April 6, 2004

A note from my intellectual tradition...

From Why Orwell Matters, by Christopher Hitchens:

"There isn't much room for doubt about the real source of anti-Orwell resentment. In the view of many on the official Left, he committed the ultimate sin of 'giving ammunition to the enemy'. Not only did he do this in the 30s, when the cause of anti-fascism supposedly necessitated a closing of ranks, but he repeated the offence in the opening years of the Cold War and thus - 'objectively', as people used to say - became an ally of the forces of conservatism.

Unlike innumerable contemporaries, whose defections from Communism were later to furnish spectacular confessions and memoirs, Orwell never went through a phase of Russophilia or Stalin-worship or fellow-travelling. He wrote in mid 1940 that he had learned to trust his gut on certain questions:

'Since 1934 I have known war between England and Germany was coming, and since 1936 I have known it with complete certainty. I could feel it in my belly, and the chatter of the pacifists on the one hand, and the Popular Front people who pretended to fear that Britain was preparing for war against Russia on the other, never deceived me. Similarly such horrors as the Russian purges never surprised me, because I always felt that - not exactly that, but something like that - was implicit in Bolshevik rule.'

Are we to believe that Orwell (who confided the above to his private diary) was able on internal literary evidence to decide that Soviet Communism was monstrous? The claim is partly justified by an incisive review he wrote in June 1938, discussing Eugene Lyons's journalistic memoir, Assignment in Utopia:

"To get the full sense of our ignorance as to what is really happening in the USSR, it would be worth trying to translate the most sensational Russian event of the past two years, the Trotskyist trials, into English terms. Make the necessary adjustments, let Left be Right and Right be Left, and you get something like this:

"'Mr. Winston Churchill [i.e. Trotsky], now in exile in Portugal, is plotting to overthrow the British Empire and establish Communism in England. By the use of unlimited Russian money he has succeeded in building up a huge Churchillite organisation which includes members of Parliament, factory managers, Roman Catholic bishops and practically the whole of the Primrose League. Almost every day some dastardly act of sabotage is laid bare - sometimes a plot to blow up the House of Lords, sometimes and outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the Royal racing-stables. Eighty per cent of the Beefeaters at the Tower are discovered to be agents of the Communist International. A high level official at the Post Office admits brazenly to having embezzled postal orders to the tune of 5,000,000 pounds, and also to having committed lese majeste by drawing moustaches on postage stamps. Lord Nuffield ["the English Henry Ford"], after a 7-hour interrogation by Mr. Norman Birkett [who would become a lawyer at Nuremberg 7 years later], confesses that ever since 1920 he has been fomenting strikes in his own factories. Casual half-inch paras in every issue of the newspapers announce that fifty more Churchillite sheep-stealers have been shot in Westmoreland. And meanwhile the Churchillites never cease from proclaiming that it is they who are the real defenders of Capitalism and that it is the government that is no more than a set of Bolsheviks in disguise.'

"Anyone who has followed the Russian trials know that this is scarcely a parody. From our point of view, the whole thing is not merely incredible as a genuine conspiracy, it is next door to incredible as a frame-up. It is simply a dark mystery, of which the only seizable fact - sinister enough in its way - is that Communists over here regard it as a good advertisement for Communism."

Hitchens notes:

Orwell shows he could make a large and intelligent inference from limited information. It was not only committed communists who took the fantastic confessions of the Moscow defendants at face value. Eminent jurists and lawyers, veteran reporters and parliamentarians, ministers of religion, all found that the sheer volume of evidence was impressive and convincing. Writing for the small audience of the New English Weekly, Orwell backed his instinct about the hideous language of the process, as well as its hysterical irrationality and prounounced it a gigantic fraud.