Why Orwell Matters

Why Orwell Matters

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by Christopher Hitchens

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Hitchens presents a George Orwell fit for the 21st century.-Boston GlobeSee more details below


Hitchens presents a George Orwell fit for the 21st century.-Boston Globe

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Vanity Fair and Nation contributor Hitchens passionately defends a great writer from attacks by both right and left, though he also refutes those fans who proclaim his sainthood. George Orwell (1903-1950), a socialist who abhorred all forms of totalitarianism, was, as Hitchens points out, prescient about the "three great subjects of the twentieth century:" imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism. In all things, Orwell's feelings were every bit as visceral as intellectual, and Hitchens devotes some of his best writing to describing Orwell's first-hand experiences with empire in Burma. It was there that he learned to hate racism, bullying and exploitation of the lower classes. "Orwell can be read," notes Hitchens, "as one of the founders of... post-colonialism." Orwell's insights about fascism and Stalinism crystallized in Spain, while he was fighting in the Civil War. Hitchens offers an excellent analysis of the writer's women, both real (his wives) and fictional, to show that the feminist critique of Orwell (that he didn't like strong, brainy women) may be unfair, though Hitchens also points out what feminists have ignored: Orwell's "revulsion for birth control and abortion." Hitchens brilliantly marshals his deep knowledge of Orwell's work. Fans of Orwell will enjoy Hitchens's learned and convincing defense, while those unfamiliar with Orwell may perhaps be induced to return to the source. (Oct.) Forecast: Hitchens has made a splash with recent books (Letters to a Young Contrarian and The Trial of Henry Kissinger). Basic is banking on similar success with a 30,000 first printing. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Far from being an ordinary biography, this small volume is an in-depth investigation of the essential George Orwell-"the heart on fire and the brain on ice." Hitchens recognizes that Orwell was more than the author of 1984 and Animal Farm. He was a keen critic of Nazism and Stalinism and didn't soften his pictures of them to sell books. His analysis of the grave inequities of those two forms of government is sufficiently acute to apply to the early 21st century's political spectrum. While claiming that Orwell "requires extricating from a pile of saccharine tablets and moist hankies [as] an object of sickly veneration and sentimental over-praise," Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair and the Nation, asserts that in contrast to his many contemporaries who wrote about the era's political issues (e.g., Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, and Cecil Day Lewis), "it [is] possible to reprint every single letter, book review and essay composed by Orwell without exposing him to any embarrassment"-a remarkable feat, indeed. The only problem with this study is that it assumes that the reader already knows that Orwell conscientiously overcame his early anti-intellectualism, his dislike of the "dark" people of the English Empire, and his squeamishness about homosexuality-all to become a great humanist. Thus, it is written for readers who have already done their homework. Recommended for large libraries with extensive political science holdings.-Charles C. Nash, Cottey Coll., Nevada, MO Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Vanity Fair columnist Hitchens (Letters to a Young Contrarian, 2001, etc.), late of the English New Left, provides reassurance for those who�ve been staying up nights wondering whether George Orwell has any relevance in the post�Cold War world.

Orwell was right on the three big subjects of his time, Hitchens writes: imperialism, fascism, and communism. In essays like "Shooting an Elephant" and in the slightly clunky novel Burmese Days, he saw the English effort to control South Asia for the misguided, ultimately dehumanizing enterprise it was. In a flood of journalism and such novels as Animal Farm and 1984, he foresaw that the Leninist-Stalinist experiment would necessarily end in the Gulag. Only Orwell�s antifascist polemics, Hitchens asserts, are less than memorable, perhaps because he tended to see fascism as "the distillation of everything that was most hateful and false in the society he already knew: a kind of satanic summa of military arrogance, racist solipsism, schoolyard bullying, and capitalist greed." As a guided tour of Orwell�s work, this has its value, though a little too much of it is given over to quibbling with previous assessments by V.S. Pritchett, Bernard Crick, Raymond Williams, and others. More interesting is Hitchens�s steady effort to rescue Orwell from those who have tried to bend him to the neoconservative cause; against them, Hitchens suggests that Orwell would likely have flown independent socialist colors had he lived to see 1984. And the European left, Hitchens writes, would do well to remember Orwell�s insistence that a "socialist United States of Europe" was the only way to steer an independent course between American capitalism on one side and Sovietcommunism on the other, advice that remains sage today even if the game has shifted just a bit.

