Who wrote this? ‘Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’ But you guessed straight away: George Orwell. The subject stated up front, the sudden acceleration from the scope-widening parenthesis into the piercing argument that follows, the way the obvious opposition between ‘lies’ and ‘truthful’ leads into the shockingly abrupt coupling of ‘murder’ and ‘respectable’, the elegant, reverse-written coda clinched with a dirt-common epithet, the whole easy-seeming poise and compact drive of it, a world view compressed to the size of a motto from a fortune cookie, demanding to be read out and sayable in a single breath – it’s the Orwell style. But you can’t call it Orwellian, because that means Big Brother, Newspeak, The Ministry of Love, Room 101, the Lubyanka, Vorkuta, the NKVD, the MVD, the KGB, KZ Dachau, KZ Buchenwald, the Reichsscrifttumskammer, Gestapo HQ in the Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse. Arbeit macht frei, Giovinezza, Je suis partout, the compound at Drancy, the Kempei Tai, Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom, The Red Detachment of Women, the Stasi, the Securitate, cro-magnon Latino death squad goons decked out in Ray-bans after dark, that Khmer Rouge torture factory whose inmates were forbidden to scream, Idi Amin’s Committee of Instant Happiness or whatever his secret police were called, and any other totalitarian obscenity that has ever reared its head or ever will.
The word ‘Orwellian’ is a daunting example of the fate that a distinguished writer can suffer at the hands of journalists. When, as almost invariably happens, a totalitarian set-up, whether in fact or in fantasy – in Brazil or in Brazil – is called Orwellian, it is as if George Orwell had conceived the nightmare instead of analysed it, helped to create it instead of helping to dispel its euphemistic thrall. (Similarly Kafka, through the word Kafkaesque, gets the dubious credit for having somehow wished into existence the same sort of bureaucratic labyrinth that convulsed him to the heart.) Such distortions would be enough to make us give up on journalism altogether if we happened to forget that Orwell himself was a journalist. Here, to help us remember, are the twenty volumes of the new complete edition, cared for with awe-inspiring industry, dedication and judgement by Peter Davison, a scholar based in Leicester, who has spent the last two decades chasing down every single piece of paper his subject ever wrote on and then battling with publishers to persuade them that the accumulated result would supply a demand. The All of Orwell arrives in a cardboard box the size of a piece of check-in luggage: a man in a suitcase. As I write, the books are stacked on my desk, on a chair, on a side table, on the floor. A full, fat eleven of the twenty volumes consist largely of his collected journalism, reproduced in strict chronology along with his broadcasts, letters, memos, diaries, jottings, et exhaustively and fascinatingly al. The nine other volumes, over there near the stereo, were issued previously, in 1986-87, and comprise the individual works he published during his lifetime, including at least two books that directly and undeniably affected history. But, lest we run away with the idea that Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are the core of his achievement, here, finally, is all the incidental writing, to remind us that they were only the outer layer, and could not have existed without what lay inside. Those famous, world-changing novels are just the bark. The journalism is the tree.
A four-volume edition of the journalism, essays and letters, which was published in 1968 (co-edited by Ian Angus and Orwell’s widow, Sonia), had already given us a good idea of how the tree grew, but now we get an even better chance to watch its roots suck up the nutrients of contemporary political experience and- But it’s time to abandon that metaphor. Orwell never liked it when the writing drove the meaning. One of his precepts for composition was ‘Let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.’ For him prose style was a matter in which the ethics determined the aesthetics. As a writer, he was his own close reader. Reading others, he was open to persuasion, but he would not be lulled, least of all by mellifluous rhetoric. Anyone’s prose style, even his, sets out to seduce. Orwell’s, superficially the plainest of the plain, was of a rhythm and a shapeliness to seduce the angels. Even at this distance, he needs watching, and would have been the first to admit it.
Orwell was born into the impoverished upper class – traditionally, for its brighter children, a potent incubator of awareness about how the social system works. Either they acquire an acute hunger to climb back up the system – often taking the backstairs route through the arts, à la John Betjeman – or they go the other way, seeking an exit from the whole fandango and wishing it to damnation. Orwell, by his own later accounts, went the other way from his school days onward. In one of his last great essays, ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, he painted his years at prep school (where he nicknamed the headmaster’s gorgon of a wife Flip) as a set of panels by Hieronymus Bosch:
"Here is a little boy’, said Flip, indicating to me the strange lady, ‘who wets his bed every night. Do you know what I am going to do if you wet your bed again?’ she added, turning to me. ‘I am going to get the Sixth Form to beat you.’
