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  • Writer's picturePaul D. Wilke

Was George Orwell Really a Socialist? (yes, he was!)


Introduction: Was George Orwell a Socialist?

Many don't realize that the man who satirized communism so well in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four also considered himself a democratic socialist to the end of his life. In one of his later essays, "Why I Write," George Orwell penned these curious words. "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, 1946).

Against totalitarianism, of course. Anyone who has read Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four knows this. Most remember Orwell as the eloquent debunker of totalitarian authoritarianism, and few did it better. But Orwell the socialist? Not so much. Was he really? Indeed, he was, and not shy about it. This might come as a surprise to those who assume his anti-communism translated into a default anti-socialism. It's more complicated than that.

How did Orwell's socialism evolve? Fortunately, we have his own words to go by. His direct experience inspired his writing, first as a journalist visiting the impoverished coal regions in northern England and then as a volunteer fighting for a far-left militia in the Spanish Civil War. He needed to see to understand, and what he saw then shaped his political views.

The Great Depression had convinced him that "capitalism manifestly has no future." However, the rise of totalitarianism in Russia and Germany also worried him and became a prominent theme in his later writing. If capitalism was doomed, what was the alternative? Communism? Fascism? Those would not be real improvements over the status quo.

It's hard to understand today, but the Nazis and Communists offered what seemed like viable political alternatives to capitalism in the 1930s and 1940s. Both radiated self-confidence with a thuggish swagger; both preached simple answers to intractable problems like poverty and unemployment. In countries where unemployment rates ranged between 20-25%, this was appealing and sounded much better than anything the bickering democracies of the West offered.

There, the rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and everybody knew it. Hitler and Stalin provided solutions. True, those solutions were soaked in blood, and stamped with suffering, but hard times called for hard solutions by hard men.

Orwell understood the danger these collectivist ideologies represented to human flourishing. They suffocated freedom, murdered art, and crippled the spirit. Of course, capitalism had its own ugly problems, of which Orwell was a vocal critic. Yet he recognized there were enormous differences as well.

After all, England didn't have gulags or concentration camps, the press was free, and no secret police terrorized the populace in basement torture chambers. The rule of law, however imperfect, governed the land rather than the capricious whims of tyrannical dictators. For his part, Orwell struggled to articulate an alternative version of socialism that was democratic and without the oppressive hierarchies which made laissez-faire capitalism and totalitarianism so ruinous to the average person.

What shaped Orwell's socialist beliefs? What kind of socialism did he want to see? To answer those questions, we must return to 1936, to an impoverished mining town called Wigan.


The Road to Wigan Pier - 1936

Orwell's Socialism began to take shape in 1936 when he wrote his first political book, The Road to Wigan Pier. This was a time of significant political and economic upheaval, with the lingering effects of the Great Depression still casting a pall over Europe and America.

Capitalism's future seemed in doubt as new ideologies like communism and fascism promised the kind of stability the free market couldn't provide. In the chaotic interwar period (1918-1939), democracies fell one after another to authoritarian regimes, most notably in Italy, Spain, and Germany. Elsewhere, the Great War's allied victors, France and England, were sleepwalking toward another war they weren't ready for.

In this swirl of uncertainty, Orwell wrote The Road to Wigan Pier about his experience in northern England’s mining region. In his own words: "I went there [Wigan] partly because I wanted to see what mass-unemployment is like at its worst, partly in order to see the most typical section of the English working class at close quarters. This was necessary to me as part of my approach to Socialism. For before you can be sure whether you are genuinely in favour of Socialism, you have got to decide whether things at present are tolerable or not tolerable, and you have got to take up a definite attitude on the terribly difficult issue of class" (Orwell Complete Works 266).

Near the bottom of England's class structure was the lowly coal miner. One of the book’s highlights was Orwell's vivid description of a day in the life of these hard-working men fueling England's economy. Knowing his readers were mostly urban bourgeois lefties used to the creature comforts of civilization, he tried to make coal miners relatable as human beings. At the same time, he wanted to highlight for his readers just how far removed a miner's life was from theirs.

