The Road to Sanctity: George Orwell and the NS

To celebrate George Orwell Day, we take a look back through the archive and republish five importance pieces this week.

For some reason, religious language sticks to George Orwell. The late historian Angus Calder, reviewing the collected non-fiction in the late 1960s, described Orwell’s decision to join the Imperial Police in Burma as “the first of those individualistic decisions which mark his life like the stations of the cross”. Unimpressed by the biographical “study” by George Woodcock (Orwell attempted to forbid authorised biographies), Tom Nairn invoked “Orwell the individualist, the angry man of conscience who wanted to battle against all ‘smelly little orthodoxies’, [who] ended up as the foremost literary apostle of anti-communism.” In 2012, New Yorker journalist Katherine Boo was described as “George Orwell’s greatest living acolyte”.

“No doubt alcohol, tobacco and so forth are things that a saint must avoid,” Orwell wrote in his final long essay, attempting to disentangle the apotheosis of Mahatma Ghandi. “But sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.”

Perhaps the root of the canonising instinct lies in V S Pritchett’s wistful eulogy, published shortly after Orwell’s death:

Orwell was the wintry conscience of a generation which in the thirties had heard the call of to the rather assumptions of political faith. He was a kind of saint and, in that character, more likely in politics to chasten his own side than the enemy. His instinctive choice of spiritual and physical discomfort, his habit of going his own way, looked like the crankishness which has often cropped up in the British characters; if this were so, it was vagrant rather than puritan. He prided himself on seeing through the rackets, and on conveying the impression of living without the solace or even the need of a single illusion.

Is this the man, the shambling ascetic set against the ordering of his house, who has been appropriated by Right, Left, liberal and indifferent? In an article entitled “What Would George Do?” (2 June 2003), Professor Scott Lucas noted the circularity of the claims made on his behalf: “For Noam Chomsky, he was the model of the ‘responsible intellectual’. For Bernard Crick he was, in post-imperial, post-welfare-state Britain, the ‘English socialist’. And since the events of September 2001 he has become, for Christopher Hitchens, a stalwart against ‘Islamic fascism’ and its pacifist accomplices (such as Noam Chomsky).”

The battle for Orwell’s soul raged bitterly in the New Statesman. Nobody can forgive the decision by editor Kingsley Martin not to publish reports sent from Barcelona, fearing they were “liable to be taken as propaganda against socialism.” But since the 1950s, the NS has produced crop after crop of aspirant political writers, imitators and champions for whom Orwell has provided both a model and night-watchman. A quick glance through the archive produces profiles by Edward Said, Bernard Crick, Christopher Hitchens, Francis Hope and Ben Pimlott. Now we have a feast on which to debate his life and legacy: 21 January, the day Orwell died in 1950. The event is being steered by the Orwell Prize and Penguin Books, who have published stylish new editions of his best-known works. For our own part, we plan to publish five important pieces from our archive throughout the week, both by and about Orwell, an index of which is at the bottom of this page.

Eric Blair

On 21 October, 1931, the NS published an assemblage of diary entries by the twenty-eight year old Eric Blair. Recently returned from Paris, Blair was encouraged by two lifelong guttersnipes to seek his fortune picking hops in Kent. “Holiday with pay,” they said, “Keep yourself all the time you’re down there, pay your fare both ways and come back.” So off he went, aping the example of Jack London, whose People of the Abyss (1903) was written from first-hand experience of dossing in east London workhouses. “[They] ought to have known better,” he concluded. “As a matter of fact, hop-picking is far from being a holiday, and, as far as wages go, no worse employment exists.”

The early novels were met with guarded praise, mingled with unguarded irritation and disdain. Burmese Days is “an extremely biased book” in which “the author lacks both the depth of Mr E M Forster and the detachment of Mr Somerset Maugham”, wrote Cyril Connolly in 1935. A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) was “ambitious yet not entirely successful” according to Peter Quennell. The author of Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) “hates London and everything there” Connolly wrote on his second encounter, “Hence the realism of one book was redeemed by an operating sense of beauty, that of the other is not.” Coming up for Air (1939), reviewed by the son of H G Wells and Rebecca West, Anthony West, “is a statement of present discontents made with all the persistent disagreeableness for which Mr George Orwell is renowned; he dislikes almost everything about England today, most of all the shabby genteel England where people who have very little pretend that they are wealthy and secure.”

The non-fiction was praised, though not without caveat. When Hamish Miles reviewed The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), he applauded the “thwacks at Anglo-Communism, tinned food, Punch, the highbrows of ‘the snootier magazines,’ the ‘leisure’ Utopians, and much else”, but felt it necessary to shoot the elephant in the room, adding, “It may be hard for Mr Orwell to accept such praise from such a notoriously snooty quarter as Great Turnstile: it is fairly clear that The New Statesman and Nation is as a pink rag to his bull-wrath. But he must take it.” He had taken it before. In 1933 the NS commissioned an outside reviewer, the poet W H Davies, who had previously led a destitute life (though not from choice), to review Down and Out in Paris and London. Davies celebrated Orwell’s scrupulousness: “We make haste to assure him that his book is packed with unique and strange information. It is all true to life, from beginning to end.”

In spite of his disagreement with Martin, Orwell continued to review military non-fiction, historical novels, travel writing from the parts of Asia he knew, pamphlets and biographies for the New Statesman until 1943. He wrote an illuminating review of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940) – “What was frightening about [the Moscow show trials] was not the fact that they happened – for obviously such things are necessary in a totalitarian society – but the eagerness of Western intellectuals to justify them.”

