The Brilliant but Confused Radicalism of George Orwell

[This article is transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Eric Arthur Blair aka George Orwell (1903–1950)." Reprinted from Mises.org]

Eric Arthur Blair, who is best known under his pseudonym, George Orwell, was born 107 years ago this month in India, where his father was a British civil servant. His father’s job, according to Orwell biographer Gordon Bowker, “was to oversee the growing of opium, mainly for export to China.” Though young Eric’s mother had herself grown up in Burma, the daughter of yet another British civil servant, she had long since tired of Asia; and when her son was only a year old she successfully lobbied her husband to ship her and their two children — Eric and his older sister, Marjorie — back to England. Eric did not see his father again for eight years, until he was nine years old and had come home for Christmas vacation from his “prep school,” St. Cyprian’s.

Here in the States, a “prep school” is a high school; it preps — that is, it prepares — its students for college, which, on this side of the Atlantic is something that comes after high school and comprises, in effect, grades 13 through 16. In the England Eric Blair grew up in, however, a “prep school” was for children 8 to 13. What it was preparing these children for was what we would call “high school,” but what Eric grew up thinking of as “college.” College, in turn, prepared you for university.

Eric was sent to St. Cyprian’s when he was 8 years old and remained there until he was 13, whereupon he transferred for another five years to Eton College — a very famous and very expensive private high school, long favored by the British upper classes. After Eton graduated him in 1921, he never went to school again. Why? Orwell answered that question in an autobiographical essay called “Such, Such Were the Joys,” written in the early 1940s but never published until the early ’50s, a few years after his death, and then only in the United States. It was not published in England until nearly 20 years after his death.

In this essay, Orwell judged the education he had received at St. Cyprian’s to be inferior. “The whole process,” he wrote,

was frankly a preparation for a sort of confidence trick. Your job was to learn exactly those things that would give an examiner the impression that you knew more than you did know, and as far as possible to avoid burdening your brain with anything else. Subjects which lacked examination value, such as geography, were almost completely neglected, mathematics was also neglected … science was not taught in any form — indeed it was so despised that even an interest in natural history was discouraged — and even the books you were encouraged to read in your spare time were chosen with one eye on the “English paper.” Latin and Greek, the main scholarship subjects, were what counted, but even these were deliberately taught in a flashy, unsound way. We never, for example, read right through even a single book of a Greek or Latin author: we merely read short passages which were picked out because they were the kind of thing likely to be set as an “unseen translation.”

At St. Cyprian’s, Orwell remembered,

history was a series of unrelated, unintelligible but — in some way that was never explained to us — important facts with resounding phrases tied to them. Disraeli brought peace with honour. Clive was astonished at his moderation. Pitt called in the New World to redress the balance of the Old. And the dates, and the mnemonic devices. (Did you know, for example, that the initial letters of “A black Negress was my aunt: there’s her house behind the barn” are also the initial letters of the battles in the Wars of the Roses?)

He also remembered the history teacher calling out dates to the class and “the keener boys leaping up and down in their places in their eagerness to shout out the right answers” — the historical events that had taken place on those dates — “and at the same time not feeling the faintest interest in the meaning of the mysterious events they were naming.”

But worse than the pedagogical limitations of the place — in Orwell’s memory, at least — were the cruelties and brutalities it employed and encouraged among its students. Orwell remembered his years at St. Cyprian’s as like “being locked up … in a hostile world,” a world in which you had “to be perpetually on your guard against the people surrounding you. At eight years old you were suddenly taken out of this warm nest and flung into a world of force and fraud and secrecy, like a gold-fish into a tank full of pike.”

Orwell knew, of course, that not everyone’s home was really a “warm nest.” He considered his own home to be far from optimal, for once he had become reacquainted with his father, he had learned that, as he put it, “I … disliked my own father … who appeared to me simply as a gruff-voiced elderly man forever saying ‘Don’t.’” Still, he wrote, “your home might be far from perfect, but at least it was a place ruled by love rather than by fear.” For that reason alone, Orwell argued, “boarding schools are worse than day schools. A child has a better chance with the sanctuary of its home near at hand.”

