I have a memory that Marx once said that all his work was a footnote to Rousseau. Reading, D.J. Taylor’s ‘Orwell The Life’, I could conceive that all western political and moral thought is a footnote to Orwell: or rather a conversation with him.
Whether or not Marx said it I don’t know and have never bothered to find out. In much the same way, it is some 30 years since I read most of Orwell, his novels, essays and journalism, yet he remains, at least to me, the slave whispering in the triumphant Roman General’s ear, “Remember, you are mortal.”
We describe as ‘Orwellian’ any régime or movement of political terror which induces a dazed, mute numbness in its victim. It is a cliché which the best, and sometimes the worst, writers avoid. Yet the problem with them is that they are often true, just as stereotypes can be. Indeed, that benoughted destruction of resolve has another Orwellian sense: in 1937 we see his first wife Eileen in Barcelona abstracted from her ability to think by the menace of the Communist Party.
However much the ‘Orwellian’ epithet resonates around public discourse, one is reminded of one’s core impression of the man as in a most awkward way plain honest. His criticisms would not baulk at political or moral inconvenience. If one could compare the methods of the CP and Fascists, then it wasn’t decent to overlook the CP’s crimes; and of course it meant that they shared some mind-set. One thinks of the minute flaring of Orwell’s nostrils as he observed the grime-strewn floors of his working-class hosts in ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’. Did he recall his Burmese days when he chucked his fag butts around his living-room? Still, to marmalize the spirit of a people is not the same as inattention to the chores.
It was Orwell who pointed out, a tad embarrassingly for the head of the British CP in the 30s, Harry Pollitt, one of a long line of UK Stalinists who sound as if they formed part of a Middlesbrough centre-back partnership, that slatternliness could be ouvrierist: as if Marx was slapping his party descendants in the face with his favourite, and Terentian, aphorism, “Nothing human is alien to me” – or you or anyone.
If Terence and that anonymous Roman slave could susurrate our little and big temptations, surely Orwell was on to something when he spotted that obscure writers and clever proles, if unchecked, could transform a righteous battle into a Triumph of the Will. Christendom, smithereened by the Great War, fell to strong men, mini-gods of weedy totalitarianisms which lasted only from 12 to 72 years, naked apes who befoul drains just like the Wigan proletariat. Their Palme Dutts did not stamp on our faces forever but they did substitute the worship of God with that of a set of commonplace humans, often festooned in martial paraphernalia hinting at the loving God’s reversion to Yahwist psychopathy. Hitler, Stalin, Franco, Mussolini.
Orwell marked out the sado-masochism of the dictators’ rule. The sadism of the ruler: the masochism of the ruled. Yet he added love to it. Not only does the torturer need to be loved but he also ‘loves’ his victim object. There is more. The tormentor is not psychologically profound, the persecuted is. The problem is not that the species harvests so many who want to order but that there is a super-production of those who wish to obey. In the literature on business leadership there are about 3,000 titles: on followership, a handful. We still take for granted the urge to submit.
And submission – in Arabic, ‘Islam’ – remains a ubiquitous impulse in the political animal. As well as the refusal to recognize one’s own Janus face. For we all think that we stand for the good: liberals, socialists, communists, islamists. If I do not think that I am moral, my own inner conversation is irreparably divided against itself. Not only can my centre not hold, I do not even have one.
Orwell, in the semi-hysterical reaction of the left to Brexit and Trump’s presidency, has returned to the top of the best-seller lists. ‘1984’ rules. In the ever-so-slightly smug and definitely self-righteous response to the election of an Apprentice President, the left declares fascism imminent. Equality under the law has gone, a dark age beckons, all social norms discarded, I am the arbiter of the just. All bets are off and I fucking hate Big Brother. Let’s punch a Nazi.
Of course, Blair’s ‘1984’ was written just after the midnight in the twentieth century and it is suffused with the horror of one of the top 20 most destructive wars in history. How could it not reflect Eric’s awareness of human depravity?
Is Trump as depraved as Hitler and Stalin? Of course not. And nowhere near so: sooner or later, the left has to identify the spectrum of politicians with whom it disagrees. And to respond to them in a manner which does not mulishly and inaccurately lump them under the playground taunt of ‘fascist’. Remember, Lenin did differentiate between capitalists: why else write a pamphlet titled, ‘Left Wing Communism: an infantile disorder’, an uncharacteristically polite way of informing his followers of their relationship with guano and mental well-being?
Are we living in ‘1984’? No, we’re not, at least in the west. Culturally, the left has won, and enacted, all the moral arguments: the idea of equality under the law, the democratic impulse, respect for ideas – and those who propose them – in the public sphere, the irrelevance of one’s appearance or essence to the persuasiveness of your case. It’s over. In the future, the right might try, but will probably fail, to overturn that. In fact, a lot of the North European right agree with those ideas. In this sense, Orwell was wrong, but that is not what he was trying to forewarn in ‘1984’.
