He was the son of a servant of the Crown from a well-heeled South of England background, who shone at prep school but proved something of an academic flop later on. A passionate left-wing polemicist, he nonetheless retained more than a few traces of his public-school breeding, including a plummy accent and a horde of posh friends. He combined cultural Englishness with political cosmopolitanism, and detested political personality cults while sedulously cultivating a public image of himself. From a vantage-point of relative security, he made the odd foray into the lives of the blighted and dispossessed, partly to keep his political nose to the ground and partly because such trips furnished him with precious journalistic copy. Coruscatingly intelligent though not in the strict sense an intellectual, he had the ornery, bloody-minded streak of the independent leftist and idiosyncratic Englishman, as adept at ruffling the feathers of his fellow socialists as at outraging the opposition. As he grew older, this cussedness became more pronounced, until his hatred of benighted autocratic states led him in the eyes of many to betray his left-wing views altogether.
Such, no doubt, is how Christopher Hitchens will be remembered. The resemblances to George Orwell, on whom Hitchens has written so admiringly,are obvious enough, though so are some key differences. Orwell was a kind of literary proletarian who lived in dire straits for most of his life, and began to earn serious money from his writing only when he was approaching death. This is not the case with Hitchens, unless Vanity Fair is a lot meaner than one imagines. Some of Orwell’s impoverishment, to be sure, was self-inflicted: while a few of his fellow Etonians (Cyril Connolly, Harold Acton) were bursting precociously into print, Orwell chose to slave away in Parisian kitchens even when he was coughing up blood, sleep in dosshouses while cadging the odd ten shillings off his bemused parents, put in a spot of portering at Billingsgate, and ponder how to get himself put in prison for Christmas. Like Brecht, he always seemed exactly three days away from a shave, a minor physiological miracle.
He was a stranger to luxury, and with heroic asceticism even managed to enjoy BBC canteen food. It is hard to imagine this emaciated, lugubrious, eccentrically dressed figure, with his faint resemblance to Stan Laurel, swanning around Manhattan cocktail parties à la Hitchens. Orwell never seems to have taken the least interest in success, in contrast to those contemporary literary pundits who pride themselves on being plain-speaking, loose-cannon dissenters while cultivating all the right social contacts. Failure was Orwell’s forte, a leitmotif of his fiction. For him, it was what was real, as it was for Beckett. All of his fictional protagonists are humbled and defeated; and while this may be arraigned as unduly pessimistic, it was not the view of the world they taught at Eton.
Besides, as Hitchens himself has insisted (ironically enough in light of his own recent changes of political heart), Orwell really did remain on the Left, despite his visceral disgust for its shadier doings, and was worried that the great satires of Stalinism – Animal Farm and 1984 – which led some socialists to brand him as a turncoat would end up providing ammunition for Tories and Cold Warriors, as indeed they did. But, as Hitchens again points out, Orwell was gloomily foreseeing the Cold War when most Tories were still hailing Britain’s gallant Soviet ally. And if 1984 is an anti-socialist tract, it seems odd that its author was calling for a united socialist states of Europe on the eve of publishing it. In any case, you do not disown your belief in socialism just because Stalin’s executioners claim to believe in it too, any more than you find Morocco unpleasant just because Michael Portillo drops in on the place occasionally. In Orwell’s view, it was the Stalinist Left that had betrayed the common people, not democratic socialists like himself. Orwell first encountered Stalinism in the squalid betrayals of the Spanish Civil War, which is where he also first properly encountered socialism. If his disgust with Soviet Realpolitik was born in Spain, so was a faith in the goodness and resilience of the human spirit, which there is no reason to believe he ever entirely abandoned.
For Raymond Williams, Establishment-bred leftists who finally revert to type can be seen as cases of what he calls in Culture and Society ‘negative identification’. The dissident offspring of the upper middle class throws in his lot with the militant proletariat, largely because they serve as a metaphor for his own quite differently motivated revolt. The alliance is thus inherently unstable, and likely to crumble under political pressure. It is a suggestive notion, though a shortsighted one. If it explains a good deal about why political history is littered with so many Auden look-alikes, it also underestimates in its prolier-than-thou fashion the fact that often a middle-class revolutionary is just a middle-class revolutionary, not someone who finds revolution a symbolically convenient way of rejecting his paedophilic housemaster. If Williams’s notion does not take sufficient account of the Paul Foots of this world, it also fails to take account of the army of ex-working-class socialists who are not averse to swapping their political beliefs for a Jacobean farmhouse in Kent.
