The madness of King George

A new edition of Animal Farm proves George Orwell’s reputation for principled political writing is undimmed. But beneath the hagiographies, the great journalistic hero was as much Julie Burchill as Winston Churchill

Text by Peter Lyle

These days, young Britons deemed to be at risk from extremist views get workshops and public-information films about good, integrated Muslims. When I was little, official deradicalisation programmes used to be more fun. The first exposure to mentally corrective material I recall from my 1980s schooldays was an eight-year-old’s idea of educational nirvana: a feature-length cartoon. It was the animated 1954 adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, funded by the CIA, which had bought the rights from Orwell’s widow. It had also requested changes to the script in accordance with its ideological duty of dissuading support for Communism. 

When I read the book later, I still took away the same basic message that I had from the film, which was Orwell’s stated intention: that absolute power and absolute ideas – however noble – corrupt. Animal Farm is subtitled “A Fairy Story,” and is of course a parable about what became of the ideals of the Russian Revolution under Stalin. Orwell is said to have written it in frustration at the refusal of many prominent left-wingers in post-war Europe and America to acknowledge the realities of  Communist rule in the Soviet Union. His contention was that they couldn’t see beyond their ideological allegiances to the facts on the ground, and that this blindness was ultimately leading them to betray the basic principles of socialism and democracy.

A new edition of Animal Farm has just been published by Harvill Secker. In its introduction, Christopher Hitchens celebrates the enduring relevance and power of Orwell’s novel in the face of today’s most repressive, least democratic regimes. But Hitchens’ introduction is also a reminder of the author’s enduring influence on mainstream British intellectual life. That influence has long made a general cultural sense. Orwell’s aversion to linguistic self-indulgence fits neatly with our popular phobia of pretension. His contention that you can pare down and purify language until it is honest and undiluted chimes with a widespread British resistance to the idea that all language is ultimately rhetoric, performance, rather than a way of labelling reality. His aversion to “extreme” ideologies and state control (in both Animal Farm and 1984) can be presented as a quintessentially British and commonsensical counterpoint to the way supposedly revolutionary artists (like the American Ezra Pound) and excessively abstract continental academics (like the Frenchman Michel Foucault) ended up thinking themselves into endorsements of theatrical tyrants like Mussolini and the Ayatollah Khomeini. 

Though Orwell held their trade in contempt, he’s a touchstone for British journalists, too. Not just because of those novels, but also because of the famous non-fiction works in which Orwell combined personal reportage, social analysis and ethical argument, and the rules he sets down in his essays “Politics and the English Language” and “Why I Write.” The latter is, among other things, a charismatic attack on “bad” English – on recycled clichés, the pompous misuse of big words and over-elaborate grammar, jargon, and the political euphemisms used to make horrific and warlike acts sound entirely reasonable and bloodless. 

Little wonder that, for a young writer who wants to make a difference and seeks moral and stylistic clarity in a horribly complicated and compromised world, Orwell can function as such a potent figurehead. There is an annual George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language and the prestigious Orwell Prize for political writing is announced each May. Timothy Garton Ash of the Guardian, who won the journalism award in 2005, is quoted on the Orwell Prize website as saying, “Orwell is a hero and a model whom we vainly strive to imitate. To be associated with his name, as an Orwell Prize winner, is not just an honour but also a call to action.” 

On the internet, you can watch a celebrated piece of film of the Observer’s Nick Cohen at the 2009 event, passionately discussing the Orwell Prize shortlist. Though his ability to enunciate his outrage clearly appears to have been somewhat compromised by the glass of wine that he is drinking, you can make out the thrust of his anger on the video. He expresses a righteous indignation at the fact that famously Tory journalists like Peter Hitchens and Peter Oborne were nominated, but his friend Martin Bright (former political editor of the New Statesman) was not. The gist of his outburst seemed to be that Orwell would be turning in his grave at the shortlisting of two reactionaries and the ignoring of the forward-looking Bright. On the night, like some broadsheet psychic, Cohen also spouted a list of other journalists whom Orwell would have hated, as well as having a go at the Guardian, the BBC and the New Statesman – which Martin Bright had left in contentious circumstances a couple of months before. Saluting a review of a new book of Orwell’s letters in April, John Rentoul, biographer of Tony Blair and leading Independent columnist, picked up on Orwell’s pre-publication concern that Animal Farm would never be published because it was “so not okay politically,” i.e. not politically correct, to slag off Russia in 1944. Orwell the brave firebrand was fighting the comfort zone of political correctness in the name of truth several decades before political correctness was even invented. 

