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.

Photo: Getty
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The New Statesman 2016 local and devolved elections liveblog

Results and analysis from elections across the United Kingdom. 

Welcome to the New Statesman's elections liveblog. Results will be coming in from the devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales, local elections in England, and the mayoral contests in London, Salford, Bristol and Liverpool. Hit refresh for updates!

22:35: John McDonnell is setting out what would be a good night as far as the party leadership is concerned - any improvement on the 2015 defeat, when the party trailed by close to seven points. Corbyn's critics say he needs to make around 400 gains.

I've written about what would be good at length before, but here's an extract:

"Instead of worrying overmuch about numbers, worry about places. Although winning seats and taking control of councils is not a guarantee of winning control of the parliamentary seat – look at Harlow, Nuneaton, and Ipswich, all of which have Labour representation at a local level but send a Conservative MP to Westminster – good performances, both in terms of increasing votes and seats, are a positive sign. So look at how Labour does in its own marginals and in places that are Conservative at a Westminster level, rather than worrying about an exact figure either way."

22:31: Oh god, the BBC's election night music is starting. Getting trauma flashbacks to the general election. 

22:22: A few of you have been in touch about our exit poll. Most of you have been wondering about that one vote for George Galloway but the rest are wondering what happens - under the rules of the London mayoral race (and indeed the contests in Salford, Bristol and Liverpool), 2 votes would not be enough for Sadiq. (He needs 2.5). However, all the other candidates are tied - which makes it through to the second round. What happens then is the second preferences are used as a tie-break. Of the tied candidates, Sian Berry has the most second preferences so she goes through to face Sadiq Khan in the final round. Final round is as follows:

Sadiq Khan: 3

Sian Berry: 2

3 votes is above the quota so he is duly elected. An early omen? 

22:19: Burnham latest. A spokesperson for Andy Burnham says:

"Approaches have been made to Andy Burnham to give consideration to this role. It is early days and no decision as been taken. Whatever the decision, he will continue to serve the leader of the party and stay in the shadow cabinet."

22:17: Anyway, exit poll of the office. We've got:

Sadiq Khan: 2

George Galloway: 1

Caroline Pidgeon: 1

Sian Berry: 1

22:15: Update on Andy Burnham. He has been asked to consider running. More as we get it. 

22:13: People are asking if there's an exit poll tonight. Afraid not (you can't really do an exit poll in elections without national swing). But there is a YouGov poll from Wales and I am conducting an exit poll of the four remaining members of staff in the NS building. 

22:11: It's true! Andy Burnham is considering running for Greater Manchester mayor. Right, that's it, I'm quitting the liveblog. Nothing I say tonight can top that. 

22:09: Rumours that professional Scouser Andy Burnham is considering a bid for Greater Manchester mayor according to Sky News. Not sure if this is a) a typo for Merseyside or b) a rumour or c) honestly I don't know. More as I find out. 

22:06: Conservatives are feeling good about Trafford, one of the few councils they run in the North West.

22:03: Polls have closed. Turnout looks to be low in London. What that means is anyone's guess to be honest. There isn't really a particular benefit to Labour if turnout is high although that is a well-worn myth. In the capital in particular, turnout isn't quite as simple a zero-sum game as all that. Labour are buoyant, but so are the Tories. In Scotland, well, the only questions are whether or not the SNP will win every single first past the post seat or just the overwhelming majority. Both Labour and Tory sources are downplaying their chances of prevailing in the battle for second place at Holyrood, so make of that what you will. And in Wales, Labour look certain to lose seats but remain in power in some kind of coalition deal. 

22:00: Good evening. I'm your host, Stephen Bush, and I'll be with you throughout the night as results come in from throughout the country. The TV screens are on, I've just eaten, and now it's time to get cracking. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.