The following is being published in commemoration of George Orwell’s 120th birthday on June 25.
George Orwell is one of those authors well worth stealing, as Orwell famously wrote of Charles Dickens. I am not the first person to start an essay like this. While rummaging through my memory files I recalled a cover piece in the January 1983 Harper’s, and 40 years later I am astounded to discover it begins almost exactly the same way. It is called “If Orwell Were Alive Today,” and is written by Norman Podhoretz, of all people. Poddy, I guess, is stealing him for the cause of Commentary-style neoconservatism.
High comedy, but an irresistible bit of self-puffery. Many have succumbed to the idea that “Orwell was a lot like me!” Some of these claims regarding Orwell are baffling, others are repulsive. A bit over 20 years ago, Christopher Hitchens did a book called Why Orwell Matters (or Orwell’s Victory in England). It’s nice, light reading, a rhapsody over twice-told tales about Orwell’s youth and career, but shoddy with the facts. In the introduction we have Hitchens lamenting that “Orwell died early and impoverished before the age of austerity gave rise to the age of celebrity and mass media.”
Well actually, Orwell/Blair — he signed his cheques Eric Blair to the end — died a paper millionaire, or a paper dollar-millionaire at least, having produced two bestsellers in four years, and selling them both to the Book-of-the-Month Club (with a 400,000 initial press run for Nineteen Eighty-Four). Furthermore, he had been hoping to take a trip to America to visit his colleague and soulmate Dwight Macdonald, formerly of Partisan Review and then of Politics. We can trust that any public talks Orwell might have given in the early 1950s would have been standing room only, rather like Mark Twain in 1900, doubling or tripling his wealth and fame. The fact that he suddenly died in January 1950, in a London hospital room, with no staff looking in — and this was just two or three days before he was booked to fly on a chartered plane to a Swiss sanitarium — is unfortunate. Also suspicious.
Much more impossibly, a few years ago someone packaged a book of excepts from letters, diaries, and journalism titled Orwell on Truth. The introductory essay by Adam Hochschild is thoroughly crass and wrongheaded. You may recall Hochschild as the author of King Leopold’s Ghost, in which he revived the canard that Leopold II, King of the Belgians, maintained a profitable rubber business in the Belgian Congo by means of cutting off the hands and feet of his Congolese employees when they underperformed. (The truth of the matter is that the Congolese amputated dead and live extremities of their tribal enemies on a regular basis. But let’s not ruin a good story.)
Moving on to Orwell, Hochschild says in his Introduction:
Could we have a better guide to Donald Trump’s America? When a senior aide to President Trump talked about “alternative facts” at a time when the real ones (a low turnout for his inauguration, starkly visible in photographs) were embarrassing, what is that but the twisting of truth into propaganda that Orwell described so chillingly in Nineteen Eighty-Four and elsewhere? In a 1943 essay excerpted in this book he wrote, “Nazi theory . . . specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists . . . if the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ — well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five — well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs.” Is this not the universe that President Trump, surrounded by embarrassing facts on all sides, would like to live in?
There’s too much to unpack here, but let me digress into some factual detail. First, President Trump’s inauguration was heavily barricaded on January 20, 2017. You couldn’t drive into Washington, DC. Streets were blocked because of antifa threats to bomb the inauguration. (Antifa rioters did in fact wreck a few storefronts and automobiles.) DC Metro stations near the Capitol and Mall were closed. If you rode into the city on the Metro, you had to walk about two miles just to find a place at the Mall. Unlike the Obama inaugurations, which made a special effort to bus in thousands of extras from hither and yon, the Trump inauguration was prevented from letting most of its supporters show up. With all these obstacles, it’s really a wonder the Mall was half-full.
Hochschild gives an extra twist to his knife by suggesting that Nineteen Eighty-Four and the “alternative facts” remark (it was actually Kellyanne Conway’s) describe “Nazi theory.” The passage quoted above actually comes from a 1943 Orwell essay called “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” in which the real culprits were not Nazis or “fascists” whom the Leftists were all ostensibly fighting, but rather the Reds, who were far more concerned with killing and imprisoning Orwell’s Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) colleagues and other non-Stalinist militia groups on the Left.
When people like Hitchens and Hochschild try to enshrine Orwell as an all-wise guru, or use him as a cheap and available club to beat their political bogeymen with, I sense that they’re basically tone-deaf to the sort of writer Orwell really was. As a political writer he was first and foremost a most subtle and seductive propagandist. As an example I’m going to take another essay that he wrote about the Spanish Civil War, shortly after he and his wife Eileen escaped from the Communists in Barcelona.
It’s called “Spilling the Spanish Beans,” and it is a masterpiece of weaselly propaganda. Published in two parts, in the New English Weekly in July and September 1937, it may be regarded as a sort of “teaser” for the Homage to Catalonia memoir he was working on. Orwell often begins essays with digressive, conversational observations and then circles down to his main point. In “Spilling the Spanish Beans” he opens with a bad, tasteless joke, but one intended to get a smile and a nod from the reader. He is mocking Right-wing press reports of Leftist atrocities, dismissing them as propaganda:
The Spanish war has probably produced a richer crop of lies than any event since the Great War of 1914-18, but I honestly doubt, in spite of all those hecatombs of nuns who have been raped and crucified before the eyes of “Daily Mail” reporters, whether it is the pro-Fascist newspapers that have done the most harm.
This is a nugget tossed out to entice the Leftist, anti-nationalist crowd, and to assure them that the writer is of sympathetic mien. But he’s also setting us up for some serious swipes at the Left, beginning with the next sentence:
It is the left-wing papers, the “News Chronicle” and the “Daily Worker,” with their far subtler methods of distortion, that have prevented the British public from grasping the real nature of the struggle.
