Big Brother Burnham

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Since his death in 1949, conservatives have annexed George Orwell for their cause. From Henry Luce to Norman Podhoretz, pundits have located in Orwell’s energetic denunciation of Stalinism, his anti-abortion and anti-gun control stances–and thanks to the publication of his diaries–his hatred of taxation either a right-winger or a leftist drifting toward that spectrum.

Whether valid or not, what has been overlooked in this body-snatching is that Orwell himself may have annexed conservatives, and not for his cause, but rather for literary purposes.

James Burnham was an ex-Trotskyite turned Cold War strategist who served as a foreign policy writer for National Review. He was considered along with Bill Buckley and Whittaker Chambers the godfather of American conservatism (President -Ronald Reagan would posthumously award him the Medal of Freedom in 1984).

Orwell would be fascinated and at the same repelled by Burnham’s philosopy. For Orwell, Burnham regarded politics as the “pursuit of power for power’s sake;” in Burnham’s world view, democracy and deceny (a quality Orwell was absent in the Socialist movement) were shams. Orwell agreed with Burnhams’ view that history was moving toward a world divided between three empires, all of whom, in order to subjugate their masses, kept the economy on a war footing. He also seconded Burnham’s view that the seeds of Stalinism were present from the beginnings of Bolshevik rule.

But Orwell detected in Burnham an admiration, even a “self-abasement” toward power, courtesy of the latter awarding Stalin “demigod” status who directed the “irresistible force of Bolshevism” to envelop the earth. For all Burnham’s distaste for communists, Orwell saw him philosophically reflecting their “secret wish” for the intellectual finally “getting his hands on the whip.”

Orwell would devote another essay to outlining Burnham’s love of power, but he would not stop there. He would use Burnham, both physically and philosophically, as the model for Winston Smith’s chief tormentor, the inner Party leader O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Both Burnham and O’Brien were physically powerfully men wearing rimless glasses. Both were ex-Troskyirtes, or in O’Brien’s case, an ex-Goldstenite (this is evident in that O’Brien admits to Smith that he colloboaratted on the writing of Goldstein’s critiuqe of Big Brother). Beyond the physically, however, were how much O’Brien voiced the power-hungry sentiments of the conservative thinker. Like Orwell’s depicti0n of Burnham, O’Brien only comes to life in the interrogation room when he speaks of power (Orwell describes him as “dreamy”). Morevoer, O’Brien admits what the Bolsheviks would not–namely that the “Party seeks power entirely for its own sake.”

Smith counters these arguments with Orwellian sentiments of decency. “Something will defeat you,” Smith says through cracked lips. Smith calls this the “spirit of man.” He regards power and hate as unable to last.

Read in light of how Orwell examined Burnham it is apparent that O’Brien’s session with Smith is a thinly-veiled debate Orwell had with the conservative thinker. O’Brien fulfills what Orwell thought was Burnham’s “secret wish:” substitute “electrical switch” for “whip” and you have what Orwell saw as the behavior of an intellectual in power.

None of this is to say that Orwell was not a burgeoning conservative. His replies to O’Brien/Burnham came from the same gut conservatives favor. But with his awarding the villainous O’Brien Burnham’s views, he showed again how much he disagreed with empire building for Cold War purposes.

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.