Orwell did not get a bullet through his throat in Spain because he was still smarting from being an Etonian fag, any more than Guy Burgess risked his neck for the Soviets simply because he was a fag of a different kind. On the contrary, the Left can make use of some public school virtues, not least the fearlessness which springs inter alia from social assurance. (Lionel Trilling added physical courage and a sense of duty to the list.) Even so, there is something in Williams’s idea. It applies to a lot of well-bred, sexually heterodox Communist Party members, not least in the 1930s, but it is simplistic to see the shift from youthful radical to middle-aged member of the Establishment as always a linear affair. A bohemian dissent from the established order can, not least in the case of literary types, go hand in hand with an individualist impatience with organised resistance to it. There is a strong streak of this in Orwell; but Williams, as Hitchens recognises, is wrong to imagine that this was finally his centre of political gravity. On the contrary, solitary, aloof and self-absorbed as he was, he never abandoned the idea of working-class solidarity, which figures however abstractly or romantically even in 1984.
Like D.H. Lawrence, Orwell divides his readership down the middle. In Lawrence’s case, either you feel that he has a depth and intensity which puts every other writer in the shade, or his male supremacism and mystical ravings make you want to throw up. It is not surprising that similar ferocious contentions have surrounded a man who was at once traditionally English and politically revolutionary, rather as there would be unavoidable controversy over an animal which had the rib-cage of a hippo and the snout of a badger. The case for the prosecution is that Orwell was a self-mythologising romantic toff who went in for the odd spot of sentimental slumming, sometimes adopting a ludicrous Cockney accent in the process, and ended up in political defeatism and despair. A second-rate novelist and a furtively fabricating social commentator, he was homophobic, anti-feminist, unsociable, anti-intellectual, authoritarian and latently violent. He was also an anti-semitic, sexually promiscuous, self-pitying Little Englander, whose later fantasies about Big Brother and pigs running farms (they don’t have the trotters for it) bequeathed a set of lurid stereotypes and convenient caricatures to the Right. In this sense, Orwell, like Freud but unlike Marx, has passed into the common language. But whereas Gramsci believed that socialism must become common sense, Orwell at his worst seemed to imagine that common sense was socialism. As if all that were not enough, he thought Henry Miller was an outstanding novelist.
As judicious (though not hopelessly balanced) accounts, the new biographies by Gordon Bowker and D.J. Taylor confirm what the law of averages might have led one to suspect: some of this is true, some of it questionable and the rest of it false. (Scott Lucas, by contrast, thinks almost all of it true.) Orwell was indeed unsociable, anti-feminist and homophobic, but only ambiguously anti-semitic, and by no means such a dewy-eyed idealiser of the plebs as some have imagined. Both Bowker and Taylor record that when he was at prep school Orwell once dressed up as a footman in a red velvet coat and white silk waistcoat. It wasn’t the last time he was to disguise himself as one of the lower orders, but it was squalor he was in search of in the spikes of Paris and London, not wholesome proletarian virtue. Why he was so severely afflicted with this nostalgie de la boue remains something of a mystery, like much else in his impenetrable private life. It remains no less of a mystery now that Bowker and Taylor have brought the total of major Orwell biographies to five. The openness of Orwell’s prose contrasts with the closedness of his life; indeed, his ebullience in print may be partly compensation for his real-life reserve and self-absorption, rather as T.S. Eliot wryly described his own pontifical prose style as ‘the braggadocio of the mild-mannered man safely entrenched behind his typewriter’.
It is doubtful that Orwell lapsed into political defeatism; he wrote a couple of first-rate novels as well as a series of undistinguished ones; and he was not quite the Little Englander he has been painted. He was born in Bengal of an English father and a mildly bohemian, half-French mother who had been brought up in India. He learned Burmese, Hindustani and an obscure Burmese hill dialect during his imperial service, wrote his first article in French, and cut his political teeth in Spain. Some thought that he looked more French than English. He may have known all about English wildlife, and he even ran a small shop in Hertfordshire, which is as native as you can get in a nation of shopkeepers; but he knew a great deal more about the colonial world than the average inhabitant of Henley-on-Thames.
