Churchill and Orwell Face the Fiasco
Thomas E. Ricks, Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom (New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 352 pp., $28.00.
SERIOUSLY NOW, do we need another book on Winston Churchill? I do a quick search, and Amazon’s already offering me 6,975 choices—and that’s just books (no slipcovers, stickers or bobble heads). Isn’t that enough?
Look, I get it. I’m just as susceptible to the lure of the great man’s story as anyone else. Just take the early war-correspondent adventures (above all, to escape from that POW camp in the Boer War), the remarkable flameout as a government minister in World War I, the studied quirks and the literary talents and the herculean booze consumption, the bleak years of political marginalization in the 1930s, the authentic heroism in the searing months of 1940, the clattering defeat at the hands of Labour at war’s end, and the tragicomic return to power in the years that followed. And what about the portentous prose, the wit, the physical courage and the insane ambition? The silk bathrobes and underwear, and the Turnbull and Asser siren suit, the astounding energy, the rotundity, the cigars? Who, really, can resist?
And especially in the United States, with such a long history of compulsive Winniephilia. Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, the title of Tom Ricks’s new book, sounds like another hagiographic potboiler. But Ricks is trying to make a contemporary point with this lively and accessible book, and to do so he has devised an intriguing argument that juxtaposes Churchill and George Orwell, another figure of twentieth-century British history who has been enjoying something of a rebirth lately as sales of 1984 have soared in the era of T, as the president likes to call himself in his copious tweets.
Compared with Churchill’s, though, Orwell’s life story is a much harder sell, though John Sutherland does a very good job of it in his recent and marvelously eccentric study Orwell’s Nose. Orwell suffered from ill health for much of his life, a good bit of it self-inflicted; was something of a sex fiend, with apparent coprophilic tendencies; and died young, not long after he achieved his first measure of literary fame. To be sure, his story had its own share of adventure—from his early years as a colonial policeman in Burma to his innovative reporting on the underclass to his tour of duty, as it were, as an anarchist fighter in the Spanish Civil War. But it’s certainly not as stirring a tale as Churchill’s, and it takes place on the dark and claustrophobic stage of a struggling intellectual who was deeply out of step with the ubiquitous left-wing cant of his day.
“On the surface,” Rick acknowledges, “the two men were quite different.” Orwell (born Eric Blair) came from modest origins, and pursued a rather checkered path until he was able to make a go of it as a journalist, writer and political radical. From almost the beginning Churchill, by contrast, envisioned a dazzling public career, seeking every opportunity to further his ambitions and demonstrate his will to power, partly in an effort to redeem the family escutcheon that had been blemished by his distant father, whom he revered. “One hazard in taking a dual approach to the two men,” Ricks writes, “is that Churchill is such a loud and persistent presence. Look at any key event of the 1940s and he is there, participating in it, or speechifying about it, and then some years later, writing about it.” Orwell, by contrast, ends up trapped for much of the war in the stultifying backwater of the BBC, where he was supposed to be supporting the war effort by churning out pro-British propaganda. (He later took his revenge by transmuting the experience into the dreary workplace of his protagonist in 1984, who was tellingly named Winston.)
And yet, Ricks concludes, their lives overlapped in crucial ways. They both lived through the terrifying twentieth-century confrontation with totalitarianism, in the forms of Germany’s national socialism, Italian fascism and Soviet communism. At the moment when these political movements aspired to wipe out liberal democracy, and to prove its obsolescence to the world, both Churchill and Orwell played crucial roles in pushing back. Both, says Ricks, “steered by the core principles of liberal democracy: freedom of thought, speech, and association.” In 1939, Churchill described Britain’s heroic fight against the Nazis in this way: “It is a war, viewed in its inherent quality, to establish, on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual, and it is a war to establish and revive the stature of man.” Two years later Orwell wrote, “We live in an age in which the autonomous individual is ceasing to exist.”
