Christopher Hitchens on George Orwell
BBC Interview, 24 June 2002


Andrew Marr  Tonight, how much does George Orwell still matter more than 50 years after his death and what is the role of independent minded writers like him in public debate? To discuss these questions I'm joined by Christopher Hitchens, columnist and writer, who's just published Orwell's Victory. George Orwell wrote 1984 as a warning against the threat of totalitarian politics. He created terrifying spectres, Big Brother, Newspeak, Room 101, the Ministry of Truth, illustrated a central message that language and history are powerful tools of political control therefore the abuse of language, rewriting of history destroy liberty and democracy.

More than 50 years after his death, public debate is clouded by political spin, news management, corporate advertising and public relations, an Orwellian euphemism if ever you heard one, even Big Brother and Room 101 have been expropriated and are now the titles of popular TV shows, it seems that Orwell no longer matters very much at all, not of course quite the theme of Orwell's Victory...

 

Christopher Hitchens  Not precisely.

 

Andrew Marr  Not precisely, can we start with something that does run through the book, I think the whole way, which is the extent to which Orwell relies upon there being a kind of intelligent, politically educated and indeed very English audience that's available to him, the kind of commonsensical English audience which in some of its moods is quite culturally reactionary, like Orwell, you mention homosexuality, his strange hatred of vegetarianism and sandal wearing and so on. There is a question I suppose as to whether that sort of audience is still available?

 

Christopher Hitchens  Well, there's also the question implied by what you were saying, as to whether it existed then, or not. I think he decided to write as if people could be addressed in that way, as if they could be addressed as humane and intelligent and democratic, but he wasn't always completely confident that such an audience was there and he also was never confident he could get published. He had a regular column in Tribune for a while, called As I Please, a sort of occasional column, but he had a permanent struggle to get published in book form. TS Elliot turned down Animal Farm, famously Victor Gollancz turned down 1984, a lot of his books weren't really published till he was dying or dead. He never had a steady access to an audience, but I think he therefore decide to write as if, so to speak, as we would now say virtually, there is this principled Englishman. But just on the point of Englishness, you know, it should be remembered, he was born in India, spoke two or three Indian languages, his first published work was in French.

 

Andrew Marr  Yes, something I hadn't known actually, until I read...

 

Christopher Hitchens  He spoke and read, he knew it well enough to write in it. He fought in Spain, having been born in Bengal. He wrote Coming Up For Air, the most wonderful sort of bucolic English reminiscence in Morocco, just before the war. So, he's not the insular warm beer and cricket and all that sort stuff, figure that people often like to imagine, both admirers and detractors by the way like to imagine that.

 

Andrew Marr  But he uses the figure himself, doesn't he, I mean, he kind of creates himself perhaps a little more flannelled and four square than he was with his, I mean he does bang on about ordinary people and intellectuals and, as I say, vegetarian, sandal wearing, creeps of one kind or another, it's almost as if he's playing a pose with this a lot of the time.

 

Christopher Hitchens  Well, remember, also, that Orwell, is, George Orwell is the name that he adopts, as a writer. He chooses the name of the patron saint of England, and a well-known meandering river in East Anglia, and then his son is called Richard Horatio – his adopted son. So yes there's undoubtedly a sort of guardedness and fealty to Englishness, but he was very well aware of what the downside of that was. I mean he, he'd been brought up in a colonial Indian family, his father's business was flogging opium, from British India to China, you didn't get much lower than that. He was well aware of the prejudices of his class, which were class prejudices, they didn't like the great unwashed. They didn't like the people they ruled in Asia, they were rude about them as well as mean to them. He always had difficulties with women and with feminism, not quite the same thing, there is after all, women the sex as well as women the movement, and he didn't like Jews. But the interest of his work to me is that it shows a man educating himself out of his prejudices. Talking his way out of them. And the only one he couldn't conquer, was a hopeless revulsion, he couldn't get over it, was, I think fear of homosexuality, as well as detestation.

Andrew Marr  Yes, which may have gone, gone back to his school days and who knows, but it was certainly...

 

Christopher Hitchens  It almost sounds a bit, if I could just say this, but people who go on about it too much are usually in some way distraught. And I think it's quite likely, we have some hints form his early boyhood, that... there may be something nasty in the woodshed, perhaps.

 

Andrew Marr  Yeah, yeah, bicycle shed, anyway.

 

Christopher Hitchens  To say nothing of the bicycle shed.

