Book Review: Churchill and Orwell
You may have heard of George Orwell as the man who presaged some of the sequences’ insights on rationality, especially as applied to the English language. You might have heard of Winston Churchill as a futurist who had surprisingly longtermist inclinations for someone of his time and background. Did you know they were also both pivotal figures in saving human civilisation from the lock-in of some highly undesirable values?
‘Churchill and Orwell: The fight for freedom’ is a morality tale about the virtue of self-correction. It’s a story of two anti-heroes who recognised an unprecedented danger that threatened all of humanity when no-one else would, and an exploration of why they were capable of this. It’s also fun, engagingly written, and something I originally read for pure entertainment before realizing it explores important lessons for anyone trying to be more rational.
What makes this hagiography different from most others is that the author, Thomas E Ricks, emphasises the unrelenting desire to face reality that kept these two men on the right side of history, not conventional personal virtue nor any uniquely special or deeply inspiring moral commitments. It was the ability to self-correct, to not drift off into fanciful narratives, that let an avowed socialist and a staunch imperialist become the chief opponents of the worst forms of socialism and imperialism in the twentieth century. That’s the core claim of the book—their respect for truth and ability to change their minds when it was called for led them both to recognise the totalitarian threat, and also led them to adopt the right principles. This review won’t dwell on the details of the two men’s lives, but rather tease out this particular claim.
The book is structured like an interleaved biography, and covers all the main beats in the lives of the two men. It opens with two anecdotes about how Churchill and Orwell each came close to death sometime in the 1930s—Orwell was shot in the neck in Spain whilst fighting the Francoists, while Churchill was hit by a car and nearly killed.
The point of these stories is to emphasise the ‘great man’ view of history and the idea of contingency. First, understand how easily your chosen figures could have been removed from the picture, then go on to understand how important they were.
Ricks is completely open about his belief in the great man theory, and also makes it clear that from his perspective, Churchill and Orwell weren’t moral pioneers, like the abolitionists before them or the civil rights activists who came after them (who get mentioned, perhaps to provide contrast, in the afterward). Rather, they defended the chief virtue of liberal society: that it can self-correct. Fascist (or Stalinist) control over civilisation would be particularly ruinous because the repression of free thought would mean there would be little chance for wrong values and beliefs to ever be corrected. In parallel, both men exemplified ‘self correction’ themselves: they were good at noticing if they were wrong, and pivoting to the correct position even if that was uncomfortable and isolating. The book sees these as interlinked.
The “Great Man” theory of history is much denigrated today. But sometimes individuals matter a lot. Churchill and Orwell have had lasting impacts on how we live and think today. These two men did not make the prosperous liberal postwar West—with its sustained economic boom and its steady expansion of equal rights to women, blacks, gays, and marginalized minorities—but their efforts helped establish the political, physical, and intellectual conditions that made that world possible.
When applied to examples of moral progress, the great man theory should not be reassuring. It indicates a huge role for random contingency in which values end up winning. Ricks doesn’t go as far as to say that the Axis would have won the Second World War if not for his great men, but he clearly thinks the 20th century would have looked far worse if those two near-deadly incidents had turned out differently.
In a recent review of ‘The Scout Mindset’ (which I read around the same time), Scott Alexander mentioned how that book ‘bombarded you with examples of epistemically healthy people’ to convince you that adopting a scout mindset and trying to see reality as it is, is something cool and successful people do. ‘Churchill and Orwell’ does something similar, less deliberately, for two of the most admired people of the last century.
The book follows the lives of the two men in parallel: Churchill’s birth into privilege, his service abroad, his early military disgraces, and Orwell’s eerily similar service abroad (he worked as a policeman in British India for a time). But as expected, it spends most of its time on the years leading up to World War Two, and (for Orwell especially) the years immediately after, between the end of the war and his death, where he found literary success with ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’.
For the likely readers of this review, the most important period in the lives of Churchill and Orwell isn’t the Second World War itself, but rather the lead-up. That is when the two were at their most isolated. Churchill was shut out of government for opposing the policy of ‘appeasement’. At one point, the Lord Chancellor in the national government flippantly suggested that Churchill should be “shot or hanged” for his unending insistence that the Nazis posed an existential threat. Churchill’s record up to that point had been unimpressive—he was known for his failure to secure a beachhead at Gallipoli during the First World War. Orwell had similarly alienated most of the British left by rejecting Stalinism.
Churchill: Being Right
If you know anything about twentieth-century history, then you’ve probably heard of the disastrous policy of ‘appeasement’ that set the stage for the Second World War—granting concessions to the Nazis to avert a future war. But you may not be aware of how isolated Churchill was in his view of Nazi Germany. That might seem like a surprising statement—after all, plenty of people were worried about the Nazis in the 1930s. But while they were worried, they didn’t truly understand what they were dealing with—at least, according to Ricks.
