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.

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Live blog: Jeremy Corbyn hit by shadow cabinet revolt

Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander and Gloria De Piero resign following the sacking of Hilary Benn. 

11:21 Shadow Scotland secretary Ian Murray (see 09:11) and shadow transport secretary Lillian Greenwood are expected to be the next to resign. 

11:11 Shadow minister for young people Gloria De Piero has become the latest to resign. It's worth noting that De Piero is a close ally of Tom Watson (she's married to his aide James Robinson). Many will see this as a sign that the coup has the tacit approval of Watson (who is currently en route from Glastonbury). 

De Piero wrote in her resignation letter to Corbyn: "I have always enjoyed a warm personal relationship with you and I want to thank you for the opportunity to serve in your shadow cabinet. I accepted that invitation because I thought it was right to support you in your attempt to achieve the Labour victory the country so badly needs.

"I do not believe you can deliver that victory at a general election, which may take place in a matter of months. I have been contacted by many of my members this weekend and It is clear that a good number of them share that view and have lost faith in your leadership.”

10:58 Shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry has backed Corbyn, telling Michael Crick that "of course" she has confidence in his leadership. She is the fourth shadow cabinet minister to back Corbyn (along with McDonnell, Abbott and Trickett). 

10:52 Our Staggers editor Julia Rampen has written up Benn and McDonnell's TV appearances. 

"Two different visions for the Labour Party's future clashed today on primetime TV. Hours after being sacked from the shadow cabinet, Corbyn critic Hilary Benn was on the Andrew Marr Show ruling himself out of a leadership challenge. However, he issued a not-so-coded cry for revolt as he urged others to "do the right thing" for the party. Moments later, shadowhancellor John McDonnell sought to quell rumours of a coup by telling Andrew Neil Jeremy was "not going anywhere". He reminded any shadow ministers watching of the grassroots support Labour has enjoyed under Corbyn and the public petition urging them to back their leader."

10:46 Asked to comment, Tony Blair told the BBC: "I think this is for the PLP. I don't think it's right for me or helpful to intervene." 

10:38 On the leadership, it's worth noting that while Corbyn would need 50 MP/MEP nominations to make the ballot (were he not on automatically), an alternative left-wing candidate would only need 37 (15 per cent of the total). 

10:27 Jon Trickett, one of just three shadow cabinet Corbynites, has tweeted: "200,000 people already signed the petition in solidarity with the leadership. I stand with our party membership." 

10:14 McDonnell has told the BBC's Andrew Neil: "I will never stand for the leadership of the Labour Party". He confirmed that this would remain the case if Corbyn resigned. McDonnell, who stood unsuccessfully for the Labour leadership in 2007 and 2010 (failing to make the ballot), added that if Corbyn was forced to fitght another election he would "chair his campaign".  

10:12 Tom Watson is returning from Glastonbury to London. He's been spotted at Castle Cary train station. 

10:07 A spokesman for John McDonnell has told me that it's "not true" that Seema Malhotra, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, is canvassing MPs on his behalf. Labour figures have long believed that the shadow chancellor and former Labour leadership contender has ambitions to succeed Corbyn. 

09:51 Appearing on the Marr Show, Hilary Benn has just announced that he will not stand for the Labour leadership. "I am not going to be a candidate for leader of the Labour Party." Tom Watson, Angela Eagle and Dan Jarvis are those most commonly cited by Corbyn's opponents as alternative leaders. 

09:46 Should Corbyn refuse to resign, Labour MPs are considering electing an independent PLP leader, an option first floated by Joe Haines, Harold Wilson's former press secretary, in the New Statesman. He argued that as the representatives of the party's 9.35 million voters, their mandate trumped Corbyn's.

09:38 Here's Stephen on the issue of whether Corbyn could form a shadow cabinet after the revolt. "A lot of chatter about whether Corbyn could replace 10 of his shadow cabinet. He couldn't, but a real question of whether he'd need to. Could get by with a frontbench of 18 to 20. There's no particular need to man-mark the government - Corbyn has already created a series of jobs without shadows, like Gloria De Piero's shadow minister for young people and voter registration. That might, in many ways, be more stable." 

09:32 Despite the revolt, there is no sign of Corbyn backing down. A spokesman said: "There will be no resignation from the elected leader of the party with a strong mandate".

09:11 Shadow Scotland secretary Ian Murray is one of those expected to resign. As Labour's only Scottish MP, the post would have to be filled by an MP south of the border or a peer. 

09:01 Diane Abbott, Corbyn's long-standing ally, has been promised the post of shadow foreign secretary, a Labour source has told me. 

The shadow international developmnent secretary is one of just three Corbyn supporters in the shadow cabinet (along with John McDonnell and Jon Trickett). Though 36 MPs nominated him for the leadership, only 14 current members went on to vote for him. It is this that explains why Corbyn is fighting the rebellion. He never had his MPs' support to begin with and is confident he retains the support of party activists (as all polls have suggested). 

But the weakness of his standing among the PLP means some hope he could yet be kept off the ballot in any new contest. Under Labour's rules, 50 MP/MEP nominations (20 per cent of the total) are required. 

08:52 Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones has joined the revolt, telling BBC Radio Wales that events make it "very difficult" for Corbyn to lead Labour into the next election. 

08:50 Tom Watson, a pivotal figure who Labour MPs have long believed could determine the success of any coup attempt is currently at Glastonbury. 

08:26 Following Hilary Benn's 1am sacking, Jeremy Corbyn will face shadow cabinet resignations this morning. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has become the first to depart.

The New Statesman will cover all the latest developments here. John McDonnell, Corbyn's closest ally, is appearing on The Andrew Marr Show at 9:45.

"This is the trigger. Jeremy's called our bluff," a shadow cabinet minister told me. He added that he expected to joined by a "significant number" of colleagues. The BBC's Laura Kuenssberg has reported that half of the 30 will resign this morning. 

Corbyn is set to face a vote of no confidence from Labour MPs on Tuesday followed by a leadership challenge. But his allies say he will not resign and are confident that he will make the ballot either automatically (as legal advice has suggested) or by winning the requisite 50 MP/MEP nominations. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.