such a big deal I find in China, India, Africa and much of the Arab world. There people can throw shade without being too worried about the tone police or people taking offence. Its does seem to be amplified here in the west due to some guilt people feel about a past that colonised and oppressed those other territories.
I think we’re probably using a different definition of racism.
But to be honest you’re dealing with huge swathes of humanity there, China and India alone make up about a third of the population of the planet. That’s about as generalised as you can get.
Nice piece Listrade
I think the first couple of paragraphs needs an editor but fair play for going to all the effort.
One thing that struck me as I read it is that even those who are almost universally well regarded have some undesirable character traits or opinions. And, conversely, it stands to reason that some of those that are almost universally disliked probably have some very admirable traits or opinions.
It’s worth baring in mind in this internet age when we seem to be so quick to condemn or to glorify individuals based sometimes upon single actions or statements.
There’s a ruthlessness about it that someone is good or bad, and one bad act may be enough to have a name worthy of spitting upon.
To use an example of one who is almost universally disliked for a number of perhaps justifiable reasons, Alan Shatter. I don’t need to list his sins but to list two virtues (and I don’t mean his novel), he set up the Free Legal Advice Centre and while minister for Justice he wrote some of the most progressive legislation this country has seen. Those two acts, you could argue, make him directly responsible for more benefit to peoples lives than any other politician.
And for ones who are almost universally liked, well Listrade gave a number of examples.
This is probably a tangent from Listrade’s piece but it’s worth baring in mind that there are few people worthy of total scorn or total admiration. The vast majority of us are sincerely trying to go through life doing what we believe to be the right thing to do and a little understanding from either side of any debate, and a little empathy, is always a good starting point.
Bearing in mind.
Well said, sir. Apart from that HOWLER, obv.
oh Jesus… mortified
Why do you have to constantly bring your own personality and beliefs into your writing? We don’t really care about your flaws, sorry, because you’re a nobody writing on the internet. These points about Orwell and others are abundantly obvious to anyone who spends more than half a minute looking into their biographies.
Why does the author of an opinion piece bring their own personality into their writing? Think about that for a second…
would you be doing that thing they call an ‘ad hominem’ attack? With just a slight sprinkle of ‘confirmatory bias’ . But I don’t need to tell you , you I’m sure gave the article more than half a minutes thought before you posted .,….
Yes, lots of food for thought there.
“It was the other blue-collar workers, like the miners in Philadelphia. I’m not sure how pointing out that there’s thousands of jobs in California installing solar panels, that coal is bad, that their bosses are evil, helps them find work or feed a family.”
– It does tell them that they may want to move to California. Their ancestors moved to where the future was, so might they.
In Ireland, cognitive dissonance could be the large numbers willing to vote for FF, even though they presided over the recession. There is also the Catholic Church, so many people want to ignore such obvious reasons to abandon the church. There are many more examples.
As for Orwell, being a homophobe in the early 20th century is a different proposition to the same label in the early 21st century. Just like being a slave owner in 1700 is different to being on in 2017. It doesn’t make it right but the World was a different place.
Really enjoyed this article again. Any voice that doesn’t deal in black and white is a welcome change.
I’ll throw in John Lennon. The man was basically canonised as a saint yet was a wife beater who emotionally abused his son and lied about nearly every aspect of his life. None of that takes away from what he did with the beatles* though and that’s the dichotomy.
Yup. Although I still hate Imagine. My personal one is HP Lovecraft. He was considered racist even by his contemporaries and there are certainly a few of his stories I will skip (the horror at red hook especially). I still love the sheer existential terror of his best writing, though.
The guy who placed all those crazy ads in the backs of comics for xray goggles and sea monkeys and invisible ink, absolutely rabid in his thinking and beliefs.
No doubt but he was before my time. It was all Sega and Nintendo when I started into comics.
“the miners in Philadelphia”
Ill have to think about this for a bit , but thank you Listrade…
there’s loads to overlook with eminent historical figures, from freud, halstead, erdos, edison, sagan, feynmann all loved their class a’s for example. you shouldn’t judge them by current values; none of these guys would be given academic posts these days if they couldn’t pass a drugs test.
Nice piece Listrade
.ops, said that twice :)
it is a very nice piece!