2+2=5: George Orwell and Soviet Communism

Issue: 183

John Newsinger

A review of Lessons in George Orwell and Russia: 2+2=5, Masha Karp (Bloomsbury, 2023), £21.99

No 20th century British author has been more written about than Eric Arthur Blair, famous under his pen-name George Orwell. Still, for those interested in his ­political trajectory and in the people and events that determined it, Masha Karp’s new book is certainly one of the most important published in the last 25 years. Karp opens up to scrutiny whole new areas of the life and times of Orwell.

Let us start with Orwell’s “Aunt Nellie”, Ellen Kate Limouzin. According to Karp, Nellie was his favourite aunt, “the most bohemian of them…and also the most radical”. She had chained herself to railings in the suffragette struggle and was always on the militant left. It was through her that “young Eric…met the author Edith Nesbit, who wrote not only The Railway Children but also Ballads and Lyrics of Socialism”. Nellie “adored her precocious nephew and shared many of her interests and enthusiasms with him”.1 In the early 1920s, she became an adherent of left-wing Esperantism, which saw the Esperanto language, constructed by Polish pacificist L L Zamenhof in the late 19th century, as a tool for promoting international solidarity. Nellie involved herself with the World Anational Association (“Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda” in Esperanto) that had been founded in 1921 by Eugene Lanti, a French Communist. Lanti hoped to rally Esperantists across the world to the revolutionary cause and in support of Soviet Russia. The organisation even held its sixth congress in the Soviet city of Leningrad in August 1926, attended by 400 people. Anatoly Lunacharsky, the head of the Commissariat of Enlightenment (Narkompros), acted as honorary president. Lanti himself was prevented from attending by the French government.

By early 1926, Nellie and Lanti were living together in Paris. In 1928, when Orwell arrived in the city and visited his aunt, Lanti was in the process of ­breaking with the French Communist Party and was completely disillusioned with the situation in Russia. Orwell actually found himself in the position of defending the Soviet Union against his aunt and her partner. Moreover, he had, as is well known, no time whatsoever for Esperanto. Nevertheless, it was his Aunt Nellie who found him his first literary agent, and Lanti introduced him to Henri Barbusse, who published a couple of his articles in “the weekly communist journal Monde”.2 They also introduced him to the fact that all was not well with Russian Communism; indeed, Lanti may be credited with being “the first to explain to him what was happening in the Soviet Union”.3

Karp chronicles Lanti’s falling out with the Russians and the consequences. Arguably, she fails to pay enough attention to the part played in this by the ­sectarian Third Period turn imposed on the global Communist movement by the Soviet leadership in 1928. One result of this turn was that Lanti found himself denounced as a fascist. In 1931, the Russians boycotted the World Anational Association congress in Amsterdam, condemning the organisation as “counter-revolutionary”, although there were still Communists from other countries present to publicly denounce Lanti as a “fascist”.4 By June 1933, Lanti could write to a comrade:

I no longer believe that the Soviet Union remains a revolutionary factor in the struggle of the proletariat for its liberation… There are no signs of socialism in the Soviet Union; this is state capitalism with a privileged bureaucracy, which seizes surplus value even more greedily and shamelessly than private capitalism does. Workers and peasants do not control anything.

As far as Lanti was concerned there was really no difference “between the dictatorships of Stalin, Hitler and Benito Mussolini”.5

What became of the Russian Esperantists? In 1937-8, as Karp points out, “Practically all the leading Soviet Esperantists were arrested, and many of them were shot.” Many were accused of, and actually confessed to, Trotskyism. Even a passing interest in Esperanto put you in danger of deportation to a labour camp or execution. Karp quotes from the confession of one of the leaders of Russian Esperantism, Nikolai Nekrasov, who, despite faithfully condemning Lanti whenever required, confessed to being a “Trotskyist” saboteur in 1938. The confession claimed that he secretly worked for the “Trotskyist” Lanti and, following his instructions, planned to “commit a terrorist attack against Stalin”.6 Nekrasov, who had translated the works of Russian romanticist writer Aleksandr Pushkin and Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky into Esperanto, was shot on 4 October 1938. Aunt Nellie, as Karp insists, kept Orwell in touch with what she and Lanti were involved in even after he returned to Britain.

