Orwell Suffers the Death of a Thousand Cuts

Several months ago, in a piece written for Vocabula Review, I sharply criticized George Orwell’s famous rules for good writing—something no one else, so far as I know, has done. I mention this otherwise irrelevant fact to make the point that I am not an Orwell worshipper, and do not by any means regard him as beyond criticism. I want to establish this at the outset, because I am going to defend him against some arguments made by Louis Menand in a review 1 of Christopher Hitchens’ Why Orwell Matters, and I don’t want it thought that I’m rushing to his rescue because I think him sacrosanct or infallible.


Menand is ordinarily a good writer and a good critic, and it is not clear why he attacks Orwell and gets him so wrong in this review (it’s much more an essay on Orwell and his reputation than a review of Hitchens’ book). I conjecture that, like any intellectual, he is under constant temptation to take a contrary-to-the-fashionable-view position—even when the fashionable view is right—and has succumbed to that temptation here. And it may well be that he, like a few other critics recently, has just gotten irritated by hearing Orwell endlessly praised; if so, it would be understandable even if not commendable—Orwell has received so much adulation, on all sides, since his death in 1950 that one can feel a little sympathy for someone who wants to push him off his pedestal, or start the pendulum of reputation swinging the other way. An Athenian got tired of hearing Aristides called “the Just,” and voted to ostracize him; perhaps Menand is tired of hearing Orwell called ‘the conscience of his generation,’ and has determined to take him down a peg. But he does so poor a job of it that the effect of his piece on a moderate Orwell admirer like me is to make me think, if that’s the worst anyone can say about him, he must be even better than I thought.


One tiresome consequence of the weakness of Menand’s review-essay is that it makes for a pedestrian dullness all around. Menand’s method is to throw everything he can get his hands on at Orwell in the hope of making a lucky hit, and since he just keeps missing, it is hard to be very exciting when refuting him—all one can do is keep pointing out all his errors and exaggerations and misinterpretations, and this does not make a sparkling exposé. It is much more satisfying to attack and expose an anti-Hedgehog, who makes one huge mistake, than an anti-Fox, who makes many small ones, but one cannot force one’s opponents to make the kind of mistakes that are exhilirating to expose. We must resign ourselves, then, to a bout of nit-picking—but one in which the nits are quite real, and constitute the bulk of the specimen under investigation—and get down to the job.


Note, to begin, Menand’s title: “Honest, Decent, Wrong.” So the gravamen of the case against Orwell is that he was wrong—about what, we shall see. Within his first paragraph, Menand tells us, speaking of Animal Farm, that Orwell “had trouble finding a publisher for” it, but he neglects to mention the reason. That is a missed opportunity, because the reason is quite interesting, and has something to tell us about the atmosphere in which Orwell had to work, and the price he paid for his independence—he had trouble because so many of the publishers of the time were unwilling to offend the Soviet Union. During the war, those who refused to tell any truth that might offend the U.S.S.R. had the excuse that it would be imprudent to criticize that country while their armies were fighting against our enemy, and saving us from taking a great many casualties. That excuse was very thin—did the apologists really think that if some English or American writers offended the Russians, they would stop fighting to expel the Nazis from their country?—but at least it was something to say; by the time Orwell was trying to get Animal Farm published, the war was effectively over, and even that pitiful excuse was unavailable.


The publishers who rejected the book for that political reason were not just the usual suspects, like Victor Gollancz; they included Faber & Faber, where T. S. Eliot was the presiding spirit. This is especially interesting in view of Menand’s later remark that.


Orwell was against imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism. Excellent. Many people were against them in Orwell’s time, and a great many more people have been against them since.


Leaving aside the irrelevant observation that many have been against them “since,” it would be good to have a list of those intellectuals, writers, and other members of the opinion-forming class in England and the United States who were equally against all three , and against them all at that time —the list should not require a very large sheet.


And why is the third member of this trio of bad things not communism , but Stalinism —are we still trying to redeem communism by postulating that Stalin somehow hijacked that wonderful idea, and that the period during which he ruled the U.S.S.R. was an aberration, to be disregarded in evaluating communism? That desperate effort at redemption worked for a while, but too much is now known of the period when Lenin ruled the U.S.S.R. for that canard to fly. Now it is the entire Russian “experiment” that has to be considered an aberration if communism is to be salvaged; indeed, the history of communism seems to consist principally of aberrations. (And perhaps the reference to those who have come around to Orwell’s position “since” is not totally irrelevant, after all; perhaps some of them came around to it because they’d read him.).


