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Hitchens on Orwell

EconTalk Episode with Christopher Hitchens
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Christopher Hitchens talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about George Orwell. Drawing on his book Why Orwell Matters, Hitchens talks about Orwell's opposition to imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism, his moral courage, and his devotion to language. Along the way, Hitchens makes the case for why Orwell matters.

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0:36Intro. [Recording date: August 7, 2009.] Book starts by saying Orwell was right about the three big issues of the 20th century--imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism. Orwell was against the idea that the world would be ruled by white Europeans. Saw with great prescience that that wasn't going to last very long, anyway. As a colonial policeman in Burma, then part of the British Empire, he had seen the ugly side, the master/slave relationship as Nietzsche called it, and the sexual side of that; evident in Orwell's novel, Burmese Days. Most qualified and educated Burmese man would never be allowed to be a member of the English club; least educated Burmese woman would be admitted to the mansion by the back door. No one knows why Orwell resigned; but speculate that he felt that if he continued he would become a racist. Thrill of domination and thrill of being dominated; something wicked about Fascism. Orwell's Spanish involvement: in Spain in 1936, government elected that was Republican, hostile to the tradition of the monarchy, critical of the power of the Church, generally secular, left-leaning. Franco; Catalan, asked for military help of Hitler and Mussolini. Many went to Spain to fight as volunteers for the Republican army. Orwell was one of those. Orwell's anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, anti-racism, anti-Fascism, anti-Nazism. Also a Civil War in Spain within the left. Turned to Stalin's Russia for arms, which was viewed as having solved the problems, heaven on earth. Discovering that this was a lie was Orwell's third greatest achievement. Accused of undermining the anti-Fascist front by telling the truth. Czeslaw Milosz, greatest Pole of the 20th century, wrote famous book called The Captive Mind, best seller in the United States in the 1950, when he left Poland; got the Nobel Prize. Got hold of a pirated edition of 1984; amazed that Orwell could get it so right without having lived there. Orwell didn't live to see Milosz's praise, but had learned about it in Spain. Closing years of Orwell's life, ill, fighting tuberculosis. Number three, synthesis of previous two: able to diagnose and fictionalize and oppose these forces.
10:41Orwell trumpeted a warning we still listen to. He was anti-imperialist, anti-Fascist, anti-Stalinist; what did Orwell embrace? What was he pro? He was a natural egalitarian, not much use for any form of privilege, bit of a Puritan, strict but not humorless, suspicious of anything overly ornate or the flummory of religion; fond of the English people. How Britain underdevelops Burma, French; Coming Up for Air, written in Morocco; fought in Spain, got shot in the throat; spoke several Burmese regional languages and also Hindi. Liked the decency of the English people, thought they were humane and had an innate sense of fairness, generosity; so nice you could even make socialists of them. He was a socialist till the end of his life. When he went to Spain, ended up in a smaller more radical group, not exactly Trotskyist group but leftist coalition. The midnight of the century, military pact, Stalin and Hitler; Stalin couldn't believe it when Hitler invaded. Hitler's exchange: leave Europe to him and Britain could have India. Trotsky predicted the pact and that it would break down.
16:11Spanish Civil War: transcendent international event of that generation. Intellectual elites volunteered to fight, risk their lives. Hard to imagine that the great writers of today would do this. Football player, Pat Tillman, volunteered to enlist, killed in Afghanistan. Analogy is with support of many European intellectuals for the Greek War of Independence: Lord Byron. True that many British intellectuals at least visited Spain at the time even if they didn't fight there; ranks of international brigade were largely made up of Jewish garment workers from the east end of London, Welsh and Scottish coal miners, etc. Labor movement of Germany go under to Hitler without a shot being fired; same in Austria, barely any resistance. Great achievements of socialism just fall to fascism; drew the line with Spain. "They shall not pass." Did prevent Fascism from taking Madrid. Personal as well as political tragedy. Orwell took on people of this prestige at the time: right to prevent Fascism but wrong to say you have to do it as a communist; accused of every kind of treason and lying. Working title of 1984 was The Last Man in Europe. Orwell remained a fairly modest person. "The power of facing"--Orwell's phrase, in essay "Why I Write"--always wanted to be an independent writer. Literary ability and a power of facing unpleasant facts. Unwillingness to duck, willingness to see facts that are not conducive to peace of mind.
