Conscientious Christians (sometimes non-Christians too) are wont to ask in tricky situations: “What would Jesus do?” Fortunately the New Testament is fairly compact and can be read through in a week, even at a relaxed pace. Democratic socialists have a few candidates for guide and exemplar: John Stuart Mill, William Morris, Michael Harrington, Noam Chomsky. My own choice—and a pretty popular one, I suspect, at least among those who know that democratic socialism goes back further than Bernie and AOC—would be George Orwell.
The nearest thing to Orwell’s Testament is sprawling rather than compact, the four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters. Coedited by Ian Angus and Sonia Orwell, George Orwell’s widow, it includes nearly all his nonfiction from 1920 to 1950 (except for his books: Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, and Homage to Catalonia). The set was first published fifty years ago and was reissued last year in a commendable act of literary citizenship by David R. Godine, Inc., a small, semi-legendary Boston publisher.
The four volumes are a very rich harvest. All the great essays are here: “Why I Write,” “My Country Right or Left,” “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” “Notes on Nationalism,” “The Prevention of Literature,” “Politics and the English Language,” “Writers and Leviathan,” the essays on Dickens, Tolstoy, Kipling, Henry Miller, P. G. Wodehouse, and more. There are also hundreds of book reviews and letters, and perhaps most engaging and revealing, the very numerous weekly columns, titled “As I Please,” that he wrote for the venerable left-wing journal Tribune, where he was literary editor from 1943 to 1945. Until the spectacular success of Animal Farm (1945), he made his living from this occasional writing, which perhaps qualifies him as a patron saint of freelance writers.
Orwell has been much fought over. Among the notable jousts: Irving Howe vs. Isaac Deutscher; Howe again vs. Raymond Williams; Christopher Hitchens vs. Norman Podhoretz; Hitchens vs. Edward Said. Lionel Trilling’s famous introduction to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia floats serenely above all controversy, acknowledging a few possible criticisms of Orwell but gently flicking them away. Seventy years after his death, the dust has settled and Orwell is unquestionably a culture-hero. All the more reason to remember that at least a few wise and well-meaning persons found plenty to disagree with, and even dislike, in St. George.
His chief alleged offense was one he didn’t in fact live long enough to commit. (He died of tuberculosis in January of 1950, age forty-six, a few months after 1984 was published.) English leftists (Deutscher, Williams, E. P. Thompson, et al.) deduced, mainly from that novel, that he would have taken America’s side in the Cold War. What he actually said, though, was that if there were a hot war, he hoped the imperfectly democratic states of the West, rather than the totalitarian states of the East, would survive. Did this not terribly startling or objectionable declaration commit him to permanent uncritical support of American foreign policy, or at least to always finding reasons not to oppose it very vigorously, which was the characteristic stance of Cold War liberals? That seems to have been the assumption of his leftist critics.
There was also his inveterate antipathy toward Communism. He attacked British Communists and Communist sympathizers in season and out, so that the reader of these volumes may well tire of hearing it. Is he, the suspicion arises, kicking an underdog?
Now that the Soviet Union is long gone, it can be difficult to grasp the extraordinary malignity of Stalinism: the suffering inflicted on its subjects and the damage wrought on the Western democratic left. Its dishonesty, intolerance, and cruelty, expressed in famines, firing squads, and gulags, were fathomless. Even the fraction of these horrors that was known at the time would have made sympathy, much less support, on Orwell’s part impossible.
And his enmity was personal as well. As a volunteer on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, he saw the Soviets leverage their military aid into control of the government, followed by a purge of non-Communists. Thousands of Trotskyists, anarchists, and unaffiliated leftists were imprisoned and executed, including many of Orwell’s comrades. He himself narrowly escaped a firing squad. The wonder is that he didn’t become a right-wing avenging angel like, say, Whittaker Chambers and the cadre around National Review.
He might have done so eventually, it’s true. (This was Norman Podhoretz’s argument in a 1983 Harper’s essay.) He was an ornery person, irritable and impatient, and he took an unholy pleasure in upbraiding his left-wing brethren. But he had seen too much of the British Empire and of the underside of capitalism to be anything but a leftist himself. He served as a colonial officer in Burma for five years and was a persistent advocate of Burmese and Indian independence. He saw the Burmese and Indians, as British imperialists (like Churchill) did not. He would, later on, have seen things that Cold War liberals and their successors (including the neoconservatives) did not. He would, for example, surely have seen the North Korean civilian population huddling underground in the 1950s, while overhead virtually every structure in the country was demolished, including hospitals and dams, by American bombs. He would have seen Cambodian and Laotian civilians living underground in the early 1970s under equally ferocious American bombing. In the 1980s he would have seen the civilian (including the religious) population of Central America terrorized by American-trained and -equipped death squads. In the 1990s he would have seen the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children and adults killed by American-spearheaded sanctions. And what he said about all these things would very likely have barred him from the pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Affairs just as certainly as Noam Chomsky’s similar pronouncements have barred him. Contrarian that he was, Orwell would probably have measured the adequacy of his criticism by the opprobrium it brought him in those respectable quarters.
Then again—Orwell does keep one on the qui vive, morally speaking—in a 1942 Tribune column, he defended the RAF’s bombing of German civilians.
Now, it seems to me that you do less harm by dropping bombs on people than by calling them “Huns.” Obviously one does not want to inflict death and wounds if it can be avoided, but I cannot feel that mere killing is all-important. We shall all be dead in less than a hundred years, and most of us by the sordid horror known as “natural death.” The truly evil thing is to act in such a way that peaceful life becomes impossible. War damages the fabric of civilization not by the destruction it causes (the net effect of a war may even be to increase the productive capacity of the world as a whole), nor even by the slaughter of human beings, but by stimulating hatred and dishonesty. By shooting at your enemy you are not in the deepest sense wronging him. But by hating him, by inventing lies about him and bringing children up to believe them, by clamoring for unjust peace terms which make further wars inevitable, you are striking not at one perishable generation, but at humanity itself.
As a general proposition—that “the slaughter of human beings” is less harmful than “stimulating hatred and dishonesty”—this seems a little dubious. Hatred and dishonesty can be overcome, after all, while there is something final about slaughtering people. But even if this were no more than a rationalization of British military policy (or, equally likely, a poke in the eye at pacifists, whom he could not abide), it would, in the circumstances, be pardonable. England in 1942 was resisting absolute evil, and not on its own behalf alone. The Battle of Britain was, like the contemporaneous siege of Leningrad and like very few other occasions in modern history, a supreme emergency. On the other hand, using poison gas (at Churchill’s behest) on defenseless Arabs rebelling against British colonial rule in the 1920s; or bombing the dikes in North Korea (a war crime, pure and simple); or dropping more bombs on three small, poor Southeast Asian countries than the United States dropped in all theaters in World War II—none of these would have seemed to Orwell justifiable as a response to a supreme emergency.