George Orwell and the Big Cannibal Critics
by Jonah Raskin
Monthly Review, May 1983

Has the cultural atmosphere of the Cold War come back to haunt us? One would think so from reading Irving Howe's "Was Orwell Right?" (The New Republic, January 3, 1983), Norman Podhoretz' "If Orwell Were Alive Today' (Harper's, January 1983), and E.L. Doctorow's "One the Brink of 1984" (Playboy, February 1983).

As a novelist who has transformed history into fiction, Doctorow is especially interested in Orwell's prediction about literature, language, and the control of reality. "All over the world today, and not just in the totalitarian countries, assiduous functionaries in Ministries of Truth are clubbing history dumb and rendering language insensible," Doctorow writes. And while he admits that there has been resistance to the clubbing, his mood is pessimistic, even defeatist. "Nobody at the moment can stop the Reagan administration from doing anything it wants to in El Salvador," he insists. We are, Doctorow believes, on the brink of imprisonment in the endless Cold War Orwell envisioned.

Irving Howe has used Orwell before to fight his battles--in a 1969 essay he wished Orwell was alive to berate Tom Hayden. Now he uses Orwell as a club to beat "Stalinist terror," "The Soviet secret police," radical scholars such as Raymond Williams, and the "apparatchiks" in the "ruling circles" of Eastern Europe. Howe claims that Orwell predicted the moral and ideological decline of communism in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia. But about immoral regimes or secret police elsewhere Howe prefers to remain silent, leaving us the impression that for him an "Iron Curtain" really exists, with bad governments on that side and good governments on this side.

While Doctorow bends Orwell and Howe twists him, Norman Podhoretz simply swallows him whole. "If Orwell were alive today," he boasts, "he would be with the neoconservatives and against the left." Podhoretz' Orwell would be against the nuclear freeze, against communism, and for capitalism. The implication is that Orwell is alive and well, and living in Norman Podhoretz' mind.

Seizing Orwell isn't exactly new. Three decades ago the architects of the Cold War drafted him into their army of intellectuals and gave him top rank. An Englishman, Orwell had snob appeal; a self-proclaimed socialist, he had the proper credentials for a crusade against socialism. As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. observed in a front-page review of Animal Farm in the New York Times Book Review, "Conservative enemies of communism, like John Foster Dulles, sound merely smug and empty. The more penetrating critics are men who share the radical dissatisfaction with existing society which the communists seek to exploit, but understood through bitter experience the purpose of this exploitation." Orwell was especially valuable because he had written two popular works of fiction; even grade-school children could understand Animal Farm, and high-school students could grasp 1984.

How considerable was Orwell's contribution to Cold War fever is suggested by a story that Isaac Deutscher tells in Heretics and Renegades. Deutscher and Orwell were both European correspondents for the Observer immediately after the Second World War, and Orwell would regale Deutscher with his conspiratorial theories. A few weeks before Orwell's death in 1950, Deutscher found himself in New York. A news vendor begged him to read 1984 because "then you will know why we must drop the atom bomb on the Bolshies."

Certainly many progressive who lived through the ordeal of McCarthyism will remember Orwell as an intellectual sidekick of General Douglas MacArthur. There is, however, more to the story than that. When 1984 first appeared, reviewers noted that Orwell had his critical eye on America as well as Russia. Writing in The Nation in 1949, as unlikely a candidate as Diana Trilling remarked that Orwell's novel was a warning about "the ultimate dangers involved wherever power moves under the guide of order and rationality." And, in The New Leader, Daniel Bell connected the founding of the CIA that year with Orwell's fictional world.

Still, the danders of the CIA and the FBI were not the main concern of the Partisan Review/New Leader crowd. The sour notes about the United States that did creep into reviews of 1984 were buried in the avalanche of articles that heralded Orwell as a prophet of the "Free World."

It wasn't until the early sixties that critics grew bold enough to redefine the whole argument about Orwell. Herbert Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man, and Eric Fromm in a 1961 introduction to 1984 that still appears in the Signet paperback edition, depicted a Big Brother with an American face. They showed that "newsspeak" and "doublethink" existed in our media, and that totalitarianism had flowered in our corporate system. The thaw had begun. And so 1984 played a part in the revival of radicalism. If, during the Korean War, students were told that Big Brother was Stalin, they could see for themselves, during the Vietnam war, that Big brother was J. Edgar Hoover. The constant monitoring of the citizens of "Airstrip One" had its equivalent in Nixonian surveillance.

1984 can indeed be interpreted as a satire on the American Empire. Orwell can be claimed by contemporary radicals. But cautiously. Taken as a whole, Orwell's legacy is profoundly contradictory. Unpredictable and iconoclastic, he was a maverick to his dying day.

