Churchill, Orwell, and Why We Admire Them

Two 20th century Englishmen dominate our culture and politics, and it’s worth asking why.

George Orwell is nearly as omnipresent as the all-seeing Big Brother he created. Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) are taught to school kids all over the Anglophone world; the 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” is quoted everywhere by people of all political allegiances; “Orwellian” has (for good and ill, mostly for ill) come to signify any disingenuous use of language; and Orwell’s account of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia (1938), is regularly said to be one of the best works in the language. Every year we have new books about him; in 2017 we had John Sutherland’s Orwell’s Nose, a “pathological biography,” and Dennis Glover’s The Last Man in Europe, a fictional account of Orwell’s life.

Winston Churchill, too, is the subject of scores of biographies and studies; his six-volume history of the Second World War, the last of which came out in 1953, is still in print and deemed by many to be the greatest single work on any war; his witticisms (even the ones he didn’t originate) are still quoted everywhere; and at present he is the subject of a highly successful film, Darkest Hour. Academic historians will sometimes have a go at Churchill’s reputation, but hardly anyone listens.

Thomas E. Ricks, author of Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom (out in paperback later this year), senses that they shared in the same sort of greatness. Vastly different though they were in political opinion and career trajectory, their strengths were akin. The book chronicles their lives in successive chapters, each emphasizing the ways in which both men grasped the evil nature of National Socialism and communism when the great majority of their contemporaries believed (some in hope, others in despair) that totalitarianism was man’s inevitable future.

Both Churchill and Orwell had their years in the wilderness, when they worked mainly alone and, despite their gifts, had little influence in Britain’s literary and political circles. Churchill spent the 1930s as a member of Parliament but estranged from his party’s leadership over the question of Indian independence and, more important, rearmament. He wrote a great deal in that period, including a four-volume biography of his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough, but only because the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments wouldn’t have anything to do with him.

Ricks’s treatment reminds us just how much Tory leaders loathed Churchill when he wouldn’t stop talking about the need to bolster the country’s defenses and confront Adolf Hitler before it was too late. Baron Ponsonby, for instance, told the House of Lords: “I have got the greatest possible admiration for Mr. Churchill’s parliamentary powers, his literary powers, and his artistic powers, but I have always felt that in a crisis he is one of the first people who ought to be interned.” Lord Maugham thought Churchill should be “shot or hanged.”

Orwell was in a kind of self-imposed exile from the time he left England in 1922 to join the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. He had been at Eton but you wouldn’t have known it from his slovenly dress and increasingly leftward politics. In Burma, he quickly grew to hate the empire for which he worked. He returned to England in 1927 and for the following decade bounced around between Southwold and London and Paris, writing a series of brilliant essays, several competent novels, and two highly original but only moderately successful works of social commentary, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). After a decade Orwell was still only a third-tier writer. (Third-tier, not third-rate.)

Orwell and Churchill returned from exile in 1938 and 1939, respectively. It was in Homage to Catalonia, describing his service in the antifascist ranks in Spain, that Orwell first expressed the characteristic insight than many people who use words for a living, though they may be intelligent and persuasive and possess great moral authority, are often just liars. He had particular contempt for “the sleek persons in London and Paris” who don’t know what they’re talking about but write as if they do. “One of the most horrible features of war is that all the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.”

Churchill, too, distrusted his elite peers. In September 1938 Hitler’s army rolled through Czechoslovakia. “This is only the beginning of the reckoning,” he said in Parliament. “This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.” He was nearly shouted down. But the members shouting him down knew the people agreed with Churchill, not with them, and in another year he was reluctantly brought into government. Less than a year after that, he was prime minister.

Ricks is a perceptive writer with a keen sense of narrative pacing, and in Churchill and Orwell he is at his best. He has a gift for arresting observations, and almost always they work, as with this one, conjuring up what it would have been like if Neville Chamberlain had tried to pull off what Churchill did in the United States: “Chamberlain, had he been in office . . . probably would have struck American legislators as combination of a stuffy valet and an unfunny version of Charlie Chaplin.” If occasionally Ricks the military historian gets carried away with Churchill’s strategic decisions, his account is no less readable for that.

By the book’s end, though, you’re still not quite sure what it is about Churchill and Orwell that makes them great. Ricks sums up this way:

When they were confronted by a crucial moment in history, Churchill and Orwell responded first by seeking the facts of the matter. Then they acted on their beliefs. They faced a genuinely apocalyptic situation, in which their way of life was threatened with extinction. Many people around them expected evil to triumph and sought to make their peace with it. These two did not. . . . If there is anything we can take away from them, it is the wisdom of employing this two-step process, especially in times of mind-bending crisis: Work diligently to discern the facts of the matter, and then use your principles to respond.

Well, all right. But the likelihood is that nobody reading this book will face “a genuinely apocalyptic situation.” Is there anything we can learn from Churchill and Orwell of more immediate relevance? And I’m not sure how useful it is to be told you should “work diligently to discern the facts” and “use your principles to respond.” People always think they know “the facts.” And what if those principles are wrong?

