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Oliver Francis © 2003

 

 
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So, the fighting is over in Iraq (for the moment), and Donald Rumsfeld eyes up Syria like some cartoon dog imagining a juicy, steaming hot chicken. From time to time Pyongyang rattles its rather flimsy sabre, and if you believe Hosny Mubarak a thousand new Bin Ladens are ready to claw like the living dead from the rubble of war. Struggling to make sense of it all, I know I cannot be the only one to wonder what sort of reaction this world would have generated from the greatest political writer of the Twentieth Century. I refer, as if there could be any other, to George Orwell. It will not have escaped anyone’s notice that this year is a century since his birth, and fifty-three years since his death. He has been dead for longer than he was alive, and yet he is as vital to the understanding of our political world as ever. No-one has more vigorously championed Orwell’s importance than Christopher Hitchens. Why Orwell Matters announces the American title for his excellent book Orwell’s Victory (Penguin, £9.99), giving rise to a clutch of articles of the "Why Hitchens Matters" mould, the most recent within the last few weeks (Peter J. O'Malley, New Thinking, Spring 2003). The subtext from these is clear: there is something about these two contrarians that invites comparison. Is -- to reduce it all to neophilia -- Hitchens the new Orwell?

Put simply, no: comparisons like these are facile and largely meaningless (as a glance at Private Eye will tell you), but in a world full of political writers who would like to be compared to Orwell, Hitchens does pretty well. Prolific, opinionated, contrarian, excessively well-read, eclectic. They share all those. They both have a low tolerance for cranks and pseudo-intellectuals. They have also both been the targets of allegations of misogyny. Orwell may have had "Difficulty with Girls", but whilst Hitchens can be boorish and overbearing towards women it is certainly no more than he is boorish and overbearing to men. Isn’t that equality? And I can’t help but feel that Orwell would have agreed with Hitchens that the elevation of identity politics -- gender, race, religion -- has often been used to mask continuing class subjugation. Both men enjoy having a tussle with other people’s religion, but no-one could justifiably accuse either Hitchens or Orwell of racism. Yes, every lazy critic under the sun cheerily calls Orwell an anti-Semite as if they had never read his essay "Anti-Semitism in Britain". (They probably haven’t.) If Orwell was ever anti-Semitic, he challenged and confronted this anti-Semitism with a view to defeating it. That was his point in the essay: in order to defeat a prejudice, one must first acknowledge and defeat it in oneself. As Hitchens writes, "Orwell as a writer was always taking his own temperature".

You will know a man by his enemies, and Hitchens and Orwell are marked out as bedfellows by the way that both have found themselves at odds with their Fellow Travellers. They have both been more vilified by those a tiny political hue away from them than by those at the other end of the spectrum. Certainly, the Left has been so often characterised by in-fighting whilst the Right has got on with ruling the world, but to read Orwell’s Victory, you might be forgiven for thinking that absolutely nobody left of centre liked Orwell. Hitchens bats off broadsides from, among others, E.P. Thompson, Edward Said, Isaac Deutscher, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Raymond Williams and Salman Rushdie. And Rushdie is a good friend of Hitchens, someone whom he has steadfastly defended against the book-burners, and currently finds himself standing beside in the line of up "belligerati" that have so annoyed sections of the Left by supporting Bush’s crusade again "Evil-doers". (more of which shortly).

Orwell started annoying, and being annoyed by, sections of the Left pretty early on in his career, but it was Homage to Catalonia with its anti-Stalinist revelations that really did for him with the coffee-shop commissars. Subsequently, Orwell had trouble getting a publisher for Animal Farm, has had Lefties griping about Nineteen Eighty-Four being too depressing, and more recently has been given a firm posthumous pummelling for The List for the British Government's Information Research Department. "The last chance for Orwell’s enemies to vilify him for being correct", Hitchens calls it, as part of his great case is that about all the things that Orwell has been told he was wrong, he has turned out to be right.

