Why Orwell Matters
by Christopher Hitchens
208 pages, $24.00
Life was not particularly kind to George Orwell, nor were his contemporary critics. But history has treated him well, proving him right about the key issues of the twentieth century. In the bipolar political climate of the 1930s and 1940s, when intellectuals on the left and right were cozying up to the world's greatest evildoers, Orwell saw that the choice between Stalinism and fascism was in fact no choice at all—that the real struggle was between freedom and tyranny. A conservative by upbringing, and a socialist and a dissident by nature, he did not believe in politics as a matter of allegiance to a party or camp. What he did believe in was his own sensibility—or what he described as his "power of facing unpleasant facts."
As Christopher Hitchens observes in his biographical essay Why Orwell Matters, this "power of facing" proved important to Orwell, whose life was filled with more than its share of unpleasantness and danger. While working as a policeman in Burma he experienced the complexities of Empire and its insidious effects on colonizer and colonized alike; while fighting in the Spanish Civil War alongside the anarchists of Catalonia (many of whom were arrested as "Trotskyites" by Soviet forces) he witnessed the wickedness of Stalinism; and in Paris, London, and the various mining towns of Northern England, where he immersed himself in life at the lowest rungs of society, he saw the pitfalls of attempts by both Church and State to elevate the poor. Throughout these experiences, he expressed his nonconformist views—and faced considerable social and professional adversity as a result.
Hitchens, another independent thinker with an aversion to political tribalism and cant, has been hailed by some as Orwell's successor. The analogy has come into sharper focus since the attacks on the World Trade Center; in the weeks after September 11 Hitchens, a journalist widely known as a leftist, turned against the moral relativists and "blame America first" pacifists on the left and took a firm stand for the war against terrorism. Fittingly, the release of this book took place within the same month as his decision, on ideological grounds, to terminate his column for the left-wing Nation magazine.
Hitchens has cultivated a reputation for knocking popular idols, from Winston Churchill to Mother Theresa, off their pedestals. But in Why Orwell Matters he takes on the role of ardent defender. He is as ruthless on defense, however, as he is on offense, taking on leftists and conservatives, English nationalists and feminists, pedantic critics and postmodernists alike, for their various distortions of his subject's life and work.
The greatest assaults on Orwell's reputation have come from the left, where, Hitchens writes, his "very name ... is enough to evoke a shiver of revulsion." Many intellectuals have never forgiven Orwell for his condemnation of the Soviet regime and his horrific depictions of socialism in his novels 1984 and Animal Farm. "In the view of many on the official Left," explained the communist academic Raymond Williams, "he committed the ultimate sin of 'giving ammunition to the enemy.'" Hitchens cites essays by a variety of official leftists who hold this view, including E. P. Thompson, Isaac Deutscher, Edward Said, and Salman Rushdie. They portray Orwell as a reactionary, a bigot, and a surreptitious conservative, his socialism either false or corrupted by the bourgeois comforts of his married life. Some of their attacks verge on hysteria: Isaac Deutscher claims that 1984 provided the masses with a "giant Bogy-cum-Scapegoat," allowing them to "flee from their own responsibility for mankind's destiny." Williams writes that, by popularizing his political beliefs, "Orwell created the conditions for defeat and despair." What Hitchens finds most notable in these critiques, apart from the incredible power they attribute to their target, are the underhanded tactics they employ. Strenuous verbal contortions, out-of-context citations, and outrageous leaps of logic—these are the weapons these critics use against the man who famously wrote, "The enemy of clear language is insincerity."
It is not surprising, given his virulent anti-Stalinism, his conservatism on cultural matters, and his clashes with the left-wing intelligentsia, that many on the right regarded Orwell as a kindred spirit. The ex-leftists of the postwar neoconservative movement were particularly keen to embrace him as one of their own. Not only is he credited with having coined the phrase "cold war," but he also provided some of its earliest artillery with his campaign to publicize the Soviet massacre of Polish soldiers in the Katyn Forest in 1940. He was an early admirer of the free-market theorist and neoconservative icon Friedrich von Hayek, who argued that socialism leads inevitably to despotism and that Nazism and communism were two sides of the same coin. And 1984 probably won more hearts and minds over to the anti-Communist cause than did forty years' worth of Cold War propaganda combined.
