Orwellian mischief

Orwellian mischief – the politics and psychology of an anti-Communist

by Graham Stevenson

The 1941 drawings by Gertrude Elias from her story board for a cartoon film mooted to the Ministry of Information.  Orwell briefly worked there and they knew each other. Bottom left, the 1952 version of Orwell’s Animal Farm, the idea for which Elias accuses him of plagiarising from her but inverting Nazi pigs into Soviet ones.




Orwell’s intellectual life as a socialist seemingly began with a special interest in theories on language and class and this seems to be rather significant. For there is more than a hint of middle-class guilt in Orwell; note, for example, his observation that working people “sweat their guts out [so] that superior persons can remain superior”.

Perhaps it is relevant that he conflated his own `anti-scientific-ism’ with the famous English (maybe the `Celts’ are immune from this!?) disregard for theory and saw a tenuous link there with the masses.

Yet he also deprecated the anti-intellectualism of the working class, the “life of the sense and suspicious of all forms of abstraction”. Even so, his own thought processes about capitalism appeared to have been entirely arrived at through intuition, without recourse to intensive study of facts.  

It is telling that Orwell began his acquaintance with the common man by reaching out for the `underclass’. Though some of his early work featured working people, there was little of substance on their lives. His sketches of the working class appear thin and insubstantial.

I’ve often thought that this particularly applies to his portrayal of women. Indeed, there is a case to answer that there is far too much misogyny, in tone at least, in Orwell’s creative writing, even if he publicly and often attacked those who do not support the emancipation of women. But then this is a man who, in private life, was intrigued by the paranormal but did not advertise the fact and few of his socialist admirers are aware of this.  

A psychological take on Orwell does not need to be elaborated to see that his work reeks of what popular psychologists call “Mummy and Daddy issues”! As is well-known, Eric Blair, the true name of the writer, was actually born in India. His father stayed there whilst the boy lived with his mother and sister in England. His mother supported the suffrage movement and was key to his development of a social conscience.

But it is the fairly commonly known phrase of `reverse psychology’ that seems more than anything else to apply to Orwell. The essence of this is the notion that when Person A claims support for a behaviour to Person B, who is liable to reverse manipulation (usually a child since they are very prone to this), this must be opposite to the actual behaviour desired by Person A if Person B is to do what is actually desired.

What’s actually going on is the psychological phenomenon of `reactance’, whereby someone has a negative emotional response to being persuaded, and thus chooses the direct opposite of the proposed course.  The basic dishonesty of the approach, which has been linked in the long term to unhealthy responses where applied as a parenting technique, has considerably tarnished the attraction of using reverse pyschology in this way.

But the tendency to reactance, the dynamic in reverse psychology, in adults is well-identified as a not-uncommon form of behaviour. It is one that is not normally to a person’s own benefit, or even consistent with their own beliefs. It arises simply because the person so actively avoids doing anything that other people want them to that they end up doing the opposite of what you might expect them to otherwise do and say.

It is suggested here that Orwell was so like a reactive personality that it is a useful tool to understand his literary aims. Reactance can cause some people to act so hard in opposition to the aims of others that they end up undermining what it was in the first place they thought they themselves wanted. In doing this, their counter-productive reactance can be entirely non-conscious and arises simply because they believe that someone or some people are trying to manipulate them into a particular course. Fairly recent research suggests that reactance is related to the anger response, whereby the individual has hostile feelings more aimed at the source of a perceived threat than at the message itself.

Famously, Eric Blair rejected his education and upbringing after trying to conform by preparing for the civil service and actually spending five years as a policeman in Burma. He gave it all up to work as a dish-washer in Paris and to write – the rest is the stuff of the Orwellian myth.

Getting back to misogyny, near death, Orwell wrote in a notebook a segment that may recall his own life, in describing how a small boy gains insight into the world through the women of his family: “he derived a firm impression that women did not like men”. [Bernard Crick `George Orwell – a life’, Penguin (1980) p67] It is not too much of a stretch to infer that Orwell, in classic novelist mode transforming a real notion or experience of one’s own life into something else that is fictional, inverted the notion in his own life.