 

Andrew Marr  This book, Orwell's Victory, seems, you'll tell me if this is true, to be written in, with a sense of some anger against two particular groups of people, one the kind of left wing attackers, Raymond Williams who was a shameful communist misreader of Orwell ...

Christopher Hitchen  And of much besides.

 

Andrew Marr  He was my tutor, briefly, so I have a particular reason to know this, and on the one hand and of course the appropriation by the cold war American right, James Bernham onwards, on the other hand. Now, just describe for us, the one thing that draws all this together, the story that I didn't know was his Ukrainian publication, where I think at the end you tell us that the American Army impounded Animal Farm and then handed it over to the Red Army for destruction, which is a beautiful symmetry there.

 

Christopher Hitchens  Perfect yes, and it was pirated in publication, it's first publication was in Ukraine, the only introduction Orwell ever wrote was for the Ukrainian edition which was produced by a group of socialist Ukrainian refugees, from the displaced persons camps in Europe, who wanted to take part in the argument about why Stalinism was a deformation of the socialist idea and so forth. And yes, having been turned down, not just by the left publishers like Gollancz, but by the most conservative publisher in history, TS Elliot, who quite consciously says in his letter to Orwell, look we don't want to be offending the Ruskies at this stage, Joe Stalin is our friend.

The little pirate edition, it has a bit of a life among these people living in the rubble of Europe at that moment, but then it's confiscated by the US Army and handed over to the Russians to be burned and there you have everything in a nutshell that makes Orwell still important, I haven't forgotten your opening question, by the way, because this is an example, I think, that outlives the battles he took part in. And I say that because I think it's a great example of intellectual courage and intellectual honesty. He did all this with nothing but a typewriter, basically, he was always ill, he died ridiculously young of a quite treatable tuberculosis, if he'd been richer he would...

 

Christopher Hitchens  And that's why I, I don't want to repeat myself, it's what I meant, when I said before, what's fascinating is to see him arguing his way out, naturally he is a Tory. But naturally he's a lot of other things he doesn't like, he reads and writes and argues his way out of these positions, he wouldn't be so interesting if it seemed self evident to him that everyone should be a socialist, you know, that he wouldn't have been a very combative or very muscular writer, I don't believe. So, there's that. Most of the people who broke from Left or centre Left towards the Right, in the 50s and 60s and 70s, did so because of some kind of reckoning they'd come to in their minds at some point, often very belated, with communism.

Now, with Orwell, you see that was unnecessary, he'd never had to talk his way out of that, he'd always seen straight through it. He wrote very, very early on about Russia that you could tell from the tone of its propaganda what kind of society it must be like. And there's a wonderful compliment paid to him, I'll just put this in parenthesis, by Czeslaw Milosz, the great Polish poet, National Laureate of Poland now, who in 51, just as Orwell had died, wrote a book called The Captive Mind, saying within the Polish Communist Party, he'd defected, there is the secret circulation of this book, 1984, which creates much discussion within the inner party and every one is astonished to find that this Englishman who has written it has never visited the Soviet Union, they can't believe anyone could have got it so right without living under it. Now, I don't think any writer has ever been paid such a handsome compliment, in a way. Here's a book about the book that's within the inner party, the book becomes a much-discussed book within the inner party, within a year of its publication. And they all think it's a realistic description, but he got this from noticing how boys in English boarding schools would cringe and sort of lick the headmaster's hand and thank him for being beaten, you know, in the hope of getting, awful masochism. And also the way only a very few English people were needed to hold down a whole population in Burma. None of these experiences were wasted in creating this awful sadomasochistic drama in 1984, and then of course he had seen what Stalin's police were capable of, in Spain.

 

Andrew Marr  The evidence of the show trails in the late 30s...

 

Christopher Hitchens  Well he'd seen it in Spain himself, he nearly was captured for a show trail in Catalonia, he did see people disappear...

 

Andrew Marr  Yet he never knew that did he?

 

Christopher Hitchens  No, he doesn't know it.

 

Andrew Marr  He never knew it.

 

Christopher Hitchens  Yet he knew he had to get out in a hurry, but he didn't know that had they caught him he was going to be made a show trial figure, no. He would have been a good defendant I think, probably.

