How does one man assert his power over another, Winston? …. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? …A world of victory after victory, triumph after triumph after triumph: an endless pressing, pressing, pressing upon the nerve of power.
-From George Orwell’s 1984
Past as prologue
British contemporaries Winston Churchill and George Orwell weren’t acquainted and didn’t share a political ideology. But from today’s vantage point, the rise of right-wing movements around the globe brings the overlap between the two men’s respective legacies into surprisingly sharp focus. This was the insight that inspired military journalist Tom Ricks to interweave their biographies into a single volume, published last year and subtitled “The Fight for Freedom.”
In the West, Churchill is most famous for convincing his country, and then our own, that Germany’s fascist government posed an existential threat to the world. And Orwell’s very name has become an adjectival reference to the tyranny illustrated so vividly in his final novel, 1984. Over the last half of the 20th century, both men were particularly revered by political conservatives for their strong stances against state power run amok. (Ricks notes this with some consternation, given Orwell’s lifelong leftism and Churchill’s unquestionable imperialism.) But as Donald Trump ascended to power in the Republican Party beginning in 2015, it was primarily his liberal opponents who invoked Nazis and Big Brother.
Almost two years after his election, Americans are still debating how relevant fascism and tyranny are to our present politics, and how worried we should be. After all, by many conventional measures, the U.S. is doing fine. Standard economic indicators – GDP, unemployment, stock values, and wage growth – are positive. Violent crime and incarceration rates are near historic lows. Core institutions – the military, the judiciary, the press, schools, hospitals, banks, churches – continue to experience alarmingly low public trust, as they did well before the election, but these pillars of society are still generally functioning. The rule of law is, for now, intact.
On the other hand, the initial warning signs that marked Trumpian politics have never abated: Scapegoating and resentment of racial minorities. Demonization of journalists. Relentless lying. Tolerance for right-wing extremist groups. Appeals to violence, celebrations of others’ suffering, and disregard for human rights. Partisan fear-mongering and calls to jail political opponents. Trump’s ongoing rallies are intended to reinforce his image as an infallible champion who need never be challenged. “Democrats aren’t just wrong in the manner of traditional partisan differences,” was the message The New Yorker‘s Susan Glasser got from watching six rallies Trump has held just this month. “They are scary, bad, evil, radical, dangerous. Trump and Trump alone stands between his audiences and disaster.”
When I finally picked up Churchill & Orwell this year, with some distance from the disorienting events of 2016, what I hoped to find was the answer to this question: How did they know? How did Churchill and Orwell see with such clarity what was at stake in their time, when many others didn’t? And what should we learn from that, all these decades later?
Defiance as feature
Setting aside the book’s ambitious title, Ricks’s account of Churchill’s and Orwell’s lives is meticulously objective. But even his close historical inspection doesn’t dispel the sense that each man was somehow called to his respective moment – even if you don’t generally believe in that sort of thing. Churchill rose from political obsolescence to rally Western civilization against the Axis powers, but never quite refocused his talents after the war ended. Orwell, writing in relative obscurity through most of his life, produced 1984 seemingly by sheer force of will while battling tuberculosis; he died less than a year after the novel was published. Defiance is the common thread running through both men’s stories.
Churchill, the fighter. Despite a career in politics, Churchill’s influence wasn’t particularly noteworthy until fairly late in his life. By the time he was in his sixties, he’d switched parties more than once, so his peers saw him as somewhat untrustworthy, and more energetic than competent:
For most of the 1930s, [Churchill] was isolated from the majority of his own party, and many thought his political career finished…. Churchill ranted so much about India policy (he was against independence) and Germany (he thought the threat was underestimated) that he wore out his welcome with his own party, whose leaders grew determined to keep him out of the Cabinet…. The unlikeliness of Churchill ever rising to the premiership became a punch line for his opponents.
Oddly enough, Churchill’s subsequent rise to power isn’t completely unlike Donald Trump’s. Just as the aging Churchill’s dire warnings about appeasement made him an object of scorn, Trump’s cranky ramblings about American economic weakness were a political sideshow for years, epitomized by the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner at which then-President Obama made fun of him to his face as the entire media establishment laughed.
But for all Churchill’s rhetoric and ambition, Ricks’s biography doesn’t reveal the type of narcissism that motivates Trump’s leadership. Quite unlike Trump, he’d spent most of his adult life in public service. Egotistical though he was, Churchill’s convictions seem to have come from a genuine and profound patriotism, and a real fear of losing the country he loved in a very literal sense. By Ricks’s account, when Churchill did become prime minister, he didn’t exult in his own vindication or hold himself out to the British people as a savior.
Instead, he evoked the dignity in facing hard truths and the courage in defending one’s home – to the death, if necessary. “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood on the ground,” he reportedly told his cabinet. Admittedly, Churchill’s biography makes clear that courage, much more than dignity, defined his life. But when the moment called for unprecedented national unity and resolve, he effectively became its living embodiment, micro-managing almost every aspect of the conflict with surprising strategic and even tactical instincts.
Orwell, the contrarian. Whereas Churchill’s defiance was triggered by perceived personal threats, Orwell was skeptical of power in any form – including his own. After an illuminating stint as a young colonial policeman in Burma, Orwell spent the rest of his life examining abusive power structures, in part by mingling with their victims. This drive came less from a love for humanity or empathy for misfortune and more from a desire to uncover truth, which he learned was often controlled and subverted by the powerful.
During the 1930s, Orwell’s political ideals led him to the Spanish Civil War to fight fascism. But pro-Soviet communists eventually targeted the leftist group he’d joined, and he was nearly assassinated before escaping back to England. Observing how the victorious communists used the press and the courts to spread outright lies about their opponents, Orwell learned that abuse of power knows no ideology. Looking back, there’s a clear causal link from this episode to Orwell’s second-most-famous novel, Animal Farm, about livestock who launch a revolution to overthrow the farmer, only to split into factions warring to fill the power vacuum. Spoiler: The victors become indistinguishable from the humans they ousted.
Orwell wrote 1984 in the immediate post-war years, as the relationship between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union began to deteriorate. His theme was the fundamental tension between political power and independent thought, explained in detail by the book’s main antagonist, a member of the “Thought Police”:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake…. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.
In the novel, the protagonist (named Winston) becomes a revolutionary simply through his efforts to observe the world as accurately as he can an independent being. The world of 1984 provided a compelling ideological underpinning to American opposition to communism during the Cold War and has enjoyed a revival in the post-9/11 era. Sales surged again in 2016.
Churchill’s and Orwell’s shared instinct to defy power offers one answer to how Churchill and Orwell were able to accurately perceive the nature of the threats looming in their time. Ricks explains in his Afterword:
We should remember that most of us, most of the time, do not welcome the voices of people like Orwell and Churchill appearing in our midst. Most of us, when confronted with a crisis, do not dive into the matter. Rather, we practice avoidance….
The avoidance that Churchill and Orwell faced about the rise of Hitler and the flaws of communism demonstrates how debilitating such behavior can be in shaping human responses to oppression. Even when faced with imminent military threat, the ruling class n Britain was unable to muster much will to defend its liberal democratic way of life. Confronting the Soviet threat after World War II was a more complex challenge, but it required at the very least that we see Stalinist communism for what it was – a deadly totalitarian ideology that extinguished people’s freedom not merely to speak but to think, a notion that amounted to pure torture for such forceful and idiosyncratic thinkers as Orwell and Churchill….
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.
We should expect those on the front lines of the “fight for freedom” in our own time to be similarly imperfect heroes and heroines.
Defiance as flaw
Ricks argues that Churchill and Orwell were notable for their uncommon determination to first seek the facts of the matters they contemplated, to “see things as they are” and discern objective reality whenever possible. In our current era of “alternative” facts and segregated realities informed by fake news, this basis for lauding the two men is compelling.
That said, my impression is that Churchill and Orwell are also revered in large part because their natural defiance found such righteous outlets. Hitler and Stalin are frequently cited as the most evil figures in history, and their atrocities are well-documented. But one of the most baffling aspects of the current American moment is that both left and right feel existentially victimized by the other’s ideology. Both sides see the other as blind to facts, hypocritical, amoral at best and evil at worst. And we learned from Churchill and Orwell that when you’re faced with a mortal threat, you call it what it is and fight it until one of you is dead.
Contemplating Orwell’s evolving legacy, Ricks observes how prevalent and widely accepted Orwell’s ideas about state power have become across the globe:
[Orwell’s] works have instructed many people in how to be wary of the numbing rhetoric of government pronouncements, of pervasive official surveillance, and most of all, of state intrusion into the realm of the private individual.
Today’s citizens were raised to be skeptical of government power, and it’s not a far leap to perceive the same kinds of threats to individual liberty when power is concentrated in places other than government. I suspect that this healthy skepticism of power is partly why trust in American institutions has been declining: There’s a perception that both public and private entities are controlled by an elite club, of which most people realize neither they nor their children will ever be members. Both major political parties have been reckoning with anti-establishment factions in recent election cycles. But the problem compounds as entire sectors of society are reduced to spoils of ideological war: Universities, journalism, art, and entertainment for the left; businesses, churches, law enforcement, and the military for the right. People understand that power in any form does whatever is necessary to justify and perpetuate itself. The object of power is power.
Ricks suggests that the moral triumph of both Churchill and Orwell was primarily in facing facts, which allowed them to apply their principles faithfully. Of course, he’s right that we should follow their example. But as disturbing as it is that Americans increasingly inhabit subjective realities, I don’t believe that a common set of facts is enough to cure how deeply we now mistrust each other’s political motivations. As long as power keeps concentrating in places where it poses real threats to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, people will keep defying that entrenched power wherever their worldviews allow them to see it. That’s what our heroes do.