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For more than a decade the Hoover Institution has been producing Uncommon Knowledge with Peter Robinson, a series hosted by Hoover fellow Peter Robinson as an outlet for political leaders, scholars, journalists, and today’s big thinkers to share their views with the world. Guests have included a host of famous figures, including Paul Ryan, Henry Kissinger, Antonin Scalia, Rupert Murdoch, Newt Gingrich, and Christopher Hitchens, along with Hoover fellows such as Condoleezza Rice and George Shultz.

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April 28, 2003 | Recorded on April 28, 2003


George Orwell was one of the great journalists and political writers of the twentieth century. His writings on the great political struggles of that century—imperialism, fascism, Stalinism—in books such as Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm, and 1984, are revered. But is Orwell relevant to the main political and cultural issues of our present day? Or should we read Orwell merely out of an appreciation for language and history?

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, the importance of being Orwell.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, 100 years of Orwell. George Orwell, born 100 years ago this year, was one of the leading journalists and political writers of the 20th century. He addressed himself to the great political issues of his day, imperialism, fascism, Stalinism, producing books Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm, 1984, that are still widely read. But is Orwell still relevant? Does his work bear on the great political issues of our day or should we still read him merely out of an appreciation for language and history?

Joining us, two guests. David Brooks is a senior editor for The Weekly Standard magazine and Christopher Hitchens is a journalist and author, one of whose recent books is entitled Why Orwell Matters.

Title: Bye, George

Peter Robinson: David Brooks, writing about Christopher Hitchens' book, Why Orwell Matters, "For all the wisdom that Hitchens brings to this book," that's the last nice bit you'll hear, Christopher, "For all the wisdom that Hitchens brings to this book, it leaves the reader with the impression that Orwell doesn't actually matter anymore." David, why not?

David Brooks: Well, he matters as a model of someone who had, as he said of himself in a rare display of immodesty, the power of facing unpleasant facts. And he matters as an honest person. Where he doesn't matter--and I've actually had some second thoughts about this--was that he was right, as Christopher says, about the three great facts of his time, imperialism, colonialism and fascism.

Peter Robinson: Fascism.

Christopher Hitchens: Stalinism.

Peter Robinson: No, no, no, no, Stalinism that's right. We'll get to that.

David Brooks: And reading through his life and some of the arguments he had where he was right and some where he was wrong, it becomes clear that those are not the arguments of our time and that if you saw, say the war in Iraq, through the guise of colonialism, you would probably get it wrong, as Christopher did not. And so it struck me as interesting that Christopher has written a lot about the situation in Iraq over the past year and this book comes out in the middle of it and yet it's somehow separated.

Peter Robinson: And indeed he ends his review by saying, "Hitchens matters more than Orwell." You beg to differ?

Christopher Hitchens: Well, that at least gives me something to disagree with because I liked everything else he was just saying. The Power of Facing indeed was going to be my title, or at least it would have been if my publishers had let me. They thought it was too obscure but I thought it would--it is probably the most sort of potent, short description that you could get. And of course it's true that he got those three points right. But of course then I'd have to concede to David that many of the arguments that one has about reviewing battles over British Empire, fascism in Spain or National Socialism in Germany, or against Stalinism, do now seem rather recondite and part of our immediate past, but no question something you have to look over your shoulder to review a bit. And since with Iraq say the question has been for many people including on the left, and also on the Pat Buchanan right, which are we more opposed to, totalitarian dictatorship and aggressive totalitarian dictatorship or American imperialism or the imperial temptation? And since there is an argument to be heard there, I just think my difference with David would be narrow but deep. I'd simply say well, someone who teaches you to argue about both must help you to argue about this choice.

Peter Robinson: I want to come to the imperialism and fascism and Stalinism but first I'd like you to comment on the odd trajectory of this man's life. Born 100 years ago in Bengal where his father was in the Indian Civil Service, raised in England, very bright, gets into Eton and is on a trajectory to become a comfortable member of the English middle class. Instead, he drops out while he's at Eton. Bright as he is, he slacks off and finishes in the bottom fifth of his class in Eton, spends time in Burma, drops out of the imperial police, spends four years as a tramp, writes Down and Out in Paris and London. And Louis Menand argues, "There is no great mystery behind the choices he made, he wanted to de-class himself." So the animating force in the life of George Orwell, born Eric Blair, Orwell is a pen name, is less the world's struggles of the 20th century than the peculiarities of the British class system. Christopher?

Christopher Hitchens: Yes, and again I don't disagree with you much except that to say that Orwell wasn't born into a very rich family or that comfortable a one. They were a family that hoped to promote themselves on the social level. Sending the bright boy to Eton...