Most views of Orwell post-1945 see him as the voice of good old-fashioned, decent British common-sense socialism. His biographer, Taylor, as far as I recall, underplays his fascination, and intellectual argument, with the ex-Trotskyists Burnham and Shachtmann. In 1946, Orwell reviewed Burnham’s theories a mere 6 years after this conversation: in 1940 Hitler asked the Norwegian ambassador who he thought would win the war. The brave legate replied, “Trotsky”.
Orwell’s intellectual atmosphere reeked under Trotsky’s miasma: that’s why ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ are a conversation with, and, frankly, apology for Snowball/ Goldstein/Bronstein/Trotsky who could write like Shakespeare but act like Richard III.
Natheless, we all know that Orwell was a morally serious person: and so was Trotsky. One cannot possibly say the same about huge swathes of the modern left.
The most egregious example is the Second Iraq War. It was trivially simple to oppose it. The sole argument against it was the possibility of a bad outcome: which one can say about any war. The left – and it was the left in general – opposed it on the basis that it was imperialist, mainly because they, irrelevantly, thought that Dubya was a klutz: exactly how most British workers thought of Winston Churchill in 1939.
The 2nd Iraq war was obviously not an imperialist war and it differs from most other US interventions in that it attempted to, and did, install democracy in Iraq. The western left has utterly failed to notice this, preferring instead to focus on the trivial issue of George Bush’s rhetorical skills. That war ended disastrously, largely because of Bush’s hopeless Stage IV planning, and Saint Barack Obama’s withdrawal of American troops from the nascent Iraqi democracy.
If I were to turn the mulish leftist allegation-filled mind-set on its head, I’d point out that Obama left Iraqis to stand up for their own democracy. Let’s give Iraq 6 years to build a functioning democracy. While the US, 72 years after WWII and stationing troops in their countries, can’t rely on the Germans and Japanese to guarantee their own. This looks like US anti-white and anti-those-damned-clever-East-Asians racism. Any consistent western leftist might consider calling that racism – and they would still be wrong. Of course it ain’t true, but the thought could never even cross the mind of the bubble-primed modern western leftist desperate to spot US racism against a brownish Middle Eastern person.
Now we are left with the collapse of confidence in universal human values, largely as a result of the anti-Iraq war critique by the western left. What is noticeable is those critiques’ massive ignorance of the nature of Saddam’s régime. Largely, the left does not know anything about, or refuses to acknowledge its unfamiliarity with, Iraq 2003. And that is precisely the point that Orwell made about the USSR in 1948.
Of course, the big problem is that leftists think that any western intervention anywhere is immediately bad. Iraq is the go-to example. They fail to observe that Obama, by prematurely withdrawing US troops, sabotaged any possible good outcome in Iraq. They allege that the lesson is that the west – and the UN, which has played possum for 2 decades – should not intervene anywhere.
The word ‘Iraq’ is a short-hand for the unnecessary prosecution of a fight which should never have been started: it has become axiomatically the definition of a bad outcome. Yet, look at the statistics on Iraqi deaths pre- and post-2003. Saddam Hussein’s murderous efficiency makes IS look like amateurs. It outperforms IS by a magnitude of 10s or 100s.
As one tweeter expressed it, the left is suffering from “the awful ripple effects from the stigmatization of the Iraq intervention…” and particularly from its refusal to face Obama’s disastrous Middle East policy: his enabling of the growth of Iranian Shi’a theocracy and Ba’athist rule-by-torture.
In the short term this refusal by large swathes of the left has become a type of decadent grande bouffe at which it eats itself. Turn insular and isolationist and identify an identity from which you can indulge yourself in telling off the members of another group whose ideas, contrary to the rigour-free claims of your own ideology, you present as biologically determined: all white men are the same.
More seriously, in the medium and long term, the western left must take up a rigorous analysis of the Iraq war and its aftermath. I only see it being done to any extent in the security analysis sphere, among whom the facts really matter. We have a catastrophic long-term effect: the tiresome knee-jerk short-hand of ‘Iraq’ – all of it – being the definition of predictable failure.
If universal human rights are not worth defending everywhere and we become obsessed by who can have a dump where, this is the trivialisation of the left. This is how the useless western leftists – as Lenin said, useful idiots – enable theocracies, genocidalists and kleptocrats to determine the world order for the next generation. Because they have retreated from any beliefs without borders not even into the boudoir, but to the bathroom. And they are reduced to scuttling around in New York sucker-punching obscure, irrelevant and ineffective neo-Nazis like Richard Spencer and claiming world-historical class victory through a righteous clocking. How low and pathetically thuggish.
In some mood of exasperation, Marx once exclaimed, “Then I am not a Marxist.” In a zeitgeist where western leftist leaders openly excuse Islamo-fascists and others wibble on about punching right-wingers they don’t like, I know how he felt.