Orwell: Prophet and Writer
George Orwell was a prophet who understood his times and his enemies. The purpose of this essay is to explore this Englishman and his impact on both the right and left. Most recently Christopher Hitchens explored Orwell’s impact and his effect even today in his book, Why Orwell Matter. Hitchens, who had his own epiphany as result of September 11th, finds that he is rescuing Orwell “from a pile of saccharine and moist hankees; an object of sickly veneration and sentimental overpraise.”
Moral and mental glaciers slightly
Betray the influence of his warm intent
Because he taught what the actual meant
The vicious winter grips its prey less tightly
Robert Conquest’s poem about Orwell signifies Orwell strength- telling the hard truth. He didn’t flinch from the reality of the world or pretend what was not true was true. In the 30’s, Orwell would discover the truth about Communism long before others in the intelligentsia did.
Orwell began his career working for His Majesty Government in Burma as a police officer but very shortly, he repudiated his country imperialism. Hitchens writes, “Orwell’s decision to repudiate the unthinking imperialism that had been his family’s meal ticket. (His father was an executive in the degrading opium trade between British India and China.) may be represented as Oedipal by those critics who prefer such avenues of inquiry. But it was thoroughgoing and, for it time, very advanced.” Orwell first published piece dealt with how British tariffs were decimating Burma economy. Interesting the socialist Orwell first piece would be exploring how tariffs badly affected a third world country- in effect taking a free market view of trade. Throughout his life, this socialist saw the fallacy of state-ownership and centralization. Another aspect was Orwell obsession with power and sexual repression, whether in Burmese Days or 1984. (Orwell was not a libertine in his life and had rather conservative thoughts on sex including opposition to abortion and homosexuality. But he was no prude.)
Orwell own experiences with colonialism first hand led him to oppose imperialism and colonization. He sympathize with the natives and as Hitchens wrote, “His rooted opposition to imperialism is a strong and consistent theme throughout all his writings….in general he insisted that the whole colonial ‘racket’ was corrupting to the British and degrading to the colonized.”
Orwell did understand the implication of growth of English on the South Asia continent. He wrote, “The growth…of an English language Indian literature is a strange phenomenon, and it will have its effect on the post-war world, if not on the outcome of war…at present English is to a great extent and business language of India.”
Indian writer Salman Rushdie wrote, “The prose writing- both fiction and non-fiction- created in this period by Indian writers working in English, is providing to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the 16 ‘official languages’ of India, the so-called ‘vernacular languages’, during the same time; and, indeed, this new and still burgeoning. ‘Indo-Anglian’ literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of book.” Orwell quipped, “On the average, too, Indians write and even pronounce English far better than any European race.” While Orwell opposed imperialism and Hitchens backs Orwell position but the spread of English in India shows the actual benefit of British imperialism. English is becoming a unifying language for all of India, a land that as Rushdie noted has 14 official languages. As Orwell showed in 1984, language matters and English has become the language that united India and India also adopted the British parliament system. Finally, the British gave India a national identity, which did not exist before colonialism. While there was a cultural India before the British arrival, India as a nation did not exist until after the British left India.
The intellegencia of the left had a love-hate relations with Orwell. Mary McCarthy admired Orwell but feared his anti-communism would have led Orwell to support the Vietnam War. Other noted leftist Norm Chomsky and Norman Mailer viewed Orwell as one of their own. Hitchens feel that Orwell would not have supported the Vietnam War or become a neo-conservative just as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz would. Hitchens felt that Orwell would have been a capricious leftist. Orwell in one essay, concluded that “a socialist United States of Europe seems to me the only worth-while political objective.”
It is hard to say how Orwell would have matured and changed as the cold war progressed. There is no doubt that he was anti-communism and while he supported socialism, he understood that the bureaucracy that accompanies socialism threatened the whole enterprise. Podhoretz changed over to conservatism during the 70’s when it became obvious the political left were no longer interested in defending America or in opposing the totalitarian Soviet Empire. Some on the left merely became fellow traveler. Maybe Orwell would have become a Scoop Jackson liberal- a hawk on foreign affairs and government interventionist at home. Certainly, during Orwell time, there were many leftist or former communist going right such as James Burnham, who help influence Orwell’s 1984 with his book, “The Managerial Revolution.”
Orwell understood the power of collectivism and hoped that socialism could be made to work but instinctly understood that maybe it just couldn’t. He favored the underdog and believed that socialism was the economic theory to help the underdog. Maybe as he grew older, he would dispense with this notion that socialism was the great savior of the lower class and the middle class and fear its collective nature.
There is no doubt about Orwell anti-communist views. Animal Farm was based on Joseph Stalin’s Russia and many of Orwell’s negative view of communism came as result of his experience in the Spanish Civil War. In his book, “Homage to Catalonia”, Orwell detailed the subversion of the Spanish Republic by Stalin’s agents and how Stalin’s people attempted to eliminate the independent left. In the town of Catalonia, there was full attempt of putsch resembling the Moscow show trials. Andres Nan, a local leftist leader, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered as part of the civil war between Marxist and the independent left. Orwell himself was on the elimination list complied by the communist even though he was unaware of it. Orwell, who was severely wounded by a fascist bullet, left Spain along with his wife before the order could be carried out.
The siren of communism never tantalized Orwell and this alone showed the man’s independence. When others had to experience the horror and drudgery of communism before switching, Orwell never was tempted. He knew at the beginning about Communism’s evil.
Orwell 1984 was prescient in another way. He had a general idea of how the world may eventually be organized. In 1984, we see the world split between Oceania, East Asia and Eurasia. Based on some geographic reality, Orwell envisioned a North American led bloc competing with Europe or Russian lead bloc and an oriental Asian bloc. Today, we are witnessing such a world with an Anglosphere world forming around the United States and including Great Britain as well as Australia and an East Asia bloc led by a resurgent China. The European continent is debating the European Union and the implication that this bloc may yet compete with the United States even though presently, EU is being threatened with populism as many European nations are no longer blindly willing to follow the EU bureaucrats but the threat of a Asia bloc led by China is a serious threat.
Orwell, at heart, was a pessimist. In some way, his vision of darkness resembled those of Whitaker Chambers, the author of Witness and the key witness against Algier Hiss. Chambers truly believed that he joined the losing side when he turned away from communism and went to the right. Orwell’s own writing climaxing with 1984 showed a similar foreboding. Orwell’s own vision was that in the end, all might be lost. When Orwell reviewed F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, he wrote, “Professor thesis is that Socialism inevitably leads to despotism and that in Germany, the Nazis were able to succeed because the Socialism had already done most of their work for them….By bringing the whole of life under the control of the State, Socialism necessarily gives power to an inner ring of bureaucrats, who in almost every case will be men who want power for its own sake and will stick at nothing in order to retain it…..In the negative part of Professor Hayek’s thesis there is a great deal of truth…. That collectivism is not inherently democratic, but on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamed of.” Maybe, Orwell believed that he was on the losing side and like Winston Smith in 1984, he could see the bullet aiming for his head.