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 As a political force, the working classes have been replaced by office-park workers who toil at places like Microsoft, temp agencies, and Human Genome Sciences.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.
But to reenter these debates is really to go into an intellectual-history museum. E.P. Thompson may have believed that Orwell was an apologist for quietism. Raymond Williams may have regarded Orwell as hopelessly bourgeois. But aside from a few dozen professors, does anybody really think Orwell still needs defending from these ideological dinosaurs? And as for the argument over whether or not Orwell would have ended up at the Hoover Institution, who cares? Orwell was valuable as long as the Soviet Union was around, but few people cite Orwell to buttress their arguments on, say, whether we should seek regime change in Iraq. The Orwell tug of war is over.
Indeed, one of the striking omissions in this book is any reference to the events of September 11 and the war on terror. In his magazine articles over the past year, Hitchens himself has been crusading against Islamofascism, but even he doesn't enlist Orwell in that crusade here. While there are references in this book to forgotten leftists such as Konni Zilliacus, there are none to Osama bin Laden or the Taliban.
Imported into this new age, Orwellian instincts are sometimes more of a hindrance than a help. For example, fighting totalitarianism, Orwell developed an instinctive distrust of authority. But today the great challenge is reconstituting legitimate authority to preserve democratic institutions and civilized life. Many on the left accused Rudy Giuliani of using "Big Brother" tactics in his efforts to crack down on crime in New York. But they were misled by the category. Giuliani was no dictator; he was mainly restoring civic order and improving life for ordinary New Yorkers. Similarly, one can have a legitimate debate about how much authority should be invested in the new Department of Homeland Security, but if you start importing the categories of "1984" into that debate, you will end up in a hysterical shouting match that will lead you away from the right balance between liberty and security.
ORWELL WAS PERCEPTIVE about how colonial domination infects both the colonizers and the colonized. But if you see today's world through the prism of colonialism, as some on the left still do, you find yourself in a make-believe world in which Islamic Jihad is an anti-imperialist uprising, the United States poses a greater threat than Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, and Arab and African dictators are somehow the legitimate manifestations of their indigenous cultures. Orwell is not to blame. He didn't face the problems we face. Queen Victoria's colonialism was nothing like the democratic imperialism America practices in Serbia and Afghanistan. Islamic fascism is not quite the same as Italian fascism.
But the main reason Orwell doesn't matter much to our current controversies is that, as Hitchens acknowledges, he never really paid much attention to the United States. And that illustrates a significant difference between the debate we are engaged in today and the Cold War debate that Orwell dominated. During the Cold War, the essential issue was Marxism. The key debate was over what sort of society the Soviets were building: Was it the vanguard of the glorious future, or was it a tyranny of some new- or old-fashioned sort? Orwell's Europe certainly experienced waves of anti-Americanism, but for intellectuals in Orwell's day, reading Marx, Hegel, Trotsky, and Lenin was more important than reading Jefferson, Hamilton, or Adam Smith.
Our current battle lines often resemble the Cold War's battle lines. But the focus of attention has shifted. Now America is the main issue. Is America the vanguard of the future or is its political and cultural might more a threat and a corrupter?
Certainly there is interest in what motivates the Islamic extremists. But there aren't many pro-Islamist intellectuals writing in the New York Review of Books. No one thinks Islamists are heralding a glorious future or are the chief influence on the world. Today it is how you feel about the United States that determines whether or not you think America should play an assertive and, if necessary, unilateral role around the world.
Orwell would matter if he had written about American idealism, America's sense of mission, mass affluence, the triumph of the market mentality, American history, or Pax Americana. But while he seems to have had a general disdain for American culture--and championed, in a vague way, European socialist unity as a way to counterbalance American hegemony--he never turned his full attention to this country and its ideas.
So in writing this book, Hitchens seems actually to have pulled himself away from the main topics that occupy him when he writes for magazines. At this moment, oddly enough, Hitchens matters more than Orwell.
David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.