“The Struggle to see things as they are is perhaps the fundamental driver of Western civilisation. There is a long direct line from Aristotle and Archimedes to Locke, Hume, Mill, and Darwin, and there through Orwell and Churchill…It is the agreement that objective reality exists, that people of goodwill can perceive it, and other people will change their views when presented with the facts of the matter.” Thomas E. Ricks
This review of Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom (2017) by Thomas E. Ricks unexpectedly quotes the author more than his subjects. It is an excellent book. Ricks emphasises that Churchill and Orwell belong to a Western intellectual tradition that seeks objective truth. So does Ricks. In an era of omniscient surveillance by the state, where propaganda is known as “fake news” and opinion masquerades as fact, it is useful to read such a well-structured exploration of two unique individuals who believed in the importance of individual liberty and democracy.
The book, although a popular, general work of history, will appeal to those who know a great deal about Orwell and/or Churchill without alienating readers with an interest in these two important twentieth century figures but no great knowledge of their careers or historical context. The brief overview of their social backgrounds and personal trajectories is effective, especially as it is interspersed with insights that point out more similarities than one would imagine between the flamboyant, extroverted, aristocratic, Tory politician and an introverted, publicity-shy, bohemian, left-wing writer.
Churchill and Orwell attended boarding schools from young ages and saw little of their fathers. Orwell attended Eton, as a scholarship boy and Churchill, who was un-punctual and ill-disciplined, Harrow. The photographs of both as boys in sailor suits suggests they had more similarities of birth than differences despite Churchill’s aristocratic antecedents. The photos are also interesting imagery for Ricks’ commentary about Orwell and Churchill’s mutual recognition of the class snobbery still afflicting the navy, compared to the air force and army, during WWII.
As young men, both ended up seeing the “dirty work” of empire by serving overseas. Orwell was a policeman in Burma and Churchill experienced conflict in Afghanistan, India and Africa before becoming a published author and politician in his twenties. They each served as war correspondents and had witnessed violent death. Ricks points out that both had near-death experiences in the 1930s; Churchill was hit by a car in New York City and Orwell was shot through the throat during the Spanish Civil War. Experience of empire made Orwell an anti-imperialist but Churchill did not ever want to lose the overseas dominions, especially India.
The two men never met but knew each other through their writings (and that Churchill was a public figure). We have no footage or recordings of Orwell (other than a few seconds of him playing a ball game at Eton) and Churchill’s most famous speeches were mostly read by the public. Churchill taught himself how to write effectively by reading when bored overseas and although his war-time speeches are direct and effective, his style is often considered gaudy and ornate. He described writing using analogies like “building a house” and coupling train carriages but Orwell’s prose is always far more workmanlike and a “windowpane” onto the world. Churchill “read 1984 twice” and thought it masterful. Orwell often writes approvingly of the Tory politician, especially in the early 1940s when wrote that “in the moment of disaster the man best able to unite the nation was Churchill, a Conservative of aristocratic origins” who makes fine speeches and has a penchant for truthfulness. Orwell’s last published review was of the second volume of Churchill’s war memoirs saying:
…he also has a restless, enquiring mind, interested in both concrete facts and in the analysis of motives, sometimes including his own motives. In general, Churchill’s writings are more like those of a human being than a public figure.
“To refuse to run with the herd is generally harder than it looks. To break with the most powerful among that herd requires unusual depth of character and clarity of mind. But it is a path we should all strive for if we are to preserve the right to think, speak, and act independently, heeding the dictates not of the state or of fashionable thought but of our own consciences. In most places and most of the time, liberty is not a product of military action. Rather, it is something alive that grows or diminishes every day, in how we think and communicate, how we treat each other in our public discourse, in what we value and reward as a society, and how we do that. Churchill and Orwell showed us the way….We can all endeavour to do the same, pursuing the facts of the matter, especially about the past of our own country.” Thomas E. Ricks
The great strength of Ricks’ book is that he shows the importance of the non-conformism that Churchill and Orwell exhibited as central to their mutual belief in the centrality of individual freedom in a democratic state. Both were viewed with suspicion and not readily accepted within their own political and literary circles. Non-conformism and a habit of speaking unpopular truths had apparently led to failure. Churchill would never have been expected to become PM and Orwell was a failed novelist until the success of Animal Farm post-WWII and, 1984 after his death in 1950. Orwell was largely unknown and did not appear in the diaries of the period, except his own. His BBC broadcasts are lost, only the transcripts remain. This is important knowledge for a contemporary reader who may assume something quite different considering Orwell’s ongoing, growing fame and Churchill’s status and still recognisable visage.
