WHAT WOULD NOT DO TO SAY
THE “CLEANSING” OF GEORGE ORWELL
A Real Shove from Above
In many ways, George Orwell’s greatest book is Homage to Catalonia, which documents his direct participation in the Spanish Revolution (civil war), a great book of a crucial revolution that is essentially elided from James Wood’s sociopolitical take on Orwell’s life and works in his April 2009 New Yorker article, “A Fine Rage” slugged “George Orwell’s revolutions.” Orwellian: the most liberatory of “revolutions” involving George Orwell is essentially nowhere to be found in “A Fine Rage… George Orwell’s revolutions.”
Wood claims Orwell “idealizes” the working class, then immediately cites Orwell’s description of what Wood labels “the best kind of proletarian home.” If “best” does not tend toward the “ideal” what does? A month earlier in the New York Review of Books, Julian Barnes notes in “Such, Such was Eric Blair” that Orwell “described the condition of the working class with sympathy and rage, thought them wiser than intellectuals, but didn’t sentimentalize them; in their struggle they were as ‘blind and stupid’ as a plant struggling toward the light.” Hardly ideal.
Wood describes Orwell as having “Rousseauian tendencies” (to be a sort of nature lover, Wood means), and additionally calls him a “puritan,” and labels him an “upper-class masochist” who wanted not to “level up society” but to “level it down” – and then, a “puritan masochist” whose “real struggle… was personal…the struggle to obliterate privilege, and thus, in some sense, to obliterate himself. This was at bottom a religious mortification.” And “perhaps Orwell had, by the late nineteen-forties, soured on socialism, along with capitalism.” No longer then a masochist suicide? Please. Wood would do well to save the amateur psychoanalysis hour for himself. “Orwell feared what he most desired: the future.” Orwell had “a tendency toward drab omnipotence.” Such is Wood’s New Yorker style piety, vacuity, and smear.
Wood describes a “judgment against Dickens” by Orwell as being “unwittingly comic.” Orwell: “However much Dickens may admire the working classes, he does not wish to resemble them.” Wood wonders, “Why would anyone want to…resemble …the working classes…least of all the working classes themselves?” He adds “…the problem with ‘admiring’ the working class is that it doesn’t, on its own, help anyone to get out of it at all.” Which is evidently why Orwell, far beyond admiration, risked his life in fighting on behalf of the working classes during the Spanish Revolution, as described in Homage to Catalonia.
Clearly Orwell saw more virtues and value in “the working classes” than Wood does. In fact, it is the many pressures applied by the working classes against the ruling classes that help to shrink the size of the more oppressed classes and ameliorate conditions within. Gifts are rarely granted from above, not without being forced from below by those who do the work – an active feature of many working classes that is admirable, and worth resembling.
In Spain, Orwell was willing to fight and to risk dying among the working classes who were in revolutionary mode, attempting a liberatory revolution that certainly did not spring from the privileged ruling classes but rather pushed against them – a “real shove from below,” a means to change mocked by Wood: “Ah, that will do the trick.” Does principled, justified force from below not sometimes produce real concessions from above? Does not much progress, let alone a revolution, often require it? Does Wood forget how the American colonies once sent his homeland’s Kingdom packing? The Spanish revolt of the working classes was largely a liberatory revolution that the wealth of the world left on its own, to be crushed. Other working class revolutions succeed or lay groundwork for progressive movements to come, to gain power under more peaceful conditions. One may see the Americas not least, including contemporaneously, for inspiring examples.
Before and during the Spanish Revolution (civil war), largely working class Spanish socialists and anarchists organized popular workers groups and movements, struggled, fought, and in part successfully replaced Republican Spain’s oppressive liberal capitalist rule, while holding off the fascism of Franco, for a time at least, greatly transforming peoples lives on a large scale, until the revolution was crushed by force – and mocked or ignored by others.
There is no little reason to want to embody the genuine qualities and enlivening characteristics of the working classes in a variety of ways. Orwell shows why most dramatically in Homage to Catalonia, the revolution blanked from Wood’s New Yorker article on “George Orwell’s revolutions”:
[In Barcelona 1936] it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in this that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. Also, I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ State and that the entire bourgeoisie had either fled, been killed or voluntarily come over to the workers’ side; I did not realise that great numbers of well-to-do bourgeois were simply lying low and disguising themselves as proletarians for the time being.
