The honesty and realism of Orwell never ceases to amaze. He opens 'Shooting an Elephant', the first story in this collection, by telling us that he was hated by many people. He will spend the rest of the essay showing us why. The pointless death of an animal no longer harmful becomes the legal murder we witness in 'A Hanging'. In both cases we see people becoming their jobs, counting doing one's duty more important than being human.
He sees "the dirty work of Empire at close quarters" and knows that " imperialism is an evil thing" but continues to do his duty as both imperialist and colonist would see it. The amazing thing is that he is not alone in this. In "A Hanging" the hangman is a convict and after the deed is done we see both Europeans and natives laughing and drinking together. In "Shooting an Elephant" he is stuck between "hatred of the empire" and "rage against the evil-spirited little beasts" that made his job impossible. But again, we witness crowds of natives expecting him to be a Sahib.
Orwell's stories show us the demoralizing duties, the pompous gravitas of Imperialism. It dehumanizes both rulers and ruled, turning them into the role they play rather than allowing them to become who they might have been. Both fortunately and unfortunately, he also knows that, "the British Empire is dying [...] it is a great deal better than the younger Empires that are going to supplant it."
This collection is pure Orwell. His unsentimental love of ordinary people, coupled with the easy, natural, sympathetic description of complex characters, relationships and motivations, reveal Orwell as a man who was genuinely at home with ordinary people. Only he could write movingly of how imperialism traps (freezes!) both rulers and ruled into roles and duties, of the daily humiliations of colonialism, and the little lies that keep the system going, and still show the oppressors as human beings. Even people we might miss. The only one I have ever read who comes close is Camus on Algeria.
In '1984' (only excerpted in this collection), a prophesy of what the Empires destined to replace the British empire could become, it was his ear for the corruption of language by permanent war that struck me, when I first read it well over three decades ago, as the perfect lens for viewing the lies spoken daily by both sides during the Vietnam War. Also, Orwell's insight into the political necessity of continual crises to keep the people both frightened and grateful for protection explained rather nicely how the communists (or Islamic Fundamentalists today) could work with us (and we with them) whenever it was politically convenient to do so.
In the collection of literary pieces what surprises is that a man of the left like Orwell, who was always a socialist, could appreciate authors as patriotic and conservative as Dickens and Kipling. We should always measure men by whether they can appreciate the strengths of their enemies. To my mind it is the height of civility in our twisted world to be able to admire an enemy whom someday you may have to kill. We need to remember that there always is, or at least always should be, something beyond (and above) politics.
But much of Orwell's posthumous fame comes from his writing on communism. As well it should, he was among the very few famous intellectuals (Camus and Koestler also come to mind) who forthrightly criticized the Soviet dictatorship. But he always remained a man of the left. It was during the cold war that this admirer of decency, virtue, and honesty; to say nothing of socialism, was dishonestly dragooned into being a cold warrior by, among others, Commentary magazine. They went so far as to call him a neo-conservative, twenty-five years before the fact!
They should learn how to read. And `Homage to Catalonia', also excerpted in this collection, is an excellent place to start. Yes, the critique of totalitarian communism is there, perhaps expressed better than anywhere else. Here he is interacting directly with the type of Monster dimly limned in 1984. He didn't need to read about the communist's mania to dominate every coalition they enter into, he lived through it. He saw in Barcelona the destruction of a genuine working class movement by the disgraceful collusion of liberals and communists.
When Franco led much of the Spanish army into revolt it was the workers who spontaneously resisted. They formed workers' committees to run the factories and workers' militias to win the war. In Catalonia, the anarchists, the radical wing of the worker's movement, were stronger than the socialist parties. In Madrid, a loose governing coalition of liberal and socialist parties was attempting to win the war not only on the battlefield but in the court of world opinion. In plain English, this meant do not appear too radical. You see, socialism worried liberal, capitalist nations like England and France; but anarchism scared them to death.
As time went on the government drifted to the right. Orwell was not shocked by this. He understood the diplomatic necessities as well as anyone. What did surprise him was that this rightward drift coincided with ever strengthening ties with the Soviet Union. You see, all the Soviets cared about was the defense of the Soviet Union, and to them this meant the politics of the Popular Front. In the thirties this meant an alliance between everyone (communists, liberals, conservatives) against Hitler and Fascism. An alliance at any cost. So farewell workers control, workers' councils, and workers' militias; this would be just another bourgeois war.
And that's what shocked him. Even though Orwell initially favored this policy, as did most of the European Left, he changed his mind when he saw it in action. He too had believed that the most important thing was to win the war. But the suppression of independent socialists like the (Troskyite) P.O.U.M., the gradual repression of the anarchists, and the lies in the international press about all this turned him around.
And isn't that vintage Orwell? This man of honesty and integrity, who would report exactly what happened, even when it went against what he believed or wanted. This is why Chomsky called 'Homage to Catalonia' the best book on the Spanish Civil War. It would have been an honor to have George Orwell as a friend, an ally, - or an enemy. Men like this illuminate our world.