Orwell had a better time at Eton – it sounds as if he would have had a better time in Siberia – but twenty years later, after he left it, reviewing his friend Cyril Connolly’s partly autobiographical Enemies of Promise, he poured scorn on Connolly’s fond recollections of the place. When Connolly proclaimed himself fearful that after his climactic years of glory at Eton nothing in the rest of his life could ever be so intense, Orwell reacted as if Flip had just threatened to deliver him to the Sixth Form all over again: ‘ “Cultured” middle-class life has reached a depth of softness at which a public-school education – five years in a luke-warm bath of snobbery – can actually be looked back upon as an eventful period.’
Orwell often reviewed his friends like that. With his enemies, he got tough. But it should be said at the outset that even with his enemies he rarely took an inhuman tone. Even Hitler and Stalin he treated as men rather than as machines, and his famous characterization of the dogma-driven hack as ‘the gramophone mind’ would have lost half its force if he had not believed that there was always a human being within the fanatic. His comprehension, though, did not incline him to be forgiving: quite the reverse. Society might have made the powerful what they were as surely as it had made the powerless what they were, but the mere fact that the powerful were free to express whatever individuality they possessed was all the more reason to hold them personally responsible for crushing the freedom of others. When they beat you, you can join them or you can join the fight on behalf of those they beat. It seems a fair guess that Orwell had already made his choice by the time Flip threatened him with a visit from the Sixth Form.
In the early part of his adult life, he was a man of action. He wrote journalism when he could – for him it was more natural than breathing, which, thanks to a lurking tubercular condition, eventually became a strain – but he wanted to be where the action was. Already questioning his own privileged, if penny-pinching, upbringing and education, he went out to Burma at the age of nineteen and for the next five years served as a colonial policeman – an experience from which he reached the conclusion (incorporated later into his novel Burmese Days and his essays ‘Shooting an Elephant’ and ‘A Hanging’) that the British Empire was a capitalist mechanism to exploit the subjugated poor. Back in Europe, he found out what it was like to be a proletarian by becoming one himself – Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier – and expanded his belief about the exploitative nature of the Empire to embrace the whole of capitalist society, anywhere. He volunteered for service in Spain in the fight against Franco, and the selfless comradeship of ordinary Spaniards risking their lives to get justice – Homage to Catalonia – confirmed his belief that an egalitarian socialist society was the only fair and decent alternative to the capitalist boondoggle, of which Franco’s Fascism, like Hitler’s and Mussolini’s, was merely the brute expression.
So here, already formed, were two of his three main political beliefs – about the awfulness of capitalism and the need for an egalitarian alternative. There was nothing uncommon about them except their intensity: plenty of intellectuals from his middle-class background had reached the same conclusions, although few of them as a result of direct experience. The third belief was the original one. It was more than a belief, it was an insight. Again, he was not the only one to have it, or at any rate part of it: though such illustrious invitees to the Soviet Union as Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells and the Webbs had been fooled into admiration by the standard tricks of Potemkin Village set-dressing, Bertrand Russell, André Gide, E. E. Cummings, Malcolm Muggeridge and several other visiting commentators had already spotted that the vaunted socialist utopia was a put-up job, and in 1938 the Italian-born Croatian ex-Communist Anton Ciliga, in his book Au pays du grande mensonge (In the Land of the Big Lie), gave a detailed account of the Gulag system, which he knew from the inside. But nobody ever expressed his revulsion better or more lastingly than Orwell, who got it right without ever having to go there.
He went somewhere else instead. Discovering in Spain, from the behaviour of Russian representatives and their Communist adherents, that the Soviet Union was as implacable an enemy of his egalitarian aspirations as Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, he developed the idea that it wasn’t enough to be against Mussolini and Hitler: you had to be against Stalin as well, because the enemy was totalitarianism itself. That was as far as he got before his career as a man of action came to an end. Shot in the throat by a sniper, he recuperated, but if he had stayed in Spain any longer he would have almost certainly been murdered. The anarchist group in whose ranks he had fought, the POUM, was being liquidated on Soviet orders, and his name was on the list. (The evidence is all here, in Volume XI, and it is enough to bring on a cold sweat: losing Orwell to the NKVD would have had the same devastating effect on our intellectual patrimony that the loss of the historian Marc Bloch and the literary critic Jean Prévost to the Gestapo had on the French.)
