Jason Cowley has written an essay in the Financial Times in which he worries that the contemporary literary-political landscape lacks “a figure with the significance and commitment of George Orwell or HG Wells”.
There’s much to be said about the article. But I just want to highlight one thing. Cowley tells us that Orwell “might best be described as a Tory anarchist”. This is a very strange thing to write. Orwell called himself a “Tory anarchist” up until the mid-thirties, after which he said that he was a “democratic socialist”. And his writing after the Spanish Civil War consistently explores what democratic socialism is, how it relates to particular national conditions, and what would happen if we failed to achieve it. The shift is important.
Orwell the “Tory anarchist” is a figure that one can happily place in the “literary-political landscape”. The phrase itself surprises, is still shiny with paradox. Meanwhile, Stalinism has covered “democratic socialism” with a guano of cant. But Orwell meant something by democratic socialism. The idea was important to him. He took it seriously.
Cowley says that his magazine is “still searching for the contemporary equivalent of George Orwell, let alone Christopher Hitchens, for the writer who works in multiple forms and who seeks in his or her work to unite truth, literature and politics”.
(Let’s leave Christopher Hitchens to one side for the moment. This is meant to be a short post.) Cowley will struggle to find “the contemporary equivalent of George Orwell”, if he doesn’t know who Orwell was.
(Incidentally, I last read The Lion and the Unicorn at school. But looking at it again, I was amused to see that he had written this about the programme of “an English socialist government” –
Nations do not escape from their past merely by making a revolution. An English Socialist government will transform the nation from top to bottom, but it will still bear all over it the unmistakable marks of our own civilization, the peculiar civilization which I discussed earlier in this book. It will not be doctrinaire, nor even logical. It will abolish the House of Lords, but quite probably will not abolish the Monarchy.
Only scoundrels claim that Orwell would have agreed with them, but this does happen to be quite close to what I argue for in Maximum Republic. Hitchens, of course, was a flashy and crowd-pleasing anti-monarchist. Or rather, he was in 1990.)