George Orwell: Revolution and religion

(January 2022)

George Orwell, whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair, is widely viewed as one of the 20th century’s great writers.

Naturally, his most famous books – Animal Farm and 1984 – continue to attract the most attention. 

Yet there is far more in Orwell’s literary work which requires consideration and study. Examining his work as a whole, we see a great mind who continuously drew attention to political and religious questions.

Orwell’s work gradually became more political and he moved towards socialism. “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it,” he wrote.

Considering how he had followed in his father’s footsteps by serving as a colonial official in the British Raj, this development was itself remarkable. 

His work makes clear that disgust at the petty bigotry of classism in early 20th century England fuelled this leftwards movement. 

The childhood experience of being prevented from playing with the children of a local plumber stayed with him, though not to the extent of his experiences at a boarding school where the other boys were not shy about making it known that their families were far wealthier than his. 

Although Christopher Hollis’s analysis of Orwell strongly suggests that his old schoolmate exaggerated the severity of his ill treatment at school, and that Orwell’s anti-imperialism was far from obvious during his early years of service of Burma, the opposition to imperialist rule did grow within him. 

Solidarity with the poor

Abandoning a quite lucrative position in Burma and returning to England, Orwell consciously exposed himself to the world of urban poverty which was completely foreign to him. 

His experiences in France and Britain led to the publication of his first book in 1933, Down and Out in Paris and London

Four years later, he would expand on this greatly in The Road to Wigan Pier, which was written after Orwell had spent months travelling through England’s economically distressed North.

The Road to Wigan Pier is arguably Orwell’s most complete work, containing as it does an absorbing account of how the working-class lived, along with deep reflections by Orwell about England’s class divide and – much to the chagrin of his left-wing publisher – the mistakes which socialists were making which were alienating potential supporters. 

There is no Marxist theorising in Orwell’s work: in fact, there is a positive contempt at such things. There is also a remarkably prescient critique of those on the Left to concentrate on doctrinal purity and treat politics as an “exciting heresy hunt.” 

Added to this was the scorn which he heaped on the (often middle- or upper-class) activists who he encountered: “One sometimes get the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist and feminist in England.” 

Orwell’s reflections on the problems of Depression-era England demonstrate an admirable broadness of thought, also. 

Though he felt that the Catholic writers Hilaire Belloc and GK Chesterton had been unrealistic in calling for a return to small-scale ownership decades earlier, he praised their prescience in identifying the problems which would emerge.

When the libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek released The Road to Serfdom, in which he assailed the socialist policies which Orwell espoused, Orwell reviewed the book generously, while agreeing with him that “collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamed of.”

To arms in Spain

After years of writing about politics, and after seeing the conditions of the working-class himself, Orwell was convinced of the need to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. 

Arriving in Barcelona, Orwell was swept up in the atmosphere of equality where all businesses had been collectivised, where people of all classes now dressed the same and where waiters had begun to speak to patrons as equals, as he later made clear in Homage to Catalonia

Many of the normal motives of civilised life – snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. – had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as his master.”

Although Orwell did not approve of all the measures which the Spanish revolutionaries had adopted, their radical egalitarianism did appeal to him strongly.

Before Burma or his encounters in the slums, and long before he became a writer, the teenage Eric Blair had been caught up in the anti-establishment mood which prevailed at the end of the First World War. 

As he explained in The Road to Wigan Pier, the wave of anti-militarism following its ending had “extended into a general revolt against orthodoxy and authority,” including politicians, the monarchy and the Christian religion. In 1920, his class at Eton had almost unanimously selected Lenin as one of the world’s greatest living men.  

This alienation from tradition would have an enormous effect on his generation, likely increasing the appeal of revolution, even where it involved the most violent means. 

The great popularity of Animal Farm and 1984 – particularly among modern conservatives – should not hide the fact that its author remained convinced of the need for dramatic economic and social change right up to the end. 

