Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas E. Ricks

Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Thomas E. Ricks, a dual biography of Winston Churchill and George Orwell, whose farsighted vision and inspired action preserved democracy from the threats of authoritarianism, from the left and right alike.Both George Orwell and Winston Churchill came close to death in the mid-1930's--Orwell shot in the neck in a trench line in the...

Title:Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom
Author:
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ISBN:1594206139
Format Type:Hardcover
Number of Pages:352 pages

Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom Reviews

  • Justin Tapp
    May 29, 2017

    This book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review. Review and opinions within are my own.

    I had previously read Ricks' Fiasco and The Generals, both of these dealt largely with specific failings of the US military and its bureaucracy. This venture is quite a departure; apparently Ricks got interested in both Churchill and Orwell while studying the Spanish Civil War, where Orwell had volunteered, and Ricks found that both men had been war correspondents like himself.

    Th

    This book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review. Review and opinions within are my own.

    I had previously read Ricks' Fiasco and The Generals, both of these dealt largely with specific failings of the US military and its bureaucracy. This venture is quite a departure; apparently Ricks got interested in both Churchill and Orwell while studying the Spanish Civil War, where Orwell had volunteered, and Ricks found that both men had been war correspondents like himself.

    The common bonds between Churchill and Orwell were that they were both Britains who took great stands against totalitarianism. Churchill rallied his government and fellow countrymen to fight the Nazis regardless of the outcome. Orwell channeled his own first-hand observations to write how totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union were squelching dissident voices and demanding absolute loyalty. The work of both men arguably kept totalitarianism from Europe for the 20th century. Churchill's stand against the Nazis hastened their defeat. Orwell's bestsellers innoculated generations from the dangers of totalitarianism by illustrating them so vividly in the imagination.

    While I finished this book, US President Donald Trump took his first overseas trip and famously asked NATO members to step up their timeline for increasing funding as a percentage of their GDP, as well as became the first President to not state the importance of Article V of mutual defense. German Chancellor Angela Merkel later gave a speech to her constituents that Europe could no longer rely on the US and Britain, stating "The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over." Other leaders appear to be in agreement with her sentiment. The Atlantic and other journals are dismayed, writing that "the old order has passed." Ricks' book is about how that old order was built and its importance. He concludes the book with some ominous warnings in the parallels he sees between what Orwell predicted and the world we live in today. Ricks writes that "Orwell and Churchill recognized that the key question of their century was...how to preserve liberty of the individual during an age when the state was becoming powerfully intrusive into private life" (loc. 53). "Liberty" was not a word one heard much in the 2016 US Presidential campaign. The reader is left to wonder whether, when the next totalitarian threat arises, there will be any Churchills or Orwells to rise to the occassion.

    My detailed review:

    Ricks has obviously dug deeply into these mens' histories, so deeply that he felt the need to include many details that he should have omitted. I learned more about the details of these mens lives and works than was necessary. Churchill and Orwell were not extraordinary men, their lives were somewhat pathetic and unenviable. Before 1939, no one would have predicted their fame, indeed Orwell was largely unmentioned in lists of British authors published at the time. Orwell was an unwealthy scholarship student at Eton College, whereas Churchill's parents were part of the elite class and he was a precocious boy of privelege. Both saw the workings of the British Empire from abroad, Churchill in India and Africa, and Orwell did service as an MP in Burma. Both had poor role models as fathers and both enjoyed literature. Both had health problems and an apparent awkwardness among women.

    Unlike Churchill, Orwell (real name: Eric Blair) despised class difference and colonialism (see his essay "Shooting an Elephant"). He was a democratic socialist, volunteering on the front lines against Franco's nationalist forces in Spain. There he saw how the Soviet NKVD were co-opting the communist forces to suit their own needs, including destroying the Trotsky-sympathetic POUM Socialists that Orwell was fighting with. It was only when he returned from the front after a near-fatal wound that he saw how the Soviets were censoring the media, rounding up POUM sympathizers, and inventing problems to blame them for. He noted the Soviet use of the media and literally re-writing history to suit their needs. The Soviets had no intention of defeating Franco's forces and used the exercise simply to purge subversive threats. (The NKVD used the same propoganda techniques as seen in the recent invasion of Crimea, painting the Ukranian army as actually being Nazis, similarly to how they claimed the POUM were actually fascist Nazis as well). Orwell writes of how he and comrades would pass on the street and pretend not to know each other as everyone was trying to avoid being arrested. After being indicted for espionage and treason by Barcelona, Orwell and his wife narrowly escaped the crackdown, and he later learned a bounty was put on his head, which gave him concern for his own life after publishing Animal Farm in 1945.

