An ideological everyman

Norman Birnbaum, university professor emeritus at Georgetown University, is the author of "After Progress: American Social Reform and European Socialism in the Twentieth Century."

The Cold War and the 20th century are over; new fears and quandaries beset us. George Orwell, however, is still with us. To think of politics in Great Britain and the United States is to recall his legacy. His belief that writing is giving one's word, that politics requires truthfulness, attests to his inexpugnable Protestantism. He bore witness to democracy's torments, intellectuals' responsibilities and history's disappointments.

Five years as a British policeman in occupied Burma gave Orwell experience of empire. An Etonian from a genteel family, he plumbed the miseries of Depression-era Britain. As a volunteer with the anarchists in Republican Spain, he escaped imprisonment by the Stalinist-influenced government. He thought, on patriotic grounds, that Britain needed a social revolution and on political ones that only a revolutionary Great Britain could win the war against fascism. As London correspondent of Partisan Review in the 1940s, its legendary years, he believed that the United States had exhausted its democratic promise. He was a socialist contemptuous of capitalism but despairing of the people.

"Animal Farm" and "1984" were written by an intelligent skeptic of the left who rejected the enthusiastic concurrence of the philistines of the right. They did not understand, he complained, that he was depicting not Stalin's Soviet Union alone but all the pathologies of modern power. He died in 1950, after a long bout with tuberculosis, at age 47. His life so reflected the agonies of midcentury that he was our ideological everyman. His ceaseless inner political conflicts were the most interesting thing about Orwell, and his agonized efforts to resolve them explain his two great fictional tracts.

On the 100th anniversary of his birth, we have three new books about him. Scott Lucas, in "Orwell," seeks to disabuse us of the Orwell of the Cold Warriors and their natural children, the current crusaders against "terrorism." Lucas argues that now one Orwell, now another, has been called into service to justify one or another crusade. Though he rightly describes as sordid Orwell's surreptitious denunciation in 1949 of 36 other writers to the British intelligence services, he wrongly intimates that this episode was somehow the climax of Orwell's life, invalidating much else in it. Orwell's encounter with the Stalinist apparatus in Spain had burdened him; the tin lies of apologists for the USSR obsessed him. Naming names was a ghastly step for someone usually so critical of all governments, but he didn't make a full-time job of it. If the CIA propagated his work, there is no evidence that he joined his admirers in New York in conspiring with it in the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Writing as though he were annotating the margins of a singularly poor tutorial essay, Lucas finds Orwell's work on mass and popular culture praiseworthy but treats everything else he wrote as a single text marred by incoherence. In the end, he tells us much more about the Orwellians than about Orwell.

Gordon Bowker, in "Inside George Orwell," gives us a proper biography. It is, perhaps, too proper: Orwell's truncated life, in Bowker's view, has a beginning, middle and end. That is not what Orwell thought, and as he faced death he was desperately anxious to repair the torn fabric of his existence. About his marriage, literally on his deathbed, to the much younger Sonia Brownell, he said: "I suppose everyone will be horrified, but it seems to me a good idea. Apart from other considerations, I think I should stay alive longer if I were married and had someone to look after me." Bowker makes elegant use of the evidence and is both acute and delicate in his psychological observations. The tone is benign but a bit distant, like an obituary in the old Times of London ("Orwell was no saint; he was a flawed human being, full of contradictions and strange tensions"). Orwell struggled with the furies of modern history. Bowker confronts these -- his chapter on Orwell in Spain is exceptionally illuminating -- but the protagonist's outer demons and inner troubles remain oddly unjoined. Bowker's work is admirably straightforward and by any standard a very good biography; the trouble is that Orwell's life was anything but straightforward, and its hidden currents are difficult of access.

The work by D.J. Taylor, "Orwell: The Life," is rewardingly dense. Like Bowker, he is clear about Orwell's terrible difficulties with women, the looseness of his human attachments, the loneliness he came to regard as both inevitable and indispensable. Taylor sets Orwell in his place and time, with his family and friends, books and schools. Richard Blair, Orwell's father, was a conventional minor British civil servant in India. His mother was the daughter of a French merchant in Burma, and Orwell had Asian relatives.

Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in Motihari, India, but soon brought to England. His paternal ancestors had prospered as Jamaican planters but lost wealth and standing as the 19th century progressed; one understands his later empathy with Dickens' characters as they fought for respectability. His aggressive insouciance at Eton was his way of dealing with being a scholarship boy.

Taylor provides a subtle account of Orwell's struggle to create his literary persona in a crowd of British writers coping with two wars and cultural and social convulsion. Eric Blair's assumption of the pen name of George Orwell was the result of a confluence of outer constraints and inner compulsions. The young writer regretted having to leave one social world behind and often doubted the value of the one he had entered. He knew that having attended Eton was a large privilege and regretted that he had never made it to Cambridge or Oxford (but did not directly assert the obvious -- that he may have been better off for it). He considered his nation a family, and the image formed much of his thought, yet it was a family about which he was profoundly ambivalent. As the war's initial disasters occurred, he described it as "a family with the wrong members in control." A charge of nostalgia and a note of yearning mark much of what Orwell wrote about his country.

Orwell was preoccupied by Englishness. By the time he went to St. Cyprian's preparatory school at the age of 8, he already had a sense for the great, middling and minute distinctions of class. When he stopped at doss houses to gather material for "The Road to Wigan Pier," he was invariably recognized as a gentleman, to his professed astonishment and not quite hidden satisfaction. England's strength, he thought, was that there was enough common attachment to the country, its past and present, to overcome, especially in war, the destructiveness of division. England, in other words, was a class society that dared to speak its name. He hated the complacency, incompetence and indolence of the upper class; still, he remarked that when wars came, its sons were at the front.

Anticipating the sociologists, he described the emergence of a new suburban white-collar class, whose homogenized and secondhand culture he did not like. It was a class incapable of either disinterest or heroism; it thought small. Yet it was this class that had to be won, he said, if socialism were to be achieved. He complained that the middle class and industrial workers alike were repelled by the countercultural socialists he continually derided.

What kind of socialism did Orwell espouse? His socialism was, in effect, his nationalism -- the quest for an England worthy of its past. He was a midcentury social democrat, favoring a large public sector and a considerable amount of redistribution. Rather like his intellectual bete noire, Harold Laski, he thought that the war could be won only if England adopted a revolutionary platform. He dropped that belief as the war dragged on and he became skeptical that the electorate would indeed exchange Churchill for Labour.

To achieve socialism, he argued, required a change in consciousness, but that could come only via an impossible revolution. His historical pessimism, then, was entrenched well before the writing of "Animal Farm" and "1984." The ignorance and submissiveness of the Proles in "1984" reflect his depressed conclusion that no historical leap forward was likely. The uniform joylessness in the book was a projection of his dismay at the culture of industrial society. Fighting Nazism and Stalinism he thought of as analogous to defending the flawed Spanish Republic -- an honorable gesture that might or might not prevent the ultimate catastrophe but that imparted meaning to an existence otherwise supine. The defender of the Spanish Republic, the Home Guard sergeant and the writer were one.

In his writing on literature, Orwell argued that much of the Western tradition was not an attempt to give voice to the voiceless but, rather, a reflection of how entire nations lived. His Protestantism (he admired Milton) formed his aesthetics: Art was a more sublime pedagogy. Why not treat him as a teacher, then, and not as a prophet? He has not been well served, certainly, by his self-appointed heirs. It was obtuse of Commentary's editor emeritus Norman Podhoretz to declare in 1983 that Orwell would eventually have become a neoconservative.

Orwell retained his scorn for capitalism until the end of his life and regretted that the Labour government of 1945-51 was not more radical. He did not think the United States was capable of exercising world power wisely. He would have been sardonic, surely, about those whose anti-Communism became ever more frenzied as post-Stalin Communism began to disintegrate. What would Orwell have said of our vicarious warriors, of the nuanced attitudes to truth of contemporary governments, of the shallowness of modern journalism? If we are witness to anything Orwellian, it is the spectacle of those who defend our societies as terminally sublime claiming to speak in his name.

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