George Orwell, Christopher Hitchens and Raymond Williams
By Gwydion M. Williams
- These people [landowners] are just about as useful as so many tapeworms. (George Orwell)
- In power politics there are no crimes, because there are no laws. (Ibid.)
- The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them. (Orwell reviewing Hayek)
Orwell’s ‘Old Peculiar’ Socialism
Let The Heavens Fall—But Not In My Backyard
While Franco Marched ‘Widdershins’
Picking Up The Gauntlet
My father Raymond Williams was part of the generation that fought World War Two. The generation that broke fascism and then managed to build a better world after its downfall. The horror of modern war was known about and remembered in the 1930s, in a way that hadn’t been true in 1914. Indeed, many expected World War Two to be far worse for Britain than it actually was. Moreover, there was for most Britons a clear and definite gain to set against the loss and suffering. The Third Reich was destroyed. Fascism as a world force was destroyed. Those Britons who had liked Fascism up until 1938 were now embarrassed by it and unable to resist the dramatic changes brought about by the 1945 Labour Government. It was a ‘found’ generation, in contrast to the ‘Lost Generation’ of World War One. The twisted politics of the 1930s ended with a massive advance for the Left, both during the war and after 1945.
From the 1980s, the post-1945 achievements have been sneered at by the New Right. Associations with the Soviet Union are pointed out and seen as discreditable. Errors were made, certainly. But the British Tories and the whole of the USA had no hesitation about working with the Soviet Union when they needed them in the years 1941 to 1945. Were willing to let them have half Germany and most of ‘Middle Europe’, for as long as they thought Russia would settle for that and not continue its global socialist mission.
What actually happened was a continuing global struggle, with Soviet pressure forcing the West’s rulers to concede welfare to their own people, freedom to their colonial subjects, equality to women and to ethnic minorities.
The Soviet Union from the 1920s to 1950s was in many ways closer to the modern West than the modern West is to the West of that period. Up until the 1950s, the West was much closer to fascism than is now admitted. Western Europe and the USA moved gradually towards social values that were once called ‘communist’ and ‘subversive’. They were never exclusive to communists, of course. But is it just a coincidence that they prevailed at a time when the West was in desperate competition with the Soviet bloc?
In the end, the West proved more open to radical change. The machinery of a Leninist party is impressive when it is run by idealists full of enthusiasm for a new world. When this gets lost, it bogs down and stagnates. But failures in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s doesn’t change the merits of what was originally done.
Changes successfully implemented in the USSR in the 1930s include racial equality, women doing jobs previously reserved for men, the abolition of rigid class barriers, a relaxed view of women having sex outside of marriage. Conversely, radical measures favoured by many pre-1914 socialists made much less progress when they had been rejected or ignored by Leninists.
Workers Control, Vegetarianism, ‘Green issues’ and Gay Rights remained marginal until Leninism began to lose its prestige in the 1960s. They might have remained marginal if older US values had not been discredited when they fled South Vietnam from the roof of their own embassy. The long-running protests by the West’s ‘Alternative Society’ were vindicated; meantime the Soviet Union looked less like ‘the country of the future’, having crushed its own Alternative Society in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
In the 1960s it was also noticed that there were limits to the USSR’s official policy of rooting out racism and sexual inequality. Non-white students in Moscow found that they were not really accepted. And from the very start, the Bolsheviks had had a ‘glass ceiling’ for women, rather worse than the sort that the West has now. Women could have important jobs without any family connection, but not all that important. Bolshevik leader Alexandra Kollantai was first woman to be part of a government without important male relatives who had established a family reputation, but she remained an exception. Still, it was a beginning, and just part of what Bolshevism did for us. But not what Bolshevism now gets remembered for.
Time passed. Memories faded. Even though two-thirds of the actual fighting in World War Two took place on the Eastern Front, battles fought by the USA got the most attention from Hollywood. People were given the impression that the USA had sprung nobly to the defence of an Europe overrun by tyrants—never mind that most of those tyrants came to power after the US started the Great Slump with its crazy Wall Street speculation.
The Second World War was primarily caused by the British Foreign Office. The final generation of Imperialists would do almost anything to try to save the British Empire. Since they failed, the past had to be adjusted to match the new reality. Tory politicians who’d tried to use Hitler as a tool against Communism got re-invented as well-meaning bumblers facing a gigantic Fascist monster.
Germany before the Munich Agreement wasn’t all that strong. Many of the tanks that the Guderian used so effectively against the French were of Czech manufacture, would have been on the Allied side without Chamberlain. But it was easy to mix up the years and to pretend that Hitler was always as strong as he became after Britain’s Tories had allowed him several years of easy victories.
In a similar spirit, the US was portrayed as the great defender of democracy, without regard for its passive part during those years. The blockade of Spain by the Western powers—a violation of all existing norms—helped ensure the overthrow of the elected government of the Spanish Republic by an alliance of fascists and militarists. It’s a topic where the USA cannot look good, so it’s a topic the modern USA avoids. Hemmingway’s once-famous account, For Whom The Bell Tolls, has not been filmed again despite the great success of the 1943 version. (There was apparently a 1965 television version, see [http://www.imdb.com/], but nothing more.)
Orwell’s miserable Homage To Catalonia has become the book that everyone reads, even though Catalonia was a quiet sector that collapsed quite quickly after the Military-Rightists achieved a breakthrough further south. The Far-Left P.O.U.M had one-eighth of the Republic’s forces in Catalonia, maybe 2% of the Republic’s total for the whole of Spain. They were far too weak to win on their own, but contributed to the Republic’s fatal factionalism. A quarrelsomeness that stood in sharp contrast to the increasing unity of their enemies.
Franco’s Military-Rightists regime was not like German Nazism, or even Italian Fascism. But it stood for the preservation of old-fashioned values, and had lots of friends at the time. Baldwin and Chamberlain encouraged the French idea of ‘non-intervention’, even though it broke all existing norms by preventing a legal government buying armament abroad.
The Republic was initially a government of non-socialist Republicans. The Communists were a minor party until the blockade made the Soviet Union the only feasible source of armaments. But the simple existence of a determined reforming government was enough to offend the Centre-Right. Churchill in 1946 said:
“None of us like the Franco regime, and, personally, I like it as little as I like the present British Administration, but, between not liking a Government and trying to stir up a civil war in a country, there is a very wide interval.” (Citied in Franco, by Paul Preston. Page 559 of the paperback edition.)
The government of Clement Attlee, moderate and democratic and later to help found NATO, was to Churchill quite as offensive as Franco’s dictatorship. Understandably, since Franco used dictatorial means to preserve the hierarchies and ‘family values’ that Churchill also cherished. Churchill had been even more friendly to Mussolini, in the days before Mussolini lined up with Hitler and became an evident menace to the British Empire. Attlee, of course, signed the Empire’s death-warrant by arranging for Indian independence in 1947. Churchill hated the end of Imperialism, hated it rather more than he hated non-German fascism.
The New Right in the 1980s got away with claiming continuity with the very different society that existed before 1914. The entire First World War must be ‘off-balance-sheet’, because Britain had chosen to fight and had repeatedly refused Germany offers of a peace that would accept the war as a stalemate. A faction within the British government had in fact been planning for years for a war against Germany. They saw global conflict as the best answer to Germany’s emergence as a strong power with an economy that was overtaking Britain as ‘workshop of the world’.
The New Right dare not ask just why the pre-1914 world order ripped itself apart in an apparently senseless war, an intermittent 31-year conflict in which Germany and the British Empire ruined each other and left the world divided between the USA and Soviet Union. The New Right are committed to the idea that ‘Trade equals Peace’. The pre-1914 society was doing fine in a booming global economy until it suffered an unexpected outbreak of Trench Warfare. Or else it was ‘Prussian militarism’ – never mind that Prussian militarism of a much rougher sort had saved Wellington at Waterloo.
Closer to the time, no one dared speak such rubbish. People up until the 1960s agreed that the two World Wars were caused by trade rivalries. They remembered that the Daily Mail had once been very fond of Hitler. They knew that many Tories had once viewed Nazi Germany as a ‘friendly power’.
The world in 1945 or 1955 knew that the pre-1914 world order was gone forever. Most people did not miss it. Of course the world then was also a very different place from the world of 2005. The post-1945 settlement had been unexpectedly successful, far better than most people dared to hope at the time. Far from sinking below the standards of the pre-1914 world, the vision of 1984, it rose far above them. But 1950s society was also repressive and stuffy by modern standards. Sexual freedom was ‘communist’ up until the 1960s, when it was suddenly discovered that it wasn’t communist at all. Likewise the abolition of class distinctions and the undermining of the middle-classes’ once-cherished notion of ‘respectability. All such things were called ‘communist’ until mainstream opinion shifted and decided that they were normal.
Unchanging Human Nature isn’t what it used to be. ‘The human animal doesn’t change’, say the people who found themselves on top of the heap after the massive changes of the 20th century. Do they really not know that saying the ‘human animal’ would once have been massively controversial? You can find most modern opinions existing way back in the past. But views that were once fringe are now mainstream, and vice versa.
The passing of the old imperialist-liberal order should not be regretted. Liberalism was a house built upon sands, and there’s blood upon the walls. Europe’s ‘golden age’ before 1914 was only golden for those with gold in their pockets. Even they would only flourish if they were smug and hard-hearted, had private lives that were not too far outside the accepted norm, and were lucky enough not to catch one of the many diseases that we can now cure. (Tuberculosis, for instance, the malady than finished off George Orwell.)
The West in 1945 was utterly different from the West in 1914. The ‘Democratic Imperialists’ in Britain, France etc. absorbed a great many things from both Fascism and Leninism. This was also true of the USA’s Plutophile Democrats—Plutophile in that most middling and poor people have an admiration for rich people that you just don’t find in Europe. The USA had no colonial empire and so anti-imperialism was not classed as ‘Communist’. But racial equality and attacks on segregation were called ‘Communist’, and in fact mostly were Communist. Only when the US saw its international image getting harmed by racism did the ruling circles take the risk of moving against it. (Trampling on state rights in the process, and maybe even violating the constitution. But the constitution is only violated when the legal elite say it is, and they chose to say that Federally-imposed desegregation was legal.)
The New Right is not racist, but it would not have won many US elections without the votes of racists who used to be solid Democrats. The Republican Party used Libertarian ideology to bridge the gap between people who do not really belong together. It helps that the USA has hung onto an 18th century electoral system that did not make allowance for parties, and has had the same two governing parties for more than 150 years.
