The Magazine

Orwell and Us

The battle over George Orwell's legacy.

Sep 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 02 • By DAVID BROOKS
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Why Orwell Matters
by Christopher Hitchens
Basic, 208 pp., $24

GEORGE ORWELL was one of the best essayists of his time, and Christopher Hitchens is one of the best essayists of his. Orwell is famous for his intellectual honesty and his willingness occasionally to anger his allies on the left. So is Hitchens. A book by Hitchens on Orwell seems natural and inevitable--like an Ali-Frazier fight or a Hepburn-Tracy movie. The publishers are not hyping things when they advertise this book as "a true marriage of minds."

But for all the wisdom that Hitchens brings to this book, there is a problem with his "Why Orwell Matters"--for it leaves the reader with the impression that Orwell doesn't actually matter any more. To enter Orwell's world is to reenter a world of totalitarian nation-states, Communist intellectuals, blacklists, European imperialists, proletarian masses, and pre-feminist attitudes. But the Cold War really is over, and none of those other things is very important today. As you take the Hitchens-guided tour through some of those old, old controversies, it occurs to you that the categories Orwell used to analyze his own world would mislead us if we relied on them now.

Orwell was brilliant on Stalin, Dickens, Hitler, and Kipling. But his country is now run by the Labour meritocrat Tony Blair. As a political force, the working classes have been replaced by office-park workers who toil at places like Microsoft, temp agencies, and Human Genome Sciences. Marxism is dead, but Oprah Winfrey is alive. Imperialist victims Pakistan and India are nuclear powers, while Singapore and Indonesia are Asian Tigers, and the main threat to global order comes not from Stalinist dictators or competing colonial powers, but from Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Of course, Orwell still matters to the extent that integrity still matters. Stories about honest people always inspire, whether they are set in second-century Rome or sixteenth-century China. And one of the chief virtues of "Why Orwell Matters" is that Hitchens examines Orwell's honesty while, at the same time, extricating him "from a pile of saccharine tablets and moist hankies," which has turned Orwell into "an object of sickly veneration and sentimental overpraise, employed to stultify schoolchildren with his insufferable rightness and purity."

Hitchens argues that Orwell's most prominent quality was his independence, and it was an independence that had to be earned through willpower. Orwell was, Hitchens continues, something of a natural misanthrope: "He had to suppress his distrust and dislike of the poor, his revulsion from the Jews, his awkwardness with women, and his anti-intellectualism." It was through continued acts of self-mastery that Orwell was able to overcome most of his natural prejudices, in order to see things as they really were and champion groups that needed championing. Orwell was always checking himself, which perhaps explains the tone of cool reserve that marks his prose.

HITCHENS doesn't quite put it this way, but the vice that Orwell seems chiefly to have overcome is snobbery, which especially afflicts Englishmen and writers. By training and not instinct, he was deeply egalitarian and detested the condescension of both the imperialists and the parlor leftists (he was fond, for instance, of Rudyard Kipling's crack against those who are perpetually "making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep"). At the same time Orwell didn't commit the reverse snobbery of overpraising the downtrodden. He understood that one product of domination is that it can turn the dominated into rotten people too. Orwell also still matters to the extent that the ability to see through bogus rhetoric still matters. Hitchens notes that Orwell, anticipating postmodern theorists, was fascinated by "the problems of objective and verifiable truth" and the importance of language.

But for Orwell to really matter today, he can't just be some exemplar of abstract virtue or an academic semiotician before his time. He has to address the main issues of our day. And it is here that Hitchens fails to persuade. The three great issues of the twentieth century were imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism--and Orwell was right on all of them, Hitchens argues, carving out a principled anti-tyrannical leftism (a tradition that Hitchens claims to carry on).

To hold this ground, Hitchens must defend Orwell from those he sees as Orwell's enemies on the left and Orwell's co-opters on the right. Hitchens meticulously rebuts the attacks on Orwell from the likes of the Marxist historian E.P. Thompson and the culture-studies guru Raymond Williams, who despise Orwell because he gave ammunition to the anti-Communist enemy. Then Hitchens turns around and tries to show that Orwell would not have become a neoconservative.