Sunday, 15 May 2011

George Orwell: The Journalist with an Activist’s Voice

“All issues are political issues”

* * * *
I aim to look through the Journalistic work of George Orwell and apply the quote in the title to the development and expression of his political voice in his writing.

1. Pre-Spain: The Disillusioned Imperialist Empathising with the Working Class.
2. Spanish Civil War: The Forging of Orwell the Socialist.
3. Post-Spain: The Voice of Dissent in the Popular Press.

* * * *

By the time Animal Farm was published in 1945, Orwell was in poor health, and despite keeping up his Journalistic output until his death five years later from Tuberculosis, the last few years of his life were geared towards the creation of his master work Nineteen Eighty-Four. Prior to this Orwell was chiefly identified as the literary editor of the Tribune, as well as a contributor to several other major media publications including The Observer, Manchester Evening News, and a one time producer at the BBC. Before the Second World War he’d made moderate stirs in the world of book writing with his Novel ‘Burmese Days’, but it was his books of reportage amongst the lower echelons of society Down and Out in Paris and London, and The Road To Wigan Pier that literary people would have known him for.

1. Orwell’s upbringing was typically ‘Lower-Upper-Middle Class’ as he put it. He was born in Imperial India and was educated at Eton before joining the Imperial India Police. After five or so years in the force Orwell grew disaffected with the Imperialist machine as a whole and resigned from the police while on leave in England. He then embarked on a life of self-imposed poverty and writing, the experience of which would become his first published book, Down and Out…. In 1929 he came to the attention of the British secret service who wrote in the file the kept on him until his death, in which Orwell is described as follows:

"This man has advanced Communist views, and several of his Indian friends say that they have often seen him at Communist meetings. He dresses in a bohemian fashion both at his office and in his leisure hours." - MI5/6 File on Eric Arthur Blair from 1929-1952, released in 2007. 1

Despite what is written here, Orwell wasn’t as politically inclined in his writing as first thought. Orwell had a deep sense of social justice that resonated through his writing, and through his fascination and close contact with the working classes, he developed an empathy with their plight.

“Beggars do not work, it is said; but, then, what is work? A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course—but, then, many reputable trades are quite useless.” 2

In part two of The Road to Wigan Pier Orwell describes what he defines as a socialist:

"A real Socialist is one who wishes - not merely conceives it as desirable, but actively wishes - to see tyranny overthrown"3

The Road to Wigan Pier sees Orwell observe the working class inhabitants of the northern towns and cities he visits, and though he attends Socialist meetings he also attends Black Shirt meetings which reinforces the observational and detached political nature and remains merely sympathetic to the struggles of the left and therefore one of those who “merely conceives it desirable”.

2. In 1936 an army Insurrection led by General Franco rose up against the legitimate Republican government of Spain, and the socialist state was plunged into a bitter Civil War. Franco was openly backed by the Fascist governments of Hitler and Mussolini while countries such as Britain signed a pact of non-intervention. Streams of working class men and women flowed into Spain from different countries in order to defend the ideals of socialism… and amongst them was Orwell. It was here that Orwell the socialist was created - a letter written in Barcelona in 1937 to his old Etonian friend Cyril Connolly, Orwell claimed that:

"I have seen wonderful things and at last really believe in Socialism, which I never did before" 4

In the first chapter of Homage to Catalonia, Orwell records his initial motivation and his reasons for joining the conflict:

“I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined
the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed
the only conceivable thing to do.” 5

The Spanish Civil War would become the conflict that would create the true voice of George Orwell that would become so apparent in his later journalism and ultimately in his chilling warning of the world to come. Orwell’s experiences first hand of life in the P.O.U.M revolutionary militia sandwiched between Franco’s Nationalists and the ruling Stalin-backed communists would deeply affect his world view post 1938. In the essay Orwell’s Spanish Experience, Anders Iversen states that:

“He [Orwell] knew, at least a few months later when he was writing about this period, that his Spanish experience was the interregnum of his life, something extra-ordinary (the setting, the strangers and foreigners, the war, the isolation).” 6

After fleeing Spain and returning to England only to find himself a political leper due to his P.O.U.M connections, the focus of his anger was directed towards the media that engineered the distorted view of the conflict through their self-serving propaganda.

