by Bill Weinberg
WHY ORWELL MATTERS
by Christopher Hitchens
Basic Books, New York, 2002, 211 pp., $24
(Published in the UK as ORWELL’S VICTORY, Penguin, London, 2002)
Here is a little exercise in historical ironies.
Few seem to remember it now, but in the 1980s, forgotten little Nicaragua was one of the last front-lines of the Cold War. When I was there in those years, one of many idealistic gringos who came to witness the besieged revolution, the right-wing opposition was distributing a Spanish translation of a classic parable of revolution betrayed. This was a probable element of the CIA “psychological operations” campaign aimed at subverting the revolutionary Sandinista regime, which also included distribution of the notorious “dirty tricks” manual advocating sabotage and assassination. The regime responded by denouncing the parable as a counter-revolutionary polemic written by a reactionary pro-imperialist writer. The work, of course, was Animal Farm by George Orwell.
This same author was in Spain in the 1930s, supporting a besieged revolution of his own day–fighting in an independent communist militia (“Trotskyist,” to use the common misnomer) then allied with anarchist militias in resisting Gen. Francisco Franco’s fascists in Catalonia. These anarchists and independent communists were collectivizing land and industry in Catalonia–much as the Sandinistas would in Nicaragua 50 years later. Together, these forces would also resist the center-left Popular Front government in Madrid, which paradoxically moved to crush Catalonia’s revolution in 1937 at the behest of Josef Stalin—who feared that the Catalan movement was too uncontrollable. In his war memoir Homage to Catalonia, the habitually critical Orwell relates how, arriving in Spain purely to fight fascism, he wound up bearing arms in defense of the Catalan revolution. “I have no particular love for the idealized ‘worker’ as he appears in the bourgeois Communist’s mind,” he wrote, “but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.”
Orwell even expressed enthusiasm for the anarchists’ vicious habit of torching churches! In one passage he describes a brief touristic excursion to Barcelona’s modernist cathedral—clearly Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, although he doesn’t mention it by name—and finding it appallingly ugly. “I think the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up,” he mused. He did, however, take some comfort from the fact that the anarchists had hung their red-and-black flag between its spires.
The irony is exquisitely nuanced. Nicaragua’s Sandinistas revived the anti-fascist slogan of the Spanish war, No pasaran! (They shall not pass!)–coined in the 1930s to refer to the Nazi-backed Franco forces, and then in the 1980s to refer to the US-backed “contra” guerillas. And the Sandinistas’ own flag was a direct descendant of that which Orwell hailed on the spires of the Sagrada Familia. The flag of the Spanish anarchists was a field equally divided into red (for revolution) and black (for the negation of authority). The 1930s Nicaraguan revolutionary Augusto Cesar Sandino, who resisted the occupying US Marines, was inspired by the anarchists, and adopted this flag—putting a skull and cross-bones on it in place of the acronym of Spain’s National Labor Confederation, CNT. When the Sandinista National Liberation Front launched their struggle against the US-imposed Somoza dictatorship a generation later, they revived this flag, replacing the logo this time with their own acronym, FSLN. With a few minor differences, it was the same flag flown by the anarchists in the ’30s. At the same time that they flew it, their regime tilted towards Moscow in the Cold War, ran Moscow-line denunciations of Poland’s Solidarity union in the government daily Barricada –and denounced Orwell as a counter-revolutionary.
Meanwhile, the architects of the Nicaraguan counter-revolution, Reagan’s “privatized” spy network that undermined the US Constitution and international order by organizing a lawless mercenary army out of basement of the White House—the “contras,” led by thugs from the ousted Somoza dictatorship—had the chutzpah to call themselves “Project Democracy.” This abuse of the English language was of precisely the kind that Orwell relentlessly satirized. Yet these architects, for their own cynical interests, apparently promoted Orwell in revolutionary Nicaragua.
And now, in 2003, one of those architects, former National Security Council chief John Poindexter—who was convicted (later overturned on immunity grounds) of lying to Congress about his role in the Nicaraguan affair—has been appointed head of a Pentagon agency, the Office of Information Awareness, which is building the capacity to peer into the intimate details of the private lives of the citizenry. Your credit card, telephone and personal computer have conspired to become the all-seeing “telescreens” of Orwell’s 1984. A final irony–now that the Cold War is over, the telescreens have finally arrived. So has the Ministry of Truth, in the form of a special Pentagon office for “black” propaganda (lies, in the vernacular), the quite Orwellianly-named Office of Strategic Information, revealed in the New York Times last year.