[See an expanded excerpt of Homage to Catalonia appended.] What occurred in Barcelona, revolutionary Spain in 1936 was extraordinary, partially witnessed and participated in by Orwell, and had been long built toward by working class organizing – popular progressive action. Had western “democracies” lifted a finger to assist the anarchists and liberatory socialists, rather than purposefully failing to support them and even working against them, the world could well be a far better place today. But little official sympathy and far less than needed appreciation and understanding of such popular movements exists or is tolerated still today and little, none, or negative appreciation is mainly engendered by the most highly acclaimed prominent fiction and prominent literary criticism of our time – as we see in the essential blanking of Homage to Catalonia and its crucial import in Wood’s sociopolitical review of Orwell and his works.
Regarding various features of Orwell’s work, Wood belittles the thoughtful observations (Wood calls them “attacks”) of postcolonial analyst Edward Said on the one hand, and quotes approvingly and snidely from Philip Larkin, “a racist who wrote of stringing up strikers,” as Terry Eagleton notes. Such tenor and shading readily come across to many casual readers, let alone to close readers. As does plenty of other establishment innuendo: “So the question hangs over Orwell, as it does over many well-heeled revolutionaries: Did he want to level up society or level it down.” If such a “question hangs over…many well-heeled revolutionaries” (hanging above one’s head by a thread like the deadly Sword of Damocles, one presumes), then similarly loaded questions hang over all establishmentarians, and especially over prominent ones like James Wood, only moreso. At best, the former has much to lose, and the latter has much to save. The innuendo is of some potentially frightening change posed by revolutionaries, never mind that establishmentarian forces have long been deadly and oppressive for many, and are potentially fatal for the species entire. Such is the status quo or reactionary rhetoric, the basic line of Wood’s essay. This is the voice of not only the counter-revolutionary, which one assumes Wood realizes, it’s the voice of the anti-humane, the inhuman, which he either fails to grasp or does not want to, joining a long line of Harvard type intellectuals committed in opposition to libertarian socialism – an overt acceptance of which, recent polls indicate, is on the rise in the US, the basics ever more popular.
The basic ideology of James Wood to this point is that of a status quo liberal, that is a neo cold warrior, an ideology that may delude itself to presume it is largely progressive, while essentially manifesting itself as status quo, with reactionary tendencies.
James Wood is typical of the New Yorker, or maybe somewhat more reactionary. His article on Orwell presents the New Yorker’s kind of mental cleansing for and by the liberal and conservative readers of the magazine, the mindset of ruling class culture and society. It’s not only the voice of going along with the ruling establishment to get along, it’s the voice of the blinkered and the blinding. “If you have gone to the best schools,” notes Noam Chomsky –
and graduated from Oxford and Cambridge, and so on, you have instilled in you the understanding that there are certain things it would not do to say; actually, it would not do to think. That is the primary way to prevent unpopular ideas from being expressed. The ideas of the overwhelming majority of the population, who don’t attend Harvard, Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge, enable them to react like human beings, as they often do. There is a lesson there for activists.
Activists and artists in general. (One such lesson: read and write through Liberation Lit – liblit.org – and other liberatory venues.) Though sometimes beneficial in truncated ways, the New Yorker’s literary and other art efforts are often slight, wrong, corrosive, or beside the point. Much of the literary establishment takes its cue from the New Yorker, or otherwise more-or-less shares its class-based affinities, not infrequently with much admiration and the wish to resemble.
Wood points to the contemporary relevance of Orwell’s “coinages” in his novel 1984, such as “‘doublethink’ and ‘Newspeak’ and ‘Big Brother’ [that] now live an unexpectedly acute second life” – only “now”? “unexpectedly”? – “in the supposedly free West” but Wood makes no mention that Orwell wrote 1984 based in substantial part on his experience of working as a propagandist for BBC during World War II, where he was surrounded by and part of propaganda techniques, including those of the sort commonly used by the Nazis. Jutta Paczulla notes in the Canadian Journal of History (Spring-Summer 2007):
When writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell drew on the MOI [Britain’s Ministry of Information] as a model for the novel’s Ministry of Truth. Not only does the Ministry of Truth building in the novel resemble that of the MOI, but Room 101, where the Eastern Service Committee held its meetings, becomes the room in which Winston, the central character in Nineteen Eighty-Four is tortured and broken. Moreover, the atmosphere created by the mutual censorship conducted by [Orwell’s] BBC colleagues is reflected in the novel’s atmosphere of paranoia and anxiety.
Introducing the first book of the recent two volume edition of Orwell’s work that prompts Wood’s article is George Packer, another of the New Yorker’s liberal apologists for imperialism, as detailed by Edward Herman in “George Packer and the Liberal Struggle to Support Imperialism” Z Magazine 2005. Packer claims there is:
a strange gap in Orwell’s work – for he never wrote a novel or nonfiction book about the most historically important event of his life [World War II, during which] he spent ‘two wasted years’ as a producer in the Eastern Service of the BBC.