Like Orwell, Hitchens revels in being antagonistic, indeed he proudly wears the label Contrarian. When put near certain other members of the Left, Hitchens has long drawn fire like a British tank in an American war, and his tussle with Bill Clinton lost him many allies. Hitchens has ditched the label socialist, most often talks of the Left with disdain, and declares that the contrarian must belong to no party. And if this wasn’t enough, all of a sudden, without warning, on a clear blue September morning, Hitchens started praising George W. Bush. On The War Against Terror (or TWAT, to give it the mnemonic bestowed upon it by Jeremy Hardy) Hitchens is steadfast.

Hitchens has made no secret of whose side he thinks Orwell would be on in this latest round of American bellicosity, suggesting that a contemporary Orwell "would have seen straight through the characters who chant 'No War On Iraq'". Moreover, when Hitchens writes about Orwell, I get the impression that he thinks more than a little about himself. I should introduce a qualification here: towards the end of Orwell’s Victory, Hitchens chastises the Nobel Prize-winning French novelist and critic of Orwell Claude Simon for his "confidence in his own ability to guess the mental processes and motives of someone he has never met". For the record I have met Hitchens -- on two occasions and both times briefly -- but to say that I know him would not be so much an exaggeration as a downright lie: a product of my Ministry of Truth, my Fiction Department, a doubleplus untruth. In short, beyond the words of text, I could not tell you what Hitchens thinks about when he writes about Orwell any more than any other reader, and I am no Nobel Prize-winning novelist. But bearing Hitchens’s chastisement to Simon in mind, I will maintain my presumptions.

It is as if Hitchens’s response to the threat (real or imagined) from the Bin Ladens and Saddam Husseins of this world (the link itself is tenuous) has crystallised his Orwellian propensities and his affinity with him. The whole affair has of course really put the cat among the left-winged pigeons. Certainly, Islamo-fascist suicide bombers and evil tyrants Bad. But also United States Imperialism Bad. Stuck for a hero, large swathes of the Left have withdrawn into the relativism of a giant, "Yes, but..." Not so Hitchens. This is a chunk of him in November 2001:

"I can remember a time when the peace movement was not an auxiliary to dictators and aggressors in trouble. Looking at some of the mind-rotting tripe that comes my way from much of today's left, I get the impression that they go to bed saying: what have I done for Saddam Hussein or good old Slobodan or the Taliban today? Well, ha ha ha, and yah, boo. It was obvious from the very start that the United States had no alternative but to do what it has done. It was also obvious that defeat was impossible. The Taliban will soon be history. Al-Qaida will take longer. There will be other mutants to fight. But if, as the peaceniks like to moan, more Bin Ladens will spring up to take his place, I can offer this assurance: should that be the case, there are many many more who will also spring up to kill him all over again. And there are more of us and we are both smarter and nicer, as well as surprisingly insistent that our culture demands respect, too."

And more succinctly, with regard to Saddam Hussein, in the Mirror on March 21 2003, “He’s Hitler, he is Stalin.”

The trouble is that a great number of people simply can’t understand why Hitchens has been such an ardent supporter of Bush and TWAT. What is the man who poured scorn on Clinton for throwing cruise missiles at an Aspirin factory in Khartoum doing pouring praise on military efforts that have by now killed more civilians than were claimed on September 11 and are widely seen as the actions of rampant neocon imperialism? (Don’t believe the lazy "It’s all about oil" line. Right or wrong, it’s much bigger than that.)

But, reading Orwell’s Victory, one gets a great sense not only of the reasons behind Hitchens’ sturdy rationale for his position but also a sense that Hitchens is rather keen on Eric Blair’s pariah status; rather keen on the fact that he seemed so often out of step with others on the Left. "Anyone can get more applause than me", is a phrase Hitchens has used more than once during his public speaking. Like the leather-jacketed rebel, Hitchens enjoys his unpopularity: What are you rebelling against? What have you got?