Back in England with his three main beliefs – capitalism was a disease, socialism was the cure, and Communism would kill the patient – the erstwhile man of action carried on his cause as a man of letters. For part of the Second World War, he was a member of the Home Guard, and for a further part he was with the BBC, preparing broadcasts for India, but as far as the main action went he was an onlooker. No onlooker ever looked on more acutely. The journalism he wrote at the close of the thirties and in the forties would have been more than enough by itself to establish him as having fulfilled his life’s purpose, which he made explicit in his last years: ‘What I have most wanted to do is to make political writing into an art.’ The whole heavy atmosphere of the prelude to the war, the exhausting war itself, and its baleful aftermath: it’s all there, reported with a vividness that eschews the consciously poetic but never lapses from the truly dramatic, because he had the talent and the humility to assess even a V-1 in terms of its effect on his own character, using his soliloquy to explain the play:
Every weapon seems unfair until you have adopted it yourself. But I would not deny that the pilotless plane, flying bomb, or whatever its correct name may be, is an exceptionally unpleasant thing, because unlike most other projectiles, it gives you time to think. What is your first reaction when you hear that droning, zooming noise? Inevitably, it is a hope that the noise won’t stop. You want to hear the bomb pass safely overhead and die away into the distance before the engine cuts out. In other words, you are hoping that it will fall on somebody else.
Along with the exterior drama, however, an interior drama is now, at long last, fully revealed. Tracking his mind from note to memo, from letter to book review, from article to essay, we can see what happened to those early beliefs – which two of them were modified, and which one of them was elaborated into a social, political, ethical and even philosophical concept whose incorporation into Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four would make him into a man of action all over again, a writer whose books helped to bring down an empire, even if it wasn’t the same empire he originally had in mind.
First, though, with the Spanish war over and the full European war not yet begun, he had another battle on his hands, bloodless this time but almost as noisy: the battle against Britain’s left-wing intellectuals. He realized that they had wilfully declined to get the point about Spain: they still saw Communism as the only bulwark against Fascism. Worse, they thought that the Moscow trials were justified or otherwise to be condoned – a price worth paying to Build Socialism. Orwell’s conviction that no socialism worth having could be built that way set him at odds with the progressive illuminati of his generation, and that altercation was made sharper by how much he and they had in common. He, too, had had the generosity to declare his own privileges meaningless if they were bought at the expense of the downtrodden. He, too, believed that the civilization that had given birth to him was a confidence trick. And, although he had already concluded that free speech was the one liberal institution no putative future society could abolish if it was to remain just, he still thought that the plutocratic oligarchy allowed liberal institutions to continue only as part of the charade that favoured the exploitation of the poor. (In the sixties, the same notion lived again, as ‘repressive tolerance’.) Fascism, he proclaimed, was just bourgeois democracy without the lip service to liberal values, the iron fist without the velvet glove. In 1937, he twice ventured the opinion that democracy and Fascism ‘are Tweedledum and Tweedledee’. In the same year, he warned that ‘the moneyed classes’ might trick Britain into ‘another imperialist war’ with Germany: language hard to distinguish from Party-line boilerplate.
Orwell could always see the self-serving fallacy of pacifism, but he had a soft spot for Bertrand Russell’s version of it, which should have been detectable as pure wind even at the time, when Hitler had already spent more than five years abundantly demonstrating that the chances of the non-violent to temper his activities by their moral example were exactly zero. But Orwell gave the philosopher’s well-intended homilies a sympathetic review. Orwell was thus in line with the Labour Party, which, from the opposition benches, railed against the threat of Fascism but simultaneously condemned as warmongering any moves towards rearmament. It was the despised reactionaries, with Chamberlain at the head of the Conservative government and Churchill growling encouragement from the back benches, who actively prepared for war against Hitler. Distancing himself from the Communists and their fellow travellers in his attitude to the USSR, Orwell was dangerously close to them in supposing bourgeois democracy to be teetering on the rim of history’s dustbin, into which more realistic forces would combine to shove it beyond retrieval. In Germany, the same aloof attitude on the part of the social democrat intellectuals had fatally led them to high-hat the Weimar Republic while the Communists and the Nazis combined to strangle it, but Orwell had not yet fully learned the lesson. On the Continent, or already fleeing from it, there were plenty of veteran political commentators who had learned it all too well at the hands of one or the other of the two extremist movements and sometimes both, but apart from Franz Borkenau, Arthur Koestler and perhaps Boris Souvarine it is remarkable how few of them influenced Orwell’s views. By international standards he was a late developer.
Pre-war, Orwell was in a false position, and his journalistic output during the war is largely the story of how he came to admit it. But before he started getting round to that, he had one more, even more glaring, false position still to go. When the war began he said that Britain was bound to be defeated unless it had a social revolution, which might even require an armed uprising. Possibly he had been carried away by the rifles issued to the Home Guard, and had visions of an English POUM taking pot shots at the oppressor. (Orwell rose to the rank of sergeant in the Home Guard, but Davison should have found room to say, in a footnote, that his hero was notoriously more enthusiastic than competent: a Court of Inquiry was conducted after he supervised a mortar drill that almost resulted in the decapitation of one of his men.) Even in 1941, well after the Battle of Britain demonstrated that this bourgeois democracy might well hope to withstand Hitler, we can still hear Orwell promising that ‘England is on the road to revolution’ and that to bring the revolution about a ‘real English socialist movement’ would be ‘perfectly willing to use violence if necessary’.
