Why Orwell Matters

by Christopher Hitchens

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Why Orwell Matters
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Christopher Hitchens

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Book Summary

The author of Letters to a Young Contrarian and The Trial of Henry Kissinger evaluates the life of George Orwell, taking a candid look at his revolutionary work and perspectives on fascism, empire, feminism, and England. Reprint. 35,000 first printing.

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Excerpt: Why Orwell Matters

Why Orwell Matters


Basic Books

Copyright © 2003 Christopher Hitchens
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780465030507

Chapter One

Orwell and Empire

It was once written of George Orwell that by consortingwith the unemployed and destitute of England he `went nativein his own country'. The remark is even truer than it appears,as I hope to show, but one should notice for now thatthe expression `going native' originated as a term of contemptfor white men who cracked under pressure. `Native'was a colonialist term for wogs or niggers or gyppos; a lazygeneralization about subject peoples. Every now and then, ayoung chap shipped out from home would prove unsuitable,and would take to drink or to siestas or - this being the extremecase - to concubinage with a local woman or boy.The older and steadier officials and businessmen would learnto recognize the symptoms; it was part of their job.

An old radical adage states that the will to command isnot as corrupting as the will to obey. We do not know withabsolute certainty what impelled Orwell to abandon the lifeof a colonial policeman, but it seems to have involved a versionof this same double-edged slogan. The word `brutalize'is now employed quite wrongly to mean harsh or cruel treatmentmeted out by the strong to the weak (`the Russianarmy brutalized the Chechens' etc.). But in fact it meanssomething subtler, namely the coarsening effect that this exerciseof cruelty produces in the strong.

`In Moulmein, in Lower Burma,' wrote Orwell at theopening of his essay `Shooting an Elephant', `I was hated bylarge numbers of people - the only time in my life that Ihave been important enough for this to happen to me. I wassub-divisional police officer of the town ...' It's a nice coincidencethat Moulmein is featured in the first line of RudyardKipling's wonderful and nonsensical poem of imperialnostalgia `Mandalay' (`By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin'eastward to the sea,/ There's a Burma girl a-settin', an' Iknow she thinks o' me'). But there was little romance in Orwell'saccount of the place; he clearly worried at some levelthat the experience of being a cop was turning him into asadist or an automaton. In `A Hanging' he describes the dismalfutility of an execution and the terrible false jocularity ofthe gallows humour, his honesty forcing him to confess thathe had joined in the empty laughter. In `Shooting an Elephant'he gives a sketchy account of the sordid side of thecolonial mentality:

I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically - and secretly, of course - I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos - all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt.

This private animosity and confusion did not by any meanstranslate into sympathy for the `natives', who made Orwell'sjob a misery whenever they felt strong enough, and it is at leastpardonable to speculate that he resigned the service asabruptly as he did because of the fear that he might indeed gettoo used to the contradiction. In the later novel Burmese Days,the central character Flory (who anticipates the sweltering banana-republiccosmos of Graham Greene by a few years) iscompelled to live in a `stifling, stultifying world ... in whichevery word and every thought is censored ... Free speech isunthinkable ... the secrecy of your revolt poisons you like asecret disease. Your whole life is a life of lies.' That this isa strong prefiguration of the mentality of Winston Smith inNineteen Eighty-Four will be obvious; that it is no exaggerationis confirmed by the memoir of Orwell's friend and contemporaryChristopher Hollis, who visited him in Burma in 1925and discovered him mouthing the platitudes of law-and-order:`He was at pains to be the imperial policeman, explaining thatthese theories of punishment and no beating were all very wellat public schools, but that they did not work with theBurmese ...'

Four years later, in the pages of Le Progrhs Civique in Paris, acertain `E. A. Blair' contributed an essay in French entitled`Comment on exploite un peuple: L'Empire britannique en Birmanie'(`How a Nation is Exploited: The British Empire inBurma'). The article could justly be described as workmanlike;it commences with a careful account of the country's topographyand demography and proceeds to a meticulous examinationof the way the colonial power fleeces the Burmeseof their natural resources and the fruits of their labour. It is,in all essentials, a study in deliberate underdevelopment andthe means by which raw materials are used to finance anothercountry's industrial progress. But one may also noticethe emergence of another trope: the author's keen and sadinterest in the passivity and docility of the victims, whoknow little or nothing of the wider mercantile world fromwhich their nation is being excluded.