    During the war, Orwell volunteered for the Home Guard during the blitz and later had an uninspiring career with the BBC while continuing to write articles and books. He wrote in his diary and letters of his fondness for Churchill and how he rallied the country to fight rather than surrender to the Nazi threat. His wife's brother died early in the war and that deeply affected her and their relationship as well. Orwell's earlier works were not considered good. Animal Farm's original run was only 2,000 copies but it has been in print ever since. The book was considered such an overt attack on socialism that Orwell had difficulty trying to publish it. Ricks notes how Animal Farm has been popular all over the world, how many in Soviet countries, Middle Eastern dictatorships, and elsewhere remark of how it summed up their condition remarkably. Even though Orwell had never lived under totalitarian threat, he'd almost paid with his life for his observations of its practice in Spain. He witnessed the Communists re-writing of history to erase the memory of Stalin's previous treaty with Hitler. He interacted with left-leaning people in England who held Stalin and Communism in high esteem (it was not until after Kruschev revealed Stalin's mass-murders that the world would get a clue). He wrote in 1945 that "I belong to the Left and must work inside it, much as I hate Russian totalitarianism" (loc. 3298). 1984 was published not long before Orwell died and remains a bestseller.

    Winston Churchill's political career was considered "finished" not long before he became Prime Minister. While a Torie, he had previously been with the Labour party and was trusted little by anyone. His previous Cabinet experience had been as First Lord of the Admiralty, where he organized the disastrous defeat at Gallipoli. He had made a name for himself publishing the accounts of British actions in South Asia and in the Boer War, but Ricks writes that Churchill's experiences were not that noteworthy, Churchill's ambition was to try to get famous to move up the social ladder and perhaps prove his father (who had once served in the Cabinet) wrong about his potential. Churchill championed a single cause that was considered political suicide in 1939-- he criticized Neville Chamberlain and the British Government for pursuing a policy of appeasement with the Nazis. He considered the Munich Conference to be a great disaster and correctly predicted that it would soon cost the British a great deal more to beat back the fascists than it would have if they had held firm years before.

    Reading the book, I was stunned by how much we Americans take the British and then the Americans' standing up to the Nazis for granted, much less defeating them. I grew up on a steady diet of WWII documentaries and movies and was keenly aware of the crisis the British faced during the blitz, the disasters of Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, etc. But it's easy to think that there was always that resolve after 12/7/1941 to defeat the Axis powers no matter what. But the reality in 1938-1939 was quite different. England wanted peace with Hitler, gave ticker-tape parades for Chamberlain for his attempts to appease him. The King himself supported appeasement. A conservative MP formed pro-German, anti-semitic group. At least one British mayor flew a swastika flag upon the agreement at Munich. The elite and intelligentsia had many friends in the Nazi party, as well as with Mussolini, spent time in Germany and Italy and praised Hitler's character. Why was Czechoslovakia a concern for them, anyway? Everyone secretly shares his disdain for the Jews, etc. Others were Communist spies or double-agents, like British correspondent/MI-6 officer Kim Philby, eager to undermine Western democracy and hasten its demise. One of the most ardent critics of Churchill's dissent and proponents of England's surrender to the Nazis was US Ambassador to England Joseph Kennedy. After Britain declared war, Kennedy was constantly cabling Washington predicting London's imminent surrender and proposing that Roosevelt also consider making a pact with the Nazis. "Kennedy told Roosevelt that he believed that events would make it necessary for the United States to implement, 'possibly under other names, the basic features of the Fascist state: to fight totalitarianism, we would have to adopt totalitarian methods'" (loc. 1165-1167). One of the most poignant scenes in the book is when FDR throws Kennedy out of his house, removing him from his position, and basically calling him a traitor. (This bit of forgotten history helps illustrate conservatives' later ire for JFK.) FDR would later send his own man, Harry Hopkins, to evaluate Churchill and the British position for himself in order to undue the misinformation that Kennedy and others had propogated. There were plenty of other "America First" isolationists in the US like Charles Lindbergh who thought America should make friends with Hitler.

    After Chamberlain resigned, Halifax, who had been head of the British Foreign Office, was expected to take up the mantle but refused, instead supporting Churchill. It was Halifax who had specifically requested Britain's soccer team give the Nazi salute when playing in Berlin in 1938. "Had Halifax been willing to take the prime mintership instead of Churchill, he very likely would have entered into peace talks with the Germans" (loc 1196). Churchill gave passionate speeches, began demanding the rusty wheels of government begin turning, and issued orders to put Britain on the offensive. When family members urged him to consider fleeing to Canada should London fall, he declined, writing that "There are too many of these exiled 'antifascists' already. Better to die if necessary" (loc. 1409). Churchill was still not always popular; many, including Orwell, thought he would have to resign after the British suffered a tremendous defeat in Singapore. But his resolve and determination, particularly against the elites who he saw as not doing their fair part, helped motivate and save the country.

