Vanity Fair columnist Hitchens (Letters to a Young Contrarian, 2001, etc.), late of the English New Left, provides reassurance for those who’ve been staying up nights wondering whether George Orwell has any relevance in the post–Cold War world.
Orwell was right on the three big subjects of his time, Hitchens writes: imperialism, fascism, and communism. In essays like “Shooting an Elephant” and in the slightly clunky novel Burmese Days, he saw the English effort to control South Asia for the misguided, ultimately dehumanizing enterprise it was. In a flood of journalism and such novels as Animal Farm and 1984, he foresaw that the Leninist-Stalinist experiment would necessarily end in the Gulag. Only Orwell’s antifascist polemics, Hitchens asserts, are less than memorable, perhaps because he tended to see fascism as “the distillation of everything that was most hateful and false in the society he already knew: a kind of satanic summa of military arrogance, racist solipsism, schoolyard bullying, and capitalist greed.” As a guided tour of Orwell’s work, this has its value, though a little too much of it is given over to quibbling with previous assessments by V.S. Pritchett, Bernard Crick, Raymond Williams, and others. More interesting is Hitchens’s steady effort to rescue Orwell from those who have tried to bend him to the neoconservative cause; against them, Hitchens suggests that Orwell would likely have flown independent socialist colors had he lived to see 1984. And the European left, Hitchens writes, would do well to remember Orwell’s insistence that a “socialist United States of Europe” was the only way to steer an independent course between American capitalism on one side and Soviet communism on the other, advice that remains sage today even if the game has shifted just a bit.
Admirers of Hitchens should find no fault with this appreciation, which is of an interesting piece with pal Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread (p. 627). Neither should admirers of Orwell.