If I was asked to pick (a) a favourite radio programme, (b) a favourite author and (c) a favourite weekly journal, I would plump for Little Atoms, George Orwell and Tribune.
Imagine my delight, therefore, when I found all three of these recently rolled into one. On the Little Atoms radio programme, Paul Anderson a former editor of Tribune was interviewed about a book he has edited, entitled Orwell in Tribune. It will consist of a collection of Orwell’s writings from Tribune and is due to be published shortly by Politicos.
Paul Anderson still writes for Tribune. He will be known to some as the joint author (with Nyta Mann) of "Safety First: The Making of New Labour" (Granta Books, 1997). In responding to questions about Orwell and Tribune he was articulate, relevant and highly informative.
If you wish to listen to the programme, click here. Let me first give some more information about the favourites I opted for above.
Little Atoms is a fortnightly radio programme which can be heard upon Resonance 104.4 FM on Fridays from 16.30 to 17.30. It is a live discussion show with an agenda which is Rationalist, Pro-Science, Atheist, Humanist and for the Progressive Left. So it appeals to all my prejudices; except it has the good sense to see these as being commitments to common sense.
In the programme, Neil Denny and Padraig Reidy (who is deputising for Richard Sanderson) interview guests from the worlds of science, politics, philosophy, journalism and the arts on subjects as diverse as conspiracy theories, cosmology, human rights and the state of the left.
What could be more appealing to a former left (but not nutty) Labour M.P. with a background in studying and teaching politics and philosophy - whose readings nowadays include a greater emphasis on the philosophy of science.
I have been reading the works of George Orwell (and works about him) for nearly 50 years. It wasn’t one of his novels which first grabbed me, but the book in which he describes and assesses his experiences whilst fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War: "Homage to Catalonia."
The Spanish Civil War broke out five days before I was born and it came to have a special fascination for me, probably because I was brought up during the 2nd World War against Fascism.
The Chapters in his book alternate between his experiences as a militiaman (leading to him being wounded) and the political and then military infighting on the Republican side; which was amongst the Communist UGT, the Anarchists and the independent Marxist force - the POUM. Orwell had joined the latter through links with the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in Britain.
It was perhaps inevitable that I would come to involve myself with the work of the ILP’s successor organisation - Independent Labour Publications.
The best work about Orwell still seems to me to be Bernard Crick’s biography; "George Orwell: A Life" (Penguin 1980). Crick brings together a fine blend of empathy and intellectual rigour in explaining and analysing Orwell’s life and writings.
I only wish that his academic assessment of Orwell’s work had appeared at the conclusion of the book and not as an introduction. For it really flows from the biographical output and could be off-putting to some as a starter.
In a collection of Orwell’s essays, entitled "Orwell and Politics" (editor Peter Davison, Penguin 2001), Timothy Garton Ash states "it was after Spain that he really became Orwell" (rather than retaining his original traits which can be associated with his proper name, Eric Blair). "Every line of his writings now have a political purpose. Imperialism and Fascism would remain major targets of his generous anger".
Although we now face Imperialism and Fascism in modern dress, this even handed and morally significant anger is something we need to nourish to avoid us becoming friends to either side.
Tribune (known initially as “The Tribune”) was first published in January 1937 and it still survives. Its heyday was its earlier years up to (and covering) its period of Bevanism. In fact Aneurin Bevan was himself a wartime editor and Michael Foot (his friend and great biographer) had two spells as editor prior to 1959.
Something of the special nature of Bevanism and how it offered a different universe to that now given by New Labour’s Third Way is seen in the following quotation from Bevan’s "In Place of Fear" (1952, MacGibbon & Kee.)
"Democratic Socialism is not a middle way between capitalism and Communism. If it were merely that, it would be doomed to failure from the start. It can not live by borrowed vitality. Its driving power must derive from its own principles and the energy released by them. It is based on the conviction that free men can use free institutions to solve the social and economic problems of the day, if they are given a chance to do so".
The driving power Bevan wished to unleash is seen nowhere better than in Orwell’s writings for Tribune. He wrote some two dozen articles for Tribune from 1940 to 1943 and then became a regular contributor until 1947. For a key period, he was their literary editor and had a personal column entitled "As I Please" to which he made 80 separate contributions.
On Tribune’s 10th Anniversary he wrote that Tribune was "the only existing weekly paper that makes a genuine effort to be both progressive and humane - that is to combine a radical socialist policy with a respect for freedom of speech and a civilised attitude towards literature and the arts". As Bernard Crick claimed in his autobiography of Orwell, "there was less a Tribune line than a Tribune style of argument, which suited Orwell perfectly".
I look forward to reading Paul Anderson’s selection of Orwell’s writings taken from Tribune. Especially as Anderson was first attracted to work for Tribune as its literary editor so that he could follow in the footsteps of Orwell whose work he was 'hooked' upon.
Anderson found a similar satisfaction in that work to that felt by Orwell.
I first ever heard about Tribune when listening to the BBC Overseas Service broadcasting "What the Papers Say" when undertaking my National Service in 1955 and 1956. I wasn’t able to purchase copies until I returned home to be demobbed. These was the heady days of the Suez and Hungarian crises, followed quickly by the marches to "Ban the Bomb".
Today’s Tribune only occasionally reaches the heights of those days. But I subscribe to it still out of past loyalties and in the hope that the Labour Left can flourish again whilst avoiding the twin entrapments of Chomskyism and a fresh Brownite version of New Labourism. As Bevan saw, Democratic Socialists have their own vitality.
Perhaps reflections on Orwell’s Tribune could fruitfully help us to rediscover this.