Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Orwell Was Not a Conservative

"[He] is one of those writers who are felt to be worth stealing. He has been stolen by Marxists, by Catholics and, above all, by Conservatives": so wrote Orwell in 1939.  He is ostensibly speaking about Charles Dickens, but like much else in the essay, these lines have a self-relexive character: as well as an eery prescience.  For Orwell too has been found to be "worth stealing" ever since he died.  Not so much, in his case, by Marxists or Catholics (this would be a contorted intellectual heist to pull off, even for the masters of dialectic and casuistry)-- but very much so by conservatives.

Orwell perhaps in writing about Dickens feared something similar might happen to him and attempted to forestall it.  If by talking about Dickens he was really talking about himself, after all, it would not be unusual.  Our odes to our intellectual heroes are often our most self-indulgent literary exercises because they allow us to praise in another what we think ought to be praised in us (which we can't do so openly in the memoir)  (Reader beware for this reason anything I write about Orwell!).

 Orwell wanted to praise in Dickens his moral fairness-- his instinctive sympathy for the underdog in any situation.  These were of course traits that Orwell (rightly) saw in himself.  His own moral consistency persistently led him to "obvious" conclusions that nonetheless seemed to elude the brightest minds around him-- that still elude them today.  His most fundamental insight was similar to Dickens' novelistic treatment of the Terror of the French Revolution: that the face under the guillotine or the jackboot never deserves to be there, no matter who is wearing it: that, as soon as the tables are turned on the "oppressor," our sympathies will and must also migrate to the erstwhile overlord.  In short, as he once put it, "revenge is sour."

The trouble with a perennial willingness to illuminate the moral blind-spots of every ideology-- not just the ones you happen to disapprove of in advance-- is not actually that you will alienate everyone.  Your fate will be much more infuriating than that: everyone will wish to claim you for their own side.  They will delight in seeing you demolish the sacred cows of their adversaries and conveniently overlook the passages where you take on their own shibboleths and secret handshakes.  This latter is of course especially easy to do once an author is dead and therefore indisposed to take issue with the oversight.

Such has been the fate of Orwell.  "The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them," he wrote.  So too, the ideologist has a remarkable capacity for missing the passages in Orwell which undermine her or his own position.  The Neoconservative fastens on Orwell's critique of pacifism and ignores his stance on imperialism, or his prescient concerns about the fate of the Palestinian people.  The traditionalist conservative likes what he has to say about modern technological society and never seems to encounter those themes which set Orwell on a tear about Christianity or "medievalism."  The libertarian delights in his critique of totalitarianism and bypasses entirely his socialism (an extraordinary feat of willful blindness, that).  And I-- I confess-- tend not to dwell on those passages which display Orwell's nastier prejudices, or in which he takes on other left-wing boyhood heroes of mine-- or when he starts to sound (to me at least) just plain captious and resentful rather than honest.

The most fervent-- and least burglarious-- of the many keepers of Orwell's flame since his death have been democratic socialists and critical liberals of various kinds-- Bernard Crick, George Scialabba, Richard Rorty, and Michael Walzer all come to mind, though there are others.  He has also been exhumed posthumously as a "liberal hawk" by Christopher Hitchens, however implausibly.  (Orwell, the lover of tea and the toads of the English countryside, resurrected as the ideological vanguard of the "world liberal revolution" or whatever Hitchens was calling it toward the end).  We will return to the case of conservatives, especially traditionalist conservatives, in a moment.

But not everyone has been attracted to these acts of grave-robbing: in particular, certain Cold War liberals and our more recent "postmodernists" have been content to just let him molder.  I recall reading for instance an essay by Judith Shklar, from the first camp, which took a rather disdainful attitude toward Orwell's praise of the "common man" (Hitler did that too!) and toward Orwell's romanticism (Hitler had that too!  End of story!).  Our "postmodernists" (apart from Richard Rorty-- always a political outlier in this group anyways) look askance at Orwell's emphasis on "truth" and "decency" (there are probably no two concepts more inimical to the postmodern sensibility).  Their Foucaultian wing especially doesn't care for Orwell's seeming insistence that overt state terror is somehow "worse" than the dominance hierarchies of liberal civilization (didn't he see that having rats devour your face in Room 101 is basically the same thing as getting slapped in court with an overdue parking ticket?-- both are forms of "discipline," after all).