    Despite all the details covered, Ricks leaves out the importance of the Great Depression in the 1930s backdrop, Roosevelt's political campaign reminding America of how he kept them out of war while at the same time getting ready to enter it, all the politics and history of lend-lease, etc. (David M. Kennedy's book Freedom from Fear covers this period quite well.) He does remark from Orwell and others that Americans became less and less popular in Britain as the war went on. By D-Day, the American contingent numbered 1.6 million and England was virtually occupied. Many British who fretted about the decline of their empire resented Churchill for having traded the British Empire for a new American one. Ricks writes that the relationship between FDR and Churchill is often embellished; they appear to have had little in common other than the common cause of fighting the Nazis. As the war went on, the friendship never really deepened. Churchill, oddly, chose not to attend FDR's funeral in 1945 (perhaps because he was keenly aware of his own mortality) and LBJ reciprocated when Churchill died in 1965.

    Neither Churchill nor Orwell ended well, however. Orwell's wife died unexpectedly and Orwell's respieratory problems never improved. Churchill likely had a heart attack while visiting the US in 1943 and suffered from extreme fatigue during the war. Losing the 1945 election was a major blow, and his return to the prime ministership from 1951-1955 is best left forgotten. Ricks writes that the relationship between FDR and Churchill is often embellished; they appear to have had little in common other than the common cause of fighting the Nazis. As the war went on, the friendship never really deepened. Churchill, oddly, chose not to attend FDR's funeral in 1945 (perhaps because he was keenly aware of his own mortality) and LBJ reciprocated by not attending or even sending his VP when Churchill died in 1965.

    Ricks reviews all of Orwell and Churchill's works, including each of Churchill's WWII memoirs. The author closes the book with a look at modern citations of Orwell, as various political camps claim Orwell for their side, and Ricks offers opinions about whether he was "right" or "wrong" on certain issues. One takeaway is that now America home to a large intelligence state where information is easily collected and housed. We are also in a state of perpetual war, similar to Oceania. Those wars are increasingly fought by small groups of highly-trained soldiers or even remote-controlled drones in far away places. The use of indefinite detention and torture are now almost expected. Hicks interestingly notes that Churchill freed a Nazi sympathizer in 1943 and included his explanation because it was the right thing for free peoples to do in order not to turn into the totalitarian beasts they were fighting (Orwell applauded the move at the time for the same reason). Churchill stated:

    "The power of the Executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him judgment by his peers for an indefinite period, is in the highest degree odious, and it is the foundation of all totalitarian Governments, whether Nazi or Communist...Nothing can be more abhorrent to democracy than to imprison a person or keep him in prison because he is unpopular. This is really the test of a civilization" (p. 3043).

    If you have read Guantanamo Diary, you will definitely agree with this quote.

    Somehow, Ricks pulls Martin Luther King, Jr. into his train of thought and the book really concludes awkwardly.

    I once lent a copy of Animal Farm to an English student in a former Soviet country where I was working. He was familiar enough with the re-writing of history in his country to appreciate the book, but I never learned if he ever read it. Animal Farm helped me understand the control of thought I saw clearly in the propoganda of Soviet and even post-Soviet textbooks. I started 1984 as a boy but I will now read it quickly and with much more appreciation. (With an understanding of Orwell's personally being plagued by a keen sense of smell and breathing problems.)

    I give this book 4 stars out of 5. It is certainly well-researched, but many of the details were unnecessary. Still, these figures and this period are more essential for our time than ever.

  • Dan Radovich
    May 05, 2017

    I admit to not reading much non-fiction, the subject has to grab me or the author's reputation win me over. Ricks is a Pulitzer winner and these two men he writes of are noteworthy for huge reasons. The focus is on their lives during the 1930s and 1940s, a time when the world was battling fascism and communism. Each man excelled in his own way to push the fight to preserve human freedom, Churchill spoke eloquently and Orwell crafted wonderful prose. Concentrating on one integral portion of their

    I admit to not reading much non-fiction, the subject has to grab me or the author's reputation win me over. Ricks is a Pulitzer winner and these two men he writes of are noteworthy for huge reasons. The focus is on their lives during the 1930s and 1940s, a time when the world was battling fascism and communism. Each man excelled in his own way to push the fight to preserve human freedom, Churchill spoke eloquently and Orwell crafted wonderful prose. Concentrating on one integral portion of their lives makes each all that more important in history. A pleasure to read.

  • Joseph Raffetto
    May 25, 2017

    Orwell and Churchill: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas E. Ricks is an intelligent and gripping dual biography of arguably the most important writer and politician in the twentieth century.

    Orwell and Churchill were opposites in many ways: Orwell was a man of the Left, Churchill was a member of the Tory party.

    Orwell was one of the first to warn about Stalin and Communism and often criticized the Left when he thought they were wrong. Churchill began as a Conservative in the House of Commons then cro

    Orwell and Churchill: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas E. Ricks is an intelligent and gripping dual biography of arguably the most important writer and politician in the twentieth century.

    Orwell and Churchill were opposites in many ways: Orwell was a man of the Left, Churchill was a member of the Tory party.