"Watching coal-miners at work, you realise momentarily what different universes different people inhabit. Down there where coal is dug it is a sort of world apart which one can quite easily go through life without ever hearing about. Probably a majority of people would even prefer not to hear about it. Yet it is the absolutely necessary counterpart of our world above. Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly" (The Road to Wigan Pier).

So he made the exhausting journey to the bottom of a mine and then hiked over a mile in cramped tunnels. After reaching the coal face, he found a scene like out of Dante's Inferno. "Most of the things one imagines in hell are there—heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space."

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Politically invisible and taken for granted, coal miners could do little to improve their lot. The giant corporations got rich exploiting them while the middle class enjoyed the perks of civilization coal provided. During his time in the north, Orwell experienced capitalism at its ugliest: unaccountable, hidden from the wider public, and putting profit over people and shareholders over the nation.

But the injustice he found in mining towns like Wigan was not all that angered him.

Another feature that emerged in this early phase of Orwell's socialism was a rebuke of socialists themselves. As an aside, this has become a goldmine of out-of-context quote-mining by modern culture warriors convinced that Orwell was a dedicated anti-socialist.

He wasn’t, though he believed socialists were a major reason the movement was so unpopular. The last part of The Road to Wigan Pier was such an extended rant about his fellow socialists' shortcomings that he paused mid-argument to remind his readers he was, ahem, actually for socialism, even if it didn't sound like it.

"And please notice that I am arguing for Socialism, not against it. But for the moment I am advocatus diaboli. I am making out a case for the sort of person who is in sympathy with the fundamental aims of Socialism, who has the brains to see that Socialism would 'work', but who in practice always takes to flight when Socialism is mentioned."

The average person struggling to get by had every reason to embrace socialism. For the working classes, "Socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about." They didn't want to hear speeches soaked in abstract Marxist jargon that didn't address the economic challenges they faced. Orwell felt the common folk were more authentic socialists because they understood what socialism meant at its core, that it "… means justice and common decency." And for everyone, not just those with the money to buy justice and the privilege of being treated with common decency.

Orwell wrote, "the essential point here is that all people with small, insecure incomes are in the same boat and ought to be fighting on the same side. Probably we could do with a little less talk about 'capitalist' and 'proletarian' and a little more about the robbers and the robbed."

This applied not only to coal miners and factory workers, those stereotypical proletarians of the Marxist imagination, but also to the "clerks, the engineers, commercial travelers, the middle-class man, the village grocers, and lower grade civil servants." By Orwell’s estimation, socialism should defend the interests of the working classes across the entire spectrum of society, not just those in the factories and mines. Furthermore, they should be the ones running society, not a bunch of out-of-touch elites.

Orwell returned from this experience in the north convinced socialism was the only common-sense answer to society's ills. His famous quote, "Every empty belly was an argument for socialism" comes from this time. However, his advocacy for socialism at this point wasn't much more specific than that, something critics soon pointed out.

Victor Gollancz, Orwell's publisher and a socialist himself, dismissed his "emotional socialism" as ineffectual in the undermining preface he insisted on writing for the Left Book Club edition of The Road to Wigan Pier. What was needed instead, Gollancz insisted, was "scientific socialism" (Sheldon).

Fair enough, but Orwell took “scientific socialism” to be little more than the guiding hand of elite ideologues dictating social policies from on high in ways that didn't work for the interests of the masses, kind of like Lenin and his merry band of murderous thugs had done. Look how that turned out. He was convinced such an approach would, at best, and as usual, only convert a few high-brow fellow travelers. Nothing more. At worst, it would lead to authoritarianism. This would never be enough to provoke real change.