Hitchens paints an eloquent picture of Orwell the exile, and seems to admire him not simply because he was right about a lot of things, but that he has been "proved" right against a chorus of disapproval. However, there’s a danger here for Hitchens. It seems his desire to be different, to be contrary, could be making him lazy. I didn’t get to see his locking of horns with Tariq Ali in London last summer, but a snapshot from the Observer’s Sunder Katwala doesn’t do Hitchens too many favours:

“[Hitchens] quickly abandoned what seemed a familiar "imagine, just for a second, being trapped on one of those planes" riff in the face of evident disapproval at this offside attempt to by-pass the intellect. … Hitchens fared badly on the questions too, telling a young fan of the Kissinger indictment who could not comprehend his post-9/11 position, only that "if you haven't understood what I've said so far, you aren't going to understand it if I repeat it" before falling out in bad grace with a man who insisted that he wasn't from the Indian sub-continent after Hitchens struck a below the belt blow in support of American liberty by asking him how many people were seeking to immigrate to his country.”

And has Hitchens, I wonder, paused to consider the darkly Orwellian undercurrent running through this war? The answer to this is probably yes – he’s not an idiot – but I think the parallels bear repeating. You will remember in Nineteen Eighty-Four what Goldstein has to say about The Party: that it "rejects and vilifies every principle for which the Socialist movement ever stood, and it chooses to do this in the name of socialism". I was reminded of this in the aftermath of 9/11 as our governments eroded our civil liberties, and did that very thing in the name of protecting our freedom. A neat piece of doublethink if ever there was one. And then there is the notion of catching the criminal before he commits the crime: whilst he is still only guilty of Thoughtcrime. And what have we had in the last year: a citizen of the United States, arrested at Chicago airport and taken to a military detention centre. His crime? "Planning" a dirty bomb in Washington. Except he didn’t have a bomb, or even access to one, or for that matter much of a plan. He had only committed Thoughtcrime. (One wonders who tipped them off – his shrink?)

Not content with individual Thoughtcrime, the United States has just completed the pre-emptive invasion of an entire country on the pretext that its leader intended to do Evil Things. Hitchens is at pains to point out that Orwell had no time for the notion of launching a pre-emptive attack against the Soviets in the late forties, however hateful and dangerous the regime was, but these standards no longer seem to apply. This is Hitchens in Slate, 8 January 2003: "In the present case of Iraq, a pre-emptive war is justified by its advocates on the grounds of past Iraqi aggressions and the logical presumption of future ones – which would make it partly retaliatory and partly preventive… And if the weapons are found, as one suspects they will be, after the intervention has taken place, then they could be retrospectively justified as needful for defense against an attack that was obviously coming." He is making the assumption that ownership equals intent to use. Does the United States intend to use its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons just because it owns them? But, say the Hawks, Iraq has used these weapons before: remember Halabja. They would do well to also remember agent-orange in Vietnam, depleted uranium shells in the last Gulf War, cluster bombs in this latest one.

In fairness, Hitchens has declared that "we must shun weapons that will shame us" (cluster bombs, DU, napalm, anti-personnel landmines) and quite rightly pointed out that at Halabja "[a] sustained day of carpet-bombing with ‘conventional’ weapons would have been more lethal, as well as more annihilating [than a chemical attack]". He adds that "we probably draw back from words like ‘gas’ and ‘chemical’ because, like the term ‘germ warfare,’ they seem sinister and underhanded. They supply a rhetorical means of hissing at the villain and his ghastly laboratory". To Hitchens, the only WMD that matters is the nuke, and that one justification for Saddam’s removal was that "he will never find out what it feels like to be a nuclear dictator". Ultimately Hitchens concludes that "tautology lurks at every corner, and the distinction between ‘pre-emptive’ and ‘preventive’ becomes a distinction without a difference, and only hindsight really works (and not always even then). The lesson is that all potential combatants, at all times, will invariably decide that violence and first use are justified in their own case."