Many of the traits named above-- the contempt Orwell aroused in the High Church liberals of America's midcentury, the utter incompatibility of his ideals with the postmodern orientation of the New Left, his love of smallness, of Englishness, of village and hamlet life, most of all his decency-- these have made Orwell seem a likely candidate for inclusion in the traditionalist conservative pantheon.  They have also made the grave-robbing on the part of the traditionalist conservative camp one of the least implausible attempts-- and therefore the most worth resisting here.

To solve the question of Orwell's "cultural conservatism" we would need to agree on a definition of the latter-- and we can dispense with some of the cruder ones right away.  I do not have the least doubt-- I should say at the outset-- that a contemporary, nonagenarian Orwell would be blisteringly hostile to the American counterculture, the New Left, hippies, pot, "Bobos," and so on-- but a very considerable part of this would be due to Orwell's aesthetic distaste for guruism and quack spirituality, as well as his intense dislike of upper-middle class pseudo-radicalism (which for parts of the last half century virtually eclipsed the rest of the traditional American Left).

I think another big part of his hostility to the American cultural left would simply have been the result of his rather nasty prejudices.  There is just no way around the fact that Orwell had a contemptuous attitude toward women ("feminism," after all, was one of the examples of self-evident lunacy Orwell named in his famous rogues gallery of crackpots in The Road to Wigan Pier) and toward gay people (the "pansy left," and so on).

If "cultural conservatives" are particularly anxious to claim this aspect of his legacy, they can have it, as far as I am concerned.  But they should note that he had other ideas which would coexist profoundly uneasily with the modern American right.  If you can imagine Orwell signing on to the agenda of the "Christian Right," for instance, you must not have read him, and I doubt very much he would have anything but contempt for the simple-minded nostalgia for the patriarchal family that characterizes a lot of popular anti-feminist and anti-gay rhetoric.

At any rate, distasteful and prejudiced attitudes on Orwell's part are obviously not what the more sophisticated traditionalist conservatives have in mind when they try to rehabilitate Orwell as one of their own.  Rather, they have in mind many of the traits listed a few paragraphs back-- as well as what could only be described as Orwell's "romanticism"-- his resistance to what Ross Douthat still calls (even though he seems to realize the sinister ideological overtones of the word) the "decadence" of modern society.

Indeed, Orwell saw that struggles for justice (which he throughout his life equated with the quest for socialism) only took on meaning because they were in fact struggles, requiring some heroism and self-sacrifice.  It is impossible to imagine a genuine and lasting "happiness," Orwell famously argued-- least of all in the sterile utopias adumbrated by William Morris or H.G. Wells.  "Happiness," therefore, must not be the goal of socialism, but rather some sort of human connection which possesses a distinct and intrinsic value:
"I suggest that the real objective of Socialism is not happiness. Happiness hitherto has been a by-product, and for all we know it may always remain so. The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood. This is widely felt to be the case, though it is not usually said, or not said loudly enough. Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another. And they want that world as a first step."
Orwell in such passages grasped a profound truth: one that was also captured in some traditionalist critiques of modernity.  Indeed, the passage quoted above sounds in places like a more fair-minded version of some of the purpler passages in Chesterton's critique of H.G. Wells:
“[Wells] describes a sort of ideal world that would drive me as near to suicide as my philosophy permits […] how hideously bored we do feel with [his] Brave New World […] without any soul to save, without any honour to defend, without any affection or memory or even decent melancholy about the past, without any humility toward heroic stories […] with nothing but statistics and averages and economic security, seasoned only with [his] horrible mechanical sexuality.” (“Queries on Fascism III,” G.K.’s Weekly. July 19, 1934.)
But to label Orwell a "conservative"-- over the sounds of his own persistent objections-- simply because he expressed insights that conservatives share-- would be to miss the whole lesson of Orwell's intellectual life.  The point that life was intended to drive home time and again was that the truth does not conform to ideology.  So if we are committed to telling the truth, we must be willing to incorporate valid insights from whatever source-- even positions which we otherwise continue to disagree with.  Orwell's incorporation of conservative insights did not render him any less of an opponent of conservatism.

