Why George Orwell is as relevant today as ever

By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Why Orwell Matters is the title of a book published some years ago by my much-lamented if misguided friend Christopher Hitchens. Whether Orwell matters, he clearly still fascinates, stimulates and enrages. How is it that a writer who died in 1950, at only 46, should be one of the most controversial figures of our own time?

During the war he spent some years working for the BBC (“wasting my own time and the public’s money”, as he characteristically said), and the George Orwell Memorial Trust has proposed that a statue of perhaps the most famous employee in the corporation’s history should be put up outside its new HQ. When Joan Bakewell brought this up with Mark Thompson, the outgoing director general, she was apparently told no, the proposal was “far too leftwing”.

If Thompson thinks Orwell automatically counts as “leftwing” then he hasn’t been following the story closely. It’s true that Orwell said: “Every line of serious work that I have written has been, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” But his posthumous fate was to be execrated by part of the left to which he thought he belonged while he was appropriated by a right he abhorred.

Even to those of us who reckon ourselves Orwellians he remains a mystery. He was a great something, but a great what? His pre-war novels are good but not very good, and although Robert Harris has called Nineteen Eighty-Four the most influential novel ever written, Orwell wasn’t a great novelist in the sense of George Eliot or Joyce. And various ditties he unwisely published make it clear that he was no poet either.

When Bakewell calls him “the greatest British journalist of his day” it’s something of a commonplace, but he was sometimes rather a bad journalist. During the second world war, Orwell contributed a “London letter” to Partisan Review, the radical US magazine. Most of us who write for a living might expect that if we filed a piece that began, “There is very little political news”, or concluded, “There are very few literary developments to report”, it would be spiked without much ado. As to his grasp of everyday politics, see him reporting in 1942 that Churchill would soon fall and be replaced by the towering figure of Sir Stafford Cripps.

It’s when he wanders from Westminster that he comes alive. When the “special relationship” is extolled, or the heroic wartime Anglo-American alliance, I think of Orwell recording the joke in London pubs that “Chamberlain appeased Hitler but Churchill appeases America”. And by late 1943, it was “difficult to go anywhere in London without having the feeling that Britain is now occupied territory. The general consensus of opinion seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are the negroes.”

Orwell never went to university but despite – or because of – that he was a brilliant literary critic, whether on great writers such as Dickens or “good bad” books (such as Hitchens’, as it happens).

After his death his shroud was stolen and waved by militant US anti-communists whom he would have detested. Joseph McCarthy began his campaign of mendacious demagoguery only weeks after Orwell died, and yet not long before his death Orwell had specifically warned the Americans against fighting totalitarianism with totalitarian means.

He attracted a fusillade of contempt from the quasi-Stalinist left, whether Raymond Williams, who said that Orwell “created the conditions for defeat and despair”, or Isaac Deutscher, who sneered at the “Bogey-cum-scapegoat which Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four” had created to frighten the masses. Without the energy to reopen those old feuds, one can confidently say that Orwell looks better today to anyone who had to live “under socialism” than do those who once denounced him for damaging the socialist cause by telling the truth.

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