Every decade or so pundits return to the question of whether George Orwell was a conservative. The answer is dependent on the questioner’s ideology. Norman Podhoretz claimed him as a neoconservative. Christopher Hitchens, still in thrall to socialism, stated that Orwell “was conservative about many things, but not politics.” By and large, this bodysnatching relied on the same facts, and thus spin was required.
However, the recent publication of Orwell’s letters and diaries bolsters the conservative interpretation while also showing how hard it was for the writer to let go of socialism. For example, Orwell, still promoting socialism, albeit a libertarian version (which to my mind is a contradiction in terms), had a yin and yang attitude toward money, or to be more precise “the Money God” as he put in one of his novels. in which this commodity disfigured the human personality.
On the one hand, he was quite willing to shoot himself in the paycheck over principles – but they were anti-communist principles, not socialist ones. In the mid-30s he willingly alienated a Soviet publisher eager to circulate his books by informing this “comrade” that he is anti-Stalinist, which resulted in the lucrative offer being withdrawn. With Iron Curtain audiences eager for copies of Animal Farm, he instructed his publisher to give them away free.
And yet, he hated taxes, stating that “no one can be patriotic” about them. Orwell reacted to the regressive taxation of England like any free market capitalist, establishing a corporation and tax haven in America.
Nor did he laud the working class as many on the Left did. He based his portrayal of the navel-watching proles of Nineteen Eighty-Four on the attitudes of their counterparts in World War II (“very little interest in the war,” he writes of pub-dwellers during the Blitz. “Doubt even the bombs dropping would wake them up”). Nor did he have much hope in their intelligence. He wrote of how they would be bamboozled by a speech merely because of the announcer’s voice rather than what was conveyed.
In line with today’s conservative, Orwell despised gun control, and saw gun ownership through a class lens:
“That rifle hanging on the wall
of the working-class flat or labourer’s cottage
is the symbol of democracy.
It is our job to see that it stays there.”
Unlike socialists who hewed to empiricism, Orwell was not above relying on his gut. He based his view that the Purge Trials were a fraud because he “could feel it in their literature.” He had Winston Smith, dying by inches, express a secular faith-based notion against the coldly scientific O’Brien by asserting that “something will defeat you.”
Orwell even had a social conservative side. He was decidedly against abortion, and although an atheist, hoped that a Christian morality of right and wrong could be restored to politics; indeed, he believed that socialism could only work in accompaniment with such morality.
Otherwise, he agreed with conservatives such as Winston Churchill and the free market libertarian F. A Hayek’s assertion that collectivism gave unprecedented powers to an upper clique.
There are still those who keep Orwell in a socialist box. But with his hatred of abortion, gun control and taxes, his acceptance that socialism led to tyranny when the movement eschewed a view of right and wrong, his reliance on gut instincts, there is little socialism left.
Today, his unwillingness to fully embrace capitalism on moral grounds would place the writer in Dinesh D’Souza’s definition of conservatism–that it is libertarianism with a conscience.