But if a pious wish helped to sustain him, the facts were simultaneously hard at work on a mind whose salient virtue was its willingness to let them in. He had noticed that Poland, whatever the condition of its liberal institutions under the pre-war regime, was immeasurably worse off now that the Nazis and the Soviets (following the letter of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact’s secret protocols, although he had no means of knowing that yet beyond guesswork) had combined to expunge all traces of its civilization, including as many of its intelligentsia as they could round up. There were steadily accumulating written indications that he was becoming more and more impressed by the one fact about his country he had never been able to argue away. A state against which he could say out loud that he ‘was perfectly willing to use violence if necessary’ might have something to be said for it – something central, and not just peripheral – if it was not perfectly willing to use violence against him.
Probably armed more by his ability to interpret news than by solid reading of social theorists, Orwell can be seen elaborating his own theory of society towards the point where he would begin to abandon some of its postulates, which had come from classical Marxism and its dubious historiographic heritage. Reviewing, in that same year, 1941, a book of essays about the English Revolution of 1640 edited by the Marxist historian Christopher Hill, Orwell pinpointed ‘the main weakness of Marxism’, its inflexible determination to attribute to ‘the superstructure’ (his inverted commas as well as mine) even the most powerful human motives, such as patriotism. Orwell asked the Marxist contributors an awkward question: ‘If no man is ever motivated by anything except class interests, why does every man constantly pretend that he is motivated by something else?’
Orwell had spent a lot of time before the war saying that class interests were indeed predominant – especially the interest of the ruling class in sacrificing the interests of every other class in order to stay on top – but now he had discovered his own patriotism, and typically he followed up on the climb-down. Even before the war, he had been impressed by how the English people in general had managed to preserve and develop civilized values despite the cynicism of their rulers. Now he became less inclined to argue that all those things had happened merely because the sweated labour of colonial coolies had paid for them, and were invalidated as a result. He was even capable, from time to time, of giving some of the cynical rulers a nod of respect: Orwell’s praise of Churchill was never better than grudging, but nobody else’s was ever more moving, because nobody else would have so much preferred to damn Churchill and all his works. From the early war years until the end of his life, Orwell wrote more and more about British civilization. He wrote less and less about the irredeemable obsolescence of bourgeois democracy. He had come to suspect that the democratic part might depend on the bourgeois part.
Most of the left-wing intellectuals hadn’t. After Hitler clamorously repudiated his non-aggression pact with Stalin by launching Operation Barbarossa, they were once again able to laud the virtues of the Soviet Union at the tops of their voices. Even on the right, keeping Uncle Joe sweet was regarded as mandatory. In this matter, Orwell showed what can only be described as intellectual heroism. Though his unpalatable opinions restricted his access to mainstream publications – most of his commentaries were written for Tribune, an influential, but small-circulation weekly newspaper backed by the Labour Party’s star heavyweight, Aneurin Bevan – Orwell went on insisting that the Soviet regime was a tyranny, even as the Red Army battled the Panzers to a standstill on the outskirts of Moscow. At this distance, it is hard to imagine what a lonely line this was to take. But when it came to a principle Orwell was the sort of man who would rather shiver in solitude than hold his tongue.
Solitude fitted his character. Though he was sociable, and even amorous, in his everyday life, he didn’t look it: he looked as gauntly ascetic as John Carradine, and in his mental life he was a natural loner. Collectivist theories could appeal to his temperament for only so long, and in this strictly chronological arrangement of his writings we can watch him gradually deconstructing his own ideology in deference to a set of principles. Even with this degree of documentation, it is not easy to see quite when he shifted aside a neat notion in order to let an awkward fact take over, because for a crucial period of the war he metaphorically went off the air. Literally, he had gone on it. For a two-year slog, from 1941 to late 1943, he expended most of his time and energy broadcasting to India for the BBC. Belated market research on the BBC’s part revealed that not many Indians were listening (you guessed it: no radios), but the few who did manage to tune in heard some remarkable stuff from a man who had expended so much ink on insisting that the British would have to quit India. Orwell told them the truth: that they had a better chance with the British than with the Japanese. He also scripted weekly summaries of the war’s progress. Writing on the tenth of January, 1942, he remarked on a tonal shift in Germany’s official pronouncements:
Until a week or two ago, the German military spokesmen were explaining that the attack on Moscow would have to be postponed until the spring, but that the German armies could quite easily remain on the line they now occupied. Already, however, they are admitting that a further retreat – or, as they prefer to call it, a rectification of the line – will be necessary...Before the end of February, the Germans may well be faced with the alternative of abandoning nearly all their conquests in the northern part of the Russian front, or of seeing hundreds of thousands of soldiers freezing to death.
