The Measure of All That Has Been Lost: Hitchens, Orwell, and the Price of Political Relevance
Orwell’s relevance to contemporary political thought dominates recent treatments of his essays and fiction. In his introduction to a recent Penguin Modern Classics miscellany, Orwell and Politics (2001), Timothy Garton Ash asks, “Why should we still read George Orwell on politics?” before providing the comforting answer that his exemplary political essays mean that “Orwell’s work is never done.”1 The same problem motivates much of Christopher Hitchens’s Why Orwell Matters, where the prolific author, journalist, New School Professor of Liberal Studies, and self-described “contrarian” defends Orwell’s “power of facing” as a political and writerly weapon that retains its potency in an age of postmodern thought and post-Cold War geopolitics (13).
It is a pity for Hitchens that he evidently wrote this book, parts of which were originally published as magazine articles, before the events of 11 September 2001. For Orwell’s reputation as a combative left-winger—a man willing to fight fascism in Spain, join the Home Guard in wartime England, and put pacifists to the sword of his rhetoric—has provided the signature note of Hitchens’s promotional interviews for Why Orwell Matters. In the opinion of the writer celebrated by the New York Times as “the Romantic” among a group of “liberal hawks,” there is no doubt that Orwell, too, would have supported war in Afghanistan and Iraq.2 There is little of this language in Why Orwell Matters, but hardly an interview has gone by without Hitchens bolstering his pro-war stance, and defending Orwell’s relevance, by invoking the ghost of European appeasement and Orwell’s consistent opposition to fascist militarism.3
As I write, the British and United States governments are seeking approval for a United Nations resolution legislating the invasion of Iraq. The times are tense, with a constant flow of words dedicated to explaining a casus belli that a confused public appears to find inexplicable, inexplicably simple, or—if opinion polls are to be believed—explicable only by virtue of demonstrably false beliefs.4 Hitchens’s contributions to this torrent of opinion have consistently been received in light of his recent identification with Orwell. In the words of Ron Rosenbaum, Hitchens is an author “in possession of,” in fact, “possessed by, the spirit of George Orwell.” Or, as David Brooks has it, Why Orwell Matters shows us why “Hitchens matters more than Orwell.”5 Or, if you have taken against Hitchens since 9/11, join Alexander Cockburn in dismissing his departure from The Nation as something “inevitable ever since the Weekly Standard said he was more important than George Orwell” (Lloyd C3). Still, you may be relieved to hear that neither “regime change” nor “Islamo-fascism” is the subject of this essay. My subject is twofold: Hitchens’s attitude to Orwell’s left critics, and—most importantly—the way a reading of Why Orwell Matters reveals the ever-increasing distance between the political conjuncture of post-war Britain and the terrorized, incompletely globalized polis of our millennial moment.
I will return to this last point in the final section of this essay, where I argue for an account of Orwell’s contemporary relevance that complicates Hitchens’s argument. In the meantime, another question goes begging for an answer: Why does Why Orwell Matters matter? The short answer is that it doesn’t—much. As postmodern political critique, Why Orwell Matters has little to offer beyond the axiomatic pieties of the “power of facing” and combative accounts of Orwell’s misuse by left and right alike. As a literary study it might, if lucky enough, find a place among other short works of criticism by literary authors, like Muriel Sparks’s fine book on Mary Shelley.6 But even then, Hitchens’s work begins by swimming against the current of recent academic writing, where Orwell’s brand of socialist humanism and self-consciously “transparent” prose is as antipathetic to the theorized vernacular of the modern humanities program as it is manna to an anti-intellectual media (and disillusioned professoriate) that claims to be scandalized by academic obfuscation and pseudo-radicalism.7 My sense is that Orwell’s early novels, including the excellent Coming Up For Air (1939), are constantly in print but rarely the object of serious critical condescension. Meanwhile, the late novels on which his reputation largely rests, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), are seen as high-school perennials bearing largely symptomatic cultural worth—itself subject to deflation during the post-Cold War 1990s, when totalitarianism appeared briefly to be a defunct political concept.8 Orwell’s nonfiction does a little better: Homage to Catalonia (1938) remains a prestigious artifact of the Spanish Civil War, while essays like “Shooting an Elephant” garner the faint praise of persistent inclusion in freshman composition handbooks.