    Orwell was one of the first to warn about Stalin and Communism and often criticized the Left when he thought they were wrong. Churchill began as a Conservative in the House of Commons then crossed over to become a Liberal, “supporting a minimum wage, unemployment, eight-hour work day, and public health insurance.”

    Orwell knew what it was like to be down and out; he tramped with the homeless and experienced extreme poverty. Churchill rejoined the Conservatives and remained a “pariah in his own party for some time.”

    Both men were almost killed in the 1930s: Orwell while fighting for the Left in the Spanish Civil War when he was shot in the neck that missed an artery by millimeters. After he recuperated he found that Stalin had turned on the Left and Orwell barely made it out of Spain alive.

    Churchill was captured in the Boer War in South Africa and made a daring escape that made him a hero in England. But it wasn’t in the battlefield where he almost died, but on the streets of New York when he was hit by a car and received serious injuries.

    Orwell was not an important or well-known figure during his lifetime. Churchill was, of course, one of the most recognizable men in the world while Prime Minister.

    Both men were fighters. It was Churchill’s indomitable personality in England’s darkest hour, when he rallied the country’s spirits and courage. Orwell shared his fierce resistance and volunteered to go to the front in the Spanish Civil War, but it is in the written word where posthumously he received acclaim.

    Orwell and Churchill never met, but Churchill did read 1984 twice and evidently said it was “extraordinary.” Orwell praised Churchill in his diaries and essays and believed “he was the right man for the job at the right time.”

    Neither men were perfect, and Ricks focuses on Churchill’s personal issues and foibles more than he does Orwell’s, but Churchill and Orwell were the most powerful and enduring voices to help defeat Fascism and resist totalitarianism.

    But what binds these two together the most is their dedication to getting to the truth. Orwell is now lauded as the ultimate truth teller with the ability to face unpleasant facts. Facing unpleasant facts was also one of Churchill’s greatest gift.

    Ricks has eloquently documented one of the most important periods in the twentieth century. I’d like to think the majority of the United States leaders are familiar with Churchill’s and Orwell’s brutal honesty and the generation that led to the creation of NATO in 1949 that has kept the peace for more than sixty-five years, but it sure doesn’t seem like it for many on the Right. It’s obvious Trump has no clue. I think everyone should read this book.

  • Larry Hostetler
    May 29, 2017

    An interesting concept, comparing Churchill and Orwell, the conservative prime minister and the socialist author. Showing how Churchill's conservatism and Orwell's socialism softened as they learned and grew is an interesting subject. How each subject's words affected history during their lifetime and beyond is instructive. The book was well-written, well-researched, and good reading.

    Unfortunately, I felt that there wasn't a consistent theme. What started out as a comparison of their viewpoints

    An interesting concept, comparing Churchill and Orwell, the conservative prime minister and the socialist author. Showing how Churchill's conservatism and Orwell's socialism softened as they learned and grew is an interesting subject. How each subject's words affected history during their lifetime and beyond is instructive. The book was well-written, well-researched, and good reading.

    Unfortunately, I felt that there wasn't a consistent theme. What started out as a comparison of their viewpoints and impact consisted too much of biography (which can be read in much greater detail from other sources), lengthy synopses of their writings, and opinion (the author's and others').

    What comparison there was of the changing political viewpoint of both seminal figures was good, and the changing perspectives they experienced over their lives was also well covered. And while the growing impact of Orwell as 1984 came and went and even into the 21st century was interesting it was somewhat strained and belabored.

    I found myself on several occasions to be at odds with the conclusions the author draws from recent (21st century) history, perhaps due to differing political viewpoints. An author certainly is expected to conclude with their opinion on the subject, and a quick review of others' is helpful, but comments such as begins the afterward "When they were confronted by a crucial moment in history, Churchill and Orwell responded first by seeking the facts of the matter" are not supported by the previous 252 pages. And following that with an introduction of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the last five pages without attendant strong connection to either of the dual subjects, but only an echo of their words, weakens both Dr. King and the book's theme.

    It's also hard to know what to include to bolster the subject and when that becomes excessive. Perhaps others will find the explications to be helpful rather than distracting.

    I would give the book 3.8 stars were it allowed, and since this was an ARC of the book perhaps the thematic content will be strengthened and tightened. It is a worthy concept and thought provoking when not distracted by non-central ideas.