It was an optimistic forecast for 1942, but it all came true in 1943, and it showed two of Orwell’s best attributes operating at once: he had a global grasp, and he was able to guess the truth by the way the other side told lies. The broadcasts make such good reading today that you almost feel sorry he ever stopped. From these indirect sources, you can surmise something of what was going on deep within his mind, and when he started writing journalism again he retroactively filled in some of the gaps. From the realization that the violent socialist revolution would not take place, he was apparently moving towards the conclusion that it should not. Reviewing a collection of Thomas Mann’s essays published in English translation in 1943, he praised Mann in terms that would have been impossible for him before the war: ‘He never pretends to be other than he is, a middle-class Liberal, a believer in the freedom of the intellect, in human brotherhood; above all, in the existence of objective truth.’ While careful to point out that Mann was pro-socialist, and even excessively trustful of the USSR, Orwell went on to note, approvingly, that ‘he never budges from his “bourgeois” contention that the individual is important, that freedom is worth having, that European culture is worth preserving, and that truth is not the exclusive possession of one race or class’. For Orwell, who had once preached that bourgeois democracy existed solely in order to bamboozle the proletariat into accepting its ineluctable servitude, this was quite a switch.
At no time did Orwell come quite clean about having rearranged the playing field. Near the end of 1943, he conceded that he had been ‘grossly wrong’ about the necessity of a revolution in order to stave off defeat. But to concede that he had been ‘grossly wrong’ about his view of society was beyond even him, and no wonder. It would have been to give away too much. By now he was always careful to say that he wanted a democratic socialism, and was even ready to contemplate that reconciling a command economy with individual liberty might be a problem: but he still clung tenaciously to the socialist part of his vision, in his view the only chance of decent treatment for everyone. Piece by piece, however, he was giving up on any notion that his socialist vision could be brought about by coercion, since that would yield liberty for no one. If he had lived long enough, his fundamental honesty might have given us an autobiography which would have described what must have been a mighty conflict in his soul. As things are, we have to infer it.
His socialist beliefs fought a long rearguard action. In that same year, 1943, he gave The Road to Serfdom a review tolerant of Hayek’s warnings about collectivism, but there was no sign of Orwell’s endorsing the desirability of free market economics. Orwell was still for the centralized, planned economy. He never did quite give up on that one, and indeed, at the time, there must have seemed no necessity to. To stave off defeat, Britain had mobilized its industry under state control – had done so, it turned out, rather more thoroughly than the Nazis – and, with the war won and the country broke, even the Royal Family carried ration books without protest. So a measure of justice had been achieved.
In hindsight, the postwar British society that began with the foundation of the National Health Service was the socialist revolution – or, to put it less dramatically, the social-democratic reformation which Orwell had gradually come to accept as the only workable formula that would further justice without destroying liberty. The Welfare State began with shortages of almost everything, but at least the deprivations were shared, and for all its faults, British society, ever since World War II, has continuously been one of the more interesting experiments in the attempt to reconcile social justice with personal freedom. (The Scandinavian societies might be more successful experiments, but not even they find themselves interesting.) If Orwell had lived to a full span, he would have been able, if not necessarily delighted, to deal with the increasing likelihood that his dreams were coming true. Even as things were, with only a few years of life left to him, he might have given a far more positive account, in his post-war journalism, of how the British of all classes, including the dreaded ruling class, were at long last combining to bring about, at least in some measure, the more decent society that had haunted his imagination since childhood. But he was distracted by a prior requirement. His own war wasn’t over. It had begun all over again. There was still one prominent social group who had learned nothing: the left-wing intellectuals.
The last and most acrimonious phase of Orwell’s battle with the left-wing intelligentsia began not long after D-Day. As the Allied forces fought their way out of Normandy, a piece by Orwell landed on a desk in America. Partisan Review would publish a London Letter in which Orwell complained about the Western Russophile intellectuals who refused to accept the truth about Stalinist terror. Clearly, what frightened him was that, even if they did accept it, Soviet prestige would lose little of its allure for them. For Orwell, the Cold War was already on, with the progressive intellectuals in the front rank of the foe. Orwell was the first to use the term ‘cold war’, in an essay published in October 1945 about the atomic bomb – the very device that would ensure, in the long run, that the Cold War never became a hot one. At the time, however, he saw no cause for complacency.
But unreconstructed gauchiste pundits who would still like to dismiss Orwell as a ‘classic’ Cold Warrior can find out here that he didn’t fit the frame. For one thing, Orwell remained all too willing to accuse the West of structural deficiencies that were really much more contingent than he made out. When he argued, in the pages of Tribune, that the mass-circulation newspapers forced slop on their readership, he preferred to ignore the advice from a correspondent that it was really a case of the readership forcing slop on the newspapers. He should have given far more attention to such criticisms, because they allowed for the possibility – as his own assumptions did not – that if ordinary people were freed from exploitation they would demand more frivolity, not less.