Admirers of Hitchens should find no fault with this appreciation, which is of an interesting piece with pal Martin Amis�s Koba the Dread (p. 627). Neither should admirers of Orwell.

First printing of 30,000

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Why Orwell Matters

By Christopher Hitchens


Copyright © 2002 Christopher Hitchens
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0465030491

Chapter One

Orwell and Empire

It was once written of George Orwell that by consorting with the unemployed and destitute of England he `went native in his own country'. The remark is even truer than it appears, as I hope to show, but one should notice for now that the expression `going native' originated as a term of contempt for white men who cracked under pressure. `Native' was a colonialist term for wogs or niggers or gyppos; a lazy generalization about subject peoples. Every now and then, a young chap shipped out from home would prove unsuitable, and would take to drink or to siestas or - this being the extreme case - to concubinage with a local woman or boy. The older and steadier officials and businessmen would learn to recognize the symptoms; it was part of their job.

An old radical adage states that the will to command is not as corrupting as the will to obey. We do not know with absolute certainty what impelled Orwell to abandon the life of a colonial policeman, but it seems to have involved a version of this same double-edged slogan. The word `brutalize' is now employed quite wrongly to mean harsh or cruel treatment meted out by the strong to the weak (`the Russian army brutalized the Chechens' etc.). But in fact it means something subtler, namely the coarsening effect that thisexercise of cruelty produces in the strong.

`In Moulmein, in Lower Burma,' wrote Orwell at the opening of his essay `Shooting an Elephant', `I was hated by large numbers of people - the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town ...' It's a nice coincidence that Moulmein is featured in the first line of Rudyard Kipling's wonderful and nonsensical poem of imperial nostalgia `Mandalay' (`By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' eastward to the sea,/ There's a Burma girl a-settin', an' I know she thinks o' me'). But there was little romance in Orwell's account of the place; he clearly worried at some level that the experience of being a cop was turning him into a sadist or an automaton. In `A Hanging' he describes the dismal futility of an execution and the terrible false jocularity of the gallows humour, his honesty forcing him to confess that he had joined in the empty laughter. In `Shooting an Elephant' he gives a sketchy account of the sordid side of the colonial mentality:

I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically - and secretly, of course - I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos - all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt.

This private animosity and confusion did not by any means translate into sympathy for the `natives', who made Orwell's job a misery whenever they felt strong enough, and it is at least pardonable to speculate that he resigned the service as abruptly as he did because of the fear that he might indeed get too used to the contradiction. In the later novel Burmese Days, the central character Flory (who anticipates the sweltering banana-republic cosmos of Graham Greene by a few years) is compelled to live in a `stifling, stultifying world ... in which every word and every thought is censored ... Free speech is unthinkable ... the secrecy of your revolt poisons you like a secret disease. Your whole life is a life of lies.' That this is a strong prefiguration of the mentality of Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four will be obvious; that it is no exaggeration is confirmed by the memoir of Orwell's friend and contemporary Christopher Hollis, who visited him in Burma in 1925 and discovered him mouthing the platitudes of law-and-order: `He was at pains to be the imperial policeman, explaining that these theories of punishment and no beating were all very well at public schools, but that they did not work with the Burmese ...'

Four years later, in the pages of Le Progr�s Civique in Paris, a certain `E. A. Blair' contributed an essay in French entitled `Comment on exploite un peuple: L'Empire britannique en Birmanie' (`How a Nation is Exploited: The British Empire in Burma'). The article could justly be described as workmanlike; it commences with a careful account of the country's topography and demography and proceeds to a meticulous examination of the way the colonial power fleeces the Burmese of their natural resources and the fruits of their labour. It is, in all essentials, a study in deliberate underdevelopment and the means by which raw materials are used to finance another country's industrial progress. But one may also notice the emergence of another trope: the author's keen and sad interest in the passivity and docility of the victims, who know little or nothing of the wider mercantile world from which their nation is being excluded.

This article was the latest in a series of occasional pieces written by `E. A. Blair' - his Etonian and Burma Police name, not to be abandoned for Orwell until 1933 and the publication of Down and Out - for the Parisian radical press. The very first such essay was a study of censorship in England, published by Henri Barbusse's weekly Monde, a sort of cultural-literary front-publication of the French Communist Party. This article, also, was a thorough study of a given question which also contained a psychically interesting undertone. The British authorities, wrote `E. A. Blair', were not so much censorious as prudish, and had not felt the necessity for censorship until the rise of the Protestant and capitalist ethic. A rather ordinary point even for its time, but it did presage a lifelong interest in the relationship between power and sexual repression (a theme not absent from Flory's own sweaty reflections in Burmese Days).

