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Orwell’s Century


Ben Wattenberg: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. The year 2003 marks the centennial of author George Orwell’s birth. Called by some the most important writer of the twentieth century, his legacy is in part in his language: Newspeak, Thought Police, Big Brother. Even his name has become an adjective: Orwellian. Although Orwell disdained what he called “all the smelly, little orthodoxies,” social critics at many points on the political spectrum ironically claimed him as a prime influence. How did his writing shape the twentieth century’s war of ideas? What were Orwell’s own politics?
To find out more Think Tank is joined by John Rodden, author of George Orwell, The Politics of Literary Reputation and the forthcoming, George Orwell: Scenes From an Afterlife; and Christopher Hitchens, columnist for The Nation, and author of the forthcoming book, Orwell’s Victory.
The topic before the house: Orwell’s Century.
This week on Think Tank.
From the far ends of the British Empire to the heart of European conflict, from Imperialism and Fascism to Socialism and Communism, George Orwell’s writing pierced intellectual hypocrisy wherever he found it. He was born Eric Arthur Blair in Bengal, India, in 1903. After attending the elite British Prep School Eton, he served for five years with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. In 1936 he signed on with the Left-wing Republican government in the Spanish Civil War. The insurgent nationalist forces led by Generalisso Francisco Franco, and supported by Hitler and Mussolini, redefined modern warfare with a brutal bombing campaign. But during the course of the war, Orwell became disillusioned with, and ultimately betrayed by, theLeft-wing cause for which he fought. Orwell’s two best known books reflect his life-long hatred for totalitarian governments. Animal Farm, a modern east fable attacking Stalinism, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, his nightmare vision of the ultimate totalitarian bureaucracy. Orwell believed that any orthodoxy, when taken to its logical extreme, could yield the terrifying world he portrayed in this warning, “If you ever want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face…forever.”
Gentlemen, John Rodden, Christopher Hitchens, thank for joining us on Think Tank. Let me start out, just sort of help our viewers. John and Christopher, why don’t you just tell me briefly what you have written about Orwell. The title of the book. One or two sentences about it.
John Rodden: I’ve written three books about Orwell and the most recent deals with the politics of reputation. That is, the way in which Orwell has become a writer well worth stealing as he once said of Dickens. Political grave-robbing, moving his coffin to the left or right, stealing his mantle. That’s very much what intellectual debates have been about recently. He’s every intellectual’s Big Brother. And you look up to a Big Brother. But either you look up to him with admiration or anxiety. And that’s the situation intellectuals face and have so since 1950 when he died.
Ben Wattenberg: Okay, that’s pretty good.
John Rodden: Thank you.
Christopher Hitchens: That’s not bad at all. I’m not wishing to outdo Dr. Rodden, I’ve having written three books, which I have published already in addition of Orwell’s writing on Spain, with an introduction by myself with a book of, written for the coming centennial. It’s called Orwell’s Victory. It maintains the following of the twentieth century: the three great questions were Empire, Fascism, or Nazism if you prefer—National Socialism—and Stalinism. And he was the only writer who got these three great questions of principle right. So that would be enough for most lifetimes, because, remember, he only lived till he was about forty-six and he never had a steady job.
Ben Wattenberg: He died very young. And I think as you mentioned in some of your writings, that death at an early age sort of puts a boost phase on a writer’s reputation.
John Rodden: Yes, I believe he died at precisely the right historical moment to be claimed by both the Left and the Right, and indeed the Center. He died in 1950 just before McCarthyism was on the scene. If he had lived even another three or four years, he would have had to take a position on that issue and thereafter on controversial issues like the Counterculture, Vietnam, and all the rest, up to the present. And it would have been impossible for him to have maintained his high standing on both the Left and the Right, because he was a blank slate intellectuals could write on.
Christopher Hitchens: Ah ha, well, I think now I can see the outline of a disagreement.
