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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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.