This point can be made another way by considering Orwell’s place in a growing field of literary studies. Despite the recent expansion and diversification of modernist studies, much of it underwritten by the Modernist Studies Association (MSA), Orwell remains resolutely unfashionable among professors and graduate students pursuing advanced scholarship on literature written between 1920 and 1950 (dates which just happen to capture the period of literary modernism’s first mass readership as well as the span of Orwell’s writing life). The program of the most recent MSA conference lists papers on many a George (Schuyler, Auden, Gershwin, Lamming, and Oppen) but not one on George Orwell.9 Indeed, I can think of only one significant recent book that treats Orwell as an important figure in the evolving history of international modernism, in either its “high-,” “late-,” or “post-” manifestations. That book is Tyrus Miller’s Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts Between the World Wars (1999), which describes “Inside the Whale” as a “brilliant, undeceived examination of the main lines of British twentieth-century writing” (8). Miller takes seriously Orwell’s description of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer as a final exhaustion of both the pre-modernist Whitmanian “democratic vistas” and the reactionary modernist “yearning after lost faith and impossible civilizations” (Collected 1: 548, 558). In Miller’s persuasive reframing of inter-war literary modernism, “Inside the Whale” is key to the periodization of late modernism—and not just because Orwell is so adamant about the depressing social relevance of Henry Miller’s “voice from the crowd, from the underling, from the third class carriage, from the ordinary, non-political, non-moral, passive man” (Collected 1: 549). Orwell’s insight lay in recognizing the “neither-nor” tone implicit in Tropic of Cancer and 1940s Europe alike: “the endgame of modern individualistic culture” (Miller 8–9). As Miller puts it: “Orwell posed the writer with a stark choice of two undesirable positions: the autism of being permanently removed from any effective participation in modern life, or the mutism of not being able to practice the free craft of writing” (38–39).
The periodization of late modernism suggests just one way in which Orwell’s writing is relevant to cultural histories of modernity.10 I think, then, that it is reasonable to share—and make plural—Miller’s frustration with the fact that “few critics have developed in a systematic fashion Orwell’s essayistically formulated insight[s]” (9). Whatever the reasons for this neglect, it is a strange fate to befall a writer who, to quote just a few of the most topical elements from Hitchens’s catalog of Orwellian achievements, can be credited with “work on ‘the English question’, as well as the related matters of regional nationalism and European integration; . . . interest in demotic or popular culture, and in what now passes for cultural studies”; as well as an “acute awareness of the dangers of ‘nuclearism’ and the nuclear state” (11). Why Orwell Matters should be important, then, for the opportunity it affords to look again at Orwell’s contribution to the formation of political and literary discourse in late-modern Britain.
But Orwell deserves better treatment than he receives in these pages: I cannot fully recognize this Orwell who, despite all Hitchens’s righteous bluster, appears strangely anemic and de-radicalized. The value of Why Orwell Matters is mostly unconscious. By denying Orwell’s radicalism, making him safe for millennial left-libertarian criticism, Hitchens tidily underscores the predicament of the contemporary Left and the gulf that separates Orwell’s mid-century socialism from our postmodern conjuncture. Reading Why Orwell Matters affords us a valuable opportunity to return to the scene of so many crimes, in particular the bitter fight—joined, in this case, by Raymond Williams—over the values of left cultural criticism in a half-century dominated by the moral defeat and eventual collapse of Soviet-brand revolutionary socialism. And because, against all the odds, Hitchens’s bleak liberal version of Orwell so strangely resembles Williams’s portrait of Orwellian pessimism, Why Orwell Matters reminds us of what has been lost in the journey from Nineteen Eighty-Four to 2003.
An Orwellian Century
To put it this way is to suggest that Orwell can still teach us an historical lesson or two. In Hitchens’s opinion, however, Orwell’s writing is permanently relevant, since its values are independent of political or aesthetic contingencies, but rest upon the certainties of an “irreducible” writerly ethic. The following comes from his conclusion:
The disputes and debates and combats in which George Orwell took part are receding into history, but the manner in which he conducted himself as a writer and participant has a reasonable chance of remaining as a historical example of its own.(205)
And again, in the closing paragraph:
What Orwell illustrates, by his commitment to language as the partner of truth, is that “views” do not really count; that it matters not what you think, but how you think; and that politics are relatively unimportant, while principles have a way of enduring, as do the few irreducible individuals who maintain allegiance to them.(211)
By themselves these passages suggest that Hitchens has abandoned any defense of Orwell’s ideas. Yet crediting Orwell with developing cultural studies avant la lettre demonstrates that Hitchens is still very much invested in the matter, as well as the measure, of Orwell’s writing. There are, then, two distinct strains to Why Orwell Matters, which do not synthesize as nicely as Hitchens would like. On the one hand, there is an abstract or contentless celebration of Orwell’s struggle for independence; on the other, a defense of Orwell as “uncommonly prescient not just about the ‘isms’—imperialism, fascism, Stalinism—but about many of the themes and subjects that preoccupy us today” (10).