The West changed—as indeed did the Soviet Block, but too little and too slowly, especially after Brezhnev crushed the hopeful Czechoslovak experiment in 1968. The Soviet Block stagnated, the West changed and the idea of an input from Leninism became taboo. Nearer the time, it was not so, because people knew the issues.
A Book Of New Right Martyrs would be an extremely short book. Mostly they co-opt brave people from completely different causes. What they’re good at is asset-stripping the achievements of past political systems that had very different motivations and ideals. And the behaviour of most of the Left has made it easy for them to do it.
In the 1970s, there were two roads that Britain could have taken. One was to build on the achievements of the 1945 Labour government. Many Britons had always shown a strong social concern and wanted to ensure that everyone was looked after. The idea of ‘Workers Control’ or Industrial Democracy was also strong: allow employees a much larger say in the running of their work-places. That was one way forward: the other was a ‘grabocracy’, a system where everyone takes what they can. Industrial militancy aimed just at higher wages fed into this dog-eat-dog process: not ‘smashing the system’ but changing it in a very negative way. It wasn’t exactly a capitalist plot; managements then were scared of their employees and ‘capitalism’ was a dirty word. But Thatcher showed that there could be considerable support for a ‘grabocracy’ among the working class, especially as it became more prosperous and mobile.
A ‘grabocracy’ is the logical response where trust breaks down. By undermining trust in existing institutions, the ‘Hard Left’ helped the process along. There was an unreasonable fear of ‘corporatism’—can you imagine a coherent human society that isn’t potentially corporatist? The only real alternative to state power is to be tribal—a group that demands your entire identity. It was the desire of individuals to escape their tribal identity that helped states to rise in the first place. The norm for states has been bureaucracy and inequality, and yet people have always found that they needed them.
The best solution would have been a participatory state with democratic control, not just elected representatives at the top, but participation at all levels. This has happened to a degree, but much better possibilities existed in the 1960s and 1970s. Two roads existed then, and the worse one was taken. Rather than a drift to dreaded ‘corporatism’, there was a spread of freedom combined with callousness and indifference.
In the 1960s and 1970s, most of the ‘Hard Left’ showed a puzzling determination to distance itself from socialist successes in the 1940s and 1950s. Contemptuous of the past and scared of the future, many leftists saw new technology just as a threat, with no wish to hear about anything positive. ‘Don’t bring me solutions; bring me something I can protest about’. Such attitudes helped the New Right to claim past gains as successes for ‘capitalism’, and their politics the ‘wave of the future’.
My father wrote several books showing how existing and future technology could be used for either socialist ends or for crude commerce. He was always clear that a lot of things had changed for the better in his own lifetime, and that more could change within the existing framework, a ‘Long Revolution’. Change for better or worse, and many things have indeed got worse. The British press has now lost most of its remaining dignity. Television has become 101 channels of trivia funded by advertising, something he warned against. And the unforeseen growth of the Internet keeps being hampered by the need to sell information as a commercial product, with state-funded free supply very much out of favour.
On the other hand, video and DVD allow people to watch the film of their choice rather than being given whatever looks suitable to get them watching the adverts. The Internet is widely used for free supply of information, put there by people who know that the world did not begin in 1970 and is maybe overdue for another massive shift in values. If you asked ‘who wants to be a post-human’, or any of the other things the New Right is offering us, the lack of enthusiasm would be massive. The struggle remains entirely ‘live’.
Looking At Orwell
As part of his general attempt to move socialism on from its old battlefields, my father wrote in 1971 a short book about George Orwell. He’d been asked to write it as part of a series called ‘Modern Masters’, but also he’d long been wanting to do a book about Orwell. He viewed the man as a lost sheep from the Socialist flock. A man who had begun from reasonable criticisms of the Soviet Union and wandered into some very odd positions. Orwell ended up as a maker of propaganda that fitted nicely to the USA’s side in the Cold War. Yet only a fool would lump Orwell with the modern New Right.
The system of the USA’s New Right is not the world’s only dishonest system. It is the only dishonest system that is currently intent on imposing itself on the rest of the world, without exception or exemption. There is a world-wide struggle to grab the attention of globalised consumers—a right not to have your attention grabbed is no part of their understanding of freedom. And as part of the general pre-packaging of culture, it has assimilated Orwell in a manner quite as unnatural as assimilation by the cybernetic ‘Borg’ in Star Trek.
Nothing that the New Right offers is very attractive. Up until the fall of the Warsaw Pact, you could reasonably say that the immediate alternative was worse. I supported NATO back then, on just that basis. But when the Soviet Union ceased to be a rival, the USA lost little time in showing that it too was intent on swallowing the rest of the world. It calls this a ‘Crusade for Freedom’—or maybe a ‘Something-Or-Other for Freedom’, when they remember that ‘Crusades’ don’t play well with Muslims. But the reality hasn’t played very well with Christians either, not outside of some of the USA’s own ‘Cowboy Christians’. Their sort of freedom produces greedy, aggressive, uninteresting people. People who can only count success as having more than other people, which is a guarantor of general stress and unhappiness. Orwell would surely have hated it—but in Orwell’s day, no such thing was imaginable.
My father’s book shows in detail that Orwell’s view had been odd all along. In The Road To Wigan Pier, Orwell gives a misleading picture, concentrating just on the unfortunates and incompetents, completely ignoring the large number of working people who were keeping their dignity and developing their culture and politics in the face of economic hardship. He is like an outsider looking for sensational misery among ‘the natives’, and indeed his background was in Britain’s overseas white elite. He was actually born in British India, the offspring of colonial officials who had a deep belief in keeping a large distance between themselves and the ‘natives’. Orwell protests at this in Burmese Days, but never manages to go further and imagine himself one of the underlings, in the way that Jack London sometimes did.
Even among white Britons, Orwell remained almost as much an outsider in Britain as he had been as a white colonial administrator:
“It is impossible to convince most people who had Orwell’s kind of separate education that they are not, in the most central ways, English. For of course the definition of ‘England’, its myth and its ideology, has been for more than a century in just these hands. This is the class which does most of the writing, which directs not only its own but most other institutions, and which, travelling abroad, is known to most of the world as ‘the English’. A world-view of England, we can fairly say, has been based on the character of this tiny minority.” (Orwell, by Raymond Williams, Chapter 2.)
Maybe one-twentieth of British society had a serious involvement with the non-white portions of the British Empire. For most of the society, it was something distant and exotic and they never missed it once it was gone. It may have helped Britain’s industrial revolution, although other European nations industrialised with few colonies or no colonies. You could argue that England and West Europe as a whole was dependent on the sort of ‘neo-colonial’ or ‘Globalist’ relationships that were preserved after the military-political empires were wound up. That’s a separate matter: the World Wars were very much bound up with the British ruling class wanting to preserve the military-political empire without much regard for its economic costs or benefits.
In the 20th century, the global empire and the ruling class’s desire to remain rulers of a Superpower had got ordinary Britons involved in two long and costly World Wars. Wars caused by the incompetence of this ruling stratum, who twice managed to drop the nation into almost the same hole.
The effective end of the British Empire came in 1947, when the bulk of it separated as Pakistan and the Republic of India. The empire had probably been doomed since the Fall of Singapore in 1942. But Attlee’s Labour government were anti-colonial as a matter of principle.
Young Eric Blair—‘George Orwell’ was only a pen-name—came from Britain’s doomed colonial stratum, the son of an agent in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service. Peddling narcotics to the Chinese was a respectable profession, as such things were judged at the time. All of his life, Orwell was aware of the difference between his stratum and others who might qualify as middle class. “Mr. Wells, like Dickens, belongs to the non-military middle class. The thunder of guns, the jingle of spurs, the catch in the throat when the old flag goes by, leave him manifestly cold. He has an invincible hatred of the fighting, hunting, swashbuckling side of life.”
Dickens found plenty of interest in Britain without the need to go overseas and harass foreigners. Wells dreamt of an idealised imperialism, a World State that would harass foreigners into being happy and equal English-speakers. He could also sometimes see things from the viewpoint of the downtrodden natives who were being swashbucked-over by imperialist adventurers.
Piracy, slave-trading and plunder were the source of England’s global power. English is a regional variant of the West-Germanic: it wouldn’t have got where it is today without slave-trading, plunder and piracy. Honesty in India would not have won an empire. Without a global English-speaking Empire, English might count for little more than Swedish in the wider world. Of course Sweden was for a time the core of an empire. You could imagine them getting bigger, marching across Siberia, even into the Pacific Coast of North America. It would be a nice ‘Alternate History’ for someone to make a novel out of.
In real history, Sweden got exhausted by endless wars, especially since the Russians had an amazing capacity to keep coming back every time they were defeated. The Great Northern War (1700-1721) ended their dreams of empire. Sweden went back to being a nation-state, while both Russia and Britain formed gigantic empires. In the end, though, what was the gain for ordinary Britons from all the ‘swashbuckling’? There were just a few winners, Orwell’s stratum and the ruling class above it.
Of course the rest of the society had some connections to the global Empire. England as an ordinary nation-state might have been a quieter and less densely populated place – England’s population density is one of the highest in the world, while the ‘Celtic Fringes’ are under-populated. If the British Isles as a whole had the same population density as Germany, there would be 31 million people living in England, 16 million in the Republic of Ireland—but that is a topic for another article. The point I want t make it that the end of the political-military empire was followed by the fastest growth the Britain had ever had in its entire history. Orwell’s class lost their standing. most of the society did fine in the new world order.
After being educated in England, Orwell returned to South Asia, becoming a policeman in Burma. He gave this up after five years, for unclear reasons. By his own account, he had become an anti-Imperialist when he resigned in 1927, but did not become a socialist until 1930. He clearly got sickened by the role he was being asked to play, but was at his weakest when it came to imagining some positive alternative. He lived till 1950, by which time British India had vanished. Without India, the rest of the Empire made much less sense. The actual winding-up was messy, partition in the Indian subcontinent, wars in Malaya and Kenya, Suez etc. But these were about trying to control the post-imperial order, rather than trying to preserve the Empire as such.
Orwell, who was wrong in most of his prophecies, did not realise that Europe’s 450 years of successful Global Imperialism was drawing to a close. 1984 foresees a future in which there are three global empires directly ruling the rest of the world, not a return to the older pattern of Great Powers supporting friendly regimes, as has actually happened. Disliking imperialism, Orwell was also unable to think beyond it.
