Reading Some Effing Orwell in the Empire

Tribune's one-time literary editor has become a meme and a cliché, but he remains one of the Left's most ethically complex writers – and nowhere more so than in his depictions of the British Empire.

George Orwell has become a meme. The exhortation to ‘read some bloody Orwell’, both ironic and not, can be found all over Twitter. It has become impossible to state that something reminds you of Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four without it sounding silly, not least because the political right has seized upon them as simple condemnations of socialism. Yet in spite of this memeification, Orwell was a complex writer. In particular, the ways that he writes about empire and imperialism are complicated. When Orwell was writing, empire was on his readers’ minds: in the interwar period, when Britain’s empire was at its largest territorial extent; the Second World War, a moment of unprecedented imperial mobilisation, with massive sacrifices demanded from people across the colonies; and the late 1940s, with Indian decolonisation and partition, as well as British withdrawal from the Palestinian mandate,the beginning of the Mau Mau ‘uprising’ and the Malayan ‘emergency’.

All of Orwell’s works are shaped by his British identity, not only his class (which has been pored over) but his gender and his race, too (which are less commonly acknowledged as interesting). The Road to Wigan Pier, for example, should be read not only as an exploration of poverty in the north, but also as an exploration of poverty within an imperial metropole, suffered by white British people at the top of an imperial hierarchy. And, indeed, his introduction to the book begins with a mediation on imperialism, including his assertions that ‘no modern man, in his heart of hearts, believes that it is right to invade a foreign country and hold the population down by force’ and that the British ‘would fight to the last man sooner than be ruled by Chinamen’: empire, in other words, is unjust, but the racial hierarchies that underpin imperialism are understandable.

Orwell’s ambivalence about empire was framed by circumstances. The Lion and the Unicorn was written at the height of British invasion anxieties in 1940, and celebrates English ‘genius’ and uniqueness. In it, Orwell asserted that ‘life within the British Empire was in many ways better than life outside it’, and bemoaned the decline of figures like ‘Clive, Nelson, Nicholson, Gordon’. This roll call of imperial heroes, cast as visionaries and mavericks, hardly supports a narrative of resistance. This piece is more startling for its complete disavowal of the anti-imperial ideas expressed months before, in his essay ‘Not Counting N****rs’, published in July 1939, which called the empire a ‘far vaster injustice’ even than fascism.

Orwell’s most famous writings on imperialism are the 1934 novel Burmese Days, and the essay ‘Shooting an Elephant’, published in 1936 and performed as a radio talk on the BBC Home Service in 1948. Both pieces were based on personal experience, specifically his role as an assistant superintendent in the British Indian Imperial Police, in Burma, in the 1920s. Neither piece is explicitly autobiographical, but Burmese Days initially could not be published in Britain because it was considered potentially libellous, with many characters similar to real figures in imperial Burma.

Both pieces have been read as straightforwardly anti-imperial in their plot and their message. Burmese Days is an attack on the louche, complacent, cruel privately-educated British men who ruled Burma. The protagonist, John Flory, is a weak man who loves Burma, has some respect for Burmese culture, but also desires to please his social superiors and is complicit in maintaining British imperial rule. ‘Shooting an Elephant’ is a vignette from imperial life: the protagonist, unnamed but assumed by many readers to be Orwell himself, describes a moment in his life in the imperial police force where he is forced to shoot an elephant because of his horror of appearing weak in front of a crowd.

The critique in these does not free them from imperial attitudes. The ‘natives’ in both are not characters in their own right, but a mass of people, described using all the physicalising, dehumanising tropes of imperial rule. In Burmese Days, no ‘native’ character appears without their skin colour being graded; in ‘Shooting an Elephant’ they are reduced to a ‘sea of yellow faces’.

Both texts assume that being laughed at by ‘natives’ is the worst fate possible for a white British man. Ridicule is as bad as defeat: this is partly an acknowledgement of the precariousness of imperial power on the ground, with small numbers of British imperial policemen and governors ruling over vast populations. But it is also an acceptance of the hierarchies of imperialism, which afford no interior life to subjects. This perhaps explains why Orwell, unlike, say, his friend and Tribune colleague Fenner Brockway, was never involved in anti-imperial activism. The fact that he periodically expressed scepticism about imperialism as a system did not mean that Orwell sympathised with the colonised as fellow human beings.