This article was the latest in a series of occasional pieceswritten by `E. A. Blair' - his Etonian and Burma Policename, not to be abandoned for Orwell until 1933 and thepublication of Down and Out - for the Parisian radicalpress. The very first such essay was a study of censorship inEngland, published by Henri Barbusse's weekly Monde, asort of cultural-literary front-publication of the FrenchCommunist Party. This article, also, was a thorough study ofa given question which also contained a psychically interestingundertone. The British authorities, wrote `E. A. Blair',were not so much censorious as prudish, and had not felt thenecessity for censorship until the rise of the Protestant andcapitalist ethic. A rather ordinary point even for its time, butit did presage a lifelong interest in the relationship betweenpower and sexual repression (a theme not absent from Flory'sown sweaty reflections in Burmese Days).

It is never pointed out that Orwell's journals from thelower depths, his narratives of dish-washing in Paris andhop-picking and tramping in England, also show a sensitivityto what might be called `the native question'. Algerianand Moroccan and other French-African characters are astrong element in his account of the Parisian underclass,while back at home and hanging about between Wappingand Whitechapel the author noticed that: `The East Londonwomen are pretty (it is the mixture of blood, perhaps), andLimehouse was sprinkled with Orientals - Chinamen,Chittagonian lascars, Dravidians selling silk scarves, even afew Sikhs, come goodness knows how.' Not every young Englishfreelance scribbler of twenty-eight or so would havebeen able to tell a Dravidian from a Sikh, let alone give aname to the home-port of the lascars.

In May 1936, Orwell wrote to his agent, Leonard Moore,in order to discuss, among other matters, a proposal from anAmerican producer to make a dramatized version of BurmeseDays. `If this project comes to anything,' he said, `I wouldsuggest the title "Black Man's Burden."' I do not know if thisis the earliest version of a joke on Kipling that has beenplayed many times since - most recently in Basil Davidson'ssuperb histories of pre-colonial Africa - but it exemplifiesOrwell's ambivalence about the poet and his lack of ambivalenceabout the subject; an indication of his lifelong refusal tojudge literature by a politicized standard.

There seems no doubt that his insight into the colonialmentality informed Orwell's dislike of the class system athome and also of fascism, which he regarded as an extremeform of class rule (albeit expressed paradoxically through asocialistic ideology). In 1940 he began an essay by recallingan incident of odious brutality he had witnessed at Colomboharbour on his first day in Asia. A white policeman had delivereda savage kick to a local coolie, eliciting general murmursof approbation from the onlooking British passengers:

That was nearly twenty years ago. Are things of this kind still happening in India? I should say that they probably are, but that they are happening less and less frequently. On the other hand it is tolerably certain that at this moment a German somewhere or other is kicking a Pole. It is quite certain that a German somewhere or other is kicking a Jew. And it is also certain (vide the German newspapers) that German farmers are being sentenced to terms of imprisonment for showing `culpable kindness' to the Polish prisoners working for them. For the sinister development of the past twenty years has been the spread of racialism to the soil of Europe itself ... racialism is something totally different. It is the invention not of conquered nations but of conquering nations. It is a way of pushing exploitation beyond the point that is normally possible, by pretending that the exploited are not human beings.


Nearly all aristocracies having real power have depended on a difference of race, Norman rules over Saxon, German over Slav, Englishman over Irishman, white man over black man, and so on and so forth. There are traces of the Norman predominance in our own language to this day. And it is much easier for the aristocrat to be ruthless if he imagines that the serf is different from himself in blood and bone. Hence the tendency to exaggerate race-differences, the current rubbish about shapes of skulls, colour of eyes, blood-counts etc., etc. In Burma I have listened to racial theories which were less brutal than Hitler's theories about the Jews, but certainly not less idiotic.