School life was not only ruled by fear, it was best symbolized by the image of a soccer, or perhaps a rugby match. “Football,” he wrote,

is not really played for the pleasure of kicking a ball about, but is a species of fighting. The lovers of football are large, boisterous, nobbly boys who are good at knocking down and trampling on slightly smaller boys. That was the pattern of school life — a continuous triumph of the strong over the weak. Virtue consisted in winning: it consisted in being bigger, stronger, handsomer, richer, more popular, more elegant, more unscrupulous than other people — in dominating them, bullying them, making them suffer pain, making them look foolish, getting the better of them in every way. Life was hierarchical and whatever happened was right. There were the strong, who deserved to win and always did win, and there were the weak, who deserved to lose and always did lose, everlastingly.

One of the main ideas inculcated in students at St. Cyprians, was, as Orwell put it, “something called ‘guts’ or ‘character,’ which in reality meant the power to impose your will on others.”

The will of the headmaster of St. Cyprian’s — and the will of his wife, who ran the school with him — was imposed on the students in the form of a series of beatings — beatings administered, sometimes by the headmaster himself, sometimes by certain favored older boys who were, in effect, licensed to beat younger boys. “I … remember, more than once,” Orwell writes, “being led out of the room in the middle of a Latin sentence, receiving a beating and then going straight ahead with the same sentence, just like that.” All in all, Orwell wrote, attending St. Cyprian’s was about “as bad as [being] in an army,” but perhaps not quite as bad as being “in prison.”

After five years at St. Cyprian’s and another five years at Eton, Eric Blair decided he’d had enough of school and never went back. Instead, he followed in his father’s footsteps, signing up for the British civil service. But after spending yet another five years as a police officer in Burma, he knew a civil-service career in Asia was not for him. He had enough saved from his years as a policeman to live for about a year, so he quit his job and moved to Paris, where he had decided to try to make it as a writer.

His eccentric, bohemian Aunt Nellie, his mother’s sister, lived there — she was, in fact, living there in sin with an anarchist named Eugène Adam — and she was helpful to young Eric in many ways in the nearly two years he spent in Paris, 1928 and 1929. She fed him as often as he’d let her, and her elderly anarchist boyfriend gave young Eric much to think about under the heading of politics. Orwell biographer Gordon Bowker says that young Eric went to Paris with “an almost anarchistic hatred of authority,” and returned to England nearly two years later with “an even more anti-authoritarian outlook.” He was unwilling, however, to live off his aunt’s largesse.

Though it took him only a few months in Paris to get into print — under the name “E.A. Blair” — he was unable to earn enough from his writing to pay his bills. When he ran out of money, he lived as a bum rather than sponge off his Aunt Nellie. He continued this practice after returning to England late in 1929, and it was this period of living hand to mouth that provided him with the experience he needed to write his first book, a piece of thinly fictionalized reportage called Down & Out in Paris & London, which was published in 1933 under the name “George Orwell.”

Up to then, all of young Eric’s journalism — mostly book reviews and articles on cultural and political subjects for weekly, fortnightly, and monthly magazines — had appeared under the name “E. A. Blair.” It continued to do so for another couple of years, but starting in 1935, all those articles and reviews, as well as a steady flow of books, came out under the name George Orwell: a novel called Burmese Days; other novels called A Clergyman’s Daughter, Coming Up for Air, and Keep the Aspidistra Flying; there were also two volumes of reportage — Homage to Catalonia on the Spanish Civil War and The Road to Wigan Pier on poverty in Northern England.

None of these books sold particularly well — decently, but not particularly well — and though the periodical work became more and more frequent, it was never especially remunerative. Eric Blair — George Orwell — scraped by, but little more. He did this through the ’30s and through the war that followed, and then, suddenly, he hit it big.

The vehicles for his breakthrough were a short, satirical novel called Animal Farm, which tells of the efforts of the animals at Manor Farm to overthrow their human rulers and establish a communist utopia under the leadership of the pigs — this was published in 1945 — and a much longer, brutally naturalistic novel of a totalitarian future called Nineteen Eighty-four, published in 1949. These two books made Orwell rich, but he was dead from tuberculosis before the winter of 1949–1950 had ended, aged 46, so he had precious little time to spend any of his new riches on anything but medical bills.

A few years after Orwell’s death, as I have noted, his unflattering memoir of his years at St. Cyprian’s finally saw print in the United States. And when it did, it became the subject of an essay in the New Yorker by the British journalist Anthony West.

