- 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...