23:08John Adams, Thomas Jefferson. On the three critical points of the 20th century Orwell was right; one critical aspect he didn't get right: rise to prominence of America. Orwell had reservations about America that were partly cultural, though he admired aspects of it. He liked Mark Twain; didn't like American films or comic books. In touch with writers in America, Phillip Roth; died before he could travel down the Mississippi. Opening sentence of 1984: "It was a bright cold day in April and all the clocks were striking thirteen. John Adams had said "We have to make thirteen clocks all strike at the same time"--the Declaration of Independence won't work unless all thirteen colonies join at the same time. In book, in the dictionary of Newspeak, language of totalitarianism, at end of 1984, example of a sentence that couldn't be rendered in Newspeak: "We hold these truths to be self-evident...." Orwell was an admirer of Thomas Paine. Dies at age of 46.
26:58Orwell's view of language. Thought that a lot of the work of an illegitimate power is done for it by slave volunteers who use the "wooden tongue"--removed all meaning from language. E.g., describing forced confiscation of agricultural workers as collectivization. Half the job is done if the government can get it called that. Euphemism, finding of a nice word for a nasty thing, e.g., "collateral damage," for civilian casualties. "Purge"; "appeasement"; "ethically challenged." Orwell dead set against that. Big Brother was meant to be affectionate, but we now know it as synonymous with evil and oppression. Strange that people use his name to mean the misuse of language--something "Orwellian" is a euphemism. People say Kafkaesque for things Kafka would have hated. If you describe a person as Orwellian you pay him a compliment; a situation, something very dark, pessimistic, so dark as without a door. Lionel Trilling or contemporary said of 1984 that the power of it was to completely foreclose any hope by the end; the last dissident has been tamed. If you can imagine it being that bad, you can imagine overcoming it. In that respect, the book is historic; impact on the Soviet sphere cannot be overstated. Czechoslovakia affected by reading Animal Farm and 1984. Only introduction Orwell wrote was for a pirated Ukrainian edition. Example followed by pirated editions in every known language; 1984 not yet available in Chinese. Animal Farm produced as a musical. Will be a North Korean edition. Animal Farm is banned in almost every Islamic country, in some cases because of its mention of pigs; but not all references to pigs are banned. In Iran it's banned as a satire on absolutism; Shah.
35:52Left's reaction to Orwell: strange that an anti-imperialist, deep defender of the working class, strong egalitarian should be caricatured when talked about by the left. Deadly trap door built into the floor of the left mentality: quite right to value solidarity, fraternity, and things that keep the movement together; but undervalues the person who thinks for himself. Tribal. Peculiar to the left. Scab not a euphemism. Form of leveling rather than a form of egalitarianism: people who do such things do so for the lowest motive. Coburn, communist journalist; believed those who criticized the populist front in Spain were consciously doing the work of Hitler. Air quotes--"objectively" doing the work of the other side. Work from Spain didn't get printed in the influential New Statesman. The Left Book Club didn't publish him. Homage to Catalonia hardly read till after WWII. Animal Farm had a hard time getting a publisher because of a KGB agent. Cultural irony--friend of T. S. Elliot. Orwell in position of selling himself out to the other side and then denied these things. Orwell got the last laugh but not alive to hear much of it. Gave away to social democratic groups the publication rights for free. Would have made some money but wouldn't make the changes required by the Reader's Digest. Doesn't really seem to have cared.