Setting aside the question of whether or not WWII or the Spanish civil war or some other event was “the most historically important event in Orwell’s life,” the point is apparently inconceivable to both Packer and Wood that Orwell’s famed novel 1984 is based substantially on his time working for the BBC during World War II. While Orwell directs the satire of 1984 most evidently toward the Soviet Union, also Franco Spain, the satire applies directly to the propaganda institutions and capacities of the liberal “democracies” where Orwell lived and breathed some of the atmosphere and propaganda realities and irrealities that he describes and conjures up in 1984. Newspeak, doublethink, Big Brother, memory hole – all are longstanding specialties of the BBC, and dominant US media, as Orwell came to know and experience ever more intimately during World War II. Thus, the “strange gap” is resoundingly filled and the centrality of Orwell’s coinages to the West today is not only not unexpected by unbiased observers, but an understanding of the Orwellian has long since been remarked upon and employed in independent media analyses of the dominant corporate media of the US, England, and allied states.
About his state propaganda work at the BBC, Orwell expressed publicly that he kept the “propaganda slightly less disgusting than it might otherwise have been”…while writing privately in his diary:
You can go on and on telling lies, and the most palpable lies at that, and even if they are not actually believed, there is no strong revulsion. We are all drowning in filth…. I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth….
“Orwell’s problem,” as Noam Chomsky describes it, permeates the establishment in the US and beyond: How is it that oppressive ideological systems are able to “instill beliefs that are firmly held and widely accepted although they are completely without foundation and often plainly at variance with the obvious facts about the world around us?” As evidenced in James Wood, George Packer, et al, Orwell’s problem has not lessened since Orwell’s lifetime, and now the Obama administration is a leading part of the problem. There is no mention in Wood’s article about the Orwellian nature of today’s top rulers. No mention that President Obama and his administration’s rhetoric of “change” and “security” purposefully mask the essential preservation of the status quo, let alone continue and escalate the militarism – a state of affairs that recalls “doublethink” and “Newspeak” and “Big Brother” as much as “Fox News…during the last Presidential election” recalls 1984’s “Hate Week.”
By mentioning only Fox News election coverage, Wood softens his weak nod to the relevant immediate, neatly placing Orwell and Hate Week distinctly in the past. (Meanwhile, for similar ongoing Hate Years in regard to immigration see CNN and Lou Dobbs…) This helps the establishment generally and the Obama administration in particular to “manage expectations” raised by sweeping progressive campaign rhetoric. It gives ruling party Orwellisms a pass. It overlooks the brazen duplicitous propaganda of the current rulers – never mind that they all along as background clinically and soberly revealed that their sweeping progressive flourishes were not to be taken seriously, that is honestly. In this empire of lies, to fuel this empire of lies, the financial institutions – the core funders of both the Democrats and the Republicans that are currently thieving bottomless dollars from taxpayers by way of the Obama administration – gave more money to candidate Obama than to candidate McCain. For now at least, the Obama crowd are more the establishment’s preferred front faces than are the “Hate Week” “Axis of Evil” demonizers. Wood gives an Orwellian pass to the current rulers.
Like a “good liberal” – though many liberals (Hillary Clinton, for example) ludicrously prefer to be thought of as “progressive and perhaps soon as “socialist” – Wood lauds the establishment line about the basic economic status quo, giving the impression that “upwardly mobile working classes” change society enough to justify it. At least Wood gives no indication otherwise. Where has he written for libertarian socialism or for much or any vision of emancipation from class and conquest? That’s no minor or irrelevant part of literature, or shouldn’t be. He gives a few nods to the oblique or roundabout, say, the allegories of Saramago, while part-and-parcel with the establishment he largely ignores or distorts central works and tendencies in literature that are especially liberatory and comprehensive and basic – for example: of the Victorian era, Victor Hugo’s anti death penalty novel The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1829) and his anti-class-exploitation novel, Les Misérables (1862); of the “modernist” era George Orwell’s liberatory partisan nonfiction narrative Homage to Catalonia (1938); of today Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s unsurpassed novel Wizard of the Crow (2006). Les Misérables and Wizard of the Crow are as great as any novels ever written, plus of more profound, comprehensive, and quality norms than perhaps any. Wood has never mentioned these tremendous works, or others of the sort, while writing out of history the liberatory tendency of which they are part – sent down the Orwellian memory hole – and instead expounds at length along the establishment’s bunkered path.
