The smallest minority on earth is the individual.Ayn Rand
I’m reading about communism again.
I just finished reading Ayn Rand’s first novel, We The Living, an utterly terrifying glimpse into a fictionalized communist society that I’m sure is not as frightening as a real one. I’m currently reading Why Orwell Matters by Christopher Hitchens, and to my surprise, the topic of communism, and/or rather anti-communism, is coming up again.
Hitchens devotes his second chapter to “Orwell and the Left.” In it, he discusses how a number of leading leftist intellectuals, particularly leaders and founders of the now-dominant “cultural studies” or “anti-colonialism” fields (e.g., Raymond Williams or Edward Said), which now infiltrate and influence (if not define) nearly all the humanities and social sciences, disliked, critiqued, and even despised Orwell, for both his writing and his influence.
This seems a bit shocking at first, since such writers, like Orwell, were openly and ardently socialist or communist, and they all shared at their deepest core and founding principle a fundamentally marxist worldview that all of life, history, politics, and society is defined by class struggle. They all shared as an ultimate, utopian goal a vision of “equality” for their societies and mankind as a whole. But if so, why the scathing critiques, if not outright rejection?
The answer: betraying “The Cause.” Because Orwell had a belief even more foundational and further down in his hierarchy of values…honesty. Orwell could not close his eyes to the truth, he could not make himself look away, and he could not make himself lie about what he saw, whether it suited him or not, whether it affirmed his views or not, and whether it served his cause or not. This skill, the skill of simply being brutally, fearlessly honest with himself, was what he considered his greatest gift, his real power, the real thing that set him apart from other thinkers and writers. Not genius, not eloquence, not searing originality (though of course he had more than most), but simply “of fronting the world with nothing more than one’s simple, direct, undeceived intelligence.”
‘I knew,’ said Orwell in 1946 about his early youth, ‘that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.’ Not the ability to face them, you notice, but ‘a power of facing’. It’s oddly well put. A commissar who realizes that his five-year plan is off-target and that the people detest him or laugh at him may be said, in a base manner, to be confronting an unpleasant fact. So, for that matter, may a priest with ‘doubts’. The reaction of such people to unpleasant facts is rarely self-critical; they do not have the ‘power of facing’. Their confrontation with the fact takes the form of an evasion; the reaction to the unpleasant discovery is a redoubling of efforts to overcome the obvious. The ‘unpleasant facts’ that Orwell faced were usually the ones that put his own position or preference to the test.Christopher Hitches, “Why Orwell Matters”
Unfortunately, this is a “power” that most people, even (especially?) most intellectuals do not have. As such, when the vast body of academics, public intellectuals, and private intelligentsia were confronted with the excesses and abuses of communism, especially but not limited to the Soviet Union, they nearly unanimously chose to close ranks, turn their backs to these revelations, undermine factual criticism of their nearly-arrived people’s utopia(s), and smear the messengers of that criticism, including those with first-hand accounts, and including their own “up until now” fellow travelers. This included many dedicated, honest socialist brothers like Orwell who had not only supported the cause intellectually, but had put their bodies and lives on the line physically. Orwell himself had enlisted to fight fascists in Spain, and took a sniper’s bullet to the throat while in the trenches of the Spanish Civil War, which left him with a lifelong rasp.
It was in the context of this background that Hitchens took the above-mentioned Raymond Williams to task for attacks on George Orwell, representative of this type of influential, early communist intellectual. “One figure of the Left can be taken as representative of the general hostility” Hitchens says, explaining that Williams “was a member of the Communist generation of the 1930s and 1940s,” and “one of the germinal figures of the 1950s New Left.” In just one of the many unfair and untrue accusations Williams hurls at Orwell, he attempts to subtly undermine the reader’s possible admiration of Orwell’s worldliness and wisdom gained from years spent living abroad, including more than five years living in Burma as a colonial policeman, nearly two years in Paris, and a brief tour fighting the fascists in Spain, where he caught the aforementioned bullet.
Rather than simply and tritely admire the perspective gained from such experience, Williams, in what he surely believes to be an act of subversion of a norm (western, colonial, or otherwise), attacks from an angle in describing the admirable qualities gained from such experience as “largely illusory” and “largely negative,” acquiring for the traveler only the “appearance” of strength or hardness of character. Important among these criticisms is that the “vagrant” who lives in “exile” lacks “the substance of community.” Tying Orwell’s famous anti-authoritarian literature and stance to his “lack of community,” he writes:
“‘Totalitarian” describes a certain kind of repressive social control, but, also, any real society, any adequate community, is necessarily a totality. To belong to a community is to be a part of a whole, and, necessarily, to accept, while helping to define, its disciplines.’
To which Hitchens replies:
In other words, Williams is inviting Orwell and all of us to step back inside the whale! Remember your roots, observe the customs of the tribe, recognize your responsibilities. The life of the vagrant or exile is unwholesome, even dangerous or deluded. The warmth of the family and the people is there for you; so is the life of the ‘movement’. If you must criticize, do so from within and make sure that your criticisms are constructive.
Which brings me to the meaning of this essay. When Hitchens writes “Williams, having awarded Orwell the title of exile, immediately replaces it with the description ‘vagrant’,” I immediately thought: “Because he’s a collectivist.” That explains why choosing “exile” from the “community” is such a repulsive idea to him: to a collectivist, your identity springs not from you internally, but from your “community.” It does not blossom through and from you, it is adopted by you and gifted to you by the “community.” The “community” is invaluable and immortal. The individual is disposable, even dangerous and contemptible if he dare defy the community.
This perspective and the euphemisms that describe it are easy to spot and well familiar to anyone who has even a cursory familiarity with communist theory and history (and if you don’t, I implore you to acquire it as soon as you can; it is invaluable in understanding the world). When you understand the mind of a collectivist, you understand how much the lone thinker, the solitary individual, the man who would live in exile and reject or defy his “community” terrifies and threatens him.
“Community”…such an innocuous word, how could anything described as a “community” ever be wrong, how could it ever be insidious? What sort of insensate, what manner of brute, what kind of lout doesn’t have warm feelings about their “community?” Certainly not a good communist or revolutionary.
And this made me think about the heart and the mind of the collectivist “revolutionary,” the communist of the history books, and the Macbook-wielding marxist “revolutionaries” of today. Collectivist “revolutionaries” will only “revolt” as part of a collective or mob, within an already-existing, hermetic society of fellow-travelers applauding their virtue and bravery. To a very substantial and important degree, they’re in it for the accolades and affirmation. They revolt for validation. They will never revolt without approval from a group or their collective, never as an individual against the world, if the world be wrong or condemn them. They will never stand with the truth against the world because in the core of every communist revolutionary, besides their immense hatred of those more successful and more accomplished than they, and their enormous jealousy of those who have more, they fundamentally, desperately need approval. They wear the slogans of rebellion, but in truth are the most passionate conformists, the most desperately insecure, and the most pathetically needy. Like members of any cult, it’s not the cause that drives them, but the approval of the cult. It’s the disapproval of the cult that they fear the most, and the undermining of the cult by the individual discrediting their sacred beliefs that they find most dangerous and threatening.
That is the difference between the George Orwells and the Christopher Hitchenses of the world, and the Raymon Williamses and Ivy League communists. While both types are “of the left,” and the radical left at that, one type prefers and chooses “above all other allegiances the loyalty to truth,” whatever the consequences to one’s material circumstances or precious beliefs, while the other is a mere creature of the herd, who values above all else approval of the “community,” and will take any measures, go to any lengths, to gain the herd’s approval, and tell any lie about those who wander from the herd, and punish them for their apostasy.