The lever that brings these contradictory virtues together is Hitchens’s description of Orwell as a man who struggled to master strongly-felt prejudices and emerge on the right side of history:
The absorbing thing about his independence was that it had to be learned; acquired; won. The evidence of his upbringing and instincts is that he was a natural Tory and even something of a misanthrope. . . . He had to suppress his distrust and dislike of the poor, his revulsion from the “coloured” masses who teemed throughout the empire, his suspicion of Jews, his awkwardness with women and his anti-intellectualism. By teaching himself in theory and practice, some of the teaching being rather pedantic, he became a great humanist.(8–9)
This insight leads to the most interesting moments of Why Orwell Matters, where Hitchens celebrates Orwell’s existential contrariness: an acquired ideological autonomy that is, simultaneously, the source of his greatest insights and the background against which his unresolved prejudices stand out. Thus Hitchens admits to, while haphazardly defending, Orwell’s “problems with girls”; criticizes the “missed opportunity” of his non-engagement with the culture and politics of the United States; and chastises him for his homophobic dismissal of W. H. Auden. That these passages are comparatively rare testifies to Hitchens’s basically heroic depiction of his writer-sage.11 More generally, it reflects the fact that the tide of liberal opinion has largely vindicated Orwell’s cussedness regarding “the three great subjects of the twentieth century” (5): the lies and massacres of Stalinist Communism; the need to fight Nazism to utter destruction; and the reality—too seldom acknowledged in the socialist circles of Orwell’s day—that “the overwhelming bulk of the British proletariat [did] not live in Britain, but in Asia and Africa” (Collected 1: 437). In Why Orwell Matters the definitive guarantee of Orwell’s relevance is the fact of his personal struggle to face the three “isms” in a resolutely contrary, if incompletely oppositional, manner. Hitchens presents Orwell’s legacy as a testament to the necessity of principled political disillusion.
The reader will recognize the value of this ethic to a writer who, at least since his small contribution to the impeach-Clinton movement, has been the poster-boy for principled political back-stabbing.12 That said, there are parts of his analysis that I cannot disagree with. Hitchens is too quick to universalize Orwell’s “three great subjects,”13 but even Orwell’s ideological opponents tend to grant him the boon of his honesty and the fruits of his remarkable self-analysis. Raymond Williams (to whom I will return before long) begins the “George Orwell” chapter of Culture and Society, 1780–1950 (1958) by acknowledging this quality: “It is not that he was an important thinker, whose ideas we have to interpret and examine. His interest lies almost wholly in his frankness” (285). Hitchens seeks to avoid biography and hagiography; his short chapters are arranged so as to extricate Orwell from the deathly embrace of friends and enemies alike, rescuing “Saint George” from beneath “a pile of saccharine tablets and moist hankies” (3). But though he is generally successful in meeting these goals, there is no getting round the problem that a text so dependent on the hard-won integrity of Orwell’s literary and political vision needs greater socio-biographical weight to explain its subject’s struggles with history and conscience.
Consider, for example, the rather incredible fact that Hitchens offers no comment on the question of how Eric Arthur Blair, hack writer and disillusioned ex-Imperial Policeman, transformed himself, between the writing and the publication of Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), into what Williams identifies as his greatest creation, the character of “Orwell—honest observer” (Orwell 89–90).14 Hitchens writes without even the most rudimentary analysis of the relationship between Orwell’s pseudonymy and his characteristic assumption of ideological neutrality: his strategy of trying “to write as if any decent person standing where he was would be bound to see things in [his] way” (Williams, Politics and Letters 388). I am quoting Williams not because I agree wholeheartedly with his conclusions about Orwell’s work, but because his analysis reveals the essential lacuna in Why Orwell Matters—a refusal to consider “not Orwell writing, but what wrote Orwell” (Williams, Politics and Letters 388). Hitchens’s frame of reference is retarded: Orwell’s personal struggle with prejudice is, finally, an insufficient mediating frame for the job of justifying “why Orwell matters.”