Ben Wattenberg: Well hold on…
Christopher Hitchens: Not that we are necessarily looking for such a thing.
Ben Wattenberg: No, we love disagreements here. Let me propose the following little outline for our discussion. Let’s begin with a little bio of George Orwell. Let’s go into what he believed and then let us play that wonderful parlor game, to which John alluded, “What would Orwell have stood for today?” So, Christopher, why don’t you start the bio. You interrupt, John, and let’s just talk.
Christopher Hitchens: Though he is thought of as quintessentially English, he was born in India, in Bengal. His father was involved in the opium trade, British colonial trade to sell opium to the Chinese. Orwell didn’t like the family business, particularly, later rebelled against it, was sent to a conventional education. Didn’t go to university, worth noticing, and so joined the Burma police, chucked it, probably because of his revulsion for colonial police tactics.
Ben Wattenberg: John, why don’t you fill us in on the Spanish Civil War thing. There are a few of our viewers, even me, who weren’t really around then, and I was just rereading some of Orwell and you come across this word “anarchist,” and I think the meaning of it has changed so completely, so give us a little fill on the sides in the Spanish-Civil War.
John Rodden: H.G. Welles called George Orwell that Trotskyist with big feet. He was size thirteen and uh, Orwell decided that despite his affiliations with some friends on the Left who were Trotskyists, that he would join a militia in Spain that was Independent Left, unaffiliated, even though it had many Troskyist members.
Ben Wattenberg: Well, but the government at that time was a Leftist government, is that right?
John Rodden: Uh huh.
Christopher Hitchens: Heavily dependent on the Soviet Union.
Ben Wattenberg: And they were called the Loyalists?
John Rodden: Uh huh.
Ben Wattenberg: And the anarchists were a subset of that?
John Rodden: Yes, there were anarchists in the Spanish government, in the Loyalist Government. The main brigade was the international brigade, which was Stalinist. And Orwell actually had a recommendation from the Chairman of the British Communist Party to go to Spain and affiliate with that brigade. But instead he decided he would join the Independent Leftists, of whom there were anarchists, Trotskyists and a lot of other independent groups. When he was at the front, he got a bullet through his windpipe, almost died, spent several weeks in hospital. For two years his voice was very weak. It only came back gradually. And yet he wrote from his deathbed in Spain or, excuse me, his hospital bed, “At last I have seen Socialism.” And that is what motivated him to go back and promote Socialism in Britain.
Christopher Hitchens: Teach you something about human brotherhood, Solidarity, the Socialist ideal. He didn’t become a cynic and he never became an anti-Communist of the sort that some people have since. But he became an anti-Stalinist in a more virulent form than many conservatives. He really hated it because it had knifed his friends in the back. It had arrested them when they were in hospital or on the run from Fascism. It had jailed them. It had put them, tried to put them up for show trials in Spain.
Ben Wattenberg: The, I mean, this gets to, into one of the arguments about what Orwell meant when he said he’s a Democratic Socialist and when he aligned himself with the anarchists. I just read some excerpts from “Homage to Catalonia,” and the people he admires are sort of these romantic proletarians with red and black scarf, red and green scarf sort of around, and they’re really highly patriotic, and they call each other comrade, and there’s no class structure. Well, that never comes to pass anywhere. I mean, you know, maybe in the first flickerings of a class revolution, I mean…….
Christopher Hitchens: I think you made a mistake in there because what Orwell liked also was the society of England during the anti-Nazi war. The feeling that during the blitz no one should be better off than anyone else, that equality should be principle, that sacrifice should be shared. I think his view of the Socialist England that he didn’t like warfare and scarcity and of course those are the awful features of the Nineteen Eighty-Four Society, poverty and warfare coercion. He liked the natural equality of the people in London during the blitz. And probably that was another of his images of how people could live in a more fraternal manner. He was just one of nature’s egalitarians.
Ben Wattenberg: Do you buy that?