Menand goes on at some length to make the point that Orwell’s message in Animal Farm was exploited by the CIA, Cold Warriors, and other such villains. Yes, he agrees, the book was a deadly satire of life under Soviet Communism—but the CIA suppressed, or at least did not go out of its way to mention, the fact that Orwell thought capitalism doomed, and had little regard for the United States (a country of which, all agree, he knew virtually nothing). Assuming this was a crime, how was Orwell responsible for it? This is a point that apparently troubles Menand a bit, and he deals with it by saying “Writers are not entirely responsible for their admirers.” (One wants to say to Menand, as he has just said to Orwell, Excellent! And that “entirely” is good; Jesus is only partly responsible for the Inquisition, then.)


Having uttered this general disclaimer, Menand goes on for column after column relating how Orwell’s words have been used and abused by members of every political party and shade of opinion, and keeps implying that Orwell is somehow responsible for all of them. At one point, he gets almost fully explicit about this; talking about Orwell’s reputation for clarity, he asks, “In what sense, though, can writings that have been taken to mean so many incompatible things be called ‘clear’?” Take this as a warning, if you would avoid Menand’s scorn, against writing and living so well that you get to be taken as a sort of secular saint, and claimed by everyone; if too many fight over your bones, Menand will say you must have written turgidly.


One small but nevertheless significant item: Menand, giving a thumbnail biography of Orwell, says parenthetically “The family name was Blair, and Orwell’s given name was Eric.” This tidbit shows that Menand is standing on quicksand—he doesn’t know who he’s writing for. Does he really think that his long review-essay on a book about Orwell and his reputation is going to be read by many who need to be told that “Orwell” was a pen name?


Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is regarded by historians of the Spanish Civil War as remarkable both for its integrity and for being a first-hand report by someone who was actually on the scene; Menand concedes that it was “brave and iconoclastic”—but immediately undercuts this by adding “though not the only work of its kind.” Orwell is not to be given unqualified praise under any circumstances, it seems. But Menand does not name the other works of “its kind”; what are they? I know of only one that is directly comparable to Orwell’s, Franz Borkenau’s The Spanish Cockpit . Later, of course, there were others, such as Burnett Bolloten’s The Grand Camouflage , but we’re talking, presumably, of books published in the same era as Orwell’s.


Sometimes Menand offers a point so petty that one feels diminished in having to deal with it, even for the purpose of flicking it away. Trying to tear Orwell down in any way he can, he calls him “a man who believed that to write honestly he needed to publish under a false name”—like that other swindler and phony who tried to cheat us by calling himself “Mark Twain”? The adoption of a pseudonym may reflect some deep anxiety or other problem in a writer, but Menand offers us no hypothesis about Orwell’s motive in doing so, just a general sneer at anyone who’d do such a thing, with an implication that it reflects not just on his ability to write, but on his integrity. And his sneer, if justified, would apply as well to all the many reputable writers who’ve done as Orwell did.


Menand is not even a reliable guide to simple bibliographical information. “Orwell’s essays have recently been collected…” he tells us, referring to the Everyman volume edited last year by John Carey. This is true but misleading; his essays were collected back in 1968, along with many of his letters 2. Carey’s edition contains a few items that the earlier edition missed, and corrects a few errors in it, but nothing of importance, and it’s less convenient for comfortable reading because it packs everything into one fat, 1,408-page volume rather than the four moderate-sized ones of the earlier edition.


Turning to Orwell’s quality as a writer, Menand says that he achieved in his writing an “impression of transparency” (not, one gathers, real transparency), and remarks that this is an effect Orwell had “identified as the ideal of good prose” in an essay called “Why I Write.” Here Menand is simply confused. The transparency that he is saying Orwell achieved an “impression of” is a transparency of character , showing oneself to be candid, honest, open—something accomplished by being modest and self-critical. Whether or not Orwell achieved this, and whether he really was transparent in this sense or was faking it, it is not the transparency that he talked of in “Why I Write.” That transparency is one of technical mastery , rather than a presentation of oneself as a regular chap; it means writing so well that readers never even notice your words, but instead see through them at what’s being talked about. “Good prose is like a window pane” is the key sentence of that essay, and he meant prose that never distracts the reader from its meaning even for a moment.


Menand tells us that two of Orwell’s biographers, Bernard Crick and Jeffrey Meyers, suspect that Orwell made up some details in a few of his early pieces. “Suspect” is the right word here; the phraseology Menand has to use in making this charge is “found it difficult to corroborate some of the incidents in Orwell’s autobiographical writings” and “has doubts that the event Orwell recounted … ever happened” and “suspect that ‘Shooting an Elephant’ has fabricated elements.” Relating another story about a supposed Orwell whopper, he ends with “Orwell is supposed to have replied…” In not one instance is it known that Orwell invented anything that he presented as fact, even in his earliest writings, where he was experimenting and learning his craft.


