First left, second right then U-turn

June 20, 2003

George Orwell is claimed by all political sides as the voice of (their) truth. This is ironic given that Orwell opposed those whose voices did not accord with his frequent changes of opinion, says Scott Lucas

And so it begins: the bookend hagiographies, laced with references to black magic and a proposed menage à trois to make St George a bit of a lad. Revisiting Wigan, where the pier now exists for the tourists.

Writers such as Thomas Pynchon - searching for new tributes and, bereft of any additions to the past - invoke posterity through photographs of George and his adopted toddler. Andrew Anthony, eulogising in The Observer , claims Orwell as the principled rock of that newspaper. Readers' polls secure Nineteen Eighty-Four as the archetypal "English" novel.

Of course, with an author's centenary coming around only once, some excess is to be expected. Yet you would be hard-pressed to find a single qualifier to George as our Perpetual Guide. Beset by Islamic fascism? Use him not only to diagnose the malady but to attack those who question that simple portrayal as "appeasers of mass murder". Can't shake the anti-war movement? Let it be known that George had the left pegged as eternal enemies of "England". Not too happy with Tony Blair's moral liberation of Iraq? Invoke the notion of "doublethink".

Protesting this wholesale deployment of "Orwell" is akin to willing the sun not to rise. Geoffrey Wheatcroft may opine: "The game of 'what would Orwell have thought' is silly," but combatants will always announce that the Orwellian God is on their side. One can only marvel at the most outrageous staking of claims, such as Christopher Hitchens' "rescuing" of Orwell from left, right and all others so the "contrarian" can be his and his alone.

The question is not whether this invocation of St George will occur but why? The easy answer - that Orwell was always right in manner of conclusion - only returns us to the point of universal acclamation. The more daring response is that Orwell can be claimed, not because he wrote truth clearly but because he jumped from position to position. He was not one man but many: the anti-imperialist who sneered at Gandhi and upheld Kipling's "sense of responsibility" against "sham left-wing parties"; the soldier in Spain who returned a pacifist only to become the ardent Home Guard warrior; the scourge of nationalism who waved the Union Jack; the creator of Big Brother who cooperated with British intelligence services. Far from being consistent, Orwell would double back on his opinions and affiliations; far from being clear, he would eschew precision for a sweeping appeal to "common sense".

If this is not our cultural stereotype of "Orwell", it is in part because of the success of his self-promotion. He aspired "to make political writing into an art" and established himself as the foremost political writer of the century. He wrote that "good prose is like a window pane" and was acclaimed the model for the simple, effective text. He expended several thousand words on Dickens to create "a 19th-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls", and eventually we would see George rather than Charles in the mirror.

There's nothing inherently wrong in the manoeuvring and literary sleight-of-hand, which are part of the writer's struggle for distinction.

But to succeed, Orwell had to cover up weaknesses by striking out at contemporaries who could expose them.

Orwell, the master of social observation, had "no interest in ... economic theory". Putting 1930s northern England on the page in part one of The Road to Wigan Pier , he had no answers for part two. So he lashed out not at the "right" but at others on the "left" who might offer their own criticisms and evaluations, the "warm-hearted, unthinking" workers, the "intellectual, book-trained" middle class, accompanied by "every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist, and feminist in England".

In Homage to Catalonia , Orwell documented the betrayals, deceptions and evasions in politics at home and abroad. Yet until his final weeks in Spain, he had been trying to leave his "independent" Marxist militia for a Communist unit. So, rather than evaluate the complexity of the Spanish civil war, he opted for the simplicity that some ill-defined "left" was always in the collective wrong and he was the honourable dissenter.

Of course, as Orwell's views tacked back and forth, his clear truths shifted accordingly. In 1939, he was the decent pacifist exposing a "left" seeking a fight with Hitler; in 1941, he was the decent patriot exposing a "left" that would not go to war. At the start of 1948, he maintained: "No one should be persecuted for expressing his opinions, however antisocial"; a year later, he gave names to the new Information Research Department with the explanation: "It isn't a bad idea to have the people who are probably unreliable listed."

Only once Orwell ventured beyond this running battle with his comrades to put forth a "socialist" agenda. In The Lion and the Unicorn , published in 1941, he offered a six-point programme, including nationalisation of key industries, land and banks, limitations on top incomes, reform of the education system and independence for India. The hope was shortlived: by 1943, he asserted: "The forces of reaction have won hands down." There would be no more positive visions, only the imminence of the atomic bomb and a world of "three great empires (in) an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity". Animal Farm would provide the sharpest allegory of a "revolution betrayed" but there would be no revolution beyond; Nineteen Eighty-Four 's dystopia ends not with the "hope ... in the proles", whom Orwell had proceeded to caricature as a drunken, ignorant, lottery-playing mass, but with the breaking of the individual by the state.

In a fast-developing cold war, however, this negative Orwell had to be remade. The New York Times showed the way with its review of Nineteen Eighty-Four - "No other work of this generation has made us desire freedom more earnestly or loathe tyranny with such fullness" - and western intelligence services took up the challenge. MI6 distributed Animal Farm as a comic strip to "developing countries". The CIA went further, acquiring the film rights from Orwell's widow, Sonia Brownell. (Appropriately for the cold warriors, the cinematic version of the fairy tale ended not with the pigs celebrating triumph but with the other farm animals rising up and "liberating" themselves.) Even as he was buried in 1950, an eternal "Orwell" was being created: "the wintry conscience of a generation", the "Edwardian, even Victorian" paradigm of "unorthodoxy in an age of power worship" and the Englishman with "a direct, unabashed sense of the nation, even a conscious love of it". George Woodcock exalted "the crystal spirit" for the turbulent 1960s, Bernard Crick established the decent English socialist as fortress both against leftists and Europeans and Peter Davison catalogued his writing (save for such items as the list of names passed to British intelligence in 1949) to celebrate his "passion... to strive against the 'beastly'".

If the claiming of Orwell was limited to affirmation - whether of freedom, decency or Englishness - we could shrug and move on. The damage, however, lies in a deliberate irony. Far from upholding the spirit of dissent, both Orwell the author and Orwell the image have been used to contain it, label it and rule it out of order.

A few years ago, St George was on the verge of retirement. Jack Straw did wield Orwell in the new Labour crusade ("Given the left's tendency to wash their hands of the notion of nationhood, it's unsurprising our perception of Britishness became a conservative one") but without the trinity of imperialism, fascism and communism to vanquish, "Orwell" was being reconfigured as an interpreter of English perfections such as the pub and the cup of tea and the 21st-century incarnation of Big Brother.

Then came September 11, and the mobilisation of "Orwell" for the war on terror. Michael Kelly updated Orwell's 1942 denunciation of pacifists as "objectively pro-Fascist" and "on the side of future mass murders of Americans. They are objectively pro-terrorist ... That is the pacifists' position, and it is evil."

Hitchens, in his quest to become Orwell, quoted "Notes on Nationalism" to berate "a number of intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals (who) affected a sort of neutrality between the victims of New York and Pennsylvania and Washington and the theocratic fascists of al-Qaida and the Taliban".

"Orwell" links the past and the present in the suppression of dissent. For George to live, Raymond Williams, who wrote in the 1970s about "the creation of Orwell from (Eric) Blair" must die. Orwell must become the real father of "cultural studies" while Williams is unmasked as "an organic part ... of Stalin's community". For George to thrive, he must be our interpreter of "religious totalitarianism" while those who question the war on terror, on Afghanistan, on Iraq, and on the next country must be part of what "Orwell once called... 'the peculiar masochism of the English Left': a readiness to side with all manner of villains - the IRA, the Soviet Union, Saddam - provided they are anti-British", The Daily Telegraph proclaimed earlier this year.

How Orwellian: George the "contrarian" leads us into support of the American and British states; it is those who protest who are the "smelly little orthodoxies" that plagued him more than 60 years ago.

There is no need to "rescue" George Orwell for us; he's doing quite well without any extra assistance. Instead, it is we who should be rescued from Orwell, we who should be liberated from the easy declarations of decency substituting for closer examination and criticism of the indecencies that are on all sides of present and future conflicts, we who should be freed to deal with the political and economic complexities and contradictions from which Orwell and his defenders have turned away.

Scott Lucas is professor of American studies at the University of Birmingham and author of George Orwell and the Betrayal of Dissent , which Pluto will publish in October (£10.99).

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