John Rodden: Well, in a sense that he was ultimately a Socialist and not a Progressive and those two words are usually conflated nowadays. That is he was a Socialist in his championing of the common man and egalitarianism, but he had no doctrine of progress. He had no interest in evolutionary theories, yet later progress, one reason why the New Left was rather hostile to him. The kind of theoretical Europeanized attitude about Socialism that meant that it was an ideology of progress was going very far in Orwell’s view.
Christopher Hitchens: He never showed any real interest in the United States. He never wanted to come here. Often refused invitations to come even from his friends at Partisan Review and his, among writers like Mary McCarthy and Philip Rove and Dwight McDonald, with whom he had friendships. And seems to sort of withhold himself from the whole idea of this New World. What he does write about America is quite interesting and it’s not bad. But it’s the great subject he refused. And in my book I say it’s his great failure…
John Rodden: He reluctantly saw America as the champion of the free world and as the necessary bulwark to Russian Totalitarianism. But what was shadowing his view of the states had to do with his disgust with American mass culture and he associated a great deal of America with Hollywood gangster films and dumbing down.
Christopher Hitchens: And awful children’s comics and general vulgarity and commercialization. He was very, he didn’t shake off all his old middle class English prejudices and one of the ones he failed to shake was the view that America was really a bit on the, you know, a bit cheap and a bit uh, nasty.
Ben Wattenberg: Let’s now move gently and tenderly into this wonderful argument about what Orwell would have been had he lived. He died at what, age forty-six or something.
John Rodden: Age forty-six.
Ben Wattenberg: Age forty-six. Christopher, you participated in a very interesting colloquium with Norman Podhoretz, what, in 1980 was it?
Christopher Hitchens: It was 1984 and, I’m sure it was the anniversary of...
Ben Wattenberg: Podhoretz claims Orwell’s patrimony for the New York Conservatives and said it’s very clear that had he lived he would be with us on the Committee for the Present Danger and with our views and you do a rebuttal, a stinging rebuttal.
Christopher Hitchens: Thank you.
Ben Wattenberg: And then he does a stinging re-rebuttal, of saying……
Christopher Hitchens: If you say so.
Ben Wattenberg: Well, and, are you familiar with that?
John Rodden: Yes.
Ben Wattenberg: Okay, instead of having Christopher describe it, why don’t you describe it and then we can…
Christopher Hitchens: He splits the difference in his book. If I may I could propose a simpler, as I said a few minutes ago, we don’t know what Orwell would have said about McCarthyism or about the Vietnam War. I disagree because he actually pronounced on both of them before he died. There was a proposal for a witch hunt in Britain in the nineteen forties for cleansing of the Civil Service of subversives, and he wrote and publicized and campaigned for principles that there should be no tribunals, no secret evidence, no arraignments of people for their political views if they are working for the government. If the people are suspected of actual treason, these are the safeguards they should have before any hearing.
Ben Wattenberg: Yeah, but he would…
Christopher Hitchens: He was also opposed to a witch hunt mentality. But he was, and no one was more anti-Communist than him, nobody. And he’d been a victim himself of a Communist in the Civil Service, who tried to prevent him from being published.
Ben Wattenberg: He was also accused by the Left during the war of quotes, ‘naming names’ of people, which was the same phrase that the McCarthyites…
Christopher Hitchens: Yes, but the names on that list are the names of people who he’d attacked in print as willing servants of Joseph Stalin. He never said anything surreptitiously that he hadn’t said openly in print. So I believe that he already survives the McCarthy test. And as for Indo-China we know very well what he thought about European colonialism in Asia. And in fact we know from his visits to Paris after the war when the Gaulists were trying to restore the French Empire, that he thought the whole intention was to restore the French Empire in Indo-China. And it was a disgrace.