The Sinister Fact
Where are today’s liberatory critics? At Counterpunch. ZNet. Liberation Lit and related sites. And scattered in some limited handfuls in virtually invisible academic journals. The status quo discourages them and filters them out. One does not become either a New Republic or a New Yorker critic by taking a much liberatory route. Instead one propounds a liberal (and conservative and reactionary) literature of class oppression, repression, distortion, or marginalization. In fact, one had better take issue with those who do venture too close, too deep into the more fully liberatory, as Wood does in chastising Orwell for not appreciating the appeal and benefits of “upward mobility,” while essentially blanking any mention that Orwell went out of his way to put his life on the line for full working class emancipation. Wood, at best, sometimes lauds improvements in the conditions of oppression, while mainly propounding the point of view of the victors, the basic status quo, the so-called “conventional wisdom” of which Wood is largely a synthesizer and delimiter in literature. Orwell dared more – intellectually, not to mention otherwise – and in doing so achieved far more of vital insight and work than Wood and the New Yorker can allow. With the New Yorker goes the vast majority of the literary establishment, academic and otherwise, minimal ranging aside.
In addition to extraordinary work that is especially accomplished, like Wizard of the Crow, there are other less accomplished but extremely important and powerful popular novels like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin that also get regularly slighted and dismissed by the relatively prominent, including Keith Gessen in his introduction to the second book of the recent two volume edition of Orwell’s work. No slight intended! Gessen would no doubt protest, though unless he can read the future, he has no way of knowing that Orwell is wrong, let alone “howlingly wrong when [Orwell] says that Uncle Tom’s Cabin will out-live the complete works of Virginia Woolf.”
First, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Woolf’s complete works both remain of general interest, both may try one’s patience, both are valuable and compelling. Second, due to historical and social reasons, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is at least as culturally integral as Woolf’s complete works, possibly moreso and plausibly considerably moreso. Meanwhile, the novel continues to sell well, as do Woolf’s works. Third, speaking of the accuracy of “outliving,” in his 1945 essay “Good Bad Books,” Orwell explained:
Perhaps the supreme example of the ‘good bad’ book is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is an unintentionally ludicrous book, full of preposterous melodramatic incidents; it is also deeply moving and essentially true; it is hard to say which quality outweighs the other. But Uncle Tom’s Cabin, after all, is trying to be serious and to deal with the real world. How about the frankly escapist writers, the purveyors of thrills and ‘light’ humour? How about Sherlock Holmes, Vice Versa, Dracula, Helen’s Babies or King Solomon’s Mines? All of these are definitely absurd books, books which one is more inclined to laugh at than with, and which were hardly taken seriously even by their authors; yet they have survived, and will probably continue to do so. All one can say is that, while civilisation remains such that one needs distraction from time to time, ‘light’ literature has its appointed place; also that there is such a thing as sheer skill, or native grace, which may have more survival value than erudition or intellectual power. There are music-hall songs which are better poems than three-quarters of the stuff that gets into the anthologies…[which] I would far rather have written…. And by the same token I would back Uncle Tom’s Cabin to outlive the complete works of Virginia Woolf or George Moore….
By now, Orwell’s “backing” of Uncle Tom’s Cabin over George Moore appears ever more solid, and time will have to tell regarding the works of Virginia Woolf. At this point, both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Woolf’s works seem they may be equally durable, as much as any other outcome. That’s far from a “howlingly wrong” estimation of the books’ comparative durability after these few decades, let alone of their ultimate durability. But Gessen like Wood conveys a smug, presumptuous, corrosive, and misleading “conventional wisdom.” Gessen conveys an establishment impression that liberatory works like Uncle Tom’s Cabin do not measure up to certain establishment favorites (let alone surpass them socially or culturally), and even are laughingly not worth the time of day – an impression that comes across, intended or not – that great estimations of the lasting nature of such liberatory works are to be laughed at to the point of howling. The indoctrination goes deep. Uncle Tom’s Cabin more enduring than Woolf’s complete works? Everyone knows that’s a howler! Wait a minute. The fact is, Stowe’s novel and Woolf’s works both continue to be strong sellers. The jury is still out, and the verdict has not remotely begun to be returned conclusively. But Harvard grad Gessen is howling, his mind educated to its foregone conclusion, however empirically challenged, however theoretically lacking. Which is actually what may sensibly draw a laugh in all this. Upton Sinclair’s kindred novel to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, is doing well also. How finely written is much of, say, the Bible or the several millennia old epic of Gilgamesh? How enduring?
