Orwell's Blind Spot

During the torture session in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith, mere minutes away from the horrors of Room 101, states through cracked lips that Big Brother can’t last. Telling the Inner Party Member O’Brien that he doesn’t believe in God, Smith also expresses a metaphysical faith that the regime would collapse:

know  that you will fail.  There is something in the universe—I don’t know, some spirit, some principle—that you will never overcome.

Smith named this “something “the “Spirit of Man.”

Such a moment flies in the face of George Orwell’s reputation as a rock-solid empiricist. That his creation, Winston Smith, would rely on gut feelings over fact, about larger forces at work, was not exclusive to that famous novel of Orwell’s.

While his contemporaries such as Mary McCarthy drew the conclusion, based on scouring the transcripts of the Moscow Purge Trials, that the trials were a monstrous frame-up, Orwell came to this view before reading any transcripts. “I felt it in their literature,” he said of the horror of the purges as the news of them spread to the West.

Even his socialism was based on instinctive feeling rather than a dry study of Marxist economic texts. The need for socialism was, for Orwell, necessary to establish common decency. Moreover, for his version of democratic socialism to work, he saw religion as crucial to avoiding a turn toward the totalitarian model of the Russians and Chinese.

“One cannot have any worthwhile picture of the future,” he wrote, “unless one realises how much we have lost by the decay of Christianity.” He was sympathetic to the surmise of Christian thinkers that civilization’s “moral code must be based on Christian principles.”

It is for such reasons that some social conservatives, albeit only those who can get past Orwell’s well-documented atheism, claim him as one of their own.

But according to Michael G. Brennan, Orwell viewed the social conservatives of the Catholic Church with blinders on, so to speak. In this good but often repetitive book, Orwell on Religion, the professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leeds is on solid, albeit well-plowed ground in showing his subject’s uncharacteristically knee-jerk attitude toward “political Catholicism” (Brennan’s phrase).

Since his death in 1950, writers have noted this lifelong antipathy of Orwell’s, and also his higher tolerance of Protestantism, which he regarded as more free-thinking, and thus better able than Catholicism to help in the effort to keep socialism from succumbing to its inherently totalitarian tendencies. Orwell saw Catholicism siding, more often than not, with fascists. He denounced its believers with what was for him the ultimate insult: he called them the mirror image of Stalinists.

In “Inside the Whale,” his 1940 essay on pro-communist writers of the previous decade, Orwell said Soviet socialism was fulfilling the same needs for its adherents as did the Catholic Church for Catholics. The latter had a “world-wide organization, the one with a rigid discipline, the one with power and prestige behind it.”

Communist intellectuals, unable to believe in religion anymore, were merely joining the secular version of the Catholic Church, according to Orwell:

Here was a Church, an army, an orthodoxy, a discipline . . . All the loyalties and superstitions the intellect seemingly banished could come rushing back under the thinnest of disguises . . . Father, king, leader, hero, savior—all in one word, Stalin. The devil—Hitler. Heaven-Moscow. Hell-Berlin.

Brennan rightly describes a budding dislike of Catholics reaching hypertrophic levels in Orwell when the writer went to Spain to fight on the Loyalist side, but he doesn’t make as much of this as he could have. He doesn’t detail the atrocities visited upon Loyalists, which made a big impression on Orwell (along with atrocities visited on non-Stalinist Spanish and other leftists by Stalin), and which were rationalized by the Catholic supporters of the side receiving assistance from Adolf Hitler. Francisco Franco’s rebel forces machine-gunned 1,800 soldiers and civilians (some of whom were women) in a 12-hour period in a bullring in Badajoz in 1936. Nor does Brennan mention the gang rapes of Loyalists, which Franco’s army regarded as the spoils of war.

He doesn’t ignore what the Spanish Secret Police did. On orders from Moscow, they ruthlessly executed members of non-Stalinist military units for the crime of asserting that, to win the war and preserve the Spanish Republic, there must be a socialist revolution. Stalin would have none of that—not if he didn’t control it. In fact Orwell, as a member of non-Stalinist unit, barely got out of Spain with his life.

All of this has been written about previously. Where Brennan does break new ground is in invalidating Orwell’s unexamined assumption that the populace in Britain no longer believed in God. Citing easily available statistics (evidence that Orwell, uncharacteristically, did not research in this instance), Brennan shows a high rate of Catholic belief and practice among the British working class.

For Orwell, the working class was the strongest enemy of fascism. It wouldn’t really have fit to also recognize the strong presence of Catholic faith among them. His reasoning on this skirted religious concerns, sticking instead to bread-basket issues: “The working class remains the most reliable enemy of fascism, simply because the working class stands to gain by a decent reconstruction of society.”

“Unlike other classes or categories,” he added, “it can’t be bribed.”

But Orwell’s frustration with his country’s working class was apparent, and predated the scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four in which we see a history-hungry Winston Smith trying unsuccessfully to get a humble worker to whom he is speaking to recount anything about the past save that “the beer was better.”

In 1942, Orwell castigated the complacency of the British working class toward their counterparts in countries under fascist domination: “To the British working class the massacre of their comrades in Vienna, Berlin, Madrid . . . seemed less interesting and less important than yesterday’s football match.”

Thus, when Brennan laments Orwell’s missed opportunity, in terms of tailoring an appealing message to an in fact quite religious working class, one is inclined to doubt there was really any way to reach them, given their focus on mundane entertainments.

Orwell was probably correct that the basic concept of right and wrong was more prevalent in the working class than in an intellectual class more interested in defending cynical Soviet policies than trying to bring common decency back into politics.

Often an inconsistent thinker, Orwell frequently contradicted himself even in the same luminous essay. But he mostly did try to take the facts into account, and to marshal them in support of his arguments. As does Brennan. By using Orwell’s consistently anti-Catholic statements, he certainly proves that this animus led the writer to project his own atheism onto a predominately religious working class.

It is not a large point, but it is an invaluable contribution to Orwell studies nonetheless.