1984 unloosed an Orwellian flood of truly Biblical proportions.
It was hard to believe any stretch of territory was left where fresh argument
might find a foothold.
Friend and foe offered their new interpretations. The most important of all
was a new edition of Nineteen Eighty Four elaborately annotated by Orwell's
most knowlegeable biographer, Bernard Crick, and at the end of the year he
produced another excellent report, reviewing all the reviewers. What more
could be said?
But here in 1986 the flood starts again; the new piece of Orwelliana will
produce further contentions. 'The world's evolution,' says the author, 'has
placed him at the heart of our present complexities, and we go to his writing
not in any spirit of aloof research but to find solutions to existing problems.
Those who read Patrick Reilly's previous book on Jonathan Swift will need
no incitement to get their hands on this one. Indeed, he recruits Swift as
a kind of joint author to stand at his side and point the way ahead at the
most awkward crossroads. And Swift, of course, was Orwell's mentor and model,
the most significant of all.
The product offered by such a remarkable triumvirate should be something,
and believe me, it is. Just in case I forget to mention the point later,
this is a wonderful book, not to be missed, not a single page of it. Orwell-lovers,
Orwell-haters and any benighted Laodiceans left in the middle, if there are
such, should all read it with instruction and delight. Socialists should
read it for a start, democratic Socialists; the rest have no right to defile
the name. Who can doubt that 'the collapse of the vision of Socialism' has
been 'one of the great intellectual traumas of the West,' and that therefore
the means whereby Socialism is to be revived both as 'an idea and ideal'
is 'for many in Europe the key question'?
To attempt the task while spurning Orwell is worse than mere arrogance or
folly: it is, almostcertainly, an act of cowardice too, the very same charge
which Orwell levelled at so many ofhis contemporaries. We have less excuse
to dodge them now.
Patrick Reilly, by the way, will have none of the nonsense so often peddled
in interestedRight-wing quarters sometimes shamefully accepted by Left-wingers
who ought to knowbetter, that Orwell himself had deserted the Socialist cause;
he know his Orwell much toowell, both the forever reiterated avowal of his
allegiance right to the end and the implicationsof what he wrote, here unravelled
with something like an Orwellian honesty and insight.
True, he could dabble in patronising references to individual workers or
the working class he came to honour or love. Usually he detected these lapses
before anyone else and was quick to make amends. Usually he paid everyone
the compliment of offering the same kind of personal relations. Only the
real underdogs got special treatment.
And sometimes he could see much further, in the interests of his adopted
class, than many of their authentic spokesmen. Way back in the 1930s he realised
how insulting it might be to transfer slum dwellers into working-class ghettoes
where they couldn't bring their community ethos with them. He alone, or almost
alone, saw the horror of tower blocks when they were no more than a malign
glint in the architect's eye.
True enough, and the claim is brilliantly amplified, but just occasionally
Patrick Reilly acclaims him as the only prophet. One other for sure was Ignazio
Silone whom Orwell himself greatly honoured but Reilly does not mention.
Silone held fast to his democratic socialism as firmly as Orwell in the face
of even fiercer buffetings. 'I don't believe,' he said, 'that the honest
man is forced to submit to history, and he said it when the torturers were
even nearer at hand.'
One reason why he is so topical is that he and 'an instinct for the future,
a seismographicability to sense disturbance when stability seemed assured.'
And partly he derived this stregnth from 'the refusal to divorce politics
from ethics, the distrust of political engineering as an end in itself.'
These were some of the ideas which underwrite 'his prophetic status.
Moreover, the lone prophet needed an escape from the wilderness and a pay
packet. He needed them most when all Establishment doors, Right, Left and
especially Centre, were being slammed in his face, when he could at first
find no publisher for Animal Farm, when no newspaper for which he wanted
to write would publish what he wrote - except Aneurin Bevan's Tribune, the
same Bevan who at that time was blacklisted by the BBC on Government instruction.
And, anyhow, even before Tribune, Spain applied the cure. Orwell himself
judged Homage to Catalonia his best work and many will concur. 'The intimacy
neverfully achieved with the English working class - declared, indeed, so
great is the class gulf, tobe beyond achievement - is miraculously and movingly
consummated on the opening page. '
Altogether, what made George Orwell such a challenge to all the massed orthodoxies
of his time - what still makes him the same force - was the moulding into
one of his art, his character, his message. He learnt from many masters -
Dickens, Marx, Joyce, especially Swift, and in making their wisdom his own
he saw that democratic Socialism must understand deeper instincts even than
the fight against hunger and poverty; not that he was or knave enough ever
to underrate them. 'All of Orwell's books,' says Patrick Reilly, who proves
the claim one by one, 'were conceived in a love affair with truth. ' All
of them, in this new presentation, acquire a new glow and a new greatness.