Orwell was a man of the left whose biggest boosters since his death in 1950 have been on the right, and whose biggest critics have been on the left. Both the boosters and critics have a lot invested in the notion that 1984 was only a satire of the East—despite the fact that Orwell explicitly denied this, more than once. This lie—this appropriation of a socialist, anti-colonialist writer in the interests of empire—can be termed the Orwellian manipulation of Orwell. The writer’s own personal obsession with the very concept of truth makes the manipulation even more perverse. Now that the telescreens are finally here—under capitalism, not Communism—it is more important (and one would think easier) than ever for the left to reclaim Orwell.
Yet the man who would rise to this task has problems of his own. The most disappointing thing about Christopher Hitchens’ Why Orwell Matters is its lack of passion–especially in light of the current terrifying historical juncture. Hitchens argues that Orwell matters because he was prematurely correct about Fascism, Stalinism and Empire. But there is a distinct absence of outrage against the machine here—which is not surprising, given Hitchens’ own recent rightward trajectory. Hitchens may argue that Orwell was right about Empire—but he now supports imperial military adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia. He recently left The Nation, where he was a columnist of many years, in disagreement over such issues. The title of his book’s British edition, Orwell’s Victory, is especially telling–implying that the world, or at least those who run it, has actually heeded the dystopian prophet’s warnings.
Does it help Orwell to have Hitchens leading the charge in his defense? Even in Orwell’s lifetime, the agents of empire were seeking to exploit his work, and he was cognizant of this. Hitchens actually does a good job of illustrating this reality. In his chapter “Orwell and Empire,” he notes an episode in November 1945—on the very cusp of the Cold War—in which the Duchess of Atholl asked Orwell to speak at a meeting of her League for European Freedom protesting Communist brutality in Yugoslavia. Orwell responded: “I cannot associate myself with an essentially Conservative body which claims to defend democracy in Europe but has nothing to say about British imperialism. [O]ne can only denounce the crimes now being committed in Poland, Jugoslavia etc. if one is equally insistent on ending Britain’s unwanted rule in India. I belong to the Left and must work inside it, much as I hate Russian totalitarianism and its poisonous influence…”
More irony: Hitchens himself was apparently willing to share a bill with Jeanne Kirkpatrick–Reagan’s UN ambassador and a contemporary ideological pillar of empire–at a George Orwell Centenary Conference, held this May at Wellesley College. Unless Hitchens called out Kirkpatrick as inimical to Orwell’s true spirit in his remarks (of which we have not heard), it seems his own standards of who he will “associate himself with” are considerably lower than those of his hero.
It is admittedly a useless exercise, but a bug which has been in my ear since (as a matter of fact) 1984: If Orwell had lived to the see that year, would he have applauded the distribution of his work in Nicaragua, as he did in fact applaud the distribution of Animal Farm in the Soviet Bloc, as a form of resistance to Communist tyranny? Or would he have perceived that his work was being manipulated in a neo-colonialist venture to return Nicaragua to the US orbit? Would he have perceived this in spite of the Sandinistas’ own authoritarian tendencies and pro-Soviet tilt?
If he had lived only a little longer than he actually did, would Orwell have taken sides in the Cold War? Would he have, like post-communist Dwight McDonald in 1952, “chosen the West”? And if he had lived to be a very old man indeed, how would he have viewed the post-Cold War interventions in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq? Some of us Orwell fans would like to think he would be neither among the neo-interventionists such as Hitchens, nor with much of the actually-existing anti-war movement—such as International ANSWER, led at its core by the Stalin-nostalgist Workers World Party, stateside cheerleader for Slobodan Milosevic.
While Hitchens doesn’t mention the Nicaraguan case, he does note approvingly that the opposition in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is making good use of Animal Farm. The book’s serialization in a Zimbabwe opposition newspaper in 2001 was cut short by a bomb attack on the presses—almost certainly the work of the regime. Mugabe is assuredly an anti-democratic thug. But Hitchens fails to note the complexities—that the issue of land reform that Mugabe exploits (however ineptly and cynically) is, in fact, a legitimate one; that the Bush/Blair moves towards intervention in Zimbabwe are, once again, a neo-colonialist campaign.
Even in Russia, where the tyranny of the Czar gave way to that of Stalin—so that the metaphorical farm animals could look “from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which”—a decade after the fall of Communism the New Boss is once again starting to look suspiciously like the Old Boss. In May, when Hitchens was schmoozing with the triumphant anti-Communist Jeanne Kirkpatrick at Wellesley, Yelena Bonner, widow of the famous Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, was protesting that authorities in St. Petersburg were erecting a statue to her late husband—despite a deteriorating human rights climate which he certainly would now be protesting were he alive. “It is out of place to erect a monument to Sakharov in today’s Russia,” she said.
Surprisingly, Hitchens’ book takes no overt swipes at his great nemesis, The Nation’s requisite Orwell-basher, Alexander Cockburn. He even passes up the opportunity to take on Alex’s father Claud Cockburn–who, strangely, is only mentioned in the acknowledgements. Under the pen name of “Frank Pitcairn,” Claud wrote for The Daily Worker about the Spanish war–and was called out in Homage to Catalonia for (not to mince words) lying about Madrid’s crushing of the left-dissident elements in Spain in 1937, portraying the “Trotskyist” group which Orwell’s militia was attached to (the Workers Party of Marxist Unification, or POUM) as a crypto-fascist front.