Karp also introduces us to Myfanwy Westrope, a good friend of Aunt Nellie. Nellie put Orwell in touch with Westrope when he was looking for a job. From October 1934, he worked as a shop assistant in the Westropes’ bookstore, Booklovers’ Corner in Hampstead, North London, for some 15 months, and he lived above the shop as a lodger. He refers to the remarkable Westrope just once in his writings, calling her “the ­non-interfering sort, rare among London landladies”, but she was much more than that. Westrope had worked with socialist and ­suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst during the First World War, contributing to her newspaper, Woman’s Dreadnought, which became Workers’ Dreadnought in 1917. Her husband, Frank Westrope, spent nearly three years in prison as a conscientious objector; while inside, he met future Independent Labour Party (ILP) leader Fenner Brockway, who became a family friend. Both Myfanwy and Frank were members of the ILP as well as ­left-wing Esperantists and parts of Lanti’s World Anational Association. Westrope visited Russia in 1931, but she came away disillusioned by what she saw: the ­poverty of the workers and the privileges of the bureaucrats. Karp quotes the Marxist ­historian John Saville, who insisted, “Orwell could not have escaped listening to long diatribes against the Soviet Union from someone who was very political”, and that Westrope’s brother introduced Orwell to the Trotskyist writers Reg Groves and Hugo Dewar.7 This was all before Orwell’s visit to Wigan, where he surveyed the living conditions of workers. What is clear from all this is that Orwell was much more familiar at this time with both the militant left and left-wing ­disillusionment about the Soviet Union than he ever admitted in his own writings. This milieu is key to our understanding of the development of his politics. Furthermore, of course, Booklovers’ Corner was very much on MI5’s radar at this time.

The decisive experience in Orwell’s political life was his fighting the fascists as a volunteer in the militia of the Spanish Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM; Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista). He participated in the May 1937 uprising in Barcelona and experienced the subsequent Communist ­offensive against the revolutionary left. Of particular interest in this regard is Karp’s account of how both Orwell and his wife, Eileen Blair, were forced to go on the run in Spain so as to escape from the Russian secret police, the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs). After the POUM was suppressed in June 1937, Eileen’s room in Barcelona was raided, and letters and documents were seized. One of these documents actually proved that, “at some point, Orwell was at least considering joining the anarchists”. This material was “meant to be the basis for trumped up charges against Orwell”, with the final charge, made on 13 July 1937, concluding, “Eric Blair and his wife…are confirmed Trotskyists… They must be considered liaison officers of the ILP with POUM”.8

The Orwells managed to escape the clutches of the NKVD, but others were not so lucky. In December 1936, as Karp details, the new head of the NKVD, Nikolai Yezhov, had set up an agency to carry out “special tasks” outside the Soviet Union, especially the liquidation of various “Trotskyists” (though they operated under a very broad definition of this term). This organisation was very active in Spain, though not in killing fascists, but rather in murdering ­dissident leftists. Kurt Landau, a former official within the Communist Party of Austria who had been expelled in 1927 for supporting Leon Trotsky but then ­subsequently fell out with him, was very active in the POUM and “coordinated its international relations”. Once the POUM was banned, every effort was made to locate Landau, who had gone into hiding, including the arrest and torture of those suspected of knowing his whereabouts. On 23 September 1937, Landau was captured; he was never seen again. His wife, Katia, herself already in prison, organised a hunger strike of some 500 other women prisoners, demanding to know what had happened to him. Her cause was taken up by the ILP’s man in Spain, John McGovern. Although Landau’s fate was never revealed (we can safely assume that he was tortured, shot and secretly buried or cremated), Katia was eventually released, fleeing to Paris where she “published a pamphlet called Stalinism in Spain, which Orwell was proud to own”.9

When Orwell returned home from Spain, he found waiting for him a letter from Sergei Dinamov, editor of the Russian magazine Internatsionalnaya Literatura (International Literature), asking him to contribute to the magazine and requesting a copy of The Road to Wigan Pier for review. Orwell wrote back to explain that he had just returned from Spain, where he had been fighting as a member of the POUM militia, and that he did not really think the magazine would welcome a ­contribution from him. This was in fact Dinamov’s second letter; the first was sent on to Orwell while he was in Spain, but it had been seized during the raid on Eileen’s room. As Karp points out, at this point Dinamov must have realised the danger he had put himself in by writing to request a ­contribution from a known “Trotskyist”. In an attempt to save himself, he handed the problem over to the NKVD towards the end of July 1937. However, this failed to save him and, although we do not know what part his contact with Orwell played in ­determining his fate, it certainly cannot have helped. He was arrested in September 1938 and executed on 16 April 1939. As for Orwell, he received a reply from the magazine telling him that they wanted ­“nothing to do with POUM members”, who were a part of General Francisco Franco’s “fifth column”.10 It is worth noticing here that the scale of the repression that Stalin had unleashed in the Soviet Union at this time was far greater than that which the Nazi regime had so far perpetrated. Between August 1937 and November 1938, some “800,000 people were executed… On average there were 50,000 executions a month or 1,700 per day for nearly 500 days”.11 This was the regime that Communists and their sympathisers throughout the world ­championed as a socialist utopia.