  • Ian Divertie
    Jun 10, 2017

    I'd recommend a lot of reading on both these men before diving in to this. But anyone calling themselves a moderately informed 20th Century Historian should do fine. With all the critique of Churchill these days as someone who stretched the truth and exaggerated his influence on the out come of WW II, especially after 1942, it's nice to be reminded he did indeed carry all of what we casually refer to today as all of Western Civilization on his back and shoulders all by himself, without a lick of

    I'd recommend a lot of reading on both these men before diving in to this. But anyone calling themselves a moderately informed 20th Century Historian should do fine. With all the critique of Churchill these days as someone who stretched the truth and exaggerated his influence on the out come of WW II, especially after 1942, it's nice to be reminded he did indeed carry all of what we casually refer to today as all of Western Civilization on his back and shoulders all by himself, without a lick of help in 1940 and 1941. Orwell was the great seer of the evil in both right and left wing controlled governments and their dehumanizing soul crushing effects. Orwell ensured that a sensible middle path was steered during the Cold War. But and as I clearly remember being in Junior High School and High School in the depths of the American mid-western prairies and being assigned to read both "Animal Farm" and "1984" the right wing of American politics had adopted both books as cautionary tales of "Communism", the kind just a half a world away called the Soviet Union. Leaving out in their pedantic efforts that Mr. Orwell himself was a committed Socialist his entire life. He fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side, the side ostensibly supported by the Soviet Union, being wounded once in the neck very seriously, nearly dying, and then when recovered finding that his military unit of Moderate Socialists was being viciously exterminated by his Soviet allies and brothers he escaped with his wife back England. Till his dying day in 1949 he never lost his progressive Socialist beliefs and in his writings made that clear. His books were critiques of the excesses of both left and right, something conspicuously left out of my education, and further that the author himself was a life long Socialist. That could have been meat for many interesting and stimulating discussions in our high school classes of the 1960's but, it some how got left out. Learning so much more about George Orwell as a person was the real treat of this book and points to other avenues in learning more about his life's thinking. Something I plan to do and you should too.

  • Jean Poulos
    Jun 11, 2017

    I have read so many books by or about Churchill that a new book must have a new approach or hook or else I will not be bothered to read it. This one did.

    Both George Orwell and Winston S. Churchill came close to death. Both men faced an existential crisis to their way of life with moral courage. They also demonstrated that an individual can make a difference. These two men were different in many ways. They came from different social classes but each could think and write clearly. Both men were co

    I have read so many books by or about Churchill that a new book must have a new approach or hook or else I will not be bothered to read it. This one did.

    Both George Orwell and Winston S. Churchill came close to death. Both men faced an existential crisis to their way of life with moral courage. They also demonstrated that an individual can make a difference. These two men were different in many ways. They came from different social classes but each could think and write clearly. Both men were committed to critical thought and neither followed the crowd.

    Both men were in disgrace in the 1930s. Churchill was a political pariah, alienated from the Conservative Party by his opposition to the appeasement of Hitler. Orwell wrote “Homage to Catalone” in 1938. It was a coruscating indictment of both left and right during the Spanish Civil War. He was denounced by many and his publisher refused to continue to publish the book. After the war broke out in 1939, Churchill and Orwell found common cause.

    Both men thought honesty and language mattered at every level. Ricks tells of Churchill, over burdened with the war of survival, paused to coach subordinates on writing. He issued a directive to brevity, ordering his staff to write in short crisp paragraphs and to avoid meaningless phrases. In Orwell’s famous six elementary rules on writing, he includes “never us a long word where a short one will do”.

    The book is well written and meticulously researched. Ricks made some comparisons with current politicians. I found the stories about the men most interesting.

    I read this as an audiobook downloaded from Audible. The book is ten hours long. James Lurie does a great job narrating the book. Lurie is an actor, voice over artist and audiobook narrator.

  • Charles
    Jun 06, 2017

    The heroes of every age are often not seen as heroes during their lives, or if so viewed in their own age they are not so viewed in later ages. And doubtless perceptions of heroes change as one future passes into another. But for us, today, Churchill and Orwell are heroes to many, and whatever else may be true, this alone gives the two men something in common. Thomas Ricks uses this commonality as the springboard and organizing theme for his book, which is a competently written capsule biography

    The heroes of every age are often not seen as heroes during their lives, or if so viewed in their own age they are not so viewed in later ages. And doubtless perceptions of heroes change as one future passes into another. But for us, today, Churchill and Orwell are heroes to many, and whatever else may be true, this alone gives the two men something in common. Thomas Ricks uses this commonality as the springboard and organizing theme for his book, which is a competently written capsule biography of its title subjects, combining examination of the men with examination of their time. His book offers both an interesting narration of known facts and some fresh insights by the author—neither an easy feat when dealing with heroes.

    Most of the book consists of a chronological history of its subjects, narrated in short, pithily written chapters alternating between each man, with occasional asides by the author relating events of the past to the current day. Especially for Churchill, this history is well-trodden ground, but Ricks still manages to breathe life into his account. For Orwell, what Ricks relates is mostly about his writing, coupled with his time in the Spanish Civil War, since Orwell’s life outside writing was fairly simple and relatively short. For Churchill, the account is secondarily about his writing, and more about his deeds, from the Boer War onwards, since Churchill’s life was anything but simple.