Like a lot of upper-middle-class radicals from Kim Philby to Perry Anderson, there were various non-English strains in his background, some of them (as with Philby and Anderson) the consequence of Empire. If the Empire co-opted the fathers, it could also make the children feel social misfits in suburban England, and this could later be translated into political rebellion. Orwell’s father bore in India the Monty Pythonesque rank of Assistant Sub-Deputy Opium Agent, Fifth Grade, so one can see what Orwell meant by designating his background ‘lower upper middle class’. His grandfather, Thomas Blair, was a clergyman, not to be confused with the Rev. Blair of Richard Ingrams’s satiric imagination. (It is odd, incidentally, to read books which so regularly couple together the words ‘Blair’ – Orwell’s real name – and ‘socialism’.) But further back there was an earl, and the family had a heraldic crest and some silver, bits of which Orwell pawned to raise money to fight in Spain.
The case for the defence is that Orwell was a magnificently courageous opponent of political oppression, a man of unswerving moral integrity and independence of spirit who risked his life fighting Fascism, narrowly escaped death at the hands of Stalin’s agents in Spain, and denounced an imperialism of which he had had unpleasant first-hand knowledge as a young policeman in Burma. In the meantime, he managed to pioneer what is now known as cultural studies. In a remarkable feat of self-refashioning, he turned his back on a life of middle-class privilege and chose for his companions tramps, hop-pickers, Catalonian revolutionaries, louche artists and political activists.
Like any self-transformation, this one was imperfect. Orwell may have castigated Britain’s class-ridden education system, but he put his adopted son down for Wellington and kept up his Etonian contacts to the end. Some Old Etonians have even claimed that they could identify him as one of their own from his writings, a hard case to credit unless Eton was stuffed with budding critics of saucy postcards and analysts of dirigiste economics. Like most of us, however, he loved Big Brother more than he admitted. He portrayed his prep school, run by a couple named Wilkes, as a brutal place, but D.J. Taylor thinks this is typical of his self-pitying image as the victimised outsider. (A sentence of Taylor’s beginning ‘Though presumably touched up by the Wilkeses’ turns out to concern Orwell’s letters home rather than his person.) One friend considered him conservative in everything but politics. This is not entirely paradoxical, since Orwell saw socialism as all about preserving traditional decencies. He knew a strange amount about ecclesiastical affairs, preferred Housman and Kipling to Yeats and Pound, and fretted about the quality of tea he would get in Spain. After resigning from the colonial service in Burma, where he had been in charge of 200,000 people at the age of 20, he described imperialism as ‘that evil despotism’; but he also admired empire-builders for their practicality, and thought that a clip around the ear might do the natives no harm at all. In Burma he had used the left-wing Adelphi magazine for target practice.
Orwell was a tender father to his son, Richard (on being complimented on the fact, he replied absently that he had always been good with animals), and was too soft-hearted to reject much of the execrable material submitted to him as literary editor of Tribune. In the words of the youngish Raymond Williams, who knew Orwell and later wrote of him much more resentfully, he was ‘brave, generous, frank and good’. Despite being chronically sick and temperamentally standoffish, he was astonishingly engaged and industrious; in one year he produced an article every two or three days, and Taylor provides us with the surreally useless bit of information that his oeuvre, if spread out sheet by sheet, would occupy an area roughly the size of Norwich town centre.
Orwell detested those, mostly on the Left, who theorised about situations without having experienced them, a common empiricist prejudice. There is no need to have your legs chopped off to sympathise with the legless, and no reason why being legless yourself should necessarily entail compassion for those in a similar state. ‘In order to hate imperialism, you have got to be part of it,’ Orwell wrote, which is plainly false: being part of it in the way he was is as likely to blunt your hatred as to sharpen it. This, in fact, is just the kind of slipshod generalisation that Orwell’s cult of the particular is supposed to resist. It is good, of course, for the nobs to get about a bit and see how the other half lives; but this will not necessarily benefit anybody but themselves, whereas joining a political organisation might bring the masses real gains. Orwell in fact joined two, one in Spain and one at home (the Independent Labour Party); but he suffered from the empiricist illusion that what was real was what you could smell with your own nose and feel with your own fingers. Samuel Johnson held much the same view – and if Johnson is the kind of ‘character’ the English adore, it is not only because they take a stoutly individualist delight in the idiosyncratic, but because a ‘character’ represents the tangible truth of a person rather than the abstract truth of an idea.