Hitchens does, to his credit, take on the stickiest question: Did Orwell collaborate with Big Brother? Orwell’s notorious “list” of perceived crypto-Communists and fellow travelers has provided his leftist critics with powerful ammo. Orwell initially drew up the list—consisting almost entirely of public figures he did not know personally—in 1949 for his personal edification. But, as Alex Cockburn took great glee in pointing out in the pages of The Nation, he eventually turned it over to the British government. The affair is an unavoidable one for any contemporary defense of Orwell.
What makes the affair doubly damning is Orwell’s annotation, which took an unhealthy interest in the ethnicity of the figures on the list. After Charlie Chaplin, he scrawled “(Jewish?)” (he wasn’t). This is sleazy stuff, even for something not intended for public consumption. (One thing can be said in Orwell’s defense on this point: his essay “Anti-Semitism in Britain” so successfully exposed the phenomenon by examining how he shared in it–precisely the kind of brutal honesty and moral complexity that his fans admire.)
Embarrassingly, the list accused Paul Robeson of being “Very anti-white”—a crude caricature of his politics. But Robeson indeed was actually too soft on the Soviets—as were many of our culture heroes on the left. Woody Guthrie was not on the list, but maybe he should have been, with his now near-forgotten lyrical homages to Stalin. Is it really mere red-baiting to point this out?
Far more problematic is that Orwell turned the list over to the Information Research Department (IRD) of the British Foreign Office—particularly to one Celia Kirwan, who was his editor at Polemic (and unrequited crush of many years). Kirwan (the twin sister of Arthur Koestler’s wife Mamaine) was apparently connected to the IRD, a burgeoning Cold War propaganda unit.
Hitchens avoids taking on Alex Cockburn’s writing on this question, but focuses on Paul Lashmar and James Oliver, authors of Britain’s Secret Propaganda War, a 1998 history of the IRD. The first (and smallest) point is the authors’ claim that the list was revealed in 1996 by The Guardian. Hitchens says it was actually revealed in Bernard Crick’s 1980 biography George Orwell: A Life. But Crick only mentions that Orwell kept the list–not that he turned it over to Kirwan, the salient point. In fact, none of the numerous references to Kirwan in Crick even note that she worked for the IRD.
Next, Hitchens claims—contrary to the assertions of Lashmar and Oliver—that nobody was “blacklisted” or targeted by the “Thought Police” for being on the list. This is also questionable. The IRD was akin to the US Information Agency—it published and distributed books and articles by intellectuals who were thought to further British imperial interests (or “democracy”—although this takes on an Orwellian meaning in some cases, such as the IRD’s complicity with the CIA-backed coup in Indonesia). Orwell was familiar with such efforts, having served as a BBC war propagandist from 1941-3 (despite profound criticisms of the Allies). In sending the list to Kirwan, he was warning a colleague against promoting writers he felt were Communist dupes. There was clearly a possibility that, at a minimum, these writers would be blacklisted by the IRD! And even if the IRD was not engaged in surveillance, once the list had been passed on to one government office, it could always be forwarded to another–theoretically, to MI6 or even the CIA. In fact, Britain’s Secret Propaganda War details the close links between the IRD and these two sinister agencies.
So if Cockburn overlooks context and disingenuously refers (in The Nation of Dec. 7, 1998) to Kirwan as a “secret agent” (was her work with the IRD secret?), Hitchens is also off the mark to exculpate Orwell on this ugly episode.
It’s again to Hitchens’ credit that he avoids hagiography. He deals forthrightly with Orwell’s downright anti-feminism and undisguised homophobia. Although his 1946 essay “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad” brilliantly presaged ecological politics, Orwell rarely missed an opportunity to diss vegetarians, pacifists, “sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers” (The Road to Wigan Pier, p. 182). Time has not treated these stodgy prejudices as well as it has Orwell’s lonely refusal to accommodate lies and mass murder.
Hitchens also provides worthwhile discussions of Orwell’s “Englishness” and the related question of how his beliefs in clarity and objectivity (at least as an ideal, if not a fully attainable one) set him apart from the Continental philosophers and post-modernists.
But Hitchens makes almost no attempt to apply Orwell’s ideas to the contemporary world situation–even as the ubiquitous surveillance and unending military conflict of 1984 become realities at the dawn of the 21st century. Orwell, despite his many contradictions, may matter more than ever–precisely because an uncompromisingly anti-imperialist, seriously democratic left remains such a marginal prospect as the world moves into a state of permanent war.