    I will not review the history Ricks covers, since it is pretty much known to all, though as I say expertly presented in this relatively short book. But I will note some areas of interest and insight. I found particularly interesting Churchill’s methods for energizing and impelling the British military bureaucracy during World War Two. We tend to think of the British people, or any people in war, as pulling energetically together in harness toward achieving a shared, existential goal. (Probably this view is encouraged by movies, which after all have to focus narrowly while creating an exciting story—showing a bunch of bored obstructionist bureaucrats for two hours of film wouldn’t attract much of an audience.) The reality is more mundane—laziness, stupidity, cupidity, and all the vices of man are just as evident at such times as at others, and bureaucracies tend to encourage such behavior. Much of Churchill’s effort went to overcoming this pernicious mix of vice and inertia, using constant demands for “Action This Day,” “followed up with intelligent memoranda and orders that spurred subordinates accustomed to a slower pace and fewer questions.” Not for Churchill the “set the agenda” model used by other leaders, hoping those below him will move toward the desired goals under their own power (something that tends to work only in authoritarian or fiercely ideological systems, such as Soviet Russia or the Obama executive branch). “At one point during the war he found time to delve into domestic egg production, badgering the minister of agriculture. ‘I wish I could persuade you to try to overcome the difficulties instead of merely entrenching yourself behind them.’” A good sentence, and Churchill’s success showed it can be done, something to remember for today’s leaders—though it requires energy and an eye for detail, together with charisma.

    I also found interesting Ricks’s thoughts on the prose of his subjects. He is very much a fan of Orwell’s prose, and less so of Churchill’s. Riffing off Orwell’s “Good prose is like a window pane,” Ricks notes that Churchill’s prose was like a stained glass window pane, which is at least a partial compliment—but he also quotes, with approval, Evelyn Waugh’s complaint that Churchill was “a master of sham-Augustan prose.” In fairness, Ricks also notes that Churchill was also fully capable of making complex prose simple—famously changing the term “Local Defense Volunteers” to “Home Guard,” and “Communal Feeding Centers” to “British Restaurants.” I think that the choice between good simple and good complex prose is mostly a taste distinction, since both styles can convey complete meaning. Orwell was dedicated to clarity of thought and thereby clarity of communication, and to that end he favored a stripped down prose, which eliminated cant in large part by preventing its concealment in orotund phrasing (yes, I know “orotund” is a word Orwell would have avoided). Ricks points out that Orwell’s style has, at least on the surface, largely triumphed in modern writing—perhaps not in academic writing, which is famously opaque, but certainly in journalism and popular books.

    Personally, I think that triumph is somewhat unfortunate, since there are two types of arabesque writing, with two different objects. The first is what I call the “high style,” the style in which Churchill wrote. Its aim is to paint a compelling picture, where more words are used than perhaps strictly necessary, but where those words add color, depth, and ease of remembering. It is certainly more elliptical and complex than Orwell’s recommended style, but this “high style” has been the choice of many famous and undoubtedly accomplished authors, from Gibbon to Henry James. Using this style instead of a simpler style is, therefore, of itself merely a stylistic choice, neither inherently good nor bad, although today such more complex writing seems old fashioned to us, and harder sometimes to read, since simpler prose is generally favored in modern life.

    On the other hand, the second type of complex writing is, as Orwell saw, designed to conceal falsehood and to blur thought. It is designed to compel an unreasoning, or contrary to reason, conclusion by one of two mechanisms. The first is by frustrating the reader, who is forced only to see a desired conclusion, not the reasoning by which that conclusion is reached, or alternatively is forced to intuit a general feeling, since there is no reasoning at all (postmodernist writings, from Foucault to Žižek, are all like this). The second mechanism of compulsion is by executing a moral judgment upon the reader who does not immediately jump, without reasoning, to the desired ideological conclusion (Racist! Sexist! Transphobic!). This second type of complex writing is, obviously, pernicious, and was Orwell’s focus.

    But that does not mean simpler is always better. In particular, simple writing that does contain clear reasoning can also conceal core falsehoods, if the vocabulary itself has been corrupted (a famous complaint of Orwell’s). One can make a very simple and apparently rational statement that is simply wholly false, very easily, if the writer knows that the zeitgeist demands that the reader not question either the false premises or the false conclusion (e.g., “Gender is a fluid social construct that each person decides for xirself.”). As long as simple writing does not have this flaw, though, it is probably the better choice for most modern prose, since it is easier to write (although not as easy as it looks), and it can reach a larger audience today, given that most readers are now unused to the “high style.” But I still like the high style.

    A third point of interest is that Orwell, a man wholly of the Left, was constantly on the edge of being totally excommunicated by the Left, which then, as now, attempted to enforce discipline in a way undreamed of by the Right. Most famously this is true of Orwell’s attempt to publish “Animal Farm,” published in 1945, but it was first a challenge for Orwell when nearly ten years earlier he wrote “The Road To Wigan Pier,” about life among the British industrial working class. The Left’s objection was that Orwell refused to lie in order to properly portray the working class in the light demanded by political myth, as heroic and selfless participants in the global socialist movement. Orwell was very much a socialist, but instead he portrayed English workers as they were, simultaneously oppressed and selfish, and he dared to coldly analyze the reality of socialism as practiced and its effect on actual workers. This was an unforgiveable sin, and the reaction from the Left was harsh and permanent (as had been the reaction from the Right from Orwell’s criticism of Empire in the earlier “Burmese Days”).