Unless it bears the mark of ineradicable wound or betrayal—the suppression of the POUM or a fascist sniper’s bullet—history in Why Orwell Matters is something to be mastered and exposed by Orwell’s victories “in theory and practice.”15 The historical conjuncture from which Orwell wrote is not mined for clues to Orwell’s present-day relevance. Why Orwell Matters offers no thorough analysis of how Orwell came to occupy a social and intellectual position from which he was able to develop what Hitchens celebrates as an ethically reliable method of judgment. Unwilling to historicize Orwell’s novels, essays, or point-of-view (and surprisingly tentative when it comes to advocating an analogous critique of contemporary culture or politics), Hitchens is reduced to settling scores with his critics. Anyone daring to criticize or misread Orwell comes in for a rough kicking in the typically combative pages of this book—and since Hitchens is such a fine stylist and savage wit, his book is a highly enjoyable read. Still, the wrong-headedness of Orwell’s critics will never prove sufficient for the job of explaining his contemporary relevance. One begins to wonder, then, why Why Orwell Matters fails so completely in its appointed mission. I will seek to answer that question by analyzing Hitchens’s disagreement with Raymond Williams—a rigged fight that helps frame a different account of Orwell’s contemporary relevance.
The Sad Ghost
Of all the left-wing critiques anatomized in the chapter on “Orwell and the Left,” none exercises Hitchens so much as Williams’s lament for the “sad ghost of [Orwell’s] late imagination” (Williams, Orwell 71). After making his debut in a sampler of the “sheer ill will and bad faith and intellectual confusion” that has attended Orwell’s reception by left critics, Williams is later advertised by Hitchens as “my prime offender,” worth “saving up for later” (Hitchens 39, 44). When “later” arrives, Williams is described as “representative of the general [left-wing] hostility” toward Orwell (46). Once granted, this status gives added weight to predictable ad hominem attacks on Williams as an ex-Communist who is alleged to have “formed an organic part” of “Stalin’s ‘community’” (53).16 Among Williams’s other sins, personal and intellectual, are found the unacknowledged borrowing of Orwell’s opinions regarding Gissing and the semi-deliberate loss of the manuscript of Orwell’s essay on Gissing—sent to Williams in 1949, when he co-edited Politics and Letters—thus preventing “George Gissing” from appearing in print until 1960 (49). Besides attacking Williams’s integrity, Hitchens’s strategy is to suggest that his critical readings of Orwell are compromised by envy and bad faith (57–58).17
Williams’s argument with Orwell is ultimately political, originating in what he sees as Orwell’s “substitution of communism for fascism as the totalitarian threat” (Williams, Orwell 67). He sees Orwell as a penetrating and mobile political thinker, committed to essential liberties, but hindered by a social imagination that over-identified “oligarchic collectivism” with communism:
[Orwell] gave most of his political energies to the defense of civil liberties over a wide front. But in his deepest vision of what was to come, he had at once actualized a general nightmare and then, in the political currents of the time, narrowed its reference until the nightmare itself became one of its own shaping currents.
Hitchens dissents from any characterization of Orwell as the prophet of Cold War despair (he never met an anti-Stalinist he didn’t like), but the fierceness of his attack on Williams obscures the fact that there are local points of interpretation on which they agree. Indeed, some of Hitchens’s observations appear to have their origin in the texts he otherwise excoriates. Writing on “Orwell and Englishness,” Hitchens comments that Orwell’s famous metaphor of England as a family with the wrong members in control “is notable for having no mention of a father in it” (127), while Williams says of the same passage that “the image, as it happens, admits no father” (Orwell 21). In his chapter on the novels, Hitchens quotes from “Writers and Leviathan” (1948) on the post-war political “compunction . . . which makes a purely aesthetic attitude towards life impossible,” where our “awareness of the enormous misery and injustice of the world” means that “no one, now, could devote himself to literature as single-mindedly as Joyce or Henry James” (Collected 4: 409). Regarding this “curiously adolescent” passage, Hitchens notes that “Finnegans Wake was completed in 1939 . . . and were not George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, to say nothing of Dostoevsky, alive to injustice and misery?” (173). Compare this to Williams’s remarks on the same text: “Finnegans Wake was completed in 1939. . . . Reading Orwell’s account quickly, one might never remember the English novelists from Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell to George Eliot and Hardy” (Orwell 32). And later in the same chapter, Hitchens’s observation that Orwell’s Trafalgar Square dialogue in A Clergyman’s Daughter gives us “a distant echo of Joyce” (183) appears to owe something to Williams’s account of this scene as “derived from the night-town chapter in Ulysses” (Orwell 43). As Hitchens remarks apropos of Williams’s borrowings from Orwell’s Gissing essay, “it does not take a literary detective” to notice the affinity between these moments of allusion (49).