THE INTERTWINING of these two lives makes for an intriguing conceit—and surely Ricks is the one to pull it off. He is one of America’s finest journalists and writers on military affairs, with two Pulitzer Prizes to boot. (He’s also had a rich career as a war correspondent, a past that he shares with both of his subjects.)
Ricks, in fact, has an agenda—quite a timely one. He believes that his parallel biography has something important to tell us about liberty and the way to defend it. He leads off the book with a rather ominous acknowledgment: “Dedicated to all those who seek to preserve our freedoms.” A few years ago, I suspect, it wouldn’t have occurred to us that those freedoms really needed preserving. But now there’s no question that they do.
Russia, China and Iran are all happily projecting power beyond their borders with little pushback from the West. Several states that recently enjoyed liberal interludes—above all Turkey and Thailand—have slipped back into despotism. Of the Arab Spring countries, only one, Tunisia, has succeeded in establishing stable democratic institutions. And a whole series of once-exemplary democracies—Brazil, South Africa, Poland, Hungary—are facing profound institutional crises. Nor is the United States entirely exempt from these ominous trends. Donald Trump’s contempt for democratic norms and his strange flirtations with Moscow have stirred up anxieties about America’s own susceptibility to authoritarianism.
Ricks believes that his two protagonists have something important to tell us on this score. First, they share that fundamental belief, in the primacy of the autonomous individual. Second, as we see through Churchill’s speeches and Orwell’s writings, liberal democracy is the best way to protect individual rights from the overweening power of the modern state. Third, both men share an epistemology—a belief in objective reality and the assumption that right actions can only be based on a proper understanding thereof: “When they were confronted by a crucial moment in history, Churchill and Orwell responded first by seeking the facts of the matter. Then they acted on their beliefs.”
Ricks provides ample evidence for the first two points. The third, however, is so general as to be almost meaningless. If you had asked pretty much any politician in 1920s or 1930s Great Britain, he or she would almost have certainly agreed that they sought to “seek the facts of the matter” before “acting on their beliefs.” Objective reality was largely taken for granted by most people in the West back in those days. But Ricks, of course, has his eye on the current political moment, in which a U.S. president can churn out an endless cycle of obvious falsehoods at little or no cost to his popularity among his base.
Orwell is the one who argues that contempt for reality is a singular characteristic of totalitarian regimes. In 1984, he shows how the totalitarian one-party state inevitably warps the nature of “reality” and “facts.” At one point in the story, the Party leader O’Brien tells Winston, the book’s protagonist,
You believe reality is something objective, eternal, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. . . . But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. . . . Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.
“For Winston, as for the author,” Ricks writes,
the most significant act in life is not to speak out or to be published, but simply to observe accurately the world around him. Collecting the facts is a revolutionary act. Insisting on the right to do so is perhaps the most subversive action possible. . . . He is especially provoked by the Party’s insistence that only it could determine what was real and what was not.
As Ricks points out, this urge to total control also extends to history, not just the present.
He later would conclude, “Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.” That thought would become one of the core themes of his final book. It is not just the future that belongs to the all powerful, but also the past.
Yet we must rely almost exclusively on Orwell’s writings for this point. It is worth noting that Churchill’s vast writings—largely devoted to history and current events—contain strikingly few such philosophical ruminations on the nature of truth. Churchill was, after all, an eminently practical politician, not a university professor. He was also very impatient. Orwell would systematically and carefully dismantle an argument—think of his vivisection of James Burnham’s well-known essay “Lenin’s Heir,” in which Orwell diagnosed a compulsion on the part of many intellectuals to exercise a whip hand on history. Churchill is probably closer to our own time with his love of the raspberry: “A sheep in sheep’s clothing” was his verdict on Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald. On Neville Chamberlain: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”
Still, one can’t help wishing we could know a bit more about Churchill’s views of Orwell’s radical insights into the nature of totalitarianism. Unfortunately, as Ricks must acknowledge, there is little to go on. Churchill was already an enormous figure of world-historical import in the first half of the 1940s, when Orwell was a fairly marginal intellectual. As a result, Orwell commented on Churchill quite a lot, while there are almost no examples of the reverse. In 1953, when Churchill read 1984 for the second time, he concluded, “It is a very remarkable book.” That was pretty much it.