Maybe, a small boy wonders, it is acceptable for some men not to like women? We will come back to this theme of inversion, which seems to mark Orwell. Was it not his mother who sent him to school away from home, since men always worked? In one of his novels, `Keep the Aspidistra Flying’, he writes for his anti-hero a line redolent of his own school days as a relatively un-monied pupil in a sea of rich boys: “Probably the greatest cruelty one can inflict on a child is to send it to school amongst children richer than itself”.

Perhaps it is in these self-revelatory flashes that we can trace Orwell’s deep and insidious misogyny? Something else that came to myself, even as a young boy reading him for the first time, without understand why it was, was what I can only describe as his through-going contempt for the real lives of the working class. The nature of the working class has much changed in more than half a century, so some may argue the toss on that aspect. But, though the lives of women have also much changed, a Marxist-feminist case against Orwell exists but has not been widely extended to public consideration. In the case of his two most well known works, `Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and `Animal Farm’, creative work by women may have provided more than an element of inspiration to him. Work which he may have `borrowed’, without crediting the original authors, both women, and inverted into what we think of his own originality.


`Swastika Night’ by “Murray Constantine” was published in both 1937 and again, by Left Book Club, in 1940. The real name of the author was Katherine Burdekin – yes, a woman! (Her identity did not emerge publicly until the 1980s.) It is a story of the nightmarish world that would result from a Nazi and Axis Powers victory.  Burdekin provides a proto-feminist critique of fascism. In many ways, her novel bears striking similarities to Orwell’s novel `Nineteen Eighty-Four’, published twelve years later. Read only with the emotions and not the intellect, a feminine take on the world is discernible to many.


All the key ideas in `Nineteen Eighty-Four’ are there. Most obviously, the meaning of words are twisted, only propaganda books exist, and access to dangerously held secret books gives clues to the truth; whilst all documents from the past have been destroyed so that the Nazi version of history is all that remains. Turning Burdekin’s book on its head, results in Orwell providing a masculine critique of real-existing socialism by making similar accusations. Little wonder that the most obviously untrue depictions in his book are of women.


Almost in homage to Burdekin, Margaret Attwood’s `The Handmaid’s Tale’(1985) is a modern feminist dystopian novel, written, she has said, because she found `Nineteen Eighty-Four’ so unsatisfactory, especially given her view of its misogyny. Set in the near future, she described a North American totalitarian theocracy. Women are subjugated in a semi-Biblical manner.


An analysis of all this is contained in “The Orwell Mystique: Study in Male Ideology” by Daphne Patai; this is not well liked by Orwell scholars. But her argument seems flawless. Although these critiques are not yet generally accepted by the literary establishment, they are at least known of. Yet even Patai does not know of a less well-known case that exists, affecting understanding of the genesis of `Animal Farm’.


The Austrian Marxist who settled in Britain, Gertrude Elias, in her 1994 personal memoir, “The Suspect Generation – My Life, My Time, My Work”, has provided the most convincing account of Orwell’s congenital plagiarism.


Gertrude had been born on November 5th 1913 in Vienna, then the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her father was a left-wing Jewish lawyer who took on the cases of poor people for nothing. She studied art at college but began industrial design work, for knitwear initially, whilst still studying.  Although she had already begun to work in Britain, after her father died, she fully left Austria for good due to the political situation in 1937.


The graphic designer and cartoonist explains in her memoirs that, in January 1941, she designed eight full-page colour cartoons depicting the political issues associated with Nazism “in the realm of animals” with the Nazis portrayed as pig characters ruling a farm in a kind of dysfunctional fairy story. The nature of the characterisation owed much to her own and her family’s suffering at the hands of the Nazi regime.