The New Yorker’s lead story for the issue of Wood’s essay on Orwell asks as title: “Can Iran Change?” More telling to ask, Can the US? Can the New Yorker change? Can status quo criticism? I suppose they can – at the point of revolution, probably best arrived at step by step. This article on Orwell is certainly no step, except backwards. To further help see why such work gets published as it does, we turn again to Orwell in “The Freedom of the Press,” an excerpt from his suppressed preface to Animal Farm:
The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban…. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trouser in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
This from even Orwell, who was far from always the most progressive or revolutionary (sometimes the flip opposite) writer or thinker one might find or imagine.
Moving Beyond Class Structure
While there are some real individual and social gains from “upward mobility,” there are those central and fundamental features of life in an oppressive system that no amount of “upward mobility” can touch, and which Wood scarcely approaches in the New Yorker article, or ever much concerns himself with, unlike Orwell. Class mobility is far from any guarantor of overcoming as a society the unjust and devastating class structure and imperial nature of states. In fact, class mobility greatly functions to preserve the fundamentally inegalitarian and anti-democracy hierarchies found throughout “the West” and beyond. In a review of Paul Lauter and Ann Fitzgerald’s anthology, Literature, Class and Culture, Lisa A. Cooper notes:
As Laura Hapke points out, in working-class writings, students’ belief systems are called into question as they read works ‘that challenge rather than celebrate upward mobility,’ and upward mobility and this idea of a shared notion of success is what most middle or upper class students have been taught to give credence to in capitalistic society.
Additionally, class mobility works both ways in the US, the much lauded land of upward mobility (more and more a relative myth). Leaving even the recent economic collapse aside – the ongoing multi-trillion dollar thefts from the populace by the wealthy ruling classes – the US prison system continues to grow like the torturing monster that it is. Even the establishment New Yorker recently gave some decent related insight into this, in its article “Hellhole” by Atul Gawande, on the widespread practice of torture in US prisons that is long-term solitary confinement (among other official barbarities). By 2006, “1 of every 31 adults in the US was on probation or parole or incarcerated in jail or prison” – the highest rate of incarceration and the largest prison population of any country anywhere – not to mention those imprisoned or living and dying under US guns all around the globe. The sun never sets on the US garrisons and guns of the world, as with the British Empire of old. Neither does the sun set on its Empire of lies and its other deceptions and misrepresentations, fostered near and far by establishment media and other institutions of the status quo.
Since class-based society fosters mobility both up and down, does that mean its inhabitants whether privileged or virtual vassals, serfs, and real prisoners are doubly free? Or should they be working, thinking, and organizing internationally and domestically toward progressive and revolutionary accomplishments that achieve and surpass those temporarily gained in Spain, and more permanently elsewhere – or should one wish to be and “resemble” the relatively privileged classes and their typical literary criticism (and fiction), such as in the New Yorker that sees fit to send continuously down the memory hole key liberatory realities and possibilities?
Apparently some particular class or readership might be tempted to “gloat” over any of Orwell’s shortcomings, for Wood is compelled to add that “it is too easy to gloat over his contradictions.” Gloat? Now who – which people, which classes – would want to “gloat” over Orwell’s “contradictions”? The ones whom Orwell at his best wrote on behalf of and fought alongside? Or…the privileged classes. Orwell noted in 1946: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” So who are these anti-democratic-socialists so craven as to apparently instinctively “gloat” over the contradictions, perceived and otherwise, of Orwell? The implications are striking.
In The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, Orwell wrote that ruling types could:
keep society in its existing shape only by being unable to grasp that any improvement was possible. Difficult though this was, they achieved it, largely by fixing their eyes on the past and refusing to notice the changes that were going on round them.
They are not wicked, or not altogether wicked; they are merely unteachable. Only when their money and power are gone will the younger among them begin to grasp what century they are living in.
Even among the inner clique of politicians who brought us to our present pass [World War II] it is doubtful whether there were any conscious traitors. The corruption is more in the nature of self-deception… And being unconscious, it is limited. One sees this at its most obvious in the English press. Is the English press honest or dishonest? At normal times it is deeply dishonest. All the papers that matter live off their advertisements, and the advertisers exercise an indirect censorship over news. Yet I do not suppose there is one paper in England that can be straight-forwardly bribed with hard cash.
The underlying fact was that the whole position of the monied class had long ceased to be justifiable.
