Left, Right, Left, Right: Orwell Has Been Co-Opted to Defend Almost Everything, Including the US Star Wars Programme and the Falklands War. Is It Time to Rescue Him from His Friends? (the Back Half)

By Taylor, D. J. | New Statesman (1996), May 20, 2002 | Go to article overview

Left, Right, Left, Right: Orwell Has Been Co-Opted to Defend Almost Everything, Including the US Star Wars Programme and the Falklands War. Is It Time to Rescue Him from His Friends? (the Back Half)


Taylor, D. J., New Statesman (1996)


Had he lived, Orwell would have turned 99 next month. The spangled Edwardian literary generation of which he was apart, and which dominated English literature in the half-century after his death, is dead and gone. Alone among that gentlemanly throng -- Waugh, Connolly, Powell, Greene, Spender -- all of whom were known to him and several of whom were personal friends, Orwell has burrowed into the popular consciousness, entered the language and the interior lives of people who barely know that he existed. This is quite an achievement, comparable with Dickens's impact on the cultural landscapes of the 19th century, and a process of mental colonisation, moreover, that shows no sign of slowing down or diluting itself to the point of vagueness. We remember Dickens for his ability to make us laugh and for his moral authority. We remember Orwell for his moral authority, too, but also remain starkly conscious that it has a direct, rather than an a abstract, connection to the world we inhabit.

At the same time, it is possible to admire someone for their moral authority without quite knowing of what that moral authority consists. Looking over the newspaper comment pages from autumn last year, for example, one was not in the least surprised to find Orwell being invoked as a flail with which to whip "bleating" opponents of the post-11 September military action in Afghanistan. Orwell, it may be said, is always good value for the armchair strategist. His writings spill over into nearly every area of public life, and if you look carefully enough there is pretty sure to be a quotation to fit any exigency. It would be perfectly possible, for instance, to make him out as both a supporter of war -- he was notably hard-headed about the saturation bombing of German cities -- and someone who regarded the very act of picking up a rifle as morally indefensible. In either case, the value of his observations rests on his personal experience, unlike most of those currently pontificating on the international situatio n, of having thrown bombs into trenches with the intention of killing the men in there.

The irony of Orwell's recent role as quotation-supplier to military apologists -- an Observer piece reproduced some particularly injurious remarks about left-wing defeatism made in the aftermath of Dunkirk -- is that he should be so consistently used to shore up the defences of the right. As Christopher Hitchens shows in his new study, Orwell's Victory, this process reached its nadir in 1983 when, zealously misquoted and misrepresented, Orwell was suborned into the ranks of the American Star Wars nuclear defence programme by its arch-propagandist, Norman Podhoretz. And yet, for all his posthumous reinvention as court Philosopher to the CIA, he remained a paid-up left-winger, deeply suspicious of American consumer capitalism, while realising that the "liberty" offered by the west was less of a swindle than the political arrangements prevailing in eastern Europe. Like many of the positions he took up, Orwell's attitude to America was a great deal more complex than selective quotation may allow it to appear, and Hitchens has a tremendous time juxtaposing Podhoretz's garblings with another statement of Orwell's, written in the same year as the essay cited by Podhoretz, to the effect that although Europeans may have to accept US domination, "they ought to realise while there is yet time that there are other possibilities". In fact, Orwell's fix for the problem of American world domination turns out to be "a socialist United States of Europe".

As the foregoing may indicate, trying to deduce what a man 50 years dead might have made of political events played out long years after his passing is a risky business at the best of times. There is an entry in Anthony Powell's Journals: 1982-1986, for example, written shortly after the Falklands war, in which Powell speculates that Orwell would have supported the sending of the task force. …

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Left, Right, Left, Right: Orwell Has Been Co-Opted to Defend Almost Everything, Including the US Star Wars Programme and the Falklands War. Is It Time to Rescue Him from His Friends? (the Back Half)
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