Given Hitchens’s unstinting scorn for even a hint of intellectual bad faith, it would be disingenuous to deny the pleasure one feels in noticing such correspondences. Still, the significance of Hitchens’s borrowings from Williams cannot be reduced to a matter of authorial ethics. Why Orwell Matters is a popular book, and I do not suppose that its difficulties in achieving a level of scholarly integrity are particularly egregious. I believe, rather, that Hitchens’s non-attributions are symptomatic of his inability to address the ideological basis of his argument with Williams. The basis of that argument—nowhere theorized in Why Orwell Matters but ever-present in the defensiveness of its rhetoric—is over the status of collectivity and exile, community and dissidence, as rival political values. This is an argument which, given Williams’s attachment to an exploded notion of state socialism, should be an easy one for Hitchens to win. The irony—and, I would add, importance—of Why Orwell Matters is that he does not.
Williams’s disagreements with Orwell are remarkably consistent. In Culture and Society he quotes from Nineteen Eighty-Four, criticizing Orwell for omitting any liberating purchase beyond the narrator’s description of the proles “as an undifferentiated mass beyond one, the ‘monstrous’ figure” (294). Thirteen years later, he finds that the same passages evince a “stale revolutionary romanticism” that involves “a dreadful underestimate . . . of the structures of exploitation through which the metropolitan states are sustained” (Orwell 79–80). In Politics and Letters, Orwell’s depictions of the working classes are related to “an extreme distaste for humanity of every kind” that Williams claims to observe “in Orwell’s choice of the sort of working-class areas he went to, the deliberate neglect of the families who were coping . . . in favour of the characteristic imagery of squalor” (390). Throughout these texts, Williams puts the accent on Orwell’s “inhuman” denial of proletarian consciousness and revolutionary possibility (Orwell 73). His judgment, over the years, becomes harsher and more comprehensive; but it is clear, reading these essays and interviews, that one is involved in a debate over the necessary values of a post-Stalinist left cultural criticism: a discourse in which Williams cannot reconcile Orwell’s “power of facing” with his desire for a utopian estimate of human—collective and working-class—potentiality.
This is an argument which Hitchens embraces with gusto:
A phrase much used by Communist intellectuals of the period was “the great Soviet experiment.” That latter word should have been enough in itself to put people on their guard. To turn a country into a laboratory is to give ample warning of inhumanity.(187)
It is clear from Why Orwell Matters, as it is from his recent rejoinder to Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread (2002), that Hitchens has done with even the vestiges of socialist utopianism: “If it matters, I now agree with [Amis] that perfectionism and messianism are the chief and most lethal of our foes” (“Lightness” n.p.). His anger with Williams emanates from the judgment that in Orwell “the substance of community is lacking” and that, having affirmed a principle of autonomy or self-exile, Orwell could not “carry [himself] directly through to actual community” (Williams, Culture and Society 289–90). Hitchens reacts viscerally to comments such as these, and especially to the insistence that “‘totalitarian’ describes a certain kind of repressive social control, but, also, any real society, any adequate community, is necessarily a totality” (Williams, Culture and Society 291). In Hitchens’s estimation, the left need not—pace Amis—apologize for the horrors of the Soviet “experiment.” And yet the only “believing community” that he upholds within the pages of Why Orwell Matters is the one in which he situates Orwell and himself: a community of “dissident intellectual[s] who [prefer] above all other allegiances the loyalty to truth” (52). Against “the torpid ‘community’ loyalty of men like Raymond Williams,” Hitchens poses the Eastern European dissidents who read and reproduced samizdat versions of Orwell’s dystopic novels.
These are points well made, spoiled only by Hitchens’s over-identification of dissidence with liberal anti-Stalinism—a rhetorical move that allows him to ignore the other half of Williams’s argument:
[Orwell’s] attacks on the denial of liberty are admirable: we have all, through every loyalty, to defend the basic liberties of association and expression, or we deny man. Yet when the exile speaks of liberty, he is in a curiously ambiguous position, for while the rights in question may be called individual, the condition of their guarantee is inevitably social.
