“Tyranny is always better organized than freedom.”
—Charles Peguy

In Moscow in 1963, there was a saying: “Tell me what you think of Solzhenitsyn and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and I’ll tell you who you are.” A similar principle applies today among Western intellectuals and their opinion of George Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four: your attitudes here are a good indicator of where you stand on the political spectrum. This fact became all the more clear during the last calendar year, for in 1984 the inevitable flurry of conferences and books about Orwell and his greatest work revealed how deeply divided Western intellectuals are concerning Orwell’s intellectual and moral legacy.

Of course, what became immediately obvious in 1984 is that conservatives were far more comfortable with the overt message of Nineteen Eighty-Four than were either centrist-liberal intellectuals or (especially) those on the left. It seems an ironic fate for a man who called himself a democratic socialist. The favor with which Orwell is viewed in the conservative movement was well exemplified in Norman Podhoretz’s essay in Harper’s, January 1983 (Podhoretz could not even wait for the beginning of The Year before he got the political debate going). And the ambivalence of standard liberalism and especially the left towards Orwell’s legacy—and the reasons behind that ambivalence—are well exemplified by two books, both published in 1984.

While Orwell’s posthumous political fate may seem ironic, there is also a sense in which it is just. For the usual reason given on the left for hostility towards Orwell—that Orwell and his works have become a super-weapon in the Cold War—tells only part of the story. There is a deeper reason why conservatives find Orwell a heroic figure, why liberals find him troubling—and why the left has tried to wish him away.

Ian Slater’s Orwell: The Road to Airstrip One is intended as a sophisticated introduction to Orwell’s political thought. It comes with the imprimatur of major Orwell scholars, and it has the virtue (rare in what is essentially a textbook) of being well-written. Slater is best in the earlier chapters. Here we find detailed descriptions of Orwell’s experiences as a colonial policeman in Burma (out of which grew his first novel, the scalding, anti-imperialist Burmese Days), and his later experiences of the life of the poverty-stricken in France and Britain (out of which emerged two great pieces of literary reportage—Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier). Indeed, Slater is much at ease with this early Orwell, the embittered leftist critic of capitalist society—much more at ease than he is with the later man, the embittered leftist critic of the left. And that is a problem. As the book progresses, one gets the definite impression of increasing confusion; Slater’s explanations of Orwell’s political positions become increasingly verbose and complex, and in the end one begins to feel that Slater is not so much explaining as denying.

The reason, I think, is Slater’s desire to avoid the political implications of Orwell’s analysis of totalitarianism. For if a commentator simply sets forth that analysis as it stands, in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, he seems automatically to be aligning himself with the most ferocious anti Communists; and in literary circles in the West, this is generally considered bad manners. Raymond Williams, the most prominent Marxist critic of Orwell, understands the problem perfectly: the fact is that Orwell spent his last years mostly—even exclusively—in intellectual combat against authoritarian (sic) socialism. A writer whose subject is Orwell may choose to criticize this (as Williams himself has done, lately with ever-increasing savagery). But Slater respects Orwell (as Williams does not), and to escape the dilemma posed by Orwell’s blunt anti Communism, Slater takes a different tack, one very popular in the centrist liberal world. It turns out that Nineteen Eighty-Four is about us all. That is, it is about phenomena characteristic of all modern states, including those in the West.

Of course, insofar as the novel constitutes a general warning about how governmental power is a threat to individualism, there is a truth here. It is also the case that while Orwell had a surprisingly favorable view of early laissez-faire capitalism (precisely be cause of its individualistic character), he was very hostile to what he saw as the giant “monopoly” capitalism of his own day. Nevertheless, Orwell also believed that the capitalist system was itself inevitably passing away, and in deed, in Nineteen Eighty-Four capital ism has long since ceased to exist. Moreover, Orwell was keenly aware of the difference between bourgeois liberal society and tyranny and also believed that bourgeois liberal society was eminently worth defending from such tyranny (see “My Country Right or Left”—one example from among many such statements).

The actual topic of Nineteen Eighty-Four, then, can hardly be Western bourgeois society. And in fact it is not. The nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is something else, some thing concrete and specific: socialist totalitarianism, the “Ingsoc” State. As early as 1941, in an essay entitled “Literature and Totalitarianism,” Or well had explicitly warned his audience of the connection between centralized state control over the economy and centralized state control over the human intellect. Similarly, it is obvious that Big Brother is modeled on Stalin (complete with moustache), and that the Party, the periodic Purges, and the labor camps are all modeled, equally, on the Soviet experience. Even granted the general applicability of the warning contained in the book, not to emphasize the “Ingsoc” State as its specific target-that is, the terrible statist perversion of the democratic socialist ideals Orwell held dear-is to commit the cardinal error of literary criticism which we call “missing the author’s point.”