 

Andrew Marr  You break your book down, on Orwell, into other issues, I'd like to come onto Orwell and the Right, moving on, because brilliant as his analysis of Stalinism and communism is, a lot of people say well it's fallen back a bit in the world, you mention North Korea and other areas, most of the world, it doesn't seem to be so much of an omnipresent question now. It's almost as if in the western world, some people have given up on politics and gone shopping now. We live in a world where all sorts of problems with language and truth but they're not very often problems that he was dealing with.

 

Christopher Hitchens  Well, before we leave North Korea, which is, I agree it's a small society, I'm one of the few people to have visited it, it is a country that still might give us a lot of trouble and it is, believe me, it is exactly like a 1984 state, it is as if it was modelled on 1984, rather than 1984 on it, it is extraordinary, the leader worship, the terror, the uniformity, the misery, the squalor. And in Zimbabwe recently, the opposition press reprinted Animal Farm as a satire on Mugabe and that's also, that for us in this country it's not a small example, it's an important one. So he does continue to be found relevant and in the dichotomy you just pointed to, between the declining political life and the sort of affectless, unironic, pretend ironic culture, I still think he's got a lot to contribute because he's very useful in his arguments about language saying, "Look, actually, there is a relationship between language and truth, there may even be such a thing as objective truth which the post modernists would deny, at any rate it's worth fighting for and worth witnessing for, and if you don't believe it your language will show it as who would say it does not". I mean the piffle which you see published now in the academy, so in these arguments especially as they take place in America, where I live, against the affectless and the postmodern, it's surprising how often people find themselves reaching for their Orwell as a, not as a breviary, but as a counter example and as a warning.

 

Andrew Marr  But also as a clear example of good writing with relatively short sentences and more Anglo-Saxon words, than Latinate ones and all of those things too. It's usually embarrassing to go back to Orwell.

 

Christopher Hitchens  And not allowing the politicised standard in literature, for example, to read Orwell on Kipling you'll see that he says, "Well the guy's opinions are often disgusting and indeed he himself was probably a rather hateful person, some of this makes his writing less intelligent and less amusing, but" he says, "it's extraordinary how many phrases Kipling has given the language". Of course it now turns out that Orwell has given us quite a number too, but he would have refused to say, "Oh well you can't read Kipling because he was a racist colonialist fascist", that would have bored him senseless.

 

Andrew Marr  As in you can't read Larkin because he was a filthy old perv and hated women and all of that.

 

Christopher Hitchens  I have a section in there comparing Orwell and Larkin, their attitude to England and to landscape and to sort of pessimism is in many ways similar and I think their tastes in poetry are not dissimilar. They once met, though they didn't know that they had, but on every actual question they come out the other way, the opposite way from each other.

 

Andrew Marr  Can writers have anything like the same impact now because, I mean, you were saying earlier on, of course Orwell was in his lifetime limited to certain relatively small publications, couldn't get his books out, all that kind of stuff. Never the less, partly because of the cold war, he was given an enormous boost, he was driven into every classroom in the western world and he was, you know, Penguin were producing vast, vast quantities. When it comes to political argument, of the kind you do now, most of it is really at the edges now, it's small magazines, it's groups of devotees in different countries who read small publication, books and so on. Do you think that, in the age of television, in the age of all this stuff, that the individual, the independent writer can still have a decisive influence anywhere?

 

Christopher Hitchens  Well, I think it's more than a pious hope, yes, I think that it's surprising how in moments of crisis, which will recur, have occurred recently, people suddenly feel they wouldn't mind reading someone who took things seriously. His sales always go up at such times as do the sales of people Alexander Solzhenitsyn and others who've sort of witnessed for historic truth and so on. There aren't very many of them at the moment no. By the way, I didn't want you, you made a very good point, about the way that he was sort of forced into the schoolroom. Partly what I've tried to do in this book is to rescue him from the sort of goody-goody plaster saint image that's been imposed on him. He was always a figure of controversy and he didn't want, he would never have dreamt he'd be given as a good example to schoolchildren, it would have been a revolting idea. And that all depends on using a certain cannon of his, a very limited one, 1984 and Animal Farm as cold war parodies or parables. That's, he would have seen that was propagandistic in itself, and indeed, gave very strong instructions on his death bed that, that's not how the books were to be read.

 

Andrew Marr  You sort of, you try to kind of rescue the early novels, I'm not quite sure how much your heart is in it, I have to say.

