Magazine March 23, 2020, Issue

George Orwell’s Unclassifiable Politics

From the cover of Becoming George Orwell (Princeton University Press)
Becoming George Orwell: Life and Letters, Legend and Legacy, by John Rodden (Princeton University Press, 384 pp., $29.95)

‘The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting,” wrote George Orwell—a line that bursts with dry humor, written by a man who could be witty but rarely was comic. Yet there was nothing funny about what happened to Orwell at dawn on May 20, 1937, as he fought in the Spanish Civil War. With the rising sun at his back and probably outlining his head, he was struck in the throat by a sniper’s bullet. It passed through his neck and blood gushed from his mouth. He couldn’t feel his right arm. “I took it for granted that I was done for.”

If he had been done for, readers never would have learned that “some animals are more equal than others” or that “Big Brother is watching you.” They never would have wrestled with his essays on the dangers of imperialism or the politics of language. If they had known him at all—and even this is doubtful—it would have been as a minor English novelist and journalist. It certainly would not have been as “the most important writer since Shakespeare and the most influential writer who has ever lived,” as the Texas-based scholar John Rodden calls him in Becoming George Orwell.

Readers were lucky, and so was Orwell. The bullet had penetrated between his windpipe and his carotid artery. A millimeter’s difference in either direction probably would have finished him. His comrades put him on a stretcher, a doctor bandaged the wound, and Orwell recovered in a hospital.

In the weeks that followed he had to escape death again. He had gone to Spain to fight for socialism and against fascism. (This was an era in which writers took up arms for the causes they believed in, rather than just tweeted about them.) Yet Stalin’s stooges regarded him as insufficiently loyal to their master in Moscow. They targeted him for execution. Orwell evaded these would-be murderers in Barcelona long enough to flee by train to France and safety. This experience, according to Rodden, became “the decisive event that transformed Orwell into a fearlessly outspoken anti-Communist for the rest of his life.” It made possible the work for which he is most remembered: his essays and novels of the 1940s, his final decade. It also launched a debate about the true nature of Orwell’s politics—one that still rages today.

Last year witnessed an anniversary of equidistance for Orwell’s best-known work, called “Nineteen Eighty-Four” in Britain and “1984” in the United States. In other words, 2019 marked 35 years from the novel’s eponym, which arrived 35 years after its first publication, in 1949. Lots of people who know the book only by reputation are familiar with its major themes as well as its vocabulary of “thoughtcrime” and “memory holes.” They may even use the adjective “Orwellian”—a word that, ironically, has come to mean the freedom-crushing systems and methods that Orwell himself despised.

Rodden has devoted much of his career to Orwell, starting with his 1989 book The Politics of Literary Reputation, which examines the sources of Orwell’s fame. This latest volume is a grab-bag of Orwelliana. In one piece, Rodden observes that Orwell’s memoir Homage to Catalonia—in which the author describes getting shot—is “the most widely read nonfiction book on the Spanish Civil War in any language.” In another, he makes a case for the importance of an early essay on a hanging in Burma. He also considers Orwell’s connections to the French writer Albert Camus, the ways in which American Catholics have responded to his ideas, and more. The chapters can stand on their own or, taken together, form an idiosyncratic biography of a consequential life. To read them is to sit in the presence of a veteran scholar at the peak of his powers.

Orwell was a political writer, but the exact nature of his politics is disputed. He started out on the left but grew dismayed at its refusal to break with Soviet tyranny: “The sin of nearly all left wingers from 1933 onwards is that they wanted to be anti-Fascist without being anti-totalitarian,” he wrote in 1946. The question is how far he drifted from his roots. In the years after Communist killers failed to get him in Spain, did he ever become an actual conservative? Or would he have become one if he had lived longer? What would he have thought about, say, Brexit? (My own guess is that he would have voted Leave.) Rodden, for his part, avoids speculating: “I have sought to clarify with scholarly accuracy his legacy and not to indulge in the practice of robbing his grave or moving his coffin to the left or to the right for my own political purposes.”