Another Orwell sin: he doubted that an independent India would be a success, Menand tells us, or that small nations could be really independent. To which there is a double reply, of which the first half is, is it certain that Orwell was wrong? India today often seems to be coming apart at the seams; it is embroiled in an apparently endless fight with Pakistan over Kashmir, and is having trouble suppressing internal fighting between its Hindu and Muslim citizens. It may survive these problems—one hopes so—but it is too early to say that we know Orwell was wrong. And the impossibility, as Orwell saw it, that small nations, incapable of self-defence, could be truly independent is even more likely to be proven true as the few great powers extend their “spheres of influence.” This may be deplorable, but Orwell wasn’t asking us to like it, he was simply saying that that’s how he saw the matter. The second and more important reply to make to Menand’s scolding of Orwell on this point is, so what? Orwell’s role was not that of prophet (not in the vulgar sense of prognosticator, at least), and if his views on what the future held were wrong, how should this affect our view of him? Orwell’s claim to fame is that he saw his own time clearly, and—at great cost to himself—wrote about it honestly and well.


Next Menand charge against Orwell: he disliked Gandhi. And what’s shocking about that, except to the members of a few little coteries, mostly found on campuses? Even many who admire Gandhi’s strategies against the British, and think that non-violence is a viable strategy against other oppressive regimes, have confessed that Gandhi was personally not everyone’s cup of tea. But Menand does not think it necessary to explain why a dislike of Gandhi is a black mark against Orwell; evidently Gandhi is the Orwell of Menand’s own milieu—a secular saint who is not to be questioned.


Noting that Orwell thought the method of Satyagraha might have been effective against the British, but doubted that it was a promising method for political struggle in general, Menand points out tartly that “a few years later, Martin Luther King, Jr., would find a use for it.” As it is to many of Menand’s cute little points, the retort is, so what? Orwell thought non-violent resistance would work only when used against highly civilized or decadent societies; does Menand think its success in the United States constitutes a counter-example? It was shrewd of Gandhi to see how the mood of Britain at the time—a combination of regret for the misdeeds of some of her Empire builders, distraction due to severe shortages of consumer goods, and general war-weariness—could be exploited to hasten Indian independence, but the success of that strategy was due to British defeatism, not to its general applicability. Would Menand suggest that it should have been used by internal dissidents in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia?


Furthermore, Menand tells us, Orwell liked Hitler; at least he said (in 1940) “I have never been able to dislike Hitler.” All he seems to have meant by that, as Menand himself shows us by the passage he has quoted, is that he thought that Hitler at least “grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life,” which Orwell too saw as false. And Menand goes on to spin a thread connecting this notion to one that “is not that far from the response of … people … who actively endorsed fascism.” If this remark about Hitler were the only evidence we had about the political views of an otherwise unknown Mr X, we might conjecture that Mr X had fascist sympathies; but we are talking of Orwell, about whom we know a great deal—so was he or was he not a fascist? If Menand thinks he was, he ought to have the courage to say so; if he does not, it is indecent of him to insinuate it.


And if Orwell was a villain for “liking Hitler” and disliking Gandhi, what shall we say about this statement of Gandhi’s, published in his paper Harijan on 22 June 1940:


“[The Germans of future generations] will honour Herr Hitler as a genius, as a brave man, a matchless organizer and much more.” 3


Rather more damning than Orwell’s remark—but I do not call Gandhi a fascist or near-fascist.

Tracing the progress of Orwell’s political views, Menand tells us that “…with the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, he flipped completely.” This statement is true, but it means exactly the opposite of what an innocent or careless reader would think. Many on the left had been urging war against the Nazis until that pact was announced, whereupon they overnight—literally—turned around and claimed that any such war would be an imperialistic one, with the working class as victims. Orwell’s course was exactly the reverse of this; up until the pact he was for peace, thinking a war would turn Britain itself fascist; when the pact was announced, he became a warlike patriot.


Menand tells us no lies, but he presents the story of Orwell’s political trajectory as if it were the usual left-wing one, rather than the very opposite. Is he unaware of the significance of the story he is telling? That’s hard to believe, but the only alternative is that he is aware, but doesn’t want his readers to be. I wonder, too, if it’s just carelessness, or something worse, that makes Menand say that Orwell “flipped” in his views. That verb is a rather contemptuous one; it’s used, for example, by the police to describe what criminals do when they betray their accomplices, and turn state’s evidence to win themselves a lighter sentence. Menand knows nothing discreditable about Orwell’s change of view after the pact, but for him, Orwell cannot change his mind for good reason; any switch is suspect.