It is never pointed out that Orwell's journals from the lower depths, his narratives of dish-washing in Paris and hop-picking and tramping in England, also show a sensitivity to what might be called `the native question'. Algerian and Moroccan and other French-African characters are a strong element in his account of the Parisian underclass, while back at home and hanging about between Wapping and Whitechapel the author noticed that: `The East London women are pretty (it is the mixture of blood, perhaps), and Limehouse was sprinkled with Orientals - Chinamen, Chittagonian lascars, Dravidians selling silk scarves, even a few Sikhs, come goodness knows how.' Not every young English freelance scribbler of twenty-eight or so would have been able to tell a Dravidian from a Sikh, let alone give a name to the home-port of the lascars.

In May 1936, Orwell wrote to his agent, Leonard Moore, in order to discuss, among other matters, a proposal from an American producer to make a dramatized version of Burmese Days. `If this project comes to anything,' he said, `I would suggest the title "Black Man's Burden."' I do not know if this is the earliest version of a joke on Kipling that has been played many times since - most recently in Basil Davidson's superb histories of pre-colonial Africa - but it exemplifies Orwell's ambivalence about the poet and his lack of ambivalence about the subject; an indication of his lifelong refusal to judge literature by a politicized standard.

There seems no doubt that his insight into the colonial mentality informed Orwell's dislike of the class system at home and also of fascism, which he regarded as an extreme form of class rule (albeit expressed paradoxically through a socialistic ideology). In 1940 he began an essay by recalling an incident of odious brutality he had witnessed at Colombo harbour on his first day in Asia. A white policeman had delivered a savage kick to a local coolie, eliciting general murmurs of approbation from the onlooking British passengers:

That was nearly twenty years ago. Are things of this kind still happening in India? I should say that they probably are, but that they are happening less and less frequently. On the other hand it is tolerably certain that at this moment a German somewhere or other is kicking a Pole. It is quite certain that a German somewhere or other is kicking a Jew. And it is also certain (vide the German newspapers) that German farmers are being sentenced to terms of imprisonment for showing `culpable kindness' to the Polish prisoners working for them. For the sinister development of the past twenty years has been the spread of racialism to the soil of Europe itself ... racialism is something totally different. It is the invention not of conquered nations but of conquering nations. It is a way of pushing exploitation beyond the point that is normally possible, by pretending that the exploited are not human beings.

Nearly all aristocracies having real power have depended on a difference of race, Norman rules over Saxon, German over Slav, Englishman over Irishman, white man over black man, and so on and so forth. There are traces of the Norman predominance in our own language to this day. And it is much easier for the aristocrat to be ruthless if he imagines that the serf is different from himself in blood and bone. Hence the tendency to exaggerate race-differences, the current rubbish about shapes of skulls, colour of eyes, blood-counts etc., etc. In Burma I have listened to racial theories which were less brutal than Hitler's theories about the Jews, but certainly not less idiotic.

Not long ago, I was reading some essays by the late C. Vann Woodward, the great American academic chronicler of the Old South. He had once investigated the parallels between American slavery and Russian serfdom, and found not entirely to his surprise that the Russian aristocrats did hold the belief that serfs were a lower order of being. (Their bones, for example, were believed to be black ...)

During this period, Orwell was following developments in North Africa very intently, and wishing that the British and French governments would have the imagination to intervene in Spanish Morocco and help to establish an independent anti-Franco regime there, headed by exiled Spanish republicans. In a form somewhat adapted to wartime conditions, this had been the formula proposed by the Spanish left-revolutionaries during the Civil War. They favoured Moroccan independence on principle, but also felt that, since Franco's military-fascist rebellion had originally been raised in Morocco, such a policy stood a good chance of taking him in the rear. The official Left, especially the Stalinists, had opposed the strategy on the grounds that it might offend the British and French authorities who had interests of their own in North Africa. Not content with this pusillanimity, they had made chauvinistic propaganda against the barbaric `Moors' who fought as levies in Franco's Catholic-run crusade. Though the Moors were credited with many atrocities, and it was felt particularly important on the republican side not to be taken prisoner by them, there is no trace in Orwell's writing of any xenophobic or - as we would now write the term - racist attitude towards Spain's colonial subjects. (Indeed, he spent a season or two composing a novel in Morocco just before the outbreak of the Second World War, and wrote a journal highly sympathetic to its inhabitants, including the Jews and the Berbers.)