Churchill and Orwell are revered because there are few greater expressions of the dignity of the individual against state domination than Nineteen Eighty-Four and Churchill’s wartime speeches. “This is not a question fighting for Danzig or fighting for Poland,” Churchill said in 1939 after the invasion of Poland. “It is a war, viewed in its inherent quality, to establish, on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual, and it is a war to establish and revive the stature of man.”

Brilliant and moving words. But everyone in contemporary American political culture—almost literally everyone—already believes in, or thinks he believes in, the rights of the individual and the evils of autocracy and state-sponsored repression. Everyone already loathes and rejects the totalitarian state, or thinks he does. Whether the subject has been seriously thought about is another question. Consider the high-powered left-liberal intellectuals who will quote Nineteen Eight-Four against the latest Trump brouhaha but who support almost any state intervention into private life so long as it announces progressive goals.

I don’t think Churchill’s and Orwell’s advocacy of individual liberty is the most interesting thing to be said about them, at least in an age of postmodern hyper-individualism.

Ricks’s account suggests a rather more unsettling and, in my view, helpful inference as to what made these two men great: not only their innate courage and probity but their capacity to take ordinary people seriously. Neither was a populist or anything resembling one, but both knew that the masses weren’t just easily led conformists or morons with no ability to grasp the difference between right and wrong, wisdom and folly, on large matters of state. Irving Kristol somewhere says his friend the political scientist Martin Diamond held that the American republic was based on one basic principle: that the people are often sensible, rarely wise. Or perhaps we could reverse the order: rarely wise but often sensible. That’s essentially the Churchillian and Orwellian view of the people: not a reliable guide in specific circumstances, but a steady source of sense on the great questions.

War vindicated both of them.

Orwell never ceased to be a socialist, but the dishonesty of the press in during the Spanish conflict and, later, the war with Germany made him also into a kind of working-class conservative. His contempt for many of his fellow intellectuals is well known. “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that,” he memorably remarked in 1945; “no ordinary man could be such a fool.” But his suspicion of intellectuals was more than a perverse gag; it sprang from his high regard for the ordinary unlettered worker.

In his great 1941 essay, “The Lion and the Unicorn,” for instance, he contended that the English class system had to go if England was to win the war:

It is goodbye to the Tatler and the Bystander, and farewell to the lady in the Rolls-Royce car. The heirs of Nelson and of Cromwell are not in the House of Lords. They are in the fields and the streets, in the factories and the armed forces, in the four-ale bar and the suburban back garden; and at present they are still kept under by a generation of ghosts.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s heroic workers weren’t struggling against Rolls-riding toffs but against a Soviet-like police state. “If there is hope,” Winston Smith writes cryptically, “it lies in the proles.” “If there was hope, it must lie in the proles, because only there in those swarming disregarded masses, 85 per cent of the population of Oceania, could the force to destroy the Party ever be generated.”

The meaning of that remark isn’t spelled out in the novel, but Ricks points us to a 1942 essay on the Spanish Civil War in which Orwell reflected that “the struggle of the working class is like the growth of a plant. The plant is blind and stupid, but it knows enough to keep pushing upward toward the light, and it will do this in the face of endless discouragements.”

As for Churchill, he was a blueblood but one who had seen in the 1930s how reluctant his fellow aristocrats were to fight. Fighting meant risk and unpleasantness. He did not forget the lesson. He noted (Ricks is terrific on this point) that the Royal Air Force had not been made up of men from the upper class. Churchill lamented the “almost entire failure” of Eton, Harrow, and Winchester to contribute to the RAF. “They left it to the middle classes.” In 1941 he remarked to his private secretary that the sons of grammar schools (public schools, in American terms) “have saved this country; they have the right to rule it.”

What especially shines through Churchill and Orwell isn’t these men’s insistence on the value of political freedom; nor is it their “refus[al] to run with the herd” or their willingness to “break with the most powerful among that herd,” which Ricks rightly praises. Their belief in the primacy of individual freedom and their refusal to submit to a herd mentality were the fruits of a deeper faith in the essential goodness and sense of ordinary, powerless, unremarkable people. Orwell was more or less a man of the Left, Churchill more or less of the Right, but both saw the tendency in their ideological confreres to ignore or minimize the importance of simple working Britons and their opinions.

That, more than anything else, is why Churchill and Orwell are revered by people all over the world, even as today’s left-liberal intellectual class still doesn’t know what to do with either figure. Liberal pundits are happy to quote Nineteen Eight-Four, but Orwell’s other works are not cherished in progressive circles—this notwithstanding the fact that Animal Farm and Nineteen Eight-Four are two of the most popular books in the world. You won’t find many doctoral dissertations on Orwell’s work. Churchill, too, has long been the object of second-guessing academic historians and commentators—great in opposition but a terrible leader; wrong about India and Russia; aware beforehand about the Pearl Harbor attack but unwilling to warn the Americans; an incompetent when it came to managing Britain’s economy—on and on. Millions, though, read long biographies of him and hope to mimic his courage and cheer his speeches in movie theaters.

Conservatism and liberalism alike tend toward a kind of secular clericalism that regards the unlettered masses with a subtle contempt. If either Churchill or Orwell had succumbed to that form of self-regard, the history of the West after 1945 would have turned out very differently.