But Orwell had no policy prescriptions of his own yet, just a book of eloquent outrage and frustration at the injustice of it all. Today, we might say he did an excellent job of "raising awareness" about the ugly exploitation of crony capitalism, but not much more. Raising awareness is different from advocating for specific reforms. Ideally, it's a prelude to change; at worst, it's the lazy activist's excuse to talk endlessly and do nothing. Orwell would get more specific later, but he wasn't quite there yet. He was only "raising awareness." Therefore, it’s fair to say Gollancz was right in 1936: Orwell's politics was "emotional socialism."

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So let's call this Orwell's early phase of socialism: impressionistic, evolving, passionate, but light on the details about a better way forward. Like "raising awareness," pointing out the flaws in a system is far easier than implementing genuine reforms. Everyone has an opinion. Solutions? Not so much. Orwell was no different in 1936. That said, he was no lazy activist happy to leave it at that and move on.

No, that would not do.

As he sat down to write The Road to Wigan Pier, events elsewhere caught his attention. In 1936, civil war erupted in Spain between the left-leaning Republic and General Franco's right-wing rebels. Orwell didn’t hesitate. He signed up to fight fascism.


Orwell Finds True Democratic Socialism (Sort Of) -1937

In December 1936, Orwell enlisted in the P.O.U.M (the Worker's Party of Marxist Unification), a semi-independent, anarcho-socialist faction supporting the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

After his dispiriting experience in Wigan, Orwell's first impressions of Catalonia were inspiring.

In the north of England, he found a beaten down and submissive working class without the political consciousness to imagine something better; in Catalonia, he encountered what appeared to be a proto-socialist society functioning behind the front lines.

"In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilized life—snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc.—had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as his master. Of course such a state of affairs could not last. It was simply a temporary and local phase in an enormous game that is being played over the whole surface of the earth. But it lasted long enough to have its effect upon anyone who experienced it" (Homage to Catalonia).

He was right; it could not last. Orwell visited Barcelona three times, in December, April, and June, during his seven months in Spain, including 115 days of trench fighting on the Aragon front. He watched as the revolutionary solidarity he’d first seen slowly disintegrated into factional infighting.

Tensions between leftwing militias caused a civil war within the civil war. During the April visit, he participated in street battles between socialist and communist factions. It turned out the proto-socialist paradise Orwell marveled at upon his arrival was an untenable bubble of reality, unable to survive the brutality of a society descending into political chaos.

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In May, Orwell returned to the front where a sniper shot him in the neck ten days later. After this brush with death, he spent the next month convalescing and trying to get his exit papers to leave Spain. He came to fight fascists, not die in a pointless dispute between parties on his own side. The last visit to Barcelona in June was a close call. By then, the Republican government had outlawed the P.O.U.M and was conducting a brutal purge with the support of its communist allies.

It was a bloodbath. P.O.U.M's leaders were arrested and tortured; many of its rank-and-file members were executed, not by Franco's fascists, as it turns out, but by their own side. P.O.U.M's leader, Andres Nin, was arrested, tortured, and murdered (Sheldon 322). Orwell barely escaped with his life, fleeing Spain with his wife ahead of an arrest warrant. Had he been caught, his story might have ended here.

After returning to England, he lamented to a friend, "To think that we started off as heroic defenders of democracy and only six months later were Trotsky-Fascists sneaking over the border with the police on our heels" (Sheldon 338).

Orwell spent the next few years trying to figure out what went wrong in Spain. True democratic socialism had started to take root, only to be crushed by the government on whose side they were fighting. Orwell's next book, Homage to Catalonia, offers a first-hand account of his experiences without providing much political analysis. After all, he viewed events from the confusing vantage of the soldier in the trenches, not a politician. This was the book's strength but also its weakness.

The political machinations and infighting that consumed his own side were confusing for outsiders like him to understand. In Homage to Catalonia, you can sense his frustration: "Why can't we drop all this political nonsense and get on with the war?"

Why indeed?