 

Christopher Hitchens  Well, I can't do much with The Clergyman's Daughter but it was, it was a little better than I'd remembered it, it was the one I least enjoyed rereading, but I think Burmese Days is a very good start, and I've always loved Coming Up For Air. I think it's a wonderful evocation of the Edwardian period, but written without sentimentality or nostalgia, it's saying this kind of reverie may well be putting us in danger because we're failing to look outward at the wider world and the nemesis that it presents us with.

 

Andrew Marr  If Orwell was writing now, would he, I mean, how much would he be concentrating on the way America has kind of lumbered around the world. I mean, you, another point you make is that, really, you know, the big gap or the big miss, if you like is America, oh he doesn't go there, he only sees it through...

 

Christopher Hitchens  Yes, it's his main failure. I mean he gets the three main questions right, imperialism is going to end, he's sure of that, long before most people believe it's possible, he thinks it will and it should end. The world is not meant to be run just by Europeans. He's axiomatically right about Fascism and Nazism.

 

Andrew Marr  And Stalinism.

 

Christopher Hitchens  And then on Stalinism, he's distilled out of these two, he realises that first, that it's not a utopia, it's a dystopia and secondly it won't last because it's based on slavery. And so we have to, since he only lived to be 46, partly forgive him for ignoring the other great thing of the 20th century, the emergence of America. He does refer to it a bit...

 

Andrew Marr  There's a great bit at the end, where you say, sorry just to break in, that, again I hadn't realised, that he was thinking about going to investigate the American Deep South, very, very shortly before he died.

 

Christopher Hitchens  Yes. He had a group of passionate admirers in America around the Partisan Review Magazine, which if your audiences don't know about it was the sort of nursery of Mary McCarthy and Dwight Macdonald and Saul Bellow and that whole generation of the New World... they all loved Orwell and he was their London correspondent. They kept saying, "You must come over here," and also they said, "it would be good for your health, the climate is much better", and he was going to do a Mississippi trip, Orwell on the Mississippi would have been something to see, but up until then, it wasn't just he didn't have time, he did have a slightly snobbish attitude towards the United States, he thought it was big, well that's obvious...

 

Andrew Marr  But, vulgar I was going to say.

 

Christopher Hitchens  Vulgar, coarse, materially crass and probably expansionist and ambitious.

 

Andrew Marr  And he's right about all those things too, but...

 

Christopher Hitchens  But he's against a certain kind of anti-Americanism as well. He didn't trust those who detested America because he knew from its literature, which he studied quite well, that it had a democratic culture and if it provided opportunities for Jewish novelists to emerge, you know, from a new generation who's parents had come off the boat, you know, that kind of thing, but it's very patchy what he writes about it. You asked me what he would say now, well, I know what he would say about the grand question of the moment which is, there's no comparison, can or should be made, no moral equivalence, between the United States, whatever it's shortcomings and the war of theocratic absolutism, which rejoices in the destruction of non-believers. I mean that's the totalitarianism of our day and the same sorts of people he would have loathed are making their crummy little excuses, their little point scoring abasements of themselves, yeah, that's a guess I can make with as near to moral certainty as I can hope to get.

 

Andrew Marr  Yeah. And he would have avoided the intense and manifold temptations in the intervening period of being incorporated by the cold warriors and by the, you know, so many people went over to American universities and went into the embrace of big, rich America in the second half of the 20th century. You think he wouldn't have done, he'd have gone to the Mississippi, he'd have written about what was happening there...

 

Christopher Hitchens  Someone who would turn down the Book of The Month Club selection, when he was broke, for 1984, because they wanted him to make a few changes to make it less Marxist, in its literary logic, would I think not have been one of those who took money from the CIA to publish Encounter Magazine, say, which was something that a number of his friends and contemporaries did go on to do. He was in a certain way, incorruptible, a lot of people are honest in one way, say intellectually, then they get a little bit shady on the other and it compromises them, I think he knew there was a connection. At least, who knows, but we know that whenever these tests were applied to him, he did pass them in this way so I don't think he could have been, the idea of him becoming, the vulgar word is a sell out, is just, it seems to me, runs counter to everything we know about him as a person and a writer.

 

Andrew Marr  So not a saint, but incorruptible.

 

Christopher Hitchens  One of his best remarks is in his essay, his introduction to a piece on Mahatma Gandhi, he says, "Saints must always be judged guilty until absolutely proven innocent".

 

Andrew Marr  Christopher Hitchens, thank you very much.

 

Christopher Hitchens  Thank you





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