America’s Orwellian Left
John Michael Colón’s excellent essay on democratic socialism and the contemporary American left centers around George Orwell’s Animal Farm. As Colón writes, the book is mainly known as a warning against revolutionary politics in general, a tale of “supposed revolutionaries” who “produced a dictatorship perhaps only distinguished from the old one by being even worse.” One of the piece’s main arguments is that “the failure of Soviet-style ‘communist’ dictatorships was our basic starting point” for left-wing Americans of Colón’s generation (which is also mine, both of us having been born in the early 1990s—one might also say we belong to the same sub-generation of younger “millennials” who had not yet finished college when Occupy Wall Street erupted in late 2011). Rather than merely reproduce the common talking point that younger Americans have no memory of the Soviet Union, which is hardly in itself a refutation of lingering Cold War hostility to socialism, Colón makes the case for a left which is at once deeply committed to democracy and hostile to “the Stalinist pigs.”
For Colón, what the American left has sought in place of Soviet-style totalitarianism is the radical democracy of “assemblies,” spaces in which “the people are really in charge.” As Colón writes, the Occupy Wall Street encampments were a transformative experience for many young people, especially those who like himself had been used to the social isolation of suburbia:
Once in assembly you quickly realize how rarely we ever deliberate directly with others, exchange ideas, come to compromises and collectively make decisions. Think about how few opportunities you’ve had to do such a thing in your life, if ever. People don’t even know how to, really, at first, but it’s like riding a bicycle: you learn by doing it. In an assembly no one is the boss, and once the matter is settled everyone agrees to do it. Then, when the thing gets done, you become a fanatic. You start to ask yourself, “Why can’t we do everything this way?” Why not run our companies, our cities in assembly?
As Colón notes, this idea of direct democracy owes more to the anarchist tradition than to socialism, or to communism. But in any case, he is not interested in the intellectual history here—as he acknowledges, it may be impossible to convince someone through argument of the virtues of assemblies. The point is that, for all its failures, Occupy gave people a direct taste of collective decision-making that leftist movements since then have sought to reproduce.
I had Colón’s essay fresh in my mind when I moved into a friend’s home in Philadelphia where I’m spending part of the summer—a home with a very extensive library full of books I should have read long ago. It was there that I picked up Homage to Catalonia, a book by Orwell that captures the experience Colón is describing far better than Animal Farm. Colón may well have meant to channel Orwell’s narration of the political lessons he learned after joining a “Trotskyist” militia, which was to some extent allied to anarchist forces, during the Spanish Civil War.
As Orwell tells it, he joined the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM)—loosely considered a Trotskyist party, though formally it had broken with Trotskyism—largely by chance, indifferent to the squabbles between Spanish left-wing groups at the time. Initially, he felt far more sympathetic to the position of the Communists and their allies in Spain: after witnessing the shabby military discipline of the “egalitarian” Trotskyist and anarchist forces, strong centralized command rather than radical “horizontalism” (as we’d say today) seemed what was necessary to win the war. As the conflict dragged on, however, Orwell discovered what was he came to believe truly insidious about the Communist position on the Spanish Civil War.
Arriving in Barcelona in 1936, Orwell was amazed at the revolutionary atmosphere the anarchists and the POUM had created after seizing control for workers over key industries. Class distinctions, it appeared, had been abolished—fancy bourgeois inhabitants of the city put on overalls to appear working-class—and everyone on the streets of Barcelona suddenly began addressing one another as comrades and as equals. A radical equality not unlike what Colón describes in a small encampment in Manhattan had, at least briefly, seemed to have existed throughout the whole of Catalonia. For the anarchists and the POUM who were briefly in control, establishing workers’ control went hand in hand with defeating Franco. Orwell cites two POUM slogans: “The war and the revolution are inseparable,” and “We must go forward or we shall go back.”
The Communists, however, had taken the position that revolution in Spain must be prevented at all costs. Orwell easily accepted the argument that winning the war against Franco might require postponing some of his comrades’ revolutionary ambitions, but he quickly realized that the growing conflict between the Communists and their allies, on the one hand, and the anarchists and Trotskyists on the other, was about more than mere tactics. Believing that “revolution at this stage would be fatal,” the Communists insisted that “what was to be aimed at in Spain was not workers’ control, but bourgeois democracy.” Any Spanish radical groups to the Communists’ left who broke with this interpretation of the requirements of historical materialism were branded traitors in the pay of the fascists. As a result, many of the anarchist and POUM militias were denied munitions, and the Communist-allied government later outlawed the POUM, forcing Orwell to flee Spain and jailing many of those he had fought with. While the Communists claimed to have the “realistic” position on winning the war, they actively undermined those who were nominally fighting Franco beside them.
Orwell’s reading of the Spanish political during this period is, of course, a partisan one, and his judgments of the various actors may not be entirely accurate. What seems clear, though, is that the positions Orwell articulates in favor of direct democracy and against ideological anti-pluralism are in line with the emerging consensus on today’s American left. The POUM and anarchist rallying cry, “We must go forward or we shall go back,” would make a decent slogan for the Democratic Socialists of America today. Leftists are generally convinced that the political turbulence of the current moment cannot be resolved except by agitating for a more just social order. Frustrated by decades of the politics of “triangulation” that has dominated American liberalism, they are wary of arguments that their ambitions must be moderated if we are to avoid handing power back to the likes of Donald Trump.
Unlike the American left of the 1930s, supporters of a truly Stalinist approach are quite marginal. At the same time, as Colón details in his essay, it is true that there are factions within groups like DSA that are willing to marginalize would-be allies—both in the name of, or in opposition to so-called “identity politics.” We probably cannot rule out the possibility that, if the situation were to present itself, some of these factions might repress or sell out their ideological rivals, as in Orwell’s telling of the Communist offensive against the POUM.
For this reason, let’s hope Colón’s diagnosis of the DSA as a “laboratory for experiments in democratic living” is correct. As Colón tells it, the DSA is a pluralist socialist organization, with no ideological party line. The organization attempts to put in place procedures to enable raucous debates between opposing ideas, and to ensure that every member attending a meeting has a chance to express her opinion. For Colón, DSA is an heir to John Stuart Mill and John Dewey as much as to Karl Marx, committed to the idea that the more democratic its governing structures are, the better it will be able to articulate just what “going forward” must look like. It is in this democratic sense that the left should be honored to be called “Orwellian.”
 It is worth noting that Orwell’s account of a radically “democratic” militia is worlds apart from Tocqueville’s discussion of the democratic army in the second volume of Democracy in America. For Tocqueville, because there are no noble titles limiting a soldier’s potential rise, a democratic military becomes the staging ground for the careers of ambitious men. For this reason, he recommends that armies be kept small in democratic nations. In contrast, Orwell describes a militia where, at least at first, there are no ranks at all: all soldiers are each others’ comrades, and no one is superior to anyone else. It was generally understood that orders should be followed, “in the name of comradeship,” but nothing prevented soldiers from arguing with those who gave them, or refusing altogether While noting the clear disadvantages of such an organization after the war had progressed past a certain point, Orwell nonetheless defends this model of military discipline, claiming that when he was in “command” he never had a problem getting an order followed: “Cynical people with no experience … will say instantly that this would never ‘work,’ but as a matter of fact it does ‘work’ in the long run.”
Photo Credit: David Shankbone – Own work – via Wikimedia commons, “Democratic Socialists Occupy Wall Street 2011 Shankbone“, CC BY 3.0,