A second problem with the approach that posits that “Nineteen Eighty-Four is about us all” is how easily it leads into falsely equating the true totalitarian experience with that of political and cultural life in the West. One example of the problems with this technique will have to be sufficient. There is a famous scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four in which, at the climax of Hate Week, after working up wild popular anger at the enemy state Eurasia, the chief speaker in Trafalgar Square suddenly reveals that the enemy is-and always has been—Eastasia; after a moment of confusion, the popular hatred goes on, now directed at its new target. Slater’s comment here leaves one stunned: “The psychological atmosphere of this ‘futuristic’ novel is really that of the present—indeed . . . of any mass rally.” Well, that certainly serves us a warning about even our own society—except that is this scene at the cli max of Hate Week really typical of any mass rally? Could, for instance, Rea gan or Thatcher get away with such political behavior? Would they even try? Surely not.

On the other hand, it was precisely in the spring of 1984 that the Czech government’s “line” on the problem of nuclear missiles changed overnight be cause of a Soviet decision to station nuclear missiles in the country. The change in the propaganda line was from “Any Missiles Placed in Europe are a Threat to All of Europe” (part of the campaign against American cruise and Pershing weapons) to “Missiles are Necessary for Socialist Self-Defence.” People rushed to take pictures of the previous government-sponsored banners, before they were hurriedly torn down; and those who overtly noted and protested the sudden change were threatened with charges of high treason (see The New Republic, April 23, 1984). This is the sort of story Orwell would have enjoyed. This is what he was talking about in Nineteen Eighty-Four—not the foibles of bourgeois democracy. Not to see the difference here, not to stress the difference, is morally obtuse.

Still, despite this very grave failing towards the end, Slater’s book is a worthwhile effort, with / much fine writing and many interesting ideas. Scholars (including Raymond Williams) have done worse. Of course, the best introduction to Orwell’s thought remains Orwell himself, specifically in the four volumes of essays and letters collected by Ian Angus and Orwell’s widow Sonia (soon to be replaced, however, by a much more, comprehensive six-volume edition).

Far different from Slater’s serious, liberal approach is the collection of essays on Orwell edited by Christopher Norris-Inside the Myth: Orwell: Views From the Left. It is easy to laugh at this book. At least the various British academic Marxists who wrote up their thoughts for Norris have no doubts about Orwell’s target in Nineteen Eighty-Four. No liberal waffling for them: the novel was intended as a scalding attack on leftist thought and practice. As one of them states, “Nineteen Eighty-Four is no longer worth fighting for, at least in the political terms that have defined the argument so far. Those arguments were fought and lost a long time ago.” Therefore, better to try and delegitimize Nineteen Eighty-Four and its author as much as possible, in the hopes of reducing their baleful influence.

From this perspective, Orwell turns out to be guilty of sexism (two essays), of severe bourgeois subjectivism in regard to the horrors he and bis anarchist friends suffered at the hands of the Communists in Spain (two essays), of a long series of mediocre works, from Animal Farm, filled with “unintelligible ideology,” to Nineteen Eighty-Four itself, an unimpressive and poorly thought-out potboiler (three essays). The nadir here is probably reached in the long essay of com plaint by the old Stalinoid apologist Alaric Jacob, who rails against the injustice of Orwell having been physically bigger than he was, and more successful as a writer (why, Frederick Warburg even had the nerve to publish Nineteen Eighty-Four on Jacob’s birth day!). There is much in these texts to ponder for the student of the psychology of the hard left-but little for anyone actually interested in Orwell.

Christopher Norris himself toys with the notion that Orwell was in fact “kidnapped” by the forces of Reaction and Cold War, but he ends up believing that if Orwell’s writings are subject to gross misappropriation, this is strong evidence of their “deeper complicity” with the right. Actually, the publication history of Orwell’s two last and most famous books would have given Norris much food for thought here. A key institution in Orwell’s rise to fame (and fortune), and the transformation of a relatively obscure British leftist writer into the towering figure ORWELL, was the American Book-of-the-Month Club. The Club published first Animal Farm and later Nineteen Eighty-Four in huge editions; and in the case of Animal Farm, the Club’s notice of publication came along with an absolutely unprecedented letter urging Club members to buy this selection and not any of the offered alternates. Orwell had his problems with the Club (which wanted—but did not get—a less discursive, “tight er” version of Nineteen Eighty-Four), but it is striking how easily Orwell reconciled himself to his American fame: this was “complicity” indeed. Moreover, the politics of the Book-of the-Month Club were highly conservative: was Orwell aware of this? The failure of Norris and his leftist scholars to research the interesting topic of Orwell’s publication history, and their penchant for violent but empty polemic instead, seems to me yet another indication of their current confusion and despair.