To the end, Orwell’s tendency was to overestimate the potential of the people he supposed to be in the grip of the capitalist system, while simultaneously underestimating the individuality they were showing already. In his remarks on the moral turpitude of the scientists who had cravenly not ‘refused’ to work on the atomic bomb – clearly he thought they should have all turned the job down – there was no mention (perhaps because he didn’t yet know, although he might have guessed) of the fact that many of them were European refugees from totalitarianism and had worked on the bomb not just willingly but with anxious fervour, convinced, with excellent reasons, that Hitler might get there first.
On the other hand, he was still inclined to regard Stalin’s regime as a perversion of the Bolshevik revolution instead of as its essence: as late as 1946, it took the eminent émigré Russian scholar Gleb Struve (the future editor of Mandelstam and Akhmatova) to tell him that Zamyatin’s We, written in 1920 but never published in Russia, might well have been, as Orwell thought, a projection of a possible totalitarian future, but had drawn much of its inspiration from the Leninist present. If Orwell took this admonition in, he made little use of it. (He made great use of We, however: if the English translation of Zamyatin’s little classic had been as good as the French one, a lot more of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s reviewers might have spotted that Orwell’s phantasmagoria was a bit less sui generis that it seemed.) Already in 1941, reviewing Russia Under Soviet Rule by the émigré liberal de Basily, Orwell had taken on board the possibility that Lenin’s callous behaviour made Stalin inevitable – after all, Lenin had actually said that the Party should rule by terror – but neither then nor later did Orwell push this point very hard. It flickers in the background of his anti-Soviet polemics and can be thought of as the informing assumption of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but in his journalism he was always slow to concede that the Bolshevik revolution itself might have been the culprit. Perhaps he thought he had enough trouble on his hands already, just trying to convince his starry-eyed Stalinist contemporaries that they had placed their faith in a cynic who left their own cynicism for dead, and would do the same to them if he got the chance. ‘The direct, conscious attack on intellectual decency comes from the intellectuals themselves.’
As a journalist, Orwell had laboured long and hard for small financial reward, and overwork had never been good for his delicate health. Life was pinched, not to say deprived, especially after his wife and faithful helpmeet Eileen (he was an unfaithful spouse and she may have been as well, but they depended on each other) died as a result of a medical blunder. The success of Animal Farm, in 1945, could have bought him a reprieve. He upped stakes to a small farmhouse on the island of Jura, in the Hebrides, and cultivated his garden. Though he overestimated the strength he still had available for the hard life he lived there – he could grow vegetables to supplement his ration, but it took hard work in tough soil – the place was a welcome break from the treadmill of London. Mentally, however, he found no peace. A heightened anguish can be traced right through his last journalism until he gave it up to work on Nineteen Eighty-Four. The left-wing intellectuals, already promoting the revisionism that continues into our own day, not only were giving Stalin the sole credit for having won the war but were contriving not to notice that he had rescinded the few liberties he had been forced to concede in order to fight it; that his rule by terror had resumed; and that in the Eastern European countries supposedly liberated by the Red Army any vestige of liberty left by the Nazis was being stamped flat. Once again, crimes on a colossal scale were being camouflaged with perverted language, and once again the intellectuals, whose professional instinct should have been to sick it up, were happily swallowing the lot. It took a great deal to persuade him that reasoned argument wasn’t enough. But it wasn’t, so he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four.
There are still diehards who would like to think that Nineteen Eighty-Four is not about the Soviet Union at all. Their argument runs: Animal Farm is a satire about what happened in Russia once upon a time, but Nineteen Eighty-Four isa minatory fantasy about something far bigger – the prospect of a world divided up into a few huge centres of absolute power, of which a Soviet-style hegemony would be only one, and the United States, of course, would be another. It is just possible that Orwell thought the Marshall Plan was meant to have the same imperialist effect in Europe as the Red Army’s tanks. He never actually said so, but people as intelligent as Gore Vidal believe much the same thing today. The late Anthony Burgess sincerely believed that Nineteen Eighty-Four, because the Ministry of Truth bore such a strong resemblance to the BBC canteen, had been inspired by the condition of post-war Britain under rationing. As Orwell said so resonantly in his essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’, ‘One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.’
He didn’t mean that all intellectuals are ipso facto fools – he himself was an intellectual if anybody was – but he did mean that verbal cleverness, unless its limitations are clearly and continuously seen by its possessor, is an unbeatable way of blurring reality until nothing can be seen at all. The main drive of all Orwell’s writings since Spain had been to point out that the Soviet Union, nominally the hope of mankind, had systematically perverted language in order to cover up the wholesale destruction of human values, and that the Western left-wing intellectuals had gone along with this by perverting their own language in its turn. To go on denying that Nineteen Eighty-Four was the culmination of this large part of Orwell’s effort is to defy reason. At the time, denying it was still not a wholly unreasonable reaction. After all, the democracies couldn’t have won the war without the Soviet Union, and the book was so bleak and hopeless. Maybe it was about something else.
