Between the shadow and the ghost,
Between the white and the red,
Between the bullet and the lie,
Where would you hide your head? "The Italian soldier shook my hand," from "Looking Back on the Spanish War"
GEORGE ORWELL disappeared in 1950, before the Cold War entered its grimmest phase. He was spared the choices which faced other anticommunist leftists in the collision of the American and Soviet superstates. Orwell had tried desperately to carve out a place for a radical democratic socialism which would have no need either to defend the tergiversations of Stalin and his heirs in Moscow or to cling to American capitalism, which he regarded with contempt and horror. During the last years of his life he felt the opportunity for such a movement slipping away, and one is left to wonder how he would have responded when the Cold War began in earnest and the official anticomminists destroyed the possibility of any creative response to the conflict between the U.S. and the USSR.
The ambiguity is heightened by the fact that two of Orwell's closest friends during the war, Arthur Koestler and Franz Borkenau, became enthusiastic spokesmen for official anticommunism. Both were men whose works he respected and whose judgment and friendship he valued; both became ranking members of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a CIA-funded organization which was set up to ensure the loyalty of non-communist intellectuals all over the world to the interests of the emerging American empire. Koestler and Borkenau joined such right-wing figures as James Burnham and Sidney Hook in a war in which ideas were viewed as weapons only, intended to prevent any deviation, however slight, from the emerging American line. The style of these official anticommunists was a remarkable combination of intimidaation, ideoloGical doubletalk, and intellectual hooliganism.
Another of Orwell's close friends, Stephen Spender, became an editor of the CCF's magazine, Encounter--subsidized throughout its existence by indirect grants from the CIA. Christopher Lasch, who chronicled the history of CCF in his essay "The Cultural Cold War," gives this capsule description of Encounter's editorial policy during the fifties:
..They had little if anything to say about the American coup in Guatemala, the CIA's intervention in Iran, its role in the creation of Diem, or the American support of Trujillo; but they regarded communist "colonialism" with horror. The plight of the communist satellites wrung their hearts; that of South Korea and South Vietnam left them unmoved. They denounced racism in the Soviet Union while ignoring it in South Africa and the United States until it was no longer possible to ignore it.... It was possible that they had so completely assimilated the official point of view that they were no longer aware of the way in which their writings had come to serve as rationalizations of American world power.
It is frightening to imagine Orwell as one of these cold war intellectuals; indeed, the idea strikes at the root of our very conception of him and his meaning. To have accepted from the U.S. government the bit and blinders he would not take from the Communist party, one feels, would have transformed him at one stroke from a vibrant apostle of honesty in politics into a pathetic hack.
However, it is far from clear that Orwell would not have enlisted in the cultural cold war, at least at the outset. The evidence is maddeningly contradictory. Orwell engaged in a little red-baiting feud with Konni Zilliacus, a Labour MP, whom he called a "crypto-Communist," a follower of the Soviet line who was, therefore, an enemy of democracy; at the same time, he refused to support a protest against Soviet actions in Eastern Europe because it did not also protest British actions in Greece. In an attack on Zilliacus, he wrote, "the only big political questions in the world today are: for Russia--against Russia; for America--against America; for democracy--against democracy." Yet in the same essay he proposed--with the air of a man who knows he will not be listened to--a European-wide Socialist federation which would include all former colonies on an equal basis--the only plan he could think of which could rupture the soul-shattering logic of the Cold War.
Yet one thing seems clear: even if Orwell had joined the cultural shock troops, he could never have remained with them long. More than anything else in the world he despised such "smelly little orthodoxies," and his mind was at its most joyous and acute in sniffing out the contradictions in official humbug. Unlike Koestler and Borkenau--both former Communists--Orwell had never been able to muster any enthusiasm for intellectual hooliganism; an Orwell who had become convinced that it was necessary would have been a broken man. It seems likely that he would have withdrawn from politics and simply let go of the world.
The question seems, perhaps, more important than it is. Orwell has become a sort of moral touch-stone for many intellectuals in political matters. A particularly fatuous example of this mentality can be found in Lionel Trilling's introduction to Homage to Catalonia, Orwell's account of the Spanish Civil War. "Orwell, by reason of the quality that permits us to say of him that he was a virtuous man, is a figure in our lives," Trilling writes. He says that Orwell "seems to be serving not some dashing daimon but the plain, solid Gods of the Copybook Maxims. He is not a genius--what a relief! What an encouragement. For he communicates to us the sense that what he has done, any one of us could do."
This is a remarkably contorted way of getting at some simple truths. Orwell was, indeed, a virtuous man; many of his values, in fact, were those of nineteenth century Britain. But Trilling and many others seem to have made Orwell into a sort of holy fool, driven toward truth and morality for reasons he could not understand. It is a relationship a little like that of a nine-year-old boy to Batman; in a tight spot, he will ask himself, "What would Batman do?" If Orwell would have done it, it must have been all right.
BUT ORWELL was not a holy fool. Trilling and many others have presented him as a naive figure, who blundered upon the crucial questions of his age without understanding them and then passed through successive waves of disgust and disillusionment, finally reaching a nadir of despair at which he wrote 1984 and died. There is a grain of truth in this concept, but only a grain. Orwell picked up his political education in bits and pieces, on the run; he toyed in print with ideas he would later reject. But he came to understand political life in its concrete details as few writers have. In doing so, he evolved political ideas which are striking for their honesty and utility.
Orwell is not useful in a programmatic sense; viewed as a whole, his thought is remarkably contradictory and confusing. But in reading Orwell we can learn invaluable lessons about how to approach the world of politics and our role in it, how to gauge our struggle and the ends to which it is directed. His is not the impervious goodness of Batman or the flawless wisdom of Jiminy Cricket; his virtue is more human and more useful.
If it can be put in a sentence, Orwell's outstanding quality was his ability to resist intellectual hooliganism and muddleheadedness of any sort. He lived through a decade in which the intelligentsia rampaged through the streets of Europe, hurling their ideas like rocks and firebombs through the windows of every institution on the continent; yet he seems never to have felt the temptation to convert his cleverness into a weapon. This is his chief gift to his readers. To understand how he came by it, we must follow the evolution of his political consciousness.
Above all else, it is necessary to understand the twin facts that Orwell did not wish to be a political man and that, once having become one, he could not go back. Whenever he could, he withdrew physically from the world of politics and sought refuge in out of the way places: Hertfordshire, Morocco, the Hebrides. But during these retreats, he followed the events of the world almost obsessively and wrote his interpretations of them in essays and letters to his friends. The characteristic note of these essays is a desperate desire, not to analyze what is happening, but to alter it. Orwell viewed his writings as political acts: as the years passed, he developed an enormous political sophistication and an overwhelming wish to be rid of it. Near the end of his life he wrote, "In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties." Clearly he often wished that this might have happened; but in the same essay he wrote, "It is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally."
He was a man who gave himself over to the problems of his age, willingly but without joy, knowing exactly what he was gaining and what he was giving up by doing so. In 1936 he wrote to Henry Miller, "I have a sort of belly-to-earth attitude and always feel uneasy when I get away from the ordinary world where grass is green, stones hard, etc." This belly-to-earth attitude was the mainstay of his political thought; his consciousness of the small facts of life shows up in all his pieces of reportage and analysis: although he may frankly admit that he does not understand the political situation, he never fails to include small details that make up living: the headlines on newspaper posters, the