Christopher Hitchens on Orwell: "What people do not want to hear"

Christopher Hitchens reviews Bernard Crick's "George Orwell: A Life".

Lack of power corrupts. Yet any ambitious liberal or reformer will glibly assert the converse, and then cite George Orwell as an authority. There is scarcely a cliché uttered by a Western statesman or editor that does not derive in part from 1984 or Animal Farm. But Orwell, who both sensed and experienced the terror of absolute rule, also chronicled the life of those denied exertion of strength by their gentleness, their deference, their poverty or innocence. For Big Brother to triumph, it was necessary to trade on the despair of illiterate hop-pickers, starved Catalans, debt-ridden clerks and wretched, repressed family life.

His hatred of lust for power, and his division of scorn and pity between those who lacked it, was what made Orwell a complicated and sometimes contradictory figure. Marvellously easy to read and admire; accessible in so many ways, plain and simple on the face of things, he still cannot be assimilated to ordinary “English” patterns. If he could be, then Bernard Crick would have written a standard work.

In the opening pages of Coming Up for Air, George Bowling (whom Crick is absolutely right in defining as a Dickensian character) is accosted on a suburban train by another commercial type in need of a light. Without introduction, this man addresses Bowling as “Tubby”. I have always found this scene incredibly unrealistic, un-English and inaccurate. It is, if I am right, yet another discrepancy between Orwell the writer and the reputation that has been draped over him. That reputation is now used to judge his every action and argument. Attempts to judge his reputation by his actions are apparently out of fashion, or too much trouble. When he defended Shakespeare against the clodhopping criticisms of Tolstoy, or P G Wodehouse against the carping malice of Quintin Hogg et al, he was of course being “quintessentially English”. So, when he defended Henry Miller, Salvador Dali and James Joyce, are we to suppose he was quintessentially cosmopolitan? Do such portmanteaux, when unpacked, prove to be worth the bother?

Professor Crick does not concern himself very much with questions like these. With his predecessors Peter Stansky and William Abrahams (who receive some well-merited rebukes in his book) he takes a fairly orthodox and medium-paced view. And, as the trusted scrutineer of Sonia Orwell's archive, he comes the closest yet of anybody to defying Orwell's ban on a posthumous “authorised biography”. Where Stansky and Abrahams were precious, Crick can be blunt. Where they were speculative, he can often have the final say.

As one of the keystones of our social democratic professoriat, Crick treats his subject with appropriate gravity. There is certainly no danger of him being “betrayed into purple passages”. But he does have a tendency to generalisation, as in the following extract:

“Yet his [Orwell's] influence has been to reprove backsliding socialists, to sustain democratic Socialists (he always capitalised it thus) and to win back Communist fellow-travellers rather than to convert non-socialists.

This is an inadequate summary of all those — Raymond Williams, Isaac Deutscher, Edward Thompson and Conor Cruise O'Brien — who have criticised Orwell from the Left as a pessimist and a co-sponsor of the Cold War. It is also a misleading account of the many centrist and liberal types who find in Orwell something to admire which they do not detect in socialism as a force. This lack, or relative lack, of political nuance makes Crick's narrative slightly flat at times.

Its chief strength lies in its thoroughness and its honesty. Crick has no time for the “Blair into Orwell” transformation allegedly discovered by Stansky and Abrahams (a piece of work which always reminds me of Louis Althusser's phoney “epistemological break” between young and old Marx). He's certainly correct in stressing the primacy of experience over “character”. And he freely admits that some of the source material is in poor shape, and that many conclusions must remain provisional. Still, while being courteous to them in general, he can show Stansky and Abrahams a thing or two about use of evidence when it comes to Orwell's prep school, his teacher, his travels and the disputed question of whether he was sterile as a husband (Crick says that it can't be proved and therefore shouldn't be asserted).

Yet character is important. In the Forties Orwell was lunching with Malcolm Muggeridge at the Little Akropolis in Charlotte Street. When Kingsley Martin came in, Orwell asked Muggeridge to change places so that he could be spared the sight of “that corrupt face” all through the meal. Crick throws in this fine anecdote almost casually. Could it not have been pressed into more effective service?

