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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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia