Saturday, February 24, 2007

Hitchens and Daniels on Orwell

I am training myself not to begin reviews of excellent books by telling you what’s wrong with them. First, the summary, so you can pretend you’ve read the book.

Hitchens’ view is that Orwell is the necessary corrective for just about every current stream of political thought. Everyone loves to quote Orwell when he’s clubbing the opposition, but slinks out of the room when he turns to confront one’s own group. Why Orwell Matters touches each in turn, holding first the left then the right by the shirt-front to repeat the lessons George Orwell wrote five decades ago and more. Not content with this standard slapping of all parties and wishing a plague on both their houses, Hitchens calls out other groups by name to see what judgment Orwell passes upon them: Englishmen, Americans, Feminists, Academics. He considers their counter-arguments and accusations against Orwell and passes judgment of his own. His dissection of recent academic treatment of Orwell is especially delicious.

Orwell was a man of the Old Left, and Hitchens retains considerable approval of the evolution of his thought. He was anti-imperialist because he had witnessed and even committed brutality in Burma, anti-plutocrat because he had lived “down and out in London and Paris.” He believed passionately in socialism for the common man, and the rightness of their cause in taking control over industries and countries to protect their interests against the powerful. Even after disillusionment, Orwell clung to the idea that everyday people could and should, somehow, kick out the powerful in their midst and rule themselves.

Hitchens highlights the counterpoint, that Orwell also describes the collusion of the oppressed with the oppressor, and insisted on its reality even when it was politically and personally costly to him. No one likes to hear that, and we even have a new phrase about “blaming the victim” to prevent us from thinking such things. Yet the caution against blaming applies most fully with random victims, or those who have gotten entangled with pathological people through no identifiable action of their own. But the peculiar dance and collusion of victims is observable in counseling and mental health even in individuals. It can be stronger in groups. Consider the picture of Parsons in the cellars of the Ministry of Love speaking to Winston Smith in 1984.
“Of course I’m gulty!” cried Parsons with a servile glance at the telescreen. “You don’t think the Party would arrest an innocent man, do you?…between you and me, old man, I’m glad they got me before it went any further. Do you know what I’m going to say to them when I go up before the tribunal? ‘Thank you,’ I’m going to say. ‘thank you for saving me before it was too late.’”

Commentary: Orwell is remembered for the brilliance of his late fiction, Animal Farm and 1984, and to a lesser extent his war essays on propaganda, simple virtue, and meaning. Perhaps his earlier work deserves more attention; Hitchens would certainly say so, though he didn’t convince me. What remained of Orwell’s socialism to the end is interesting, but not compelling and instructive any longer.

By happy chance Anthony Daniels has revisited Homage to Catalonia at The New Criterion this month. Daniels reminds us of some morally reprehensible sections of that work. Perhaps Eric Blair had not fully become George Orwell by 1938, and the incompleteness of his disillusionment should not be held against him as forcefully as Daniels does. Yet it remains that Orwell clumped Homage into the category of his later work, and did not change a word for its reprinting in the late 40’s.

This final clarity of thought before his death to tuberculosis, which we see in AF and 1984, obscures the earlier excitement and admiration he describes on meeting soldiers who would murder the bourgeoisie without compunction, or his regret that the “workers” who took over a town did not destroy all the churches and deface all the graveyards. Orwell’s perception of child soldiery as poignant and inefficient, rather than immoral and contemptible, is surely a blow against his reputation for fearless moral honesty. That he faults Stalin for softening his stance on the democratic socialists for expediency’s sake does not square with the figure of the noble old Trotskyite holding the high ground against the brutal Stalinists.
In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no “well-dressed” people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of the militia uniform…I believed that things were as they appeared, that this really was a workers’ State and that the entire bourgeoisie had either fled, been killed, or voluntarily come over to the workers’ side….There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. (emphasis mine)

Orwell’s popular memory is the fairer one, despite Hitchens’ advocacy. Orwell was one who saw through communism at last, perceiving that its good intentions led inexorably to totalitarianism nonetheless. That he retained some form of socialism is irrelevant. He saw with the clarity of one betrayed where it all would lead, and indeed had led in many places. Revisionists who attempt to draw from the two last novels a lesson of equal condemnation of the left and right torture the texts to get there. No one in eastern Europe who read illegal copies of Animal Farm during the Cold War thought “Hmm, I wonder if the writer is describing his fears of McCarthyism or Enoch Powell here.” Orwell certainly hated fascism and any totalitarianism of the (purported) Right – enough so that his essay on pacifism as a support for the enemy still have great sting – but it is the Soviet state that is represented. Even when I read 1984 as a radical socialist in 1967, there was no doubt which nations were closer to that dystopia. We kidded ourselves that Amerika was in severe danger of becoming much the same. We enlarged our right-wing enemies to inflate our own reputations for courage. But the plain fact was unavoidable.

Or perhaps not unavoidable. Even today, the fevered commenters of the Left will blithely refer to Oceania being at war with Eastasia in reference to America and the war on terror, as if it is we who are seeking and needing enemies and Others.

Orwell pinned the bug to the page, and the many flaws of 1984 are of no account. Pace, Christopher Hitchens and Anthony Daniels, neither are Orwell’s earlier works are of any account, save as curiosities tracing his development.


Anonymous said...

As decent a commentary on Orwell as I've read, and far shorter than Hitchens. :-)

I've also noted that Orwell can be used to club your opposite in political discourse, but it is uncomfortable when I am clubbed with him. Doesn't stop me from using Orwell though. Not at all.

Comrade O'Brien said...

Attention Comrades,
Please visit to learn about our Orwellian protest of the Military Commissions Act, or just watch our video at
Apologies if we've posted here before...we've lost track.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

comrade o'brien's link is to a site which compares the Bush administrations actions to 1984. Guess he didn't read my post too carefully...

Der Hahn said...

I've never figured out if iron-y deficiency is a cause or symptom of leaning leftwards.