But in Hitchens's view, attempts by the right to appropriate Orwell are illegitimate. In 1950, Henry Luce's Life magazine acclaimed the newly published 1984 as a warning against the dangers of the New Deala reading that Orwell publicly refuted. And in an essay entitled "If Orwell Were Alive Today," published in the year 1984, Commentary Magazine editor Norman Podhoretz invoked Orwell in support of Reagan's nuclear policy and of U.S. hegemony in general. To do so, Hitchens demonstrates, Podhoretz pulled fragments of Orwell's sentences out of context and attributed to them a meaning far from, if not opposite to, what Orwell had intended.
If Orwell can be considered to have been a part of any faction, Hitchens maintains, it was the little-known international group of anti-Stalinist Marxists (including the Russian anarchist Victor Serge, the Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James, and, after World War II, a small circle of American intellectuals at The Partisan Review). Orwell's relations with this group were essential to his success, Hitchens claims, helping both to mold his political views and to bring his works to the attention of the Eastern European dissidents who were the first to appreciate his extraordinary prescience.
Orwell died in 1950, early on in the Cold War, and the direction his political views would have taken had he lived remains, of course, an open question. But in Hitchens's view, those who play tug-of-war with Orwell's memory or insist on pigeonholing him underestimate the quality that truly makes him worth hanging on to. "What he illustrates," Hitchens writes, "by his commitment to language as the partner of truth, is that 'views' do not really count; that it matters not what you think but how you think; and that politics are relatively unimportant, while principles have a way of enduring."
I spoke with Hitchens recently by phone.
Orwell, as you describe him in your book, seemed to be suffering from a tortured conscience. He went to great pains to reject the conservative tendencies and prejudices that he had grown up with in order to become an honest socialist. He also spent much of his life subjecting himself deliberately to unpleasantness and danger. Do you get the impression that he didn't especially like himself?
I think that it's clear beyond all doubt that he didn't like himself much. He always thought, for example, that he was physically unattractive—that he was ungainly and repulsive—though it seems that he wasn't to women. And he certainly didn't have a very high estimation of his ability as a writer. Nor did he have much material success—he never really made a buck. And he suffered from ill-health of a kind that's sort of embarrassing—you know having a nasty cough the entire time, and always feeling a bit low. None of that can have helped what we would now call self-esteem. There is no question that he rated himself rather low as a person and as an author.
Is that a good quality in a writer?
Well, I don't think that a low self-regard is always a good thing, but it doesn't mean that a writer is disabled, either. I suppose the greatest example of someone who thought he was no good in any way was Marcel Proust. He thought he was abjectly feeble, cowardly, ugly, talentless, and so forth. That modesty doesn't seem to have been false at all on his part, but it seems to have served him well as a writer.
The great point that I try to make is that in fact Orwell isn't a very great writer. He's a very honest and courageous writer and he does a lot of work and he does have a certain gift of phrase, there's no doubt about it. But he's not in the first rank of writers. And that's a good thing, because it shows what average, ordinary people can do if they care to, and it abolishes some of the alibis and excuses for people who aren't brave.
I noticed that you cite in your book what seem to be two conflicting assessments of Orwell's ability. On the one hand there is Trilling's comment, "If we ask what he stands for, what he was a figure of, it's the virtue of not being a genius." On the other hand, Robert Conquest refers to him as a "moral genius." Is there a truer of these two depictions?
Yes, but I think one can take them out of direct opposition to one another. Some people have a knack, for example, of being able to tell when someone's lying to them. They may not know what the truth is, but they can tell when someone is trying to lead them astray or sell them something shady. I think he had that ability to an amazing degree. For example, when he wrote about the Russian purges he said, Well, on the evidence of what they claim, something terrible must be happening; I don't know what it is, but there's an undercurrent of hysteria here.
I also think he thought, without saying it explicitly, that you can convince a crowd of something that's not true more easily than you can one person at a time. He was very resistant to anything like mass suggestion, or mass hysteria or tribalism. I think that comes from his very early life. He detested the ways in which authority played on the mob.
Do you think that that resistance gave him the strength to swim against the current politically?
Oh, yes. I think he was quite resigned to his lot. I think he felt it was his destinythough maybe that's too grand a word to be a loner and an outsider.