Gertrude sent the portfolio to the Ministry of Information, suggesting a film cartoon based on the ideas in the form of a fable, intended as a kind of story board. After a few weeks they were returned to her with a rejection slip via the BBC, where Orwell worked. Having claimed to her that there was not much call for her idea, disappointing her into further inaction, Orwell later changed the pig-nazis to Communists and made the Soviet Union a target for his hostility, turning Gertrude’s notion on its head. (Gertrude illustrated a children’s novel in 1943, `Secret Service!’ and went on to become a clothes designer)


Although it has to be said that there is no categorical evidence that Orwell pinched Gertrude Elias’ ideas, when `Animal Farm’ was published only a few years after her rejection by the BBC, Elias was dismayed to note that her satirical fable-esque note was echoed in Orwell’s book and that “the similarity of the character of our animals was striking”. The main difference was that her imagery had been anti-Nazi, Orwell’s anti-communist. Orwell had begun the work on his book whilst at the BBC from 1941 to 1943.


Elias’ 1941 cartoons were unknown to the world until she displayed them at a 1975 UN Decade for Women exhibition. She noted not only the irony of “what extent men had exploited women’s ideas in their own works” but how many commentators were struck by the transformation of Orwell from a rather sombre social commentator into light-hearted fantasy. Moreover, it was considered odd that this could have occurred to him during a time when the Soviet Union and its Red Army was at the height of its popularity. To Elias, it was always obvious that this was not a case of great minds thinking alike; she was convinced that Orwell had seen her cartoons when he was at the BBC. The fact that Elias’ 1994 book was only read in leftist circles and does not seem to have been cited in studies of Orwell is disappointing.


It is worth making a few asides at this point. Amazingly, though Orwell had been under MI5 surveillance in the 1930s, no objections were raised by them when he was employed by the BBC, or even when he was made a war correspondent. This was most unusual; Communists and Daily Worker reporters found such roles almost impossible to achieve. Orwell had declared his absolute support for the notion that the state should police the BBC in his job interview; he was recommended for a job provided “the college” would agree. Now, what could that college be?!


Orwell’s now rather famous list of 38 alleged Communists, whittled down from 135 names, was given by him to the Foreign Office at a meeting he held there in 1949. The story only really came out a few years ago by accident, though archives have now been released to confirm what happened.


At some point in the mid-to late 1940s, he had begun a notebook in which he worked out tried to work key figures who were members, what he called `agents’, fellow travellers and “sentimental sympathizers”. His contact at the FO’s so-called `Information Research Department, which functioned all during the Cold War as a link to those fighting militancy in trade union, was a woman who he, at the least, entertained passions for. (It has been suggested she was a model for the promiscuous `Julia’ in Nineteen-Eighty-Four.) A case can be made that this spying was marginal even silly, if unpleasant. But, given the intense connections between the BBC and the security forces at the time, those who would argue that Orwell is a writer in himself being symbolic of independence and honesty must find it hard to note his collaboration with the state’s bureaucratic department of propaganda and dirty tricks.


Undoubtedly, at this point, minds should turn to what on earth it was that motivated Orwell, beyond, perhaps, the obvious influences of his upbringing.  For he certainly had a “deep nostalgia for the England of his boyhood”; arguably, the geographical term is precise – and its implicit link with the empire.   Yet, it was Orwell’s youthful experience in Burma that first turned him, wasn’t it?  And was not this ex-public school boy famously intolerant of the sudden progressivism of others of such a background in his generation?


Orwell is well known for a savagely attack in print on the Communist poets group of Auden, Spender and Day Lewis of supporting the USSR in a kind of displaced patriotism. Famously, their romantic attachment to the cause of Spain and by extension to Communism was fleeting. But Orwell went after them by simply inverting an earlier Communist critique of the reactionary modernism of the new writers of the immediate post-war period, rather than himself finding a prescient insight. We will come back to this tendency to co-opt the ideas of others in a distorted way. E P Thompson later took issue with Orwell in a famous essay since the latter’s assault merely paved the way for Cold War rhetoric.