    It is strange, therefore, given this history, that Ricks repeatedly expresses surprise at the difficulties Orwell faced having his books published, including “Wigan Pier,” “Animal Farm,” and, of course, “1984.” But this was no surprise at all—certainly not to Orwell, who was very much aware of this problem, nor to any other member of the Left at the time, including Orwell’s sometime publisher, Victor Gollancz. Suppression of any and all dissent in the service of paving the road to Utopia has always been, and today remains, the main internal tactical characteristic of the Left. For the Left, as has been frequently noted, there are no enemies to the Left—but anyone who deviates in any way to the Right must be punished with all the severity that can possibly be mustered. (Of course, it was Alexander Kerensky who first formulated the dogma of “no enemies to the Left”—and look how that worked out for him.) The totalitarian impulse behind this condemnation of any perceived criticism of any aspect of the Left is concealed behind the usual falsehood, that any problems resulting from implementation of Left policies are due either to lack of sufficient focus in application or to Right sabotage—encapsulated in the viciously pitiful but frequently heard claim that “Communism has never actually been tried.” We have seen merely the latest iteration of this last week, in June of 2017, when the detestable Noam Chomsky, challenged, ascribed the collapse of Venezuela not to the socialist policies of Hugo Chavez that Chomsky praised only a few years ago, but to the failure to adequately suppress the hoarders and wreckers who polluted the pure light of socialism that would otherwise have been guaranteed to create the first South American paradise. And, strangely, Chavez’s other worshippers, such as the halfwit actor Sean Penn, have gone silent—not from shame, certainly, but merely to wait to offer their unthinking support to the next destructive instantiation of the Left vision.

    But the worst Left heretic of all, of course, is a man of the Left who would cooperate with anyone wishing to harm politically any member of the Left, even the most evil. This happens most often, or most publicly, when members of violent Left groups are exposed by former compatriots who have seen the error of their ways. Left propaganda has successfully characterized this as a betrayal, rather than what it almost always actually is, heroic self-sacrifice. Thus, Ricks gingerly approaches Orwell’s 1949 preparation “of a list of suspected Communists,” to be delivered to those leading the fight for freedom against totalitarianism, as an action of Orwell’s that needs to be excused away—not, as Ricks should, as something that must be lionized by any decent human being. (And, of course, the list contained actual Communists personally known to Orwell, not “suspected” ones—Ricks just adds the adjective, perhaps by reflex, to give a pejorative flavor to his description of the action.)

    This, of course, wholly explains why, as Ricks notes, “Orwell has not been well served by academia . . . . [he has] been ‘relatively ignored” by university faculties.” Ricks cites the sociologist Neil McLaughlin for the proposition that this ignoring is because “Orwell is esteemed in the popular culture,” to which Ricks adds “also perhaps because he has been so long embraced by conservatives.” While this latter is closer to the mark, it is also wrong. Orwell is ignored by the Left because Orwell betrayed the Left, the center of which was then, and is even more so today, universities—which are monocultures of the hard Left devoted to the destruction of the West and the creation of a Utopia, if necessary paved with the bodies of the common people. If American university faculties ran America, it would look a lot like the society of “1984,” although with less efficiency and competence, and more wine and cheese parties for those in power. It is no wonder such people ignore Orwell, when they are not attacking him.

    A final point of interest is that although Ricks has obviously studied both “Animal Farm” and “1984,” and cogently discusses details of each, his summaries of both books are jarringly wrong. He says the former tells “how farm animals revolt against their human masters, only to be enslaved by the local pigs.” And he says the latter “ends with the two broken lovers meeting later, equally desolated. They confess to each other their betrayals, and then part. No hope is offered.” But in the former, it was not slavery, but totalitarian dominance of both action and thought, worse than Farmer Jones, that the pigs delivered. And it was not “the local pigs,” which implies an outside agency, but the farm animals’ former compatriots. More critically, the real ending of “1984” is not the parting of Winston and Julia, which is subsidiary to (although related to) the real ending—Winston’s solitary discovery that “He loved Big Brother.” Ricks ignores the real ending, the triumph of totalitarianism over the human desire for freedom. No hope is offered, to be sure—but the bleak ending is tied to Winston’s inner thought, not to his love for Julia. I suppose these are not critical flaws in Ricks’s book, but they are strange mis-characterizations of Orwell’s most famous and important books.

    As far as insights, I think the most useful insight Ricks offers is that, if choosing dystopias that partially characterize our present, or at least our present path, we do not need to, and in fact cannot, choose between Orwell’s “1984” and Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Ricks correctly says that the distinction between Huxley’s view of a world “in which people were controlled by the state through pleasure” and Orwell’s view “of a state built on the use of pain . . . is a false distinction—both men are right. The great majority of people are content to be amused and not to challenge the state. But a dissident minority often emerges, and suppressing it generally seems to require harsher methods.”