From revolution to tyranny

Animal Farm is a good example of this. The farm’s owner Mr. Jones is a bad ruler, and the indictment of the current system offered by the Old Major (a composite of Marx and Lenin) is true, just as his proposed alternative – Animalism – is desirable. 

The animals’ Rebellion is justified, and leads at first to equality between all creatures, and improved conditions on the farm. 

While the corruption of all the pigs quickly becomes obvious, it is only when Napoleon (the vicious boar who represents Stalin) becomes all-powerful that conditions truly degenerate. 

On the other hand, 1984 offers a far more frightening picture of a totalitarian society which existed long after a successful revolution 

Such is the book’s influence that many of its key terms have entered the everyday lexicon: Big Brother, Newspeak, Doublespeak, etc. 

Again though, it is easy to overlook some of the key components of the totalitarian state of Oceania, while placing too much emphasis on others. 

The conscious and ongoing destruction of the past which the protagonist Winston Smith engages in as a minor official at the Ministry of Truth has much broader implications given the manner in which all political factions – including modern social progressives – relentlessly distort history in order to advance current goals. 

More relevant still is the ruling Party’s determination to weaken the bonds of marriage and family to deter people from forming loyalties outside of the State’s control, while actively turning children against their parents by encouraging them to act as domestic spies.  

One of Winston’s blameless colleagues falls victim to this, while Winston is haunted by the fading memories of his own childhood, where his mother had sacrificed herself for him in an age “when there was still privacy, love and friendship, and when the members of a family stood by one another without needing to know the reason.”

It is this destruction of the family and what we would call ‘civic society’ that is most significant, even though the constant surveillance by the omnipotent Big Brother and his Thought Police is what most readers focus on.

Oceania’s system is called English Socialism or ‘Ingsoc,’ and in considering its grim realities, it is worth contrasting this with the alternative vision which Orwell himself draws attention to in his famous 1941 essay, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius.   

Considering what set Englishmen apart and what had kept them free, Orwell points to the English “addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations, the privateness of English life.” Not only did this involve a multitude of common and not so common activities, the culture centred around things which though they are “communal are not official – the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea.’”

English people of all political stripes still believed in this liberty, and Orwell added that the residual influence of Christianity in a broadly secular England helped to prevent the “power worship” which had infected many authoritarian-led states in Europe. 

The Party in 1984 is certainly repressive when it comes to religion – one of Winston’s colleagues is imprisoned for allowing the word ‘God’ to remain in an edition of poems, and Winston is forced to confess to being a believer – but for the bulk of the uneducated ‘prole’ class, it seems that the continued existence of gambling, drinking and football is enough to snuff out any interest in deeper questions.

All throughout, what is more interesting than the tools of repression are the means by which the Party ensures that heavy-handed measures are mostly unnecessary. 

By concentrating on the overtly repressive elements, too many observers miss the key points about how liberty was crushed, and how that societal ruination was made eternal. 

Turning a blind eye

For all his extraordinary insights, Orwell did have a blind spot when it comes to revolutionary violence, even though both his famous works depict it quite accurately. 

The Spanish Civil War unquestionably hardened his views about the Catholic Church, and this in turn hindered his analysis in Homage to Catalonia

Observing that people never blessed themselves in the region of Aragon where he fought, Orwell ignores the fact that any public gesture of faith could have resulted in execution by his socialist comrades, and simply pronounces that to the Spanish people, “the Church was a racket pure and simple.”

Again and again, this simplistic analysis is laid down, even where his own words contradict it, as when he suggests the lack of competent nurses in Republican Spain may have been down to the fact that “before the war this work was done chiefly by nuns.” 

There is no acknowledgement of the scale of the persecution of Catholics by his own side – well over 6,000 priests, religious and nuns slaughtered by the Reds, along with tens of thousands of others – or the degree to which this drove the Church to seek Franco’s protection. 

