George Orwell has suffered the saddest fate for a political writer: he has been rendered uncontroversial. Animal Farm and 1984 are assigned reading for junior high school students around the world, and Orwell’s nuanced body of ideas have been simplified to pithy statements, as if all he really had to say was: “democracy good, totalitarianism bad.” He has suffered the indignity of becoming a hero to neoconservatives, who see him as the father of their cold-war ideology but forget that he opposed runaway capitalism just as vigorously as he opposed fascism and communism.
This year, the 100th anniversary of Orwell’s birth, a new battle has erupted over his memory and legacy. Christopher Hitchens, until recently a long-time columnist for The Nation, has written an entire book attempting to extricate Orwell from the pile of “saccharine tablets and moist hankies” under which his reputation has been buried. Attacking both the right and the left, Why Orwell Matters tries to bring Hitchens’s version of Orwell’s “true” opinions to the public, saving him from critics and false friends.
Orwell was born Eric Blair in Motihari, India in 1903, the son of a minor official in the government opium monopoly. The date and place are important, because they meant that Orwell came of age during the Great War and experienced the British Empire at the height of its power. Although he understood the flaws of the Edwardian Age, Orwell would always look back on that era with nostalgia, as an Eden destroyed by war, technology, and mass unemployment. Orwell’s writing draws upon this vision of a happier time, maintaining that no matter how bad things become, some hope remains for humanity.
For the first twenty-two years of his life, Orwell did the expected things for an Englishman of his class. After attending a hellish prep school (memorialized in his brilliantly ironic essay “Such, Such were the Joys”) Blair went to Eton, then started a career in the Burmese Imperial Police. Disgusted by his police work, he became a lifelong enemy of imperialism. Anxious to get in touch with the common man, he became a tramp, a dishwasher, and a bookstore clerk. He traveled through the Lancashire coal country, gathering material on the squalid conditions of the unemployed for his book The Road to Wigan Pier. Acting on his ideals, he fought in the Spanish civil war and was almost killed by a bullet to the neck.
Orwell’s style was fresh, clear, and persuasive. A champion of common sense, he appealed to universal human values of reasonableness and decency (two of his favorite words.) He preferred these everyday ideas to the subtle intellectual arguments advanced by many of his contemporaries, which he felt tended towards fascism or communism. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he wrote:
Socialism means the overthrow of tyranny at home as well as abroad. As long as you keep that fact in front, you will never have much doubt as to who are your real supporters. As for minor differences—and the profoundest philosophical difference is unimportant compared with the saving of twenty million Englishmen whose bones are rotting from malnutrition—the time to argue about them is afterwards.
Because of his unadorned style, readers often identify closely with him. The critic Richard Schickel once wrote that Orwell’s persona is “very close to your best self, the self that exists for most of us only in wistful imaginings.” This is most apparent in Orwell’s copious nonfiction works. From the early 1930’s until his death in 1950, Orwell churned out hundreds of essays, reviews and columns. He wrote on a wide range of subjects, from popular culture to the best way to make a cup of tea. In his major political work, Orwell persuasively puts forward a view of democratic socialism as the “natural” alternative to the bloody ideologies of the time. Many of his views were indisputably radical: he felt that free market capitalism was a failed system, pernicious in its effects on English society. He was remarkably consistent in his opinions and opposed atrocities and imperialist actions all over the world, even when they were committed in the name of freedom.
For a man who is so often identified with common sense, Orwell was a decidedly odd individual. He preferred squalor, was a devotee of the worst excesses of English cuisine, and suffered from paranoia about his body odor. He later accelerated his own death by moving to a poorly ventilated shack in the Scottish isles while severely ill with tuberculosis. This pattern of self-denial led many friends and associates to call him saintly, and less sympathetic critics to call him mad.
Many of his personal opinions were politically incorrect. At English boys schools, he adopted a misogynistic and homophobic outlook as well as a distrust of what today would be called cultural liberalism. He disdained “the high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit juice drinkers who come flocking to the smell of progress like bluebottles to a dead cat.” His contempt for “pansies” would lead to a vitriolic attack on W.H. Auden and other homosexual writers.
These complaints have gained more attention in recent years, as Orwell scholarship has been undergoing a renaissance since the death in 1980 of Orwell’s wife, Sonia. Sonia, whom Orwell married on his deathbed, discouraged all attempts at a biography of her late husband, and published an incomplete and bowdlerized anthology of Orwell’s journalism. The release of the 20-volume Complete Works of George Orwell in 1998 made all of Orwell’s known work available, providing much of the source material for Hitchens.
Hitchens’s book is a chatty polemic, like so much of Orwell’s nonfiction. In fact, much of Hitchens’s career has been spent attempting to pick up Orwell’s fallen banner. Hitchens’s attack elsewhere on Mother Theresa is reminiscent of Orwell’s debunking of Gandhi, and his support for the war in Afghanistan in defiance of the mainstream left invites comparison to Orwell’s support for the Second World War.
Like Orwell, Hitchens is a leftist who dislikes the pacifist “pinks” (Orwell’s phrase) who define official leftism. He devotes one-third of his book to refuting Orwell’s leftwing critics, who see conservative tendencies in his work, both in his stand on cultural issues and in his reverence for tradition. Hitchens has elevated mockery to a high art, picking apart the arguments of Orwell’s critics with wit and an eye for logical contradictions. Here is a typical passage:
The above citations are only a sample, but by no means and unrepresentative one, of what might be offered, by way of illustrating the sheer ill will and bad faith and intellectual confusion that appear to ignite spontaneously when Orwell’s name is mentioned in some quarters.
He devotes another chapter to refuting the attempts of political conservatives to claim Orwell for their own. He emphasizes Orwell’s radicalism and shows how Orwell’s opposition to the Soviet Union had very little to do with that of William Buckley. He concludes:
The body snatching of Orwell, however, is a much more specialized task and probably should not be attempted by any known faction. Least of all perhaps, should it be done by Tories of any stripe. George Orwell was conservative about many things, but not about politics.
Hitchens’s support of Orwell is less successful in other areas. His attempts to show Orwell as a theorist of postmodernism and colonialism are largely unsuccessful, for Orwell never dealt with the issues straight on, and Hitchens must piece together “Orwell’s view” from scattered references in different pieces. One is left with the feeling that Hitchens is reading his own ideas into Orwell. Another challenge for Hitchens is that Orwell failed to understand the United States, seeing it largely as a source of slang and bad films. He didn’t appreciate the power of American materialism, and the immense economic might that would help America to dominate the globe. Hitchens acknowledges this, but is unable to admit Orwell’s mistake. Hitchens is best when attacking the work of others, and his direct defenses of Orwell’s homophobia and his “girl trouble” are less entertaining than the rest of the book.
In 1949 Orwell provided the British government with a list of writers with pro-communist views who should not be employed to write anti-Soviet propaganda. Though this has been known since 1980, in recent years Orwell has been savaged in the British press for cooperating with the “thought police.” This incident is the centerpiece of Scott Lucas’s forthcoming book Orwell and the Betrayal of Dissent. Hitchens makes the point that this was a minor incident, and that Orwell intended harm to nobody. In a line of argument that seems less reasonable, he goes on to attack several of those Orwell listed, implying the truth of the allegations justified the making of the list.
Hitchens, though, has proved his basic point: The modern world needs more of the clear thinking, good writing and simple ideals that Orwell stood for. The solution is to go back to the source and read some of Orwell’s own essays and books. In this immense corpus, Orwell becomes his own biographer, and his ideas develop on their own. Only by directly dealing with Orwell’s work can one comprehend his profound wisdom and his continued relevance in troubled and uncertain times.