Orwell took sides and changed sides dramatically. He joined the Imperial Police in Burma and resigned from the Imperial Police, disgusted with the white man's job in the East. He went to Spain to fight against fascism, was wounded by a fascist sniper, but fled from Spain dedicated to fighting against communism. Strongly opinionated, Orwell reserved the right to change his opinions whenever he saw fit. ("Fascism and bourgeois 'democracy' are Tweedledum and Tweedledee," he wrote in 1937. And shortly thereafter he complained, "You can only pretend that Nazism and capitalist democracy are Tweedledum and Tweedledee.")

Orwell insisted on the necessity of taking sides, but at the same time he believed that it was futile to take sides. "By fighting against the bourgeoisie," he wrote in 1936, "a working man . . . becomes bourgeois." Moreover, Orwell had a perverse habit of admiring the side he opposed and detesting the side he supported. An anti-fascist, he had a fascist streak in him. In a 1940 review of Mein Kampf, he wrote, "I have never been able to dislike Hitler. Even since he came to power . . . I have reflected that I would certainly kill him if I could get within reach of him, but that I feel no personal animosity. The fact is that there is something deeply appealing about him." And, while it would be difficult to imagine anyone more anti-Stalinist than Orwell, it is true that he believed that Stalin was a decent, sincere human being. At the last minute he made changes in the manuscript of Animal Farm to make Stalin a more honorable figure.

Undoubtedly Orwell played a major role in whipping up Cold War hysteria. He himself was often hysterically anti-communist.

Shortly after Stalingrad, he maneuvered himself into the mind-boggling position of believing that "willingness to criticize Russia and Stalin is the test of intellectual honesty. It is the only thing that from a literary intellectual's point of view is really dangerous." A typically Orwellian touch in that he felt that condemning communism was a heroic, lonely act of rebellion.

And yet Orwell also gave the chill to Cold War Fever. When nuclear physicist Alan Nunn May was found guilty, along with Klaus Fuchs, of passing top-secret information to the Soviet Union, Orwell signed a petition for him because, he explained, "the less spy hunting the better." And though Orwell was very much under the spell of James Burnham, author of The Managerial Revolution, he insisted that Burnham's call for the suppression of the American Communist Party "would be calamitous" and must be opposed.

Norman Podhoretz dredges up Orwell's remark that "if one were compelled to choose between Russia and America . . . I would always choose America." And yet Orwell had no profound love for America. "American materialism," he felt, was as abhorrent as "Russian authoritarianism." Americans mistakenly assumed that size and success constituted moral value. Moreover, Orwell disliked the elite crops of American journalists, with "their glittering uniforms and their stupendous salaries." When Time and Life demanded an interview about 1984, Orwell refused to see them, condemning the "shame-making publicity" of the right-wing Republican press. But when Francis A. Henson, a journalist for the United Automobile Workers, wrote for a clarification of 1984 Orwell immediately responded, "My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter)."

Shortly before he died, Orwell targeted the "big cannibal critics that lurk in the deeper waters of American quarterly reviews."

Whom he had in mind he didn't say, though Conor Cruise O'Brien argued that had he lived Orwell would have savaged the "anti-communist literary Mafia." Perhaps. Howe and Podhoretz fit my image of "big cannibal critics"; and given the way they exploited Orwell for their own aims, it seems likely he would have gone after them.

But to count on Orwell as a consistent radical would be unwise. He was too unpredictable, too perverse. All his life he had no connection with a church or priest, and yet he stipulated in his will that his body "be buried (not cremated) according to the rites of the Church of England."

That final touch smacks of T.S. Eliot's conversion. Still, it is unlikely that Orwell would have become a neoconservative. His experience in Asia sealed him against colonial wars, imperialist adventures, and police actions, whether at home or abroad. ("The British government rules the Burmese in despotic fashion," he wrote. "Their relation to the British Empire is that of slave to master.") Unlike Podhoretz or Howe, Orwell would have known exactly why we were in Vietnam.

In many ways the labels (reactionary" and "progressive" don't fit Orwell. He defined himself as a "Tory anarchist," a contradiction in terms, but still it is a useful handle. The anarchist Orwell hated authorities and orthodoxies, and celebrated the autonomous individual. The Tory Orwell respected tradition, continuity, community. He loved the earth, its peoples and cultures, from Burma to Morocco, Catalonia to London. Orwell hated modern society with its television, glib magazines, Hollywood movies, chain bookstores, and piped-in music. He identified with the "down and out" and hungered for old-fashioned, remote, uncommercial cultures. In that sense he was a "reactionary," but a "reactionary" who wanted to protect the world that the neoconservatives would annex, pillage, plunder, destroy.

Only yet Norman Podhoretz and his crew do it their way and we will be turned into the likes of Winston Smith: loyal, patriotic, programmed to cheer military victories, drink gin, and love Big Brother.

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