Ricks emphasises that Orwell and Churchill were patriots rather than nationalists and had a loathing for totalitarianism of left or right persuasion. For example, neither wanted the British Union of Fascists’ leader, Oswald Mosley, interred since 1940, kept locked away unnecessarily. Orwell wrote, “…to continue imprisoning him without a trial was an infringement of every principle we are supposedly fighting for”. He was released in 1943:
“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 really is the test of civilisation.” (Official Memorandum from Churchill, Nov. 1942)
Ricks does not mention contemporary events that have led to democratic governments imprisoning citizens without trial but one senses, in his afterword, that as “we deal with terrorism, global warming, domestic inequality, and racism, and also with panicky politicians and demagogic leaders, we would do well to remember how these two men reacted to the overwhelming events of their own time” is heartfelt and an important part of his rationale for writing this book.
Ricks rightly emphasises that both Orwell and Churchill were concerned by the pro-fascist aristocracy in Great Britain. Both knew war with Germany was inevitable before most of their peers and when France fell, a Vichy-style government was a distinct danger to their nation’s freedom. Orwell felt it was terribly likely that capitulation was likely if these forces were not subdued. In 1938, Lord Halifax and the British Foreign Office insisted the British football team playing in Berlin gave the Nazi salute. It is a terrible image and not just for football fans. Churchill’s real battle during May-June 1940 was to prevent his country from becoming a vassal-state of Nazi Germany.
There is little to criticise in this excellent book. Maybe some commentary about Churchill’s strikebreaking or attitude toward suffragettes could have been contrasted with Orwell’s support of working class politics but then again, one recognises the constraints of such a generalist work of history. Occasionally it feels that Ricks relies on the judgment of others rather than his own direct knowledge of pertinent texts. His criticism of The Road to Wigan Pier is a little harsh. The second half of that work is blunt and certainly signifies a split with the conventional left-wing thinking of supporters, like Victor Gollancz. A few pages later Ricks observes that Orwell knew Homage to Catalonia would not “win him friends on the British left”. This trend had already commenced and would continue.
Ricks tends to lump all the novels prior to Animal Farm (1945) together as just bad. Most would say that The Clergyman’s Daughter is the only one of Orwell’s novels that is “unreadable” and the others written in the 1930s, although flawed, are considerably better and more interesting. Even Clergyman’s… has the protagonist taking a job as a teacher and making interesting observations about education in the period. One wonders what his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, who met Orwell about the time this novel was published, may have thought about his insights as she had been conducting academic research into “intelligence and imagination” in children. These are minor points.
Fifteen years ago I marvelled at the final part of Simon Schama’s, A History of Britain. Titled, “The Two Winstons”, I watched it immersed in the thesis that victory in WWII was the high-water mark of British liberalism and that Winston Smith and Winston Churchill were two heads of the same coin. Ricks acknowledges his debt to Schama’s episode in footnotes.
Ricks writes with clarity and a purpose larger than just comparing or contrasting Orwell and Churchill. His book is an important one effectively showing why our societies must face unpleasant facts, seek the truth and challenge orthodox thinking by detailing the struggles of Churchill and Orwell in their times. Our era, so often compared with the 1930s, needs clear-speaking, clear-thinking and civic awareness of the challenge we face in seeking objective representations of truth, however difficult that may be. I will leave the final word, about the importance of the freedom to dissent in democratic societies, to the author:
“For democracies to thrive the majority must respect the rights of minorities to dissent, loudly. The accurate view almost always will, at first, be a minority position.”
Other titles read during June
Drawing Funny: A Guide to Making Your Terrible Little Cartoons Funnier (2016) by Oslo Davis
Exit West (2017) by Mohsin Hamid
Michael Dransfield: Collected Poems (1987) by Michael Dransfield
The Age of Genius: The Seventeenth Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind (2016) y A.C. Grayling
The Gifts of Reading (2017) by Robert MacFarlane
Working Class Boy (2016) by Jimmy Barnes