Orwell’s own attempts to fictionalise autocratic conditions in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Animal Farm raked up old resentments. In 1945, while Martin watched the tide turn against those who had defended Stalinism, he decided to review Animal Farm himself. “There is plenty in the USSR to satirise, and Mr Orwell does it well,” he wrote. “How deftly the fairy story of the animals who, in anticipation of freedom and plenty, revolt against the tyrannical farmer, turns into a rollicking caricature of the Russian Revolution. His shaft strikes home.” Though of course, just as Orwell was made to recognise “Nazi Germany was now an even worse enemy than the British Empire”, so too he is “compelled” to accept that “the new ruling class is really very different indeed from anything that Russia has known before.”

St George

Three years after Orwell’s death (aged forty-six, from a burst artery brought on by tuberculosis), his unsteady relationship with the NS ceased to be unsteady: he was claimed for common sense. The art historian Benedict Nicolson, reviewing the early collection of essays England, Your England (1953), proffered a mea culpa on behalf of the theorising Left: “We needed an Orwell, not a Conservative politician, to point out that the intellectual had no real understanding of working-class mentality, that he could never acquire it, that whatever he did he could not deny his bourgeois background.” And it is this Orwell, the Franciscan truth-teller, half-man, half-myth, whom warring factions have debated ever since. “Orwell’s opinions,” Nicolson wrote, “largely owing to the fact that he expressed them and we absorbed them, now read as common sense, whereas at the time they read as thrilling heresies. His mistrust, for example, of Soviet ‘democracy,’ once thought perverse, is now orthodox.”

In 1971 the political theorist Bernard Crick observed, “Eric Blair was perhaps one man, but there were several George Orwells – both of his own and others’ making.” Crick contributed his own eleven years later, collaborating with Orwell’s widow Sonia Brownell to produce George Orwell: A Life (1982; revised in 1992), and reviewing every book written about Orwell for the NS in the meantime. He recognised the allure: “So many writers have selected from him, almost re-written him, as if challenged by him to come to terms with themselves.” Unable to review his own, the attempt which came closest to defying Orwell’s prohibition on biographies, Christopher Hitchens stepped in. “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.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hitchens found Crick “bloodless”, lacking in anecdote, character, gossip.

Why Orwell Matters (2002) provided Hitchens every opportunity to reinvigorate Orwell the man (as well as to assert that he was neither Puritan nor saint). His chapters, “Orwell and the Left” and “Orwell and the Right” follow a long line of pieces published in the magazine with names like “My country Right or Left” (Francis Hope, 1969), “Look right, look left, look right again” (1999, Geoffrey Wheatcroft) and “The socialist fallacy: Orwell’s status as the secular saint of socialism is built on a myth” (Scott Lucas, 2000) – out of which emerged an exasperated populism grounded in decency and domesticity: the “perfect English cup of tea”. Journey’s end for Orwell and his biographers. Unlike the many men who tried to claim Orwell, or to argue he was stubbornly unclaimable, Beatrix Campbell in “Wigan Pier and Beyond” (1983) tried to shrug off his influence. Aligning herself with the matured “powerful but stupid” and “apathetic masses”, who had lately found a voice and learned to think, she writes: “Although much of his work is about ‘the masses’, we, the masses, are the objects of his narrative. He is the subject.”

For all his “orthodoxies”, Orwell got plenty wrong. In “Eternal vigilance” (2009), n+1's Keith Gessen writes: “First, Orwell declares that no great novel could now be written by a Catholic (or communist) perspective; late he allows that a novel could be written from such a perspective, in a pinch; and then, in his essay on Graham Greene, he comes very near to suggesting that only Catholics can now write novels.” Part of this is down to style. Just as school friends are all right on their own, but tend to act badly in crowds, Orwell’s plain style “so resembles someone speaking honestly and without pretence directly to you”, it makes you feel “there is no way on earth you could possibly disagree with him, unless you’re part of the pansy left, or a sandal-wearer and fruit-juice drinker, or maybe just a crank.”

“So who is Orwell for,” Campbell asked on the cusp of 1984 (there was a noted resurgence of interest in Orwell under Thatcher), “in this jamboree year, when both Right and Left will be slugging it out to claim him for themselves as if, like the Bible or Capital his books were necessary to their litany?” Rather than suppose an answer, twenty-first century reviews have often focused on the work, the context in which it was written, to recognise its irreducibility.

The 1998 Complete Works of George Orwell was schematised by its harrowed reviewer: “20 volumes, 3,755 items in the last 11 volumes of essays, journalism, letters, diaries; 7,460 pages in all, 30,000 entries in the cumulative index, with footnotes and annotations beyond measure”. It holds an otherworldly price tag too, RRP £750. The text requires reviewers to deploy extended metaphors. In 2003, Scott Lucas (who received the reviewing mantle from Crick) opted for the lone frontiersman: “He had patrolled the borders of socialism as a lone ranger of decency, the authoritative voice of dissent limiting the voice of others.” He left an unreadable (in terms of size) corpus behind, which justifies little, and criticises everything as part of its operating logic. In Orwell things are found. He is still repackaged and republished, and remains an enigmatic source: a commonplace book for political journalists (and essayists) on the make.

Monday: Eric Blair, “Common lodging houses” (3 September 1932)

Tuesday: W H Davies, “Confessions of a Down and Out” (18 March 1933)

Wednesday: George Orwell, “New Novels: Darkness at Noon” (4 January 1941)

Thursday: Christopher Hitchens, “What People do not Want to Hear” (28 November 1980)

Friday: Beatrix Campbell, “Wigan Pier and Beyond” (16 December 1983)

An illustration from Animal Farm, by Ralph Steadman.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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