The journalist and historian, Thomas E. Ricks, has written an accessible and illuminating short account of the lives and works of Winston Churchill and George Orwell and why their words and deeds remain as relevant as ever.
Pairing the imperialist, conservative politician, and aristocrat, Winston Churchill, with the lower-upper middle class socialist and anti-imperialist essayist, George Orwell, Ricks makes a convincing case that despite their ostensible differences, an overarching cause—the preservation of individual liberty—united the two during the biggest crises faced by Western democracy in the 20th century.
Ricks caveats his claim that the two did not make the Western world as we know it “with its sustained economic boom and its steady expansion of equal rights to women, blacks, gays, and marginalized minorities,” but their efforts laid the groundwork that would make that world possible. More specifically, according to Ricks, they fought to “preserve the liberty of the individual during an age when the state was becoming powerfully intrusive into private life,” and their common cause “was to prevent the tide of state murder that began rising in the 1920s and 1930s, and crested in the 1940s, from continuing to rise.”
Notwithstanding Ricks’ generous claim, the book refreshingly is no hagiography and diligently lays out the many contradictions and flaws of both Churchill and Orwell, including the former’s propensity for “funny operations,” as his intelligence advisor Sir Desmond Morton put it, i.e., military raids and indirect attacks distracting from the main goal of defeating the Axis Powers during the Second World War, his lack of understanding of mechanized warfare and logistics; and the latter’s early literary failings, dubious opinions about the United States and its military, and rather parochial views on capitalism, among others.
Despite laying open the protagonists’ many imperfections, The Diplomat readers, especially from Asia, may find it interesting that Ricks spends little time on the Englishmen’s attitudes towards British colonial subjects, which can mildly be described as offensive or more strongly as occasionally plain racist—the latter is more true for Churchill than Orwell.
For example, in one of Orwell’s most famous short stories “Shooting An Elephant” he describes his desire to disembowel a Buddhist monk with a bayonet, while the over-the-top Fu Manchu-like description of the corrupt and cunning Burmese magistrate U Po Kyin in his first novel Burmese Days is more than just a critique of British rule in Burma and reveals an apparent genuine disgust for the local administrators of the colony.
Churchill favored the use of poison gas “against uncivilized tribes”, called the Palestinians “barbaric hordes who ate little but camel dung,” boasted about killing “savages” in “a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples” (I wrote about one of those campaigns here), and famously referred to Mohandas Gandhi as a “seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir.”
Unmentioned by Ricks, but worth noting in this context, is that not only Churchill, but also Orwell, harbored deep suspicions about Gandhi and his political strategy of non-violent civil disobedience—Satyagraha—in his confrontation with the British Raj stating in an essay that “saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.”
Indeed, as Ricks mentions, Churchill’s warning about Nazi Germany mostly fell on deaf ears during the 1930s because of his reactionary attitude towards Indian independence including once arguing that Gandhi, next to Hitler, posed the biggest threat to the survival of the British Empire.
Reading Ricks’ account of the two Englishmen and their singular pursuit of their overarching goal one is inclined to think of Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog and fox distinction, with the former knowing one thing and the latter knowing many things. Unlike most books on the statesman that argue that Churchill should be seen as a fox (e.g., William Manchester’s two books), Ricks interpretation suggests that Churchill knew but one thing very well: how to keep Britain in the war in 1940, while failing in most other endeavors during his long political career.
Churchill’s finest hour was the period after the fall of France in May 1940, on through the Battle of Britain, until the entrance of the United States into the war in December 1941. Keeping Britain fighting was a triumphant achievement, in which Churchill had to employ extraordinary foresight and resilience (and consequently, should perhaps be more accurately classified as a strategic-hedgehog-tactical- fox hybrid).
Arguably, the single most significant contribution to the ultimate triumph over fascism was his early realization that the war could only be won with the help of the United States. In that regard, Churchill was not only acutely aware of the limitations of the British military mind (Ricks argument here appears to closely follow Eliot Cohen’s line of thinking in his book Supreme Command), but also of a certain British mind favoring a separate peace with the Nazi dictatorship. (A number of British aristocrats feared American influence just as much as German militarism.)
Orwell, more of a fox character, was, as Christopher Hitchens argued in Why Orwell Matters, unusually clairvoyant in his vehement opposition to the three big cataclysms shaping the world in the first half of the 20th century: imperialism, fascism and communism. Orwell saw them all as interrelated and exceedingly dangerous given that all three robbed an individual of his freedom to think and hence his personal liberty. (John Milton’s phrase “By the known rules of ancient liberty” was one of Orwell’s favorite expressions).
Unlike Churchill, Orwell was less successful at discerning and drawing the right conclusions about the fourth great political development of the 20th century—the rise of the United States as the world’s preeminent power.
Also, unlike Churchill, Orwell opposed fighting Germany, at least until the signing of the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact in August 1939. In a September 1938 letter, Orwell’s then wife, Eileen, wrote in a letter that her husband “retains an extraordinary political simplicity” and only “wants to hear the voice of the people” for “he thinks this might stop war.” In a November 1938 letter, Orwell states that “anything is better than European war” since it “will not only lead to the slaughter of tens of millions but to an extension of Fascism.” In the letter he also fantasizes about a “real popular anti-war movement” in England, France, and the fascist countries. “If we can do that, to the point of making it clear that no government will go to war because the people won’t follow, I think Hitler is done for.”
It retrospect, this assumption appears strangely naïve. Perhaps it attests to the argument that a few Orwell admirers have repeatedly made: He was not a genius, but a man of average intelligence and integrity. Yet, because of his courage and intellectual probity, he managed to conquer his own prejudices and was unusually clearheaded about the nature of political regimes.
Indeed, in 2017, Orwell’s writings more than ever appear relevant, especially his dystopian magnum opus 1984, sales of which soared after the U.S. presidential advisor, Kellyanne Conway, used the phrase “alternative facts” in an interview succinctly displaying what Orwell had in mind when he coined the phrase “doublethink.”
It is Orwell’s and Churchill’s quest for facts and the truth that makes them especially relevant for today’s world. This enlightened quest is only possible in a free and open society that allows dissenters and idiosyncratic thinkers (Churchill and Orwell famously both broke with their social and ideological peers at various stages in their lives) to voice their opinions “and the right to tell people what they do not want to hear,” as Orwell put it.
Ricks’ thesis in that regard is cogently summarized in the book’s afterword. “The struggle to see things as they are is perhaps the fundamental driver of Western civilization. There is a long but direct line from Aristotle and Archimedes to Locke, Hume, Mill and Darwin, and from there through Orwell and Churchill to [Martin Luther King’s] ‘Letter from Birmingham City Jail’. It is the agreement that objective reality exists, that people of goodwill can perceive it, and that other people will change their views when presented with the facts of the matter.”