If they didn’t get it in the West, they got it in the East. From the day of the book’s publication until far into the Thaw, it meant big trouble for any Soviet citizen who had a copy in his possession. In the years to come, now that the Soviet archives are opening up, there will be a fruitful area of study in trying to decide which were the Western cultural influences that did most to help the Evil Empire melt down. For all we know, the jokes were always right, and it was the Beatles albums and the bootleg blue jeans that did the trick. But it is a fair guess that of all the imported artefacts it was the books that sapped the repressive will of the people who ran the empire or who were next in line to do so. Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror might well turn out to be the key factor in the unprecedented turn-around by which those state organizations with a solid track record of pre-emptive slaughter somehow began to spare the very lives they would previously have been careful to snuff out: it is said that even the KGB read it, perhaps as the quickest way of finding out what their predecessors had been up to. (There is no doubt at all, by the way, that they eventually read Nineteen Eighty-Four. When head of the KGB, Andropov had a special edition printed and circulated.)
But for all we know they might have been just as much subverted by samizdat translations of The Carpetbaggers and Valley of the Dolls. Nor, of course, can the effect of the dissident literature, whether written in exile or home-grown, be dismissed as merely unsettling, although for the books written at home there will always be the consideration of whether they could have even been conceived of if the set-up were not already crumbling in the first place. What we are talking about is a contrary weather-system of opinion that eventually took over a whole climate, and to trace its course will be like following the dust of Ariadne’s crumbled thread back into a ruined labyrinth. But it will be a big surprise if Nineteen Eighty-Four, even more than The Gulag Archipelago, does not turn out to be the book that did most, weight for weight, to clear thousands of living brains of the miasma sent up through the soil by millions upon millions of dead bodies. It was a portable little slab of spiritual plastique, a mind-blower.
But if the part played by Orwell’s dystopian novels in the dismantling of the Sovietized monolith will always be hard to assess, there is less difficulty about measuring the effect of his last period of journalism on his own country. Self-immured on Jura, he was a Prospero running on the reserve tank of his magic. Orwell was only forty-two, but he had little physical strength left, and although many friends and colleagues sent him letters and books, and presents of rice and chocolate, and some even made the slow and tricky journey to visit him, he was short of love. A widower of some fame and no longer without means, he offered his affections to a succession of young women and found himself in the humiliating position of being respected and refused. When it emerged recently that he handed a list of fellow-travellers to a government propaganda unit, suggestions that he had conspired in a witch-hunt carried little force. McCarthyism was a nonstarter in Britain, and most of those named on the list were already glad to have it known that they had aligned their prayer mats in the direction of the Kremlin. But if he lapsed from his own standards by tittle-tattling in school the most likely reason was that his Foreign Office contact was a noted beauty. He was sending her a bouquet.
The young woman who finally accepted him, Sonia Brownell (renowned in literary London as the Venus of Euston Road), married him practically on his deathbed: cold comfort. He kept a diary of what was happening in his garden – small things growing as the great man withered. For us, the only consolation is that he could speak so clearly even as the walls of his lungs were giving way against the tide of blood.
‘Britain has lost an empire but has not found a role’, said Dean Acheson. Raymond Aron said something better: ‘L’Angleterre a perdu son empire, sans perdre sa civilization morale.’ In helping Britain to maintain and extend its moral civilization, Orwell’s voice was surely crucial. The succession of magnificent essays he wrote as the harsh war wound down into an austere peace add up to a political event in themselves, the culmination of his journalism as a textbook example of how a sufficiently informed commentary on events can feed back into history and help to shape its course.
It takes nothing from Davison’s achievement to say that these last essays are probably best encountered in the Collected Essays, or even in a single small volume, such as Inside the Whale, where they will be found to have the effect of poems, as the paragraphs succeed one another with the inevitability of perfectly wrought stanzas, with every sentence in the right place yet begging to be remembered on its own, like a line from a magisterial elegy. ‘Notes on Nationalism’, ‘The Prevention of Literature’, ‘Politics and the English Language’, ‘Why I Write’, ‘Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of “Gulliver’s Travels” ’ – read for and by themselves, they tell you all you need to know about Orwell except the one fact so poignantly revealed here: that they were the work of a man who was not only dying but dying young. Very few writers about politics have said much in their forties that is lastingly true; and even Orwell undoubtedly would have continued to deepen, enrich, modulate, and modify his opinions.
