Rooted in community: Labour should listen to Orwell – less ideology, more local action

In an occasional series to run through the new year, the “Rooted in community” posts will look at those practical, local activities where Labour values are transforming peoples’ lives.

In this post, Paul Dulley gives some historical perspective looking at the importance of a community approach to one of the left’s great heroes: George Orwell

In his 1935 review of Tropic of Cancer, George Orwell praised Henry Miller’s novel for its ‘Whitmanesque enthusiasm for the process of life’, describing it as a ‘remarkable book’. It certainly was.

Published in France in 1934, the novel’s near pornographic depictions of life amongst the Parisian underclass saw it banned in America, Canada and Britain. Orwell’s own imported copy of the novel was seized by two detectives in 1938, a rather sorry letter to his publisher Victor Gollancz reveals.

What is perhaps surprising is that Orwell should have been so enamoured of this work, given Miller’s diametrically opposed view of the world. At the time of his review, Orwell was a member of no political party, and had yet to take his formative trips to Spain or the North. Nevertheless, he was becoming very proactive kind of socialist, his determination to enter unfamiliar communities and witness events for himself contrasting sharply with Miller’s brand of quietism. The one meeting between the two authors perhaps illustrates this difference more than any exposition.

Christmas, 1936. Orwell had resolved to travel to Spain, ostensibly to write war articles from a Republican perspective, but with an itch to ‘kill fascists’. He used his stopover in Paris as an opportunity to pay a fan visit to Henry Miller, who was holed up in a local hotel.

Although the meeting was a cordial one, Miller poured scorn on Orwell’s ideas about defending democracy, countering that civilization was doomed and that there was nothing that individuals like he could do about it. Nevertheless, he was impressed by Orwell’s determined self-sacrifice and, as a symbol of his blessing, gave him a corduroy jacket with which to keep warm on the front line.

What Orwell was not aware of, according to Miller’s friend and biographer, Alfred Perlès, was that he would have made the same gesture even had Orwell gone to fight for the fascists.

Reading Orwell’s 1940 essay, ‘Inside the Whale’, which treats heavily on Miller, it is hard not to detect a man wrestling with his own conscience. Orwell admired Miller’s ability to detach himself from politics, writing of life at the bottom in a way that, despite the trip to the North and the tramping expeditions to the East End, he felt he had not really achieved. For, despite his sympathy and good intentions, Orwell always believed that his accent, manners and education were the peas under the mattress, betraying his upper-middle class roots.

Ironically, it was none of these attributes that enabled Miller to write so convincingly of his experiences amongst the Parisian underclass. Miller simply had an outlook grounded in the everyday aspects of living, one that eschewed the bigger, more intractable questions. It was this that resonated with his would-be peers, and which would imbue Tropic of Cancer with its characteristic hedonism: ‘First person, uncensored, formless – fuck everything!’

Despite becoming a member of the Independent Labour Party and promoting their pacifist stance in the years leading up to the war, this attitude of virtual quietism sat uneasily with Orwell. After all, here was the man who had donned dirty clothes and dossed amongst London’s homeless, who had lived in lodging-houses and gone down mines in the North, and who had fought against Franco’s fascists, getting a bullet through the throat for his trouble. Miller had achieved the connection with the destitute that Orwell aspired to achieve, but at the price of eschewing his concern with the bigger political issues.

Nevertheless, Miller’s brand of quietism seemed to offer some hope for literature at a time when, in Orwell’s eyes, the age of totalitarian dictatorships was imminent: in the face of such events, Miller presented not what people ought to feel, but what they do feel.

Of course, the focus of Orwell’s essay is a literary one, and his concern the kind of writing that could be expected to emerge in the early, tumultuous years of World War Two. But there is also a subtext to his admiration of Miller: in difficult times, it is a practical involvement with people that matters.

It is telling that, shortly after writing ‘Inside the Whale’, Orwell gave up his affiliation with the I.L.P. and engaged with the war effort. Rejected by each of the armed forces on the grounds of his chronic ill health, he eventually joined the Local Defence Volunteers.

Having taken stock of the challenges of his age, Orwell came to the conclusion that ‘cocksure partisans telling you what to think’ could achieve little, hence his championing of Miller and renewed determination to involve himself with practicalities on the ground. For Orwell, a time like the 1930s was a time for practical engagement with the individuals and communities that mattered. He would probably feel the same today.

Paul Dulley is a teacher and has recently completed his doctoral thesis on George Orwell

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One Response to “Rooted in community: Labour should listen to Orwell – less ideology, more local action”

  1. Landless Peasant says:

    How will community action prevent the Tory scum from spending £1.3 Million of our money on Champagne for the HoC bar whilst simultaneously deliberately starving millions of poor people? Only Revolution can save us.

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