43:36Orwell reviewed Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. What were his views of Hayek? Role played by Hayek in 1944-1945 is now forgotten. Churchill made a speech in 1945 election, having led the British people through hard times, saying that plan of the Labour Party to institute national health care and other socializing reforms, might be all very well in its way but might require a gestapo of bureaucracy. British were in no mood to be talked to in that tone of voice. People with deficiency diseases from the difficulties of life during the war, end of war hoped to bring an end to that neglect; talking about health requiring a gestapo didn't sell well. It is said that that speech was suggested to Churchill by Hayek himself; certainly influenced by Hayek. Churchill lost the election, though not only because of the gestapo speech. Orwell asked to review The Road to Serfdom around that time. Short review, shows he's read and understood the book; begins by saying it's the wrong book at the wrong time; prefers the risks run by state intervention to the risks of laissez faire or capitalism. However, adds almost as an afterthought that it would be stupid to ignore the point Professor Hayek is making if a certain share of the national income, past a certain point that will become a tyranny. Orwell manages to be the one who is slightly out of step. Remarkable how much freedom we have preserved. The worst fears are not realized. Harold Laski, advisor to Labour Party, used to say: if you can plan for tyranny or state control, you can plan for freedom as well. People felt comforted; freeing people from terror that if they got sick at the end of their lives and lost everything, their homes, ability to care for their children: if you take that away by government intervention are you saying people are less free or more? More. Didn't hit diminishing returns till quite late; Orwell viewed as alarmist. Orwell: media; things like the nuclear state. "You and the Atom Bomb"--says the immediate fear is of annihilation; but there is another fear: what if this kind of weaponry makes the state completely invulnerable so there can never be insurrection or guerilla war? Marxism, withering away of the state. Common interest by nations in maintaining balance of terror; Cold War. Managers of it, Kissinger; managers of crisis in Beijing vs. subordinate movements in Czechoslovakia.
53:59Orwell a leftist, but embraced by the right. Radical, certainly. Emergence out of family; father had made a living out of selling opium; no mention of any father in any of Orwell's works, distant, negative. Big Brother, but the obvious analogy for a totalitarian is the father. He's already coped with that; initial problem with Christianity--you had to love a father figure who you also had to fear. We know Orwell was fond of his mother; couldn't talk about his father. Hatred for imperialism, class snobbery. No choice but to move to the left. Sees Hayek critique--also sees the virtue of it. Truth teller. Writing about someone whose religious opinions he finds ridiculous--says something charming about the person. Willing to be fair to an individual.
57:50Christopher Hitchens as an Orwellian figure. Kindly and non-kindly ways of saying that. Wouldn't be true. Orwell's moral courage--never had a steady publisher, job, or income. Always insecure, risked his life. Struggle in the garret not epic by comparison. Orwell: Job of public intellectuals ought to be "it's more complicated than that"; the really thoughtful person ought to be saying "it's simple; do not make complexity where none is required" Barack Obama on Salman Rushdie--would he say he was for free expression over religious freedom every time? Orwell good in that way--keep it simple. Can identify lies; amazing what you have to do instead. Language, truth, and logic; plain honest speech. Lionel Trilling in an introduction to U.S. edition of Homage to Catalonia said, of Orwell that he's not a hero--you could have done this, too. Richard Posner attack--what do you mean he's not a hero? Yes--the qualities of heroism and virtue are accessible to ordinary people if they keep driving themselves and do not make excuses. Bombay writer attacked for writing novels in English in India and in England for being a 'babu' [Our thanks to a reader for this corrected spelling--Econlib Ed.]: Orwell wrote him, Doesn't matter how you are insulted; there will be a department of English literature written by Indians. Now every bookstore has works by Rohinton Mistry, Rushdie, Naipaul, Indian diaspora; Indians elsewhere, etc. Language, truth, logic; attraction to historical irony, laws of unintended consequences.

