Ian Williams, review of Orwell by Gordon Bowker (Little, Brown, £20) and Orwell: Life and Times by Scott Lucas (Haus Publishing, £8.99), Tribune, June 20 2003
At the Orwell Centenary conference at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, this May, I had a sort of epiphany. Scholars were analyzing Orwell’s deep pessimism, and I had to go to the rostrum to share a brainstorm: in fact Orwell was a hopeless optimist. In 1984, he thought that rulers would care enough about history to want to rewrite it! Does George W Bush know or care?
Soaked in 24-hour context-free cable TV driveling amnesia over them, a huge percentage of American voters are not only unaware that Iraqi WMDs have not been found, but think that they were actually used during the war. Even higher percentages still think Saddam was behind September 11. It is a truly Orwellian prospect, and his works gives us the intellectual tools to understand what is happening.
Nothing vindicates Orwell so much as his critics – except perhaps the usurpers who have posthumously enlisted his name in support of causes that he would have detested. He has become a literary Rorschach test, an intellectual ink blot onto which critics and followers alike project all their fears and hopes. The former Tribune columnist’s clearly stated political and moral positions have been chucked down the memory hole so that he can be rewritten as a free market conservative, or in the case of Christopher Hitchens, somehow as simultaneously a Trotskyist and a retrospective neo-neoconservative supporter of current American imperial ambitions. And conservatives and Gulag nostalgist alike united in denying Orwell’s socialism.
Ironically in view of recent New York Times scandals, its obituary for Orwell, as Gordon Bowker says, corrected misconceptions, “Although many reviewers read into Mr Orwell’s novel a wholesale condemnation of left wing politics, he considered himself a Marxist and a member of the non-Communist wing of the British Labor Party.” In fact, I doubt whether there was Jura branch of the Labour Party for him to join, but right up to his death, Orwell proclaimed his support for the anti-totalitarian democratic socialism which he saw the Labour government of 1945 trying to implement. Bowker shows the complexity of experience that led Orwell to that position.
In stark contrast, Scott Lucas’s biography is effectively a sustained polemic against its subject. Orwell wrote about totalitarian literary language, that it had “a curious mouthing sort of quality, as of someone who is choking with rage & and can never quite hit on the words he wanted,” and it is a prescient description of Lucas’s treatment, which sneers its way with epithets like “Orwell, the armchair general”, and in which “Orwell’s crusade against socialism” is proved by his observation that the Conservative Council in Liverpool was engaged in slum clearance. Tribune it seems hosted Orwell’s “muddled political conceptions,” in the "As I Please" columns.
Lucas is more measured in this book than his previous writings about Orwell, but his revulsion for his subject still oozes through in almost every chapter. He is an odd choice for the publisher, almost as if they had commissioned a biography of Shakespeare from someone who thought that the Earl of Oxford had actually written his plays. Orwell’s contempt for alleged left intellectuals seems amply justified when reading this bad tempered biography, which seeks to “rescue ourselves from ‘Orwell’”. It slinks in stark contrast Gordon Bowker’s rounded and informative work.
Lucas repeatedly accuses Orwell of “animosity towards the left”. But this is true only if you accept a peculiar definition of “left”, one that can love concentration camps, show trials, the Hitler-Stalin pact and stay silent while Spanish socialists and British Independent Labour Party members are pursued, imprisoned and executed by KGB agents.
Lucas epitomizes the inchoate rage of the Leninist left’s hatred for Orwell. Khrushchev may have confirmed all that Orwell was writing about the Soviet system, but since few of them have the courage to get up and confess their continuing nostalgia for the system that equated socialism with Gulags plus electrification, they attack him tangentially for not being a 1970’s feminist, for not being working class, and for “collaboration”, with a government that he and the majority of British voters supported. Interestingly, many of their charges could be levied at their own icons. Neither Marx, nor Lenin, nor even Trotsky were paragons of political correctness. But, any truncheon in a rage, and Orwell is fair game.
Lucas in fact shows his bilious bias on his first page announcing his discovery that “Orwell had been cooperating with Big Brother even as he was denouncing him.” He is referring to the list Orwell provided to his friend Celia Kirwan of three dozen people he thought should not be employed by the British Labour government to promote its message worldwide in the face of Stalin’s repression.
If his denunciations were to have weight, Nye Bevan, Clement Attlee and other members of the Labour cabinet would have to be a composite Big Brother, brooking no opposition. The people Orwell listed, rather than being denied occasional copywriting employment by that socialist government, would have been dragged out of their beds at dawn, hauled off to the dungeons, tortured, imprisoned and shot, as was happening to Socialists in the Soviet bloc of the time.
While Orwell was indeed providing what one might call “negative references” for people he thought were over-slavish supporters of Stalin, even Lucas agrees that he opposed prohibiting the Communist Party and the Daily Worker. We are left to wonder why so-called Left wingers would want to work for an “imperialist,” and “anti-Soviet” government: were they prepared to sell their principles, or did their principles include betraying their elected prospective employer?
The difference in approach between Lucas and Bowker is apparent in the accounts of what happened in Spain. Bowker documents the British communists, working for the ComIntern, who infiltrated the ILP offices in Barcelona and provided the information that led to the imprisonment, and in some cases death at the hands of the KGB. For Lucas, this was the “government, supported by the Communist Party” trying to suppress the POUM and the anarchists.
Much more honest, Bowker gives the flavour of the repression in Barcelona as the Stalin’s agents homed on ideological opponents with far more fervour than they displayed against the fascists. Lucas essentially glides over this immensely important episode in the development of Orwell’s thought. If the unrelenting tenor of his attack on Orwell was to be maintained, to do otherwise would, would mean explicit defence of the indefensible, rather than the implicit defence represented throughout his book.