My father said of Orwell’s privileged stratum:
“It is necessary to describe it as a ruling class, and at that time the ruling class of an empire. But only part of the class was quite wholly in command: able to live on its property and investments, or to move directly into the central metropolitan institutions. A much larger part had a harder and humbler function. Their education, essentially, was as servants of a system to which they belonged only as functionaries. And it was these people who went out to the edge of the system, facing its realities directly Eric Blair [George Orwell] was born into what he later called, in exactly this sense, the ‘lower-upper-middle-class’. Theoretically a member of the ruling class… men like him were in practice on the outer edge of the system… The fear of dropping out of the class of which they are literally the bottom edge can produce more rigid and more blatant definitions of their ‘England’ than might be found in the relaxed and comfortable centre. (Orwell, by Raymond Williams.)
I’d prefer to call this group the ‘Almost-Ruling Class’, and it is very much still with us. And there were gaps in Orwell’s understanding. Raymond Williams explains:
“It is much easier to despise the ruling class than to hate and break them. Orwell’s comic uncles and aunts are a recurring radical image, but to see the actual ruling class in that way is in the end an indulgence, dependent emotionally on that very middle-class image of England as a family… Orwell was nearer the facts of the society he was observing, when he wrote, with an anger he usually reserved for his enemies on the left, of ‘the rat-trap faces of bankers and the brassy laughter of stockbrokers’, against which all criticism broke.
“The difficulty, surely, lies in the original image of a family. Orwell hated what he saw of the consequences of capitalism, but he was never able to see it, fully, as an economic and political system. His great strength in personalising particular injustices was not supported by any adequate understanding of the forces involved.”
From the 1980s, if not before, Britain no longer had a real ruling class. Instead there is an irregular stratum of rich people who might be from almost anywhere, who do not expect deference and who mostly try to avoid duties and responsibilities. These are a stratum ‘able to live on its property and investments’, but as a kind of ‘Overclass’. People detached from their neighbours, in the same way that some societies have an Underclass that is quite distinct from the ordinary ‘working poor’.
Most of what’s left of the ‘Almost-Ruling Class’ clusters round the new Overclass, serving it and being paid by it and saying all sorts of rubbish to justify the privilege of the stratum that sits above them. A stratum that may well despise the nonsense they talk, but pays them anyway because they are useful.
I hadn’t taken any notice of Christopher Hitchens until October 2004, when my sister rang me about an item in Private Eye, where Raymond Williams was apparently accused of lies about the Spanish Civil War. Of course my father never wrote about the Spanish Civil War, except in passing in the Orwell book. But it turned out that he’d been accused of “ingenious dishonesty and evasion” by Christopher Hitchens in his book on Orwell.
My sister wrote a letter to Private Eye, and was of course ignored. There’s an old rural saying: ‘what do you expect from a pig except a grunt?’ I read Private Eye mostly for its humour—claims to inside information are sometimes true but never very reliable, while a lot of the judgements are shallow and naïve. ‘Eye-don’t-care’ is their normal attitude. Forget Private Eye; Hitchens is the source, Hitchens needs to be taken on.
My father’s book discussed the background to Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia. May 1937 was the high point in the tensions between the elected Republican government of Spain and left-wing militants in Catalonia. In the actual circumstances of Spain 1937, you might have thought that left-wing militants could have found something better to do than quarrel with an anti-fascist government. The Republic had been losing ground ever since General Franco had brought Spain’s ‘Army Of Africa’ to the Spanish mainland in July-August 1936. The Military-Rightists, who called themselves ‘Nationalists’, were well supplied with German and Italian weapons, as well as being supported by German pilots, Italian soldiers and Moorish mercenaries from their own colonial territories. Britain and France were officially neutral, but the British government and most of the ruling class wanted the Nationalists to win.
The USA also stayed neutral—President Roosevelt needed the support of US Catholic politicians, who overwhelmingly supported the Military-Rightists. Roosevelt was also not a committed foe of fascism until maybe 1938. He never did help the democratically elected Republic in Spain, and the USA was happy to prop up Franco for as long as he lived. Spain today is ruled by a Socialist Party that was part of the Spanish Republic and is not feeling especially friendly towards the USA.
Spanish politics in the 1930s were a great oddity by West European standards. The society was torn four ways, two rival left-wing tendencies and two rivals on the right. Franco managed to reconcile the traditionalist-religious Carlists with the militarists and fascist elements. The Left remained split between a Socialist party founded by Marxists and a strong Anarchist movement that had been started by followers of Bakunin. Anarchists and Socialists had been at odds from the start, reflecting the wider European quarrels of the First International. The Russian Revolution did not healed the division, not after Lenin broke Russian Anarchism in a way the Tsars had failed to do. (It did this in part because it was close to anarchism, could absorb some anarchists and then set these converts against old friends whose nature they well understood—but this too is a topic for another article.)
In Spain there was also P.O.U.M., a group of Spanish communists who had rejected Stalin but then also quarrelled with Trotsky. But P.O.U.M. was a smallish party in Catalonia and barely existed in the rest of Spain. In practice P.O.U.M. were an add-on to the Anarchists.
In 1937, the majority parties of the Republic faced a steady erosion of their position. They tried to change Western opinion by curbing their own left-wing. Or rather their non-Communist left-wing; the Spanish Communists accepted the Comintern’s Popular Front policy and insisted that ‘bourgeois democracy’ must be propped up for the time being, given that ‘revolutionary crises’ were spreading fascism rather than left-wing power. So they supported a curbing of the Anarchists, but did this in full agreement with the non-socialist Republican parties and the moderate wing of the Socialists. In Barcelona, they were doing this by stages until there was a sudden working-class uprising after the Republic’s Assault Guards took over the Barcelona telephone exchange. They’d not done this without reason: every source I’ve seen agrees that the Anarchist telephone workers had been tapping everyone else’s telephone conversations. But it was a further shift in the balance of power, which led to an armed demonstration of force by the Anarchist militias of the city.
“While he [Orwell] was at the front in the early months of 1937, he listened to endless arguments about the future of the war and the revolution. The situation was indeed so complicated that there was virtually no limit to the argument. In broad outline, it was said on the one hand that everything must be subordinated to the duty of defeating the fascist armies, and on the other that fascism could be defeated only if there was a simultaneous social revolution. In subsequent historical accounts, these cases have been repeated and examined, in great detail and often with bitterness. To move in that area at all is like moving in a minefield. Most historians have taken the view that the revolution—mainly anarcho-syndicalist but with the P.O.U.M taking part—was an irrelevant distraction from a desperate war. Some, at the time and after, have gone so far as to describe it as deliberate sabotage of the war effort. Only a few have argued on the other side, that the suppression of the revolution by the main body of Republican forces was an act of power politics, related to Soviet policy, which amounted to a betrayal of the cause for which the Spanish people were fighting. (Orwell, by Raymond Williams. Emphasis added.)
Hitchens quotes less than half of this paragraph, he quotes only the sentences after ‘to move in that area at all is like moving in a minefield’. Judge for yourself whether this is a significant omission. And even the words he quotes hardly justifies Hitchens’s comment:
“This short drab paragraph manages to be replete with ingenious dishonesty and evasion. The words ‘most historians’ is meaningless; no such consensus exists or ever has. We are not told which ‘historians’ take the view that Nin and Orwell were ‘deliberate’ saboteurs; in other words that they were fascists or fascist sympathisers… ‘The main body of Republican forces’ sounds good, if deliberately vague. ‘Power politics’ is a neutral way of saying realpolitik; it gives the impression of stern but regrettable necessity.” (Orwell’s Victory, by Christopher Hitchens, Penguin 2002. In the USA it is called Why Orwell Matters.)
My father gets condemns, because he recorded the simple fact that most commentators from 1937 to 1971 did regard P.O.U.M and the Anarchists as fools or traitors. He was willing to question this view, and suggested that Orwell had a point. But the anti-P.O.U.M and anti-Anarchist view was the Received Standard position, the consensus that you need to argue against.
Consider what else was happening at the time. The Republic was steadily losing ground, despite heroic efforts by some Republican forces, mostly those influenced by the Communists. The general picture was:
January 17: The Nationalists begin the battle to take Málaga. Three Nationalist columns converge on the city from Seville and Granada.
February 6: The Republican troops arrive in Almera, after a badly organized retreat from Málaga under continuous bombardment by German artillery.
February 6-24: The Nationalist offensive of Jarama, by the forces under General Orgaz, attempts to isolate Madrid…
March 8-18: The Battle of Guadalajara, another attempt to isolate Madrid. After a rapid advance of Nationalist and Italian troops, the Republicans counterattack, aided by Soviet tanks and airplanes; the Italians suffer a serious defeat.
March 31: Start of General Mola’s Nationalist offensive to take Bilbao …
April 19: Decree of Unification: Franco declares the amalgamation of the Falange and the Carlists…
April 26: Bombardment of Guernica by the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion.
May 3-8: Revolt by the anarchist P.O.U.M and CNT in Barcelona.
May 17: The government of Largo Caballero falls. Doctor Juan Negrín, socialist, becomes head of the government.
June 3: Nationalist General Mola dies in an airplane accident…
June 16: The P.O.U.M is outlawed and its leaders are arrested
June 17: The Jaime I, one of the Republican’s best ships, is sunk in Cartagena.
June 19: Bilbao taken by the nationalists, causing the collapse of the defensive system known as the “Cinturón de Hierro” (“Belt of Iron”).
June 21: Soviet agents assasinate P.O.U.M leader Andreu Nin.
July 7-26: The Battle of Brunete. Attempting to reduce the Nationalist pressure on Madrid… The Nationalist counterattack… almost completely wipes out this gain.
November 31: The Republican government abandons Valencia for Barcelona.
December 15: Start of the Battle of Teruel.
This source is typical in blaming P.O.U.M and the Barcelona Anarchists for the ‘May Events. I could quote many more, but you need do no more than read Orwell to learn that he was protesting at the majority view:
“It is the left-wing papers, the News Chronicle and the Daily Worker, with their far subtler methods of distortion, that have prevented the British public from grasping the real nature of the struggle.” (Spilling The Spanish Beans).
Orwell also predicted coexistence between the Republic and Franco, which helps explain why he wasn’t taken very seriously at the time. Franco was fighting to crush the entire left and even the liberal centre; to suppose coexistence was to miss the core of Franco’s mission, which continued long after the military victory. While the war was still being fought, most people agreed that the Communists and their disciplined approach was the main hope of the Republic; this included many who had no liking for Communism as such. The refusal of the Anarchists and P.O.U.M to accept the authority of the Republic’s government was seen as a weakness:
“The republican cause suffered from internal differences much more fundamental than were to be found on the other side, and serious clashes occurred. A miniature civil war within the Civil War was caused by an Anarcho-Syndicalists rising that raged for a week in Barcelona… Large-scale plot and spy trials were frequent, some of them implicating anomalously placed Trotskyists, whose group, known as the P.O.U.M. .. was the Cinderella of the republican family.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1966 edition).