Once he had returned from Spain, Orwell set about investigating the nature of the Stalinist regime. One early influence was Eugene Lyons, whose book, Assignment in Utopia, he reviewed in June 1938. It made a powerful impression on him. Lyons was a US socialist who had embraced the cause of the Russian Revolution and worked in the country as a journalist, only to become increasingly disillusioned by what he saw. In particular, he was appalled by the introduction of capital punishment for theft in 1932. The 1932-3 Great Famine, which cost the lives of some 3 million people (modern estimates are much higher), finally confirmed him as an opponent of the regime. As far as Lyons was concerned, it was as if Stalin and his henchmen “had strangled the victims with their own hands”. One passage from Assignment in Utopia indicates the book’s enduring impact on Orwell:

The slogan “The Five Year Plan in Four Years” was advanced, and the magic symbols “5 in 4” and “2+2=5” were posted and shouted throughout the land. The slogan “2+2=5” instantly riveted my attention…in electric lights on Moscow house fronts, in foot-high letters on billboards.12

Of course, this phrase would later be incorporated into Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which protagonist Winston Smith wonders if the Inner Party might declare that “two plus two equals five” is a fact. Lyons confesses to his enduring shame at having turned a blind eye to what was going on in front of him for as long as he did. At the time he wrote the book, Lyons was still a ­socialist and considered himself a supporter of the Russian Revolution, which he saw as having been betrayed by the Stalinists. He viewed himself as a witness to “the liquidation of the revolution”.13 As Orwell wrote in his review, the system operating in Russia “does not seem to be very different from fascism”:

The town proletariat, theoretically the heirs of the revolution, have been robbed even of the elementary right to strike… By the introduction of the internal ­passport system, they have been reduced to a status resembling serfdom.14

As for Stalin, he was “worshipped in terms that would have made Nero blush”. Orwell went on to ask whether this system was socialism “or a particularly vicious form of state capitalism?”.15 He did not, however, express a conclusion. Trotsky, it must be said, was less impressed by Lyons than Orwell was, describing the Assignment in Utopia as “interesting though not profound”.16

Another important influence Karp identifies was Franz Borkenau, an Austrian who had joined the German Communist Party in 1921 and worked for the Communist International for a number of years up until his expulsion at the end of 1929. He remained on the left, first impressing Orwell with his book The Spanish Cockpit, published in 1937. Borkenau had been arrested on a visit to Spain as a suspected “Trotskyist”. His later books, The Communist International, published in 1938, and The Totalitarian Enemy, printed in 1940 and arguably his most important, also impressed Orwell. Indeed, Karp convincingly argues that Borkenau’s influence “on Orwell’s development as a social thinker is impossible to overestimate”. This is an important conclusion that opens up new terrain in the exploration of the evolution of Orwell’s thinking. The two men became good friends when Borkenau was living in Britain with Orwell, who once described Borkenau as “one of the most valuable gifts that Hitler made to England”. In the summer of 1940, they were both “convinced that a revolution in Britain was ­imminent” and were very much looking forward to the prospect. However, at the end of June, Borkenau was rounded up as an “enemy alien” and deported a fortnight later to an internment camp in Australia—despite having a Jewish father, being a militant socialist and a committed anti-Nazi. A year later, he was allowed back into Britain but, although Orwell and Borkenau remained friends, they were never as close as they had been before. Still, “Eileen helped edit Borkenau’s next book”.17

Among the many pamphlets about the Stalinist regime that Orwell read after his return from Spain was French Marxist Boris Souvarine’s 48-page Cauchemar en URSS (“Nightmare in the USSR”), which was published in 1937. Souvarine had been a leading member of the French Communist Party, but he was expelled for supporting Trotsky in July 1924. He subsequently fell out with Trotsky, not least because he rejected Trotsky’s insistence that Stalin’s Russia remained a workers’ state, albeit a “degenerated” one. Souvarine instead recognised the regime as state capitalist. In his pamphlet, he condemned the infamous “Moscow Trials”, where veteran Communists, many of whom he had known for years, confessed to “every crime imaginable, or rather unimaginable, denouncing one another, admitting everything and more”. Karp suspects that the greatest impact on Orwell would have been made by Souvarine’s explication of why they confessed: “The explanation can be summed up in one word: the Terror”.18 Later, in 1939, Secker and Warburg, the company that had published Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, printed C L R James’s translation of Souvarine’s biography of Stalin, which he had written in 1935.

