Saturday, October 17, 2009

Recommended Reading - Why Orwell Matters

George Orwell may be the only person who got it right on all three of the Big Issues of the 20th Century: Imperialism, Fascism, and Communism. Certainly that's Christopher Hitchen's thesis, powerfully presented in this slim history.

I once asked Of What Use is an Intellectual Class? Hitchens shows us. There has always been a principled Left, of which Orwell (and Hitchens, and Norm Geras, and Roger L. Simon) is a representative. He was defined by a set of core beliefs that are - unlike those of the unprincipled Left, whose shameful record goes back at least to Bolshevik times - unrelated to which party is in power or which leader's star is rising.

Orwell was a complex mix of what we'd term "right" and "left" in today's scorecard:
It is true on the face of it that Orwell was one of the founding fathers of anti-Communism; that he had a strong patriotic sense and a very potent instinct for what we might call elementary right and wrong; that he despised government and bureaucracy and was a stout individualist; that he distrusted intellectuals and academics and reposed a faith in popular wisdom; that he upheld a somewhat traditional orthodoxy in sexual and moral matters, looked down on homosexuals and abhorred abortion; and that he seems to have been an advocate for private ownership of guns. He also preferred the country to the town, and poems that rhymed.
Pretty clearly, he'd never get tenure today.

What makes Orwell interesting, is that while the struggle against Imperialism and Fascism are long over, Communism (by whatever name you want to call it) is alive and well in the Intellectual Left. This makes Orwell unpopular among the Intellectual Left, in the same way that Arthur Koestler is unpopular: they both hold up an unflattering mirror to show the Left what they really looked like.
He also analyzed the temptation among intellectuals to adapt themselves to power, as instanced by developments across the Channel:

"Both Vichy and the Germans have found it quite easy to keep a facade of 'French culture' in existence. Plenty of intellectuals were ready to go over, and the Germans were quite ready to make use of them, even when they were 'decadent'. At this moments Drieu de la Rochelle is editing the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, Pound is bellowing against the Jews on Rome radio, and Celine is a valued exhibit in Paris, or at least his books are. All of these would come under the heading of kulturbolshewismus, but they are also useful cards to play against the intelligentsia in Britain and the U.S.A. If the Germans got to England, similar things would happen ..."

Note the date of this. It should be borne in mind here that until recently the Soviet Union had been in a military alliance with Hitler - an alliance loudly defended by Britain's Communists - and that Moscow Radio had denounced the British naval blockade of Nazi Germany as a barbaric war on civilians.
This battle is not only unresolved, it's still going on at full strength today. Compare that passage from Orwell with Michael Moore's pro-Sadaam Hussein propaganda. Another example, from Hitchens:
No less to the point, [Orwell] had discovered [while fighting in the Spanish Civil War] that the Communist strategy relied very heavily upon the horror and terror of anonymous denunciation, secret informing, and police espionage. At that date, the official hero of all young communists was Pavlik Morozov, a 14-year-old 'Pioneer' who had turned in his family to the Soviet police for the offence of hoarding grain. The villagers had slain him as a result; statues of the martyr-child were commonplace in the USSR and it was the obligation of a good Party member to emulate his example.

Orwell's disgust at this culture of betrayal was not confined to the visceral style by which he portrayed and condemned it in Nineteen Eighty Four. He showed a lifelong hatred for all forms of censorship, proscription, and blacklisting. Even when Sir Oswald Mosley was released from prison at the height of the Second World War - a piece of lenience which inspired many complaints from supposed anti-fascists - Orwell commented that it was unpleasant to see the Left protesting at the application of habeas corpus.
Sadly, you don't have to look very hard to see examples of anonymous denunciation, desire for censorship, and creative use of imprisonment for unpopular political views from the Unprincipled Left. Scooter Libby's conviction, the recent episode of fabricated racist quotes attributed to Rush Limbaugh, the statement of NASA's Dr. Mann to Congress that opponents of the theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming should be imprisoned, and the repeated calls for imposition of a "Fairness Doctrine" to censor the airwaves: none of these seem like they would be surprising to Orwell were he alive today.

