George Orwell: Writer & Socialist
"From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer," Orwell wrote later in his life. "Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books."5 By 1927, Eric Blair had decided that he could no longer ignore his true calling. He decided to become a writer, a goal that for him required gathering as much experience as possible in order to have something to write about. For the next several years he drifted around Europe—first through London, and then on to Paris to join the large community of expatriate writers there. He picked up odd jobs that ranged from teaching to picking hops to dishwashing. He pretended to be a vagrant and sought treatment for his illnesses in squalid public clinics. He even tried—unsuccessfully—to get arrested so that he could write about life in prison.
He also managed to write occasionally for left-wing publications. At the time, his politics were radical but not very well-defined. His personal experiences among Europe's poor had given him a sense of social justice, but he hadn't really figured out yet how to put his political perspective into words. His identity as a writer began to come together in 1933, when he decided to take the pen name George Orwell—a combination of the names of the current monarch (King George V, who sat on the British throne from 1910-1936) and a nearby river (the River Orwell, a major waterway of the East of England). Shortly thereafter he published his first book, a nonfiction account of his experiences in Europe entitled Down and Out in Paris and London. A year later he published Burmese Days, his critique of the British Empire in South Asia. On 9 June 1936 he married a student named Eileen Maud O'Shaughnessy—a major coup, since his difficulty attracting women was one of the greatest regrets of Orwell's life.
Earlier in 1936, Orwell set out on a two-month expedition to northern England to investigate the working and living conditions of coal miners there. What he saw changed him. "Before you can be sure whether you are genuinely in favour of Socialism, you have got to decide whether things at present are tolerable or not tolerable,"6 Orwell wrote in his book about the experience, The Road to Wigan Pier. He left northern England convinced that things were certainly not tolerable. Orwell was appalled by the impoverished conditions he encountered and was convinced that socialism was the best system to address such inequalities. His book was half a narrative on the conditions he encountered and half a detailed description on the evolution of his political consciousness.
The pivotal moment in his political evolution came in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. Orwell volunteered to fight on behalf of the left-wing Republican government, which was under attack after a coup led by General Francisco Franco's fascists. Orwell stayed in Spain for six months, during which time he was shot in the throat by a sniper when his non-Stalinist squad came under attack from a Kremlin-backed unit. Orwell left Spain with a lifelong abhorrence of totalitarian governments. The following year he published Homage to Catalonia, a book about the experience. The war was a dividing point in his work. "The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood," Orwell wrote. "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, AGAINST totalitarianism and FOR democratic socialism, as I understand it."7