Is that not the same man who resented the memory of his own sycophancy at school, detested the bien-pensant Left press in Spain, and who had been revolted by his own hypocrisy in Burma? In almost all cases, Orwell's attitudes were determined by a very developed sense of immediate, personal responsibility. Yet there is something bloodless in Crick's account of him, as if his emergence on the scene and his oddly “English” spikiness was somehow to be expected. If he was distilled from such plain and decent qualities, how come he was so unique in his generation?

Crick quite likes English empiricism, and I suspect that he sees Orwell as a fine exemplar of it. In fact, Orwell was interested in theory and theorists, and took them seriously. A better word for his method might be practical; he always wanted the confirmation of conviction by experience. Stansky and Abrahams, obsessed with breaking the code of “Englishness”, muddied this point. Crick, I fear, is too much at home with England to see how different Orwell was.

The best parts of the book are, I think, the several accounts of Orwell's battles on and with the Left. He was a Dreyfusard by nature, and did not ask cui bono? when faced with a case of injustice or censorship on his own side. The revolting conduct of Kingsley Martin and the New Statesman over the Spanish War is well-known. But Crick has unearthed much new material about the other left-wing poseurs who always remembered an urgent appointment elsewhere when trouble threatened. Of Orwell's publishers Victor Gollancz comes out as a moral coward and Fredric Warburg as less upright than he depicted himself. The National Council for Civil Liberties emerges (then) as a Stalinist front. (Especially when it came to sticking up for anarchists; incidentally Crick, who is fond of anarchists, spells Emile Témime in two different ways, neither of them correct.)

The struggle to publish Animal Farm, and the engagements not just with fellow-travellers but with the evasive Faber editor T S Eliot and the petit commerçant Jonathan Cape, is itself an allegory of England at the time, and Crick tells the story very well. He has also brought to light the India Office files which deal with official attempts to hamper Orwell's movements; these should be read by anyone who has a taste for the genteel police mentality so prevalent in the period. Other vignettes stay in the mind: Orwell hiding with Willy Brandt on the Ramblas in Barcelona; Orwell stuffing a hasty ten-bob note into an envelope of rejected poetry while literary editor of Tribune. Crick makes use at one point of Blake's reference to “the tribe of the tiger and the lamb”; he certainly makes a good case for Orwell's membership.

Where I think he is mistaken is in his comparison of Orwell with Hobbes. There is certainly an echo of Leviathan in 1984, but the deadly and crushing pessimism, so memorably rendered, is redeemed in a way that Hobbes's is not. “If there is hope, it lies in the proles.” That may not cheer everybody up — indeed it depressed some people even to think about it – but it was certainly intended as affirmative. Orwell was of the age of the Holocast and the Gulag, but he managed to see it coming where others didn’t, just as he saw the point of social revolution in Catalonia while other tourists looked the other way. He was, as Crick points out, a Puritan without being intolerant. He also helped to define the crucial point where a euphemism or a simplification becomes a lie. “Liberty is what people do not want to hear.” That is almost a paraphrase of Rosa Luxemburg. To call it English decency is to reduce the measure of a man.

28 November 1980

Christopher Hitchens outside the NS offices in 1978.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was an author and journalist. He joined the New Statesman in 1973.

Getty Images
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn vows not to resign. What next for Labour?

The leader's decision to fight the rebels sets the stage for a new leadership contest or a protracted legal battle.  

Throughout Sunday as the shadow cabinet resignations mounted up (reaching 11 by the evening), Jeremy Corbyn's allies insisted that he was unfazed. "He's not wavering," one told me, adding that Corbyn would seek to form a new frontbench. At 21:54pm, the Labour leader released a statement confirming as much. "I regret there have been resignations today from my shadow cabinet," Corbyn said. "But I am not going to betray the trust of those who voted for me - or the millions of supporters across the country who need Labour to represent them."

Corbyn added that "those who want to change Labour's leadership" would "have to stand in a democratic election, in which I will be a candidate". The shadow cabinet, he said, would be reshaped "over the next 24 hours" ("On past experience, 24 hours to pick a shadow cabinet is ambitious," a Labour source quipped in reference to January's marathon reshuffle). 