Journalists have always identified with Orwell, then, and with his ethical and stylistic rules about writing. But it’s taken on a new intensity for much of the past decade. Ever since the Iraq war began to loom seriously in 2002, I suspect many of them have seen themselves as latter-day Orwells. Just as he warned smug, deluded left-wingers in 1940s Europe that the Soviet State was not the global symbol of socialism and freedom but their enemy, so a group of British journalists have spent the last few years of their careers tirelessly tackling smug, deluded left-wingers’ dangerous complacency about, and romanticisation of, “Islamism” and related phenomena, which were actually enemies of true socialism and freedom.

I think Orwell has been a comfort to this school of opinion. The example of his lonely struggle against Stalinism enabled journalists who were accused of betrayal for endorsing the Iraq war and related issues around Islam, integration and terrorism, to position themselves as the true loyalists to social-democratic, left-leaning values. Their role, like Orwell’s, was the thankless one of saving “the left” from itself while suffering the indignity of being slandered as reactionary turncoats. And because the Iraq war was such a profoundly divisive event for the British middle-class, that spirit still infects an awful lot of political writing, and continues to colour the way journalists on both side of the divide discuss many things. Here is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, both pin-up to and part of the “muscular liberal lobby,” parroting Orwell’s logic while plugging her latest book in the Guardian: “The people who believe themselves to be on the left, and who defend the agents of Islam in the name of tolerance and culture, are being right-wing.”

I have little time for such theses because, even before the Iraq war in 2003, those who advocated them post-9/11 made me feel, by turns, bafflement, anger, pity and amusement. Their arguments were so insubstantial, so mutable and so tempting to read as examples of Freudian repression that I did find them fascinating for a time – but never as political argument. How could one? Christopher Hitchens wrote glowing pieces about the future saviour of Iraq, Ahmed Chalabi, the former CIA stooge that the Bush regime originally intended to parachute in as leader of a democratic Iraq. David Aaronovitch (a former Orwell Prize-winner who’s now one of the Times’ leading commentators) wrote all manner of hawkish guff, including a pre-war promise that if no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, he would never believe the New Labour government again. 

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Aaronovitch did, however, and went on to expand this amazing credulity into a recent book called Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, which explained to people who sometimes doubt that the government is telling them the whole truth that they are fantasising hippies. A couple of years earlier, another prominent broadsheet and Private Eye journalist, Francis Wheen, wrote a book about How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions. The now-familiar Islam vs. Enlightenment riff was a subtext in each. You’ll also note the clever use, in both examples, of a word that suggests a primitive, folksy belief in magic. And, in Wheen’s case, a belief that Africans are stupid: “Mumbo-jumbo” was originally used as a pejorative 18th-century English term for African religion, which was seen as made-up nonsense, not the true faith of English Protestantism. Things may not have moved on as much as one would have hoped – Wheen’s religion appears to be Enlightenment secularism. One Amazon reviewer of his book complained that Wheen seemed to regard “any attack on the Enlightenment as inherently stupid.”

Sadly for the trees I love to hug, these anti-mumbo-jumbo books were joined by books that addressed the Iraq-enabled left-wing divide more directly. Nick Cohen (What’s Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way) and Andrew Anthony (The Fallout: How a Guilty Liberal Lost His Conscience) both wrote books about their own journeys from idealistic young socialists to mature, realistic adults who understood the existential threat posed by “radical” Islam and their soft-bellied lefty allies. 

In 2007, the year Anthony’s book came out, Martin Bright was establishing a reputation by calling out supposed social democrats for joining forces and sharing sympathies with extreme Muslim ideologues – just as David Aaronovitch managed to patronise every person who marched against the Iraq war in London in March 2003 by suggesting their presence made them endorsers of homophobes, misogynists, anti-Americans, anti-Semites and tyrants like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden (who also didn’t seem to think war would be a good move). Bright surely protested rather too much when he was quoted by notorious Bush-era warmonger Richard Perle: “Where it gets really difficult is when your allies choose you rather than the other way round.” Welcome to Planet Earth, young man. Where do any of us get to cherry-pick our allies, except in our heads? I mean, I thought I had marched against a disingenuously PR-ed war effort; it took Aaronovitch to explain to me that I had actually marched for female circumcision, Jew-killing and Kurd-torture.

Elsewhere, there was plenty of chastising of lefties for forgetting their values. In 2006, a gaggle of also-ran political journalists and rent-a-cause MPs like Dennis McShane circulated a document called the Euston Manifesto, which read a little like an A-Level Government & Politics essay: “The reconfiguration of progressive opinion that we aim for involves drawing a line between the forces of the Left that remain true to its authentic values, and currents that have lately shown themselves rather too flexible about these values. It involves making common cause with genuine democrats, whether socialist or not…We reject, also, the cultural relativist view according to which these basic human rights are not appropriate for certain nations or peoples.”