Instead, he found an alphabet soup of parties in Spain fighting for the Republican cause and against each other. "As for the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names—P.S.U.C., P.O.U.M., F.A.I., C.N.T., U.G.T., J.C.I., J.S.U., A.I.T.—they merely exasperated me" (Homage to Catalonia). This was, of course, the problem. Each of these parties pursued its own agenda and divided loyalties. Supporting the government and defeating Franco were not always the top priorities. This was not a recipe for victory.

Stalin had decided that backing the liberal regime in Spain was the only way to defeat Franco, and thus was willing to ally himself with the center-left Republican regime. It desperately needed the Soviet Union's material support to counter Franco's German and Italian allies on the other side. Therefore, the government's attempt to reassert central control was probably necessary if it wanted any chance at turning the tide of a conflict in which it was slowly losing territory.

Franco's armies were united under one banner with the material backing of Hitler and Mussolini. The fascists operated under a unified command while the Republic was trying to herd cats. Wars are not won by fractured factions killing each other, and this was no exception.

The best summary of Orwell's time in Spain is that he fought for a lost cause (P.O.U.M) within a lost cause (the Republic).

Two lessons emerged from this experience that further evolved his socialism.

First was the evidence that genuine socialism was possible. Orwell had glimpsed it in those heady early days in Barcelona. Finally, he thought, here was a living example of democratic socialism!

Here was proof that a society run collectively and from the bottom up might function, not just in theory but in practice, where everyone was equal and social hierarchies and class distinctions didn't exist.

As discussed above, this was more an illusion than reality, an exception that would not persist, and deep down Orwell knew it, but it was an illusion he latched onto afterward. Seeing the Catalonians practicing a rudimentary version of democratic socialism, if only for a few tragic months, shaped Orwell's politics going forward.

Second, he first witnessed the ruthless tactics the Left was willing to employ to achieve its goals. In an article he published shortly after his return, Orwell concluded that the Spanish Republic "has more points of resemblance to Fascism than points of difference" (Sheldon).

The communist idealism of the post-Russian Revolution years gave way to the cynical pursuit of power for its own sake. This manifested itself in Spain.

Stalin wanted what was good for the Soviet Union. Good old realpolitik drove policy, not ideology, which was the case in Spain. Means overtook ends, making political violence a tool for taking and then maintaining power rather than as a temporary expedient on the road to a peaceful socialist future. Here were planted the seeds for Nineteen Eighty-Four's Oceania, where brute force exists for no other reason than to perpetuate the regime.

Orwell lamented, "When I left Barcelona in late June the jails were bulging; indeed, the regular jails had long since overflowed and the prisoners were being huddled into empty shops and any other temporary dump that could be found for them. But the point to notice is that the people who are in prison now are not Fascists but revolutionaries; they are there not because their opinions are too much to the Right, but because they are too much to the Left. And the people responsible for putting them there are those dreadful revolutionaries…— the Communists" (From the essay, Spilling the Spanish Beans, 1937).

After returning to England, Orwell struggled to find a publisher for Homage to Catalonia. The left-wing press didn't want to hear how the fight against fascism had devolved into in-fighting and ruthless purges puppeteered by that paragon of communist virtue, the Soviet Union. That didn't fit the narrative about how the International Left was united under Russian leadership in its fight against fascism. Orwell began to understand the danger of the Left's blind loyalty to communism, though he didn't see this as the biggest threat in the late thirties. That came later.

More looming threats darkened England's skies in 1939 and 1940. Hitler was on the offensive and seemed unstoppable.


Orwell’s Mature Socialism - 1940-1945

In June of 1940, France fell like a rotten oak while the remnants of the outmatched British Army evacuated from Dunkirk. A few months later, the Germans began a terror bombing campaign to pound England into submission. Defeat appeared possible by the end of the year.

