George Orwell

Eric Blair (1903–1950), better known by his pen name George Orwell, was a British socialist writer, most famous for his novels Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), both sharp critiques of Stalinism. He did, however, write extensively outside of that – other novels, essays, literary criticism, and non-fiction books like The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and Homage to Catalonia (1938).

He was born in India when that was colonised by the British, and sent back to Britain for his schooling. After graduating, he went to the British colony in Burma and worked there as a policeman for 5½ years. He reportedly said this gave him a fondness for “making lists”. In 1927 he went back to the UK and made a career for himself as a writer. For most of 1928–29, he lived with his aunt Nellie Limouzin in Paris; it was during this period that he acquired an enduring hatred of Esperanto, because his aunt and her partner insisted on speaking it as their sole household language. He returned to the UK at the end of 1929 and worked for a while as a teacher, then later as a shop assistant in a bookstore, while continuing to write on the side. He also, at some point over the 1930s, became politically close to the Independent Labour Party, a left-wing splinter of the better-known Labour Party (he joined officially in 1938).

Orwell got married in 1936 but shortly afterwards decided to go to Spain, and take up arms with the Trotskyist POUM militia to fight in the Spanish Civil War. It was here that he saw all the in-fighting between different factions of the left and turned decisively against the (Stalinist) Communists, who were busily branding Trotskyists, like social democrats, as “social fascists”. Orwell was injured in combat in 1937 (shot through the throat), so he was medically discharged. A week after his return to England, he was charged with “rabid Trotskyism” in Valencia, and tried in absentia by some Tribunal for Espionage & High Treason (alongside many other POUM figures). Orwell wrote up his experiences in the book Homage to Catalonia.

During WW2 Orwell was deemed “medically unfit” for military service, but he did participate in Britain’s Home Guard. He also took up a job working at the BBC in its Eastern Service, trying to counter Nazi propaganda in British-colonised India via radio broadcasts. It seemed to have been at around this time that he decided to throw his lot in with the British state, deciding that the exigencies of war left no space for anti-capitalist criticism. It was also during his time at the BBC that he encountered Basic English, which he hated even more than Esperanto. He worked on the novel that would eventually become Animal Farm during this time. In late 1943 he left the BBC and took up a job as a columnist for the lefty publication Tribune. He and his wife, Eileen, adopted a son. Then in 1945 The Observer offered him a war correspondent post – not on the front lines but going through liberated cities. In this role, he travelled to Paris, Cologne and Stuttgart.

In 1945, Eileen died suddenly. Orwell himself was also suffering the effects of tuberculosis, which some have said made him a bit crazy in his later years, and he made a number of rash and unwanted proposals of marriage to various women (???). He become part of the “Shanghai Club”, a grouping of leftist and emigre writers which also included Isaac Deutscher. Animal Farm was published in August 1945 and a year later in the US, which suddenly made him extremely famous. In his later years, he balanced his ongoing work writing literary criticism, articles, etc. with writing the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. At some point he had to be committed to a sanatorium when his tuberculosis made him too sick. There, in 1949, his friend Celia Kirwan asked him to write up a list for the Information Research De­part­ment (a unit of the Foreign Office set up by the Attlee Labour government to publish anti-communist propaganda) of writers who were unsuitable to work for them due to pro-communist leanings. Orwell did so, naming Isaac Deutscher among a few dozen others. In October 1949, three months before his death, he married Sonia Brownell, who supposedly inspired the character of Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four. She then worked with the IRD and the American CIA to spread Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four widely throughout the world as anti-communist propaganda.

Orwell himself is a complicated figure, of course, claimed by the Right as much as by the Left. He was resoundingly anti-Stalinist, of course, and at least in the period post-1936, identified as a democratic socialist. He had great sympathy for the working class and the downtrodden, generally. But he was also highly vulnerable to “Little Englandism”, as I’m gonna call it, and had – at best – conflicted opinions about British colonialism (which, obviously, he upheld as a young man in Burma). During WW2 he threw his lot in with the British state, and was then full of illusions with Britain’s post-WW2 Labour government, so throughout the 1940s he participated pretty enthusiastically in British government propaganda (plus there was his infamous List). He was also something of a traditionalist and a social conservative (idealising the Church of England despite his lack of religious faith, and being pretty homophobic, even if not uncommonly so for his era).

Beyond his politics, Orwell was also a long-time literary critic who wrote many, many book reviews. In 1946 he wrote an essay, Politics and the English Language, which included these six “rules” for good writing which have become enormously influential:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.


  • Down and Out in Paris and London (1933): A non-fiction book based on his experiences being broke in these two cities.
  • Burmese Days (1934): A novel based on his experiences in Burma.
  • A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935): A novel about a clergyman’s daughter who gets amnesia (?).
  • Keep the Apidistra Flying (1936): A “social critique” novel, apparently.
  • The Road to Wigan Pier (1937): A book about the social conditions in the economically depressed north of England. His research for this book led the British intelligence services to decide to put him under surveillance for 12 years, LOL.
  • Homage to Catalonia (1938): A non-fiction book about his experience fighting with the POUM militia in the Spanish Civil War.
  • Coming Up for Air (1939): Another novel, this time about the folly of nostalgia or something. He wrote it on a holiday to French-colonised Morocco in late 1938.
  • Animal Farm (1945): His famous allegory for the rise of Stalinism in the USSR.
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949): His even more famous dystopian novel, where the protagonist (Winston Smith) falls in love and decides to rebel against his totalitarian regime, before being arrested and tortured back into “loving” “Big Brother” (which is like a character personifying the regime).

Relevant Blog Posts

See Also / References