    So far, so insightful. Where this line of thought fails is that Ricks tries to tie this to the modern national security state’s monitoring of private communications, which while objectionable for a variety of reasons, doesn’t exactly seem to be a “state built on pain” or to be focused on a “dissident minority.” Doubtless realizing this weakness, he then tries to reach pain and dissent by offering the example of our torture of our enemies in foreign wars, which again seems a stretch as proof that the Ministry of Love is emerging from the shadows. I think Ricks is correct in his basic insight, but not in how the “harsher methods” are relevant to today. Rather than foreign jihadis on foreign soil, or Internet surfers who are fully aware of, but are indifferent to, the NSA hoovering up their communications, the “dissident minority” is those who are not content to be amused by the new Huxley-ite Pleasure State, the furtherance of which is the highest goal of today’s ruling class and ethos. The minority are those who refuse to agree that the unbridled pursuit of private (and group, and public) pleasure is the highest good of society—those who refuse to worship the brazen idol of Unbridled Individual Freedom. It is those people, mostly orthodox religious believers, and more generally anyone with a classical view of virtue, whom the state now persecutes—not, perhaps, or perhaps not yet, with physical pain, but rather with the psychological pain of legal and social attacks, large fines designed to destroy, loss of livelihood, and public obloquy. The end result is one in which every person is kept in a state of sated pleasure, as Huxley saw, as long as he does not challenge the sophistical battle cry that anything can be tolerated except intolerance. But if he does, if he rejects the dogma of liberal democracy that true freedom is to believe and act only in exactly the way permitted, and no other—then the machinery of the state is turned loose against him.

    Both Orwell and Churchill declined, rather than rose, toward the ends of their lives. Churchill stayed too long in politics and ended up consorting with the dubious likes of Aristotle Onassis. Orwell spent time in Jura (which did no good to his decaying lungs), but at least his companions of his last days, chief among them Malcolm Muggeridge, were of a finer caliber. I did not know that Orwell was friends with Muggeridge, and it was he who arranged Orwell’s funeral in 1950. Such a friendship, had Orwell lived, might have produced spectacular fruit. But that was not to be, and so we are left with the actual deeds of these heroes, which are enough—and are both warning and path for us.

  • Marks54
    Jun 09, 2017

    Thomas Ricks has written some of the best books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While I have read a lot of modern English history, the intuition for a joint biography of Churchill and Orwell was not obvious. One was tall and the other short. One was an imperialist while the other was sharply critical of imperial rule. Neither had much formal education, by the standards of the British elites. Both men knew the trials of modern warfare. One received the Nobel Prize for Literature while the

    Thomas Ricks has written some of the best books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While I have read a lot of modern English history, the intuition for a joint biography of Churchill and Orwell was not obvious. One was tall and the other short. One was an imperialist while the other was sharply critical of imperial rule. Neither had much formal education, by the standards of the British elites. Both men knew the trials of modern warfare. One received the Nobel Prize for Literature while the other wrote 1984. Ricks motivates his book initially by showing how both men had near death experiences that might have changed history had bad luck prevailed - Churchill getting run over in New York and Orwell getting seriously wounded during the Spanish Civil War.

    Then it struck me -- all three (Churchill, Orwell, and Ricks) are war correspondents. Churchill was a soldier/journalist in South Africa, Sudan, and the Northwest Territories of India (Afghanistan). Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War and produced a great account (Homage to Catalonia). There seems to be something in the combination of cool head, bravery under fire, love of danger, and strong individualist principles that brought these stories together.

    If you have followed Churchill or Orwell in any detail, this book does not provide much new factual detail on either individual. These lives were both wonderfully lived and Ricks does a good job of weaving them together. Churchill defied all expectations and critics and survived to lead Britain through WW2. While a complex individual, Churchill as described by Ricks blends his mission and values with a deep respect for the facts of difficult situations. This is what permitted him to be a world leader during the war and to exert influence all out of proportion for a weakened aging empire in the time after Dunkirk. Orwell wanted to be a writer who combined his craft with a strong sense of anger at the oppression of the poor and disadvantaged. Neither Churchill nor Orwell fit neatlly into routine political boxes. Both produced written work for which they are still widely known today long after their deaths. Churchill the colonialist and prime minister read 1984 twice and liked it. Orwell did not live to become really well known but today arguably exerts even more influence than does Churchill. Ricks sees both as strong advocates for freedom in the face of the increasing and increasingly arbitrary totalitarian power of the modern industrial state.

    I don't know if I am convinced that Churchill and Orwell are brothers in arms but there is enough to this joint story to make well worth reading. Anyone who has not spent much time reading Churchill or Orwell, should read this book and then go read the originals.

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