The left has simply refused to grapple with its own history of Soviet-inspired (and even directed) ideology. If you take it as a given - as I do - that the very first principle of an intellectual is to examine your own premises, it's difficult to observe this without experiencing a feeling of contempt. Orwell's words from 1940 ring as true today as they did seventy years ago:
What exactly does Professor Bernal mean by 'fellowship' and 'ever-closer understanding' between Britain and the USSR? Does he mean, for instance, that independent British observers in large numbers should be allowed to travel freely through Soviet territory and send home un-censored reports? Or that Soviet citizens should be encouraged to read British newspapers, listen to the BBC, and view the institutions of this country with a friendly eye? Obviously he doesn't mean that. All he can mean, therefore, is that Russian propaganda in this country should be intensified, and that critics of the Soviet regime (darkly referred to as 'subtle disseminators of mutual suspicion') should be silenced.
It's no accident that the strongest pro-American public feeling in Europe is in the former Warsaw Pact nations. It's also no accident that the strongest reaction to Orwell's 1984 came from the populations trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Hitchens, quoting the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz:
"A few have become acquainted with Orwell's 1984; because it is both difficult to obtain and dangerous to posses, it is known to certain members of the Inner Party. Orwell fascinates them through his insights into details they know well; and through his use of Swiftian satire. Such a form of writing is forbidden by the New Faith because allegory, by nature manifold in meaning, would trespass beyond the prescriptions of socialist realism and the demands of the censor. Even those who know Orwell only by hearsay are amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have so keen a perception into its life."

Only one or two years after Orwell's death, in other words, his book about a secret book circulated only within the Inner Party was itself a secret book circulated only within the Inner Party.
History has made the Right's objections to Orwell irrelevant. Imperialism and Fascism as honorable philosophies are long dead. Kaput. Finis. Only Communism remains as the last bastion of totalitarian philosophy that is somehow still acceptable in "Polite Society." In this sense, Orwell's work is still unfinished.

That is why Orwell still matters, and why Hitchens has done us all - but especially the honorable Left - an immense service with this book.

UPDATE 24 May 2013 19:22:  It turns out that Hitchens gave a talk about his book.


Paladin said...

I need to re-read Orwell. I haven't looked at his work since College. I enjoyed Animal Farm greatly.

Foxwood said...

That it's so "in" to be a Communist now just amazes me. The Commies have come out of the closet. Problem is, one is in the White House today. :(

Anonymous said...

Sooner or later the antics of the intellectual left (as opposed to the intelligent, regardless of leaning) will be regarded as so obviously ridiculous and irrelevant that they will be relegated to the ash heap of history where they belong.


Paul said...

The NFL decides who becomes an owner not the other way around.

All this blowhard (Rush Hudson Limbaugh A.KA. Jeff Christie) has to offer is his money and his opinions, (which in my opinion are on the fringes of racism, one mans opinion). There are many more groups biding for the Rams, not just his group. Lets face it there are more men with money (Marshall Faulk) that will gladly fill the slot and the Rams will win or lose depending on how well they work as a team and not on whether or not Rush is an owner.

As for Vick, well he is a player (he has talent not like you, Rush or I, unless you are a NFL player?) and he served his time and the NFL decided we live in the land of second chances, so why not (I personally don’t like it but, oh well). Life has never been fair (NEWS FLASH!)

Now as to the “Free Speech” argument, I guess many of you like myself heard Rush on Thursday “Almost in tears”, priceless. But the last couple of days he now is in his normal ranting and will continue until someone surpasses him, “Free Speech” continues, so what is being stifled, it simply is not true, of course, you may not have a radio, so you might want to get one.

PS – I am sure someone is working to put the tapes together maybe all you subscribers can help, since you are all about getting to the truth?

PPS- Beauty Pageant Judge - Now I understand why he lost the weight, to find a new wife, creepy.