Andy Croft reads Orwell's Victory by Christopher Hitchens,
and dares to argue with both author and subject .
This is, as you would expect from a combination of George Orwell and Christopher
Hitchens, a robust and provocative read. Hitchens clearly identifies with
his subject, and at times appears to be writing about himself as much as about
Orwell. Like Orwell's own best prose, it is a strongly argued, chatty and
witty book, combining acute close readings (the comparison between Keep the Aspidistra Flying
and Lucky Jim
is particularly good) with personal anecdote, a generous aside here and a
knee in the groin there.
Unfortunately, this kind of swashbuckling, pugnacious style tends - as so
often with Orwell - to slippery generali- sations and dreadful overwriting
("he had dirt under his fingernails and an understanding of the rhythms of
nature"; "when Spain was menaced by fascism he was among the first to shoulder
a rifle and feel the weight of a pack"). This is a book about a "flinty and
solitary loner", "as English as roast beef and warm beer", defending "sturdy
English virtues". The pages of Orwell's Victory are thick with such terms
of heavy-handed praise.
Orwell is variously acclaimed by Hitchens as "one of the founders of the
discipline of postcolonialism", a "libertarian before the word had gained
currency" and a pioneer of cultural studies. He was "one of the founding fathers
of anti-communism" (credited here with inventing the term "cold war"), who
"anticipated" the collapse of the Soviet Union and whose Wigan notebooks "would
not have disgraced Friedrich Engels". Elsewhere he is a writer whose work
"anticipated" and "prefigured" postwar British "angry" fiction, who "helped
keep alive the socialist press in England" and who made "the only English
contribution to the literature of 20th-century totalitarianism". Like Nostradamus,
Orwell was never wrong.
Perhaps all this is true. Perhaps Orwell is "the outstanding English example
of the dissident intellectual who preferred above all other allegiances the
loyalty to truth". But it hardly needs saying again. Who is going to disagree?
You can't argue with a monument. Anyway, who would dare to argue with Christopher
Hitchens? Like Orwell, Hitchens repeats the banal claims of orthodoxy disguised
as the lonely voice of dissent. Or perhaps it all needs saying again for US
readers, for whose benefit, presumably, Hitchens devotes a chapter on "Orwell
and America". Considering that Orwell never visited the US and rarely wrote
about it except in largely horrified terms, Hitchens has to work hard on
his connections to ex-Trotskyite US cold warriors such as Dwight Macdonald
and Philip Rahv. In fact, the book's only real criticism of Orwell is that
- unlike Hitchens -"he exhibited a curious blind-spot" regarding the US. Or
perhaps, as Hitchens says, "it was enough to visit the country in his mind".
But was Orwell always right? His anti-semitic, homophobic and anti-Catholic
prejudices aside, no one who changed their opinions so often and so forcefully
can have been right all the time. Was Orwell really right to propose armed
resistance to Churchill at the beginning of the second world war? Or to argue
that fascism and "so-called democracy" are like Tweedledum and Tweedledee?
Or that the Spanish republic was a fascist government?
Like Orwell, Hitchens is impatient with anyone who disagrees with him. Feminist
critics of Orwell such as Bea Campbell, Deirdre Beddoe and Janet Montefiore
are dismissed with a stern reminder that no one who enjoyed the company of
tough-minded women (and who married two of them) can really have been much
of a misogynist. Conservatives who have tried to claim Orwell are denounced
as clumsy political body-snatchers. Trotskyism is the only political tradition
that Hitchens feels is entitled to claim Orwell, whose work is "the most English
form in which cosmopolitan and subversive Trotskyism has ever been cast".
By far the longest chapter is devoted to the Orwell-hatred of those on the
left, who have never forgiven him for "giving ammunition to the enemy". Edward
Thompson, Salman Rushdie, Edward Said, Isaac Deutscher, Conor Cruise O'Brien
and the "sub-literate" Raymond Williams are all given a paragraph or two,
just enough to demonstrate their "sheer ill will and bad faith and intellectual
confusion", before we are taken to North Korea and Zimbabwe to be reminded
why Orwell was right and why everyone else on the left is "too stupid or too
compromised" to understand him.
As for the notebooks containing the names of 86 suspected communists, which
Orwell passed to the cold warriors in the shadowy Information Research Department,
Hitchens regrets that "too much has been made of this trivial episode". Nevertheless,
he defends Orwell's actions on the grounds that the IRD was not involved in
domestic surveillance, that Orwell was not motivated by personal gain, that
nobody suffered as a result, and that, anyway, some of his suspicions turned
out to be right. This may seem superficially convincing, but it surely evades
the moral issues. And "loyalty to the truth" has its price, though of course
it was not paid by Orwell. Unlike many of his enemies, Orwell never lost
a job or was blacklisted because of his opinions; he was in constant demand
as a reviewer and essayist and all his books were published.
In 1946, the magazine Polemic
a reply to Orwell's "The Prevention of Literature
" by the communist
poet Randall Swingler, just back from Italy where he had served with the
Eighth Army. Swingler did not disagree with Orwell's underlying argument
that a writer must "dare to be a Daniel" against the enemies of intellectual
liberty. Nor did he take issue with the substance of Orwell's case against
the totalitarian cultural policies of the Soviet Union. His objection was
rather that Orwell's essay - like so much of his journalism - was pitched
at such a level of "intellectual swashbucklery", persuasive generalisation
and unsupported assertion, that it was impossible to reply to it. There was,
anyway, something absurd about the author of Animal Farm casting himself
in the role of Daniel: "What in heaven is Orwell really worried about? He
appears at the moment to be getting more space than any other journalist
to report truthfully... Orwell's posture of lonely rebel hounded by monstrous
pro-Soviet monopolists has a somewhat crocodile appearance..."
In case Swingler had any doubts about the incipient limits to the right
of free expression permitted to communists in Britain, his piece was published
with sarcastic marginal annotations by Orwell, who took it as a "violent"
personal attack, characteristically accusing Swingler of trying to silence
him. Swingler - and his brother, the Labour MP Stephen Swingler - later turned
up on Orwell's little list. Shortly afterwards Swingler was blacklisted by
the BBC, his extra-mural classes investigated and closed down. There were
few crimes more serious in cold war Britain than the crime of lèse-Orwell.
Such was Orwell's victory.
Andy Croft is writing a biography of Randall Swingler.
150pp, Penguin, £12.99