Orwell is sometimes described as a kind of secular saint—an idea from which you say that you had to rescue him in order to write this book. Yet it's hard not to notice the ascetic life he led and the sacrifices he made for his moral vision. Do you think he believed in some way that he had a calling?
Very few people who write by themselves don't at some point have a feeling that maybe they're doing this for a higher purpose or have a destiny. So I can't say that he never went through anything like that. But there's very little, if any, trace of it in his conversations as reported by friends. And he's very well-reported by contemporaries. He's remembered in the writing of a lot of people, and it's very odd how consistently he comes out.
I think he may have thought there was a moral value to being on the losing side. He may have felt that there was something confirming about always being among the defeated—that that was more likely to be proof that he was right, which is a temptation that a lot of people have. There's a very good book about him by his friend Richard Rees, which I could probably have made more use of than I did, which is called Fugitive from the Camp of Victory. The reference there is to a remark made by Simone Weil, that justice is always the refugee from the camp of the victors. So there may have been a slight feeling of superiority that he had of being always with the tattered remnant of the losers, and he may have found something exulting in that. I think it would have been pardonable, because the losing sides he took were rather honorable ones.
That's only a speculation, though. I mean, his affinity for the losing side could also be explained simply by the fact that he was very pessimistic about himself and his prospects, and the prospects for humanity, and he seemed only to be cheered up by the things that are beyond the power of humans to fuck up, like nature.
He was uplifted by nature?
I don't know about uplifted, but he took consolation. He wrote a good short piece about what it was like to see spring come round again after a particularly bloody season of winter in London. There's nothing that the authorities can do to stop it—the birds and the flowers. Much as they might like to, they're powerless to prevent the spring.
It reminds me of the remark that Gordon Comstock makes in Orwell's novel Coming up for Air, that "often it is harder to sink than to rise. There is always something that drags one upwards."
Yes, exactly. He realized that you could set out to head for rock bottom and you'd find it strangely hard to do. That's a realization that a lot of Stoics, or stoic individuals, have made. When the worst—what you most dreaded—has occurred, then you can gain strength from the realization that maybe it's not so bad. Maybe you can survive and endure.
With 1984 was he trying to face people with the worst he could imagine in the hope that they would come out the other side?
Yes, he did think that if you face people with how terrible things could be, as he did with 1984, it might not necessarily mean plunging them into gloom. It might be a cause of fortitude. Some people might cower at what the future might hold, but some might not—it might make them stick out their chins, push their shoulders back a bit.
I was intrigued by your idea of 1984 being a summation of all his personal traumas, from boarding school to Burma to the Spanish war. How do you think he made the connection between those experiences and the dystopian vision in his novel?
I'm absolutely sure that when he thought to himself, What would it be like to live in a completely hopeless society, where the authorities have absolute power and control over the study of history, and where, if there's any disagreement, they can rely on the slavish loyalty of their subjects to hate the opposition more than they hate the government?—I'm sure that he thought back to his boarding school days. Boarding school is like that partly just because you're a child and you don't really know any better. They've really got you; you have to believe that what they say is true. You can guess that they may be lying, but you don't know. They teach you the history, they teach you the religion, they're in charge of you physically as well as mentally and morally. And if you're unpopular the other boys will turn against you. They won't sympathize with you against the authorities. You can feel completely isolated—enough indeed to wonder whether there's something wrong with you.
One of the reasons why I took to him as an author when I was young was that I'd been in one of those schools myself at the same agenot as bad as his, not as brutal, but very similar, very recognizable. So I thought, My God, it isn't just me. Because he was able to get the atmosphere exactly right.
You're talking about his essay, "Such, Such were the Joys"?
Right. You know, Auden once said that having taught at an English boarding school he was quite prepared to know what fascism might be like. It sounds like a ridiculous exaggeration—it can be made to sound, I suppose, self-pitying as well, but I think it's the feeling of powerlessness, the tactics used by the authorities to manipulate the underlings.
I think Orwell learned a lot in Burma as well—because it's there in Burmese Days as well as in 1984—about how people will agree to do half or more of the work of the government. There were very few actual armed Englishmen in Burma, but they were able to dominate people because they had a belief in their right to do it, and they were very good at splitting people up and dividing them against each other.