Peter Robinson: Was a good start.

Christopher Hitchens: ...was one of those proofs. But if you are that boy and you're sent to a school where everyone is much richer than you are but takes it as their due, the stirrings of radicalism will begin to occur to you. I can tell you that from my own experience actually, in a milder way. And second, the sensation that the prizes this racket offers aren't really worth having will start to occur to you, too. He didn't drop out from Eton, he slacked off a bit. It's true.

Peter Robinson: Well, right.

Christopher Hitchens: But he went to be a fairly junior figure in the colonial police in Burma and I think he resigned because he was afraid that if he stayed on, he would become either a sadist or a racist or a robot or some combination of the three. I think he didn't like what the exercise of power did to him. And so that he by that age, knowing what it's like to be bullied and be an outsider and to be a bully and on top, he didn't like either position. And the whole work I think of Orwell, the entire oeuvre if you like, is informed very much by this realization that there's a dirty secret at the very heart of power. We understand why some people want to wield it. We don't really want to ask ourselves why some people like to have it wielded on them.

Peter Robinson: It's a bit of what you mean about his being admirable. He's carving out a sense of integrity from a very early age.

David Brooks: But there's a danger in both what Menand and you were saying which is that he becomes detached, which is sort of what Menand is accusing him of. I mean the relationship between him and what you might call righteous idealism is sort of an interesting relationship because his tone was always cool. And one other thing Christopher says in the book, he's someone who was combating his worst prejudices through his life. And that I think contributes to the tone of coolness. And yet the question becomes, was he just trying to erase the class elements of himself or did he really have a righteous idealism about the world? And he said when he wrote best he wrote about politics. He wrote out of a sense of idealism but he doesn't write in a way that's typically idealistic because he's never angry, he's never passionate. It's always a little cold and detached.

Christopher Hitchens: He's sometimes contemptuous though. I mean, the Swiftian element, the one of contempt and scorn and sarcasm is because he felt an obligation himself to tell the truth no matter what the hazard was or what the other loyalties were. And he had no respect for people who would shade it for a short-term purpose.

Peter Robinson: We've mentioned the three great issues of the 20th century that Orwell grappled with, imperialism, fascism and Stalinism. Let's examine each in turn.

Title: Hip Hip Hoo-Raj

Peter Robinson: From The Road to Wigan Pier, "In order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation." Now economic historians are more or less agreed that British wealth in 19th and early 20th century arose overwhelmingly from internal growth and investment in free markets, free economies, particularly Argentina and the United States and the best studies seem to suggest that the empire produced a meager return or at best broke even. So the notion that Britain was raping India, which was very poor when Britain arrived and somewhat less poor when the British left--in other words, he wasn't right about imperialism.

Christopher Hitchens: I think you're quite right. There's another point where he says without the empire, this would be a small, cold, poor island where we live mainly on herrings and potatoes. But there's no chance that would have been true.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Christopher Hitchens: I would say it's more that he was morally right. He decided that the idea that it was a law of nature that Africans and Indians and others should be governed for their own good by white people was not a natural law, not a good idea and also wasn't going to last. I would not say his economic analysis of it was right.

David Brooks: A lot of people were right about that. What he was also right about in addition, every Rotarian knew about communism, colonialism and fascism, but what he was good at was describing what the psychological effects of (A) of being under colonial domination which were not good on the victims, not good on the people doing the colonial dominating. And he wrote something in his most famous essay or at least most popular, the Shooting an Elephant essay which is germane to American forces in Iraq, which is that when you get a western colonizer in a place like Iraq or India, sometimes the colonizer is not in control of his own actions.

Peter Robinson: Right.

David Brooks: And that's somehow why I've come back to thinking he may be a little more relevant than I thought in that totalitarianism hasn't gone away as much as we thought it was. Saddam was running a pretty strict totalitarian regime. And some of the psychological effects that he felt in India, you know, the U.S. and its representatives may feel in Iraq.

Peter Robinson: Christopher and David, Niall Ferguson's newest book on the British Empire: "Without the spread of British rule, it is hard to believe that the structures of liberal capitalism would have been so successfully established in so many different economies around the world. Although it fought many small wars, the empire maintained a global peace unmatched before or since." Economic growth, liberal political values and peace. That is not a bad record.

Christopher Hitchens: No, it's not the whole story either. But let's compare Orwell to Kipling. They're almost overse or negatives--positive-negative to each other. They both thought that the empire had brought peace and prosperity but that it might also bring terrible hubris and exploitation and cruelty. Kipling thought one element of this was stronger and more important than another. Orwell partly admired, partly disliked Kipling. They both saw that it was a multi-sided operation, the empire. And Orwell writes, I don't want to make it seem as if I could have it both ways, and he's right both ways but he showed on several occasions that there could be worse things than empire. And that self-government might, for example, make people worse off. But he said that was and should be their choice. I would like to just amplify David's point on totalitarian. You know, one always tries to avoid cliché while being a reporter. John Burns I think is the best writer in the New York Times, if not in the, you know, current journalistic scene, went to watch Saddam's referendum, last fall--wasn't just a 100% vote but 100% turnout and people worshipping, and even cutting and bleeding themselves. And he said you have to say this is Orwellian, there isn't another word for it. The same is true of--I've also been in North Korea as well as Iraq. No reporter has ever succeeded in writing about Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il without saying, it's as if they've modeled this state on 1984. It's extraordinary the extent to which Orwell's insight into the worship of mediocre human beings and the party and the citizen being the property of the state is still with us.

Peter Robinson: Onto the second great issue of the 20th century, fascism.

Title: Goose-Stepping Into History

Peter Robinson: Louis Menand makes the point--of course, he's anti-fascist--he goes to Spain and he's such an anti-fascist that he takes up arms against Franco. Menand writes however that as late as 1939, Orwell, "thought it would be a good idea to set up an underground anti-war organization. He despises Nazi Germany but he doesn't think that Britain should go to war with it. And he predicted he would end up in a British concentration camp because of his views. He kept up his anti-war agitation until August 1939, then with the Nazi Soviet non-aggression pact, he flipped completely." Can you explain? What's going on there?

Christopher Hitchens: I have to just tell you I have a quarrel with the chronology of his essay.

Peter Robinson: You do?

Christopher Hitchens: Yeah I think he has Orwell's quotations there in the wrong order. But let's concede that--well first Orwell writes practically nothing about fascism that's worth reading, almost in fact nothing at all. It's interesting. He seems to have just thought from the first time he encountered it, very early on, well, this is self-evidently horrifying and dangerous.

Peter Robinson: So Homage to Catalonia has nothing about the fascists. It's all about the Stalinists.

Christopher Hitchens: He makes a couple of rhetorical swipes at it a couple of times. At one point he says, you know, I could kill Hitler pretty easily if I got the chance but I can't hate him. You want to feel sorry for someone who's so deranged. He just thought this was the summa of everything that was wrong, not just with human nature but with human society. Fascism had doubled, distilled all of this and organized it into a system. Who isn't against it but there's no great anti-fascist polemic.

David Brooks: But it is true that when Britain and Germany were facing off, he did not say Britain's right, Germany's wrong. Let's go to war.

Christopher Hitchens: Absolutely not, because like everyone else in his age group if you like, the horror of the First World War had not abated in him. And he thought, if we're not careful, we won't have a war against Hitler, we'll just have another war against Germany with everyone made into a jingo and sent off to the trenches. And the British won't make any reforms at home. And Britain will become more like a fascist country than it is now, which by the way, wasn't a stupid thing to think at the time but was stupid in 1940 when some of the left carried on thinking it. And when Orwell said well at least now we have Churchill who wants to fight these people really and that's better.

David Brooks: But I would say one of his weaknesses was that he was so allergic to cant and pomposity and jingoism that he withdrew from good causes that were championed, in a way, full of pomposity and cant. And whenever you're taking a position as you know...

Peter Robinson: Churchill was onto the Nazis five, six years before Orwell was.

Christopher Hitchens: No, well, Churchill had been quite pro--Churchill wrote a wonderful review of Mein Kampf and of Hitler's career in general--it's in Great Contemporaries--saying he might be the savior of his country. He was pro-Franco, he was pro-Mussolini. He didn't change sides till quite late. And Orwell knew this and so did many other people. They didn't trust Churchill. Churchill in the Thirties campaigns mainly against Mahatma Gandhi. He thought he was the big threat to civilization.

Peter Robinson: Well, he was much more in favor of the empire.

Christopher Hitchens: I mean, these are ironies of history.

Peter Robinson: Let me ask you this, would you feel happier if Orwell--would you be a little bit more pleased with your man's record if Orwell had been more stridently anti-German, more in favor of military action? I mean, he picks up a gun and runs right to the Iberian Peninsula to fight Franco but there's a long silence.

Christopher Hitchens: Well, he thought fascism should be stopped in its tracks but no, that wouldn't be a good enough defense. I prefer what David said earlier, I'd rather repeat and underline it. The charm of reading Orwell and the fascination of it is he's permanently at war with himself, arguing with himself and showing that he understands contradiction including within himself and sometimes getting it wrong. But usually finally, getting it right. Just taking the correct position is not why I admire him.

Peter Robinson: Next, Orwell on the third great issue, Stalinism.

Title: Comrades-at-Arm's Length

Peter Robinson: Homage to Catalonia in 1938, Animal Farm, 1984, these are the great classics. He never ceases to consider himself a man of the left but while the intellectuals of the left, and there are hundreds, still are praising Stalin, taken in by the Soviet Union, he somehow sees what's going on. What enabled him to do that?

David Brooks: I would say, first of all, it was his school days if you could pick out any one thing, where he had this relationship with this horrible school. And he learned from a very early age what tyranny was like, what it was like to live under a system of arbitrary rules that didn't make sense and where, as he wrote in an essay, where you couldn't do right. It was impossible to do right because the power was so corrupted and that there was just no way you could actually behave in a proper way. And so I think he understood the potential for tyranny and for misuse of authority, you know, probably at age eight.

Peter Robinson: Christopher?

Christopher Hitchens: Well, I completely agree. I mean, it's true first to say he wasn't disillusioned with Stalinism or communism. He had never had an illusion in the first place.

Peter Robinson: He'd never went in for it.

Christopher Hitchens: And second that he understood the nature of arbitrary rule from boyhood and that was rammed home by the experience of being first a bully and then--bullied rather and then a bully in Burma. So he knew it from both sides. And then I'd add only one thing. He detested by instinct the language of the communist Russian authorities, just the way they talked, what the French call the langue du bois. You know, the wooden tongue, the boring, hectoring fanatical stuff and the endless promises that they just over-fulfill--said read this, who can possibly take a word of it seriously? It's ugly and it's deceitful. He guessed that the Moscow trials, for example, were a frame-up when quite important lawyers who had no politics at all thought they were quite a well-organized trial. He said the way the defendants confess is hysterical. They're asking to be punished for more than they can possibly have done. There's something sick about it. He knew nothing about it, in point of the evidence. He just thought this is clearly a farce and a monstrous one. So his attention to language, which is the reason that I think he also remains relevant in the way that he always attends to the language.

Peter Robinson: So he's a brilliant critic, the anti-imperialist, the anti-fascist, the anti-Stalinist. His own position strikes me--I'll push you a little bit on this--as quite a lot less impressive, as an advocate rather than a critic. So he remains a man of the left. He wants a socialist revolution, "I daresay the London gutters will have to run with blood." That's 1940. "It is not certain that socialism is in all ways superior to capitalism but it is certain that unlike capitalism, it can solve the problems of production and consumption. The state simply calculates what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them." That's risible. That's a bit of Orwell that just doesn't stand up.

Christopher Hitchens: As you were observing and we were agreeing about India before, he was in no way a political economist. I think he was a sort of post-Keynesian of the time. Nobody thought laissez-faire capitalism as it was then called, could be revived. There was only a very few people.

Peter Robinson: Very few. There were people who thought...

Christopher Hitchens: Mainly conservative economists who thought that in that form, because for many years after Orwell's death, most conservative parties in the west were essentially social democratic. So it's interesting Orwell writes against himself when The Observer for some reason picks him as the reviewer for The Road to Serfdom when it comes out in what '47, '48. Orwell says well you've got to agree with this guy Hayek, whoever he is that he's onto something, there could obviously come a point where the state just became too mighty in the economy to disallow the suspicion they would become too mighty in society too, that it would own everybody and everything.

David Brooks: You read him for some things. I mean, you have to grade him on a curve. He was an intellectual after all. You can't expect him to be as sensible as a businessman. But for an intellectual he got these things right and you don't read him for economics or politics. You read him for his insights into human nature.

Peter Robinson: My point is that there's something interesting going on here, is that some people just seem to be born to be critics, he's almost a prophet, a Jeremiah. His own position is really the least important, least interesting and least accurate in some way aspect of his writing.

Christopher Hitchens: Yeah, only I think mainly because it provides the register of experience. That he's been through certain things and seen them and so he can bring that amount of authority to bear. It isn't just done from a study or a library. But yes, other than that, I mean, to join the Independent Labor Party as he did in I think 1938, was a course of folly whether you were a conservative or a socialist.

Peter Robinson: Let's move onto Orwell's relationship or lack thereof with the United States.

Title: Bored With the USA

Peter Robinson: Christopher, I quote your book, "There is one outstanding lacuna, Orwell's relative indifference to the importance of the United States as an emerging dominant culture." Why? Why was he indifferent to the United States?

