August 20th, 2008

Orwell on unhinged intellectuals

As Norman Podhoretz points out in his essay “If Orwell Were Alive Today” (written in 1983), the highly regarded political writer George Orwell was often misguided in his specific predictions about the future. He also was wedded to socialism his entire life, once he converted to it at the age of thirty, although his life didn’t last that much longer (he died at forty-six).

Orwell was, however, such a keen observer of the political side of humankind and especially the danger of totalitarianism, that many other “isms” (including Podhoretz’s own neoconservatism) believe that, had Orwell lived long enough, he surely would have come round to their point of view. But as Podhoretz also points out, Orwell’s most ringing and memorable statements were as an insider gadfly to the Left and the intelligentsia, whose number he most definitely had.

Podhoretz offers some wonderful quotes from Orwell on the subject, and they’ve worn very well over the years. Try this one on for size, from 1937 (appearing in Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier):

One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words “Socialism” and “Communism” draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker. nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist and feminist in England.

Orwell’s “Notes on Nationalism” is another case in point. There is a fair amount in it with which I disagree, to be sure. But the following is spot on, both then and now. It illustrates the military defeatism of the intellectual Left, its susceptibility to wild conspiracy theories, and the origins of both phenomena in the Left’s hatred of the West [one of Orwell’s most famous remarks on the stupidity of intellectuals occurs here; emphasis mine]:

The average intellectual of the Left believed, for instance, that the war was lost in 1940, that the Germans were bound to overrun Egypt in 1942, that the Japanese would never be driven out of the lands they had conquered, and that the Anglo-American bombing offensive was making no impression on Germany. He could believe these things because his hatred for the British ruling class forbade him to admit that British plans could succeed. There is no limit to the follies that can be swallowed if one is under the influence of feelings of this kind. I have heard it confidently stated, for instance, that the American troops had been brought to Europe not to fight the Germans but to crush an English revolution. One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool. When Hitler invaded Russia, the officials of the MOI issued “as background” a warning that Russia might be expected to collapse in six weeks. On the other hand the Communists regarded every phase of the war as a Russian victory, even when the Russians were driven back almost to the Caspian Sea and had lost several million prisoners. There is no need to multiply instances. The point is that as soon as fear, hatred, jealousy and power worship are involved, the sense of reality becomes unhinged. And, as I have pointed out already, the sense of right and wrong becomes unhinged also.

Unhinged they are, and unhinged (and pretty much unchanged) they remain.

17 Responses to “Orwell on unhinged intellectuals”

  1. vanderleun Says:

    “Intellectual Insanity” is my choice phrase for these idiocies.

  2. I R A Darth Aggie Says:

    The one thing institutions of higher learning (or any learning, for that matter) don’t teach is common sense.

  3. harry McHitlerburtonstein the COnservative Extremist Says:

    Hello neo, sorry if this is not quite that thread, its just more current. Anyway, you might have already seen this. An answer to Sally Quinn about which world reality is real compared to the more “nuanced” and complex world of Obama:


    “Putin believes in force. Just because we don’t share his values doesn’t mean he’s going to see the light.”

  4. physicsguy Says:

    A father of one of my childhood friends used to label such as “Intellectual Idiots”.

    When I became a young academic I found the phrase offensive. (like Neo I was a reg. Democrat at the time) Now I know it fits 98% of my colleagues. Orwell was spot-on.

  5. Thomass Says:

    Now you know why they put so much effort into avoiding being labeled…

  6. SteveH Says:

    The question for those immersed in postmodern academia has to be…Just what valid education and experience has all this caused them to miss?

    Apparently a lot.

  7. Jim C. Says:

    The first time I read “Notes on Nationalism” I was astonished at how much of it could have been written yesterday. And the quote you include is one of my all-time favorite quotes of anyone.

    I haven’t read his “Homage to Catalonia”, but I did find this quote.

    “The fat Russian agent was cornering all the foreign refugees in turn and explaining plausibly that this whole affair was an Anarchist plot. I watched him with some interest, for it was the first time that I had seen a person whose profession was telling lies – unless one counts journalists.”

  8. sergey Says:

    Common sense is a domain of uneducated folks. Analitic thinking requires shedding off these shackles. But this can and does boomerang: outside their domain of expertise, intellectuals often are idiots.

