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Saturday, June 07, 2008

Orwell & the Intellectuals

Richard Ford took issue with my generally low view of intellectuals over at Slate's blog. As usual, his is a thoughtful post, and I have no desire to rehearse all of his arguments. But in the course of his post, Ford takes issue with my characterization of Orwell as attacking the obscurity of intellectuals. In response to my statement about Orwell's denouncing "the obscurity of intellectuals' prose as a cloak for tyranny," Ford asks, ''But wasn't Orwell more concerned with the jargon of bureaucrats and politicians than of philosophers and literary critics? His closest modern analogue is not Martha Nussbaum on Judith Butler but rather Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit."

I respond to this comment only because there is always value in reviving Orwell's writing, and Ford's comment (as well as one endorsement of Ford's post that accused me of "mangling Orwell") suggests the great extent to which Orwell's journalism has been forgotten.

Orwell stomped on a lot of toes: Of course, he disliked bureaucratese. But, especially during the "Popular Front" years of the 1930s, Orwell frequently directed his ire at the intelligentsia. He accused intellectuals of power worship, hostility towards ordinary social mores, and a penchant for ostracizing critics who rejected their ovine orthodoxies with sneers and boycotts. Much of this criticism was inspired by the intellectuals' lockstep support for Stalin even to the extent of temporizing about the Bukharin trials and the murder of Trotsky. But much of Orwell's anger was directed more generally at the intellectuals' desperate desire to distinguish themselves from the middle class -- a desire, Orwell believed, that led them to abandon common decency and common language.

The critical evidence supporting this statement is, of course, the second half of The Road to Wigan Pier, in which Orwell denounces everyone from sandal-wearing vegetarians to polysyllable-spewing Stalinists for discrediting the British Left in the eyes of the ordinary voter. But "Wigan Pier" is only the most famous example.

In describing Dickens' "discontent," Orwell noted that "the disappearance of it in the modern intelligentsia is a very sinister thing," further observing that "[t]he thing that frightens me the most about the modern intelligentsia is their inability to see that human society must be based on human decency, whatever the political and economic forms may be." (Letter to Humphrey House, 4/11/1940). His review of James Burnham's Managerial Revolution" decried intellectuals' "admiration... for the power, energy, and cruelty of the Nazi regime." In mocking Marxist literary critics, Orwell observed that "possessing a system which appears to explain everything, they never bother to discover what is going on inside other people's heads." (Review of Philip Henderson, "The Novel Today," 12/31/1936).

I could easily multiply the examples many times over: Orwell's attacks on intellectuals were so notorious that Alex Comfort began a response to one of Orwell's "London Letters" with the dig, "I see that Mr. Orwell is intellectual-hunting again." (Responses to "Pacifism and the War," 6/18/1942)

The theme of Orwell's attacks was that intellectuals strove so hard to distinguish themselves from ordinary people that they forgot ordinary virtues like honesty, fair play, and common speech. Orwell's blanket term for these virtues was "common decency," a phrase that recurs repeatedly in his journalism. "The common people, on the whole, are still living in the world of absolute good and evil from which intellectuals have long escaped," Orwell noted, further observing that phrases like "'don't hit a man when he's down' ... have never failed to draw a snigger from anyone of intellectual pretensions." In explaining his admiration for the conservative writer, Malcolm Muggeridge, Orwell noted that Muggeridge's patriotism was "the emotion of a middle class man" which, for all of its simplicity, was "a comelier thing than the shallow self-righteousness of the left-wing intelligentsia."

What does Orwell's famous hostility towards the intellectual class have to do with obscure language? Language was one way in which intellectuals cut themselves off from common decency. Contrary to Professor Ford's suggestion, the five examples of bad writing singled out in his classic 1946 essay Politics and the English Language were not written by politicians or bureaucrats: They were all written by private intellectuals of one sort of another -- an essay by Harold Laski, a letter to the Tribune, an essay on Psychology, a Communist Pamphlet, and an essay by one "Professor Lancelot Hogben." His special target was "pretentious words": He noted that hack academic writers were "haunted by the notion that Latin and Greek words are grander than Saxon ones," such that they coined new terms by "us[ing] a Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix." (Users of the term "hegemony," take note).

This pretentiousness served a political function: It is easier to defend the indefensible in abstract and convoluted prose, because such words do not call up any vivid mental pictures that would shock the conscience. "A mass of Latin words fall upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all details," Orwell writes: "long words and exhausted idioms" are the perfect anesthetic for disturbing thoughts.

In short, Professor Ford is most definitely mistaken in assuming that Orwell aimed his attacks primarily at bureaucratic or political speech. But it is an easy mistake to make: Most people do not read much Orwell beyond "1984" and "Animal Farm." (As you might infer, I am addicted to the four volumes of Orwell's journalism: His fiction, by contrast, is usually contrived and awkward). That's why I respond at such length: I want to make a little effort to pique interest in his classic non-fiction -- The Road to Wigan Pier, Inside the Whale," and, of course, Politics and the English Language.

Incidentally, should we approve of Orwell's anti-intellectualism? It has its costs. Because Orwell tended to use the complex web of popular belief as the benchmark for "common decency," he tended to endorse prejudices embedded in that web. Orwell has rightly been accused by Daphne Patai (in an otherwise justly forgotten book, The Orwell Mystique) of being hostile to feminism, because feminism, after all, was in tension with ordinary social mores. It is certainly undeniable that Orwell was deeply homophobic. It is not that Orwell was unaware of these prejudices: He consciously donned them, as a sort of deliberate affront to the Bloomsbury/Left Book Club set.

But Orwell himself would say that the best way to reform popular prejudice is to use popular language. Feminism is not advanced by Professor Judith Butler's polysyllables: It is advanced by plain description of honor killings, wife beatings, rapes, or, less shocking, the put-downs and petty discriminations of day-to-day sexism. All of those terms of art derived from Lacan & Co. do not mobilize outrage -- "common decency" as Orwell would say -- but put it to sleep.

That last statement, by the way, counts as a dig that invites invective. Feel free, Gentle Reader, to lay into me. But, please -- if you can manage it -- use plain and vivid speech. (Humor would be nice, as well). You might even prepare yourself for the task by (re-)reading Politics and the English Language.

Posted by Rick Hills on June 7, 2008 at 07:33 AM | Permalink


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England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there post tension tendon.

Posted by: post tension tendon | Nov 26, 2018 5:58:56 AM

"It is, I think, true to say that the intelligentsia have been more wrong about the progress of the war than the common people, and that they were more swayed by partisan feelings. The average intellectual of the Left believed, for instance, that the war was lost in 1940, that the Germans were bound to overrun Egypt in 1942, that the Japanese would never be driven out of the lands they had conquered, and that the Anglo-American bombing offensive was making no impression on Germany. He could believe these things because his hatred for the British ruling class forbade him to admit that British plans could succeed. There is no limit to the follies that can be swallowed if one is under the influence of feelings of this kind. I have heard it confidently stated, for instance, that the American troops had been brought to Europe not to fight the Germans but to crush an English revolution. One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool."

Orwell, "Notes on Nationalism", May 1945


Res ipsa loquitur.

Posted by: Jim C. | Jun 9, 2008 7:45:02 PM

"It is certainly undeniable that Orwell was deeply homophobic."

Huh? Orwell was afraid of the same? The same what?

Talk about using Greek-sounding words to make dumb thoughts appear profound!

Posted by: twex | Jun 9, 2008 6:58:32 AM

Perhaps needless to say, I think Alistair is deeply mistaken on all points.

So, to petulantly persist in my perverse penchant for indulging that "tiresome habit of crafting each blog comment into a relentlessly dull bibliography that does little more than try to invoke authority in the place of arguments," I suggest that anyone interested in knowing the origins, experience and prospects of the closest thing to "democratic socialism" that has existed in the conventional political world, take a careful look at the basic literature on "social democracy:"

Begin with two works by Gosta Esping-Andersen: Politics Against Markets: The Social Democratic Road to Power (1985), and The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (1990). From there, proceed to William E. Paterson and Alastair H. Thomas, eds., The Future of Social Democracy: Problems and Prospects of Social Democratic Parties in Western Europe (1986), and Philippe Marliere and Robert Ladrech, eds., Social Democratic Parties in the European Union: History, Organization, Policies (1999). Finally, there are two books to end with: Robert E. Goodin, et al., The Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (1999), and Sheri Berman's The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making Of Europe's Twentieth Century (2006).

Now, as to what socialism was, is, and might be, I would recommend the following:

Elson, Diane. "Market Socialism or Socialization of the Market?" New Left Review, No. 172 (November/December 1988): 3-44.

Elster, Jon and Karl Ove Moene, eds. Alternatives to Capitalism (1989).

Harrington, Michael. Socialism: Past and Future (1989).

Luntley, Michael. The Meaning of Socialism (1990).

Miller, David. Market, State and Community: Theoretical Foundations of Market Socialism (1989).

Ollman, Bertell, ed. Market Socialism: The Debate Among Socialists (1998).

Peffer, R.G. Marxism, Morality, and Social Justice (1990).

Roemer, John E. A Future for Socialism (1994).

Schweickart, David. Against Capitalism (1996).

You can write me should you want a selected bibliography for Marxism.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jun 8, 2008 11:08:05 AM

Orwell clung to the delusion of socialism as long as he could, but there are unmistakeable conservative elements in his thinking. In Road to Wigam Pier, he wrote, "I worked out an anarchistic theory that all government is evil, that the punishment always does more harm than the crime and the people can be trusted to behave decently if you will only let them alone." I think it's fair to say that two out of three of those notions are pretty widely shared by many American conservatives. And his subsequent statement -- "[I]t is always necessary to protect peaceful people from violence. In any state of society where crime can be profitable you have got to have a harsh criminal law and administer it ruthlessly" -- undercuts the liberalism (in the American sense) of the outlier.

It's a shame he died before the negative impact of "democratic socialism" became more apparent. He praised Friedrich Hayek's seminal libertarian work "The Road to Serfdom," and if he'd lived longer, say, until the '70s, he might have shed the dialectical lens of Marxism and come to appreciate capitalism's power to create a prosperous society, and to realize that socialism in any form leads inevitably to, if not totalitarianism, then at least the gradual curtailment of people's freedoms.

Posted by: Alistair | Jun 7, 2008 10:00:06 PM

Possibly Hitchens, though probably he was not suggesting any such thing.

Posted by: h | Jun 7, 2008 2:44:05 PM

Who was arguing anything by Hitchens was as good as Orwell?

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jun 7, 2008 2:25:31 PM

I am finally starting to like Rick Hills.

Posted by: reader | Jun 7, 2008 2:12:14 PM

The notion of Orwell as anything but a writer of the Left is goofy and appalling. He has a moving description of how he saw a sailor -- a ship's engineer, actually -- scuttling down the deck of a passenger ship with a piece of leftover cake that he had taken from the mess. Orwell took the scene as a metaphor for capitalism, noting that the welfare of the whole ship depended on this guy, and yet he felt ashamed of taking a bit of food meant for the upper-class passengers. (I can't dig up the passage now: Somewhere in volume 3 of the Ian Angus/Sonia Orwell edition of the works).

He had a similar attitude towards the coal miners in "Wigan Pier," the P.O.U.M. militia man in "Homage to Catalonia," and the kitchen staff in "Down and Out in London and Paris": He is always on the side of people who work with their muscles and hands and do not get their share. Read ""How the Poor Die (1946)" and then claim him for capitalism, if you can keep a straight face. His anti-intellectualism was driven, in part, by the hypocrisy of comfy, well-educated folk who (in the words of a derisive piece of doggerel he wrote during the War) play "the dear old game of scratch-my-neighbour/In sleek reviews financed by coolie labour." If you want to get a sense of his socialism, then read "The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius," which he wrote in 1941 to urge that the War lead to a genuine welfare state in England.

Orwell's style looks easy. It isn't. Show me another writer that has his spare, understated clarity, interspersed with a quick series of exquisitely crafted facts that capture the mood of a place or group like a snapshot (in trying to describe Englishness, for example: "the clatter of lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids biking to Communion through the mists of Autumn mornings").

But I am no critic, just a law prof, and so I'll simply say that, if you can find a piece of writing by Hitchens that comes close to being as good as, say, Orwell's "Reflections on the Common Toad," I'll buy you lunch at any Village joint you please.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Jun 7, 2008 2:05:20 PM

"I want to make a little effort to pique interest in his classic non-fiction."

My interest is piqued.

Before I'll invest big chunks of discretionary time reading dead moralists (Orwell was a moralist, perhaps all great writers are), I'll normally peruse their aphorisms. Aphorisms reveal. By reading writers' aphorisms I can quickly evaluate their arrogance, their values, the potency of their creative genius, or their wit. I've observed while reading Orwell's aphorisms that he, like several of my favorite Western aphorists--Epictetus, François de La Rochefoucauld, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, and Mark Twain--had little affection for affected intelligentsia or their often obfuscating sesquipedality (now that's a one of those Greek-rooted words that linguaphiles should know but never use in public). He keeps good company. As soon as I finish reading that big stack of good books I want to read this summer, I'll pick up a collection of Orwell's non-fiction and spend a little more time with him.

Posted by: E.C. Hopkins | Jun 7, 2008 9:40:14 AM

I'm curious: Would you agree with Orwell's description of himself as "someone who is a Socialist by allegiance and a Liberal by temperament"? In other words (those of Alok Rai in Orwell and the Politics of Despair, 1988), it seems well-nigh impossible to argue with the conclusion that "Any serious account of Orwell must give full weight to the fact that, through all his contradictions and confusions, through all the changes of his short but highly charged career, Orwell believed himself to be, a kind of socialist. His socialist commitment is undoubtedly problematic and 'awkward,' but it is neither dissolved or cancelled buy its constitutive ambivalence, nor even superseded or transcended by his later and overwhelming anxiety about 'totalitatarianism.'"

Would you countenance Alok Rai's claim that "Orwell's work engages with--'enacts'--the crisis which is both indicated and generated by the widening gap between the ideology of liberalism and the reality producted by its institutions...."?

And what do you think of Christopher Hitchens' view (fleshed out in his Why Orwell Matters, 2002), summarized here by Elizabeth Wasserman in an introduction to an interview with him (see http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200210u/int2002-10-23), that

'attempts by the right to appropriate Orwell are illegitimate. In 1950, Henry Luce’s Life magazine acclaimed the newly published 1984 as a warning against the dangers of the New Deal—a reading that Orwell publicly refuted. And in an essay entitled “If Orwell Were Alive Today,” published in the year 1984, Commentary Magazine editor Norman Podhoretz invoked Orwell in support of Reagan’s nuclear policy and of U.S. hegemony in general. To do so, Hitchens demonstrates, Podhoretz pulled fragments of Orwell’s sentences out of context and attributed to them a meaning far from, if not opposite to, what Orwell had intended.'

Finally, if it's not too much trouble, I'd be interested in your thoughts on the following comments from Hitchens himself in the aforementioned interview:

'The great point that I try to make is that in fact Orwell isn’t a very great writer. He’s a very honest and courageous writer and he does a lot of work and he does have a certain gift of phrase, there’s no doubt about it. But he's not in the first rank of writers. And that’s a good thing, because it shows what average, ordinary people can do if they care to, and it abolishes some of the alibis and excuses for people who aren’t brave. [....]

People want what they think he’s got, it’s just that they don't realize what it would take to get it. They want the idea of integrity and authenticity and honesty. They want to brush up against him. They want to be in the same photo op as him, to use a modern idiom. “Maybe if I can just squeeze myself into this shot, I can be on the grand piano with Orwell.” [....]

The fact is, the right doesn’t have anyone it can come up with from that period who was as prescient as Orwell. I suppose it represents progress that they want to steal him. But there are good reasons why they can’t do that in good conscience. Almost all the critiques of Stalinism were written by people to the left of the Communist Party—a group of anti-Stalinist Marxists that used to be called the “left opposition.” If you look back at the wreckage of the twentieth century, this group comes out of it better than any other, because it was simultaneously opposed to the Stalin terror, to Nazism and its racist fantasies, and to the imperial concept of the world as a labor pool for Britain and France and Germany.

One reason for the importance of Orwell is that he’s the only member of that intellectual community who has a reputation outside the group. The other members of the group, like Victor Serge and C.L.R. James, are known to specialists, but they don’t have the credit that they should have. Orwell does, but he has it for reasons apart from his affiliation with them, and he’s been tugged in so many directions that he’s almost shapeless. But the reason why he did so well and got so many things right was that he was in touch with that group. They’re the ones who have the least to apologize for. [....]

My worry has more to do with another thing Orwell warned about—the willingness of people to police themselves, and to believe anything that they’re told. Especially the willingness of intellectuals and academics to become worshipers of whomever is in power, or passers-on of whatever the reigning idea is. Conformity, in other words. That will always carry on being a threat. People don’t remember Orwell for his opposition to conformity as well as they should.'

Thank you.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jun 7, 2008 9:18:12 AM

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