Biographers of literary critic Edmund Wilson have asserted that the writer who bears the closest resemblance to Wilson, who reigned as America’s premier man of letters from the 1920s—1960s, is George Orwell.
Writing of his subject, Lewis Dabney sought to validate this trans-Atlantic connection by stating that, like Wilson, Orwell was “a social critic who’d digested Marxism, a satirist and autobiographer until 1984 better known as a man of letters than for his fiction.”
Dabney noted that both men, rarely praiseworthy of their contemporaries (although Orwell inexplicably lauded Henry Miller), were so toward each other. Orwell lauded Wilson’s essay on Charles Dickens, and Wilson praised Animal Farm even more, calling it “absolutely first-rate” and Orwell worthy to stand beside “Swift and Voltaire.” With this review, Wilson, stingy with praise, made Orwell’s reputation in America, and, according to Dabney “helped sell many thousands of [Animal Farm] copies in United States.”
During a largely cordial meeting, Wilson, nevertheless, was angrily critical of the British author for blaming the damage done to language on America.
But Wilson’s criticisms did not end there but extended to the British writer’s politics—the supposedly common link between the two.
For Wilson was a fervent admirer of Lenin and Trotsky until pretty late in the game (the early 1970s) as “humanists” whose Revolution “summoned” the people “from their sluggish prism all those triumphs to which life must rise;” and was offended by Orwell’s anti-Bolshevik rather than simply anti-Stalinist views.
Wilson did share Orwell’s view of Stalin as a bloody dictator whose murderous Purge Trials mass executed an entire generation of Russians on trumped-up charges, but there was a crucial distinction between these shared sentiments.
Wilson, whose praise of Lenin extended into gushing in bobby-soxer fashion about Lenin’s physical features (“Extraordinarily fine, intellectual, distinguished”), saw Stalin as betraying Lenin’s supposedly “humanist” revolution. Orwell, by contrast, saw Stalinist terror tactics as the logical culmination of Lenin’s totalitarian tendencies:
“There is no strong reason for thinking the main lines of development would have been very different. Well before 1923 the seeds of a totalitarian society were quite plainly there. Lenin, indeed, is one of those politicians who win an undeserved reputation by dying prematurely. Had [Lenin] lived… [He] would have kept himself in power by methods as barbarous, or nearly as barbarous, as those of Stalin.”
Because of such views, Wilson, who admired Orwell’s honesty and empiricism, characterized Orwell as lacking political sophistication.
But Orwell was more correct about Lenin’s totalitarian methods and views than Wilson. For Lenin had installed a repressive apparatus in the form of the Soviet secret police, and hated the kind of intellectuals Wilson represented as evidenced by the Bolshevik leader urging government officials to “SHOOT MORE PROFESSORS.” This hit list included Russian anarchists who Lenin murdered en masse.
Moreover, Lenin was hardly the humanist that Wilson portrayed him to be, which was evidenced by his cold-blooded solution to the psychological damage inflicted on members of the secret police from constant murders: “Find tougher people.”
It must be said, however, that Wilson did become more critical toward Lenin near the end of the writer’s life. To colleagues such as Isaiah Berlin, an early critic of the direction the Bolshevik regime was taking, Wilson admitted that Berlin was correct, and admitted that he had been “too kind” to Lenin. To American Soviet historian Richard Pipes, Wilson finally admitted that his entire generation had been duped by Lenin.
These views were made public in a 1971 introduction for To The Finland Station, Wilson’s 1940 study of Marxist thought leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution, which was warmly supportive of Lenin. Now, Wilson gave ground on Lenin’s responsibility for Stalinist terror, and linked this behavior to the Bolshevik leader’s personal characteristics of “coldness, contempt, and cruelty.”
In contrast to Berlin, Wilson admitted that he “had no premonition that the Soviet was to become one of the most hideous tyrannies the world had ever seen.”
But Wilson could not completely get past his earlier views of Lenin; in a passage that could have been cited in Orwell’s “Politics And The English Language” as exhibit A in weasel words, Wilson said that Lenin “did not show himself so benevolent as I perhaps tend to make him.”
To Wilson’s shame, Orwell had not gathered his anti-Stalinist politics firsthand by visiting the Soviet Union as did Wilson during the height of the Purge Trials. Instead, Orwell relied on his gut (saying of the Purge Trials that he knew they were a colossal frame-up because he “felt it in their literature”), and amazed Soviet dissidents that his spot-on depictions of the Stalin regime were not the result of him visiting the Soviet Union.