  9. sergey Says:

    Harry, it seems that Putin is right in his belief in force. This is a more realistic worldview, than that of peacenics.

  10. Chris White Says:

    Having somewhat enjoyed, for a while, adding the occasional comment from a perspective from outside the echo chamber choir of Neo-neo’s neo con acolytes, I became bored and wandered away as the focus shifted to relentless anti-Obama campaigning. Between a call for equality of the sexes in Olympics volleyball uniforms and a link to Orwell on nationalism I thought I’d toss in a comment, in part to reward Neo for stepping away from her campaign efforts long enough to find something else to say other than the world as we know it will end if Obama gets elected.

    Here are three quotes from the Orwell essay that (forgive me) reminded me most immediately of the neo-conservative variant of nationalism.

    “Political or military commentators, like astrologers, can survive almost any mistake, because their more devoted followers do not look to them for an appraisal of the facts but for the stimulation of nationalistic loyalties.”

    “As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit. It is difficult if not impossible for any nationalist to conceal his allegiance. The smallest slur upon his own unit, or any implied praise of a rival organization, fills him with uneasiness which he can relieve only by making some sharp retort.”

    “Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them … The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”

    It is no surprise that among those who comment here these very traits will be identified with liberals, leftists, Islamofascists, communists, et al and vilified without any sense of irony or acceptance that they apply so well to the stunted nationalism that is at the heart of the neo-conservative movement.

  11. Sergey Says:

    Chris, these traits are no monopoly of nationalism, of course, they are so universal that can be called simply human nature. They characterize any ideological, ethnical, national, tribal, religious or party affiliation, any partisanship. But in the heart of neo-conservative movement lies not nationalism, but, quite the opposite, exaggerated universalism, alike Bolshevick internationalism. I would like to see neocons to admit more nationalistic position, and less messianistic zeal.

  12. Trimegistus Says:

    Chris: Pot, meet kettle.

  13. Tatterdemalian Says:

    So “nationalist” is the new insult du jour. I suppose now that Obama is desperately struggling to proclaim his patriotism, the left can’t use “patriot” as an insult any more.

  14. Chris White Says:

    Fascinating how few seem to have read the linked essay before commenting.

  15. Gail Says:

    From Orwell’s essay:

    The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to the taking of life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point.

    But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism.

    Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States. Moreover they do not as a rule condemn violence as such, but only violence used in defense of western countries.

    The Russians, unlike the British, are not blamed for defending themselves by warlike means, and indeed all pacifist propaganda of this type avoids mention of Russia or China. It is not claimed, again, that the Indians should abjure violence in their struggle against the British.

    Pacifist literature abounds with equivocal remarks which, if they mean anything, appear to mean that statesmen of the type of Hitler are preferable to those of the type of Churchill, and that violence is perhaps excusable if it is violent enough. After the fall of France, the French pacifists, faced by a real choice which their English colleagues have not had to make, mostly went over to the Nazis, and in England there appears to have been some small overlap of membership between the Peace Pledge Union and the Blackshirts.

    Pacifist writers have written in praise of Carlyle, one of the intellectual fathers of Fascism. All in all it is difficult not to feel that pacifism, as it appears among a section of the intelligentsia, is secretly inspired by an admiration for power and successful cruelty. The mistake was made of pinning this emotion to Hitler, but it could easily be retransfered.

  16. Gail Says:

    And the intellectual pacifists have transferred their loyalty, all right –to the Islamofascists.

    Orwell was a frickin’ genius. He notes that the one thought a Pacifist can’t admit to his consciousness is the reality that those who refuse to fight have the luxury of doing so ONLY because there are others who fight on their behalf or in their stead.

  17. Richard Aubrey Says:

    From time to time, usually in college where the opportunity was more likely, one could see weedy, wimpy guys practically drooling over big, powerful, violent jocks. It was not, I suppose, anything to do with sexual attraction. But about the knowledge of one’s inadequacy in the area of physical combat–even if fighting in self-defense on a large campus is pretty rare–and other raw, unnuanced physical capabilities.
    The loudest screamers to “kill, Bubba, kill” at the football games were the weediest, wimpiest guys who were forever talking about being “in the streets”.

    I hope the metaphor is clear enough.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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