Traditionalist conservatives may appreciate Orwell's percipient critique of Wellsian progressivism or Fabian socialism or Shavian political buffoonery.  They may savor his moral critique of the celebration of sadism in pulp fiction or the memoirs of Salvador Dali and the snobbish attitudes of the intellectual left which regard anything "transgressive" as artistic and anything "moral" as philistine.

But they can't be permitted to close the book at this point, content he is on their side.  Because they would miss the fact that Orwell put their feet as well to the fire, particular where religious conviction was concerned.  They mustn't be allowed to chuckle over Orwell's exposition of the moral blindnesses and inconsistencies of the converts to totalitarian movements without missing that Orwell saw religious conversion, particularly into the Catholic Church-- as the prototypical form of the intellectual disease of nationalism which leads to the inconsistencies he found in totalitarian outlooks:
"Ten or twenty years ago, the form of nationalism most closely corresponding to Communism today was political Catholicism. Its most outstanding exponent — though he was perhaps an extreme case rather than a typical one — was G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton was a writer of considerable talent who chose to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda. […W] hen he looked outwards into the international field, he could forsake his principles without even noticing he was doing so. Thus, his almost mystical belief in the virtues of democracy did not prevent him from admiring Mussolini. Mussolini had destroyed the representative government and the freedom of the press for which Chesterton had struggled so hard at home, but Mussolini was an Italian and had made Italy strong, and that settled the matter. Nor did Chesterton ever find a word to say about imperialism and the conquest of coloured races when they were practised by Italians or Frenchmen. His hold on reality, his literary taste, and even to some extent his moral sense, were dislocated as soon as his nationalistic loyalties were involved."
One of the few organized movements in history to rival Marxism-Leninism for willful moral blindness, the convenient forgetting of facts, the consignment of ugly episodes to the memory hole, is Christianity.  In moral clarity, in idealism, in generosity of spirit, it's appeal is very similar to that of the Communist movement, and so too are its moral blindnesses (What is the Christian hell, after all, but a spiritualized Gulag?)

 These were points made and remade by Orwell in countless essays.  Read "Inside the Whale."  Read his comments on Evelyn Waugh.  Read his essay on T.S. Eliot, where he remarks that "in practice books by orthodox [Christian] believers usually show the same cramped, blinkered outlook as books by orthodox Stalinists or others who are mentally unfree." I can only feel bitterness that Orwell is not around today to subject the maunderings of some of his contemporary false friends to similar treatment.

Traditionalist conservatism-- like socialism and liberalism-- contains profound insights into human nature which the intellectually honest person must accept.  But it too is an ideology, with things it persistently refuses to see and which Orwell tried, with however limited success, to show to it.  That Orwell understood the reason why people throw themselves at the service of churches or reactionary movements-- that he was a romantic and understood the appeal of grand struggles and saintly self-sacrifice-- these were precisely the same traits that allowed him to understood with such clarity-- and see so lucidly the danger of-- Communism and totalitarianism.

His capacity to understand what he was opposing at an emotional level should not be taken as a sign of intellectual proximity.  If anything, the fact that Orwell could understand the conservatism of the churches so well and still reject it -- reject it repeatedly, stridently, and forthrightly every time he encounters a conservative writer in his essays-- should lead us to take his rejection all the more seriously.  Surely we owe him that instead of enlisting his legacy in causes he could not have supported.  Instead of continuing to "steal" him.

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