Gerald Brenan’s The Spanish Labyrinth, first published in 1943 and still one of the standard books, says:
“Matters came to a head in May when, as the result of a somewhat obscure incident, there were three days of street fighting in Barcelona… Communist insistence procured the suppression of the P.O.U.M., who as ‘Trotskyist’ heretics were especially hated by Stalin, and the prosecution of its leaders on the absurd charges of treason and collaboration with the enemy. Although the other members of the Government prevented any executions, Andreas Nin … was secretly murdered in prison. While few shed any tears over the fate of these Left-wing Marxists, the Anarchists could not help seeing that they were next on the list.
Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls—written in 1940 and regarded by some as his greatest book—shows sympathy for the plight of the Spanish Republicans in their doomed war. But no homage to Catalonia: P.O.U.M. are mentioned as a bit of a joke, comic-opera revolutionaries. Here the hero is talking to Karkov, a Russian journalist and the hero’s most reliably ally in a confused war:
‘You are not very cheerful to-day.’
‘No,’ Karkov had said. ‘I have just come back from Valencia where I have seen many people. No one comes back very cheerful from Valencia. In Madrid you feel good and clean and with no possibility of anything but winning. Valencia is something else. The cowards who fled from Madrid still govern there. They have settled happily into the sloth and bureaucracy of governing. They have only contempt for those of Madrid. Their obsession now is the weakening of the commissariat for war. And Barcelona. You should see Barcelona.’
‘How is it?’
‘It is all still comic opera. First it was the paradise of the crackpots and the romantic revolutionists. Now it is the paradise of the fake soldier. The soldiers who like to wear uniforms, who like to strut and swagger and wear red-and-black scarves. Who like everything about war except to fight. Valencia makes you sick and Barcelona makes you laugh.’
‘What about the P.O.U.M. putsch?’
‘The P.O.U.M. was never serious. It was a heresy of crackpots and wild men and it was really just an infantilism. There were some honest misguided people. There was one fairly good brain and there was a little fascist money. Not much. The poor P.O.U.M. They were very silly people.
‘But were many killed in the putsch?’
‘Not so many as were shot afterwards or will be shot. The P.O.U.M. It is like the name. Not serious. They should have called it the M.U.M.P.S. or the M.E.A.S.L.E.S. But no. The Measles is much more dangerous. It can affect both sight and hearing. But they made one plot you know to kill me, to kill Walter, to kill Modesto and to kill Prieto. You see how badly mixed up they were? We are not at all alike. Poor P.O.U.M. They never did kill anybody. Not at the front nor anywhere else. A few in Barcelona, yes.’
‘Were you there?’
‘Yes. I have sent a cable describing the wickedness of that infamous organization of Trotskyite murderers and their fascist machinations all beneath contempt but, between us. It is not very serious, the P.O.U.M. Nin was their only man. We had him but he escaped from our hands.’
‘Where is he now?’
‘In Paris. We say he is in Paris. He was a very pleasant fellow, but with bad political aberrations.’
‘But they were in communication with the fascists, weren’t they?’
‘Who is not?’
‘We are not.’
‘Who knows? I hope we are not.’
Hemingway clearly let the Communists do a lot of his thinking for him, when it came to Spanish politics. Not, indeed, that he was unaware that Nin had been murdered in prison—he has Karkov say that Nin was a very pleasant fellow, which is not what Karkov would say if the man had believed his own story about Nin escaping to Paris. But Hemingway’s non-Communist hero make a practical judgement that the Communists were the most efficient fighters—a point agreed by almost everyone.
Though they get romanticised nowadays, at the time it was recognised that P.O.U.M’s militia was small and inefficient. They blamed a lack of weapons, but most fighters on the Republican side had old weapons; even the International Brigade was not notably better off. Revolutionary movements have managed to grow strong from very small beginnings—but no Trotskyists, nor any movement close to Trotskyism. P.O.U.M had not managed to grow into a third Spanish left that might compete seriously with the Anarchists and the Communist + Socialist alignment. They were to be found where the fighting was thinnest: on a front that moved very little between the outbreak of fighting and the collapse of the Republic in the north-east.
Consider also the views of an English veteran of the Spanish struggle, writing in 1942:
“The Trotskyist thesis that the war could have been won if the revolution had not been sabotaged was probably false. To nationalise factories, demolish churches, and issue revolutionary manifestos would not have made the armies more efficient. The Fascists won because they were the stronger; they had modern arms and the others hadn’t. No political strategy could offset that.”
This, remarkably, is Orwell himself (Looking Back on the Spanish War). Over the years, his vision of truth migrated all over the place. Though he was never a Trotskyist—he was in fact anti-Leninist—the position he condemns in 1942 was his own position in Homage To Catalonia. At the time it was a forgotten work that had sold less than a thousand copies.
Of course a bad initial sale does not always mean a bad book. At the dawn of the 20th century, Henry James was complaining to his friend H. G. Wells that his latest book had only sold four copies. (Henry James & H G Wells, Rupert Hart-Davis, p21.) But Homage To Catalonia’s obscurity in 1942 explains why Orwell could contradict what he had said a few years earlier, without explanation.
The massive inconsistencies in Orwell get ignored. He has now become famous, and has been ‘privatised’, hived off into a world of New Right attitudes that he would have hated. My father correctly located Orwell as a socialist with points in common with the New Left . But that’s not where he currently gets placed.
The latest biography on Orwell—D J Taylor’s Orwell: The Life—repeats Hitchens’s accusations almost verbatim. And also goes beyond anything Hitchens says:
“There is also another kind of Marxist critic of Orwell who did not serve in Spain and whose conclusions are intended to serve somewhat narrower ideological ends, or rather to deflect any blame that might attach itself to the Soviet Union.” This is followed by Hitchens’s quote from my father’s book.
Raymond Williams was 14 years old when the Spanish Civil War began. At the time he was also an advocate of international law, peace and pacifism, getting a scholarship in 1937 to visit the League of Nations in Geneva. He joined the Communist Party in late 1939, when it was clear that hopes for peace had failed, but far from clear whether the ‘Phoney War’ would ever turn real. If Lord Halifax had succeeded Chamberlain rather than letting Churchill take over, it never would have.
My father actually decided to join the British Army in late 1940, before the Fall of France. He had enough of a pacifist past to have avoided a call-up if he had wished to, but that was not his wish. He also made this choice while the Communist Party still opposed the war and called it ‘inter-imperialist’. As it happened, he was expected to first complete his exams for the academic year 1940-1941, which meant that he was no longer out of line with the Party by the time he joined. Despite which, he ceased to have any Party ties once in the army, although he said:
“I would not have said I ceased to be a communist. I don’t fully understand this myself. But when we invaded France in 1944, I very consciously carried a map of the whole of Europe together with my ordinary battle maps, and my whole sense of the fighting was that this was a common struggle with the Red Army. My absence from the Party in England involved absolutely no change in my political position. What I did feel, I think, was that I had moved beyond the particular social milieu of Cambridge Communism—it was not my world”. (Politics & Letters.)
Nor did he ever rejoin the Party, but sought to develop a different viewpoint, what became the New Left. But:
“In the Britain of the fifties, along every road that you moved, the figure of Orwell seemed to be waiting… if you engaged in any kind of socialist argument, there was an enormously inflated statue of Orwell warning you to go back… The Orwell history seemed to me more complex and contradictory. Here was a man who said that every word he had written was for democratic socialism, and who fought for it in Catalonia as a revolutionary, yet so much of whose writing is clearly anti-socialist in a general way and not just on particular questions, and indeed has had an enormous anti-socialist effect.” (Ibid.)
Taylor knows none of this—he has not even read my father’s little book, which would have taught him far more about Orwell than he now knows. Taylor relies on Hitchens’s very inaccurate summary, and doesn’t know New Left from ‘Tankie’ (the British Communist faction that refused to hear any criticism of the Soviet Union while it was still powerful.)
An afternoon spent in a decent library would have told Taylor that my father had given an accurate summary of what most historians thought of POUM. Even a quick look in the Encyclopaedia Britannica would have suggested it. Was that too much trouble for him?
The standard view up to the 1970s was that the Spanish Communists with their ruthless discipline had offered the best chance for defeating fascism in Spain. My father did not say that such views were correct. He sympathised strongly with Orwell’s 1937 opinion, that the war was lost by curbing the Republic’s internal radicalism. But he also gave the majority view, and described it as such. That makes him guilty of Thoughtcrime, in the view of Hitchens and Taylor.
Taylor’s book has won awards: evidently you win them for sounding knowledgeable, but always praising or condemning the right people. That’s probably always been so, to a degree. But the present lot have much less substance than their past equivalents. Stick with the herd, wherever it may have happened to wander.
The burden of proof rests on the accuser, except in cases where a particular individual has been generally condemned. You do not need to cite specific sources to assert that Caligula was criminally cruel or that Ethelred the Unready was hopelessly weak. This last actually may be wrong; it rests on a single partisan source, as indeed does the legend of gross sexual immorality by the Byzantine empress Theodora. In these matters the popular opinion may be wrong, but it is indisputably the popular opinion. No one can be blamed for accepting it; the burden of proof rests on those who would dispute it.
Most historians in 1971 saw P.O.U.M as an irrelevance. Most of them still do, and there has never yet been a functional Leninism based on Trotskyist or Left-Bolshevik policies. If there was a serious alternative in Spain, it was the massive Anarchist movement, which had its own ideology and traditions. Maybe they could have won if they’d been allowed to go their own way, but most historians in 1971 saw the Communists as the only really efficient element on the Republican side. That’s less true today; people decided after the collapse of 1989-1991 that the Soviet Union must always have been inefficient. The past is being brought into line with the present. Facts must be what we now feel they ought to have been.
(Not that this is a new process. E. M. Forster’s short story The Machine Stops makes a remarkable prediction of how a Wellsian world state might fall into stagnation. He wrote this in 1909, several years before the Bolsheviks began building a World State in real life. One feature of this imagined future order is that historians intentionally seek to re-invent the past to make it what it should have been. What it would have been if it had happened in their own era and with their own values.)
