Review of 'The Betrayal of Dissent', Scott Lucas, Pluto £10.99
A polemic that starts from a flawed premise won't hit its target. Lucas could have written a useful counterblast to those, like Christopher Hitchens, who abandoned socialist politics and turned themselves into cheerleaders for Bush and witch-hunters of dissent. Unfortunately the central theme of this book is to place Hitchens and his ilk in the tradition of George Orwell who, it is argued, performed the same function at the start of the Cold War. The rationale for this is that Hitchens has written a very complimentary book about Orwell and uses him to defend his apostasy.
There are two obvious problems with this argument. Firstly, Hitchens is not the first to use Orwell in this way. Since the publication of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four bourgeois ideologues have heralded his work as proof that any socialist transformation of society will inevitably degenerate into totalitarianism. This is despite the fact that Orwell himself repudiated this interpretation. Secondly, to put Hitchens and Orwell in the same tradition is to lose all sense of literary proportion. Orwell's shortcomings are transparent and have been well documented in this magazine (see July/August 2003 SR) and elsewhere, but they pale into insignificance when placed against his towering contribution to political writing. By distorting Orwell's legacy beyond recognition, Lucas undermines his own case.
Orwell wrote about political events from the perspective of active personal engagement, and his ability to use his own experience to popularise socialist ideas has had a lasting impact. Homage to Catalonia, about his experiences fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, is a socialist classic that has inspired thousands to become politically active. His writings on language, particularly his universally acknowledged concept of 'Newspeak', are formidable weapons in our armoury against ruling class spin doctors . Even though Ninety Eighty-Four and Animal Farm have become hardy perennials of the school curriculum for their supposedly anti-socialist message, their actual impact on students has largely been the opposite. Having taught them in schools for more than 30 years, I can testify to their ability to enhance students' grasp of political discourse and be open to interpretations more sympathetic to our tradition.
Of course Orwell has always been vilified by Stalinists and their fellow travellers for his graphic description of the way in which the Communist Party in Spain put the interests of Soviet foreign policy before the interests of the Spanish republic, with disastrous consequences. Orwell also illuminated the betrayal of the revolution in the Soviet Union at a time when sections of the literary establishment were fawning in their admiration of Stalin's regime. Lucas, whatever his own political perspective, seems to have implicitly accepted the criticisms from this tradition. He seems to take Orwell's attacks on Stalinism as attacks on socialism.
This is a great pity. His book is copiously annotated with references to the current debates on both sides of the Atlantic that could contribute to our rebuttal of the intellectual apologists for Bush and Blair. Lucas is meticulous in tracing the political degeneration of Hitchens, who has reinvented himself as the champion of the New American Century and whose writing now has more resemblance to the bilious abuse of a Julie Burchill than to any coherent critical analysis. Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitch are subjected to the same kind of microscopic attention. Lucas also traces the way in which public debate in the US after 9/11 was debased by the media cheerleaders for retribution, aided and abetted by tame intellectuals. He reminds us of the way in which genuine dissenters like Sontag and Chomsky were abused and marginalised. His book could have complemented the work of these and the many others who have exposed the real agenda of the US neoconservatives, but he has missed the opportunity.
His conclusion argues that the attack on dissent is cloaked in the respectability of an 'Orwell' hijacked by the right. This new 'Orwell' seems to have replaced the original. Instead of accepting the inevitability of this distortion Lucas could have challenged it. His book would have been all the more valuable had he attempted to do so and his argument against the apologists for imperialism would have been strengthened. Orwell has always been used by the right. It doesn't mean that the left shouldn't reclaim him.