Wood’s emphasis on “upward mobility” gives the impression that the upper classes are the hope of the working classes, a place to escape to, where they may become the new managers and class system enforcers – devil take the hindmost. It sure worked like nothing else in Weimar and Nazi Germany. Journalist Alex Constantine observes:
To quote [historian] Felix Gilbert, ‘At the time the Nazis took over, recovery from the recession was beginning’ and Germany was economically prospering…
Economic prosperity, however, as catchwords like public works and infrastructure programs reveal, also meant the continued Americanization of Germany’s economy under Hitler. Indeed, the dictator himself seems to have welcomed America’s efficient methods of production. Hitler was, for instance, a proponent of mass-consumption, as shown by his statement from September 1941: ‘Frugality is the enemy of progress. Therein we are similar to the Americans, that we are fastidious.’ [Historian] Detlev Peukert underlines Hitler’s pro-American stance, arguing that, not unlike the U.S., the Third Reich consciously aimed to represent ‘the dawning of the new achievement-orientated consumer society based on the nuclear family, upward mobility, mass media, leisure and an interventionist welfare state […].’
And mass incarceration. Alongside “upward mobility.” Ah, that will do the trick. Things sure turned out well. That was quite a path, that route of mass confinement and upward mobility. Quite a final solution. Today: the great American lockup and Good Americans moving up to help administer and expand Empire USA, the Good British always ready to lend a helping military hand. “The descent into barbarism” of Germany in a mere decade from much admired heights of Western civilization – forgotten already? Conditions today are especially volatile and disastrous for many, and not only socially – also environmentally and militarily–
in part due to the establishment notion of “economic growth” that conquests and trashes the earth. Conditions are grave. (Meanwhile there exist far more constructive realities and movements in the arts and culture, in society and politics however marginalized – efforts that struggle for all the energy, growth, support, and progress they can possibly achieve.)
There they sat, at the center of a vast empire and a worldwide financial network, drawing interest and profits and spending them – on what? The British ruling class obviously could not admit to themselves that their usefulness was at an end. Had they done that they would have had to abdicate. For it was not possible for them to turn themselves into mere bandits, like the American millionaires, consciously clinging to unjust privileges and beating down opposition by bribery and tear-gas bombs. After all, they belonged to a class with a certain tradition, they had been to public schools where the duty of dying for your country, if necessary, is laid down as the first and greatest of the Commandments. They had to feel themselves true patriots, even while they plundered their countrymen. Clearly there was only one escape for them – into stupidity.
Into the mental cleansing of history.
Valuing the Work of Orwell
Near the end of his New Yorker article on Orwell, James Wood tutors the establishment to not “gloat” at Orwell’s “contradictions.” That would be “too easy.” Not too mention pitifully superficial, ignorant, and outrageously reactionary, particularly due to Wood’s blanking of Orwell’s most liberatory understandings and efforts.
“Instead,” Wood declaims, “one is gratefully struck by how prescient Orwell was, and by how much he got right” and how “curiously precise: he was…because of his contradictions…”:
This combination of conservatism and radicalism, of political sleepiness and insomnia, this centuries-long brotherhood of gamekeeper and poacher, which Orwell called ‘the English genius’, was also Orwell’s genius, finding in English life its own ideological brotherhood. For Good and ill, those English contradictions have lasted.
So you see, Dear Readers of the New Yorker, we cannot gloat for we would be gloating at the “contradictions” of ourselves, for we are not essentially keepers of the status quo, we too are like Orwell at his best, propagandizing for democratic socialism, as he understands it, in everything we write, and in so very much that we do – just so, history has been obliterated into fantasy, in the pages of the New Yorker by the award winning critic (2009 American Society of Magazine Editors’ National Magazine Award for criticism).
In this splendid fiction according to James Wood – cultured good liberals and conservatives, or progressive pretenders, need not worry – need not even know – that Orwell was ever so very revolutionary after all, for Wood has leveled such history to the ground, and below. In this he is professionally assisted in the Orwell volumes I and II introductions by George Packer also of the New Yorker and Keith Gessen of n+1 in various ways, including fixations and ultimate focus on Orwell’s niceties of form and style. At least English novelist Julian Banes in the New York Review of Books, though a basically establishment write up, spends some time depicting the manufacture of Orwell’s reputation as National Treasure, then closes by quoting Orwell and emphasizing that:
“The central problem—how to prevent power from being abused—remains unsolved.” And until then, it is safe to predict that Orwell will remain a living writer.
Even this slim point of emphasis is beyond Wood, Packer, and Gessen for whom Orwell is far more to be cherished and known for his writing and his nationally treasured “English genius.” To Wood and his chorus, Orwell is “us” after all, in the end – the more-or-less talented and privileged status quo. For which we are grateful. He is our brother through and through. Not that there is nothing to that. After all, Orwell was early in his life an Imperial policeman, and though he emphasized how he despised it, at the end of his life he was a police informer, pointing out leftists or perceived leftists, including Charlie Chaplin. So there is certainly that establishment strain in Orwell.
