The Long Shadow of George Orwell

April 19 2013 / Financial Times

On the evening of Margaret Thatcher’s death, BBC2 broadcast a special edition of Newsnight. The novelist chosen to participate, via satellite from New York, was Martin Amis. With his absurdly suave voice, celebrity, frown and pout and his fondness for a fine phrase, Amis was an obvious choice to be literary London’s representative on the big night (even if he now lives on the other side of the Atlantic in Brooklyn).

Like Thatcher, his career-defining work was done in the 1980s, and on Newsnight he recycled old jokes and riffed on the names of some of those who served under Thatcher – “the Keiths, Normans and Cecils”. It was an amusing cameo but no more than that: it was striking that Amis, once such a perceptive cultural critic, had nothing original or notable to contribute, as no doubt his old friend Christopher Hitchens would had he been alive.

At moments such as the Thatcher death, one misses Hitchens. His Manicheanism and absolutism could irritate but, even as you disagreed with him, you admired the superb fluency with which he defended his positions. He was never afraid of stridency. And he continually addressed the most divisive issues of the age: the rise of Islamism, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the limits of western power, religion and its role in the world.

With Hitchens dead and Amis becalmed, what is missing from the literary-political landscape is a figure with the significance and commitment of George Orwell or HG Wells, someone who writes novels as well as political essays and popular journalism, and to whom we can turn and learn from at moments of national consequence or crisis, and around whom others can gather, as today they still gather around Orwell.

We are fortunate, of course, to have Ian McEwan, whose novels are animated by the dilemmas of the day. But he is a very different writer from Orwell or Wells, less explicitly political, more a novelist who also happens to be a nuanced journalistic commentator when the occasion arises than a controversialist and participant in the commanding political battles. Orwell and Wells, to borrow Matthew Arnold’s phrase from Culture and Anarchy, helped us “to see things as they really are”. They wrote in plain language and when they talked about literature they talked about politics and vice versa.

Unlike so many novelists today, they excelled in various forms – fiction and non-fiction, criticism and journalism – and they sought to interrogate the world as they found it as well as conjuring dystopian visions. Wells was enthralled by science and The Time Machine and The Island of Dr Moreau are radiant with the excitement and possibility of technological change. Orwell, who might best be described as a Tory anarchist, was fearful of change and of the future; Wells rushed to embrace both.

The American writer Barbara Kingsolver has said literature “doesn’t tell you what you think. It asks what you think.” But perhaps it is not a question of either/or. Perhaps a better definition of the engaged political novelist is one who simultaneously asks questions of the society in which they live and tells important truths about it.

After the London bombings of July 2005, I wrote a profile of Ian McEwan in the New Statesman, the magazine I now edit. I described him as being the closest thing Britain has to a national novelist, which is now how others describe him too. What I continue to like about McEwan, even if his excessively schematic novels can disappoint, is that he is interested in politics, in the broadest sense.

He published some of the finest pieces of all in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 2001 attacks and again in the run-up to the Iraq war and it was no surprise that he should write one of the more thoughtful reflections about Margaret Thatcher after her death.

In the 1980s McEwan was one of a group of literary writers in London — others included Salman Rushdie, Angela Carter, Harold Pinter and Hanif Kureishi — who were radicalised by Thatcherism. They loathed and scorned the woman who won three general elections while, I believe, never really attempting to understand what she represented or the consensus-breaking forces she unleashed. In Rushdie’s Satanic Verses (1988), she is caricatured as “Mrs Torture”. In McEwan’s The Child in Time (1987), she is not named but the novel’s repulsive, domineering female prime minister, whose voice is “pitched somewhere between a tenor’s and an alto’s”, is clearly based on her.

But now, in late middle age and after her death, McEwan could write more reflectively about Thatcher: “She forced us to decide what was truly important ... Her effect was to force a deeper consideration of priorities.”

The same could not be said of David Cameron or Ed Miliband and that is part of the problem as well as the challenge for contemporary novelists with political preoccupations for whom the Westminster jamboree has become such a great turn-off, as it has for much of the population.

Ours is a resolutely post-ideological age. Beyond the west, Islamism long ago replaced communism and secular liberation movements as an ideology of rebellion and revolt. There are no compelling, world-historic clashes of secular ideas as there were even in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was fighting the cold war and Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history. This partly explains why some of today’s most intellectually stimulating writing is now about climate change (John Gray, Elizabeth Kolbert), religion (Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Alain de Botton), science (Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins) and nature (Robert Macfarlane) rather than ideology or class.

When the New Statesman was founded 100 years ago it was intended to be a “weekly review of politics and literature”. Note those two words, “politics” and “literature”. Beatrice and Sidney Webb, who also co-founded the Fabian Society and the London School of Economics, wanted their “paper” to be a vehicle for their ideas and for it to play a leading role in what they hoped would be a “scientific” transformation of society and the “world movement towards collectivism”. Theirs was a socialism of experts: technocratic, statist, bureaucratic.

Among those closely associated with the Webbs were Wells and the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, who provided £1,000 of the initial £5,000 required to set up and fund the NS. Both Wells and Shaw wrote regularly for the paper on politics and then later, in the early 1920s, after the NS broke free from the Webbs’ influence, the novelist Arnold Bennett became chairman and one of the chief benefactors. In 1931, after a merger with the Nation, the old voice of social liberalism, John Maynard Keynes became chairman and the paper’s cultural pages were imbued with the spirit of Bloomsbury.