Another sin of Orwell’s: he wrote in his best-known works of fiction of what might happen if certain political tendencies were carried to extremes, which is bad because, Menand tells us impatiently, tendencies never do get carried to extremes in real life. But as Orwell pointed out when confronted with just such an argument by critics of 1984 , he was writing satire—and satire works precisely by postulating such an outrageous extension of a “tendency.” Perhaps one of the causes of Menand’s dislike of Orwell is a dislike of satire. (And if tendencies do not get carried to extremes, perhaps satire is instrumental in seeing that they do not.)


Continuing his campaign to find Orwell responsible for what later generations have done with his work, Menand points out that many of the terms he invented are, today, conversation-stoppers—“Big Brother,” “doublethink,” and “thought police,” for examples. They are, says Menand, parallel to “liar,” “pervert,” and “madman” in being frequently abused to stifle criticism and rational argument. But if they are like such standard terms, what have they been convicted of? Are not “liar” and “madman,” at least, perfectly valid terms? And even if one doesn’t approve of the most common application of “pervert,” are there many who would deny that anything is perverted? All this is so obvious that a few lines later, Menand acknowledges it; he agrees that “there are Big Brothers and thought police in the world, just as there are liars and madmen.” So there is nothing wrong with the terms Orwell invented; in fact, we are indebted to him for them. Then what is wrong?


What really is wrong, Menand tells us, after tacitly withdrawing his charge against Orwell’s neologisms, is that in 1984 he portrayed a world in which all states were tyrannical, with no decency anywhere; a picture so depressing that it amounted to “encouraging people to see totalitarian ‘tendencies’ everywhere,” to see conspiracies everywhere, and throw terms like ‘thought police’ around indiscriminately. In fact, what all this shows is that Menand is not alone in being unable to read satire correctly. If it is true that ‘people’ commonly read Orwell’s deliberate extrapolation of current trends to their most nightmarish ‘logical’ conclusions as if they were sober, literal predictions of what the future is going to be like, then we have just another proof of the need for remedial reading classes.


Towards the end of the piece, Menand mounts an attack on Orwell for being obsessed with personal body odor, and judging people on the basis of how they smell. But odor, Menand assures us, “has no relation to virtue,” and on this point I am prepared to take his word for it; if he has made a serious study of the subject, and found no correlation between one’s degree of virtue and one’s location on the fragrance—stench spectrum, I bow to his expertise. (Only charity and shortage of space prevent me from mentioning the Odor of Sanctity, and from raising the subject of the medieval Beguines, who from modesty and desire to chastise the flesh never bathed, and whose body odor was reputed to blight crops, make cattle miscarry, and bring down low-flying birds.)


In the penultimate sentence of this piece, where he is presumably trying to summarize his argument and bring it all to a logical conclusion, he makes a remark that only leaves me puzzled: he says of Orwell “It is no tribute to him to turn his books into anthems to a status quo he hated. If he is going to be welcomed into the pantheon of right-thinking liberals, he should at least be allowed to bring along his goat.” (Orwell at one point kept a goat; its political significance is unknown.) The “status quo” that Orwell hated, if Menand is to be believed and his syntax to be trusted, is that of right-thinking liberalism (I don’t know just which strain of it is “right-thinking”; clearly it must be despicable, but apart from that its identity is obscure.) But if liberalism is what Orwell hated, what is it he loved?


As Menand tells us, Orwell called himself a socialist all his life, but he was one who spent most of his time arguing with and criticizing socialists; in this respect he was like that other life-long socialist, Sidney Hook, who found no inconsistency in being a socialist, and being a proud Cold Warrior and an ornament of the Hoover Institution. And like Hook, Orwell believed in a Democratic Socialism in which the adjective was more important than the substantive; if he identified with any group today, it would be with one strain of those who, in America, used to be called liberals; he would be closest, if we’re trying to place him in the American political spectrum, to a Henry Jackson Democrat.


Having slogged our way through his essay-review, we should now be in a position, if we ever will be, to decide what Menand meant by calling Orwell “wrong”—and so far as I can see, he can only have meant that Orwell was wrong to think that bad people stank, and wrong to let the CIA exploit his books after his death. I concede both points, but argue that even two such weighty counts against him are not enough to condemn Orwell. And I conclude that of the three claims made about Orwell in Menand’s title—“Honest, Decent, Wrong”—he is right in the first two, wrong in the last. Perhaps two out of three is good enough for anti-government work.

Article Footnotes

1 Louis Menand, “Honest, Decent, Wrong: The Invention of George Orwell,” The New Yorker (January 27, 2003), pages 84-91.

2 The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell , ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus . Four volumes. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968.

3 Quoted in Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Thy Hand, Great Anarch! (Addison-Wesley, 1989), page 536.