Taken alone, this last sentence could almost be an argument against the war that has just happened and the ones that the Washington Hawks are no doubt cooking up at this minute. We are now almost used to the prospect of an endless war against terror – the "infinite justice" of American gunboat-morality. Hitchens berates liberals for being effectively conservative, for encouraging the status quo, but the alternative could turn out to be a recipe for a sort of status-quo-only-more-so: more Islamic terrorism, more restriction of civil liberties, more massive arms budgets at the expense of social security, more Halliburton rebuilding contracts. As Goldstein says: "War used to be to effect some sort of change. Now it is to maintain the status quo... Hence continuous, never victorious war." Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace is the title of Gore Vidal’s latest, and he is a man to whom Hitchens has in the past found himself being annointed as successor. Hitchens the new Vidal? Not anymore. But of course Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia, and the "Evil Doers" have always been evil, obviously. And not so many years ago bankrolled from Washington.

In the end I cannot pretend to know where Orwell would have stood on this argument were he alive today any more than Hitchens, but I might guess that he would not have leapt so eagerly into the fray. Just remember that at the start of the Second World War, Orwell was proposing an underground resistance to the Churchill government – a position he abandoned, according to Hitchens, with "evident relief". This is not to accuse Hitchens of being silent on all the less savoury aspects of the Bush-wars. He has been an occasionally useful voice inside the Yes camp, prodding at their excesses and exaggerations. And I am certainly not saying he should abandon his stance against the evils of Islamo-fascism and tin-pot tyrants. For the record, I’m with him on principle – if not in the current US-led practice – of finding ways to defeat barbaric, backward, lunatic religiosity and to minimise any genuine threat that dictatorial regimes may pose.

But Bush was wrong to tell us that "you are either with us or against us": there is more than one way to skin a cat. Orwell may have eventually aligned himself with Churchill against Fascism, but that did not prevent him from his opposition to Imperialism. For him the war against fascism was part of a greater struggle for socialism. However, by saying that "if there were an election tomorrow", Hitchens would vote for Bush because no-one else takes the current threat seriously, he is countenancing the Bush monolith of loyalty. An unusually Panglossian Hitchens seems to want believe that all will be for the best. As the neocons embrace the concept of the American Empire, Hitchens tells us that "A condition of the new imperialism will be the specific promise that while troops will come, they will not stay too long. An associated promise is that the era of the client state is gone and that the aim is to enable local populations to govern themselves. This promise is sincere. A new standard is being proposed, and one to which our rulers can and must be held". I hope he is right. I hope that this devotee of Orwell, whom Hitchens praises as "one of the founders of the discipline of post-colonialism" doesn’t keep his mouth shut if our masters fail to follow through on their promises. Especially given how much dissent is vilified in the States in a way that Orwell certainly would have considered abominable.

For the moment Hitchens seems to have chosen the lesser of two evils – or perhaps to take the Bushism out of it, the lesser of two stupidities – but I for one hope that this does not mean that he will not continue to make noise on other fronts. For example – to pick a personal bugbear that is nothing to do with the war – two years ago at the Hay Literary Festival I sat and listened to him ridicule Bill Clinton for invoking God in the context of the Human Genome Project. I hope that this year he will not spare the whip against the Bushies who believe their President was appointed by the Crucified Christ rather than the hanging chad. If you think the man’s faith is his own business, then perhaps Bush should keep it his own business, rather than with many of his Republican chums doing his best to erode the separation of Church and State and channelling the vast majority of AIDS money into "abstinence only" programmes that have been shown to do little to combat either STDs or teenage pregnancy. Did I say God had nothing to do with the war? My mistake. Islam-fascists one side, a Born Again the other. With them or against them? Against them both thanks very much. Mr Hitchens, you have a good thermometer. Keep on taking your temperature.

Click here for the Christopher Hitchens Web.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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