You write that he sympathized with the rulers as much as with the ruled. That he was able to identify with both.
I think Orwell was fed up with the facile idea that was held by some liberal types back home that the British in Burma did nothing more than loll around on the veranda getting the servants to bring them drinks and occasionally cracking a whip. He knew that there was more to it than that, that there was a certain amount of guts and courage involved and even, however degraded it had become, some idea of improving the life of the colonies. He was very easily irritated by anything bogus, anything facile or hypocritical. And it does help to know what the mentality of the ruling class is.
One thing that makes it difficult to locate Orwell on the political spectrum is a point you make in the book, that while he remained firmly on the left politically, he was culturally quite conservative. He didn't like feminists, homosexuals or vegetarians. He disagreed with the idea of protecting nature and animals at the expense of human well-being. He was against abortion. He complained about the decline of clarity and objective truth in written language. Where would he fit in today's political culture?
"The Defeat of the Left" (October 2002)
On George Orwell, World Cup soccer, and the Queen. By Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote a rather good review of my book in The Spectator in London in which he said about England today, quite correctly, that the right has won politically and economically and the left has won culturally. And he said Orwell would rather it had been the other way around. Some of the things Geoffrey said in his review were oversimplifications, and that is a simplification, too, though not a misleading one.
I even feel somewhat this way myself. I'm probably an even more decided atheist than Orwell was. I'm a militant atheist. But I find it revolting to see the Church of England posing in secular progressive garb, trying to be popular, throwing street parties and going to rock concerts and generally trying to be hip. I find the sight of that completely nauseating for about 1,500 reasons. And I feel sure that Orwell would have felt the same way. Even though the beliefs upon which they base themselves might be absurd and even sinister, there was a certain dignity to the Church of England. It represents quite a long struggle and conflict and a lot of very serious people willing to risk a lot for it, and now it's become a kind of clownish, trendy, almost vote-catching outfit. When I talk like that I don't know whether I sound like a conservative or not, and I don't particularly care.
You write a lot about the intense bitterness that the left still harbors toward Orwell. I wonder whether you think this is something typical—leftist intellectuals today are often accused of intolerance of criticism, especially from within, and of intellectual bullying and censorship in the name of political correctness. Do you see their Orwell-bashing as a manifestation of that, or as something more profound?
I think you're rightit's an aspect of that. I think Hannah Arendt said that one of the great achievements of Stalinism was to replace all discussion involving arguments and evidence with the question of motive. If someone were to say, for example, that there are many people in the Soviet Union who don't have enough to eat, it might make sense for them to respond, "It's not our fault, it was the weather, a bad harvest or something." Instead it's always, "Why is this person saying this, and why are they saying it in such and such a magazine? It must be that this is part of a plan." Some of that mentality is involved, certainly, in the way the old left people like Raymond Williams write about Orwell. They never lose that habit of thought.
Political correctness, by the way, is a very mild form of this. I mean, people who talk about political correctness as being a kind of thought police have no idea of what a thought police is. But political correctness does have the same mentality. It means that intellectual argument is doomed. Objective truth simply becomes a thing to jeer at, because obviously there's no such thing as objectivity—unless of course you're politically okay, in which case you can be objective. Any child can see through that, but many adults can't.
You also criticize the groups that have tried to appropriate Orwell as one of their own—particularly Cold War-era conservatives and English nationalists. Is it an irony that someone so dedicated to directness and transparency in his writing would be misread in so many different ways?
I think I can point out that in every case where an attempt to misread him has been made, it's been made by mangling his quotations. That is incredibly noticeable in the case of Norman Podhoretz. Straight out bad faith—chopping the bits that don't support his case out of an excerpt. If he had done that in the academy he would have been fired. Most of the other attributions or excerpts from Orwell are not much better. It's always just a few phrases, not only divorced from context but turned against it. It's a great compliment that he can't be quoted at length by his enemies to say other than what he did. They can't come up with a proper citation. And it's not as if he's that hard to quote.
