Due to the varying interpretations and strategic quoting of George Orwell throughout the decades, many people are left with the question: Was George Orwell a Socialist? Undeniably, the answer to this question is yes. Throughout his life, Orwell bluntly stated, on more than one occasion, that he was a socialist. Specifically, he would say, a democratic socialist.
George Orwell’s novels are often read and interpreted as an argument against totalitarianism (which they were), communism (which they were), and anything related to either, including socialism. But, this wasn’t the case. Consider this sentence that Orwell included in his essay “Why I Write”that was published soon after his novel Animal Farm:
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.Why I Write, George Orwell
The italics, which are Orwell’s own, help make the point that he was very specifically arguing for democratic socialism, not against it.
What is Democratic Socialism?
In order to better understand what Orwell believed in and how it was incorporated into his novels and his larger world view, one must understand the term “democratic socialism”. It has had a resurgence in recent years with numerous popular political candidates and social activists using the same term to label their own beliefs. So, what’s so special about this way of considering society and politics?
Democratic socialism is a philosophy that believes that politically, a society should be governed by democracy but economically socialist. Democratic socialists today and in the past would argue that capitalism is at the root of almost every failure of contemporary society and that the values that democracy purports to support are incapable of existing alongside capitalism.
Many, especially during the 60s in America, sought to equate Orwell’s socialism with the Marxist-Leninist socialism of the Soviet Union. (It is better known today as Soviet Communism.) But, these two systems are entirely different. The Marxist-Leninist system is at its heart undemocratic and, as seen in practice in countries such as Russia, Cuba, and China, leads to a totalitarian system of government. This was not what George Orwell believed in.
Animal Farm and Communism
Animal Farm, his 1945 novella, is a scathing critique of Soviet Communism and the outcome of the Russian Revolution (which resulted in the overthrow of the monarchy in 1917). The anthropomorphized characters in the novel represent the two sides of the system and how when one system is overthrown (the line of Russian Tsars) that another system, just as totalitarian takes its place. The latter represents the Bolshevik establishment of the Soviet Union and is seen through the tyrannical rule of the pigs in Animal Farm.
Fighting for Socialism
Unlike the majority of those who express a belief in socialism and revolution, Orwell actually stood up for his beliefs and fought for them—almost losing his life. In evidence of his hatred of Soviet-style communism, when Orwell was in Spain during the Spanish Civil War he chose to join a militia and fight against Franco and fascism. He joined an organization known as POUM, which held many of the same socialist ideas that can be found in Orwell’s writings. While fighting, George Orwell was shot in the neck by a sniper, luckily surviving and making his way back to England.
He wrote about his experiences in his non-fiction book Homage to Catalonia. Take a look at these lines and how eloquently Orwell wrote about his beliefs:
Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all. And it was here that those few months in the militia were valuable to me. […] In that community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no bootlicking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages of socialism might be like.
He continues on to say that the time he spent in Spain led to an even stronger desire to fight for the tenants of socialism and see them come to pass.
Orwell and The Independent Labour Party
Orwell was a member of the ILP, or Independent Labour Party in England during his lifetime. It was established in 1893 and in the thirties and forties the party believed in many of the platform positions that are quite well-known and normalized today. These included a living wage, the nationalism of power, transport, land as well as the bulk purchase of materials and foodstuffs. These different systems would allow for an equalization of the economic landscape, something that Orwell believed was crucial to lasting peace and prosperity for more than just the top 1%.