Yet readers will wonder. Orwell has been called every conservative’s favorite liberal and every liberal’s favorite conservative—a category that sounds impossible amid today’s divisiveness. Part of Orwell’s accomplishment is simply a matter of timing. By dying on January 21, 1950—the same day as the perjury conviction of the Soviet spy Alger Hiss—Orwell didn’t have to take a side in a series of bitter controversies. If he had lived beyond his 46 years, he probably would have annoyed conservatives or liberals or both by announcing his views on McCarthyism in the 1950s, the Vietnam War in the 1960s, and perhaps even the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

Nobody can say for sure what he would have written about any of this. The trouble for conservatives is that Orwell never quit calling himself a socialist. He seems not to have appreciated the link between political and economic freedom that animates so many on the free-market right. Plenty of conservatives nevertheless have tried to claim him. Norman Podhoretz once argued that a long-lived Orwell would have joined his tribe of neoconservatives. Before that, the proto-alt-righters of the John Birch Society also tried to appropriate him: As Rodden discovered by scouring old phone books at the Library of Congress, the Birchers used 1-9-8-4 in the phone number for their Washington office in the 1950s.

Progressives want Orwell on their side, too. In 2007, George Soros and the Open Society Institute published What Orwell Didn’t Know, a book that savages the supposed “far-right-wing political agenda of the George W. Bush administration and the Christian Right.” More recently, liberals delighted in the fact that sales of 1984 had boomed following the inauguration of President Trump and the unfortunate introduction of the term “alternative facts” into political parlance. Yet they couldn’t limit themselves to a few reasonable comments. A headline in The Nation blared: “Trump’s America Is Worse Than Orwell’s ‘1984.’” It’s one thing for Orwell to instruct and inspire, and quite another to turn him into a boot for stamping on partisan rivals.

Orwell once called himself a “Tory anarchist,” a term that clarifies nothing because it confuses just about everybody. Lots of other potential and conflicting labels present themselves. Here are a few that Rodden deploys, citing his own views or the views of others: Orwell was “a heterodox socialist,” a “leftist yet anti-Stalinist,” and a “left-wing patriot.” He was “an unrelenting critic of his fellow socialists.” He was an “adamant atheist” but also possibly a “crypto-Christian” who had “a dislike of feminism” and “opposed abortion.” He was a “utopian skeptic” who displayed a “conservative streak” and became “a cult hero among American conservatives.” One of his main influences was James Burnham, the Communist-turned-conservative who would become a senior editor of National Review: Burnham’s 1941 book The Managerial Revolution helped Orwell conceive of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia, the three superpowers at war in the world of 1984.

Perhaps these complexities and contradictions make Orwell sound like a vivid character in a compelling novel. “George Orwell,” in fact, was not a real person but rather the invention of Eric Blair, a young man who adopted a pen name so that his writings wouldn’t embarrass his parents. (“George” paid tribute to St. George, the patron saint of England; “Orwell” was the name of a favorite river.) “This incarnated nom de plume,” writes Rodden, was “the only fully rounded, three-dimensional character that the novelist ever created.” This refers to a traditional knock on Orwell’s fiction: His characters lack the richness of those found in a story by the likes of Charles Dickens. As it happens, Orwell admired Dickens, and a 1939 description of the Victorian author might serve as a self-portrait: “I see . . . the face of a man who is generously angry—in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”

Perhaps it’s enough to stop the smelly little orthodoxies of our time from trying to reshape Orwell in their own image. (The next time someone claims that Orwell would have favored Brexit, roll your eyes.) As Rodden notes, Orwell was “an intellectual who wrote for the age,” i.e., the one in which he lived and not ours. What happened, though, is that his words transcended their moment and Orwell rose to the status of “a world-historical figure.” And so rather than study him with Rodden’s care and diligence, we fight over him, confident in the truth of a line from 1984: “‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”

This article appears as “The Unclassifiable Orwell” in the March 23, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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