Hence the English obsession with biography, which is among other things a covert anti-intellectualism. It is not surprising that Orwell was so much in love with Dickens, a writer for whom abstract moral states reflect themselves in physical features. For Dickens, you cannot be virtuous and have greasy skin. With inverted Romanticism, Orwell even seemed to think that the more squalid things were, the more real they became. In his sub-Zolaesque, anti-pansy way, he could not see that beauty is as real as mice-droppings or faecal odours. There is an aestheticist sensationalism of the sordid in his work, which is not his most creditable side. In one sense, portraying the seamy side of things seems a radical gesture; yet it also paints a world so gross and solid that it is hard to imagine how it might be transformed, which is not a radical gesture at all.
Orwell’s impressive candour is among other things the reverse side of his dubious epistemology. You must stick as closely as you can to the facts and avoid fancy theories. Theory is middle-class, experience working-class. Working-class socialists must thus be discreetly edited out of The Road to Wigan Pier, since they threaten to dismantle this dichotomy. Orwell tells us that the sight of a man pilfering food on a ship ‘taught me more than I could have learned from half-a-dozen socialist pamphlets’. It is a typical emotive, empty gesture, one which anticipates the approving marginal tick of the liberal reader. In fact, seeing a man pilfering food will tell you nothing about the causes of poverty, just as (so Brecht remarked) putting a factory on stage will tell you nothing about capitalism.
Orwell’s notion of language involves similar empiricist assumptions, in its naive belief that one first has a concept and then fits a word to it. Every paid-up Postmodernist knows how to laugh this doctrine to scorn; it is just that most of them disastrously throw out Orwell’s politics of lucidity along with it. His Enlightenment conflation of truth, language, clarity and moral integrity may have involved some questionable epistemology, but politically speaking it is worth a lot more than the work of those whose contribution to the subversion of Western Reason is to write unintelligibly. Orwell thought that the Spanish Civil War provided evidence that the concept of objective truth was falling out of fashion. It has fallen a good deal further since then, not least among the intellectuals who are supposed to be its custodians. In a classic backhanded compliment, Williams writes that ‘Orwell’s interest lies almost wholly in his frankness,’ which is only one up from claiming that Proust’s interest lies almost wholly in his asthma. Yet the relations in Williams’s own study of Orwell between evasive abstraction and political ambiguity illustrate the connections between language and integrity which Orwell identified, and which run a good deal deeper than mere ‘frankness’.
He was not, to be sure, always very objective himself, as Taylor, Bowker and Lucas usefully demonstrate. It is a familiar point that Orwell’s tough-minded realism could involve a fair amount of tendentious editing, glib generalisation and manipulation of the evidence. Some of the best of his fiction is generically speaking non-fiction, just as some of his fiction is marred by chunks of the non-fictional. Few writers more graphically illustrate the truth that, however unwittingly, realism is itself a kind of rhetoric. Nothing is more artificial than plain speaking. There is a latently histrionic strain beneath Orwell’s dispassionate documentation, a weakness for the verbal flourish and flamboyant gesture which recalls some of the less reputable political writings of E.P. Thompson. (Thompson was no fan of Orwell, perhaps in part because he saw in him an image of his own romantic emotivism and self-conscious idiosyncratic bluffness.)
Orwell was for the most part incapable of giving an oblique answer to a question, just as Derrida is incapable of giving a straight one. One should be cautious of those who loudly insist on cutting the crap and telling it like it is, just as one should beware of those who find things too exquisitely complex for definitive judgment. Orwell seems to have felt a rather puritanical sense of guilt about his own relish for language (he was an admirer of James Joyce), and believed he had to repress it in the interests of political utility. Such an attitude is scarcely conducive to producing major fiction. Fiction is a problem in a puritan nation, even if English literature is strewn with instances of great novels (Clarissa, Tristram Shandy) which revolve on the tragic or comic artifice of writing itself. For all his stylistic tics, however, Orwell told the truth about the Stalinist subversion of the revolution in Spain when others were busy suppressing it, just as he spoke up for the victims of Stalinism when most of the comrades were staring studiedly the other way. Such writers can be forgiven the odd intemperate epithet, just as E.P. Thompson can be.