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COMMENTS (25 to date)
Joe Blow writes:

A few loosely associated statements, so libertarians take note. I am not arguing; I am OBSERVING...

I have this image of libertarians saying, "Aha! We told you so." about practically everything wrong with society. Dispelling myths about being backwoods bigots favoring slavery seems to be a non-issue for many of these folks.

Why does the libertarian philosophy seem to highlight the qualities of hand wringing and self-righteousness. Sometimes I listen to this podcast and wonder whether these folks actually understand the nature of society, generally. Anarcho-capitalism would be a terrible way for society. If trust fund babies were raised on the other side of the tracks, would they still have this repugnant self-righteous attitudes. Ugghhh!

christian writes:

this is among ur finest podcasts to date- bravo.

Mr. Hatch writes:

I'm with Christian. That was a very fascinating interview. I really learned a lot.

Mark writes:

I went to Burma in 2006. While there, I took the riverboat up the Irrawaddy during which time I read 'Burmese Days.' It was a great coincidence that I finished the book at the moment the riverboat docked in the town where Orwell lived.

It was a fascinating experience to see the remnants of colonialism that Orwell viciously described.

The tragedy of Burma is that the current ruling class is just as corrupt, if not more corrupt than the colonialists that once ruled the country.

BoscoH writes:

Amazing podcast. The discussion of Orwell and Hayek and their respective views of the British welfare state initiatives after WWII was particularly interesting. Orwell's opinion that maybe a little planning can be beneficial won the day in that time and place. It's a toss-up in America, 2009 with the Hayekian view holding back an onslaught by the Orwellian position, and perhaps winning the day eventually. There is a solid 30% of America that doesn't believe one guy or 535 guys can solve any problem of any significance in a satisfactory way. Hitchens is right when he says that socialism works in the UK because British people are nice. It is mildly ironic that Obama and company are on the side of people who are frustrated with insurance companies, but get all indignant when constituents show up and yell at them. If you're in government and you want the government to run segments of the economy, perhaps you'll have to deal with customers who don't like you, just as real companies in the private sector must.

christian writes:

on planning v non-planning (ie what to do today in US):

i think it's like any other market: sometimes u have to sell and sometimes u have to buy.

if u commit too much to one or the other, then ur bound to end up on the wrong side of the market eventually.

Pietro Poggi-Corradini writes:

I subscribe to daily updates from Orwell's diary entries from 70 years ago. Today it's August 17, 1939. Here:

http://orwelldiaries.wordpress.com/

Eric H writes:

From the excerpts above, because I'm too lazy to listen again and transcribe:

However, adds almost as an afterthought that it would be stupid to ignore the point Professor Hayek is making if a certain share of the national income, past a certain point that will become a tyranny.

Harold Laski, advisor to Labour Party, used to say: if you can plan for tyranny or state control, you can plan for freedom as well. People felt comforted; freeing people from terror that if they got sick at the end of their lives and lost everything, their homes, ability to care for their children: if you take that away by government intervention are you saying people are less free or more? More.

These passages reminded me of Orwell railing against private property, perhaps in The Road to Wigan Pier, or Down and Out in Paris and London. I wondered, while listening to the parts quoted above: in the absence of private property, what mechanism did Orwell consider strong enough to halt government growth before it becomes tyranny? And who would he have trusted to sound the alarm when that point was about to be reached?

It feels good to utter categorical statements such as "if you take that [fear] away by government intervention are you saying people are less free or more? More." But can that really be so? Isn't that the essence of "from each according to ability, to each according to need?" Can someone as wise as Hitchens say such a thing with a straight face while discussing Nineteen Eight-Four?

By definition, people are not more free if government intervenes on their behalf; they have ceded some rights to their government to enable that intervention. They might be happier, and there's a good case for that, but not "more free." If they are happier then, shouldn't they be reminded that that happiness is not the product of a solution, but a trade-off?

Orwell was a master at reminding us about that trade-off. I think Hitchens is too; I just wish he would remember it!

Andre Kenji writes:

The overlooked fact is that Orwell was a mediocre writer, that he defended socialism in his whole life and that his economic theories are awful.

Ron writes:

Thanks Dr Roberts. A wonderful podcast. Christopher Hitchens, whether one agrees with him or not, is a delight to listen to. This was the kind of intelligent discussion that is a wonderful use of the podcasting medium. Thanks for your contributions to raising the general level of thoughtful discussion regarding challenging, and important, topics.

Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious.
George Orwell

Erik writes:

Interesting podcast. I wish Christopher Hitchens had not dodged a particular question Russ Roberts really wanted to get into: why hasn't there been an International Brigades-like phenomenon since 1936? Did "we" become more apathetic? If so, why? Did the world not present us with such clear-cut opportunities for righteous intervention after WW II? Were our moral impulses thwarted by the reigning intellectual relativism? Were we too busy or too comfortable to be roused by new specters of extremism? Was internationalism seen as fundamentally compromised after the horrors of communism and colonialism had finally dawned on most of us? Or were there forces deliberately dismantling internationalism because it threatened their livelihood?

Joe Crawford writes:

Wonderful interview all around. Insight leavened with historical context is terrific. Highly recommended listening to persons of any political stripe. I daresay whatever your political positions you will find something here to support you and condemn you, and hopefully something to make you think of your life as a citizen.

Mike writes:

Like other listeners, I was particularly impressed with this podcast. There were some great historical anecdotes, such as Trotsky's prediction about the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. One would be quick to attribute the quality of the interview to Hitchens's deep historical and literary knowledge, but I think a lot of it had to do with that fact that Russ knows how to conduct interview. He recognized that Hitchens tended to be a little long-winded, and gave him space to speak after he finished his thoughts, leading to deeper insights. Also, questions like, "What was [Orwell] pro- ?" show that often the best questions are the (seemingly) most simple.