Except, brazenly unrevealed in Wood’s largely socio-political article is Orwell’s most vital, greatest socio-political work. Moreover, Orwell pointedly noted that one group had opted out of “the English genius” that Wood says is “Orwell’s genius,” part of an “ideological brotherhood”: the intellectuals. They opted out of the English genius, the brotherhood, according to Orwell, and Wood pointedly omits this crucial fact – again, brazenly, especially in this day of the easy check internet. “Nearly everyone,” Orwell writes, “whatever his actual conduct may be, responds emotionally to the idea of human brotherhood,” that which Wood describes as the “centuries-long brotherhood of gamekeeper and poacher,” thus misrepresenting England as a land of legal workers and illegal workers – with no owners, no landlords to employ the gamekeepers or to prosecute the poachers, no monied rulers.
Contra Wood, Orwell in fact explicitly includes in the “brotherhood” the “millionaires” and the “class-structure” and “all ranks of society … [where] … the most atrocious injustices, cruelties, lies, snobberies exist everywhere,” which he claims are all part of a “cultural unity,” except for that one group, long since, the intellectuals. Orwell observes in his 1940 Dickens essay that the “brotherhood” has long been broken, that:
In one sense it is a feeling that is fifty years out of date. The common man is still living in the mental world of Dickens, but nearly every modern intellectual has gone over to some or other form of totalitarianism. From the Marxist or Fascist point of view, nearly all that Dickens stands for can be written off as ‘bourgeois morality’. But in moral outlook no one could be more ‘bourgeois’ than the English working classes. The ordinary people in the Western countries have never entered, mentally, into the world of ‘realism’ and power-politics. They may do so before long, in which case Dickens will be as out of date as the cab-horse.
And in its most liberatory forms actual democratic socialism may have a chance. The intellectuals – those who staff and run the governments, those who fill the privileged schools – opted out of the “brotherhood” one hundred and twenty years ago. And it is the establishment intellectuals, like Wood, who have a real stake, ruling stake, in keeping up “the lofty old schools” on both sides of the Atlantic, “much as always,” despite “all the transformations,” to “educate the upper classes to govern the country,” to “wreck” cities and countries and continents and to have their “lovely” homes and “parties.” Orwell’s “brotherhood,” his ostensible “genius,” the “English genius,” includes considerably more than Wood indicates (the “millionaires, the landlords – the owners) and considerably less (the “intellectuals”), and meanwhile, the brotherhood’s masses (working classes) would be “as out of date as the cab-horse” in revolutionary Spain, or in any functioning democracy or socialism worth of the name. For this genius that Wood mischaracterizes we are grateful? So who is “leveling down” and taking insight and possibility with it?
And so it is that Wood leads readers blindly away from many of Orwell’s most valuable, outraged, and revolutionary insights in the article titled with Orwellian flair, “A Fine Rage” and slugged, “George Orwell’s revolutions.”
Should journals of literature and other art aspire to the crucially gutted literary work so typically vaunted and displayed in the New Yorker and in periodicals of similar ethos? Are there no countervailing literary forces at work? No striking progress? No real revolutions in the brewing? None advancing step by step? Would anyone, could anyone, remotely know by reading the prominent literary voices of the US and the West? Is there no “sinister fact,” no voluntary suppression in the dominant media, the establishment media, anymore? Nothing Orwellian in the New Yorker?