And now Orwell, master propagandist, proceeds to lay into the Left-wing press and politicians for having deep-sixed the Loyalist cause in Spain. The war isn’t over yet, not by a long shot, but he advises us that the Leftist side in the conflict — also sometimes called the Republicans, or the Popular Front — hasn’t a chance of winning. The best outcome, as he sees it, is that “the war will end with some sort of compromise,” which suggest that perhaps Catalonia and central Spain (including Madrid) will continue on with their Popular Front “social democracy” regime, while the rest of the country will be ruled by the assorted nationalist factions united under Generalissimo Franco. Orwell isn’t prognosticating here; he’s just offering tepid conventional wisdom from mid-1937. Perhaps he really expects all of Spain to go up the fascist spout in a year or so, but doesn’t dare say it.
But whichever — he has a very convoluted explanation of how certain fake-revolutionary Leftists conspired to do Spain in. He paints a picture of the conflict as mainly one between “true revolutionaries” (e.g., his POUM militia) and the Communists. And he says the bad guys are not just the Communists, but the liberal bourgeoisie and the Right-wing press, who he claims are in league with them. They’re all working together, conspiring to stifle the “true revolutionary” innovations that sprang up at the outbreak of war in 1936:
[I]n the early days of the revolution the Spanish workers . . . took the opportunity of seizing land and factories and setting up the rough beginnings of a workers’ government by means of local committees, workers’ militias, police forces, and so forth. They made the mistake, however . . . of leaving the Republican Government in nominal control.
Is this naïvete or casuistry? Maybe a bit of both? The whole purpose of the war, from the Leftist or Popular Front point of view, was to preserve that “democratically elected” government of the Republic, and prevent a takeover by the Francoite nationalists. Orwell himself signed up to fight in Spain to defend that government. (He initially tried to join a Communist brigade in England, but got rejected as politically suspect.) But now here he’s telling us that the proper custodians of Spain’s future should have been workers’ militias and local committees. It’s a very delicate balancing act that Orwell is pulling here. He wants to denounce the Communists and bourgeois politicians (who were guilty of asking the Soviets for aid, thereby leaving the door open for a complete Stalinist takeover of the Left), but needs to show us a better alternative, so he tells us about the lost opportunity Spain had, with all those ragtag bands of ineffectual workers’ clubs. With this far-fetched hypothesis, Orwell gets to pass himself off as an honest socialist, maybe a True Revolutionary, a Man of the Left in full — albeit a very impractical one. Alas, he tells us, no one in England understands him, or “the real nature of the struggle”:
It is unfortunate that so few people in England have yet caught up with the fact that Communism is now a counter-revolutionary force; that Communists everywhere are in alliance with bourgeois reformism and using the whole of their powerful machinery to crush or discredit any party that shows signs of revolutionary tendencies. Hence the grotesque spectacle of Communists assailed as wicked ‘Reds’ by right-wing intellectuals who are in essential agreement with them.
A “grotesque spectacle”? Rightist opposition to the Popular Front governments in Spain and France during 1935-39 was hardly opportunist. It was constant and consistent. The Popular Front was an initiative by Stalin and the Comintern to find common cause with the various social-democratic parties, whether they styled themselves as moderate or revolutionary. Part of the “sell” was depicting the Popular Front as a, well, people’s front against “fascism.” Bolshevists wisely chose to call conservatives and nationalists “fascists” rather than “national socialists” because the latter sounded too damned attractive. National Socialists were building Autobahnen and giving everyone a job, with paid holidays: the very sort of sparkly promises that Popular Front socialists liked to offer their voters. “Fascists” sounded vaguer and sinister: generic bogeymen, oppressive and mean.
Conversely, the policies and goals thrown up by the various Leftist factions were hopelessly inconsistent. For the most part these factions began as social democrats, sometimes Marxist but officially anti-Bolshevist. Then most of them aligned with the Reds, because during the Popular Front days of the mid-1930s the Reds were promising to play nice. But during the Spanish war the Reds ceased to play nice, and damned all those anti-Stalinist socialists and anarcho-syndicalists and Marxist deviationists as “Trotskyists” or “Trotskyites.”
Orwell, the Man of the Left, may have been oblivious to the scam of the Popular Front. There were blind spots in his judgment and vast lacunae in his knowledge. Regardless, he had to cheer on the mainstream social-democratic Left to preserve his literary viability. His main book publisher at this time was Victor Gollancz, an erudite Polish Jew who’d been to St. Paul’s School and Oxford, and founded the Left Book Club. Unfortunately the post-Spain Orwell, with his complaints about how the Reds wanted to murder him in Barcelona, wasn’t simon-pure enough for Gollancz, who needed to keep the Comrades happy. Orwell moved on to a different publisher.
But to the end of his life, he continued to be slippery and evasive when writing on political matters. Animal Farm, for example, is based upon a most deceitful premise: that the Bolshevik Revolution was a Good Thing to begin with — but it was defeated, tragically, by corrupt capitalists and fascists. (The Revolution Betrayed! No wonder the Reds called him a Trotskyite.) With Nineteen Eighty-Four he never really came clean and admitted that the dystopic setting was a Stalinistic regime of terror and brutality. Instead he took refuge in that evasive Partisan Review term, “totalitarianism,” a word that originally described Mussolini’s corporativist government but by the 1940s had no precise meaning beyond “powerful, cruel, slave state.” Orwell and his publisher even put out a press release in June 1949, denying that Nineteen Eighty-Four was about Communism and Stalinism. The Commies weren’t fooled.
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 Christopher Hitchens, Why Orwell Matters (New York: Basic Books, 2002).
 George Orwell, Orwell on Truth, Introduction by Adam Hochschild (New York & Boston: Mariner Books-Houghton Mifflin, 2019).
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