Of course, by 1948 Orwell was also consistently siding with the United States against the Soviet Union in the Cold War and was severely castigating those European intellectuals who did not do the same (see Collected Essays IV). In addition (and here is a little known fact), he was even keeping an extensive private list of potential British “subversives.” But Orwell’s “deeper complicity” with the right was prob ably not so much political (one must never forget that he remained a socialist, according to his own lights) as philosophical. For the philosophical center of Orwell’s concerns was the preservation of individualism.

One of the essayists in Norris’s collection attacks Orwell for “privileging” individualism as if it were humanity’s natural condition, instead of seeing individualism merely as an artifice created by a certain culture and society, and therefore no more inherently deserving of special consideration than, say, merging with the collective will of the Party. But (typically), this conception of Orwell’s individualism is exactly wrong. The point is that Orwell did not see the autonomous individual as natural, or a human given. Rather, he saw individualism as the historically determined product of a specific sort of civilization, and therefore capable of being destroyed by the march of history as well—by the rise of radical new forms of economics, society, culture. As Irving Howe noted long ago, this is in fact one of the central ideas in Nineteen Eighty-Four; it is why Winston Smith is already “the last man in Europe.” But while Orwell (in agreement, then, with current “post Foucault” thinking) saw individualism not as natural but as an artificial con struct, the difference is that he also believed that, nevertheless, individual ism was a wonderful thing and ought to be “privileged.” In fact, its very artificiality (as he saw it) increased its preciousness, because it increased its vulnerability.

Stuart Hall, in the only really worthwhile essay in the Norris collection, is right to point out how this “libertarian” aspect of Orwell’s thinking penetrates to the heart of the dilemma of the left, today as in 1948. That dilemma is the state-the deadly disciplinary power of the state, necessary for the restructuring and then the regulating of society as the left wishes. But the more power the state is given for these purposes, the more power the state has to crush the individual, and the more likelihood that the unusual individual will in fact be crushed. The left wishes the state exalted over society; the question (and it is Orwell’s question) then becomes, Does the left wish the individual destroyed? This inherently statist and anti individualistic tendency in socialism remains the unsolved problem of the left, at least in Western countries (in the East, we already know what the answer is). As Hall perceives, this problem in leftist thinking is the right’s greatest, most persuasive weapon—and it is Orwell who revealed it in the most dramatic way possible, by means of one of the most moving and chilling novels ever written. In this context, one may doubt that Orwell would have seriously minded becoming “a super-weapon in the Cold War,” for that phrase is just another way of saying: a super-weapon in the intellectual and moral struggle against totalitarianism. And the question then becomes: Why does the hard left (and even many liberals) find this struggle so distasteful?

In basic ways, we can see just how deep Orwell’s “deep complicity” with the conservative movement is, and especially the philosophical roots of that deep complicity, in a shared commitment to the cause of the individual. But precisely because of their own commitment to the individual, people on the right must always allow Orwell to remain an individual-the unique, quirky, fiercely autonomous individual that he was. In other words, Conservatives should not try to assimilate Orwell completely to themselves, for he was emotionally committed to the possibility of a democratic socialism (even if this was, in Alan Zwerdling’s striking phrase, his “hopeless faith”). Conservatives must not forget this, nor can they be reconciled to this—not even to the essentially preindustrial, “Merrie Englande” socialism of the small, warm community which was Orwell’s vision (and which was the cause of his hatred of the statists he saw so dominant on the left).

But Orwell’s uniqueness, his special and specific point of view, which separates him from conservatism, is in fact also the source of his intellectual and emotional richness, and the source of his permanent contribution to 20th century political discourse. If conservatives really believe in the cause of the individual, and are not just interested in a game of political grave robbing, they will gladly accept Orwell as he was, accepting what he has to offer, and also his separateness from them. For Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are such striking achievements that Orwell, right or left, will always remain “our” Orwell. By this, I mean the West’s Orwell-a powerful defender of the essential values of Western civilization. For conservatives this is, and ought to be, enough. 


[Orwell: The Road to Airstrip One, by Ian Slater; New York: W. W. Norton]

[Inside the Myth: Orwell: The View From the Left; Edited by Christopher Norris; London: Lawrence & Wishart]