THIS ASYMMETRY pervades the book, and it undermines some of the author’s more sweeping claims. Churchill’s speeches show him to be a stirring defender of liberal democracy, but he never took the time to elaborate upon a theory of government (and certainly not on the nature of “objective reality”). We venerate him for his principled defense of freedom in the spring and summer of 1940, but we tend to forget that he was also perfectly capable of ruthless moral compromises when the circumstances called for them—as when he ordered his navy to destroy the French Fleet after the generals in Paris concluded a separate peace with the Germans. It was Churchill, the beacon of light, who once observed, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”
None of this means that we should dismiss Churchill as an unprincipled cynic; his willingness to stand up to appeasement in the 1930s, a terrible career move, should suffice to dispel any such notion. Even so, the real, human Churchill—as opposed to the iconic version beloved by Republicans—was often quite a messy character. Ricks knows this, and he makes a point of touching on a few of his hero’s darker sides. But he ultimately settles for a largely canonical portrait of the great man. It focuses on Churchill’s greatest moment of heroism, but remains silent about his less palatable aspects.
This is a shame, because Churchill can only really function as a symbol of democracy if his failings are addressed head-on. By now we have had plenty of revisionist histories of the great man that have cast light on his faults. He was, of course, an arch-imperialist, and he was not above justifying Britain’s colonial domination of the world with racist statements of a vehemence that often startled his own contemporaries: “I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes.” It “would spread a lively terror.” He notoriously sneered at Gandhi (whom he described as a “half-naked fakir”) and the Indian nationalist movement. “I hate Indians,” he once commented. “They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” In 1943, a famine swept through India, leaving up to three million people dead. Colonial administrators pleaded for more food, but Churchill ignored them. Instead he blamed the Indians for “breeding like rabbits.”
Ricks’s enthusiastic portrait should be regarded as a bit out of step with the realities of the twenty-first century. Orwell, of course, has far less of a liability on this front. He remained a strong opponent of colonialism throughout his life—an attitude memorialized in his first novel, Burmese Days, which was shaped by his own dismal experience as a colonial policeman in the raj. Indeed, despite his oft-expressed admiration for Churchill, Orwell never considered joining the Conservatives. He remained, until the end of his life, a committed leftist, a man who welcomed the surprise Labour election victory in 1945 that ushered in the era of the British welfare state. (Churchill, notoriously, denounced the potential onset of “socialism” as rule by a new “Gestapo”—rhetorical overkill that undoubtedly helped the Labourites over the finish line.) Yet Ricks is largely silent on this particular moment in the two men’s biography.
Indeed, because he is so keen to show how his subjects “overlap,” Ricks ends up effacing many of the differences between them. Orwell was, for example, strongly opposed to the British government’s wartime alliance with the Soviet Union, a conflict that would have been worth exploring. Had Ricks chosen to do so, he might also have treated us to an illuminating discussion of the two strains of Cold War resistance to Soviet Communism: the traditional conservative version, represented by the ardent anti-Bolshevik Churchill, and the version practiced by the democratic Left, exemplified by Orwell. It was Orwell, after all, who showed that you could defy the Communists while clinging to the ideals of social justice. And it was Churchill who in his historic speech in Fulton, Missouri (mentioned only in passing by Ricks) first called attention to the “Iron Curtain” and the evolving ideological chasm of the postwar world. In The Fight for Freedom, Ricks reminds us that both men were freedom fighters. Who are their like today?
Christian Caryl is an editor at the Washington Post.
Image: The statue of Britain's former Prime Minister Winston Churchill is silhouetted in front of the Houses of Parliament in London January 24, 2015. Today is the 50th anniversary of the World War Two statesman's death. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor