Why Orwel Matters, by Christopher Hitchens

Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind (George Orwell in Politics and the English Language).

And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias the more change one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity (George Orwell in Why I Write).

George Orwell appears to be the clearest influence of Christopher Hitchens. They are the two most important British essayist of the past century and the first decade of the current one.  This makes it a joy to read Why Orwell Matters, where Hitch dissects Orwell’s ideas, thoughts and relations with political ideologies and other topics of his time.

Orwell is a difficult figure to analyse. He is mostly known by his dystopian book 1984, from which the term Orwellian derives (a usual adjective to describe, for instance, the North Korean regime).  But, as Hitch highlights, this novel is “the first and only time that his efforts as a novelist rise to the level of his essays.” Through his essays, letters, and articles, and to a certain extend his novels, Hitch is able to provide a clear picture of Orwell’s motives, stances and contradictions.

As much as I highly recommend this book for anyone with an interest for Orwell, it is at the same time worth mentioning the prior knowledge of Orwell and history that it requires. This is not an Introduction to Orwell, so to speak. The reading improves dramatically as one increases in particular its knowledge of European history of the first half of the 20th century. Orwell’s writings are marked by the communist revolution, the rise of fascism and Stalinism, and the British empire. Here I must admit my own lack of knowledge of the époque, which I just tried to somehow mitigate, at least in the eyes of the reader, by using a French word to appear culte (Orwell did not feel particularly welcoming of such expressions, as he emphasises in Politics and the English Language: “Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime… are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for an of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in English.”)

Let me, however, remark one thing about Orwell’s life that is extensively covered in Hitch’s book. What fascinates me most about Orwell is how early he realised what the Soviet Union had become. It became apparent to him during his adventures in Spain, where he witnessed first hand how the communist party abducted, and later executed, Andreu Nin, the leader of a different communist party (POUM), on the orders of Josef Stalin. This was at a time where many British socialist intellectuals, as he was, considered the Soviet Union as a utopia-adjacent state. This realisation during the 1930s, and his subsequent activism, made Orwell “one of the founding fathers of anti-communism.” And these are the experiences would later on be the seed to 1984.

All in all, Why Orwell Matters is an excellent book to get closer to the core of Orwell’s thoughts and views about that time, about that époque.

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