As the book describes it, the unique thing about Churchill was that he could see the Nazis as non-rational actors that couldn’t be reasoned with or trusted. Plenty of people were alarmed by fascists, while some thought it would be possible to work with them—Churchill himself had some nice things to say about Mussolini at one point. But it is striking that even those who were worried by Hitler’s rise, nevertheless saw him as an essentially ordinary force in the world, one that could be pushed around by incentives. Churchill didn’t. He had a firm sense of priorities—you could say, an instinctive knowledge of the difference between ordinary problems and catastrophic threats. Ricks describes it this way,
It is clear now that appeasement rested more on self-delusion than on rational calculation, because it necessarily required faith in Hitler’s sanity and trustworthiness. Chamberlain himself told his sister privately that Hitler was “a man who could be relied on when he had given his word.” Former prime minister David Lloyd George, after his own meeting with Hitler, pronounced the German leader “a remarkable man” whose head “has not been turned by adulation.”
Christopher Hitchens says it very clearly:
But alone among his contemporaries, Churchill did not denounce the Nazi empire merely as a threat, actual or potential, to the British one. Nor did he speak of it as a depraved but possibly useful ally. He excoriated it as a wicked and nihilistic thing. That appears facile now, but was exceedingly uncommon then. In what was perhaps his best ever speech, delivered to the Commons five days after the Munich agreement, on October 5, 1938, Churchill gave voice to the idea that even a “peace-loving” coexistence with Hitler had something rotten about it. “What I find unendurable is the sense of our country falling into the power, into the orbit and influence of Nazi Germany, and of our existence becoming dependent upon their good will or pleasure.”
Imagine being one of only a small group of people who can see that there is some threat beyond the ordinary, a threat that has very little precedent in human history, and being unable to convince others of the danger. Sounds scary, but luckily that sort of problem is all in the past! Ricks again explains how Churchill described that time:
In April 1937, he warned the House of Commons, “We seem to be moving, drifting, steadily against our will, against the will of every race and every people and every class, towards some hideous catastrophe. Everybody wishes to stop it, but they do not know how.”
That phrase “against the will of every race and every people and every class” seems to emphasise an awareness that war is a multipolar trap and that Nazism was a problem for all humanity. On this assesment, Churchill was very concerned with the risk of something like value lock-in should the Axis powers win the Second World War- i.e. that such an outcome might cause near-irreversible decrease of future human potential, not just a terrible catastrophe for the people alive at the time. But is that assessment right, or is it a coincidence that his rhetoric aligns with current longtermist ideas?
The wider perspective implied by this quote isn’t unique—though it isn’t much discussed by Ricks, you can find a wide collection of quotations by Churchill on all sorts of longtermist ideas. I recommend checking out Jason Crawford or Toby Ord’s articles on Churchill as a futurist, but here’s one that stuck with me.
In a future which our children may live to see, powers will be in the hands of men altogether different from any by which human nature has been molded. Explosive forces, energy, materials, machinery, will be available upon a scale which can annihilate whole nations. Despotisms and tyrannies will be able to prescribe the lives and even the wishes of their subjects in a manner never known since time began. If to these tremendous and awful powers is added the pitiless sub-human wickedness which we now see embodied in one of the most powerful reigning governments, who shall say that the world itself will not be wrecked, or indeed that it ought not to be wrecked? There are nightmares of the future from which a fortunate collision with some wandering star, reducing the earth to incandescent gas, might be a merciful deliverance.
— Winston Churchill, ‘Fifty Years Hence’, 1931
To me, this quote, from years before humanity had its brush with either tyrannical lock-in or nuclear annihilation, shows that Churchill had something like a longtermist view in the back of his mind when he analysed the events of his time. Perhaps this was part of what helped him recognise the dangers of Nazism.
Orwell: Being Clear
Orwell’s own moment of being right against the pressures of those around him came at a similar time—when he’s made abruptly aware that left-wing totalitarians can be every bit as dangerous as the right-wing variety. The book identifies Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War, which led him to write the (at the time) hugely unpopular and derided ‘Homage to Catalonia’ as the point where he switched to emphasising a respect for freedom over grand plans for the future:
...Orwell runs into the Stalinist crackdown on other leftists in Barcelona, [and the narrative] turns into a noirish political thriller. In that narrative, Orwell hammers home two points. The first is that Soviet-dominated communism should not be trusted by other leftists. The second is that the left can be every bit as accepting of lies as the right.
Orwell knew that neither of these themes would win him friends on the British left. By splitting with the conventional, pro-Stalinist left, Orwell made a move that paralleled Churchill’s earlier distancing from the profascist elements of the British aristocracy. Orwell knew that many of his British socialist friends believed that lying was not only permissible but mandatory if it helped the Soviet cause.
Once again, Ricks is clear in telling us that Orwell got more right than his socialist contemporaries because he was uniquely willing to accept uncomfortable truths, not because he was a moral innovator:
From Spain on, his mission was to write the facts as he saw them, no matter where that took him, and to be skeptical of everything he read, especially when it came from or comforted those wielding power. This became his faith. “In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts,” he wrote a few years later. He continued:
I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing those lies and eager intellectuals building superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various “party lines.”