That's one of the reasons for his importance—that he writes in such a way that makes it impossible to misconstrue. One of his last actions was to issue a formal denunciation of the exploitation of 1984. He made a formal statement for publication because of what Time and Life said of the book. They mangled his meaning. I actually think it's flattering that he was used in that way
People want what they think he's got, it's just that they don't realize what it would take to get it. They want the idea of integrity and authenticity and honesty. They want to brush up against him. They want to be in the same photo op as him, to use a modern idiom. "Maybe if I can just squeeze myself into this shot, I can be on the grand piano with Orwell."
Does it really seem such a stretch that neoconservatives should want to claim him, given that so many of them were one-time socialists who became disillusioned with Soviet communism?
"Lightness at Midnight" (September 2002)
Christopher Hitchens reviews Martin Amis's Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million.
I'm sorry to say this in the hearing of my conservative friends, but one reason why they admire him and wish to possess him is that they don't have an equivalent figure of their own. Which is for a good reason. One thing I stupidly left out of my piece on Martin Amis's Koba the Dread was to say, Look if you're going to write about why Stalinism was a moral crisis, you have to ask yourself why so many conservatives were taken in by it to one extent or another. For example, Winston Churchill openly said to Stalin's ambassador in London, Well, at least I see someone has taken care of the Bolsheviks in the purges and the trials. And T. S. Eliot, a man pretty much accepted as a conservative cultural icon for the last century, was one of the reasons for the non-publication of Animal Farm—not only because he didn't want to be rude to the Russian ally, but also because he suspected what he calls Orwell's Trotskyism.
The fact is, the right doesn't have anyone it can come up with from that period who was as prescient as Orwell. I suppose it represents progress that they want to steal him. But there are good reasons why they can't do that in good conscience. Almost all the critiques of Stalinism were written by people to the left of the Communist Party—a group of anti-Stalinist Marxists that used to be called the "left opposition." If you look back at the wreckage of the twentieth century, this group comes out of it better than any other, because it was simultaneously opposed to the Stalin terror, to Nazism and its racist fantasies, and to the imperial concept of the world as a labor pool for Britain and France and Germany.
One reason for the importance of Orwell is that he's the only member of that intellectual community who has a reputation outside the group. The other members of the group, like Victor Serge and C.L.R. James, are known to specialists, but they don't have the credit that they should have. Orwell does, but he has it for reasons apart from his affiliation with them, and he's been tugged in so many directions that he's almost shapeless. But the reason why he did so well and got so many things right was that he was in touch with that group. They're the ones who have the least to apologize for.
You write early on in your book that Orwell will still be relevant long after the subjects of his discourse have receded into history. Do you really think he'll be appreciated properly when the ideological struggles he took part in fade in memory?
In a sense, I have to plead guilty to having that both ways. He was writing about Nazis, the Empire, and Stalinism, so to say that it doesn't matter what his subject was is perhaps stretching it a bit. Obviously, one motive that people have for reading him is that they know that he withstood and he survived and was a distinguished writer about these important topics that keep on coming up. But students of mine who read his essay "Politics and the English Language," for example, who may know little about the controversies of that time and almost certainly wouldn't recognize the names of the people he was arguing with, can still see the point he was making about linguistic integrity and political and moral honesty. And with Homage to Catalonia, which is reportage, you don't have to know anything about the subject to appreciate it. The revolution in Catalonia is something that most people, even if they're interested in the period, don't know much about. But you find that Orwell is writing in a trustworthy way, in a penetrating manner.
You think there's something inherent in his style that makes it apparent that he's telling the truth?
Well, obvious though it may sound, yes, I do think that. He was writing about things I know about—the atmosphere in an English colonial military family, or the atmosphere in an English prep school. And I thought, Well, if this guy can evoke something I know in such a way as to make me really think about it for the first time, I would trust him as an observer about anything else. It's a compliment, you have to realize, that is fantastically rare. It isn't paid to many people. People can say that they think Jonathan Swift is a wonderful writer or Pope is a wonderful satirical poet or William Shakespeare writes marvelously about the idea of kingship, but by saying that, they don't mean that they think those authors gave a true account as far as they were aware—an honest, fearless account of what the politics of the day really were. We don't have to grant them that to admire them as writers, but with Orwell, it seems to be indissoluble from his reputation.
The term "Orwellian," in America at least, tends to be used (and probably overused) to mean "Big Brother"-type political programs and government manipulation of language and thought-control. Is there another definition of that term that you think might be more apt?
