Orwell and Lenin

The publication of the Palgrave Handbook of Leninist Political Philosophy is an opportunity to reflect on George Orwell’s thoughts about Lenin and his consequences.

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Recalling his youth, in 1936 George Orwell wrote:

One day the master who taught us English set us a kind of general knowledge paper of which one of the questions was, ‘Whom do you consider the ten greatest men now living?’ Of sixteen boys in the class (our average age was about seventeen) fifteen included Lenin in their list. This was at a snobbish expensive public school, and the date was 1920…

(The Road to Wigan Pier, [1937] Chapter 9)

12-Lenin collection

Orwell, though, in the preceding paragraph made it clear that he was not of Lenin’s party itself:

For several years it was all the fashion to be a ‘Bolshie’, as people then called it… of course the revolutionary mood extended to those who had been too young to fight, even to public schoolboys… We retained, basically, the snobbish outlook of our class, we took it for granted that we could continue to draw our dividends or tumble into soft jobs, but also it seemed natural to us to be ‘agin the Government’.

Lenin’s health collapsed in late 1921, so he had only another eighteen months after Orwell’s class paper in which he could move the Soviet Union towards communism. There were serious problems with the food supply, however, with precedence being given to Party members and Red Army forces, which lead to the Kronstadt Revolt in March 1921. The response by Lenin, apart from the violent suppression of the Revolt – although other party members disagreed with him – was the New Economic Policy. The policy lead, intentionally or not, to profiteering, with those benefiting being known as Nepmen.

By 1938 Orwell had completed his Road to Wigan Pier, had fought in Spain, and had had to flee the country chased by the NKVD, having seen the revolution betrayed. In June 1938 he had the opportunity to reflect on the betrayal of the Russian Revolution when he reviewed Eugene Lyons’ Assignment in Utopia. It was Lenin’s Nepmen*1 on whom the Stalinists had fallen:

The G.P.U. are everywhere, everyone lives in constant terror of denunciation, freedom of speech and of the press are obliterated to an extent we can hardly imagine. There are periodical waves of terror, sometimes the ‘liquidation’ of kulaks or Nepmen, sometimes some monstrous state trial …

(New English Weekly 9th June 1938)

Orwell continued to think about the betrayal of the revolution, which became the basis of Animal Farm (1945). The American commentator Dwight MacDonald asked Orwell for his reasoning, and received a reply:

Re. your query about Animal Farm. Of course I intended it primarily as a satire on the Russian revolution… The turning-point of the story was supposed to be when the pigs kept the milk and apples for themselves (Kronstadt).

That is, Orwell saw the betrayal of the revolution in the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt and, implicitly, in the subsequent introduction of the New Economic Policy. Orwell, in his letter, does not name Lenin, instead referring to violent conspiratorial revolution, led by unconsciously power-hungry people. This use of a general term, people, would tie in with his construction of Animal Farm, where Stalin and Trotsky have individual avatars Napoleon and Snowball but Marx and Lenin are melded into one character, Old Major.

Orwell expanded his opinion of Lenin in his essay “Second Thoughts on James Burnham“, where he wrote:

[if Lenin had lived after 1924] there is no strong reason for thinking that the main lines of development would have been very different. Well before 1923 the seeds of a totalitarian society were quite plainly there. Lenin, indeed, is one of those politicians who win an undeserved reputation by dying prematurely. Had he lived, it is probable that he would either have been thrown out, like Trotsky, or would have kept himself in power by methods as barbarous, or nearly as barbarous, as those of Stalin.

Neil Harding in his essay “Lenin on Socialism and the Party in the Long Revolution” in the current Leninist Handbook, describes the change that Lenin’s revolution should have made:

Neil Harding Lenin quote

As Orwell’s review of Eugene Lyons made clear that did not happen, and Orwell instead put the words of a pessimist into his final novel, where Winston Smith read:

Throughout recorded time, and probably since the end of the Neolithic Age, there have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle, and the Low… the essential structure of society has never altered. Even after enormous upheavals and seemingly irrevocable changes, the same pattern has always reasserted itself …

Edmund Griffiths’ review of the Handbook in the Morning Star, when discussing Neil Harding’s contribution, notes that the hopes of 1917 gave way to despair, which Griffiths also attributes to the suppression of the Kronstadt sailors: that is a period of no more than four years. Harding and Orwell saw or see periods in much greater length: from the prehistory of mankind and since the end of the Neolithic Age.

Orwell, it seems, lost his youthful regard for Lenin, described the consequences of Lenin’s political mismanagement, and finally came to feel that Lenin and Stalin were little different. That does not mean that revolutions must necessarily be betrayed. It does, though, show that a revolution can be betrayed in more than one way.

 

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Notes:

  1. Is it a coincidence that in order to marry and find a house for his new family that George Orwell in 1936 had become the British equivalent of a Nepman? That summer Eric and Eileen Blair re-opened The Stores in Wallington as a village shop. They became responsible for opening and serving, for buying from wholesalers and arranging deliveries, and making the books balance, for if the shop made no profit they had no way to pay their rent.

L J Hurst


Uploaded 24 August 2019

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