Debate: Like It or Not, George Orwell Remains Relevant to the 21st Century

It is stupid to believe that he was infallible, but it is also churlish to claim that Orwell’s is a deeply-flawed legacy and only mindless hype makes it otherwise.

In April, 1945, as Hitler’s Third Reich was unravelling furiously, George Orwell published an essay titled ‘Anti-Semitism in Britain’. The short piece etches the contours of British anti-Semitism, an essentially non-virulent, though a tenaciously pervasive, societal attitude that ran deep and cut across class and ideological differences.

Orwell sums up his views on the subject thus:

“There is more anti-Semitism in England than we care to admit, and the war has accentuated it…

It does not at present lead to open persecution, but it has the effect of making people callous to the sufferings of Jews in other countries.

It is at bottom quite irrational and will not yield to argument.

The persecutions in Germany have caused much concealment of anti-Semitic feeling and thus obscured the whole picture.

The subject needs serious investigation.”

Nowhere in the essay does Orwell pretend to knowing for sure where anti-Semitism comes from, though he is clear about one thing: that anti-Semitism is part of the larger problem of nationalism, is indeed one of the  manifestations of nationalism, “and that the Jew is evidently a scapegoat, though for what he is a scapegoat we do not yet know”. And, because anti-Semitism is irrational,

“… the starting point for any investigation of anti-Semitism should not be “Why does this obviously irrational belief appeal to other people?” but “Why does it appeal to me? What is there about it that I feel to be true?” If one asks this question, one at least discovers one’s own rationalisations, and it may be possible to find out what lies beneath them. Anti-Semitism should be investigated –  and I will not say by anti-Semites, but at any rate by people who know they are not immune to that kind of emotion.”

One would imagine that this is a perfectly sensible approach to the question. By bringing the ‘me’ factor into the equation, Orwell refuses to shut out the possibility that he may not have been wholly unsusceptible to anti-Semitism himself – albeit subliminally.

This, for most people, is what decency is all about, this capacity for examining oneself on an uncomfortable question rather than wish it away as someone else’s problem.

For most people, but clearly not for Ben Judah, who (in Why I’ve Had Enough of George Orwell, The Wire) turns the argument on its head to claim that Orwell was so vacuous or insensitive that he was not ‘shy to admit, even in writing’ that he had not managed to escape the contagion.

Indeed, while decontextualising Orwell’s argument, Judah declaims: “His 1945 musings on the illogicality of anti-Semitism (which I just quoted from) as an ideology(?) goes (sic) as far as to ask, “Why does anti-Semitism appeal to me?”

Down and Out in Paris and London
George Orwell
Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1933

Here, Judah has managed to work up a nearly-frenzied distaste Orwell. One feels sure, though, that if Orwell had chosen to keep his own feelings entirely out of reckoning, Judah’s hammer would have come down harder on him.

For, wasn’t it Orwell who, in his 1933 book Down and Out in Paris and London, had talked so carelessly about ‘a red-haired Jew, an extraordinarily disagreeable man’ who he came across in a Paris old-goods store? And, horror of horrors, didn’t he say about the same man that “(i)t would have been a pleasure to flatten the Jew’s nose”?

Ben Judah is not, one imagines, unaware of what a particular historical period and the society it begets can do to a person’s sensibility. He mentions Shakespeare and the loaded caricature of Shylock in Merchant of Venice, but he explains away the anti-Semitic undertone there by asserting that the play “was written at a time when Judaism was a question of peripheral relevance to Elizabethan writers”, while Orwell was Hitler’s contemporary.

In other words, xenophobia is alright – or, at any rate, passable – when its victims are being merely pilloried and not squeezed into death camps.

It is a stretch at the best of times, and Judah is intent on constructing such an irredeemably black-or-white narrative (with all intermediate shades banished out of sight) that his examples are bound to be judged against more stringent critical standards than he might like.

He gives his prejudices away every now and then, notably when he disparages those Orwell aficionados who “urge us to separate the man from the message of his novels, as if he were T.S. Eliot”. Presumably, if Orwell were to be in the same league as Eliot, his anti-Semitism, as Judah perceives it, would have been excusable.

The problem really is, Ben Judah’s perspective on Orwell is completely ahistorical. He lives in a time warp, and seems to believe that a man can be eternally held to account for what he said or believed in 1933 even if he evolved into something quite else by 1945 or 1950. He seems to suggest that a man’s consciousness is not shaped by the time and the society he lives in.

One wonders how he would react to the fact that pederasty – considered an abhorrent crime in our time – was a perfectly acceptable cultural practice in the Greece of classical antiquity, a civilisation to which we look back in awe and admiration. Or that the great Thucydides privileged wrestling in the nude over its clothed variant (which he thought was ‘barbaric’).

Also read: George Orwell, Who Hated Purple Prose as Much as He Hated Injustice

In our own era, Bertrand Russell had at one point believed that nuking the Soviet Union out of existence was the surest guarantee of the continuity of human civilisation. He soon outgrew this bizarre belief – and nobody has since thought of summing up Russell’s life’s work in terms of this outrageous aberration.

Orwell’s early cultural milieu contained elements that included a ubiquitous, if non-malevolent, distrust of the Jew. It was not surprising that this influence left traces in his sensibility as he progressed from adolescence to adulthood. What is remarkable is that he taught himself to overcome this pernicious influence in his mature years. He remained some kind of a homophobe all his life, though, viewing homosexuality as little else than deviant behaviour.

Here again, it would be unwise to interpolate our current cultural mores in the inter-War value system of the British middle class. It would have been wonderful were Orwell to break free of that prejudice, but here, sadly, his own time held Orwell in a vice-like grip, and that’s that.