There is so much more in Karp’s book and so much to learn—whether one agrees or disagrees with her particular stance—but let us end with Orwell’s involvement with the German-based Russian émigré magazine Possev. After its publication in 1945, Animal Farm was translated into many languages. Possev had published Gleb Struve’s Russian-language translation over 26 issues and hoped to release it in book form for distribution behind the Iron Curtain. Orwell was very keen to do this, but did not want it “brought out by a ­reactionary publisher”: “Orwell did not fancy being published in Russian by those who did not understand why the Russian Revolution had happened in the first place”.19 He received assurances, including from the Foreign Office, that those involved were not reactionaries, and he actually helped subsidise the publication of the book in 1950. The Foreign Office had lied. Orwell died without knowing of the changes that Struve had made to his work. All mention of Moses, the raven, was removed because the Possev publishers could not stomach him satirising the church, religion and the role they played in society. They were, as Karp bluntly puts it, “White Russians”, members of an émigré organisation whose ranks included many who had collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War. Indeed, some had even fought for Franco in Spain. On a number of occasions, Struve made clear that, despite his admiration for Orwell, he disagreed with “the shortcomings of the author’s ‘Trotskyist’ position”. According to Struve, Orwell’s “Trotskyist approach, as well as his idealisation of the early phase of the Russian revolution, are undeniable”.20 Nevertheless, despite the socialist politics of Animal Farm, the book was still seen as worth publishing to act as an ideological weapon against the Soviet regime. At this point in the story, Karp insists quite correctly that Orwell was not in fact a Trotskyist, but arguably she misses the extent to which Animal Farm actually is a satirical fictionalisation that ­amalgamates the anarchist and Trotskyist understanding of the Russian Revolution and its betrayal—and, of course, there is Snowball.

This brings us to the gap in Karp’s account; she fails to explore the influence of Trotskyist and anarchist ideas on Orwell’s understanding of the Stalinist regime in enough depth and detail. Nevertheless, what she has done ­considerably advances our knowledge and understanding of Orwell’s fight against Stalinism. Let us end with Orwell’s own summing up of his political life, which he made in the summer of 1946:

The Spanish war and other events in 1936-7 turned the scale, and thereafter I knew where I stood. 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.21

John Newsinger is the author of numerous books, including Chosen by God: Donald Trump, the Christian Right and American Capitalism (Bookmarks, 2020).


1 Karp, 2023, p4.

2 Karp, 2023, p18.

3 Karp, 2023, p26.

4 Karp, 2023, p21.

5 Karp, 2023, pp21-22.

6 Karp, 2023, p26.

7 Karp, 2023, p33.

8 Karp, 2023, pp73-74 and 76.

9 Karp, 2023, p82.

10 Karp, 2023, p90.

11 Karp, 2023, p96.

12 Lyons, 1991, p240.

13 Lyons, 1991, pp542 and 583. Lyons soon moved to the right, enthusiastically supporting the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

14 Quoted in Newsinger, 2005, p138.

15 Quoted in Newsinger, 2005, p138.

16 Trotsky, 1938.

17 Karp, 2023, pp93, 186 and 187.

18 Karp, 2023, p98.

19 Karp, 2023, p212.

20 Karp, 2023, pp212, 214 and 216.

21 Davison, 1998, p391. My emphasis.


Davison, Peter (ed), 1998, The Complete Works of George Orwell: Volume 18, Smothered Under Journalism 1946 (Secker and Warburg).

Karp, Masha, 2023, Lessons in George Orwell and Russia: 2+2=5 (Bloomsbury).

Lyons, Eugene, 1991 [1937], Assignment in Utopia (Transaction).  

Newsinger, John, 2005, “Destroying the Myth: George Orwell and Soviet Communism”, in Paul Flewers (ed), George Orwell: Enigmatic Socialist (Socialist Platform).

Trotsky, Leon, 1938, “Twenty Years of Stalinist Degeneration”, Fourth International (March), www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/xx/stalinism.htm