If, as Orwell says in “Writers and Leviathan,” the writer must “draw a sharper distinction than we do at present between our political and our literary sensibilities” (Collected 4: 412), then one can see the justice of Williams’s claim that “the exile” fears political “involvement” not only because “he does not want to be compromised” but also because “he can see no way of confirming, socially, his own individuality” (Culture and Society 291). This is the familiar dilemma of liberal individualism, where the guarantee of social identity is framed by a series of negative liberties and identifiers. It is in this sense, then, that Hitchens misrepresents Williams’s comments about totalitarianism, which end with the crucial qualifier that “to the exile, society as such is totalitarian” (Culture and Society 291, emphasis added). I wish to suggest that Hitchens cannot engage with this discourse without exposing the underbelly of his depiction of Orwell’s politics: a left-libertarian Orwell whose commitment to democratic socialism has been reduced to a series of oppositional poses. Hitchens is scornful of postmodern interpretations of Orwell’s writing. His assertions about moral objectivity to the contrary, however, his politics are as postmodern as one could like, being largely a matter of rhetorical positionality, without even Orwell’s tenuous connection to the politics of class, systems, and economic structure.
As Williams points out, Orwell’s political writings lack any cohesive theory of power or class society: “Orwell hated what he saw of the consequences of capitalism, but he was never able to see it, fully, as an economic and political system” (Orwell 22). But here, Williams joins with Hitchens in his failure to engage with the socialist remnant of Orwell’s writing—and it is this remnant that will save Orwell from friend and enemy alike. Orwell’s assault on proletarian pieties was necessarily ameliorated by the persistence of social democratic governments within Europe: “actually existing” welfare-state economies. This is the fact which Williams downplays and which Hitchens ignores completely. In Williams’s account, the “condition of Orwell’s later works is that they had to be written by an ex-socialist. It also had to be someone who shared the disillusion of the generation: an ex-socialist who had become an enthusiast for capitalism could not have had the same effect” (Politics and Letters 390). Here, Williams refuses to acknowledge that Orwell’s lack of “enthusiasm” for capitalism could otherwise be read as a persistent belief in socialism itself. Orwell’s August 1945 “London Letter” to Partisan Review, written days before the publication of Animal Farm and during the composition of Nineteen Eighty-Four, analyzes the general election victory of the Atlee-led Labour Party in terms that holds the mainstream British left to a radical political standard:
A Labour government may be said to mean business if it (a) nationalises land, coal mines, railways, public utilities and banks, (b) offers India immediate Dominion Status (this is a minimum), and (c) purges the bureaucracy, the army, the diplomatic service, etc so thoroughly as to forestall sabotage from the Right. . . . The great need of the moment is to make people aware of what is happening and why, and to persuade them that Socialism is a better way of life but not necessarily, in its first stages, a more comfortable one.
Unless one ignores or reworks Orwell’s definition of the term, it is false to describe him as an “ex-socialist.” Socialism was, for the later Orwell, synonymous with “Social Democracy” and the need to demonstrate that “Social Democracy, unlike capitalism, offers an alternative to Communism” (Collected 4: 397). Reading Orwell’s later political writings one does not only witness a doctrine of despair or outsiderism—there is, also, a tenacious belief in the Western nations’ ability to draw on a “tradition of democratic Socialism” extant in Europe and Australasia (Collected 4: 371). Orwell might not have the vocabulary to reconcile his political program with the need to “[confirm] his social identity” in a fashion that goes beyond the negative identity of liberal democracy, but Hitchens and Williams ultimately share the fault of making him seem a more blighted and pessimistic political thinker than he is.
Reading Williams and Hitchens alongside one another suggests that Orwell the novelist is a more ideological writer than Orwell the journalist. A novel like Nineteen Eighty-Four is less well-attuned to Orwell’s political imagination than are his restless, endlessly inquisitive, error-strewn political essays. In “Writers and Leviathan,” Orwell asserts that “in politics one can never do more than decide which of two evils is the lesser” (Collected 4: 413). This dogma is supposed to free the writerly side of one’s brain for unconstrained truth-telling. Yet in the dystopias of his late novels, the evil of oligarchic collectivism crowds out the petty, everyday struggle for socialist policies in this world. This is Williams’s great observation, but it comes at the price of neglecting Orwell’s journalistic attempts to make liberal values work in the service of collective social policy. Hitchens, meanwhile, finds value only in the negative critique of Orwell’s dystopic side—a fact that can be explained by his greater reluctance to engage with the British left’s historic failure to defend socialism against its extinction by neo-liberalism. “Community” in Why Orwell Matters is not just the condition of being back inside the whale; its anathematization is the price Hitchens pays for rescuing his hero. Re-historicizing Orwell would compel Hitchens to re-radicalize him beyond the bounds of liberal ethics, for only ideas such as “community” can explain the puzzling-through of class and collective action that is everywhere present in Orwell but absent from Hitchens’s reconsideration of his political and literary hero.