Not long ago, I was reading some essays by the late C. VannWoodward, the great American academic chronicler of theOld South. He had once investigated the parallels betweenAmerican slavery and Russian serfdom, and found not entirelyto his surprise that the Russian aristocrats did hold thebelief that serfs were a lower order of being. (Their bones, forexample, were believed to be black ...)

During this period, Orwell was following developments inNorth Africa very intently, and wishing that the British andFrench governments would have the imagination to intervenein Spanish Morocco and help to establish an independentanti-Franco regime there, headed by exiled Spanish republicans.In a form somewhat adapted to wartime conditions, this hadbeen the formula proposed by the Spanish left-revolutionariesduring the Civil War. They favoured Moroccan independenceon principle, but also felt that, since Franco's military-fascist rebellionhad originally been raised in Morocco, such a policystood a good chance of taking him in the rear. The official Left,especially the Stalinists, had opposed the strategy on thegrounds that it might offend the British and French authoritieswho had interests of their own in North Africa. Not contentwith this pusillanimity, they had made chauvinistic propagandaagainst the barbaric `Moors' who fought as levies in Franco'sCatholic-run crusade. Though the Moors were credited withmany atrocities, and it was felt particularly important on the republicanside not to be taken prisoner by them, there is no tracein Orwell's writing of any xenophobic or - as we would nowwrite the term - racist attitude towards Spain's colonial subjects.(Indeed, he spent a season or two composing a novel inMorocco just before the outbreak of the Second World War,and wrote a journal highly sympathetic to its inhabitants, includingthe Jews and the Berbers.)

His rooted opposition to imperialism is a strong and consistenttheme throughout all his writings. It could take contradictoryforms - he was fond of Kipling's line about `makingmock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep', because hethought it captured the hypocrisy of much well-fed liberalism- but in general he insisted that the whole colonial `racket'was corrupting to the British and degrading to the colonized.Even during the years of the Second World War, when therewas a dominant don't-rock-the-boat mentality and a greatpressure to close ranks against the common foe, Orwell upheldthe view that the war should involve decolonization. The`Searchlight' pamphlet series, of which he was an originator,included his demand (in The Lion and the Unicorn) that Indiabe promoted from colony to full and independent ally, andalso his introduction to Joyce Cary's booklet African Freedom.In his work in the Indian Service of the BBC, where he struggled,as he put it, to keep `our little corner' of the airwavesclean, he worked alongside declared supporters of independence,including Communists and nationalists.

Actually, he did rather better than keep his corner clean.His radio magazine `Voice' was a high-standard uncondescendingjournal of literature and ideas, keeping an audienceof educated Indians in touch with the work, and the tones, ofE. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, William Empsonand Herbert Read. In a series of war commentaries, Orwellstressed the forgotten `fronts' that made this a World War: thecolonial and anti-colonial engagements in Abyssinia, Timor,Madagascar, Java, Morocco and other territories where theclaim of the Allies to be on the side of freedom was being putto the test. When invited to broadcast to India using his ownname, because of his high reputation in the sub-continent, hereplied that he would only do so if his anti-imperialist opinionscould be expressed without dilution. In correspondence,he repeatedly attacked the British government's failure ofnerve and principle on the central question of Indian self-government,never ceasing to argue that independence wasdesirable in itself as well as being a sound tactical move in theface of Japanese aggression. He made use of his knowledge ofsome Asian languages, and kept closely in touch with developmentsin his beloved Burma.

In 1938, without his knowledge, he had been `vetted' bythe India Office. A liberal editor in India wanted to employhim as an editorial writer on the Lucknow Pioneer, and hadwritten to the authorities in London seeking their advice. Hereceived in return a masterpiece of bureaucratic elegancecomposed by A. H. Joyce, Director of Information at theIndia Office:

There is no doubt in my mind about his ability as a leader-writer, though I think you may have to be prepared, in view of what I assess to be not merely a determined Left Wing, but probably an extremist, outlook, plus definite strength of character, for difficulties when there is a conflict of views ...

Continues...