Last Monday the left-wing magazine New Statesman declared it was “Orwell Week”.
How utterly shameless.
George Orwell is no longer a journalist. He is an all-purpose, all-terrain vehicle for the vanities of other writers.
This is particularly obvious in the case of the New Statesman. In 1937, the magazine’s editor, Kingsley Martin, rejected two of George Orwell’s pieces on the Spanish Civil War for being excessively critical of communism. His articles would “cause trouble”, Martin claimed, because Orwell had described fascism and communism as two sides of the same totalitarian coin.
The New Statesman was a bastion of sympathy for the Soviet Union. Orwell later said its typical reader “worships Stalin”.
Now the New Statesman wants to wear George Orwell as a political badge.
Orwell has an outsized reputation. It goes something like this: he brilliantly captured the essence of socialist totalitarianism, and did so against the political fashion of the time. Other intellectuals had been seduced by the Soviet experiment. He was a lonely apostate. This required great moral courage.
There is less to these claims than the Orwell idolisers will admit. He was a good writer – and a great journalist – but the Orwell cult has gotten way out of hand.
People imagine if they talk about their heroes they will imbibe their qualities. Politicians make speeches about Winston Churchill hoping his reputation for leadership and grit will rub off on them. Journalists use Orwell for independence and integrity. Christopher Hitchens – usually such an iconoclast – did more to inflate the Orwell cult than anybody in recent decades, and did so transparently to make himself Orwell’s political heir.
But Orwell got one big thing wrong, and it goes to the heart of his political thought. He misunderstood the basic nature of totalitarianism. He rightly believed the all-powerful state was terrifying. He wrongly thought it could function.
The state in Nineteen Eighty-Four has complete control over society. The Thought Police sees all. The four great ministries of government (Peace, Plenty, Truth, and Love) command all. It was totalitarian in the most fundamental sense – state power was total.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was nothing like this. Konstantin Simis’ great book USSR: The Corrupt Society makes clear how broken the Soviet system was. It was held up by networks of patronage and bribery and an underground economy and interpersonal politics. The USSR didn’t have high-tech telescreens feeding a central authority. Soviet control came from informants and petty betrayals. Totalitarianism was anything but complete.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s protagonist fantasises that the state might be rotten under the surface.
Anything that hinted at corruption always filled him with a wild hope.
It’s a telling difference, that between Orwellian fantasy and crooked reality. In 1944 Orwell wrote a downbeat review of Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. He accepted Hayek’s political critique of socialism. A state that tried to control an economy would eventually control a society.
But Orwell does not seem to have taken in Hayek’s more crucial message: communism did not function as well as communists imagined.
No matter how unconstrained and all-powerful a central planner was, they would never be able to marshal enough information about the economy to plan it effectively. Big Brother could never see everything. Orwell did not accept this. He remained a socialist, albeit a democratic one.
That, ultimately, is what makes Orwell interesting. He succeeded where so many of the pre-war left failed. Rather than wilfully defending and promoting the Soviet dictatorship, he attacked it. His fame is tied to their infamy. This is why the New Statesman’s appropriation of his name so obscene. It was the moral bankruptcy of Kingsley Martin that makes Orwell important.
Orwell was not the only intellectual to identify the totalitarian impulse in Marxism, and certainly not the first. Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1948. Eugene Richter’s Pictures of the Socialistic Future was published nearly 60 years earlier, in 1891. Richters’ book is also a dystopian imagining of a communist state. But Richter was a German liberal, and was as interested in discrediting how socialism worked as exposing its dictatorial tendencies.
Another “Orwellian” vision, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, was published in 1921. We is on the other side of the spectrum – it is even more fantastical than Nineteen Eighty-Four, and even more extreme. Zamyatin had personal experience of Soviet communism. (His book was the first to be censored by the Soviet literary board.) The totalitarian state in We has even stripped citizens of their names. Zamyatin’s protagonist is referred to as D-503. Where Orwell explored how a state used language for control, Zamyatin’s state used mathematics, giving the book a surreal feeling that Nineteen Eighty-Four lacks.
Jack London also wrote a dystopian novel in 1908, The Iron Heel, which Orwell is known to have admired.
Neither was Orwell uniquely clear-headed about the nature of the Soviet Union. From 1917 onwards there were credible reports from émigrés, Christian missionaries and even the occasional tourist revealing all was not well in the USSR.
Details were sketchy but as this newspaper search demonstrates Soviet persecution was no secret. Western Marxists who discounted these reports were being wilfully ignorant. Those that ignored them are morally culpable.
Orwell did neither. But surely this is the bare minimum we ask of an intellectual – to not completely sell out, to not outright lie, to not distort known truths in service of an ideology. Once again the idea of Orwell as a truth-seeking hero only makes sense when we account for the intellectual depravities of his comrades.
A writer does not have to be ground-breaking to be valuable and insightful. And it isn’t fair to heap the egos of half a century of jealous polemicists on to Orwell.
One of the charms of Orwell’s journalism is his modesty. And a person cannot be held responsible for what others do with their reputation. But, no doubt, George Orwell would be amazed at what his has become.