It is this which connects Hitchens to the British New Left intellectuals whom he alternately glad-hands and upbraids. And here we can take counsel from a different—and more polite—argument among the theoreticians of the post-Stalinist left in Britain. I want to end with Perry Anderson’s recent retrospective on Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes, where he argues that Hobsbawm is still prone to a “persistent underestimation of neo-liberalism as the dominant idiom of the period” (Anderson 17). It is the extinction of any existing alternative to neo-liberal political economies, and the concomitant destruction of welfare-state social democracy, that really separates Hitchens and his readers from Orwell and Williams. Anderson writes of two competing instincts in Hobsbawm’s historiography: the “dream of the Popular Front . . . that there was no victory of one party over the other” and the pessimistic realization that
the struggle between revolutionary socialism and capitalism was a fight whose disastrous end, in the death of one at the hands of the other, is the measure of all that has been lost with the elimination of the difference between them.(17)
As long as Orwell is read and a left intelligentsia remains, battles will be fought over where we should situate him amid this difference. The negative value of Why Orwell Matters is that its belated vision of Orwell’s importance prompts us to remember him as a writer from a multipolar age, where the “difference” between Russia and Europe offered some room for maneuver. Why Orwell Matters is proof that this notion now feels like a bad historical memory, a nostalgia not to be contemplated, especially for the contrarian prophet of Islamo-fascism.
University of Pennsylvania
Matthew Hart is a doctoral candidate and lecturer in English at the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation, “Nobody’s Pidgin: Synthetic Vernacular Poetry and Transatlantic Modernism,” examines the intersection of vernacular language and high modernist form in British, Caribbean, and American poetry. Matthew’s review-essay “Solvent Abuse: Irvine Welsh and Scotland” appeared in the January 2002 issue of Postmodern Culture and a paper on Hugh MacDiarmid and Tom Nairn is forthcoming in Review 25.
1. These quotations are from an edited version of Garton Ash’s introduction, published online in the Hoover Institution’s Hoover Digest, No. 4 (2001).
2. See Packer.
3. What is inconsistent in Orwell, however, are the means and modality of anti-fascist resistance. It is not beneath notice that Hitchens fails to explain such shifts, never referring to Orwell’s letters and essays from 1939, when Orwell associated the militarism of the anti-fascist Left with a political myopia likely to bring about the kind of “fascizing process” it ostensibly sought to oppose. In a 1939 letter to Herbert Read, entertaining plans for secret anti-war agitation, Orwell wrote that “the fascists will have it all their own way unless there is in being some body of people who are both anti-war and anti-fascist” (Collected 1: 425).
4. I am referring to opinion polls, conducted by media conglomerates like Knight Ridder and AOL/Time Warner, which suggest that fifty percent of Americans believe that one or more of the 9/11 hijackers was Iraqi, and that seventy-two percent think Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was personally involved in planning the 9/11 attacks. See Rubin, A19.
5. See works cited list for full bibliographic details of these online sources.
6. Muriel Spark, Child of Light: A Reassessment of Mary Shelley (Hadleigh, Essex: Tower Bridge, 1951).
7. On this topic, see Miller.
8. A survey of the MLA database confirms this general sense: there is no shortage of work being done on Orwell, but little by leading critics from the United States and the United Kingdom, while the only debate in which he has seemed essential has been the relentless controversy over “bad writing” (see n. 7, above). The most recent article of note in a major scholarly journal is Rita Felski’s 2000 PMLA essay on Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), “Nothing to Declare: Identity, Shame, and the Lower Middle Class.” The majority of recent essays on Orwell—some of them very fine—have been published in smaller journals, in essay collections published on the European continent, or in foreign-language journals.
9. See the website for MSA 4 (University of Wisconsin, Madison: 31 October–3 November, 2002) at: <http://msa.press.jhu.edu/NM4sched.html> (accessed October 10, 2002). The “Auden” in question is, I assume, Wystan Hugh Auden’s father, George Auden.