There’s a strong sense in which these `literary’ assaults are a reflection of another common human foible – that of projection. It will be recalled that this device of the mind arises when an individual wishes to repress what they know are uncomfortable ideas in themselves and do so by assigning them to a convenient target, whether the dysfunction is truly held by these persons or not. It’s a way to be self-deceiving whilst conveying a sense of being brutally honest. And that’s if the impulse is honest!


In another case, in 1943, Orwell savagely and personally assaulted Lionel Fielden, a prominent advocate of independence of India, calling him a “lifeless hack” and a “neurotic working off a private grudge”.  There may even be those who will see such phrases as being a self-description. Either way, this vitriol was published in what was supposedly a review of Fielden’s book, “Beggar My Neighbour”, in the `Horizon’ literary magazine in September 1943. Fielden’s account of the struggle for independence was, suggested Orwell, not really desiring by Fielden even though he advocated it.


Much of this may be seen as a mark of the style that is essential Orwell; a form of argument that makes a mockery of dialectics but to the uninformed can seem like serious originality. Put simply, Orwell had acquired the habits of a propagandist but masqueraded in the clothes of a writer of substance.


Orwell’s fixedness in seeking to accuse others of what was perhaps in his own head, as a means of denying that very thing, also appears to have taken the form of the most subversive acts of homage. It is commonly said that the most sincere form of flattery is emulation; I’m not so sure! Not in the case of someone who many have sought to elevate to the heights of artistry, even genius.


It is said that “Orwell was famously contradictory in his beliefs”.  This contradiction turns out perhaps to have roots in more than simply cussedness, or “Orwellian mischief”.  His general assault on Communist politics also took contemporary Communist literary criticism and turned it on its head. Thus, the outward form of Orwellian output was tantalisingly socialist in appearance and accounts for his appeal amongst many. But the underlying substance of his work conveys a distinctly uneasy feel.


Whilst it is often said that his work is, to say the least, inconsistent, sometimes even feeling from one book to the next as if it were written by different authors. Is this a mark of a great writer, or something else, one wonders? 


His politics seemed always in a state of turmoil. Adhering to the “quasi-Trotskyist path” of the ILP put Orwell firmly in the camp of opposing a British-German conflict as being an imperialist war. But, weeks before the Communist Party went through its own policy change in 1939, Orwell went in the reverse direction himself; although he now adopted the stance that the war “could only be won if the country underwent a socialist revolution”. The extremism of this stance certainly does not accord with many a view of Orwell as a main stream persona. Though it has been suggested that, at root, Orwell was highly influenced by Communist intellectual life, the sheen off of Orwell-mania is rooted in a massive popularisation of works that possess a false patina of socialism, over-layering a more insidious side.


For Orwell simply spent most of his time regurgitating Communist ideas in a way that would help undermine them. It could be said that the mechanism for doing this appeared to be a wholesale retelling of the same ideas, turned on their head, to a much wider audience. In the end, this might be viewed as `mischievous plagiarism’. 


In his youth, Orwell was found in a field standing with his head on the floor. Seemingly, he explained: “You are noticed more if you stand on your head than if you are right way up”. One wonders if Orwell ever got over the discovery.  In addition to concerns about plagiarism from women there were too many cases where Orwell was `inspired’ to add his own spin to the original ideas of others, mostly Communist intellectuals.


Orwell’s famed interest in the need for a strategy to win the middle class, arguably a key aspect of the electoral surge of 1945, was first aired by Communist, Alec Brown. Whilst, even Orwell’s pioneering foray into nascent cultural studies, arguably in itself something of a personal achievement, was by no means unique.


There are marked similarities with the ideas of Communist writer and a major Marxist literary critic, Alick West (who, along with Christopher Caudwell and Ralph Fox, virtually invented Marxist literary criticism), on the detective story.


There are even echoes of one off the most important German cinematic theorists (a Marxist of course) in his arguments about the way that film can portray the innermost mind.