As a public schoolboy turned imperial lackey, Orwell felt cut off from his own country, and spent a lifetime seeking to get in touch with it. He was an internal exile in England, as Wilde, James, Conrad and T.S. Eliot were literal exiles; and like them he had to make the place his own in an act of conscious adoption from which the insider is absolved. Like them, too, this meant that he was both more passionate about it and more able to view it at a distance. He knew that the ruling class are in some ways as much outsiders as vagrants and dossers, which is why the landowner has a sneaking sympathy for the poacher. To be in charge of the system is to be as free of its conventions as those who fall right through them. The ruling-class outsider had to be converted into the revolutionary one – a shift aided by the curious irony that, in class societies, an actual majority of the people are in some sense excluded.
This irony was compounded by another. Orwell spoke up for what he saw as common human decencies – but these decencies were politically marginal, and thus in a sense not common at all. Or rather, such values were at once spiritually persistent and politically sidelined. ‘My chief hope for the future,’ he wrote, ‘is that the common people have never parted company with their moral code.’ His unspoken fear was that this might be because they were passive and impotent, untainted by the power system in ethically admirable but politically stymieing ways. Orwell’s commitment to decency makes him a mainstream English moralist like Cobbett, Leavis and Tawney; where the Continentals had Marxism, we English had moralism. Outside Catalonia, Orwell’s contact with Marx did not extend much further than his poodle, who was named after him.
This brand of radicalism has undoubted strengths. As with the work of Williams and Thompson, it insists on the continuities between the class-bound present and the socialist future, rather than on some apocalyptic break between them. Socialism will indeed involve such ruptures; but it is primarily an extension of the existing values of comradeship and solidarity to society as a whole. This, from beginning to end, is the theme of Williams’s work. The socialist future is not just a nebulous utopian ideal, but is in some sense immanent in the present, and would not be valid if it were not. Orwell was exactly this kind of radical, one, ironically enough, not at all far from Marx. He found in the Catalonian working class a solidarity which was an earnest of the political future, rather as Williams found such a prefigurative society in his Welsh working-class childhood, and Thompson in the co-operative values of the nascent English working class.
Yet if the politics of rupture are too suspicious of the present, this vein of leftism can be too credulous of it. As Williams himself occasionally pointed out, you cannot extend existing values to new social groups without seeing them transformed in the process. Socialism has its ‘continuist’ strand, acknowledging its indebtedness to a precious heritage of popular sentiments and middle-class liberalism without which any socialist order is likely to be stillborn. But it has its Modernist or avant-garde dimension as well, envisaging as it does a transfigured human individual whom the language of the present cannot encompass; and Orwell, unlike D.H. Lawrence, had as little feel for this revolutionary avant-gardism as he did for most avant-garde art. The Stalinism he fought displayed in this respect the worst of both worlds: conservative, philistine, hidebound and hierarchical, and damagingly bereft of a liberal inheritance.
Gordon Bowker’s and D.J. Taylor’s Lives appear in the centenary of their protagonist’s birth, and are shrewd, readable, well-researched studies. They are largely favourable to their subject without being blind to his shortcomings, though both books suffer from the usual biographical defect of sacrificing the wood to the trees. Taylor is a shade more sprightly and witty (Orwell’s Etonian drawl, he observes, ‘immediately enveloped its owner in a pair of spiritual plus-fours’), while Bowker is rather more fascinated by his subject’s interest in the occult and supernatural, as well as by his fairly lurid sex life. He is also more psychologically inclined, suspecting Orwell of sadism, paranoia and self-hatred while admiring him all the same. Both authors, however, have been digging in much the same archives and deliver much the same narrative, so that the world is too big, and life too short, for both of these impressive volumes. Perhaps some kind soul should have put the two men in touch with each other.