Instead of acknowledging this, after the war, Orwell would continue to denounce the “huge pyramid of lies which the Catholic and reactionary press all over the world built up.” Instead of addressing the killing – often accompanied by horrific torture and/or rape in the case of nuns – of Catholics, Orwell routinely minimised the anti-clerical nature of the Spanish Republic by focusing on the physical damage to ransacked churches. 

While serving in Barbastro, for instance, Orwell recalls that the occupied church was being used as a latrine; was this in the seminary where the Republicans murdered the 51 Claretians – many very young men – or in any of the other churches where atrocities occurred in Barbastro? He does not say.

Beyond an admission that all churches were ransacked as a matter of policy, and an acceptance that both sides committed atrocities and that both left-wing and right-wing media outlets were extremely dishonest in their coverage, Orwell is consistent in his refusal to face the facts about the bloodier aspects of the revolution which impressed him so much. 

For all its merits, Animal Farm, which is an allegory about the Russian Revolution, suffers from a similar problem.

Mr. and Mrs. Jones are driven out of the farm, but neither are physically harmed – and if this were a more accurate retelling of what happened to the Romanovs, the Jones’s and their children would have been herded into the basement and shot. 

Moses the Raven – who represents the Russian Orthodox church – flies after them, and is similarly untouched; even when he returns to the farm, the ruling pigs do not interfere with his preaching.

This is as far from the historical facts as can be imagined, and shows that even Orwell’s frank assessment of political change was far from flawless. Ultimately, even an honest revolutionary sometimes shudders to think of what is done in the name of achieving his aims.  

Orwell on religion 

Religion features in all of Orwell’s work, particularly in the more serious books and essays.

There was a strong Anglican ethos in his schooling, and a sentimental attachment to the Church of England never left him. 

He was married and buried according to the Church of England’s rites, and rests in a country churchyard as he wished. When outlining his views on literary style in Politics and the English Language, Orwell cited a verse from Ecclesiastes as an example of well-constructed English.

When working as a teacher in his late 20s, he had become active in the parish. 

The facts about this period are characteristically ambiguous. He expressed discomfort with the “popish” High Anglican services in the church, and wrote to a friend that he was maintaining a deception by receiving Communion without believing. Yet the curate’s wife would later insist that there seemed to be much more to Eric Blair’s faith than George Orwell later let on (his voluntary work included washing up after meetings, chopping wood and even assisting her husband in administering the last rites).

The attachment did not extend too far, however, and though he repeatedly acknowledged the positive influence of religion, the author never seemed to possess any deep faith, or to possess a desire to explore the area with sufficient thoroughness.

Coming Up for Air is a nostalgic novel in which a middle-aged narrator visits his childhood home, and remembers churchgoing with fondness, but adds that “it was only a feeling, you couldn’t describe it as an activity.”

In Burmese Days, the six-weekly church service for the colonial administrators and their families “was the great social event of their lives.” 

The service itself is not taken seriously by attendees though, and the most racist of the Englishmen loudly protests about the attendance by native Burmese converts. 

Elsewhere, this social function of organised religion, Christian or otherwise, is shown in the attitude of the novel’s scheming Burmese villain, who plans to atone for his misdeeds by building Buddhist pagodas before death takes him. 

Orwell frequently took aim at clergymen of all denominations – from Buddhists to Anglican vicars. 

A recurring criticism was the link he saw between religion and social privilege. The Church of England, he wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn, never had a real hold on the English people as “it was simply a preserve of the landed gentry,” and the rector in A Clergyman’s Daughter is irritated that a request from “a common bricklayer” to baptise an ill baby would interrupt his breakfast.

In Animal Farm, the raven which represents Russia’s state church does no work, and earns the affection of the ruling Mr. Jones by telling the other animals comforting lies about a paradise “called Sugarcandy Mountain to which all animals went when they died:” importantly, before a successful rebellion could occur, the animals needed to be convinced by the revolutionary pigs that no such place existed. 

