Why Orwell Matters by Christopher Hitchens, Basic Books, 211 pages, $24.

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For an intellectual, it is the hardest thing in the world to be both passionate and disinterested, committed and open-minded, eager to convince and willing to listen: to be, in a word, fair.Orwell had this gift, or virtue, in an exceptional degree; and those of us less gifted morally can learn it, to the extent we’re capable, from his writings. This, along with the astuteness of his judgments and the pleasures of his prose, is why Orwell matters.

Christopher Hitchens comes, in this short, gracefully written, and admirably (though sometimes a bit ostentatiously) literate book, not only to praise Orwell but also to set right certain persistent misunderstandings about him. There are two principal ones. The first one, prevalent on the left, is that Animal Farm and 1984, Orwell’s frightening fictional portrayals of totalitarianism, were intended as a warning that radical social reform must end badly. In effect, the allegation goes, Orwell declared that socialism was an illusion and counseled resignation, quietism, despair. Hitchens has little trouble showing that he counseled no such thing: that this is simply blaming the messenger, and getting the message wrong too. Nor did Orwell patronize the working class or dislike foreigners, as other leftists have claimed. In “Orwell and the Left,” the book’s longest chapter, Hitchens administers a sharp drubbing, generally well-deserved, to E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, Edward Said, Salman Rushdie, and others for propagating these confusions. Unfortunately, he also leaves the impression that the “shiver of revulsion” toward Orwell which he finds on the cultural-studies left is to be found everywhere on the left. Since Hitchens refers to practically everything else of note ever written about Orwell, he might have mentioned that Irving Howe and Michael Walzer wrote two of the best and most appreciative essays about him.

In “Orwell and the Right,” Hitchens addresses a second misunderstanding. Some neoconservatives believe that if Orwell had lived longer (he died at 47), he would have grown still wiser and become a neoconservative. After all, as Hitchens acknowledges, Orwell “was one of the founding fathers of anti-Communism; he had a strong patriotic sense and a very potent instinct for … elementary right and wrong; he despised government and bureaucracy and was a stout individualist; he distrusted intellectuals and academics and reposed a faith in popular wisdom; he upheld a somewhat traditional orthodoxy in sexual and moral matters, looked down on homosexuals and abhorred abortion.” It does sound rather like a premature Norman Podhoretz, but Hitchens demurs, for reasons which he gave at length in a celebrated Harper’s essay twenty years ago and resumes more briefly, though still persuasively, here.

The book’s later chapters, on Orwell and women, Orwell and postmodernism, Orwell’s fiction, and Orwell’s much-discussed relations with the British Foreign Office, are finely perceptive. In fact, Hitchens’s remarks on feminism, objectivity, and novel-craft are so discriminating and so delicately put that one wonders whether he hasn’t given up to political polemic what was meant for literary criticism. Then again, “The List” is a very welcome polemic, thoroughly vindicating Orwell against the foolish and malicious suggestion that there was something discreditable about his fleeting contact with the Information and Research Division of the Foreign Office.

By and large, Hitchens succeeds very well at what he attempts in “Why Orwell Matters.” But I wish he had attempted something more: to locate Orwell on the contemporary political scene. “If Orwell Were Alive Today” seems to me a perfectly legitimate, even useful, game. What would he stand for and against now?

I think Orwell would associate himself with the unsexy democratic left, notably Dissent and The American Prospect. He would abhor the market fundamentalism of the Wall Street Journal, scoff at the identity politics of the Nation, heckle the self-congratulatory tough-mindedness of the New Republic, and mock the apocalyptic pessimism of the New Criterion. He would disagree forcefully with Robert Conquest, the great conservative historian to whom Hitchens has mischievously dedicated this book, who (at least in his recent summing-up, Reflections on a Ravaged Century) has no sympathy for the democratic socialism Orwell was always passionately affirming and no doubt that laissez-faire and a minimal state are the best possible social arrangements, something Orwell was always denying. Conquest was an enthusiastic supporter of Thatcherism and Reaganism, which, on Hitchens’s showing, Orwell probably would not have been.

And given his aversion to cant and his reluctance to march in a parade, Orwell might have made an unexpected remark or two on the subject of September 11, 2001. He might, in particular, have wondered aloud why the heinous terrorist murder of three thousand Americans was a turning point in history, while the death of several times that number of non-Americans every day from the effects of malnutrition, inadequate sanitation, lack of medical care, and other poverty-related conditions – a state of affairs which the amount earmarked for the wealthiest one percent of Americans by the Bush administration’s tax cuts would go a long way toward remedying – is simply … history.

Now it’s the reader’s turn. What if Orwell were alive today … ?


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George Scialabba