What does any of this have to do with Orwell, and with performance? Well, it seems to me it is only Orwell’s legacy, and his status as a sort of inspiration in writing and ethics, that has given this movement its moral weight. You sense his presence in these writers’ sub-Orwellian tabloid coinages, such as “Islamofascism,” and their absurd habit of calling soppy lefties “appeasers” and likening everybody to Nazis. The actual arguments of these “Decents” (the affectionately snide, Orwell-inspired collective noun used by some of their detractors), are irrelevant because they change all the time, and are based on values so generic as to be utterly meaningless. They don’t explain what “genuine democrats” or “authentic values” are, or how precisely their authenticity can be verified. This is very Orwell. “Politics and the English Language” is full of references to purifying language and speaking truth and stripping away falsehood, performance and pretence – but an aversion to explaining what any of these things are. When Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier was published, the socialist Harold Laski complained, “Its basic error is the belief that we all mean the same things by liberty and justice. Most emphatically we do not.”

I tend to think this tendency doesn’t understand what “cultural relativism” is either. It’s one of the great targets of this school of thought (along with something they don’t seem to know much about, but they do know is nonsense, your old “postmodernism”), but the enemies of relativism are often relativist in their values and arguments despite that. When they mince around the word torture (as some of the above names have) when it is done by Westerners to Muslims, they are being relativist, because they are suddenly saying there are exceptions to their absolute principles. From what I recall of the extracts, Andrew Anthony, who also reviews cars, seemed to wrap his thesis around his personal experience of violent crime in his 40s and a gap year spent in Nicaragua supporting the socialist revolution a couple of decades before, just as Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s take on Islam and defence of “universal” enlightenment values is profoundly rooted in her own personal history.

To me, this movement isn’t about intellectual discussion at all. I have only ever been able to understand this journalistic school as the product of a whole range of contributing causes: the inevitable disappointment and senses of mortality and irrelevance that come to men with middle age; the web of complex friendships and vendettas these journalists have with the Labour party and its ministers; the familial and social connections many of these writers, all born in the decades after World War II, have with the horrors of the Holocaust and the idea of Israel; and an understandable, if not always entirely valid, resentment at being called neocon stooges.

It’s Orwell, and the way he cultivated the idea of the political writer as brave, cast-out hero, who is the only interesting thing in this movement. He’s a seductive figure who offers a model for cutting through the complexity of politics and the elusive, mercurial nature of the English language to the real, unperformed truth. Until you think a little more closely – about the fact that his authorial identity was itself a conscious performance. Orwell’s real name was Eric Blair. He may have decided to live as an everyman for Down and Out in Paris and London, but before that he went to Eton – he admitted his “guilt” about his privileged background. And in that authentic study of life on the breadline, he declined to mention those nights when he stopped dossing and went to stay in hotels. The inspiration for Down and Out… was a book about the East End of London by American novelist Jack London, which reads like a Gothic misery safari not a fact-finding mission. Orwell earnestly preached morality, but could be amazingly personally vindictive, ritually humiliating rivals and even a former lover in thinly disguised forms in his fiction. He changed his mind – about Nazi Germany, for example. He opposed the British push against Nazism until the eve of World War II. He so relished laying into those he regarded as deluded, inauthentic socialists that his political earnestness often gets eclipsed by the brilliant bitchiness of his prose. “If only the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaller, and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly,” Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier, in the kind of catty dismissal of deluded, idealistic socialists that is still echoed in the way writers like Nick Cohen refer to “Islington Dinner Parties,” the mythical motherland of all childish, wrong-headed, do-gooder socialism. Orwell had a massive bug up his arse about semicolons, which many staccato-sentence columnist types hate too because it means admitting of complexity, ambiguity, and avoiding the direct statement. A semicolon represents indecision, nuance, a sentence that is something other, and more ineffable, than an injunction or an assertion.

In short, Orwell is no model for pure language, journalistic accuracy or ethical writing. Rather, he was a really great columnist – doing the job of opposing, inflaming and entertaining that every columnist aspires to – before his time. He may – like the legion of writers ever since Plato who have been annoyed at the slipperiness of philosophy and language in trying to fix truth – have aspired to an honest, decent, clear and unperformed way of writing, but somewhere he knew his job was artifice, he knew that you can only inspire people by consciously manipulating language and deploying rhetorical tricks with a sense of drama and structure. Like forcibly sending the children of unwed mothers to Australia or beating up anyone with a German surname, thinking like Orwell may have seemed a good idea at the time, but it shouldn’t be seen as a model for how to behave today.

“What I have most wanted to do,” he confessed in a quote that decorates the Orwell Prize website, “is make political writing an art.” He achieved that: he performed the role of political writer with panache and aplomb. But those who fancy themselves as his heirs, and often lag a long way behind in the literary-style stakes, would do well to remember it was never, ever a science. §

  • The Madness of King George