Any hope that Corbyn would retreat without a fight has been dispelled. Tom Watson will meet him tomorrow morning to "discuss the way forward", a statement regarded as "ominous" by some of the leader's allies. Labour's deputy failed to back Corbyn's leadeership and warned of the need to be "ready to form a government" following an early election. But even if Watson calls on the leader to resign (which insiders say is far from guaranteed), few believe he will do so. 

Corbyn retains the support of his closest allies, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett, and has been backed by shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry and Andy Burnham ("Those who put personal ambition before the party won't be forgiven or forgotten," a senior MP declared of the Manchester mayoral contender). He will look to repopulate the shadow cabinet with supporters from the 2015 intake, such as Clive Lewis, Richard Burgon, Cat Smith and Rebecca Long-Bailey. 

The Parliamentary Labour Party will meet on Monday at 6pm and discuss a motion of no confidence against Corbyn, tabled by veteran MPs Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey. This will likely be followed by a secret ballot on Tuesday between 9am and 5pm. The rebels are confident of winning a majority (though dismiss reports that as many as 80 per cent will oppose Corbyn). But the Labour leader is still unlikely to resign at this juncture. Having entered office with the backing of just 15 MPs (now 14 following the death of Michael Meacher), he is untroubled by losing support that he never truly had. "He's an oddity. Very gentle but very robust," an ally told me. 

At this point, Corbyn's opponents would be forced to launch a direct leadership challenge, most likely in the form of a "stalking horse". John Spellar, a veteran of Labour's 1980s strife, Hodge and Barry Sheerman have been touted for the role. A matter of fierce dispute on Sunday was whether Corbyn would automatically make the ballot if challenged. Labour's lawyers have told the party that he would not, forcing him to win 50 MP/MEP nominations to stand again (a hurdle he would struggle to clear). But Corbyn's allies counter that their own legal advice suggests the reverse. "It could get very messy and end up in the courts," one senior rebel lamented.

Some take the view that natural justice demands Corbyn is included on the ballot, the view expressed by Tony Blair to MPs. In a new leadership contest, Watson and/or Angela Eagle are regarded as the likeliest challengers, though there is still no agreed alternative. Many argue that the party needs a "Michael Howard figure" to achieve party unity and limit the damge at an early election. He or she would then by succeeded by a younger figure (a "Cameron") such as Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis or Lisa Nandy.

But a Labour source told me of the potential contest: "Don't rule out Yvette. The only grown-up candidate and I believe she wants it". He emphasised the need to look beyond the task of "unifying the party" and towards the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. Cooper, an experienced economist, was best-qualified to lead at a moment of "national crisis", the source suggested. Watson, he added, wanted "the leadership handed to him on a plate" with backing from grandees across the party. John McTernan, Blair's former political director, said that he would be "very happy" to have the Brownite as leader. Despite Watson's leading role in the coup against Blair in 2006, many from Labour's right believe that he is best placed to defeat Corbyn and unite the party. Some point to Eagle's fourth-place finish in Labour's deputy leadership election as evidence of her limited appeal. 

McDonnell, Corbyn's closest ally, who MPs have long believed retains leadership ambitions, insisted on Sunday that he would "never stand". Most believe that the shadow chancellor, a more abrasive character than Corbyn, would struggle to achieve the requisite 37 MP/MEP nominations. 

The Labour leader's allies remain confident that he would win majority support from members if challenged. Rebels speak of an "unmistakable shift" in opinion since Brexit but concede that this may prove insufficient. They are prepared to mount repeated challenges to Corbyn if necessary in order to "wear him down". But an early general election, which Boris Johnson is expected to trigger if elected Conservative leader, could deny them the chance. 

As the PLP assembles in Committee Room 14 at 6pm, the activist group Momentum will assemble in Parliament Square for a #KeepCorbyn protest. It is a fitting symbol of a party fatally torn between its members and its MPs. Unless the two can somehow be aligned, Labour will remain united in name only. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.