This existential threat to England provoked a curious response from Orwell. In a 1941 essay, The Lion and the Unicorn, he argued that love of country was a valid reason for supporting the war. This was a major realignment for him. His pre-war political writing pulled no punches when it came to criticizing England and its flawed institutions: The Road to Wigan Pier, for example. Now, in its moment of need, he came to England’s defense. What was the alternative, after all? Nazi jackboots marching through Piccadilly? That was not an option. Despite its many flaws, England was worth saving.

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"And above all, it is your civilization, it is you. However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time. The suet puddings and the red pillar-boxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you" (The Lion and the Unicorn).

Given the threat England faced, Orwell embraced a slightly guilty form of patriotism which he made complementary to his socialism. He didn't see this as turning him into a right-wing conservative. This might seem contradictory to the modern reader used to a different reality, but it wasn't. Then, as now, the Left often mocks patriotism as the flag-waving fetish of wannabe-fascists or rural huckleberries. Orwell was aware of this perception and addressed it.

"Patriotism has nothing to do with Conservatism. It is actually the opposite of Conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same. It is the bridge between the future and the past. No real revolutionary has ever been an internationalist" (Essays 180).

Put another way, there's no place like home. He understood something the Left often forgets in its crusader zeal for universal social and economic justice: love of one's homeland can be a powerful glue to bind all classes together in a crisis. Nothing else comes close in a free society. Not some generic appeal to social justice for the poor and marginalized. No, that won't do it. Too abstract. Nor will some performative calls for solidarity against international corporate capitalism. That might feel good, but it does nothing, accomplishes nothing, changes nothing.

But patriotism? Now that could unify a nation like nothing else, at least under the right circumstances. Such was the case in 1940 when Britain stood alone against Germany. Rich and poor, white and blue collar, educated and semi-literate, and even one Eric Blair, a.k.a. George Orwell, all rallied to the flag against the common foe trying to bomb them all into oblivion.

Nothing unites "Us" like a villainous "Them." Same as it always was. Same as it always will be.

This is a fascinating point by Orwell and one largely forgotten today. But don't overestimate the scope of his ambitions here. He was only arguing for a brand of patriotic English socialism, nothing more. What made England unique couldn't be transplanted elsewhere. As he saw it, even after a socialist revolution, England could keep the monarchy, a free press would prosper, and people would continue respecting broadly Christian values. English socialism "will never lose touch with the tradition of compromise and the belief in a law that is above the State" (The Lion and the Unicorn).

Orwell believed the war would destroy capitalism and accelerate the advent of this English socialist transformation. "We cannot win the war without introducing Socialism, nor establish Socialism without winning the war" (The Lion and the Unicorn). He was right. By 1942, no one wanted a return to the pre-1939 status quo of capitalism that only worked for the few. Look where this got England. That world was dead now. Hitler ironically killed it. The necessities of total war were burning away the old order Orwell encountered at Wigan only a few years before. What was left was a society unified in a fight for its very existence.

Hitler did that too.

"The fact that we are at war has turned Socialism from a textbook word into a realisable policy. The inefficiency of private capitalism has been proved all over Europe. Its injustice has been proved in the East End of London. Patriotism, against which the Socialists fought so long, has become a tremendous lever in their hands. People who at any other time would cling like glue to their miserable scraps of privilege, will surrender them fast enough when their country is in danger. War is the greatest of all agents of change. It speeds up all processes, wipes out minor distinctions, brings realities to the surface" (The Lion and the Unicorn).

The crisis created a unique opportunity. But what was to be done? For Orwell, the time was ripe to transition England to socialism. How might that happen? In The Lion and the Unicorn, Orwell finally goes into some depth.

First, here is his definition of socialism:

"Socialism is usually defined as "common ownership of the means of production". Crudely: the State, representing the whole nation, owns everything, and everyone is a State employee. This does not mean that people are stripped of private possessions such as clothes and furniture, but it does mean that all productive goods, such as land, mines, ships and machinery, are the property of the State. The State is the sole large-scale producer. It is not certain that Socialism is in all ways superior to capitalism, but it is certain that, unlike capitalism, it can solve the problems of production and consumption" (The Lion and the Unicorn).