It's used in two ways. Preponderantly it's used in the way you describe. Someone who's run out of things to say or who wants to be clearly understood and doesn't want to take too much trouble doing it and who, for example, doesn't like Tom Ridge's Homeland Security proposals will almost infallibly describe them as "Orwellian." It's the one stick they can grasp at. Everyone is going to know what you mean, it sounds good, and you've made your point.
But if someone is going to describe a writer as Orwellian, which sometimes happens, they don't mean it that way. They mean someone with a certain "power of facing." This meaning is much less employed. If you were reading about a writer whose work you didn't know and the reviewer said this person had Orwellian qualities, you wouldn't think this person is an instrument of state terror, even if you knew no more. So it does have that quite satisfying minor secondary meaning. I can't think immediately of any contemporary author of whom that's true.
One of the most surprising facts that you mention is Orwell's indifference to the growing importance of U.S. culture. Even when his anti-Americanism faded and he began to appreciate American literature and to develop relationships with New York intellectuals, he never visited the country. Was this indifference an oversight on his part, or something more deliberate?
There were certainly things about America he found forbidding. It was so big and so rich and appeared to have become so big and so rich so fast—and if you like, without having enough history or struggle to deserve the good luck that it had. And he expected it had imperial ambitions. Then there was his family background, which is similar to mine—naval, military, colonial, very conservative (but with not enough interests to be conservative about), very defensive, very insecure, very patriotic, very pessimistic. In those circles America was hugely suspected of being more or less what Hollywood made it out to be: spoiled and fat, with designs on our Empire. I think he really didn't break free from that idea. I also think he didn't feel up to the subject. He was interested in the fate of the European left and the European Empire, and he couldn't make up his mind whether the U.S. was for or against these things. It seemed to be all kinds of things at once. It was his great failure that he never appreciated that this is what everyone was going to have to be coming to terms with.
But I think that would have changed had he lived another ten years. I think that his friends in New York would have persuaded him to come over. His references to American history or American ideals are few and far between, but they're quite on target. He understood something of the importance of Thomas Paine and the importance of having a constitution, and I think he vaguely guessed that there was back there in 1776 a triumph of the principles of the English Revolution of the seventeenth century, which he was always very interested in.
You, like Orwell, think independently of your political affiliations, and you've been compared to him by a number of people. One critic speculated recently that September 11 was for you, in some sense, what Catalonia was for Orwell—a turning point in relations with the intellectual left. Is there anything to that?
No, definitely not, for two reasons. One, September 11 didn't expose me to any risk. And secondly, for me, it was the culmination of a series of disagreements with a certain kind of radicalism—you could call it Chomskyism—that had been building up for a while. I don't know that Catalonia was a culmination for Orwell. It may have been, though, because I think he may already have begun to feel quite horrified by what was happening in Russia. It may have made him think that everything he suspected was true. But if you think of the stakes involved in that and the way they played out, it would be embarrassing to try to compare his situation to mine.
In his essay looking back on the Spanish war, Orwell expressed his great fear that objective truth was disappearing. I wonder whether you think that is something that is to be feared less now than it was at the time.
No, I don't. But I think that an encouraging conclusion one can make is that the crude, mechanized attempts to control "truth" that were part of the totalitarian apparatus weren't as crushingly successful as they looked as if they would be. They were so ruthless and seemed to be so powerful and so unscrupulous and terrifying that the lesson was, as was also suspected, that their very crudeness would undo them in the end. But it must have been very scary to face it as an individual. I don't know quite what it would be like.
I do know what it's like to have faxes sent to me from Tiananmen Square, proving that censorship has actually become a technological impossibility. It's since been proven many, many more times in many different ways. I think the old idea that a society could be completely insulated from the outside world (so that its people would have no means of comparing the way they live with anything else) isn't possible anymore.
My worry has more to do with another thing Orwell warned about—the willingness of people to police themselves, and to believe anything that they're told. Especially the willingness of intellectuals and academics to become worshipers of whomever is in power, or passers-on of whatever the reigning idea is. Conformity, in other words. That will always carry on being a threat. People don't remember Orwell for his opposition to conformity as well as they should.