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A Socialist and a Libertarian By: Ron Capshaw
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, July 25, 2007


The non-Stalinist sections of the Left have never given up claiming George Orwell for their side.  From Irving Howe to Christopher Hitchens, each has asserted that the writer never gave up on socialism, and as par for the course, cite the following statement from Orwell about 1984 being anti-socialist propaganda:

"My recent novel is not intended as an attack on socialism or on the British Labor Party (of which I am a supporter) but a show-up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable and which have already been partly realized in Communism and fascism... The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere."

In truth, however, George Orwell's stances demonstrated the incompatibility of being a socialist and a libertarian.  In the above quote, he divulged his uncomfortable feeling about "centralized economies" and what they may lead to. 

During World War II, Orwell was at his most hopeful regarding a socialist revolution.  He regarded the war communism of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany as demonstrating that capitalism and effective war waging were mutually incompatible (Here Orwell's refusal to examine the United States save for the violence of their culture hobbled his predictions; for had he looked overseas he would have seen an ally that had indeed harnessed capitalism to effective war industrialization and in effect, ended their depression).  Confident the red militias were about to take over, Orwell laid out his own plans for what is to be done--namely, a cap on incomes and independence for India.  But in the same period, Orwell's other nature, that of a power-fearing libertarian competed with his hopes.  Reviewing Frederick Hayek's Road to Serfdom, he conceded the author his main point: "collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamed of."

In the postwar period, Orwell greeted the British Labor Party with joy but conceded his World War II predictions had been made invalid by history.  Nevertheless he retained enough socialist hopes to see a better alternative than choosing between the Cold War adversaries of the United States and the Soviet Union: "a socialist United States of Europe seems to me the only worthwhile political objective today."

But again, running counter to this, were Orwell's libertarian fears.  Reviewing a 19th century socialist pamphlet by Oscar Wilde, he conceded that socialism had given up the project of human freedom and instead had become militarized regimentation with commissars appearing at the workman's door, pen and checklist in hand. 

Much of Orwell's dystopian energy channeled into Animal Farm and 1984 were motivated by unshackling socialism from the poisonous Russian myth.  He no doubt hoped that this would take socialists back to the drawing board.

Orwell emerges however as more interesting than we thought and an almost old-fashioned figure in his refusal to abandon civil liberties for any planned theoretical society.  Even when it helped his own side, Orwell refused to compromise on freedom for all.  During World War II, when many in his camp advocated the banning of the Daily Worker or the denial of habeas corpus to the interned Oswald Mosley, Orwell did not back them up, but instead reminded them that "freedom meant saying things one did not want to hear"--including, in these instances, things Orwell himself probably did not want to hear.

Surveying the 30s to the 50s, pundits argue that Orwell never followed the familiar trajectory of some many; communist attraction followed by disillusionment and a lurch toward the Right.  But Orwell embodied all of these phases at once.  He was a young idealist and a middle-aged cynic, a hopeful socialist and a suspicious libertarian.  Both existed in one man, but one was constantly defeating the other.


Ron Capshaw has written for National Review, the New York Sun, Partisan Review and the Weekly Standard. He lives in Richmond, Virginia and is currently writing a biography of Alger Hiss.


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