Contemporary British political culture is a strange thing. Labour MPs who support war are described as “moderates”, while elitist Conservative MPs make a fetish of “respecting the will of the people.” In such times, the legacy of George Orwell is held in high regard. The public is entertained by Room 101 on the television, whilst top journalists like Jonathan Freedland have been proud to obtain the Orwell Prize.
Not many individuals would dispute that George Orwell was a fine writer. His essays on the common toad and the cup of tea are a pleasure to read, while Nineteen Eighty-Four, Animal Farm and Homage to Catalonia are simply classics of political literature. Furthermore, there are those who believe that the poverty illuminated by The Road to Wigan Pier has resonance with the austere way too many people are obliged to live today.
The argument in favour of the Orwell Prize is not simply based on an appreciation of the life and work of a remarkable person. It is also an acknowledgement of the transparent prose which the writer perfected. An opponent of literary pretentiousness, Orwell was sometimes eager to avoid flashy punctuation; in the novel Coming Up for Air he never deployed a semi-colon. He was not so fastidious about the issue in his other work, but the underlying attitude indicates that he was a purist at heart.
Specific problems with being a purist have been documented. Professor Jonathan Haidt has explored how disgust can have a political impact. People without a socialist mindset often have strong emotions about ‘the other.’ It is often the case that conservatives and fascists believe in an imaginary moral world. Professor Haidt elaborates:
“Human beings feel revolted by moral depravity, and this revulsion is akin to the revulsion they feel toward rotten food and cockroaches. In this way, disgust helps us form groups, reject deviants, and build a moral community.”
While some critics would categorise Orwell as a democratic socialist, in practice the great writer engaged in sinister McCarthyism because of his fears about totalitarianism. Driven by a righteousness associated with purity, he collaborated with the British authorities. He made a list of alleged ‘fellow travellers’ and communists. Superb writers like Isaac Deutscher, mainstream politicians such as Bessie Braddock MP and original philosophers such as John Macmurray were viewed with great suspicion by Orwell. Some details of innocent figures were passed to the intelligence services. If totalitarianism means anything specific in philosophical terms, clamping down on freethinkers is not the way to defeat it. A pluralist society can only be maintained through vigorous and open debate.
However, the case for the abolition of the Orwell Prize is not based on the betrayal of left-wing thinkers by Orwell. His apologists take his illness into account when assessing the behaviour which led to the list. It is the anti-Semitism of Orwell which should make those shortlisted for the Orwell Prize think twice. Freedland is a distinguished journalist who regularly attacks Jeremy Corbyn for alleged anti-Semitism. Several of these numerous allegations are based on guilt by association. There is no denying that Corbyn has mixed with campaigners who have dubious opinions. However, Freedland was happy enough to accept the Orwell Prize. And literary analysis of the copious work of Orwell clearly shows that he was anti-Semitic. If anti-Corbyn journalists are to avoid charges of hypocrisy, they should examine their own connections with anti-Semitism.
Any reader of Orwell can encounter examples of explicit anti-Semitism. Although literary critics could claim that some of the unpleasant opinions do not reflect the views of Orwell, but represent the beliefs of his characters, this argument does not seem to hold water. In Burmese Days, the author made one of his creations assert:
“The British Empire is simply a device for giving trade monopolies to…gangs of Jews and Scotchmen.”
Non-Marxist critics of the British Empire often were prejudiced against influential Jews. J.A. Hobson contended that the Boer War was partly the consequence of covert Jewish manoeuvres. Hobson stressed the importance of:
“a small group of international financiers, chiefly German in origin and Jewish in race.”
With his strong antipathy to Marxism, Orwell arguably belongs to the liberal tradition of Hobson. Orwell reflected on anti-Semitism in revealing terms:
“The starting point for any investigation of anti-Semitism should not be ‘why does this obviously irrational belief appeal to other people?’ But ‘why does anti-Semitism appeal to me?'”
Obviously, the trouble with this odd perspective is that it assumes one is anti-Semitic in the first instance. Many of us may have prejudices of different types, but not everybody is anti-Semitic. One does not have to be a Jew to recognise that Jews are simply not responsible for the problems of the world. Orwell was preoccupied with Jews and their behaviour. In his first book, he noted:
“in a corner by himself a Jew, muzzle down in the plate, was guiltily wolfing bacon.”
This image is a remarkable one because previous Labour leader Ed Miliband was the victim of a media onslaught. The Jewish politician was remorselessly mocked for his consumption of a bacon sandwich. But it seems that the British press were simply following in the footsteps of Orwell. Orwell was interested in usury and also in Down and Out in Paris and London observed ‘offensive’ behaviour connected with:
“[a]red-haired Jew, an extraordinarily disagreeable man.”
It seems unlikely that the British media will turn their backs on Orwell. If they acknowledge his flaws at all, the errors will be dismissed as being symptomatic of his times. Nevertheless, those liberal journalists who are keen to throw the label of anti-Semite around should think about how much they want to admire Orwell. It is possible to admire sections of somebody’s work, without being blind to their toxic blindness.