The Cant-Hunter

What George Orwell can still teach the Left
George Orwell (Photo © Vera-Archives / Bridgeman Images)

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.

 

Orwell has often been taken for a champion of common sense, objective truth, and ontological realism

For those who know 1984, especially Winston Smith’s long interrogation in the Ministry of Truth, there are intriguing foreshadowings in these volumes. In the novel, Winston tries desperately to maintain his sanity by holding to a belief in objective truth—famously, the belief that two plus two is four, no matter what the Party says—a belief his nemesis, O’Brien, ridicules. Under protracted torture, Winston loses his grasp on truth and betrays the woman he loves. He is, finally, a husk, bleating his love for Big Brother.

Many critics have not known what to make of this utterly bleak ending, beyond suggesting that Orwell had a sadistic streak or conjecturing that his fatal illness darkened his mind. Most have assumed that the book is simply exhorting us to hold fast to objective truth—moral as well as historical and scientific—and warning us against moral and philosophical relativists like O’Brien (and, by implication, devious Communist commissars).

In a subtly brilliant essay called “Orwell on Cruelty” (in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 1989), the philosopher Richard Rorty offered a different interpretation. 1984 is, obviously enough, a satire on Communist totalitarianism. But Oceania was something more: a society beyond good and evil, in which the techniques of psychological and social control had been perfected and human nature had been abrogated. Orwell “convinced us,” Rorty writes, “that there was a perfectly good chance that the same developments which had made human equality”—Orwell’s frequently expressed hope—“technically possible might make endless slavery possible.”

He did so by convincing us that nothing in the nature of truth, or man, or history was going to block that scenario, any more than it was going to underwrite the scenario which liberals had been using between the wars. He convinced us that all the intellectual and poetic gifts which had made Greek philosophy, modern science, and Romantic poetry possible might someday find employment in the Ministry of Truth.

Orwell anticipated this conclusion a number of times, usually in passing, including these two striking passages. The first is from a 1939 review of Russia under Soviet Rule by N. de Basily:

The terrifying thing about the modern dictatorships is that they are something entirely unprecedented. Their end cannot be foreseen. In the past every tyranny was sooner or later overthrown, or at least resisted, because of “human nature,” which as a matter of course desired liberty. But we cannot be at all certain that “human nature” is constant. It may be just as possible to produce a breed of men who do not wish for liberty as to produce a breed of hornless cows. The Inquisition failed, but then the Inquisition had not the resources of the modern state. The radio, press censorship, standardized education, and the secret police have altered everything.

The second is from a Tribune column in 1944:

The fallacy is to believe that under a dictatorial government you can be free inside…. Why is this idea false? I pass over the fact that modern dictatorships don’t, in fact, leave the loopholes that the old-fashioned despotisms did; and also the probable weakening of the desire for liberty owing to totalitarian methods of education. The greatest mistake is to imagine that the human being is an autonomous individual. The secret freedom which you can supposedly enjoy under a despotic government is nonsense, because your thoughts are never entirely your own. Philosophers, artists, writers, even scientists, not only need encouragement and an audience, they need constant stimulation from other people…. Take away freedom of speech, and the creative faculties dry up.

Orwell has often been taken for a champion of common sense, objective truth, and ontological realism because of well-known passages like the following, from one of Winston’s interior monologues: “Truisms are true, hold on to that! Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall toward the earth’s center.… Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows.” Rorty gives the usual interpretation a slight twist. “I suggest that [Orwell] can be seen as saying that it does not matter whether ‘two plus two is four’ is true, much less whether this truth is ‘subjective’ or ‘corresponds to external reality.’ All that matters is that if you do believe it, you can say it without getting hurt. In other words, what matters is your ability to talk to other people about what seems to you true, not what is in fact true. If we take care of freedom, truth can take care of itself.”

If we take care of freedom, truth can take care of itself. This was Rorty’s political creed (sometimes he expressed it as “Take care of democracy, and truth will take care of itself”), and this essay was his audacious attempt to claim Orwell as a forebear. I think he succeeded.

 

Orwell also saw a good deal of cant and hypocrisy on the left. The English Communists were an easy target.

Whatever Orwell's metaphysical predilections, he was indisputably one of the twentieth century’s foremost cant-hunters. He was extremely good at detecting and exposing ideological rationalizations, even well-meaning ones, from both the Right and Left. In the late 1930s, with Fascism looming, both Tories and Popular Front leftists proposed that Socialists put radical politics aside and urge class cooperation on the workers. (It sounds like the kind of thing that might have appeared in a New York Times editorial at any time during the Cold War.) Orwell was unmoved: “I do not believe that a man with fifty thousand pounds a year and a man with fifteen shillings a week either can, or will, cooperate. The nature of their relationship is, quite simply, that the one is robbing the other, and there is no reason to think that the robber will suddenly turn over a new leaf.” So much for capitalism, though he had no more patience for “the suffocating stupidity of left-wing propaganda” produced by people “looking at the modern world through nineteenth-century spectacles”—i.e., Marxist ones.

Humbug (one of Orwell’s favorite terms) has not notably declined since his time, and it’s worth wondering which subsequent terms, phrases, or notions Orwell’s sardonic gaze might have lighted on. The Cold War furnished a rich harvest. From Dulles to Kissinger to Brzezinski to countless Foreign Affairs essays, “responsible” (another choice morsel of humbug) American officials worried about “stability” in important regions. The meaning of “stability” may be deduced from one of Kissinger’s immortal utterances: “We had to destabilize Chile in order to stabilize it.” Translation: we had to cooperate in overthrowing an elected government and plunging the country into years of murder, repression, and austerity in order to protect American investments, free business from government interference, and discourage other Latin American electorates from voting Socialist. The same concern for “stability” led to intimate involvement in the overthrow of insufficiently business-friendly or overly independent-minded regimes in Nicaragua, Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, Argentina, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia, and to the support of brutal but obedient regimes in South Korea, Thailand, South Africa, El Salvador, Honduras, Turkey, and elsewhere. American intervention for the sake of “stability” has in fact been the main source of global instability since World War II. How so many Americans manage not to know this would have flummoxed Orwell: for years now, poll after international poll has designated the United States the greatest threat to world peace. For several years in the ’40s, Orwell wrote a “Letter from London” for Partisan Review. The contemporary equivalent to PR is, I suppose, the New York Review of Books. I suspect Orwell would have tried to publish a blistering essay there about the humbug of global “stability.” Whether he would have succeeded, I don’t know.

I imagine he would have been equally exercised by the right-wing theft of the word “free.” The phrase “Free World” must be one of the most successful rhetorical sleights-of-hand in history. Among the countries denominated “free” by the State Department during the Cold War were Syngman Rhee’s Korea, Shah Pahlavi’s Iran, Anastasio Somoza’s Nicaragua, Carlos Castillo Armas’s Guatemala, Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire, António Salazar’s Portugal, Castelo Branco’s Brazil, Jorge Rafael Videla’s Argentina, Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, Greece under the colonels, apartheid South Africa, and many others where the citizens were not free at all but American business operated with few or no restrictions. Forty years ago a celebrated right-wing intellectual explained in an influential essay that the unfree states in the Evil Empire were totalitarian, while those in the Free World were merely authoritarian, and therefore less bad, even though, during the Cold War, many more people, proportionally, were killed or imprisoned for political reasons in authoritarian Latin America than in totalitarian Eastern Europe.

The term “free markets” was not in vogue in Orwell’s time (though in Volume 3 there appears an interesting and respectful review of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom), but I think Orwell’s gorge would have risen at the hypocrisy of contemporary conservatives and right-wing libertarians. I think he might agree with what I wrote in Slouching Toward Utopia:

If you have the misfortune to be a left-wing social critic, the most galling part of each day is encountering the ubiquitous self-designation of apologists for capitalism as champions of freedom. One day a Tea Party Congressman introduces the Economic Freedom Act, which would free the 4,700 people who pay it from the estate tax and the rest of us from Social Security and the minimum wage. The next day some foundation with “freedom” in its name gives an award to Charles Koch for his stalwart defense of Koch Industries’ freedom to render sizable areas of West Virginia, Arkansas, and Louisiana uninhabitable. And every day the Congressional Freedom Caucus warns sternly that it will not rest until the tens of millions of Americans who cannot afford proper health care without assistance from the rest of us are free to go without it.

Orwell spent a lot of time down and out in Paris and London (see “How the Poor Die” in Volume 4) and living in the doss-houses in the north of England (see “The Road to Wigan Pier Diary” in Volume 1) in order to write books on those subjects. He had seen a vast amount of misery in those places, which he attributed (correctly, I think) to capitalism. He was quite bitter about it and probably would have taken a much harsher tone than I did.

Orwell also saw a good deal of cant and hypocrisy on the left. The English Communists were an easy target, proclaiming their independence but slavishly following every twist of Russian foreign policy. More surprising was his relentless criticism of English pacifists. In essays like “No, Not One” (from Romans 3:10: “There is not one that is righteous; no, not one”) and “Pacifism and the War” (both in Volume 2), he insisted that pacifism was dishonest and “objectively” pro-Fascist. “The notion that you can somehow defeat violence by submitting to it…is only possible to people who have money and guns between themselves and reality”—or, as he sometimes put it, to island-dwellers protected by a powerful navy.