Then there are obvious resonances in his early work with Jack London’s “People of the Abyss” and in his final work with London’s “Iron Heel”. Perhaps some of these connections are not outright plagiarism and could be seen as a debt repaid to earlier masterful socialist attempts to find cultural connections with the masses. But, equally, it could be a priggish attempt to rewrite them as they `should have been’ written, in the eyes of someone who did not know that he truly had no idea what it was like to be at one with the common man?


This style of bonding of mischief with inverted and borrowed Marxist ideas might well be Orwell’s own version of dialectical materialism – Orwellian anti-Marxism – employed in such a way as to enable his skill with plain text to shine. In a way, it occurs to me that he may have seen this as being like the common man. Indeed, Orwell’s own acceptance of the “ambiguity of ideology” in popular culture may perhaps be seen as enabling him to square anti-Sovietism and anti-Communism with adherence to socialism. 


Something always seems to darken the depth of Orwell’s commitment to socialism as seen through his work.  It is in this studied `anti’ stance, as opposed to merely being a `non’, that has perhaps placed Orwell at the forefront of the list of the disliked, nay hated even, in the pantheon of dishonour of most British Communists.


There is, of course, a famous phrase referring to the way Marx turned Hegel’s ideas on their head. Orwell seems to have had this phrase as his essential modus operandi.  When, for example, Communists sought to redeem writers such as Swift, Orwell, in more widely published literary criticism, turned the “argument on its head”.  The clear conclusion has to be that, whilst he took from 1930s Marxist intellectual life, he sought to reverse its intent and in the process claimed originality for himself.


In contrast, British Communists of the mid-1930s to mid-1940s – many of whom had joined in an earlier period – sought to utilise national culture in combination with socialist realism. Such an approach inevitably and especially flowered during the Popular Front period, to Orwell’s distaste. The Cold War changed everything, including cementing Orwell into the pantheon of western `greats’ almost entirely due to the value to the American and British states of his anti-Sovietism.


Orwell and his Communist contemporaries in the cultural sphere have not had the advantage of seeing how it turned out. 1984, the year, came and went amidst the highest state expenditure yet seen given over to the repression of a strike and support for it in mining communities. Still, miners no longer “sweat their guts out so that superior persons can remain superior”, as Orwell had it. Their sons simply sit on street corners smoking crack. Big Brother would have been proud, even if his name has been taken in vain, as original drama slips from our screen to be replaced by wall-to-wall dross. Culture indeed! Ends always start with beginnings.


Britain’s public is now the most videoed nation in the world; perpetual wars invoke “terrorism” as a reason for dismantling the edifices of liberal democracy that once seemed so unchallengeable. The first steps in this move were things like the mass sackings of Communist civil servants in 1947, and the banning of Communists holding office in trade unions that began in the month that Orwell died. Perhaps he was feeling poorly since he showed no regard for English liberty by protesting at the proto-McCarthyism that led to his books being widely published and those of British Marxist writers being consigned to dusty second-hand bookshops of the kind Winston Smith might have found `interesting’. How did the totalitarian dominance of the market emerge?  How did the state slip from welfare to warfare?


Orwell did not foresee any but some things are clear. Orwell had the prejudices and tastes of his class but did not like that being so.  He disliked imperialism but had a vague faith in national stereotypes that made him a sentimental English patriot. He liked the idea of socialism but was emotive about it rather than analytical. 

Orwell’s ghost may be able to indignantly claim that he died still being a socialist, for all his mischievousness. But what kind of socialist? There will be those who will claim him for Trotskyism but, if I were from that tradition, I’d be wary of so doing. Orwell was, I’m sorry to say for those who admire him, a “Tory Socialist”.

This is a term sometimes used to describe the politics of Benjamin Disraeli, arguably, the savour of capitalism from early socialism in the 19th century.  The term conjures up someone inclined to reform but who also succumbs to sentiments associated with both conservatism and socialism and it has been applied to many Fabians. Orwell was born in 1903 and, by the time he was maturing, most of his contemporaries were either becoming attracted to rather more than this spirit, or were fiercely resisting the revolutionary tide. In his zealousness to resist the tide, Orwell could not resist trying to divert the stream into a different direction altogether – an impossible task ending only in objective support for capitalist and imperialist states.

