Capet on Williams, 'Between the Bullet and the Lie: Essays on Orwell'

Kristian Williams
Antoine Capet

Kristian Williams. Between the Bullet and the Lie: Essays on Orwell. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2017. 271 pages. $17.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-84935-290-1.

Reviewed by Antoine Capet (University of Rouen) Published on H-Socialisms (July, 2018) Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)

Printable Version:

Orwell Rehabilitated

Interest in George Orwell does not seem to abate, as testified by the steady number of books (let alone articles) that continue to appear, especially on his politics, like Alex Woloch’s Or Orwell: Writing and Democratic Socialism (2016) and John Newsinger’s Hope Lies in the Proles: George Orwell and the Left (2018). And Newsinger has just launched (2017) a scholarly journal entirely devoted to him, George Orwell Studies.

Kristian Williams’s book is in a different category altogether, since the author spurns the shackles of academia and openly declares himself a militant writer. In his introduction, remarking that Orwell “did not cast himself as a neutral observer; he was a partisan and sometimes a participant” (p. 13), Williams states his political agenda: “I approach politics as an anarchist with social-democratic sympathies, rather than as a democratic socialist with anarchist sympathies” (p. 16), claiming that “Orwell remains useful to us now—and by ‘us,’ I mean the anti-capitalist Left” (p. 17). How useful—and in what way? These are fundamental questions examined in Essays on Orwell, some of which were published previously.

It soon becomes obvious that Williams knows his Orwell inside and out—both the author's own writings as well as the writings about him. Chapter 1, “Imperfect Creatures,” discusses two awkward episodes in Orwell’s life: his brutish sexual advances towards Jacintha Buddicom (“practically an assault,” p. 35) when he was young, and the well-publicized list of crypto-Communists he gave to a friend in the Information Research Department—an anti-Soviet Cold War agency—a few months before his death (not, as is often wrongly implied, to the British intelligence services), the only consequence of which, the friend later made clear, was that they were not asked to write for the Information Research Department. The conclusion drawn is in keeping with Orwell’s well-known rejection of the utopian world of the purists, who can only be satisfied with perfection in mankind (“he found the very idea of perfection repulsive,” p. 73): “Orwell the imperfect creature, the mortal, the failure, the sinner, the human being—greater than his faults, smaller than his virtues” (p. 39).

Chapter 2 pursues more or less the same thread, focusing on Orwell’s views on aesthetics and ethics, with interesting quotations showing that though he was prepared to accept a separation between the two, there were limits, as expressed by his phrase “‘one has the right to expect ordinary decency even of a poet’” (quoted, p. 49)—but the chapter carries the thread further by examining the question of the “moral saint” in the light of Orwell’s writings on Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Oscar Wilde, which seem to conclude that “‘the saint … is not trying to work an improvement in earthly life: he is trying to bring it to an end and put something different in its place’” (quoted from “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool,” p. 74). Williams himself concludes that “for the Left, both the Orwellian and the Wildean elements are equally necessary” after pointing out that “Orwell’s is tragic because perfection proves undesirable.… Wilde’s is tragic because perfection is unobtainable” (p. 75).

The next chapter boldly tackles what must be the trickiest point in Orwell studies: what he meant by “decency.” The discussion is full of interesting observations, but we feel frustrated by the lack of a definite conclusion: like his predecessors, Williams is at a loss to provide a hard-and-fast definition, as we cannot be satisfied by the mere repetition of the trite remark “Decency is … very nearly the opposite of totalitarianism” (p. 90).

At least one aspect of this “decency” is in evidence in chapter 4, on “Ethics in Warfare”: “Orwell believed that it was possible to fight, and to win, without hatred, without stirring up war hysteria, without depicting the enemy as a monster or reducing him to an abstraction” (p. 100). There is also the difficult problem of propaganda—and we know that Orwell broadcast on the BBC with severe restrictions to his freedom of speech. For Williams the key to Orwell’s attitude is integrity: “lie, when you must, but do not be tempted to believe your own lies” (p. 109).

“Patriotism and Nationalism” are also inevitable topics when one speaks of George Orwell, and they form the subject of chapter 5. We are at last back to the idea of Orwell’s usefulness to the Left when the author writes that “for the war—or against—Orwell’s political thought was animated by the same set of concerns: ‘common decency,’ a desire for liberty and equality, and a love for England,” immediately adding: “It is the third of these that sounds incongruous—indeed, a bit scandalous—to those on the Left” (p. 116) and later: “Revolution is a continuation of tradition as much as an attack upon it. This is bad news for a Left preoccupied with its own sense of exceptionalism and prone to choosing symbolic battles over structural changes” (p. 119). The author’s partisan stance makes him draw on Orwell’s distinction between (defensive) patriotism (“Orwell loved England but not in the nationalist sense of wanting her advantage over others,” p. 134) and (aggressive) nationalism (p. 120) to start an unexpected attack on contemporary American presidents: “‘Nationalism’ (in the Orwellian sense) was almost the official ideology of George W. Bush’s presidency and continues to be practiced in even more vulgar form by Donald Trump.” To be fair, he also castigates “the radical Left” for its “intellectual blindness and groupthink” (p. 123), and as an American he comments—negatively—upon Brexit, “a victory for the right wing” (p. 131): here he definitely wades out of his depth, forgetting the visceral anti-Europeanism of the Labour leader, who comes from the old, insular, militant Left of the party. It becomes clear in that chapter why Williams is not prepared to bow to the exigencies of academic writing—though it is obvious that his superb knowledge of Orwell and his undeniable intellectual ability would fully qualify him. He, too, falls victim to “intellectual blindness” because of his avowed bias in favor of “the anti-capitalist Left.”

The next topic to be discussed is “The Question of Revolutionary Leadership” (chapter 6)—another difficult question, which raises all sorts of issues examined by Orwell in the wake of his Catalonian experience: discipline among equal revolutionaries, the revolutionaries as an untrained mob, a popular army or the people armed?, the danger of romanticizing revolutionary warfare. Here again, the author’s personal experience as an “anarchistic” member of a Copwatch shapes (those who do not belong to “the anti-capitalist Left” would say distorts) his analysis of Orwell’s position in the light of Mikhail Bakunin’s theory of the revolution.

In “Why the Left Fails” (chapter 7), Williams reverts to a purely didactic approach, simply presenting Orwell’s arguments—most taken from The Road to Wigan Pier—which speak for themselves. In fact, Williams has an easy job of it—he does not have to intrude with his personal “anarchistic” agenda—since these arguments continue to be perfectly relevant and topical today: the rift between the arrogant left-wing élites and the uneducated masses, the confiscation of the leadership of the Left by ambitious self-seekers, the off-putting confusion between “socialist,” radical, and marginal of the teetotal vegetarian sandal-wearing type doing his yoga exercises as denounced by Orwell.

In contrast, chapter 8 largely draws on Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” to serve Williams’s agenda again, his point being that things have not improved since Orwell’s time. From Williams, I learned the word “cis”  (e.g., in the phrase “cis men”). I thought I did not know it because I do not live in the proper circles and so have not kept abreast of the latest developments in the language—but I was reassured to read that “cis—an abbreviation of cisgender—only exists in certain marginal academic departments and in a very narrow sliver of the political spectrum” (p. 169). Williams’s point is related to that of chapter 7: this “very narrow sliver of the political spectrum” is incapable of communicating with the people, thus leading to “intellectual insularity, and ultimately irrelevance” (p. 174).

Chapter 8 was originally published in 2003, drawing as might be expected fierce criticism from those who were outraged by this attack, which ended with the offensive words: “And if a sentence cannot be translated from anarcho-English into plain English, there is a very good chance that it is meaningless” (p. 175). So, chapter 9 is a rejoinder, and here again he has an easy task, his opponents ironically proving his point by using the metaphor of the Tower of Babel in such an ignorant way that they imply that the story recounts “the imperial project of imposing a unitary logic on language and thought” (their words, p. 180). Likewise, they have not read their Nietzsche properly, and get mixed up when they misquote him on the “Apollonian and Dionysian duality” (p. 181). Orwell would no doubt have rejoiced before Williams’s supreme skill in confounding his anarchist “friends.”

“Pessimism in Politics” not surprisingly follows (chapter 10), examining Orwell’s response to Jonathan Swift, Henry Miller, Arthur Koestler, James Burnham, and Jack London. From his response, Williams draws some comfort: “Dystopias, it seems, do not last forever. Even totalitarian systems never quite manage to be total. There are always gaps, blindspots, faultlines, interstices, where other possibilities develop. Hope survives at the margins” (p. 196). 

The last chapter, on the Spanish Civil War and its legacy, is not uninteresting, but it looks as an artificial graft—as is often the case in this type of collection of essays, in which authors and editors never seem to be able to resist the temptation to include “one more.” It should have been left out, since the final paragraphs of chapter 10 provide an ideal conclusion to what is overall a thought-provoking book—at least for left-wing intellectuals, its natural readership, since of course the detractors of “the anti-capitalist Left” will immediately dismiss it as another example of the rantings of “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England’” (quoted from The Road to Wigan Pier, p. 174), though Williams does his best to dissociate himself from them.

Finally, all newcomers to George Orwell, whatever their political opinions, will benefit from the eight-page classified appendix, “Reading Orwell: A Study Plan.” Apart from Peter Lewis’s 1981 biography, all the recommended texts are wisely taken, not from the expensive twenty-volume edition by Peter Davison in 1998, which only libraries could afford, but from the classic four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (first published in 1968). Additionally, Williams is thoughtful enough not to give the page numbers, but only the list numbers of the essays in each volume—I am grateful since this enabled me to use my well-worn Penguin boxed set of 1970 paperbacks to look up some of these appendix entries.

I would not recommend Between the Bullet and the Lie to undergraduates following a course on George Orwell, but anyone undertaking an MA thesis (and a fortiori a PhD dissertation) on Orwell’s legacy should read it before starting.

Citation: Antoine Capet. Review of Williams, Kristian, Between the Bullet and the Lie: Essays on Orwell. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. July, 2018. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.