Criticizing adversaries as “objectively” this-or-that is tricky, however. For example, Orwell was understandably indignant that one English publisher after another turned down Animal Farm. “If liberty means anything at all,” he wrote, in an often-quoted sentence, “it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” But what if telling people certain truths induces ambivalence or confusion at a critical moment? What if telling them Soviet Russia was a tyranny would have made them less willing to support a second front? Would publishing Animal Farm have been “objectively” pro-Hitler? (In fact, the tide had turned in the East by 1944, when the book was published, but suppose it had been written two years earlier? Would that have altered the case? Is “free speech” a matter of circumstances rather than principles?)

 

The explosive growth of inequality in the United States over the past four decades has closely paralleled the explosive growth of the diversity industry.

Might Orwell’s sensitive nose have detected a whiff of cant anywhere on the contemporary left? I suspect he would have cast a baleful eye on identity politics. He would, I think, be dubious about “diversity.” Why do every college and corporation in America have a fleet of “diversity” officers? What is gained by ensuring—at enormous expense—that every student or employee is proud of his/her culture and that every other student or employee respects it? According to Walter Benn Michaels in The Trouble with Diversity, what is gained is the avoidance of class conflict. “The commitment to diversity is at best a distraction and at worst an essentially reactionary position…. We would much rather celebrate cultural diversity than seek to establish economic equality.”

Orwell was moderately obsessed with class. He would probably have noted that the explosive growth of inequality in the United States over the past four decades has closely paralleled the explosive growth of the diversity industry, and would have drawn some conclusions. He might have asked: If there were two societies with the same Gini coefficient, but in one of them, the proportion of billionaires by race and gender matched that of the general population, would that society be morally better than the other? Or: If the ratio of CEO to median employee earnings was the same in two societies, but in one of them the proportion of CEOs by race and gender matched that of the general population, would that society be morally better than the other? I’m pretty sure that most diversity bureaucrats would answer “yes” to both questions, and that Orwell would have answered “no.”

Orwell was fearless, so a tribute to him shouldn’t pull any punches. I think he would suggest that there was something irrational about the way we enforce our most sensitive taboo: the N-word. From the wholesale banning of Huckleberry Finn to the many times teachers and civil servants have been censured, and in one case fired, for using the word “niggardly” (which has no etymological relation to the N-word) to the resignation under pressure recently of a Cambridge, Massachusetts, school committeewoman for using the N-word in a discussion of a proposed high-school course about the N-word, we have often made fools of ourselves and done disadvantaged African Americans no good. As the school superintendent summarized the Cambridge case: the committeewoman “made a point about racist language and used the full N-word instead of the common substitute, ‘N-word.’… Although said in the context of a classroom discussion, and not directed to any student or adult present, the full pronunciation of the word was upsetting to a number of students and adults who were present or who have since heard about the incident.” No one, however, as far as I am aware, has publicly expressed hurt feelings over the fact that the average net worth of African Americans in the Boston area is $8. (Eight, no zeros.) As Benn Michaels observes: “As long as the left continues to worry about [respect], the right won’t have to worry about inequality.”

Orwell wrote a particularly fine essay titled “Not Counting Niggers.” For an Englishman in the 1930s, the word signified a non-white subaltern in one of the European colonial empires. The occasion of the essay was a book proposing that the democracies of Europe and the United States federate in order to deter Fascist aggression. The idea was getting much favorable attention, though no one really expected democratic statesmen to have the imagination or appetite for innovation on such a scale. But none of the liberals and leftists commending the idea seemed to notice that the far-flung British, French, Belgian, Dutch, and other colonies were to be incorporated in the new super-state as dependencies—as subject peoples, without change of status. So much for a federation of democracies. Orwell was indignant. “The unspoken clause is always ‘not counting niggers.’”

We always forget that the overwhelming bulk of the British proletariat does not live in Britain, but in Asia and Africa. It is not in Hitler’s power, for instance, to make a penny an hour a normal industrial wage; it is perfectly normal in India, and we are at great pains to keep it so. One gets some idea of the real relationship of Britain and India when one reflects that the per capita annual income in England is something over eighty pounds, and in India about seven pounds. It is quite common for an Indian coolie’s leg to be thinner than the average Englishman’s arm. And there is nothing racial in this, for well-fed members of that race are of normal physique; it is due to simple starvation. This is the system which we all live on and which we denounce when there seems to be no danger of its being altered.

It is hard to imagine a more anti-racist essay, right down to its bitterly sarcastic title. (Another powerful one, “Marrakesh,” occurs a few pages earlier in Volume 1.) It would be a pity if timidity or a lack of discrimination among educators kept it away from students merely because Orwell used “the full N-word.”

 

“In our time,” Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language” (Volume 4), “it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing.” That essay was a small contribution to making bad political writing rarer. The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters is a large contribution to making bad political thinking rarer, then and now.

Published in the April 2020 issue: 

George Scialabba’s most recent book is ‘Slouching Toward Utopia.’ His ‘How To Be Depressed’ will be published this spring by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

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