I have no problem with Judah saying “(m)ost of the Orwell cult only irritates”, only I will be disappointed if it is only the ‘Orwell cult’ that gets his goat. There is more than a hint in Judah’s piece that, for him to look up to an intellectual, the latter had better be infallible, or as near it as possible.

Thus, Judah cheerfully surveys the ruins of Orwell’s “silly predictions” about, among other things, the shape of post-War British political economy and the “totalitarian windmill of untrammelled state power” that 1984 posits in the reader’s consciousness.

What Judah is suggesting here is that Orwell’s legacy is  deeply flawed, for he didn’t have a crystal ball. By the same token, it would be alright  to skewer Einstein’s legacy because he spent many precious years of his life chasing the chimera of the Unified Field Theory, or to rubbish Marx’s because he had been wrong to keep faith with the ‘gravediggers of capitalism’, the industrial proletariat, to expropriate the capitalist expropriators and thus ring the curtain on capitalism. 

But, more substantively, is there really no truth in Orwell’s vision of the future? Strangely, Judah is of the opinion (about 1984) that “Orwell’s actual warnings – about homogenisation, the destruction of information, a world… (characterised by) unlimited powers of the state – are now miles away”.

Really? The strident calls for cultural homogenisation and the exorcising of  pluralism, the state’s noxious championing of a post-truth value-system, and the transmogrification of the state itself into a macabre surveillance machine – are these still ‘miles away’ from us?

In Trump’s America as much as in Modi’s India (or in Putin’s Russia), wouldn’t one need to be tightly blindfolded to remain oblivious to the super-state trying to crush the citizen? For the life of me, I couldn’t make out either what Judah meant when he said, “If anything, the threats to democracy (today) are the opposite of ‘Orwellian’.”

On what Orwell, writing in the brilliant 1941 essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’, anticipated post-War Britain to look like, Judah expends a great lot of righteous indignation: “childish”, “addiction to announcing the future”, “a strange sermon” … — the invectives come thick and fast.

Also read: Remembering George Orwell, the Socialist

Now, what exactly did Orwell do to deserve this tirade? Writing in the shadow of the World War and to the terrifying screech of the Luftwaffe pounding London with deadly bombs, the essay makes the point that “We cannot win the war without introducing Socialism, nor establish Socialism without winning the war”.

Orwell believed that the deeply unequal English society, rooted as it was in hereditary privilege and rank exploitation of the poor, would be unable to support the war effort without transforming itself radically:

“What this war has demonstrated is that private capitalism – that is, an economic system in which land, factories, mines and transport are owned privately and operated solely for profit – does not work” (emphasis Orwell’s).

This was written in January-February 1941, some months before either the Soviet Union or the US joined the war when, after France’s barefaced capitulation and Hitler’s overrunning of much of western Europe, the prospects of England pulling through the war undefeated looked uncertain at best. Orwell was alive to the fact that the British ruling classes

“could not struggle (effectively) against Nazism or Fascism because they could not understand them. … After years of aggression and massacre (by the Nazis/Fascists), they have grasped only one fact, that Hitler and Mussolini were hostile to Communism. Therefore, it was argued they must be friendly to the British dividend-drawer…”

He hoped for radical change which only, he believed, would succeed in defeating Hitler. Things eventually did not turn out this way, just as, a quarter-century earlier, it had transpired that the Bolsheviks in Russia, who had pinned their hopes on a European revolution to salvage their own besieged revolution, had done so in vain. In neither case does the eventual outcome do anything to detract from the inspired optimism of Orwell/the Bolsheviks, whose hopes were anchored in their own reading of the situation at hand.

Besides, wasn’t Orwell substantially right in anticipating social change? Didn’t capitalism reinvent itself after the war, when a widened social security, universal health insurance (in Britain) and a somewhat more equitable distribution of the community’s wealth changed pre-war capitalism into an altogether different animal, at least for some years immediately after the war?

Shooting an Elephant
George Orwell

I suspect that it is Judah’s near-visceral dislike of Orwell that predisposes him to rank misreading of texts. How else does one explain the fact that he had to ask this artless question upon reading Shooting an Elephant: “Were the baying hysterical yellow people forcing a European into shooting an elephant… really an appropriate metaphor for colonialism in 1936?”

If he read the piece carefully, he would know that Orwell had indeed intended the picture of the hysterical crowd (pushing him to do something he loathed) to serve as  colonialism’s hideous face and, given the setting, one couldn’t think of a better metaphor:

“As for the job I was doing (as a police officer in Burma), I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of the Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners rotting 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. But I could get nothing into perspective.”

It is with this absence of human perspective that the piece deals, and does so inimitably, with great passion. The utter debasement of the ‘native’ by the colonising civilisation dehumanises the master race as well:

“I had to shoot the elephant… A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life – every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”

It is perhaps the same carelessness of reading that induces Judah to fault Orwell on his many supposed omissions, for example “social fragmentation (Orwell wrote extensively about this), financialisation(?), ethnic splintering, unaccountable corporations, offshore kleptocrats, or echo chambers, to name a few”.

One should think that this is quite an exhaustive list of omissions, except that some of these categories made their appearance well after Orwell was buried in 1950, and some he had in any case written about.

On the other hand, I find it extraordinary that in a critique of Orwell , Judah skips mentioning Orwell’s greatest work of non-fiction, Homage to Catalonia. Is it because he wants his readers to refer less often to the 1930s, as he says in his concluding paragraph? I wonder.

Anjan Basu writes on a range of subjects as a freelancer. He can be reached at [email protected]