“THE SPANISH WAR has probably produced a richer crop of lies than any event since the Great War of 1914-18, but I honestly doubt, in spite of all those hecatombs of nuns who have been raped and crucified before the eyes of Daily Mail reporters, whether it is the pro-Fascist newspapers that have done the most harm. It is the left-wing papers, the News Chronicle and the Daily Worker, with their far subtler methods of distortion, that have prevented the British public from grasping the real nature of the struggle.”
- New English Weekly, July & September 1937 7

3. Orwell’s Journalistic output from this point on becomes polemic and fervent in its quest for truth, often saying things that people did not want to acknowledge - his literature would also be affected by this (i.e. Animal Farm was written while the soviets were our allies and therefore published after the war, but at a time when the cold war was coming into focus which helped it in the long run). In the confessional essay Why I Write Orwell states that:

"Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it." 8

Orwell vocalised his ideas in his essays and articles that continued to be published throughout the war by various publications, but none more so than in his column As I Please published in the Tribune. In this extract he observes that the word ‘Fascist’ has come to be nothing more than a swear word of little meaning in the minds of the people, in no doubt partly due to media propaganda.

“It will be seen that, as used, the word “Fascism” is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers. Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.” 9

This quote is also a good example of what is meant by Julian Symon’s observation about Orwell’s As I Please which was written originally as a postscript for an edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

“Some of these pieces were seriously conceived, others were week-to-week journalism, but all of them showed an idiosyncratic freedom in putting down things that interested him, often combined with a previously unsuspected humour.” 10

Orwell’s writing - particularly during the post-Spain period - is marked by common sense and delivered in a manner so as to be academically sound, and yet accessible to the everyday reader. Integral to Orwell’s journalistic and literary voice, and the primary reason for his longevity since his death is the way he wrote his ideas down. Orwell had said that originally he wanted to make very descriptive books, but ultimately he became the celebrated voice of clarity.

"He was a master of lucidity, of saying what he meant, of exposing the falsity of what he called double-think"11

"[Orwell] was the finest journalist of his day and the foremost architect of the English essay since Hazlitt."12

It was this style of journalism that ensured his position within the popular press even though he often spoke out against them in his own work.

The development of Orwell’s political voice is tied into the experiences he endured during the Spanish Civil war. It was during this time that we see a marked change between Eric Arthur Blair expressing sympathy for the people he encountered, to George Orwell truly championing the cause in print.

“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.

[…] “And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” - Why I Write (1946) 13

Orwell’s post Spanish Civil War journalistic output shows a man who has developed his own strong political view and desire to expose the truth as he sees it even when it is unpopular and polemic to do so. It is the post-Spain Orwell that creates the final political statement of Nineteen Eighty-Four, a statement that contains no traces of the pre-1936 Orwell as described previously.

1 (2007)

2 Orwell, G. Down and Out… (2003) New Edition. London: Penguin Classics. Chapter 31

3 Orwell, G. The Road to Wigan Pier. (2001) New Edition. London: Penguin Classics. Chapter 13

4 Sedgwick, P. George Orwell International Socialist? (1969) (

5 Orwell, G. Homage to Catalonia. (2003) New Edition. London: Penguin Classics. Chapter 1

6 Iversen, A. Something To Believe in… (1988) University of Aarhus & Skelos. Chapter 1

7 Orwell, G. Spilling the Spanish Beans. (1937) New English Weekly ( beans)

8 Orwell, G. Why I Write. (1946)

9 Orwell, G. As I Please - What is Fascism?. (1944) London: Tribune. (

10 [Symons, J quoted in] Crick, B. Orwell: A Life (1992) London: Penguin. Chapter 14.

11 Smith, M S [Quoted on]

12 Howe, I [Quoted on)

13 Orwell, G. Why I Write. (1946)


Orwell, G. Down and Out… (2003) New Edition. London: Penguin Classics

Orwell, G. The Road to Wigan Pier. (2001) New Edition. London: Penguin Classics

Sedgwick, P. George Orwell International Socialist? (1969) (From International Socialism (1st series), No.37, June/July 1969, pp.28-34.)

Orwell, G. Homage to Catalonia. (2003) New Edition. London: Penguin Classics.

Iversen, A. Something To Believe in: Writers Responses to the Spanish Civil War (1988) University of Aarhus & Skelos.

Orwell, G. Why I Write. (2004) Great Ideas Edition. London: Penguin Classics.

Crick, B. Orwell: A Life (1992) London: Penguin.

George Orwell Links (1995-2009) Canada:

George Orwell Eric Arthur Blair (2009) Canada:

Stansky, P & Abrahams, W. Orwell: The Transformation (1981) London: Paladin.

Coppard, A & Crick, B. Orwell Remembered (1984) London: Ariel & BBC.


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