John Rodden: Podhoretz did claim that if Orwell were alive today, he’d be standing with the neo-conservatives and against the Left. And the question arises, to what extent can you even begin to predict the political positions of somebody who’s been dead three decades and more by that time? There are various ways of attempting to plot out what Orwell would have thought had he lived. For instance, what did his friends, those who were close to him, think? Well as a matter of fact, his literary executor, Richard Reese was a staunch conservative and religious believer. Also another close friend, Malcolm Muggeridge eventually turned and became the believer in the Church. Others such as Christopher Hollis who went to school with him wrote the first substantive study of Orwell’s work. Right there you have three conservatives of different stripes.
Ben Wattenberg: Right, and he’s close to Arthur Kessler, who is also an arch anti-Communist and...
John Rodden: Very much so. And in that case the different political trajectory, since Kessler eventually by the mid- to late fifties decided to disavow himself of political activity altogether. So if you want to look at Orwell’s contemporaries and see which way they went and try to plot how he might have responded to political events, you go all over the place. And there’s no real clue.
Christopher Hitchens: Except that he’s already said before he dies what his views are on these matters.
John Rodden: If you believe that those matters are continuous beyond…
Christopher Hitchens: No one is more anti-Communist than Orwell.
Ben Wattenberg: That, everyone agrees on that.
John Rodden: Right, okay.
Christopher Hitchens: I’m afraid you’re close to another point. I don’t think very, very much. It’s possible he might have repudiated politics completely and become despairing. That’s likely even. I think it’s incredibly unlikely he would have become religious. He had a very settled view against the religious mentality. But on the crucial questions that make up neo-conservatives which would precause his prediction that he would have been at least understanding of McCarthyism, at least sympathetic to the Vietnam War and by the way, another ingredient in neo-conservative in that he would have been friendly to Zionism, Orwell had written firmly on all three points while he was still alive and (compus mentes?). Uh, he was against McCarthyism, against witch hunting of Communists. He was against the restoration of the European Colonialism in Asia, which means the American succession of the war in Indo-Chino for the French. Just condemned avant lelechier. And he always thought and even his Jewish friends at Tribune remember it, said, you know, “Now we wished we’d listened.” He knew Orwell said this will lead to a military state in Palestine.
John Rodden: Well, take Vietnam, Richard Reeves, his best friend and literary executor wrote during the Vietnam War, “If Orwell were alive today, I am certain he would be for the Americans.” Then from the Left, Mary McCarthy wrote an essay in the New York Review of Books where she said the same thing.
Ben Wattenberg: Well and….and…..
Christopher Hitchens: And I was in a debate with her about this very point. I knew... but I knew more about what he thought about Indo-China than she did.
Ben Wattenberg: No, but I know because I worked for President Johnson during the Vietnam War for a few years, maybe I know a little more about what that war was about in terms of the way America saw it. It was not a war reestablishing European Imperialism for good or for ill, it was an American attempt to stop a tide of international Communist-backed governments of which North Vietnam was one. So to say that he was anti-imperialist and therefore he would have been anti-American in Vietnam, whether you agree with what America did or not, it certainly didn’t out right. That was not what America was doing.
Christopher Hitchens: He was one of the reasons why I think he was inadequate as a writer about the United States, he never quite saw how interesting and important a subject it was. Was that he was suspicious of its Imperial designs. Its global and megalo contentions. I think there’s good evidence, if we’re simply asking ourselves what he might have thought, I think the record is clear long before he dies that he would have had no trump with anything as ghastly or irrational or stupid as the American intervention.
Ben Wattenberg: Orwell was an anti-intellectual at a time when intellectualism was almost wholly dominated by the Left. I mean does that famous quote, how does it go?
Christopher Hitchens: “No common man could believe such a thing. He’d have to be an intellectual to fall for anything as stupid as that.”
