Homage to the Future
I’m currently re-reading George Orwell’s best book Homage to Catalonia. It’s one of those books I re-read every few years.
I came across this lovely, compact, resonant passage:
I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality. In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy ‘proving’ that Socialism means no more than a planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the ‘mystique’ of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all.
Orwell saw the essential nature of Stalin’s Russia better even than Trotsky. A state-capitalist bureaucracy, with the role of private capitalists taken instead by an equally-exploitative class of managers. He also saw that Stalin’s Russia was not socialist, since the essence of socialism is the abolition of an exploiting class, not its replacement by a new set of exploiters.
However, what I love most about this quote is that Orwell is writing in 1937 about Stalinists, but it applies today to the ideological commissars of capitalism. Fox News, Thomas Friedman, etc, etc, et-bloody-c. All the corporate goons and mainstream ideologues (all of them far more reminiscent of old-style Stalinist hacks, apologists and party-men than they’d ever dream possible) endlessly telling us that Socialism is the religion of state ownership, state control, state regimentation of the individual, etc.
They tell us this to scare us away – not away from socialism, of which they affect to live in fear but which they secretly regard (wrongly, as history will hopefully show) as a busted flush – but away from ANY criticism, even the mildest bit of reformism, of corporate neoliberalism.
Their bogey is the authoritarianism of old Russia or China… and yet their world of corporate-rule is eerily like such tyrannies. Corporations are utter tyrannies; pyramidal command structures with little or no internal democracy, scarce accountability, no levers by which the public may control them, the ability and willingness to use violence to defend themselves, etc.
Just as the Stalinized Soviet Union wanted its acolytes and fellow travellers and useful idiots to believe that socialism meant state control, so do today’s ultra-capitalist thinkpriests… and for exactly the same reason, only in moral photo-negative. The Stalinist argument was: if state control is socialism, then Stalinism is socialism, ergo Stalinism is good. The neoliberal argument is: if state control is socialism, and socialism was Stalinism, then any state control over capital is Stalinism, ergo state control of any kind of evil.
These arguments are clones of each other, wearing different suits. And both are the purest cant, invented by tyrannies for the justification of tyranny.
September 21, 2012 @ 5:37 am
It's a shame he didn't apply this insight to his later stuff, Animal Farm or 1984 etc. Totalitarian theory is an empty vessel, filled with all sorts of bourgeois swill. Today he's the ruling class's House Red.
It is only supposition, but I really wonder if the ruling class think socialism's a busted flush. Why spend all that time and effort trying to head off an impossibility?
I suspect the most clearheaded among them only think they are buying time from an inevitable result. The 30s (and Orwell) are a case in point. By the end of the decade no one believed in private property, hence so many young bourgeois fell in love with Stalinism and Russia, a force that seemed so vital at the time.
September 21, 2012 @ 6:00 am
"Totalitarian theory is an empty vessel, filled with all sorts of bourgeois swill. Today he's the ruling class's House Red."
I agree. Totalitarian Theory allows people like the ‘anti-totalitarian’ left and the French ‘New Philosophers’ to argue for imperialist wars waged by America, the UK and NATO, on the grounds that their opponents are ‘totalitarian’ and are therefore akin to the powerful states that created the Gulag and the death camps. It's a strand of humanitarian intervention.
But I'm not sure how directly one can blame Orwell for this. Animal Farm and 1984 shouldn't be seen as 'last testaments'. He just happened to die before he wrote any more books. I don't think his commitment to democratic socialism (as he understood it) was diminished by his critique of totalitarianism.
The big mistake in 1984 is the drift away from the idea that Stalinism was a kind of state capitalism and the drift towards the idea that totalitarianism is a distinct form of society ('oligarchical collectivism')… though its notable that the sections which appear to offer this analysis are from Goldstein's book, which was actually written by the Party, or so O'Brien claims. It'd be darkly amusing to think that 'Totalitarian Theory' was influenced by a fiction within a fiction, a misleading analysis written by a fictional totalitarian Party.
As for the ruling class' view of socialism… maybe there an extent to which Orwell's concept of doublethink is useful here (as I think it's useful in many contexts beyond 'totalitarian' societies). It may be a basic tool of thought in all class society. The rulers need to simultaneously be ruthlessly pragmatic and also believe their own cant. Hence our modern right-wing ideologues, sincerely believing that Obamacare is equivalent to Stalinism while also knowing that they are manipulating the facts to make a mild (largely cynical) gesture towards socialised medicine sound like it's being run from the Lubyanka.
September 23, 2012 @ 3:21 am
I keep telling myself I need to go over some Orwell again. His non fiction is a fairly mixed experience. The Lion and the Unicorn is fairly batty. The only people remember it is because he wrote it, although give him his due I don't think anyone else has tried to prognosticate on revolution in modern Britain.
As for the rest of it there seems to be limitless room for parodies of sandal wearing vegetarians and gimlet-eyed communists. It's partly the source, I think, of left-wing intellectual party scorn, a cheap bit of custom where lefty writers are critical both of the right and the left… but mostly the left. When he gets to a positive of the time he seems to be explaining the benefits of socialism to his own class, which, give him his due, were the people who bought books back then.
But then there's Homage to Catalonia, and Down and Out…
September 23, 2012 @ 5:26 pm
They have been "buying time from an inevitable result" for several tens of thousands of years so far.
September 23, 2012 @ 6:03 pm
Humans only started domesticating plants about 12,000 years ago.
September 24, 2012 @ 11:28 am
All together now: This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius!
September 25, 2012 @ 3:07 am
Really? How could things have gone so wrong so quickly?