Anti-papist

Catholicism attracted a disproportionate share of Orwell’s ire, and the reasons for this deserve careful consideration.

Firstly, there is the traditional anti-Catholic bigotry which exists in England, and which is captured in his novels and non-fiction work, such as where a vicar mocks the sound of the “RC” church bells, or in how Orwell observed that some working-class English people avoided brown bread due to an alleged connection to Catholicism.

Orwell mocked this illogical prejudice, yet frequently exhibited symptoms of it, writing to a friend in the 1930s that it was good that a local shop had a sign up saying it did not stock Catholic Bibles, for “so long as that spirit is in the land we are safe from the RCs.”

Christopher Hollis’s assessement is of particular interest, given that they knew each other in Eton before they both became writers, and before Hollis became a Catholic. 

To Hollis, the turning point was the Spanish war. Before that, Orwell had not encountered Catholics apart from the working-class Catholics of Lancashire about whom he wrote very sympathetically (in part because they were often Socialists too). 

The Catholic Church had, Hollis writes, “up till then been for him a quaint and unimportant survival, [but] now showed itself for the first time as one of the great claimants to power – a force much stronger and therefore, as it appeared to him, much more evil than any of its Protestant rivals.” 

We have seen Orwell’s reluctance to examine the facts about why Catholics opposed the Spanish Republic. 

At the same time, no Catholic observer could examine the history of 1930s Europe without admitting that mistakes were made when many Church leaders tied themselves to right-wing strongmen like Franco. 

Orwell was not one for forgetting this, and from this point on a stronger criticism can be seen in his work. 

Indeed, the dislike (and perhaps envy) of more established Catholic writers fuelled this fire. In this era, many young writers like Waugh and Hollis had converted, and Orwell compared this to the process whereby other intellectuals had become Communists. 

As a former admirer of Chesterton, Orwell took particular exception to how Chesterton had often tried to show the superiority of Catholic practises and countries over Protestant ones, claiming that he had chosen “to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda.” 

Outside of his serious work, he tended to vent in his novels. In A Clergyman’s Daughter, a local Catholic convert family is rumoured to be teaching their parrot to say ‘Extra ecclesiam nulla salus,’ while the narrator in Keep the Aspidistra Flying notes that a bookshop had “Father Hilaire Chestnut’s latest book of RC propaganda” in stock.

Just as his adherence to revolutionary views prevented him from considering his side’s atrocities in the Spanish Civil War – atrocities which probably cost Spain’s Socialists the war – Orwell’s increasingly strong anti-Catholic prejudice blighted hisjudgement. 

Linking Catholic orthodoxy to Communist orthodoxy in Inside the Whale, Orwell’s arguments descended into absurdity: “How many Roman Catholics have been good novelists? Even the handful one could name have usually been bad Catholics. The novel is practically a Protestant form of art; it is a product of the free mind, of the autonomous individual.”

He wrote these lines in 1940, at a time when Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene were at the height of their powers, and his harsh reviews of their work (an unfinished review of Brideshead Revisited includes as a note: “One cannot really be Catholic and grown-up”) proves nothing except that religious bigotry is a great hindrance to literary criticism.

The question of meaning

All the same, when Orwell actually examined philosophical questions in depth, he did so very well, as in A Clergyman’s Daughter.

Dorothy, the aforementioned daughter, is dedicated to the parish and works tirelessly in its social ministry in an England which is rapidly urbanising and secularising. Hers is an ascetic faith, involving cold baths and strict fasting before Communion, but one which is also focused on caring for others.

Dorothy sees in her encounters around the parish that “vague, blank disbelief” of the modern age. Where she does witness the faith shown by an old rheumatic woman, it is suspiciously similar to the vision of Sugarcandy Mountain in Animal Farm, as the old woman has “only two subjects of conversation; one of them was the joys of Heaven, and the other the miseries of her present state.”