His rooted opposition to imperialism is a strong and consistent theme throughout all his writings. It could take contradictory forms - he was fond of Kipling's line about `making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep', because he thought it captured the hypocrisy of much well-fed liberalism - but in general he insisted that the whole colonial `racket' was corrupting to the British and degrading to the colonized. Even during the years of the Second World War, when there was a dominant don't-rock-the-boat mentality and a great pressure to close ranks against the common foe, Orwell upheld the view that the war should involve decolonization. The `Searchlight' pamphlet series, of which he was an originator, included his demand (in The Lion and the Unicorn) that India be promoted from colony to full and independent ally, and also his introduction to Joyce Cary's booklet African Freedom. In his work in the Indian Service of the BBC, where he struggled, as he put it, to keep `our little corner' of the airwaves clean, he worked alongside declared supporters of independence, including Communists and nationalists.

Actually, he did rather better than keep his corner clean. His radio magazine `Voice' was a high-standard uncondescending journal of literature and ideas, keeping an audience of educated Indians in touch with the work, and the tones, of E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, William Empson and Herbert Read. In a series of war commentaries, Orwell stressed the forgotten `fronts' that made this a World War: the colonial and anti-colonial engagements in Abyssinia, Timor, Madagascar, Java, Morocco and other territories where the claim of the Allies to be on the side of freedom was being put to the test. When invited to broadcast to India using his own name, because of his high reputation in the sub-continent, he replied that he would only do so if his anti-imperialist opinions could be expressed without dilution. In correspondence, he repeatedly attacked the British government's failure of nerve and principle on the central question of Indian self-government, never ceasing to argue that independence was desirable in itself as well as being a sound tactical move in the face of Japanese aggression. He made use of his knowledge of some Asian languages, and kept closely in touch with developments in his beloved Burma.

In 1938, without his knowledge, he had been `vetted' by the India Office. A liberal editor in India wanted to employ him as an editorial writer on the Lucknow Pioneer, and had written to the authorities in London seeking their advice. He received in return a masterpiece of bureaucratic elegance composed by A. H. Joyce, Director of Information at the India Office:

There is no doubt in my mind about his ability as a leader-writer, though I think you may have to be prepared, in view of what I assess to be not merely a determined Left Wing, but probably an extremist, outlook, plus definite strength of character, for difficulties when there is a conflict of views ...

This tribute to Orwell's `power of facing' was not released by the Foreign Office until 1980; there is still a closed section of the dossier that was kept on him. And it was this same A. H. Joyce who helped supervise the India broadcasts at the Empire Section of the BBC. Much of Orwell's time was spent circumventing such surveillance and interference. At one point he was compelled to advise E. M. Forster not to mention the work of K. S. Shelvankar, on the grounds that his book had been banned in India. However, not many months later we find Orwell writing in person to Shelvankar and asking him to do some broadcasts on the history of fascism under his own name. A Burmese colleague (from Moulmein) named M. Myat Tun was severely reprimanded by Joyce for a broadcast on `What Trade Unionism Means to the Worker'; Joyce's angry note about the talk suggests that he suspected Orwell to be the mischief-maker.

There seems no doubt that Orwell made use of his BBC experiences in the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The room where the editorial meetings of Eastern Services were held was Room 101 in the Portland Place headquarters, itself one of the likely architectural models for the `Ministry of Truth' (Mini-true). Moreover, the concept of doublethink and the description of vertiginous changes in political line clearly owe something to Orwell's everyday experience of propaganda. In August 1942, just after the British had interned the leadership of the Congress Party, he wrote the following in his diary:

Horrabin was broadcasting today, and as always we introduced him as the man who drew the maps for Wells's Outline of History and Nehru's Glimpses of World History. This had been extensively trailed and advertised beforehand, Horrabin's connection with Nehru naturally being a draw for India. Today the reference to Nehru was cut out from the announcement - N. being in prison and therefore having become Bad.


Excerpted from Why Orwell Matters by Christopher Hitchens Copyright © 2002 by Christopher Hitchens
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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