I picked up The New Yorker while traveling this week. It has an essay by James Wood on Orwell. It started very well, and I was enjoying reading it. Then I came upon this passage (which I had to actually retype because of The New Yorker’s blog-unfriendly system, so please forgive any typos as unintentional). Woods writes:
But there is a difference between being revolutionary and being a revolutionary, and journalists are not required to be tacticians. More striking is that Orwell premises the economic viability of his socialist planned economy on the economic success of the Nazi’s planned economy, and, in turn, premises the viability of the Nazis planned economy on its efficiency in wartime. Nazism worked, to use Orwell’s verb, because it was good at producing tanks and guns in wartime, but how good would it be at building hospitals and universities in peacetime? He doesn’t say. So the example of efficient Fascism is what inspires the hope of efficient socialism. Orwell seems never to have realized the economic contradiction of this, at least explicitly. Perhaps he did realize it, unconsciously, because later works, such as “Animal Farm” (1945) and “1984” (1949) worry away at the Fascist temptation inherent in the socialistic, planned, collective economy – the “classless, ownerless” society.
This is not to suggest, as contemporary neoconservatives like Jonah Goldberg absurdly claim that socialism is just fascism with a bleeding heart. Orwell never thought that. Despite the anti-totalitarian books, and his reputation’s later theft at the hands of the right wing, he remained revolutionary in spirit until his death, in 1950, at the age of forty-six. But he never really reconciled his hatred of what he called the “power instinct” with a candid assessment of the power instinct that would have to be exercised to effect revolution. As he saw it, the English Revolution would come about precisely to dismantle power and privilege, so how could it possible end up replacing one with another. The English just wouldn’t do that. An actual revolution, in Russia, with its abused of power and privilege, necessarily disappointed him, because it contaminated the ideal. Orwell became not so much anti-revolutionary as anti-revolution.
Now, I will admit that my initial response was somewhat dyspeptic. First of all, I sincerely doubt Woods has read my book.
Second, though this is just as a side note, I doubt he could explain why he thinks I’m a “neoconservative” with any serious evidence or rigor to back it up. It’s not a big deal, I don’t mind being called a neocon, but it is so tiresome to see people use it this way.
Meanwhile, this is the second time in the last month or so that The New Yorker has taken poorly considered potshots at my book.
But after pondering it for a bit, I’ve decided that Woods’ swipe is very good news indeed. More on that in a moment.
First, while, I’d rather not get into a big bloggy froth about the whole thing. There are a few points to be made in rebuttal.
Again, Wood writes: “This is not to suggest, as contemporary neoconservatives like Jonah Goldberg absurdly claim that socialism is just fascism with a bleeding heart.”
Just about everything in this sentence is addled. I don’t claim that socialism is just fascism with a bleeding heart which, again, he’d know if he read my book. But more importantly, what is Wood talking about?
Why, after all this time, is it fine to uncritically suggest that socialism had a bleeding heart? Admittedly, it depends on which socialism we’re talking about, but the Soviets and Chinese Communists killed more of their own people than the Nazis did. And across the world that Orwell surveyed, it would be absurd to suggest that socialists were bleeding hearts. If we want to play the game of who was more evil, I’m fine with giving the Nazis – but certainly not the Italian Fascists — first among equals status (I would have much rather have lived in Fascist Italy than the Soviet Union, at least until 1943). Moreover, even German fascism often displayed quite a bleeding heart, for the poor and working class, albeit of good German stock. Sure it was all shot-through with propaganda, but that’s hardly a distinction that separates Nazis from Soviets.
What I claim, for the record, is that fascism and socialism were kindred and linked phenomena, both residing on the left. Both Bolshevism and fascism were “heresies of socialism” in the words of Richard Pipes. There are some important distinctions between fascism and socialism, and many unimportant ones. And, since it needs to be said, support for genocide, mass murder and the crushing of democracy aren’t major distinctions between the most famous kinds of socialism and Nazism (which was “National Socialism” after all). But whatever the distinctions, they do not mitigate the simple fact that socialism and fascism have far more in common than not.
What’s more intriguing is that Wood seems to be talking around the basic point. What Wood calls the “Fascist temptation” (that should be a lowercase “f” for the record) is very similar to what I call the “totalitarian temptation” and it seems clear to me that Orwell understood that it lurks in every human heart. What Orwell couldn’t reconcile is that you can’t give “experts” complete power of the society without removing all of the checks that restrain that temptation or “power instinct.” This reveals a very conservative strain within Orwell, in that he understood the need for institutions that restrain what is worst in men if what is best in men is ever going to find expression. At least that’s how I see it, but I’m no Orwell scholar.
Also, Wood’s discussion of Orwell’s belief that the efficiency of Nazism proved that socialism could be successful is fascinating, though he doesn’t realize how much it bolsters my argument. If you recall, the title of my book is an homage to HG Wells who also saw the effectiveness of Italian Fascism and Nazism and wanted his fellow liberals and socialists to use the same methods. Orwell, likewise, believed that Nazism “worked.” They were hardly alone. Indeed, for reasons I explore in depth in the book, countless liberals, progressives and socialists had spent decades convincing themselves that the military mobilization of society – just like America had in WWI – was the most effective way of achieving progressive ends. It wasn’t that they loved all things martial, it was that they admired the efficiency of what the martial brings out in men. That’s the whole point of the progressive obsession with the moral equivalents of war.
The only problem is that they were all wrong. War mobilization and metaphorical-war-mobilization do not “work,” not in the long run economically and not ever democratically. It may be necessary, in times of war, to suspend some democratic functions, but that is only justifiable because war is temporary and victory is necessary. Metaphorical war of the sort the progressives envisioned is endless. Regardless, it was a sign of the cancerous thinking of the time, that the success of societies could be measured by how well they enslaved their citizens into making tanks and planes or how well they enslaved their citizens into making roads and hospitals. That enslaving men to make hospitals is considered a major exoneration of socialism (which also made plenty of tanks and planes, by the way) is one of the most vexing aspects of 20th century — and now 21st century — liberalism. Its endurance reveals a tumor on the moral optic nerve of liberalism that so many on the left still can’t see this basic fact clearly.
Anyway, I’ve gone on long. But I did say I thought that Wood’s article is good news. Why? Because it’s a sign that even at The New Yorker, even someone like Wood feels obliged to offer an opinion on the book. It means that the book is un-ignorable. Would it be nicer if Wood praised the book to the heavens? Of course, but this is the planet we live on.
Update: From a reader:
I’m a big fan but isn’t “totalitarian temptation” the title of a book by Ravel?[sic]
Yes, it was. Didn’t mean to sound like I was claiming authorship of the phrase. I just use it in the book.