10. There are many other elements of his work that remain insufficiently discussed, including potentially less flattering ones like the link between English patriotism, the essay “Politics and the English Language,” and the racialized models of linguistic reform detailed by Michael North, among others.
11. This quality is measurable both in the extent of Hitchens’s claims for Orwell as an intellectual pioneer and in his habit of ending his chapters with endorsements of Orwell’s positions. Thus, “Orwell and the Feminists” closes: “At least it can be said for Orwell that he registered his participation in this unending conflict” [i.e., “the battle over what is and what is not, in human and sexual relations, natural”] “with a decent minimum of hypocrisy” (154). The chapter on Orwell’s supposed post-war report on Communists and fellow-travelers ends in similar fashion: “In this essential confrontation, Orwell kept his little corner of the Cold War fairly clean” (169). The emphasis, in both these statements, rests on Orwell’s ethical decency, and allows—especially regarding Orwell’s opinions on human sexuality—for a modicum of dissent from his views. But these statements are perorations to chapters that, respectively, find every feminist reading of Orwell wanting in some important respect and describe Orwell’s “List” as insignificant and, anyway, largely correct. Few readers are likely to read Hitchens’s encomiums to Orwellian virtue as merely compensatory.
12. The details of Hitchens’s fights with erstwhile colleagues on the Left and Right will have to await a braver and more dedicated writer than the present author: they go back far beyond the contradiction of Sidney Blumenthal that was Hitchens’s contribution to the Clinton impeachment trial. To be fair to Hitchens, he is candid and (to this unsympathetic reader, convincing) in his public accounting for his more recent renunciation of certain left-wing identities. The following is from one of Hitchens’s many contributions to a discussion of Why Orwell Matters held on Andrew Sullivan’s website. It is dated 30 October 2002: “I stopped identifying myself politically about two years ago, which meant in practice that I no longer thought it worthwhile to say I was a socialist. It doesn’t sting me when leftists accuse me of being a class traitor or a sellout, because that language lost its power decades ago in any case. I would, however, distinguish myself from people like David Horowitz—who has been friend and enemy by turns and whom I respect—in this way. David repudiates his past. I am slightly proud of the things I did and said when I was on the left, and wouldn’t disown most of them. I am pretty sure that I won’t change on this point, and don’t feel any psychic urge to recantation.” See <http://www.andrewsullivan.com/bookclub.php> (accessed 19 November 2002).
13. Imperialism, Communism, and Fascism are not a bad trio, but what about the “ism” of Feminism: the victorious fight for female suffrage in the West, and the struggle—in despotic and liberal states alike—for economic and sexual freedom? Hitchens’s chapter on “Orwell and the Feminists” considers feminist readings of Orwell’s novels and journalism but does its best to imply that Orwell’s failure to engage with feminism (as a mass political movement or as a re-evaluation of the politics of everyday life) should hardly figure in the debit column when we come to assess his twenty-first-century relevance. The defensiveness of Hitchens’s engagement with Orwell’s feminist critics is already signaled in feminism’s erasure from the list of the twentieth century’s “three great subjects.”
14. Hitchens does not, I must add, entirely ignore the question of Eric Arthur Blair’s pseudonymous identity: he brusquely dismisses the whole question. In the midst of disagreeing with Edward Said’s depiction of Orwell as a bourgeois writer, he refers to Peter Stansky and William Abrams, writers of the biographical study, Orwell: The Transformation, as “co-authors obsessed with the Blair/Orwell distinction” (42). This is the closest Hitchens comes to commenting on this matter.
15. On the question of Orwell’s mastery of ideology, the British edition of Why Orwell Matters is more brazen: it is titled Orwell’s Victory (Allen Lane: Penguin, 2002).
16. As it happens, I agree with Hitchens that there’s nothing especially unreliable about ad hominem polemics. I may resent him calling Williams “the overrated doyen of cultural studies” (which is just rude); but I cannot object to him noting that Williams’s “first published work, co-authored with Eric Hobsbawm, was a Cambridge student pamphlet defending the Soviet Union’s  invasion of Finland” (73, 47). As Hitchens says in defending Orwell over his addition of ethnic and sexual characteristics to his “List” of Communists and fellow-travelers: “These things about people are worth knowing” (165).
17. See 53–55 and 71–72 for Hitchens’s treatment of Williams as a critical reader of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, respectively.