Ben Wattenberg: Right, okay. He writes, not in these exact words, but what later came to be called the “blame America first.” Or “blame Britain first.” He condemns that. He attacks the language, principally of the Left, although of both. He attacks the idea of moral equivalence, which was really the keystone of neo-conservatism in the recent era. He is very pro-family and he is vigorously anti-crime. Now, so there’s, I’m just laying out, you heard Christopher’s view. That would sort of be some of the building blocks of the neo-cons’ view of that. And I wonder how you would deal with his and my view on this. We’ll make you the arbitrator here.
John Rodden: Well, Orwell undeniably had what someone once referred to as a Tory growl.
Christopher Hitchens: Connor Cruise O’Bryant.
John Rodden: Connor Cruise O’Bryant. There are undeniable conservative features in the Orwell physiognomy, some of which you’ve just mentioned. So to some extent Orwell facilitated the kinds of uses and abuses by the Right that his name has been put to. In other ways there has been the politics of selective quotation. So that some people will point to his first novel, Burmese Days, and say, “there’s the example of the anti-colonial Orwell.” And so of course he would have opposed the Americans in Vietnam. Others say, “no, not the young Orwell, but the old Orwell, is the most important one.” The Orwell of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, his last political testament, that’s the anti-Communist Orwell. So of course he would have supported the Americans in Vietnam. And this is very clever, this politics of selective quotation. And it occurred even during the McCarthy era. One example, from his famous essay, “Why I Write.”
Ben Wattenberg: Read it. Go ahead.
John Rodden: And Orwell says that the Spanish Civil War was his watershed political experience. “The Spanish War and other events in 1936-37, turned the scale. Thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since nineteen 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against totalitarianism and for Democratic Socialism as I understand it.” And the word “for” is italicized. Now, during the McCarthy era, the introduction to the Signet edition of Animal Farm, which has sold more than twenty million copies, this was the edition often used, too, in the Commonwealth courses. And here we have in the introduction to Animal Farm: “If the book itself, Animal Farm, had left any doubt of the matter, Orwell dispelled it in his essay “Why I Write”: “Every line of serious work that I’ve written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against Totalitarianism….” Dot, dot, dot, dot, the politics of ellipsis. “For Democratic Socialism” is vaporized, just like Winston Smith did it at the Ministry of Truth, and that’s very much what happened beginning of the McCarthy era and just continued, Orwell being selectively quoted. The patron saint who could be quoted to your purpose just like the devil can quote scripture. That was Orwell’s standing on the Left.
Christopher Hitchens: Well, I feel like standing aside and just letting you get on with that. I have to say, I mean, that’s a brilliant encapsulation of the misuse of the guy.
Ben Wattenberg: Let’s just end on a little bit about Orwell and his use of language and his love of language and his analysis of language. I mean here really is a stance, that’s one of the keystones of his arch, isn’t it?
Christopher Hitchens: Plain speech and insistence on forbidding himself the use of the lie or the euphemism or the propaganda as to he would just not allow himself to argue in that way. And so his speech came out clearer and purer and it comes down to us like that. Any moral route or any moral philosopher can tell you it’s very hard to discover what the truth is, but defining a lie is much easier. And he was very good in nailing those. Okay, take out the lies, let’s see what we’re left with. Take out the propaganda, let’s see what we’re left with. It’s a lesson to anyone who wants to try life in English or Public Affairs or literary matters actually ever after.
John Rodden: But the extraordinary combination of launching catchwords into the language, “all animals are equal, but some more equal than others.” Newspeak, Doublethink. “Big Brother is watching you.” The propagandist at the BBC during the war learned to perfect launching catchwords as slogans. And they became battle-certified, which is one reason why everybody wants to steal his mantle. That’s on the one side, Orwell the propagandist, who could abuse language in the service of what he saw as the truth. On the other side is the Orwell who constructed a plain-man persona that could speak in the purest English prose of the twentieth century. Common sense for the common man. No one has ever done it as well.
Ben Wattenberg: Ok, on that note, thank you Christopher Hitchens, thank you John Rodden. Please, send your comments to Think Tank. For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg.

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