Christopher Hitchens: Well he had the upbringing of most English middle class people of the time which was to view the United States as a country rather vulgar in its culture, rather acquisitive in its style and manners, rather gross, you know, they're too big and imposing. The cultural products that they were getting at the time, the early Hollywood and comic books and so on, were thought very inferior to the splendid example of the British Broadcasting Corporation, for example, or The Boy's Own Paper and this kind of thing. He didn't like this at all. He was to suspect the United States of having imperialist designs. Now he wasn't wrong exactly about any of this but he never had the curiosity to go to the United States to have a look, and never really expressed any desire to until very late in life and didn't in this case submit it to the test of experience. On the other hand he had quite a bit of knowledge of American literature and admired it and noticed the interesting thing about it, which is it contains this strong prompting for liberty, from Mark Twain onwards. There's this sense of a large, free and generous country as well as a commercial civilization not ostensibly unattractive.

David Brooks: Just imagine a guy from Texas going up to him and saying hey how ya doin' buddy and slapping him on the back. It would not work.

Peter Robinson: "The main reason Orwell doesn't matter," I'm quoting you now, "doesn't matter much to our current controversies, is that he never really paid much attention to the United States. During the Cold War the essential issue, the essential issue was Marxism. Now the main issue is America."

David Brooks: That I agree with.

Peter Robinson: Oh, do you still?

David Brooks: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Because he's got you in motion slightly.

David Brooks: We've just been through...

Christopher Hitchens: I think that too.

Peter Robinson: You think that too?

Christopher Hitchens: Sure. I mean, I think that if I wanted to revisit the history of the radical or left movement on this, you have to go back now--as though I wanted to, to Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine and those who, from the beginning, wanted the United States to be a democratic superpower or superpower for democracy. Yes. This has been overlaid by some imperial adventures and by Cold War and World War but yeah, there is that idea of the foundation and it needs to be rethought. It obviously can't be escaped.

David Brooks: Well, that was what this whole Iraq debate was about--should the U.S. use its military power to try to advance democracy around the world and people who agreed with that were supportive and people who didn't, were against--I have no clue where Orwell would have come down.

Peter Robinson: Time for some summary thoughts on the importance of George Orwell.

Title: Orwell That Ends Well

Peter Robinson: The question is, does Orwell matter? You've written a book about him. You've written a review of the book and I've written damn all, so I go first. He was in my judgment wrong even when he was right. He got things wrong on imperialism. He was not all that noteworthy in his opposition to fascism and he was quite wrong about capitalism. But he was right about totalitarianism overwhelmingly, piercingly right and since the statist impulse is still with us, as witnessed even under a Republican President and a Republican-controlled Congress, spending is galloping ahead in Washington, Orwell matters. David?

David Brooks: I would certainly recommend his whole oeuvre as he wouldn't say. But if there was one essay I would recommend, another famous essay he wrote at the start of World War II called England, My England, Your England where he's being bombed.

Peter Robinson: His England--right, right.

David Brooks: And he writes, "Overhead highly civilized beings are trying to kill me," meaning the German bombers. And he realized at that moment nationality matters. And he writes an essay on what it's like to be an Englishman. And it's an essay that is perfect description what it's like to feel a member of a nation, not to be puffed up about it but to feel that somehow in your roots, you are a member of a nation. And that is a model for anybody from any nation on how to address your nationhood and how to address that part of your identity.

Peter Robinson: Give us the name of the essay, Christopher.

Christopher Hitchens: It's called England, Whose England, I think.

Peter Robinson: And the year is '40...

Christopher Hitchens: 1940 or '41. It was written for Partisan Review I believe because he did always have an American connection and the American co-thinkers did know how to recognize someone who was like them even if he had no curiosity about the United States. There's another paradox.

Peter Robinson: The man who's written the book on the man gets to give us the closing word here.

Christopher Hitchens: Well, I'd only say that the other way we have Orwellian in our language, apart from the one I just mentioned to describe totalitarianism and the hidden roots that it has in ourselves, the other way we use the word Orwellian is to describe a piece of obvious propaganda or intellectual dishonesty. A term like say collateral damage, you know, for civilian casualties, giving a pretty name to a vile thing, the uses of euphemism. We know double think, we know big brother, we know all of this from him, from realizing that the language instinct in us is partly an expression of our desire for liberty as well and mustn't be tainted, mustn't be polluted by propaganda. And that's a lesson for life.

Peter Robinson: David Brooks, Christopher Hitchens, George Orwell, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.