Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Notes For December 15th, 2009

This Day In History

On December 15th, 1936, the legendary British writer George Orwell (the pseudonym of Eric Blair) delivered the completed manuscript for his famous non-fiction book, The Road To Wigan Pier (1937), before leaving for Spain to help fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War.

The Road To Wigan Pier was Orwell's account of life in Wigan, a poor coal mining town in Northern England. To research his book, Orwell lived like one of the locals, in a dirty rented room above a tripe shop. He met many Wiganers, took extensive notes on the living conditions and wages, explored the mine, and spent days in the library, researching public health records, working conditions in mines, and other data.

The resulting book is divided into two parts; the first part is a straightforward documentary on life in Wigan. The second part is a philosophical treatise that asks and attempts to answer a question: if socialism can improve the appalling conditions in Wigan and towns like it around the world, then why aren't we all socialists?

George Orwell was a lifelong socialist, and he believed that socialism could indeed improve the condition of towns like Wigan. Why then was socialism not universally accepted? Orwell believed that the ferocious prejudice of the middle class against people whom they associate with socialism, such as the lower class poor, people of certain races, intellectuals, atheists and agnostics, libertines, hippies (or sandal-wearers, as Orwell called them) pacifists, feminists, and other such undesirables, was the reason. He summed it up in his famous quote, "The ordinary man may not flinch from a dictatorship of the proletariat, if you offer it tactfully; offer him a dictatorship of the prigs, and he gets ready to fight."

Orwell would later become famous for his novels Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), both of which were brilliant allegorical satires of Stalinism. Animal Farm was a modern cautionary fable, while Nineteen Eighty-Four was a work of dystopic science fiction. In the years since their publication, the radical right in the United States and Europe embraced these novels as the bibles of anti-communism. George Orwell became their hero, and this gave way to a misconception that Orwell had been a staunch conservative - perhaps even a fascist - although he was actually a socialist.

Why then did Orwell write his famous novels? During the Spanish Civil War, Orwell fought alongside the POUM, (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista - the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification) which was allied with Britain's Labour Party, of which he was a member. The POUM was one of several leftist factions which had formed a loose coalition to fight General Franco's fascists. Another member of this coalition was the Spanish Communist Party, which was controlled by the Soviet Union.

At the Soviets' insistence, the Spanish Communist Party denounced the POUM as a Trotskyist organization and falsely claimed that they were in cahoots with the fascists. Near the end of the war, the POUM was outlawed, and the Spanish Communist Party began attacking its members. Tragically, this infighting would break apart the coalition, giving the fascists the opportunity to win the war. Orwell was wounded in action, shot in the throat by a sniper. While he recovered in a POUM hospital, he had a lot of time to think, and he came to hate Soviet communism.

The lesson Orwell teaches us in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four is that even an ideal as noble as socialism can become corrupted and twisted into something far worse than the ills it seeks to cure. And yet, he remained a lifelong socialist and always hoped for a better world than the one of poverty, despair, and apathy that he experienced while researching and writing The Road To Wigan Pier.

George Orwell died of tuberculosis in January of 1950, at the age of 46.

Quote Of The Day

"During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act." - George Orwell

Vanguard Video

Today's video features a reading from George Orwell's classic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, performed by Christina Woo during this year's Banned Books Week ceremonies. Enjoy!

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