Things have moved on since his day. From the late 1950s and early 1960s, capitalism once again found itself seriously challenged. Intriguingly, the taste for credit, consumerism, and even liberalism in the arts emerged, first in the field of the kitchen sink, began then. Even in the arena of one of Orwell’s interests, the conflict between the demotic and the handed-down, in the form of language, saw a democratisation. Why you even get TV announcers with regional accents now!


Perhaps socialist realism simply had a bad press? It sought to project the possibilities under socialism and Marxists in the 1930s were fixed on the notion that cultural health is not realisable under capitalism. Given the paucity of modern culture, maybe they had a point. I heard a model on television when writing this refer to her youth in socialist Czechoslovakia as a life of nothing – “there were no films, no music”, she said with no checking question coming form the interviewer – “what, none?”; I rather think she meant no films or music of a particular kind! 


One wonders whatever happened to cultural studies that seemed once to fascinate Marxist revisionism after Orwell. If the examples he studied, the music hall sketch and the sea-side postcard are not what they once were in this era of absolute monopoly capitalist commodification, some remnants of the form still exist.  Perhaps the modern birthday card, or the audience moods of the `X-Factor’, or `Britain’s Got Talent’ need study?!


On the one hand, the defence of the conservative imbued Orwell’s very cultural expressions, yet on the other, he seems to have resented what he saw as the grafting of ideology onto “everyday feelings”.


Orwell’s cultural influence, for better or worse – and it would mostly appear to be the latter – has been huge. In the round, it would be churlish to deny that Orwell’s spinning was generally done with style and panache. Nonetheless, I did not personally come out of any re-reading of Orwell admiring him any greater than I went into it having previously read all of his output.


For Orwell, the Communist movement produced little worthwhile literature. Perhaps Orwell died too young but this is a breathtaking claim, until one speculates on timing. Perhaps Communists were too busy in the second quarter of the 20th century?! But such a statement from the vantage point of hindsight is simply ridiculous. No good Communist writers?!! What about Nâzım Hikmet, Howard Fast, Louis Aragon, Pablo Neruda, Yiannis Ritsos, Berthold Brecht????


There are national, temporal and language reasons why Orwell would not have been familiar with many of these. But…one is drawn to think that even if he had been able to read them, he wouldn’t have thought them any good. One suspects, for Orwell, being a Communist and a talented writer was simply an oxymoron.


Despite his interest in the detective story, is it not likely that Orwell would have sought to ridicule even Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the Swedish Communist couple who, in the 60s and 70s, wrote what is widely perceived to be the most successful police procedural stories ever, in the socially-conscious Martin Beck series, which in turn inspired the more well-known and now popularised `Wallender’ approach from another Swedish Marxist.


The vast bulk of Orwell’s work, other than his most famed novels, is now hardly well known. His contrariness clearly provides much scope for alternative analysis by literary experts. But it would be interesting to see, if examining boards ever decided to drop Orwell from school syllabi, whether he would eventually end up as unread as most 19th and early 20th century progressive writers are. The fact that `Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is widely read as an anti-socialist book seemingly bothered Orwell and so it should have. Though his publisher Frederic Warburg has no such inhibitions, boasting that it was a “threat to the Soviet Union”.


However naïve or simply idiotic his activities may be seen, set against his almost malevolent life’s work of taking Communist ideas and setting them against his hated enemy – those socialists who in the final analysis really meant what they said about capitalism – Orwell, for me, is an upper middle class intellectual swallowing his class prejudices to weld himself to a working class he can never really understand, admiring expressions of working class life but never quite liking them. To be as blunt as he liked to be, he ends up as a bleedin’ arse (working class technical term) posing as a great writer … Oh, well, you pays your money and takes your choice,



A shorter version of this piece by Graham Stevenson first appeared in `Communist Review’ in 2010.