This obsession with baring the truth became a major theme in ‘1984’ and in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, which was listed as a major example of ‘rationalism before the sequences’:
If you really want an artist’s perspective on rationality, then read Orwell; he is mandatory reading for rationalists as well as authors. Orwell was not a scientist, but a writer; his tools were not numbers, but words; his adversary was not Nature, but human evil. If you wish to imprison people for years without trial, you must think of some other way to say it than “I’m going to imprison Mr. Jennings for years without trial.” You must muddy the listener’s thinking, prevent clear images from outraging conscience. You say, “Unreliable elements were subjected to an alternative justice process.”
Is it true?
The book details a few minor ways that Churchill and Orwell crossed paths—Churchill greatly admired 1984 and read it often. Orwell in turn, admired Churchill’s leadership, despite initially despising him and his party. This mutual admiration, despite their contrasting views on day-to-day politics is interesting, but these crossovers aren’t really the focus of the narrative. Rather, it’s the common thread of being able to self-correct and see things as they are.
So, is Ricks right?
The fact that both Churchill and Orwell have been namechecked in rationalist and effective altruist circles should serve as independent evidence that Ricks was getting at something in naming these two figures as exemplars of the virtue of self-correction. I certainly would not have considered the two of them together in that way until I read this book.
By the end, Ricks tells us his message explicitly:
They also often were wrong in their judgments, but they were determined to keep trying to get to the root of the matter, which is equally important. Orwell especially never stopped trying to see clearly through all the lies, obfuscations, and distractions. Instead of shaping facts to fit his opinions, he was willing to let facts change his opinions.
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. That is really what appeasement was in the 1930s—a way of not dealing with the matter, of sidestepping some hard, inevitable facts…
...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. King, on the same path, found the means to redeem America, just as Lincoln had done at Gettysburg one hundred years earlier.
The book is also an exploration of a period in our history which might have been the most important of all. It recognises some dynamics that will sound very familiar—denial of a problem, failure to recognise an extraordinary threat, inward-looking elites and bureaucratic slowness in the face of danger.
The book is also filled with stories of how the two men used their truth-seeking virtue—too many for me to list here. About Churchill’s famous speech after the Dunkirk evacuation, Ricks says,
In wartime, people will believe the worst if they are not told the truth, or something close to it, perhaps mixed with a vision of the way forward. Having been given that, they were somewhat reassured.
About Winston Smith in 1984 (the name isn’t a coincidence, according to Ricks), Ricks says:
For Winston, as for the author, the most significant act in life is not to speak out or to be published, but simply to observe accurately the world around him. Collecting the facts is a revolutionary act. Insisting on the right to do so is perhaps the most subversive action possible. Underscoring the connection, Winston does this and then writes emphatically in his diary, “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER.”
Does either of these men work as a moral exemplar? Churchill was racist in a “white man’s burden” sense, and Orwell had more than a few antisemitic tendencies. These facts are more widely discussed now than in the past, and Ricks is open about them, though they don’t get much space in the book.
The fact of the matter is that Orwell was always tin eared about Jews. During World War II, Orwell would write extensively against anti-Semitism, but in the course of doing so he failed to reexamine his own writings of the previous decade. After the war, he had surprisingly little to say about the Holocaust, one of the major events of his time. He remained strongly anti-Zionist throughout his life, but that probably should be seen more in the context of his enduring distaste for nationalism rather than the anti-Semitism of some of his early writings. Even so, his friend, the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, would conclude that “he was at heart strongly anti-Semitic.”
Similarly, Churchill’s opposition to Indian independence and strongly colonialist attitudes are mentioned, though the book doesn’t go into depth. The controversy over whether Churchill’s policies worsened or ameliorated the horrific Bengal famine isn’t addressed, for example.
But moral error isn’t necessarily relevant to the particular virtues this book claims these two men exemplify. They were not moral vanguards, they didn’t invent or advance ideas about human freedom and liberalism. They didn’t need to be.
To what extent is it true that ‘ability to face reality’ was a defining quality of both Churchill and Orwell? I’m not a historian and don’t have a deep knowledge of 20th century history, but on the whole, the book does pile on enough detail to convey, viscerally, just how deluded the left was about Stalinist communism, and how deluded the British establishment right was about fascism, and just how persistently against the mood of their times Churchill and Orwell were. They weren’t right just by coincidence, or because they held values that happened to put them on the right side of this particular historical conflict—they were both far too aware of what they were defending for that. But there are cracks in this view of the two of them, especially Churchill.
There’s an entire chapter devoted to Churchill’s postwar memoirs, and Ricks tells us ‘whole books have been written detailing his errors, exaggerations, and omissions’. History will be kind to me,” Churchill once said, “for I intend to write it.” So no, this isn’t a tale about how the ability to notice when you are wrong and become less so will make you a good person. Far from it.