West noted that “most of [the terrifying things in Nineteen Eighty-four] “clearly derive from the experience described in ‘Such, Such Were the Joys.’” At St. Cyprians, West reminds his readers, “the headmaster’s wife … seemed to be spying on Orwell all the time” and “seem[ed], by some kind of magical omniscience, to know what every boy does and even what he thinks.”

In Nineteen Eighty-four, of course, every room of every dwelling is equipped with a device called a “telescreen” — a sort of two-way TV. “The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously,” Orwell wrote.

Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.

Anthony West contended that if you read Nineteen Eighty-four closely, you would see — must see — that “the whole pattern of society [in the novel] shapes up along the lines of fear laid down in ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ until the final point of the dread summons to the headmaster’s study, for the inevitable beating. In ’1984,’ the study becomes Room 101 in the Ministry of Love, and the torturers correspond closely to the schoolmasters.” In effect, West argued, “what [George Orwell] did in ’1984′ was to send everybody in England to an enormous [St. Cyprian's] to be as miserable as he had been.”

The American science-fiction writer C.M. Kornbluth agreed with West. In a lecture he delivered at the University of Chicago early in 1957, Kornbluth pointed out a few other parallels between Orwell’s experience at St. Cyprian’s and Winston Smith’s experience living in Airstrip One in Oceania in the year 1984 — parallels which West had either overlooked or felt it unnecessary to identify explicitly. Kornbluth noted, for example, that “sexual activity is forbidden to Winston Smith as it is to a boy under pain of dire punishment.” He noted also that “there are no laws or clear-cut rules of conduct for Winston Smith to obey; he, like a child, may transgress without meaning to. He must not only do what is right, he must be good.”

Orwell biographer Gordon Bowker acknowledged in 2003 that Anthony West’s way of reading Nineteen Eighty-four “has been rather dismissed by critics, but,” he wrote, “that there are associations and reverberations [connecting Nineteen Eighty-four and "Such, Such Were the Joys"] cannot be denied.” According to Bowker, Orwell “certainly developed” the “individual consciousness to pit against unreasonable authority” while at St. Cyprians.

The small boy waiting outside [the headmaster's] study for a beating is only the youthful version of Winston Smith waiting to be summoned to Room 101. The deceitfulness of authority, the feeling that spies are everywhere, the harsh cross-examinations, the rote learning in an atmosphere of threat — these are all present in both essay and novel.

It seemed to Orwell, according to Bowker, that “whereas most English people found it impossible to understand what life under a totalitarian regime might be like, boys who went to boarding schools were better prepared.”

In one of the radio talks he wrote and presented for the BBC during World War II, Orwell said, “A human being is what he is largely because he comes from certain surroundings, and no one ever fully escapes from the things that have happened to him in early childhood.” The following year, in an essay called “Why I Write,” he elaborated on this idea a bit. Before a writer “ever begins to write,” Orwell asserted, “he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.” For “if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.”

Few of us today go to boarding schools. Few went to them a hundred years ago, when young Eric Blair did. Why, then, did so many millions of readers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean respond so strongly to a political nightmare based on its author’s unhappy experience at an English boarding school? Why did these readers make Nineteen Eighty-four not only a huge and perennial bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, but also, probably, the most widely influential libertarian novel ever published? Because, as Orwell himself acknowledged, “everything that happened to me at St Cyprian’s could happen in the most ‘enlightened’ school, though perhaps in subtler forms.”

The totalitarian essence of the St. Cyprian’s experience — the experience of being dominated, bullied, spied on; the experience of being made to suffer pain and to look foolish by more powerful others against whom one had no defense — this could be visited upon a child at almost any sort of school one could imagine. It is, then, the compulsory school experience we have to examine, not just the St. Cyprian’s experience, or the early-20th-century British boarding school experience. Some libertarians, like John Holt, have thought about all this and decided that a society without schools — at least for those too young to choose for themselves whether to attend one — would be a better society. The “homeschoolers” who populate the movement Holt launched back in the 1970s agree.

One doesn’t have to read far into the works of George Orwell to discover that he had no understanding of economics whatsoever and was not personally a libertarian in the sense we have in mind when we use that word today. He was a permanently confused but authentically and radically antiauthoritarian democratic socialist. He was the kind of modern leftist few modern-day libertarians would have any trouble getting along with, making common cause with, collaborating with. George Orwell presents us with yet another case of a writer who was not himself a libertarian as we understand the term today, but whose last two novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four, have earned him a place in the libertarian tradition.

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