He wanted a form of democratic socialism that would persist over the long term, unlike the ephemeral and doomed experiment he'd witnessed in Catalonia. Here we get even more detail about Orwell's version of socialism. And in case one has any doubt, here are Orwell's own words on what he was aiming at:

"The general tendency of this programme is unmistakable. It aims quite frankly at turning this war into a revolutionary war and England into a Socialist democracy" (The Lion and the Unicorn).

Orwell's socialism had several tenets, which he spelled out at the end of The Lion and the Unicorn.

1. Equalization of incomes: the difference between the highest and lowest tax-free incomes would not exceed ten to one.

2. Nationalization of the economy, including land, mines, factories, and banks.

3. Political democracy, but with everyone having an equal voice in governing.

4. Abolition of all hereditary privileges (elimination of class differences).

5. Democratization of education: everyone gets a quality education.

6. A ruling class representing a cross-section of society, not just wealthy, Oxford-educated elites.

- The Lion and the Unicorn

These were the bare minimum he felt necessary to prevent the reappearance of an exploiting class system in England. There could be no collective ownership of the economy unless everyone lived on roughly equal terms. The rich could not buy back their privilege. They could never again use their wealth to take and institutionalize power.

What happened?

Britain, allied with the United States and the Soviet Union, defeated the Axis and exterminated fascism in Europe as a political option. Only totalitarian communism remained, but it had superpower status by 1945. Britain won, it is true, and yet was the biggest loser of the allied winners. It was exhausted and debt-ridden after six years of conflict. Its economy was in shambles, rationing continued for several years after the war, and its colonial empire began unraveling, starting with India. The future seemed bleak.

And for Orwell too. His health began failing after the war as he struggled to complete his magnum opus, Nineteen Eighty-Four. The revolutionary window the war provided passed without any immediate transformations. The existential threat was gone, and any momentum for an Orwellian socialist revolution went with it. Democratic socialism now seemed further than ever.


Orwell’s Socialism in his Later Years - 1945-1950

That's not entirely true. Revolution wasn't imminent, but some radical reforms were. When Orwell died in 1950, he was worried about what was ahead. The world split into two competing blocs, one led by the United States and the other by the Soviet Union: it was oligarchic capitalism versus oligarchic socialism. No third way seemed possible. Both had nuclear weapons, meaning any future world war would be the last.

Reading Nineteen Eighty-Four in this context, in a war-ravaged world where totalitarian regimes reign triumphantly, one senses the gloom of a dying idealist watching the world crumble around him. Pessimism for the future oozes from the pages of Nineteen Eighty-Four. He didn't intend this final novel as a prophecy, as many have claimed, but as a warning of what could happen if the current course was not altered.

Anything was possible.

Except for socialism, that is.

A 1947 essay, "Toward European Unity," captured his post-war mood. "A socialist today is in the position of a doctor treating an all but hopeless case." Genuine democratic socialism existed nowhere. Catalonia, where Orwell found something like it beginning to sprout, was now a decade stamped under the boot of Franco's dictatorship.

Nothing was better, and everything looked terrible.

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He predicted the world would consolidate into three unconquerable superstates, each totalitarian in nature, similar to Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia in Nineteen Eighty-Four. "The actual outlook, so far as I can calculate the probabilities, is very dark, and any serious thought should start out from that fact" (Toward a European Unity).

In retrospect, Orwell's gloom and doom were understandable but not entirely warranted. The future was not as bleak as he predicted. A third way did emerge.

By the late 1940s, Orwell's kind of democratic socialism was no longer the outlier it had been before the war. The Overton Window shifted to the left between 1939-1945. War did not make socialism inevitable, but it made far-left reforms politically feasible to an extent unimaginable in 1938.