In contrast with these two big-hearted biographies, Scott Lucas’s Orwell is a resolute hatchet job. There is indeed much in Orwell to be hatcheted, and Lucas does it with remarkable efficiency. He lambasts his lack of political analysis and constructive proposals, his insulting equation of Second World War pacifism with pro-Fascism, his patrician nostalgia for Anglo-India, his absurd assertion that it is ‘the people whose hearts have never leapt at the sight of a Union Jack who will flinch from revolution when the time comes’. Lucas rightly points out how methodically Orwell excludes the militant working class from The Road to Wigan Pier, lest it undermine his disingenuous thesis that socialism is entirely a middle-class affair. He has a properly brisk way with Orwell’s homophobic horror of the ‘pansy Left’, the virulent misogyny of 1984, and the shameful episode in which, towards the end of his life, he handed over to the authorities a list of more than a hundred leftists on whom they should keep a careful eye.
Despite a perfunctory piece of hat-tipping at the outset to Orwell’s achievements, and the odd acknowledgment that he may occasionally have written something valuable, Lucas is too carried away by his own animosity to be judicious. This is at least one way in which he resembles his subject. An Orwellian polemic against mass-market journalism, of which one would expect the left-wing Lucas to approve, reveals a ‘righteous’ hatred. ‘Self-righteous’, one suspects he means to insinuate, and speaking of self-righteousness, when Orwell candidly owns up to his political ambivalences as an Old Etonian socialist, he is sternly taken to task for them. The former Burmese colonial official is said ‘to criticise the Empire that he had only recently served’, as though there is a whiff of hypocrisy about his volte face. A piece which ‘ostensibly’ calls for Indian independence actually does so. When Orwell supports the Allies’ war against Fascism, he is dubbed a ‘warmonger’.
Lucas is right that Orwell is far more impressive as a moral critic than as a constructive political thinker. But it is perverse to judge him as though he were a Marxist-Leninist theoretician from whom marks must be deducted for falling down on the job. We are told that he disliked class culture but refused to join any organised political opposition to it, which may be true of the Orwell of Wigan Pier but hardly of the later ILP-er. There is, Lucas tut-tuts, no knowledge of Marx, Keynes or political history underlying Wigan Pier, but he confesses a moment later that ‘Orwell did not have to be an intellectual’ to make it an important book, and that ‘no theory’ was needed for this purpose. He endorses more than once Williams’s curious assertion that Orwell was never able to see capitalism as a system, as though he indulged some naive early Dickensian fantasy that it was simply the work of wicked individuals.
Orwell in Spain provokes similar ambiguities. He is said to have been ‘piqued’ when the New Statesman turned down an essay on his experiences there, as though his objection to leftist censorship of Stalinist skulduggery was merely a matter of personal vanity. His response to Victor Gollancz’s rejection of Homage to Catalonia – ‘Gollancz is of course part of the Communist-racket’ – is offered as evidence of intemperate fury, although it is no more than the truth. Lucas goes suspiciously easy on the Stalinist betrayal of the revolutionary cause in Spain, while maliciously suggesting that Orwell’s adherence to an anarchist or Trotskyist cause there ‘could be put forth as a principled stance’, as though he had adopted it simply to claim the high moral ground. Homage to Catalonia is ticked off for saying nothing about ‘the place of religion in Spanish life, the optimal type of government, the role of the military’ and so on, as though Orwell were a Hugh Thomas manqué.
One chapter is called ‘The Rise and Fall of a “Socialist”’, the scare quotes being presumably intended to support Lucas’s thesis that Orwell, never a kosher socialist in the first place, ended up as an apolitical liberal. There is some quoting of his later, disenchanted remarks about the need for writers to preserve their political purity, which are dubiously taken to apply to non-writers as well. But the fact that Orwell had a reach-me-down romantic view of the writer does not necessarily imply that he believed politics were a waste of time, even in his more pessimistic years. Indeed, Lucas himself, who constantly claims that Orwell was never able to produce a positive political programme, quotes him as doing precisely that in The Lion and the Unicorn. After that, so Lucas informs us, Orwell abandoned socialism; yet he tells us a few pages later that in 1947 Orwell was insisting on the need for a federation of democratic socialist European states. Only one paragraph before he tells us this, he claims that Orwell had lapsed from socialism into an apolitical brand of liberalism. Then, having reported that Orwell ‘continued to insist that every line he wrote was for a democratic socialism’, he comments that he died ‘unable to offer any positive alternative to pessimism and fear’. It seems that it is not only Orwell who shifts his position.