1 Worth quoting in its entirety is this comment by “driedchar” to a particular blog post of George Packer, “Reading Orwell: George Packer” in the New Yorker April 23, 2009. “Driedchar is a big fan of John Updike, as noted in another comment. It doesn’t get much more establishment than Updike, a long time New Yorker writer. Yet such is the egregiousness of Wood’s misrepresentation of George Orwell that even from various points in the establishment one may feel compelled to point out Wood’s “irksome … condescension to Orwell and to the working class” and to “the mugging” that Wood delivers, courtesy of the New Yorker, in his article that George Packer calls “excellent.” The comment:
I agree with most of what Packer has to say, except his reference to James Wood’s “A Fine Rage” as an “excellent essay.” Wood’s piece is filled with questionable statements. For example, when he says, “There is a difference between being revolutionary and being a revolutionary, and journalists are not required to be tacticians,” he implies that Orwell didn’t really understand the realities of revolt. He fails to mention that Orwell fought (voluntarily) on the front lines against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Wood takes a sentence in Orwell’s “The Lion and the Unicorn” (“However horrible this system [Fascism] may seem to us, it works.”) out of context and uses it to conclude: “So the example of efficient Fascism is what inspires the hope of efficient socialism.” Wood fails to point out that in “The Lion and the Unicorn,” not to mention many other essays and reviews, Orwell is at pains to distinguish between Fascism and socialism. For example, in “The Lion and the Unicorn,” Orwell says, “Hitler’s real self is in Mein Kampf, and in his actions. He has never persecuted the rich, except when they were Jews or when they tried actively to oppose him. He stands for a centralized economy which robs the capitalist of most of his power but leaves the structure of society much as before. The State controls industry, but there are still rich and poor, masters and men. Therefore, as against genuine Socialism, the moneyed class have always been on his side.” Orwell goes on to describe Fascism as “spectacular, conscious treachery.” Wood is wrong to connect Orwell’s socialism with Hitler’s fascism. He is also wrong to allege Orwell’s “reputation’s later theft at the hands of the right wing.” What exactly is Wood referring to here? Is it something disparaging T. S. Eliot and/or Malcolm Muggeridge said about “Animal Farm”? Wood does not substantiate his allegation; he merely says Orwell’s reputation was stolen by the Right. As far as I know, no such “theft” ever took place. Wood describes Orwell as a “puritan masochist.” Puritan apparently because he is sensitive to squalor; masochist because he repeatedly immersed himself in squalor? A fairer interpretation is that Orwell was onto a great subject – poverty and working class suffering – and that he was very good at describing it. The most irksome aspect of Wood’s piece is his condescension to Orwell and to the working class. He says of Orwell, “But it is too easy to gloat over his contradictions…. Gloat? Implicit in that is Wood’s enjoyment of the mugging he’s administering. Regarding the working class, Wood quotes Orwell on Dickens: “However much Dickens may admire the working classes, he does not wish to resemble them.” Woods then asks, “Why on earth should Dickens have wanted to resemble the working classes? Why would anyone want to, least of all the working classes themselves?” Well, I for one identify with the working classes and proudly consider myself part of them. I believe Wood is coming across here as quite a snob. I have only touched on a few of the many troublesome and problematic aspects of James Wood’s “A Fine Rage.” Far from being “excellent,” as Packer describes it, it is thoroughly rotten and regrettable.
2 An excerpt from George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia:
I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Aragon one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilized life – snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. – had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as his master. Of course such a state of affairs could not last. It was simply a temporary and local phase in an enormous game that is being played over the whole surface of the earth. But it lasted long enough to have its effect upon anyone who experienced it. However much one cursed at the time, one realized afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality. I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality. In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy ‘proving’ that Socialism means no more than a planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the ‘mystique’ of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all…. In that community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no boot-licking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like. And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me….
This was in late December 1936 [in Barcelona], less than seven months ago as I write, and yet it is a period that has already receded into enormous distance. Later events have obliterated it much more completely than they have obliterated 1935, or 1905, for that matter. I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do. The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workman. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Señor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ or ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos dias’. Tipping had been forbidden by law since the time of Primo de Rivera; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loud-speakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in this that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. Also, I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ State and that the entire bourgeoisie had either fled, been killed or voluntarily come over to the workers’ side; I did not realise that great numbers of well-to-do bourgeois were simply lying low and disguising themselves as proletarians for the time being.
Together with all this there was something of the evil atmosphere of war. The town had a gaunt untidy look, roads and buildings were in poor repair, the streets at night were dimly lit for fear of air-raids, the shops were mostly shabby and half-empty. Meat was scarce and milk practically unobtainable, there was a shortage of coal, sugar and petrol, and a really serious shortage of bread. Even at this period the bread-queues were often hundreds of yards long. Yet so far as one could judge the people were contented and hopeful. There was no unemployment, and the price of living was still extremely low; you saw very few conspicuously destitute people and no beggars except the gypsies. Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine. In the barbers’ shops were Anarchist notices (the barbers were mostly Anarchists) solemnly explaining that barbers were no longer slaves. In the streets were coloured posters appealing to prostitutes to stop being prostitutes. To anyone from the hard-boiled, sneering civilization of the English-speaking races there was something rather pathetic in the literalness with which these idealistic Spaniards took the hackneyed phrase of revolution. At that time revolutionary ballads of the naivest kind, all about the proletarian brotherhood and the wickedness of Mussolini, were being sold on the streets for a few centimes each. I have often seen an illiterate militiaman buy one of these ballads, laboriously spell out the words, and then, when he had got the hang of it, begin singing it to an appropriate tune.