In 1942, Churchill's Conservative government produced the Beveridge Report, offering a preview of the post-war welfare state. Like Orwell, even the Conservatives understood that returning to the pre-war status quo was not an option. The goal of the Beveridge Report was to eradicate poverty and chronic unemployment by erecting a comprehensive welfare state. Moreover, the Fabian Society, a socialist think tank advocating for the peaceful implementation of socialism, called for nationalizing England's industries and banks (Mathhij 54-56). These all broadly coincided with Orwell's own views.

In the summer of 1945, the Conservatives under Churchill were voted out by the war-weary electorate. The Labour Party took over for the first time since its crushing defeat in 1931. Labour's 1945 Party Manifesto reads as if Orwell himself wrote it. It's a stunning document, showing how far to the left Labour intended to take English society, all while staying within the parameters of parliamentary democracy.

From the Labour Party Manifesto:

"Does freedom for the profiteer mean freedom for the ordinary man and woman, whether they be wage-earners or small business or professional men or housewives? Just think back over the depressions of the 20 years between the wars, when there were precious few public controls of any kind and the Big Interests had things all their own way. Never was so much injury done to so many by so few. Freedom is not an abstract thing. To be real it must be won, it must be worked for." (Manifesto 1945)

Soon after taking power, Labour nationalized the iron, steel, fuel, and power industries, including those deplorable coal mines Orwell visited. So were the nation's transportation networks, including air travel, roads, and rail. The government also nationalized the Bank of England. The list goes on: a National Health Service (NHS) was established and still exists today, the envy of American progressives who want something similar. Reforms democratized learning, so everyone now received a quality education, not just those with money.

Most of the socialist reforms Orwell called for in 1941 were realized in the years after the war. As he predicted, the war made this political realignment possible. Both major parties accepted the existence of this vast welfare state until an economic crisis forced change in the late 1970s. Nevertheless, Orwell didn't think it went far enough at the time; it was merely reform by the same out-of-touch elites as usual and not any socialist revolution led by the working classes that he had hoped for. What could be given by the elites could someday be taken away again. The rise of Thatcherism in the 1980s lent some truth to this concern.

Yet the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four also didn’t come to pass. Not even close. Instead, we witnessed the rise of the modern welfare state all across the free world, including Britain. Better known as social democracy, each country found a symbiotic synthesis of socialism and capitalism under the aegis of democracy. Obviously, capitalism wasn't "manifestly finished," as Orwell predicted, but became the engine to fund social programs. This became the postwar blueprint for prosperity everywhere and has been fabulously successful at creating levels of flourishing never seen before.

One wonders what Orwell would have made of all this.


Works Cited

Black, Jeremy. A History of Britain: 1945 to Brexit. Indiana University Press, 2017.

ProQuest Ebook Central,

Matthijs, Matthias. Ideas and Economic Crises in Britain from Attlee to Blair (1945-2005). Taylor and Francis, 2012.

ProQuest Ebook Central,

Meyers, Jeffrey. Orwell Life and Art. University of Illinois Press, 2010.

ProQuest Ebook Central,

Newsinger, John. If There Is Hope: George Orwell and the Left. Pluto Press, 2018.

Orwell, George, and Sonia Orwell. An Age Like This 1920-1940. Vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1968.

Orwell, George, and Sonia Orwell. As I Please, 1943-1945. Vol. 3, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.

Orwell, George, and Sonia Orwell. In Front of Your Nose 1945-1950. Vol. 4, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc, 1968.

Orwell, George, and Sonia Orwell. My Country Left or Right 1940-1943. Vol. 2, Harcourt, 1968.

Orwell, George. All Art Is Propaganda. Mariner Books, 2021.

Orwell, George. George Orwell: Essays. Sanage Publishing.

Kindle Edition

Orwell, George. The Complete Works of George Orwell. SHJBOOX.

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Shelden, Michael. Orwell: The Authorized Biography. HarperPerennial, 1992.


Winchester, Virginia

March 2023


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