The Defeat of the Left

On George Orwell, World Cup soccer, and the Queen

By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Over and again during this riveting and bewildering past year I have found myself thinking of George Orwell. Poor Orwell. He has become a totemic figure; he has notoriously been the object of intellectual grave-robbing; he still excites angry passions. Christopher Hitchens has just published a spirited defense of his contemporary relevance, and Simon Schama, at the close of his televised History of Britain, focused on the two Englishmen whom he saw looming over the past century: Churchill and Orwell. Besides that, Orwell is continually invoked for debating purposes (mea culpa: I did so myself not long ago, in a column about the fighting in Afghanistan).

He survives all these uses and abuses because his writing is so penetrating—and so prescient. It illuminates life today as much as it did in his too-short lifetime. Speculation about what Orwell would have said or done if he'd lived to see the Cold War at its height, or Vietnam, or the collapse of Soviet Russia, is impudent and idle. We know what he did say, and it's quite enough to read what he wrote sixty years ago, so much of it still so eerily apt. Not least, he would have understood very well what we have been witnessing in England this year—both the renewed, simple, unpolitical patriotism of ordinary people and the resentments of the left-wing intelligentsia, about whom Orwell once wrote so sharply.

What distinguished those intellectuals in his time was that they were so "markedly hostile to their own country," as he put it; and what distinguished their newspapers was "their generally negative, querulous attitude." Plus ça change ... Orwell saw also that although patriotism in England "takes different forms in different classes ... it runs like a connecting thread through nearly all of them," and he wrote, "Only the Europeanised intelligentsia are really immune to it." True then, true now, as we've seen more than once this year. First came the death of the Queen Mother, and then the Golden Jubilee marking the fiftieth anniversary of the accession of her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II. The jubilee overlapped with the World Cup soccer tournament, and the visible consequences of them together were startling.

Last fall found the Stars and Stripes flying in every village and street in the United States. This summer the Union Jack was flying in every street here, and England's red cross of Saint George flew from any number of cars, to celebrate both the jubilee and our plucky lads' progress in the World Cup. (It will have escaped most American readers, but England got as far as the quarter-finals, gratifyingly beating Argentina, before losing to Brazil, the eventual Cup winner.) I have a little boy's memories of the coronation, in 1953; a fan's memories of 1966, when England actually managed to win the World Cup; and vivid memories of the Silver Jubilee, in 1977. All of those occasions were echoed in this year's upsurge of affectionate national pride.

Most remarkable was this year's jubilee. For years past the Queen and her family have been subject to a torrent of denigration. Not all the criticism was unfair, and some of the royal injuries were plainly self-inflicted. Although she in some ways deserves the tribute that A.J.P. Taylor paid her grandfather King George V ("a better record as constitutional sovereign than any monarch since William III"), the Queen cannot honestly be described as a very successful mother, and the antics of her dysfunctional family have only increased the vengeful chorus. But the detractors have forgotten what we saw during the summer. A monarchy doesn't necessarily mean fawning adulation of any individual, still less total obedience. It means a collective ritual. What took place in the summer was a celebration not merely of her, the Queen, but of us, the nation she reigns over. And a most benign and nourishing celebration it was, as these things go. Orwell would have known why. He wanted to see the back of capitalism and of most traditional British institutions, but he said he would be happy to keep the monarchy, not least because of "the part played by hereditary monarchs in canalising and neutralising emotions which would otherwise attach themselves to real rulers with genuine powers for evil."

That truth eludes the chattering-class commentariat, who were utterly disconcerted by the royal celebrations. Their delusion was notably apparent in the Guardian, our leading left-liberal paper and arguably the best of our broadsheets, where Jonathan Freedland and others predicted that no one would show up to say farewell to the Queen Mother. In the event enormous numbers did so, first at her lying-in-state and then at her funeral; to his credit, Freedland admitted that he had been quite wrong and made some attempt to work out why. And yet, with the wish again fathering the thought, the chatterati then predicted a flop for the jubilee, only to see their predictions confounded still more dramatically.

After George V had marked twenty-five years on the throne, Orwell recalled that "the popular response to the Silver Jubilee in 1935 took the authorities by surprise"—so much so that the celebrations had to be prolonged. In June the popular response to the Golden Jubilee also took everyone by surprise, from the authorities to the anti-monarchists. There were jollities all over the country; the Queen was cheered to the echo wherever she went; the concerts at Buckingham Palace—albeit a trifle cheesy and kitschy for those of refined tastes—were hugely successful. At the climax an almost unbelievable one million people thronged the Mall—all sorts and conditions, rich and poor, demonstrating, among other things, that "in Britain national solidarity is stronger than class antagonism," and you can guess who said that.

Why had the progressive commentariat not begun to sense this? Why, for that matter, are they so spiteful about the royal family, a spite that goes way beyond the perfectly rational (and perfectly obvious) case for republicanism? I believe that this attitude is one symptom of a kind of nervous breakdown the left is undergoing. Symptoms are manifested in other contexts as well. There was the spasm of barely concealed glee—"America had it coming"—after September 11, and then a different kind of gloating over Palestinian violence. The Oxford don and poetaster Tom Paulin was only an advanced case when he said that the Jewish settlers on the West Bank "should be shot dead" and that "I feel nothing but hatred for them." You don't have to be an uncritical admirer of the Bush Administration or a supporter of the Sharon government's settlement policy (I am neither) to find the glee repellent and Paulin's language almost psychotic.

Behind that spite and anger, behind the nervous breakdown it reflects, lies something of great historical importance: the defeat of the left. That defeat is a matter of fact and not opinion. The collapse of the Soviet Union—long predeceased by Marxism-Leninism (as a doctrine in which anyone believed)—is only part of the story. Not long before his death, in 1997, the much maligned philosopher Isaiah Berlin correctly said that we were living in the first age since 1789 when there was no large project on the European left. That may sound partisan, but it has been confirmed by Perry Anderson, of all people, the editor of the Anglo-Marxist New Left Review (and one of Berlin's maligners). Two years ago Anderson wrote in an essay,

The only starting point for a realistic Left today is a lucid registration of historical defeat. Capital has comprehensively beaten back all threats to its rule, the bases of whose power—above all, the pressures of competition—were persistently under-estimated by the socialist movement.

Defeat has spread far beyond the Marxist or revolutionary left. Something truly remarkable is happening when, in the very home of the French Revolution, an incumbent socialist Prime Minister can be knocked out of a presidential election by candidates of the right, one moderate and one extreme. A rightward tide has been sweeping all of Europe (without being too cynical, that is not confuted by Tony Blair's electoral successes)—and it has had a very bad effect on "what's left of the left." With their hopes dashed, with no foreign idols to admire, and with no serious dreams for the future, leftists can only turn in on themselves in a frenzy of rage, at worst gloating over mass murder and at best lashing out at irrelevant targets like the Queen.

Orwell passionately believed in socialism as a moral and historical necessity, but he saw the purpose of monarchy. The London chatterati no longer believe in socialism, but they sneered relentlessly at the Queen Mother before and after her death, in a way that said much more about the sneerers than the sneered-at. Not that it would have surprised Orwell, with his withering scorn for an intelligentsia so hostile to its own country. And he would not have been surprised either by the jubilee. Although the monarchy had obviously been damaged by the abdication crisis in 1936, he suggested, "it may well be that another long reign ... would revive royalist feeling." As the Queen celebrated her fifty years on the throne, one could almost feel Orwell's presence in the Mall.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/10/the-defeat-of-the-left/302608/