Lucas “proves” that Victor Gollancz, the publisher of the Left Book Club, was innocent of “any affinity for Soviet Communism” because in 1941, during the Hitler-Stalin pact he published one volume The Betrayal of the Left. It is a laughable comment when one sees the monthly flood of Soviet-adulators that followed, and the incontrovertible fact that Gollancz abrogated his contractual rights to both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, Bowker gives us a much more nuanced and detailed view of Orwell’s relations with his publishers. An interesting contrast is that, almost as an afterthought, Lucas adds in parentheses about the Ministry of Information official who recommended to publishers that they refuse Animal Farm : “It has since been alleged that the official, Peter Smollet, was a Soviet agent.”
Bowker and others record the proof that Smollet was a Soviet plant, but for Lucas to admit this would dent several of his misconceptions: that Orwell really had it easy and was part of the establishment, and that his worries about pro-Soviet leanings among British intellectuals were simple cold war paranoia. In the end, Lucas proves that Orwell’s distrust for so-called left so-called intellectuals was, and still is, well founded.
In contrast, Bowker’s work shows Orwell, warts and all, but the warts are real, not the fevered product of a political line. The oddly corroborative details, such as Orwell’s necromantic plot with Steven Runciman to kill a bully at Eton add artistic verisimilitude to an already bold and convincing narrative which puts in perspective a figure whose work is amazingly fresh and relevant.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Goldstein’s heretical text read: “In the general hardening of outlook that set in round about 1930, practices which had been long abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years - imprisonment without trial, the use of war prisoners as slaves, public executions, torture to extract confessions, the use of hostages, and deportation of whole populations - not only became common again, but tolerated and even defended by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive.”
Orwell wrote this in the aftermath of Spain, Manchuria and world war two, and while Stalin continued to use the techniques he had perfected at home to seize control of Eastern Europe. The horrifying thing about the turn of the millennium is that there are still apologists for all these practices and more.
These totalitarians span the whole traditional political spectrum. On the establishment side, there has been toleration for death squads in Central and Latin America; on the left, apologetics for ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and users of poison gas in Iraq. More currently, the case of the shifting excuses for the war on Iraq, the manipulation of facts to mould public opinion, the 24-hour hate of the cable networks, all combine to ensure the continuing relevance of Orwell and his fight for a genuine, human and democratic socialism that is, to use a word unashamedly that Lucas sneers at, “decent”.
Paul Anderson, review of Orwell: The Life by D J Taylor (Chatto and Windus, £20), Tribune, June 20 2003
There is no doubt that George Orwell is an excellent subject for a biographer. He wrote two of the most influential novels of the 20th century, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four; he was an exceptionally talented polemicist, reporter and cultural critic; and he packed an extraordinary amount into his short life. He was, moreover, a notably complex human being: the old Etonian colonial policeman Eric Blair who turned his back on his class, changed his name and became a revolutionary socialist bohemian; the prewar quasi-pacifist who transformed himself into a wartime propagandist; the civil libertarian who turned over a list of Stalinist fellow-travellers to the spooks. Partly because of this complexity, he has remained a controversial figure to this day. No writer of the 20th century has attracted more fulsome praise or more excoriating denunciation.
D J Taylor is one of Britain's best highbrow book-reviewers, an accomplished biographer (his Thackeray, published in 1999, deservedly won plaudits) and a novelist of distinction. He has also been an Orwell obsessive since his teens, and he shares many of Orwell's literary enthusiasms (Swift, Dickens, Gissing).
Who could be better placed to write a life of Orwell? Well, if it hadn't been done before, hardly anyone - and if it hadn't been done before, Orwell: The Life would be hailed universally as the nearest thing to definitive you can get. Taylor has immersed himself in Orwell's writing and has trawled the archives. He has interviewed dozens of people who knew Orwell. He knows the secondary literature backwards. Orwell: The Life is an impressive piece of scholarship, well written and fair. It is generally sympathetic to Orwell but acknowledges his faults and even sets out the case against him.
The problem is that it has been done before. There were dozens of takes on Orwell's life between his death and the late 1970s, some good and some dire, but none of them done with the benefit of access to Orwell's own papers. In 1972, however, Orwell's widow Sonia gave Bernard Crick unrestricted access to the papers, and in 1980 Crick's magisterial George Orwell: A Life was published.
Now, there's a case for arguing that Crick's biography doesn't successfully capture Orwell's inner life (though you could equally well say that Crick resisted the temptation of engaging in the sort of amateur psychological speculation that has marred subsequent biographies). There have also been some important Orwell-related documents that have emerged since Crick first published - notably a version of his notorious list of fellow-travellers, but also material from the Soviet archives (turned up by Gordon Bowker for his new biography) that shows just how close Orwell came to being liquidated by the Stalinists in Spain. Several very good short books have been written contesting various aspects of Crick's take on Orwell, the best of them John Newsinger's Orwell's Politics.
But on most of the big things, Crick has not been found wanting - and, good as Taylor's Orwell is, too much of it retells a familiar tale. There is some interesting new material on Orwell's early life, but otherwise the freshest bits of Taylor's book are the short essays on various aspects of Orwell - his voice, his attitudes to the Jews, his paranoia - that he scatters through the main narrative. So much hard work and craft have gone into this book that it almost seems churlish to suggest that Taylor should have dropped the traditional biography and produced a collection of essays. But it is what I think.