But he had come a long way, and, by coming as far as the great last essays, he left a precious heritage to the country that he loved in spite of itself. Though the appeal to a totalitarian model of a just society (and the corresponding contempt for piecemeal solutions) was to remain possible in the academy, it became much more difficult in everyday political journalism, simply because Orwell had discredited the idea in a plain style that nobody could forget and everybody felt obliged to echo. The theoretical work that disenfranchised all total transformations was done by others, such as Karl Popper, Raymond Aron, Leszek Kolokowski and Isaiah Berlin. Orwell never got around to figuring all that out in detail. But he felt it, and the language of his last essays is the language of feeling made as clear and bright as it can ever get.
How clear is that? Finally, it comes down to a question of language, which is only appropriate, because, finally, Orwell was a literary man. Politics inspired Orwell the way the arts had always inspired the great critics, which gives us the clue to where he got the plainly passionate style that we are so ready to call unique. It is unique, in its flexibility of speech rhythms and its irresistible force of assertion, but he didn’t invent it; he invented its use. George Sainsbury had something of Orwell’s schooled knack for speaking right out of the page, and Shaw had almost all of it: Orwell isn’t often outright funny, but Shaw, in his six volumes of critical writings about music and theatre, deployed the full range of Orwell’s debunking weapons with a generous humour to drive them home. Orwell called Shaw a windbag, but had obviously taken in every word the old man wrote. And there are many other critics who could be named, all the way up to the young F. R. Leavis, whom Orwell read with interest, if not without a certain distaste for his joyless zeal.
Orwell was a superb literary critic himself: he is the first person to read on Swift, on Dickens, and on Gissing, and if he had lived to finish his essay on Evelyn Waugh it would have been the best thing on the subject, the essay that really opens up Waugh’s corrosively snobbish view of life without violating his creative achievement. Had Orwell lived to a full term, he might well have gone on to become the greatest modern literary critic in the language. But he lived more than long enough to make writing about politics a branch of the humanities, setting a standard of civilized response to the intractably complex texture of life. No previous political writer had brought so much of life’s lesser detail into the frame, and other countries were unlucky not to have him as a model. Sartre, for example, would have been incapable of an essay about the contents of a junk shop, or about how to make the ideal cup of tea – the very reason he was incapable of talking real sense about politics.
In one of the very last, and best, of his essays, ‘Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool’, Orwell paid his tribute to Shakespeare. He was too modest to say that he was paying a debt as well, but he was:
Shakespeare was not a philosopher or a scientist, but he did have curiosity: he loved the surface of the earth and the process of life – which, it should be repeated, is not the same thing as wanting to have a good time and stay alive as long as possible. Of course, it is not because of the quality of his thought that Shakespeare has survived, and he might not even be remembered as a dramatist, if he had not also been a poet. His main hold on us is through language.
A writer has to know a lot about the rhythms of natural speech before he can stretch them over the distance covered by those first two sentences. Each of them is perfectly balanced in itself, and the second is perfectly balanced against the first – the first turning back on itself with a strict qualification, and the second running away in relaxed enjoyment of its own fluency. They could stand on their own, but it turns out that both of them are there to pile their combined weight behind the third sentence – the short one – and propel it into your memory. It hits home with the force of an axiom.
And it isn’t true – or, anyway, it isn’t true enough. Elsewhere in the essay, Orwell shows signs of being aware that the relationship of Shakespeare’s language to the quality of his thought can never be fully resolved in favour of either term. But not even Orwell could resist a resonant statement that fudged the facts – a clarity that is really an opacity. Yes, Orwell did write like an angel, and that’s the very reason we have to watch him like a hawk. Luckily for us, he was pretty good at watching himself. He was blessed with a way of putting things that made anything he said seem so, but that was only a gift. His intellectual honesty was a virtue.
Orwell’s standards of plain speaking always were and still are a mile too high for politicians. What finally counts with politicians is what they do, not how they say it. But for journalists how they say it counts for everything. Orwell’s style shows us why a style is worth working at: not just because it gets us a byline and makes a splash but because it compresses and refines thought and feeling without ceasing to sound like speech – which is to say, without ceasing to sound human. At a time when ideological politics still exercised such an appeal that hundreds of purportedly civilized voices had ceased to sound human, Orwell’s style stood out. The remarkable thing is that it still does. Ideologies are thin on the ground nowadays, while any substantial publication has a would-be George Orwell rippling the keys in every second cubicle, but the daddy of modern truthtellers still sounds fresh. So it wasn’t just the amount of truth he told but the way he told it, in prose transmuted to poetry by the pressure of his dedication. This great edition, by revealing fully for the first time what the dedication was like, makes his easy-seeming written speech more impressive than ever, and even harder to emulate. To write like him, you need a life like his, but times have changed, and he changed them.
New Yorker, 18 January 1999