Jonathan writes:

I greatly enjoyed this podcast and would like more of these political/economic history/culture type interviews.

I understand the sentiments of Hitchens and Orwell but they don't seem very economically literate. Where are their plans for a Trotskyite (not the same as Communist) economy ? It's largely sentimental... Hitchens made a revealing comment that Orwell went to the left 'because he sided with the unfortunates' implying that the right doesn't. I am reminded of a dark comment by Hayek 'capitalism created the proletariat, but not by making anyone any the worse off; rather by enabling many to survive who would not otherwise have done so'

Those who would prefer an alternate distribution of wealth seem to have a very static view of the given wealth distribution and although their sentiments are usually commendable, I am always disappointed that they dont give more thought to the consequences of the policies which they themselves would set in motion.


Matt writes:

I really enjoyed this episode. Many thanks for a terrific interview with an extraordinary guest. Well done.

Billy writes:

Very enjoyable indeed. The first thoughts about Hayek that I had were when the two of you were discussing how the meanings of euphemisms can change, regardless of how a group or government wants them to mean. It reminded me of a scene in Professor Lieber's Stanford office...

Joseph Steinberg writes:

Inspiring!

And, just today I heard Ann Althouse argue that euphemism and spin were good for debate! She must be the anti-Orwell!

christian writes:

on ann althouse

i dont know the context she said that, but if taken on its own and literally, then someone should ask her:

is there a difference between confusion, persuasion and/or euphemism?

David Zetland writes:

Wonderful! Good move into political-economy :)

dieter writes:
By definition, people are not more free if government intervenes on their behalf; they have ceded some rights to their government to enable that intervention.
The government intervenes gravely with medical licensing, drug bans and prescription requirements. And if you break those laws, the government takes all of your freedoms away and puts you in jail.

Single payer or the public option on the other hand will increase the taxation level at the most. The freedom taken away through these programs is thus indistinguishable from any other government program that costs money.

The proposed new restrictions on private health insurers are in fact much more intrusive.

Much of the american protests seems to be out of a concern of senior citizens or their children that benefits for the elderly will be cut and redirected to younger, currently uninsured folks. So it is a fight about how to redistribute, not an opposition to redistribution itself.

So the opposition to Obamacare has little to do with freedom.

The road to serfdom is misleading. If the size of government were a good indicator of freedom, China would be a freer society than Denmark.

It is difficult to think of examples for the fulfillment of Hayek's prophecies. One example that comes to mind is childcare leave in Sweden. Some amount of it is only payed out if the father stays home for some months to change diapers. So in this case, the government takes away from the middle class and gives only back to the well behaved.

But most freedoms are taken away through outright bans and not through central planing.

mikehell writes:

A more provocative discussion would be Orwell on Hitchens. No doubt Orwell would be in awe of the fact that a man who vociferously supported every act of unprovoked Western aggression since the fall of the Soviet Union, with all the horror that followed, would still manage to capture the rapt attention and admiration of intellectuals. Indeed, Orwell would think himself vindicated. Again.

Pity we'll never hear that interview.

arc of a diver writes:

I usually agree with Hitchens, but he can sometimes be really annoying to listen to and read.

Yet this was a really thoughtful interview all around. I hope he comes back, and I hope econ talk keeps pushing the boundaries of subject matter.

philipp writes:

Acctually, there is a Chinese version of 1984 and you can buy it easily in major bookstores in China.

christian writes:

i think the value of econtalk is in the breadth of topics pertaining to society and the long conversation format paired with russ roberts's probing, yet non-editorial style.

given this, russ roberts should invite noam chomsky to discuss political economy, classical liberalism, the nexus between private enterprise and government, capitalism and industrialization, the economy of media and/or any number of other historical/current matters of dr roberts's choosing.

i think this podcast would be interesting in the extreme- and likely a very challenging conversation to conduct because noam chomsky has such a wide range of interests/essays- not to mention his "radical" left perspective.

easily worth a two-part podcast.

Nicolas writes:

Hitchens' diagnostics on political problems are chirurgically right, as were Orwel's. But when it comes to strategy, reality kicks in and the first best solution almost never exists. Euphemisms and appeasements are necessary to build something acceptable to a majority.. unless you have all the power. But then, you are the dictator, or the imperialist.

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