A dramatic change later alters Dorothy’s life completely, and her loss of faith is total, but crucially, she continues to practice.  

While she can never pray again, she continues to find a comfort in those church services which held her life together.

“[S]he perceived that in all that happens in church, however absurd and cowardly its supposed purpose may be, there is something – it is hard to define, but something of decency, of spiritual comeliness – that is not easily found in the world outside,” Orwell writes. 

When she resolves to maintain the pretence of belief and is challenged by an irreligious friend, Dorothy shows no interest in the hedonistic alternative he suggests, and continues to struggle with the questions about a life without meaning. 

“It seemed to her that even though you no longer believe, it is better to go to church than not; better to follow in the ancient ways, than to drift in rootless freedom,” Orwell writes.

In a particularly crucial passage, Orwell writes that “the Christian way of life was still the way that must come naturally to her,” but that “she could not put this into words.” 

Perhaps Orwell could not either, and this may have been his best attempt. Yet he could not explain faith itself and did not try hard in this book, writing it off as something “not rooted in logic…a change in the climate of the mind.”

This is the core problem with it, and one which Hollis observed when he wrote that both Dorothy’s faith and unfaith were entirely devoid of a rational basis. She does not wonder much about God’s existence – she feels he is there, and then stops feeling that. Christ is also not a factor, and goes more or less unmentioned elsewhere in Orwell’s work.

It is hard to say what Orwell found inside the walls of a church, although he certainly seemed dissatisfied with social changes which were already underway in his lifetime and which have since accelerated.

Even after he became convinced of the merits of democratic socialism, he continued to criticise social reforms which Socialists demanded. 

A clear example of this is seen in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, where the central character Gordon abandons a prosperous career in order to thwart the “Money God” and suffers poverty as a result. 

Nothing, not even the love of his girlfriend Rosemary, can persuade him to reverse his course. That is until a pregnant Rosemary tells him she is considering a termination. 

The thought of doing this violates his moral code: “The words ‘a baby’ took on a new significance…He knew then that it was a dreadful thing they were contemplating – a blasphemy, if that word had any meaning.” 

This was more than a throwaway line in a novel. In one of his later essays, The English People, he lamented the anti-natal and anti-family policies of government while criticising the view “that abortion, theoretically illegal, should be looked on as a peccadillo” (oddly, the fact that the Spanish Republic he fought for had legalised this peccadillo appears to have passed him by). 

In this and other areas, the deep imprint of his cultural Christianity is shown. 

We see it, for instance, in his correct identification of the basis of Nazi ideology and his implicit description of the unique quality of Western civilisation, writing that “it is precisely the idea of human equality – the ‘Jewish’ or ‘Judaeo-Christian’ idea of equality – that Hitler came into the world to destroy.”

To Orwell, the ethics of Christianity were good, and even though English people had abandoned firm theological positions, they had proven immune to “the modern cult of power worship” because they held to an unspoken doctrine “that the Church never formulated…that might is not right.” 

Though he did not much lament the loss of faith in religion, he was clearly concerned with the resulting threat to ethics, and it is noteworthy that both Orwell’s condemnation of capitalism (“Money is what God used to be”) and the rhetoric used by 1984’s socialist totalitarians (“We are the priests of power…God is power”) present this sharp contrast so clearly. 

Towards the end of his life, Orwell appeared more and more troubled by this, insisting that “[o]ne cannot have any worthwhile picture of the future unless one realises how much we have lost by the decay of Christianity,” adding that though he “did not want the belief in life after death to return,” he did need to point out “that its disappearance has left a big hole.”

It appeared that he wished to preserve Christian ethics in a world where Christian belief had faded, and to continue to live by those principles, just as Dorothy did. 

Eighty years after writing that the English had “retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ,” all that has happened since suggests that this path was never a viable one to begin with. 

Such a pity it is that he did not live long enough to ponder, and perhaps answer, the questions which he raised.