Book Review: Stansky on Orwell and War

May 18, 2023

The Socialist Patriot: George Orwell and War, by Peter Stansky. Stanford University Press. 150 pp.

During his far too short life, George Orwell produced a remarkable amount of memorable writing: novels, nonfiction books, essays, reviews, radio scripts, newspaper articles, and more. Numerous other writers have selectively picked over this vast trove to conjure up the Orwell they would like to see. For Norman Podhoretz, Orwell was the supreme anti-Communist. For Alexander Cockburn, he was the traitor to the left who gave the British government a list of pro-Soviet intellectuals. For Christopher Hitchens, he was the man who personally confronted the three great oppressive systems of his century—communism, fascism, and European colonialism. For Rebecca Solnit, he was someone who did all of this but also retained a hands-on connection to the natural world.

In Peter Stansky’s insightful new book, reflecting many years of thinking and writing about his subject, Orwell is, among other things, a “Cold War socialist.” Orwell himself passionately felt that this was not a contradiction in terms. (Stansky also points out, incidentally, that the writer was the first person to apply the phrase “Cold War” to the tensions between the West and the Soviet Union.)

Those of us who have admired the earlier books that Stansky co-authored with the late William Abrahams, The Unknown Orwell and Orwell: The Transformation, have hoped for a final volume of that biography. This new book is not exactly that, but it does draw together the themes from Orwell’s wide-ranging life, including much that happened after the years covered in those first two volumes.

Stansky emphasizes that despite Orwell’s staunch opposition to the Soviets, expressed so powerfully in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four, he in no way had abandoned the democratic socialism he believed in for most of his adult life. “Destruction of the Soviet myth,” Orwell wrote, “was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement.” Many older independent American leftists, with memories of always being asked, “What about Russia?” would agree. Orwell seems to have experienced something similar, because he issued a statement explicitly saying, “My novel Nineteen Eighty-four is not intended as an attack on socialism or on the British Labour party.”

Though the novel was long used to denounce the Soviet Union, Stansky reminds us that it now sells more copies than ever three decades after that country dissolved. Immediately after Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway first used the phrase “alternative facts,” he writes, “sales of Nineteen Eighty-four went up 9,500 percent.” And, of course, the surveillance state that Orwell foresaw in that book has now taken shape in many forms around the world. Facial recognition software and spyware in our phones allow governments—and corporations—to know even more about our activities and whereabouts than Nineteen Eight-four’s Big Brother ever dreamed of.

Stansky judiciously discusses a wide range of issues posed by Orwell’s life, not skirting the problematic ones, such as that list of names he gave to the British government. That act clearly makes Stansky uncomfortable, although it does not, in the end, diminish his admiration for the man. He also traces the way Orwell was large enough, to change his mind on occasion. The writer first believed, for example, that only through socialism could the Allies muster the strength to defeat the Nazis. Then, by 1943, he admitted that he had underestimated the resilience and staying power of capitalism. Stansky shows us how Orwell was always aware of movement backwards and forwards on that score. During the war, for instance, the metal railings around London’s innumerable privately-owned mini-parks were taken down. “Many more green spaces were now open to the public” Orwell wrote, “and you could stay in the parks till all hours instead of being hounded out at closing time by grim-faced keepers.” Yet, he noticed in 1944, “railings are returning.”

Finally, Stansky reminds us that it was his experience in Spain that truly carried Orwell into the ranks of the 20th century’s great writers. It was there that he came face to face with Franco’s tyranny, backed so strongly by Hitler and Mussolini. And it was also there that he saw up close the long hand of the Soviet Union in ruthlessly suppressing Catalonia’s anarchist experiment and then in spreading lies in the Western press about what had happened—and about him personally. As Stansky pithily sums it up, “Because of his Spanish Civil War experiences he was both a premature anti-Fascist and a premature ‘Cold Warrior.’”

Writers of Orwell’s stature are often premature—and also sometimes change their minds. One way in which Orwell changed his mind is particularly relevant for all of us who care about the Spanish Civil War. In his great memoir, Homage to Catalonia, written immediately after he was wounded and then returned to Britain, he spends two long chapters on the tragic war-within-the-war on the Republican side: the Communist-backed suppression of the independent and anarchist Left that he had witnessed personally in the bloody street-fighting of the 1937 “May Days” in Barcelona. But by half a dozen years later, Orwell decided this emphasis was wrong: the main story should be the fight against fascism. In instructions for future editions of Homage, he relegated those two chapters to appendices, something that did not unsay anything he had written, but that significantly altered the book’s political emphasis. These changes were made in the French edition, but surprisingly his British publisher ignored his wishes and it is not clear if his American publisher even knew about them. An edition in the form Orwell wanted did not appear in Britain until 36 years after his death, and not in the United States until 2015.

Near the end of Stansky’s trenchant study, he quotes a piece Orwell wrote only six months before he died. The novelist speaks of the risks that atomic bombs might be used in the Cold War, and then goes on to say, “But danger lies also in the acceptance of a totalitarian outlook by intellectuals of all colors. The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.

From Moscow to Mar-a-Lago, Beijing to Budapest, the totalitarians are still with us. And resisting them still does depend on us.

Adam Hochschild is a member of ALBA’s Honorary Board. His latest book is American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis.