ORWELL: A Man of Our Time
by Richard Bradford
Bloomsbury Caravel, London
Hardcover: 234 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
Some Christians try to base their behaviour on the principle, “What Would Jesus Do?” which sometimes extends to wearing a WWJD wristband.
A secular version of this practice takes the form of “What Would Orwell Say?”
For example, 50 years ago there was a debate over whether George Orwell, had he lived, would have supported the Vietnam War because of his anti-communism, or opposed it because of his anti-colonialism.
Richard Bradford has attempted to draw lessons from Orwell’s life and writings and apply them to several contemporary issues, such as the Trump presidency, Brexit, left-wing anti-Semitism, Islamism, and China’s aspirations to global hegemony.
His book was published just too early to tackle covid19 or the Black Lives Matter disturbances.
Opinions will differ as to how accurate is his exegesis of Orwellian theology, and how appropriately he has expounded it on each of the topics that he has chosen to address.
What can be said, is that he has written a scintillating biography.
Despite the multiple lives of Orwell on my bookshelves, I learned a number of things about him from Bradford that I did not know before, or had not fully understood.
And let’s face it, we Orwell tragics are going to buy just about anything about him that appears on the market, short of an Orwell tea towel!
It might be best to start by getting Brexit out of the way, first because Bradford is demented by it, returning to it time and time again like the proverbial dog with the bone, but second, because it is the topic that he treats the least satisfactorily.
With tedious unoriginality, he regurgitates the Remainer dogma that the British electorate’s Leaver majority, white trash to a man, was motivated by nothing but jingoism, racism and a credulous conviction that Britain would be financially better off out of the European Union.
The alleged Orwell connection is drawn by an implied identification of Brexiteers with the mindless mass of participants in Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Two Minute Hate sessions.
Bradford even descends to the undergraduate trope of implying that anti-EUers are neo-Nazis, by associating Nigel Farage with Oswald Mosley.
As an Orwell scholar, he thus mysteriously ignores Orwell’s 1944 article, “What is Fascism?” which warns against the lazy and offensive habit of applying the term to (in Bradford’s words) “any given standpoint … that an opponent finds even mildly disagreeable”.
What he evades is the strong likelihood that Orwell’s liberal-democratic instincts would have generously resented the erosion of Britain’s national sovereignty by faceless, unelected foreign bureaucrats.
Or that Orwell’s bullshit antennae would have quivered at the valorised vision of a ubiquitous and omnipotent European central government that would leave no country as a possible independent haven of safety for political refugees from another.
The last British election, of course, involved the option of voting for a Labour Party rancid with anti-Semitism from Jeremy Corbyn down. This was, and remains, an issue far more serious than the pros and cons of Brexit, and here Bradford redeems himself.
His excoriating exposure of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, which he identifies in appropriately Orwellian parlance as a piece of “calculated doublethink”, is masterly and uncompromising. It is worth the price of the book by itself.
A warning, however, to Orwell groupies (Orwellolaters?): the pages on Orwell’s condemnation of anti-Semitism include, quite appropriately, a consideration of Orwell’s honest disclosure of his own innate anti-Semitic tendencies.
FAIRISH ON TRUMP
And speaking of anti-Semitism, even those who try not to get caught up in the prevailing anti-Trump hysteria, and attempt to analyse him objectively, still have to recognise his many faults and weaknesses. Do they include anti-Semitism?
Not according to American Jewish academic Debra Lipstadt, nemesis of arch Holocaust denier David Irving. Lipstadt stated at last year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival that Trump is not an anti-Semite.
Trump Derangement Syndrome is difficult to overcome, however, though Bradford makes commendable efforts to be fair. For instance, when he deals with Orwell’s famous warning in Nineteen Eighty-Four about the possible disappearance of objective truth, he cites not only Trump’s “alternative facts”, but also the left’s mendacious journalistic framing of the late Roger Scruton.
For an Australian reader, his characterisation of the post-truth left’s justification for misrepresenting the facts (“Even if they [hadn’t done what the left accused them of] they were guilty by virtue of their nastiness”) irresistibly recalls the recent Pell case.
In the end, however, Bradford cannot resist including in his book a cartoon of Trump with a pig’s head, representing Napoleon, the chief boar who stands for Stalin in Animal Farm.
Of course, the world’s real latter-day Napoleon/Stalin is not the flamboyant and attention-seeking Trump, against whom every trendy-lefty anti-American delights to virtue-signal, but the infinitely more dangerous, but dour and colourless, dictator-for-life Xi Jinping.
And, to do Bradford justice, here again he eventually comes up (sorry) trumps. Like his devastating job on anti-Semitism, his comprehensive exposure of the Beijing regime’s ruthless determination to exterminate all domestic dissent, and to expand its economic, political and military domination globally, makes this book compellingly relevant.
CHINA: THOUGHT CONTROL IN ACTION
Most chilling is the description of the way in which Chinese authorities are using modern IT to realise the once-fanciful methods of thought-control imagined in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Tiananmen Square, for example, has disappeared completely down a Nine-teen Eighty-Four-style “memory hole”.
While the Chinese Government now encourages economic enterprise with un-Marxist enthusiasm, in all other respects it remains the one-party communist tyranny that it has been for over 70 years.
“In Orwell’s day the liberal left deluded themselves about the reality of Stalin’s regime. Today we know what happens under Xi Jinping and for the sake of economic expediency we don’t care,” Bradford writes.
As the free world’s outstanding exposer of communism, Orwell has made it impossible to take anyone’s professed anti-fascism seriously, unless it is matched by a correspondingly vehement anti-communism.
“Party-hardened communists were, for Orwell, as bad as the Fascists.”
The genesis of Orwell’s anti-communism lies in his bitter hatred of the Stalinists whom he watched betray the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and then the cowardly reluctance of the left to publish his description of this treason in Homage To Catalonia.
These events “had a pivotal effect on everything Orwell thought, said and wrote for the remainder of his life”.
It is a well-known story, but always worth re-reading, particularly when placed in the context of (as it is here) a lively and detailed chronicle of Orwell’s military adventures in Spain.
Bradford ends his section on Orwell in Spain by refuting the cretinous equivalence, drawn by some commentators, of volunteers such as Orwell who went overseas to fight for freedom, with volunteers who went overseas to fight for ISIS.
It would have been good to read an Orwell-inspired attack on the “post-truth” of transgender ideology’s obscurantist contempt for biological reality, or the Black Lives Matter movement’s lack of statistical evidence that American blacks are more likely to be killed by police than American whites.
Seventy years after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, there are still fanatics out there compelling us to state that two plus two equals five.
‘HERMENEUTIC OF SUSPICION’
But many other features of Orwell’s life, opinions and continuing influence appear in this biography, some of them relevant and worthy, others just quirky and intriguing.
They include everything from Bomber Command; Islamism; patriotism; and Christianity (he was an atheist married and buried in the Church of England); to the Me Too movement; anti-literature Literary Theory; homosexuality; becoming a “non-person” (these days, “cancelled” or “de-platformed”); and free speech (Orwell: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”).
Devour it, albeit with an appropriately Orwellian “hermeneutic of suspicion”, and you will be at times infuriated, at other times driven to cheers or tears, but never bored, and always stimulated.
We all indulge an adolescent fantasy that we are independent-thinking mavericks, principled nonconformists swimming against the stream (are mavericks aquatic creatures?), but in our more realistic moods we recognise that we are actually pretty ordinary and conventional.
Bradford’s mention of Orwell standing out against Britain’s adulation of the Soviet Union during World War II (along with, to be fair, Evelyn Waugh) reminds us of what a genuine contrarian looks like.
Like other champions of decency (figures such as Martin Luther King, Martin Niemoller and Alexander Solzhenitsyn spring to mind) Orwell was flawed and inconsistent. Orwell: A Man of Our Time shows that he nonetheless continues to deserve the description of him by V.S. Pritchett as “the wintry conscience of a generation”.