Thursday, December 15, 2011

Notes For December 15th, 2011

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 subjects.

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 improve the condition of towns like Wigan. Why then was socialism not universally accepted? Orwell believed that reason was the ferocious prejudice of the conservative white Christian middle class against the kind of people they associated with socialism.

Among these "undesirables" were the lower class poor, blacks and Jews, intellectuals, atheists and agnostics, libertines, hippies (or sandal-wearers, as Orwell called them) pacifists, feminists, and others. Orwell concluded that "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, right wingers in the United States and around the world embraced these novels as the bibles of anti-communism. George Orwell became their hero, and this gave way to a popular misconception that Orwell had been an arch conservative - perhaps even a fascist - though he was actually a staunch 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 fascist army. 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 its members 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 and give the fascists the opportunity to win the Spanish Civil 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 a Banned Books Week ceremony. Enjoy!

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