Yet from the beginning, there was a separation between the politics and the literature, between what was published in the front and back halves of the paper. The NS became known as a “pantomime horse”, with the “political” front and “cultural” back defined by different sensibilities and aspirations. There seemed to be no connecting bridge between the two “halves”, or worlds, of the paper. The understanding was that the front half was rigidly political in mission and intent while the back was more plural and open. It was as if the demands of politics and literature were in some way antagonistic; that to concentrate too much on the political would be to neglect the literary and to be too literary would be to misunderstand or to be insufficiently serious about politics.

When Amis worked on the Statesman as literary editor in the late 1970s, he was baffled by and found comical the political commitment of his friends and fellow staffers Hitchens and James Fenton, both then on the hard Trotskyite left. He has written of how Hitchens improved as a writer, his prose gaining in “burnish and authority”, only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, as if before then he had been constrained by a self-imposed demand to hold a fixed ideological line and this had affected his literary style.

Today the pantomime horse has been slain. No such division exists between politics and culture. As a former NS literary editor myself, I have presided over what Jonathan Derbyshire, the magazine’s present culture editor, describes as integration from back to front: “An intrusion into the political part of the magazine of a temperament and cast of mind – sceptical, ecumenical, liberal – that has always reigned at the back.” But we are 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.

Will the culture ever throw up another Orwell? Perhaps the answer is that the culture and the way we define “political” have changed too much. It’s not that we do not have novelists of considerable political ambition. There is John Lanchester, who writes with extraordinary lucidity about the financial crisis and the internet. There is James Meek, whose narrative journalism, in long, rigorously researched reports published in the London Review of Books, has won him a place on the 2013 Orwell Prize longlist. And there is Will Self, a prolific novelist and journalist whose scabrous wit and satire compare with the best of Jonathan Swift.

But none of them is politically engaged or committed as Orwell or Wells were. Politics is incidental to rather than the core of who they are. They are political rather than Political. For Orwell, Wells and other great New Statesman writers such as J.B. Priestley (who produced a 1957 article that led to the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and Arthur Koestler, whose Darkness at Noon (1940), was a parable of leftist disaffection, the besetting moral problems of the age were ideological. How should the pacifist left, appalled by the carnage of the first world war, respond to the rise of Mussolini and Hitler? Should a socialist support or reject the Soviet Union? How to respond to the nuclear threat? What attitude to adopt towards communism?

For Orwell there was only one answer to that last question. What mattered was truth-telling, no matter what it revealed about your own side and positions. He was especially outraged when Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman from 1930-1960, refused to publish his “Eyewitness in Barcelona”, a 1937 dispatch from the Aragon front that implicated the Soviet-backed government forces in atrocities against the non-Stalinist Poum militia. For Orwell, Martin’s action was unforgivable because he had allowed ideological sympathies to influence his editorial independence: Martin’s was the “corrupt face” of censorship.

Orwell wrote political essays and explicitly ideological fiction as well as gentle, nostalgic novels about Englishness such as Coming Up for Air and Keep the Aspidistra Flying. He was a reporter as well as a commentator. Little about English cultural life escaped his notice, from comics to the rituals of hop-picking.

Wells was also a satirist, essayist and parabolist. His greatest novel, Tono-Bungay (1909), takes its young hero on an adventure through an England that is hierarchical, class-bound, uneasy and riven but also full of possibilities. It’s an exuberant state of the nation study of a kind beyond the reach of most contemporary British novelists.

Wells was fascinated by the Soviet experiment. In the 1930s, for the New Statesman, he visited Moscow where he deferentially interviewed Stalin and sent back reports on life there (he liked what he saw, sadly). Both Orwell and Wells were radicals who, as with Koestler and many others for whom the god of communism failed, slowly became more sceptical about the threat the authoritarian state posed to individual liberty. Their scepticism was ultimately in conflict with their political commitment and the former triumphed.

Today, in Britain, one can read any number of good political novels from Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up!, a satire of the worst excesses of Thatcherism, to the best of the Booker Prize-winning, Scottish vernacular stylist James Kelman, for whom alternative verbal idioms serve as a form both of cultural resistance and self-definition. But are these writers political in the way Orwell was? I’d say no.

Our most consistently interesting political novelist is, I would argue, John le Carré. He is foolishly dismissed as a mere genre writer – Rushdie once mocked what he considered to be his literary pretensions – but his longevity and resilience are remarkable. Le Carré has long had a grand subject – English imperial decline and institutional corruption – and his consuming preoccupation is betrayal, personal and political. Indeed, for Le Carré the personal and the political are inseparable.

In the acknowledgments section of his new novel, A Delicate Truth, Le Carré thanks Anthony Barnett, the founder of the openDemocracy website, for “educating me in the manners of New Labour in its dying days”. I asked Barnett about Le Carré and he said: “Behind the thriller, there is both a penetrating assessment of the state of our world, a Britain in decline especially – but not only, as the cold war made him a world writer from the start – [and] also a careful, profoundly moral investigation of good and evil, corruption and weakness, integrity and striving, inheritance and sheer badness and greed.”

Yet Le Carré works more in the pessimistic tradition of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene. As good and vital as he is, he’s no Orwell or Wells. Would that we had one, a writer today who could explore – as they did theirs and in as comparably various ways – the complexities of our age, stricken by crises and caught in the headlong rush of change.