There were an estimated 15,000 books and pamphlets about Spain in 1970—most of them in Spanish, obviously, a language that my father didn’t know. But the vast majority of works in English do call the May 1937 events an uprising and think that the Republic was weakened by the struggles between the mainstream Republicans and its Anarchist left-wing. P.O.U.M is mostly seen as irrelevant or as an irritant.
My father shared Orwell’s 1938 doubts about the Received Standard View, which has nowadays incorporated bits of Orwell but which still sees the Anarchists and P.O.U.M as a weakness on the Republican side. Hitchens gets offended, but fails to cite any source whatsoever for his contention that there is no consensus.
Hitchens also gives no clear account of what was happening in Spain. It would be an interesting exercise to give his account to a class of bright students—teenagers studying for A-level English, say—and ask them to say on the basis of Hitchens’s description:
(a) what was happening in Spain?
(b) what was Orwell doing there?
(c) who was the legal government of Catalonia?
(d) what were the relative strengths of P.O.U.M, the Anarchists and the Spanish Communists?
The legal government of Catalonia backed the crack-down. The Spanish Communists had become the main military force on the anti-Fascist side. The Anarchists had been the main force earlier on. P.O.U.M were a minor ally on the Anarchist side.
Politically, the ‘main body of Republican forces’ was an alliance between the Left Republican parties, at least half of the Socialists, the Basque Nationalists and the Catalan Nationalists. In the 1936 election, the left-wing Popular Front received 4.7 million votes, the Right just under 4 million and the centre less than half a million. Gerald Brenan’s The Spanish Labyrinth explains how Spain’s odd electoral law gave the Popular Front 267 deputies and the Right 132.
There was no separate voting for Popular Front parties. On the basis of their separate totals in previous elections, the Socialists were awarded 89 deputies out of 267, two Republican groups got 84 and 37 while the Communists got 16. Smaller parties got the balance, including one Syndicalist who defied Anarcho-Syndicalists traditions by taking part in ‘bourgeois democracy’.
Anarchists normally refused to take part in elections, which makes their exact support uncertain. The Spanish Labyrinth estimates that they brought 1.25 million votes to the Popular Front total, just over one quarter of the total and less than 12% of the total voters. Whether all of those voters supported full-blown Anarchism is more moot. A major issue was the release of 30,000 political prisoners who’d been imprisoned by the previous right-wing government.
As for P.O.U.M, Orwell in Homage To Catalonia says that they claimed 10,000 members in July 1936, 70,000 for December but down to 40,000 by June 1937. They had played around with the notion of a second revolution against the Republic, remembering that the Bolsheviks had overthrown a democratic republic led by a socialist. But the Anarchists knew better.
Accusations of Fascist sympathy were made against P.O.U.M at the time by the Spanish Communists; they were still saying it in 1971. Franco then was still in power and my father was mostly trying to avoid sectarian rows of the sort that have continuously weakened the left. Hitchens talks about ‘show trials’, but it was not like Moscow—where in any case the testimony of the accused was much more impressive than the rather hysterical case for the prosecution.
In Spain, the P.O.U.M leaders were convicted of rebellion against the Republic, found not guilty of Fascist sympathies. You could say that they played into the hands of the Fascists—some Fascists did say just that. Documents found in a German archive show a Fascist agent claiming credit for stirring up the May 1937 conflict.
A lot more could be said, but I will say it in another article, an assessment of the main events of the Spanish Civil War. For now, I am concentrating on what my father said back in 1971, mid-way between the Spanish Civil War and the world of 2005:
“What he [Orwell] had criticised among socialists and Marxists in Britain he found in the P.O.U.M as much as in the Communist Party in Spain. But it was the readiest way in which he could fight against the fascists, and at first the doctrinal differences hardly mattered to him. Some months later, when he knew much more about them, he took the same attitude when he wanted to go to fight in Madrid, asking for a recommendation from a friend in the Communist Party” (Orwell, by Raymond Williams.)
“The experience of revolutionary Barcelona made Orwell a militant socialist. But in the chaos and inactivity of the early months at the front, he usually supported the Communist line. It seemed to him a matter of practical common sense that there should be unity and efficiency; indeed, echoes of his own early training as an officer cadet and in the Imperial Police can be heard again and again as he describes the disorganisation of the revolutionary militia. At the same time, his experience of its revolutionary spirit, its practical comradeship, was paramount. This, before everything else, was why he was fighting at all.
“It is difficult to say how this conflict would have resolved itself if the situation had not changed.” (ibid.)
If anything, my father treats P.O.U.M more seriously than they merited. Barcelona was a revolutionary city, but Valencia was not, most of Spain was not. Madrid, which successfully stopped the ‘Nationalist’ enemy until the very end, largely avoided the factionalism and internal warfare that weakened Barcelona and Catalonia generally. In Andalusia, the other major Anarchist stronghold, the various Anarchist experiments with collective living were largely left alone by the Republic. And were conquered piecemeal by the Military-Rightists when they could spare troops from more critical fronts.
In 1971, Spain was still ruled by Franco, but the Communists had survived underground and were at that time the main opposition. P.O.U.M had vanished long ago. Spanish anarchism was and is marginal. It was quite possible that the end of Franco’s rule in Spain would re-ignite radical revolution – the sort of thing that actually did happen in 1974-5 in neighbouring Portugal.
Spin & Realpolitik
All of this is ‘realpolitik’, the awkward choice between what we want to do and what we can do. You also find hard choices described as ‘power politics’, ‘pragmatism’, or maybe ‘stern but regrettable necessity’. In my view, the various terms mean exactly the same thing, though they can imply approval or disapproval of that exact same thing. Different spin, as they say nowadays—but Britain’s rulers were doing it from at least 1914. Orwell mentions one case:
“Of the outbreak of war I have three vivid memories … One is of the cartoon of the ‘German Emperor’ (I believe the hated name ‘Kaiser’ was not popularised till a little later).” (My Country Right or Left, Autumn 1940.)
Britain then had a King / Emperor, so what the Germans had must be something else, a Kaiser. Likewise realpolitik is German and therefore bad, just as a U-boat is obviously something much worse than a submarine. You have to think hard to reminding yourself that a U-boat is exactly the same thing as a submarine. You need to have done your own historical thinking to be aware that Britain’s sea-blockade also operated on the basis of a willingness to sink any ship that tried to trade freely with the enemy.
Britain’s blockade did not sink large numbers of non-military ships. But it ended up killing many more innocents than its German equivalent. Europe starved in both World Wars, and that was Britain’s choice. It is also reasonable to believe that hunger contributed to the 1918 flu pandemic, estimated to have killed 20 million to 40 million around the world.
Regarding Spain, my father felt sympathy for P.O.U.M, front-line fighters in their own little bit of the anti-fascist war. It was open to argument whether they had caused or intended Barcelona’s miniature civil war of 1937. Without a doubt, it demoralised the Republic’s supporters. Orwell himself had been intending to join the International Brigade and would probably then have fought on the Madrid front. Who knows how he would have developed if this had happened? Instead he found himself on the side of P.O.U.M in an internal conflict, a conflict in which he regarded the Republic’s government as the aggressor:
“But what happened to him and his comrades from the front was so arbitrary and brutal that his choice of action was inevitable. Different accounts were given, and are still given, of the start of the street-fighting and of its political motives, All Orwell knew, and could know, was that the ragged men back from the front, in this again class-divided city, were being rounded up by guards and police in the name of the struggle against fascism, and, most accounts say, in the name of the true cause socialism and the people. The experience left a scar which was never likely to heal. One would think worse of him, indeed, if it ever healed. (Orwell, by Raymond Williams.)
Hitchens quotes just one portion of this passage, giving a very different impression:
“Of the May 1937 killings in Barcelona, Williams writes two pages later that they took place ‘in the name of the struggle against fascism, and, most accounts say, in the name of the true cause socialism and the people’. Again there is the surreptitious and gutless reliance on the non-existent ‘most accounts’.” (Orwell’s Victory.)
Hitchens denies that ‘most accounts’ say this. But fails to mention even one source that says anything else.
My father was in fact arguing against this consensus, expressing sympathy with those in Spain who were trying for autonomy and local control. Leninism in Spain was already showing the faults and defects that eventually killed it in the whole of Europe. But Moscow-centred Leninism the only force existing at the time with a chance of defeating Franco and his fascist backers.
If the Soviet Union disappointed many hopes, there was also no other power existing at the time that would have stopped the Nazi military machine. No other power existing in the 1950s that would have moved the USA away from its traditional narrow-mindedness, racism and male-dominance. And in the 1970s, it was very uncertain whether radical 1960s values would spread or would be pushed back into the margins. Without the USA’s spectacular defeat in Vietnam, would the values of the ‘Alternative Society’ have got as far as they have? But seeing off the US war machine was a task that could only have been done by a Communist machine that was much tougher and more ruthless than the Spanish effort.
That was Leninism’s positive achievement–it pushed the West where the West at the time did not wish to go. It is also true that Leninism lied a lot, and carried on doing so to the bitter end.
Lies are not just abstractly bad, dirty methods that a good cause will sanctify. Lies have a way of poisoning everything, the liar as well as the lied-about.
If the Spanish Communists had said that Anarchists and P.O.U.M were fools who were playing into the hands of the fascist, that would have made sense. Unless you thought that a massive intensification of radical measures was possible and desirable, you could not easily say anything else. They muddied the waters by claiming that left extremists were disguised fascists, which was obviously untrue. They would have been on much stronger ground if they just pointed out the great advantages of a Spanish victory by anti-fascist ‘bourgeois democrats’.
A Republican victory in Spain would have made the Italian Fascists and German Nazis much more wary about starting any more wars. It might have prevented the entire Second World War, saving millions of lives, and also avoiding the wasted decades in which the Soviet Union tried to remake Middle-Europe in its own image.
(Middle-Europe is the term I prefer to use for the variously-named region beginning east of Vienna and extending as far as Finland and the western shores of the Black Sea, but excluding Belarus and the Ukraine. Europe stretches from Spain to the Urals, and this region is middling both by culture and geography. It also contains Greece, the culture that transmitted advanced West-Asian values into the rest of Europe in the Bronze Age and Iron Age.)
An anti-Fascist victory in Spain might have let the nations east of Germany develop in their own different ways, without the conquest and stagnation of the years of Soviet occupation. And even if the World War had not been avoided, an anti-Fascist Spain would have been somewhere for the defeated French to fall back to. An easy base to move back into France if the USA had then joined in, saving the lives of many a ‘Private Ryan’. Against this one can only set the hazy possibility that Catalan radicalism would somehow have generated an effective military force, which really hadn’t happened after the first hectic days of Republican resistance to the military take-over. Admirable intentions and excellent schemes for social reform do not generate military power:
“The history of the Spanish Civil War represents a striking triumph of material over moral factors in war… it is probably that no offensives of modern time have been initiated with greater enthusiasm… and that no defensive tasks have been faced with grimmer resolution than have those of holding Madrid and Barcelona. (Encyclopaedia Britannica Book Of The Year 1939).
Moral fervour does not stop tanks or warplanes. Hitler’s tanks were stopped by the Red Army, turned into an effective modern force by Stalin’s ruthlessness. Before that, Germany’s warplanes had been defeated by Britain’s Spitfires and Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain. Those Spitfires and Hurricanes and also radar have to be credited to Chamberlain and the ‘National Government’, which had a sound grasp of military technology, however nasty its politics.
That’s the complexity of actual history. It’s moot if Hitchens has read much about the Spanish Civil War, apart from what Orwell wrote. The only other source he mentions is the work of Ronald Radosh, who also takes a ‘Satanic Stalins’ view of history. Everything the Soviet Union did was wrong, and anyone who argues about the matter is evil. Radosh and Hitchens take no interest in the actual complexities of politics among the various left-of-centre forces that that composed the Spanish Republic.
In 1971, there were plenty of people around who’d actually fought in Spain—there are still some, but now a dwindling band. Very few of them sympathised with P.O.U.M, and you often heard people justifying the suppression of the Anarchists in just the terms that my father describes. Orwell himself doesn’t exactly deny that it was the Communists who saved the Republican cause from a quick collapse.
“The Communist influence has been against revolutionary chaos and has therefore, apart from the Russian aid, tended to produce greater military efficiency. If the Anarchists saved the Government from August to October 1936, the Communists have saved it from October onwards. But in organizing the defence they have succeeded in killing enthusiasm (inside Spain, not outside). They made a militarized conscript army possible, but they also made it necessary. It is significant that as early as January of this year voluntary recruiting had practically ceased. A revolutionary army can sometimes win by enthusiasm, but a conscript army has got to win with weapons, and it is unlikely that the Government will ever have a large preponderance of arms unless France intervenes or unless Germany and Italy decide to make off with the Spanish colonies and leave Franco in the lurch. On the whole, a deadlock seems the likeliest thing.” (Spilling The Spanish Beans, July – September 1937).
If he’d seen more of Spain than Catalonia and the Republican-held portions of Aragon, he might have thought differently. To put it into context, let’s imagine that there had been a British Civil War in the 1930s instead of one in Spain. A Spanish volunteer come to fight in Britain would have got a very false impression if all they had seen of Britain was Scotland’s ‘Red Clydeside’ or the left-wing strongholds of the Welsh mining valleys. Orwell’s view of Spain from a sample of Barcelona was just as distorted.
In Homage To Catalonia, Orwell said:
“The Communists had gained power and a vast increase of membership partly by appealing to the middle classes against the revolutionaries, but partly also because they were the only people who looked capable of winning the war. The Russian arms and the magnificent defence of Madrid by troops mainly under Communist control had made the Communists the heroes of Spain. As someone put it, every Russian aeroplane that flew over our heads was Communist propaganda…
The Spanish Communists actually became a mass party, and not just a party for the Middle Class. Figures produced by exiled Italian Communist Togliati—figures intended for private reading among Communist leaders, and unlikely to be skewed very much—speak of a party of more than 300,000 members, composed of 35% workers, 28% agricultural workers, 28% peasants, 6.5% ‘urban petty proprietors’, 2.5% ‘intellectuals and professionals’. This is one of many interesting items among the translated Soviet documents printed in Radosh’s Spain Betrayed. One of many items he ignores because it does not fit his ‘Satanic Stalins’ view of history. I’ll say a lot more about it when I write of the war as a whole. For now I am assessing Orwell, who said:
“But, finally, the war was worth winning even if the revolution was lost. And in the end I came to doubt whether, in the long run, the Communist policy made for victory. Very few people seem to have reflected that a different policy might be appropriate at different periods of the war. The Anarchists probably saved the situation in the first two months, but they were incapable of organizing resistance beyond a certain point; the Communists probably saved the situation in October-December, but to win the war outright was a different matter. In England the Communist war-policy has been accepted without question, because very few criticisms of it have been allowed to get into print and because its general line — do away with revolutionary chaos, speed up production, militarize the army — sounds realistic and efficient. It is worth pointing out its inherent weakness…
“The whole tendency of the Communist policy was to reduce the war to an ordinary, non-revolutionary war in which the Government was heavily handicapped. For a war of that kind has got to be won by mechanical means, i.e. ultimately, by limitless supplies of weapons; and the Government’s chief donor of weapons, the U.S.S.R., was at a great disadvantage, geographically, compared with Italy and Germany. Perhaps the P.O.U.M. and Anarchist slogan: ‘The war and the revolution are inseparable’, was less visionary than it sounds.
“I have given my reasons for thinking that the Communist anti-revolutionary policy was mistaken, but so far as its effect upon the war goes I do not hope that my judgement is right. A thousand times I hope that it is wrong. I would wish to see this war won by any means whatever.” (Homage To Catalonia.)
By 1942 the past had changed somewhat, as far as Orwell was concerned. As I quoted earlier, the idea of extending the revolution was now a ‘Trotskyist Thesis’. And the Russian contribution has become negligible:
“As to the Russians, their motives in the Spanish war are completely inscrutable. Did they, as the pinks believed, intervene in Spain in order to defend Democracy and thwart the Nazis? Then why did they intervene on such a niggardly scale and finally leave Spain in the lurch? Or did they, as the Catholics maintained, intervene in order to foster revolution in Spain? Then why did they do all in their power to crush the Spanish revolutionary movements, defend private property and hand power to the middle class as against the working class? Or did they, as the Trotskyists suggested, intervene simply in order to prevent a Spanish revolution? Then why not have backed Franco? Indeed, their actions are most easily explained if one assumes that they were acting on several contradictory motives. I believe that in the future we shall come to feel that Stalin’s foreign policy, instead of being so diabolically clever as it is claimed to be, has been merely opportunistic and stupid. But at any rate, the Spanish civil war demonstrated that the Nazis knew what they were doing and their opponents did not. The war was fought at a low technical level and its major strategy was very simple. That side which had arms would win. The Nazis and the Italians gave arms to the Spanish Fascist friends, and the western democracies and the Russians didn’t give arms to those who should have been their friends. So the Spanish Republic perished, having ‘gained what no republic missed’.” (Looking Back on the Spanish War, 1942).
I suppose that Orwell, always hostile to whatever existed, felt the need to move to be out of step with the times. From 1941 to 1945, Britain and the USA needed the Soviet Union to defeat the German Wehrmacht. Churchill and the Tories were anti-German rather than anti-Fascist, and were disappointed not to have Fascist Italy as an ally. But it was hard for Churchill and the Tories to shout down left-wing anti-Fascists. Hard to stifle pro-Soviet feelings, at a time when actual Fascists were neutral or hostile, and when the Soviet Union was the main ally.
Today’s fog-and-darkness school of historians have decided that being pro-Soviet was wicked from 1917 to 1940 and from 1946 to the 1989, but distinctly virtuous from 1941 to 1945. They put it rather more subtly than that, of course. And Orwell is a useful source of confusion.
Being far removed from power, Orwell had no need to dance to the standard rhythms. If the post-war Soviet Union had made a deal with the USA and the British Empire, Orwell might have stayed marginal. Soviet hegemony over most of Middle-Europe had been conceded by Churchill, without regard for his Polish allies. But the fact that it had been an anti-fascist war had global significance, as had the oddity of white-racist Germany making an alliance with Japan against the colonial empires in Asia. If the Japanese often behaved much worse to their fellow Asians, they had also given a graphic illustration of the racial equality. They asserted with weapons and with gross cruelty, the status that had been refused them even as a theoretical ideal at the Versailles Conference after World War One.
From the 1920s to the 1970s, most people saw the Soviet Union as the major force for left-wing causes—which it undoubtedly was. Hemingway has his hero say:
“You’re not a real Marxist and you know it. You believe in Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. You believe in Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Don’t ever kid yourself with too much dialectics. They are for some but not for you. You have to know them in order not to be a sucker. You have put many things in abeyance to win a war. If this war is lost all of those things are lost.
“But afterwards you can discard what you do not believe in. There is plenty you do not believe in and plenty that you do believe in. (For Whom The Bell Tolls.)
Hemingway was a better prophet than Orwell. The Centre-Right of the 1930s feared Soviet Communism more than they feared Fascism, and from their own long-obsolete point of view they were quite right. The Centre-Left and various uncommitted Bohemian characters feared Fascism and especially Nazism much more than they feared Soviet Communism, and they too were right. Centre-Left values in Britain and the USA gained greatly from a war in which the Soviet Union was an ambiguous ally and Nazism an unequivocal foe.
Major shifts in the West happened only when the ruling class saw a major challenge from the Left and thought it wise to concede something so as to save the rest. Likewise the US South showed no signs of dropping segregation, which had to be forcibly broken in the 1960s by Federal power. The Federal government might not have acted if it hadn’t been under world-wide pressure, particularly in Black Africa.
Imperialism was wound up, because of the global challenge of mainstream Leninism; Stalinism, if you like. This was also very useful to various sorts of non-Communist Third-World nationalisms, which were cherished as an alternative that the West could live with. Neither Anarchism nor Trotskyism have liberated anything or helped throw off any colonial yolk. Trotskyism has successfully trained some of the best minds of the current New Right.
Hitchens is not exactly New Right; not exactly anything very much. A glib journalist but not a clear thinker, and there are some odd discontinuities in his logic. Regarding Iraq, he sees ‘Islamic Fascism’ as a justification for supporting the invasion. But he finds it outrageous that Raymond Williams will not denounce the Communist Party position on Spain, their willingness to work with Centrists while fighting an actual Military-Rightist army backed by troops from the two main Fascist powers. Where’s the sense in this? There is no God but George Orwell, and Christopher Hitchens is His Prophet, I suppose.
Of course Orwell says things that Hitchens does not care to quote. Orwell was not at all bothered by the anarchists in Spain suppressing religion:
“Franco’s bid for power differed from those of Hitler and Mussolini in that it was a military insurrection, comparable to a foreign invasion, and therefore had not much mass backing, though Franco has since been trying to acquire one. Its chief supporters, apart from certain sections of Big Business, were the land-owning aristocracy and the huge, parasitic Church.” (Spilling The Spanish Beans.)
In Homage To Catalonia, Orwell sees nothing wrong with the Anarchist policy of burning churches and shooting right-wingers who had done nothing more than support right-wing causes. It is as if there were an attempted coup in Britain, and the Left reacted by shooting the entire membership of the local Tory Party! That was Catalan anarchism of the sort Orwell saw and approved of. Franco’s forces did worse, of course. But Orwell was not then a defender of moderation.
But Catalonia was only one part of Spain. There are parts of Britain where you’d find that hardly anyone was a Tory, and other parts where you’d hardly find anyone who wasn’t. In Spain, the Military-Rightists had their popular support, especially among the Carlists. Even in Catalonia, socialists were only part of the Republican coalition. Orwell sees things just from the viewpoint of the militant minority he moved among:
“It was the first time that I had ever been in a town [Barcelona] where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen.
“Some of the foreign anti-Fascist papers even descended to the pitiful lie of pretending that churches were only attacked when they were used as Fascist fortresses. Actually churches were pillaged everywhere and as a matter of course, because it was perfectly well understood that the Spanish Church was part of the capitalist racket. In six months in Spain I only saw two undamaged churches, and until about July 1937 no churches were allowed to reopen and hold services, except for one or two Protestant churches in Madrid…
“To the Spanish people, at any rate in Catalonia and Aragon, the Church was a racket pure and simple. And possibly Christian belief was replaced to some extent by Anarchism, whose influence is widely spread and which undoubtedly has a religious tinge.” (Homage To Catalonia)
As far as I recall, my father did talk about the church-burning at the time he was writing the Orwell book, which however does not deal with it. In the 1970s, there was a ‘window of opportunity’ that later closed. The Catholic Church looked quite likely to redefine itself in favour of ‘Liberation Theology’. There were good reasons not to re-open old wounds or to remind everyone that they had been broadly pro-Fascist in the 1930s. Most Fascists had regarded Catholicism as a superstition fit to keep the population well-behaved, a position that the Church could live with and had lived with many times before. In the case of the Nazis, neo-paganism and anti-Catholicism was much more visible, and the pro-Fascist majority within Catholicism was suspicious of Nazism. The British Tory Party was mostly friendly to Nazism, with Churchill very much the exception.
Nothing that the Catholic Church could have done would have actually stopped Hitler, nothing short of actually persuading God to strike the man dead with a thunderbolt. Whereas the British government had many sensible opportunities to stop Hitler. before deciding to fight a war over German demands on Poland. Demands that actually had a sound justification on the basis of the population distribution as it then stood, before the Germans were ‘ethnically cleansed’ from East Prussia and before Danzig became Gdansk.
There’s been a book called Hitler’s Pope; not a very accurate book, from the reviews I’ve read. But why are there no books about ‘Hitler’s Tories’? Why is the entire British centre-right forgiven, with praise for everyone who was sensible enough to acquire a brand-new set of Eternal Truths when the British government switched to an anti-Hitler position in early 1939?
My mother in the 1960s used to keep reminding us that Sir Alec Douglas Home had been an aide to Chamberlain when he betrayed the Czechs and democracy with the Munich Agreement. And Quintin Hogg was the pro-appeasement candidate during a notable by-election at Oxford in the same period, something I discovered for myself later on. Hogg is mentioned in passing in one of Orwell’s letters, but the 1970 Penguin Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters lets it pass unexplained, even though it has detailed footnotes on other much more minor figures.
I’m not sure how well Quintin Hogg (Lord Hailsham) is remembered nowadays. He’s not in my edition of the Encarta, nor the Britannica. The Britannica has his father Douglas Hogg, first Lord Hailsham, and also his grandfather, another Quintin Hogg. Of course in a liberty-loving market democracy, this can only mean that there is no market for such awkward little facts.
We also have the free and non-commercial Wikipedia, [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page], which says:
“In 1938, Hogg was chosen as a candidate for Parliament in the Oxford by-election. This election took place shortly after the Munich Agreement and the Labour candidate Patrick Gordon-Walker was persuaded to step down to allow a unified challenge to the Conservatives; A.D. Lindsay, the Master of Balliol College fought as an ‘Independent Progressive’ candidate. Hogg enthusiastically defended the appeasement policy of the Government, and despite support from undergraduates (who were unable to vote), Lindsay could not beat him.
Hogg was wise enough to switch to Churchill in 1940 and remained a prominent Tory. He succeeded his father as Lord Hailsham in 1950, but returned to the Commons in 1963 in a bid to succeed Macmillan as Tory leader. Macmillan apparently chose him and then changed his mind. The leadership was actually given to another returning peer, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who then lost the 1964 General Election to Harold Wilson. But Hogg remained a leading politician, serving as Lord Chancellor to both Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher.
That’s history as it was, but not as it is now gets remembered. In the USA, they nowadays think that they boldly declared war on Hitler, so as to clean up a European mess. In fact the USA was part of the hypocritical ‘non-intervention’ in Spain. Only the Abraham Lincoln Legion of left-wing volunteers showing any interest in democracy as such.
The USA joined the war in Europe, only because Hitler made the bizarre decision to declare war on the US after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. Roosevelt wanted to join the war in Europe, certainly. But Congress might well have stopped him if Hitler hadn’t obligingly short-circuited the process. At the time, many US politicians wanted to concentrate on breaking Japan. A lot of them were not sure Hitler really was an enemy, until he chose to declare himself their foe.
Hitler used anti-Communism as a useful lure for people he wanted to use and discard. His anti-Communism was quite sincere, but so was his hatred of Moderate Socialism and of Liberalism. By the time his British and US admirers realised that, it would have been too late, except that Nazi power got broken by the massive Soviet power that Stalin had built up in the 1930s. Anglo writers find it unforgivable that other people should have made tactical alliances with Stalinist Communism. But when they needed to do so, in the years 1941-1945, that is quite different. They even forgive themselves for demanding Unconditional Surrender, when the offer of a generous peace to non-Nazi Germans would almost certainly have produced an overthrow of the regime in 1944 and saved many lives, including those in the Death Camps. It would have left the Soviet Union in possession of much less than the territories they actually held from 1945 to 1989. But as I said, it really was an anti-German war, with anti-Nazism a convenient slogan.
Hitchens fails to think about history in its wider sweep, which goes far beyond the Trotsky-Stalin split within Leninism. Lenin once said ‘to the mouse, there is nothing larger than the cat’. He was enough of a politician to notice how people could get so caught up in little local disputes that they missed most of what was happening in the world. Trotskyists were so caught up in their war against ‘Stalinism’ that they failed to notice how they were damaging the cause of the Left as a whole. Having trashed what was once a flourishing movement, some of them have now moved on to greener pastures.
Orwell also showed too much concern for internal left squabbles. Too little for the wider world. He protested when Animal Farm was read as anti-Socialist, but repeated exactly the same error in 1984, with deadly effectiveness. It wouldn’t be out of place for Winston Smith to have discovered that Britain had once had a democratic socialist government elected by the people. He might have met an old man who could tell of a brief period of hope after 1945, when Britain gave independence to India and was advancing social equality within a democratic framework (rather than babble incoherently about top hats). He could have changed the whole tone of 1984 by one rather small addition. But that’s not what Orwell actually did. It can’t have been what he wanted.
To have mentioned a lost opportunity for Democratic Socialism would have matched the purpose that Orwell claimed to have had. But it would also have detracted from the book’s utter bleakness, Orwell’s protest against life in general. He was dying, certainly, fatally infected with TB at a time when it was incurable. But he could have faced death in a rather more generous spirit, as many others have done.
But you can’t say that Orwell ceased to be a man of the left because he devoted a lot of his efforts to criticising other left-wingers. It’s a very normal occupation, sad to say. You can say he was a careless, short-sighted fool. You can say that he never wholly got over the prejudices of his class.
Yet though Orwell is mostly mean-spirited and quite often foolish, he is also often wise. If Hitchens has ever been wise, I must have missed it.
A White & Burdensome Stratum
Young Eric Blair came from the ‘Almost-Ruling Class, a family of colonial officials, and he was actually born in Bengal. His great-grandfather had owned slaves and plantations in Jamaica, but the family fortune had dwindled to nothing. His father was not rich, but he was still a member of the privileged elite, not clever enough for the Indian Civil Service but sufficient for the Opium Department, which was a recognised and respectable branch of government service in those days. Eric Blair’s mother was also from the colonial almost-elite, a family with strong connections in Burma, though not of course actually of Burma.
In Bernard Crick biography of Orwell, he has a photo of Orwell as a baby, which is listed among the ‘Illustrations’ as “Eric Blair, six weeks old”. He’s being held by a small black woman dressed in white, probably a nurse who did a lot of the actual mothering in his early days. But she’s treated as invisible, a ‘non-person’. That’s the sort of attitude that still lingered even in 1980: only the ‘white race’ were real people.
I could go on at length about all of the other things that Crick misses, but I don’t see the point. It’s a decent enough book, all things considered. There are limits to Crick’s understanding, but no malice or dishonesty. He reflects a social order that has since died, but which is the context within which Orwell must be understood.
Orwell / Blair was born in the Indian subcontinent, but he did not stay in the land of his birth. He came from a stratum who liked to keep a gigantic social gulf between themselves and those they ruled. So his mother took him to be educated in England, while his father stayed overseas for a time. When father and son later met, it seems that Orwell never really did accept him.
Richard Blair had had a mediocre career as an agent in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service. Since private-enterprise traders in opiates get called ‘Drug Barons’, Orwell’s father could legitimately be called a ‘Drugs Scribe’.
Attitudes hardened during the 20th century against drug addiction and the supply of narcotics, even to non-whites. Orwell never quite dealt with it; saying just that his father was:
“an official in the English administration there, and my family was one of those ordinary middle-class families of soldiers, clergymen, government officials, teachers, lawyers, doctors, etc.” (Preface to the Ukrainian Edition of Animal Farm, March 1947)
The ‘Paperback Tigers’ of the New Right have tried to whitewash Britain’s state-protected drug-barons—books like Taipan. Their ‘serious’ historians also do a lot to cast fog and darkness on the issue. Opium is not as bad as its processed derivatives, but it was already recognised as dangerous in the 1840s, when the Royal Navy acted as ‘muscle’ to defend British traders selling Indian-grown opium into China. China had resisted the processes that Britain called ‘Normal Commerce’ and that all non-European cultures viewed as grossly abnormal and unwanted. China had successfully held out, selling tea but buying little. Opium, with its built-in ‘brand loyalty’, was a commodity that the Chinese could be persuaded to buy:
“The first major national efforts to control the distribution of narcotic and other dangerous drugs were the efforts of the Chinese in the 19th century. Commerce in poppy (opium) and coca leaf (cocaine) developed on an organized basis during the 1700s. The Manchus of China attempted to discourage opium importation and use, but the English East India Company, which maintained an official monopoly over British trade in China, was engaged in the profitable export of opium from India to China.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2002.)
Britain classed opium as a ‘poison’ in the Pharmacy Act of 1868. “It had an apparently discouraging effect on the per capita consumption of opium, opiates, and cocaine in the late nineteenth century and contributed to the low level of British consumption (at least compared to the American) right up to the 1960s” [http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/History/ophs.htm].
Even the US had various local laws against it from the 1870s, culminating in an outright Congressional ban in 1905. The USA has usually failed to rid itself of bad habits, being too self-indulgent and too fond of law-bending. But they generally made an effort.
Non-white foreigners were another matter. In 1878, Britain passed an Opium Act:
“with hopes of reducing opium consumption. Under the new regulation, the selling of opium [was] restricted to registered Chinese opium smokers and Indian opium eaters while the Burmese [were] strictly prohibited from smoking opium.” [http://opioids.com/timeline/].
It took till 1910 for Britain to go further:
“After 150 years of failed attempts to rid the country of opium, the Chinese are finally successful in convincing the British to dismantle the India-China opium trade” (Ibid.)
That was Orwell’s background—and his hard early training must have made it very difficult to break free. Following the standard pattern for his odd Almost-Ruling class, young Eric Blair was sent away at 8 to a ‘Prep School’; a place for the young to be separated from their parents and indoctrinated in the upper-class British concept of ‘normal values’. From there, they would go onto a ‘Public School’ at 13—‘Public’ being one of three sectors, along with state schools and private schools.
(Incidentally, the Harry Potter series draws something from the mystique of Britain’s ‘Public Schools’. But this imaginary magical establishment follows the State Sector rule of starting at 11. It also provides free education to those worthy of it, the real-world legacy of the 1945 Labour Government.)
The bizarre educational system devised by English ruling class was an efficient mass-producer of colonial officials. It also produced some excellent scientists, writers and artists, but was still a cruel and unusual system. A 13-year-old might find it an adventure to leave home; an 8-year-old seldom does.
D J Taylor’s biography puts an odd ‘spin’ on this, saying that Orwell’s pathetic account of his banishment as a ‘boarder’ at a prep-school from the age of eight “reveals only an utterly conventional middle-class English childhood”. Normal? It was an enormous abnormality, as alien to most Britons as the circumcision rituals of some Black-African tribe. The bulk of the middle class went to grammar schools, which were also there for poorer children who showed exceptional cleverness. Richer members of the middle class might send their children to one of the fee-paying Prep Schools and then Public Schools as ‘Day Boys’ Boarding schools were mostly the peculiarity of Orwell’s Almost-Ruling Class. The proper ruling class didn’t originally go to such places, but would have stayed home with private tutors. By Orwell’s time they had mostly adjusted to the norms of the much larger group whom they depended upon.
An observant scion of the Upper Class who went through the process said:
“I went to my private school at Sunningdale in the summer term of 1916. [Having been born in 1907.] It is difficult to describe the trauma of moving from the protected surroundings of nursery and home, with nanny and nursemaid to look after me, into the cold and unsympathetic atmosphere of school… life in a dormitory of thirteen or fourteen other boys, where the smallest eccentricity or weakness was treated with derision.” (A Sparrow’s Flight: The Memoirs of Lord Hailsham of St Marylebone. Collins 1990.)
I’ve already mention Hailsham, prominent in 1930s and again in the 1960s as Quintin Hogg. He was made of sterner stuff than Orwell, and he found positives as well as negatives in this peculiar system. Hogg had a genuine love of learning, though it was learning of a shallow sort, without Orwell’s insights and without his bleak scepticism. The ‘sparrow’ in the book-title is an image from late-pagan thinking; human life is likened to a sparrow that flies into a hall from somewhere unknown and then shortly flies out again. Hogg always was vain, overlooking the absurdity of a ‘flight of the 300-pound sparrow’. It would have suited Orwell much better.
Orwell reacted badly to the school abnormalities that Hailsham complained about. He always felt out of place, set among people whose background was significantly more privileged than his:
“Occasionally, by special arrangement, he [the Head Master] would take at greatly reduced fees some boy who seemed likely to win scholarships and thus bring credit on the school. It was on these terms that I was at St Cyprian’s myself: otherwise my parents could not have afforded to send me to so expensive a school…
“This business of making a gifted boy’s career depend on a competitive examination, taken when he is only twelve or thirteen is an evil thing at best, but there do appear to be preparatory schools which send scholars to Eton, Winchester, etc. without teaching them to see everything in terms of marks. At St Cyprian’s the whole process was frankly a preparation for a sort of confidence trick. Your job was to learn exactly those things that would give an examiner the impression that you knew more than you did know, and as far as possible to avoid burdening your brain with anything else. Subjects which lacked examination-value, such as geography, were almost completely neglected, mathematics was also neglected if you were a ‘classical’, science was not taught in any form…
“I had been made to understand that I was not on the same footing as most of the other boys. In effect there were three castes in the school. There was the minority with an aristocratic or millionaire background, there were the children of the ordinary suburban rich, who made up the bulk of the school, and there were a few underlings like myself, the sons of clergyman, Indian civil servants, struggling widows and the like. These poorer ones were discouraged from going in for ‘extras’ such as shooting and carpentry, and were humiliated over clothes and petty possessions. I never, for instance, succeeded in getting a cricket bat of my own, because ‘Your parents wouldn’t be able to afford it’. This phrase pursued me throughout my schooldays…
“When they told me that I must either win a public-school scholarship or become an office boy at fourteen, I believed that those were the unavoidable alternatives before me. And above all, I believed Sambo and Flip when they told me they were my benefactors. I see now, of course, that from Sambo’s point of view I was a good speculation. He sank money in me, and he looked to get it back in the form of prestige. If I had ‘gone off; as promising boys sometimes do, I imagine that would have got rid of me swiftly. As it was I won him scholarships when the time came, and no doubt he made full use of them in his prospectuses. But it is difficult for a child to realize that a school is primarily a commercial venture. A child believes that the school exists to educate and that the school-master disciplines him either for his own good, or from a love of bullying. Flip and Sambo had chosen to befriend me, and their friendship included canings, reproaches and humiliations, which were good for me and saved me from an office stool. That was their version, and I believed in it. It was therefore clear that I owed them a vast debt of gratitude. But I was not grateful, as I very well knew. On the contrary, I hated both of them. I could not control my subjective feelings, and I could not conceal them from myself. But it is wicked, is it not, to hate your benefactors? So I was taught, and so I believed. A child accepts the codes of behaviour that are presented to it, even when it breaks them. From the age of eight or even earlier, the consciousness of sin was never far away from me. If I contrived to seem callous and defiant, it was only a thin cover over a mass of shame and dismay. All through my boyhood I had a profound conviction that I was no good, that was wasting my time, wrecking my talents, behaving with monstrous folly and wickedness and ingratitude — and all this, it seemed, was inescapable, because I lived among laws which were absolute, like the law of gravity, but which it was not possible for me to keep…
“Against no matter what degree of bullying you had no redress. You could only have defended yourself by sneaking, which, except in a few rigidly defined circumstances, was the unforgivable sin. To write home and ask your parent to take you away would have been even less thinkable, since to do so would have been to admit yourself unhappy and unpopular, which a boy will never do…
“I am anxious to make it clear that I was not a rebel, except by force of circumstances. I accepted the codes that I found in being. Once, towards the end of my time, I even sneaked to Brown about a suspected case of homosexuality. I did not know very well what homosexuality was, but I knew that it happened and was bad, and that this was one of the contexts in which it was proper to sneak. Brown told me I was ‘a good fellow’, which make me feel horribly ashamed…
“The essential conflict was between the tradition of nineteenth-century asceticism and the actually existing luxury and snobbery of the pre-1914 age. On the one side were low-church Bible Christianity, sex puritanism, insistence on hard work, respect for academic distinction, disapproval of self-indulgence: on the other, contempt for ‘braininess’, and worship of games, contempt for foreigners and the working class, an almost neurotic dread of poverty, and, above all, the assumption not only that money and privilege are the things that matter, but that it is better to inherit them than to have to work for them. Broadly, you were bidden to be at once a Christian and a social success, which is impossible. At the time I did not perceive that the various ideals which were set before us cancelled out. I merely saw that they were all, or nearly all, unattainable, so far as I was concerned, since they all depended not only on what you did but on what you were.
“Very early, at the age of only ten or eleven, I reached the conclusion — no one told me this, but on the other hand I did not simply make it up out of my own head: somehow it was in the air I breathed — that you were no good unless you had £100,000. I had perhaps fixed on this particular sum as a result of reading Thackeray. The interest on £100,000 would be £4,000 a year (I was in favour of a safe 4 per cent), and this seemed to me the minimum income that you must possess if you were to belong to the real top crust, the people in the country houses. But it was clear that I could never find my way into that paradise, to which you did not really belong unless you were born into it. You could only make money, if at all by a mysterious operation called ‘going to the city’, and when you came out of the City, having won you £100,000, you were fat and old. But the truly enviable thing about the top-notchers was that they were rich while young. For people like me, the ambitious middle class, the examination-passers, only a bleak, laborious kind of success was possible. You clambered upwards on a ladder of scholarships into the Civil Service or the Indian Civil Service, or possibly you became a barrister. And if at any point you ‘slacked’ or ‘went off’ and missed one of the rungs in the ladder, you became ‘a little office boy at forty pounds a year’. But even if you climbed to the highest niche that was open to you, you could still only be an underling, a hanger-on of the people who really counted…
“There never was, I suppose, in the history of the world a time when the sheer vulgar fatness of wealth, without any kind of aristocratic elegance to redeem it, was so obtrusive as in those years before 1914… After 1918 it was never quite the same again. Snobbishness and expensive habits came back, certainly, but they were self-conscious and on the defensive. Before the war the worship of money was entirely unreflecting and untroubled by any pang of conscience. The goodness of money was as unmistakable as the goodness of health or beauty, and a glittering car, a title or a horde of servants was mixed up in people’s minds with the idea of actual moral virtue…
“At games, for instance, I was hopeless. I was a fairly good swimmer and not altogether contemptible at cricket, but these had no prestige value, because boys only attach importance to a game if it requires strength and courage. What counted was football, at which I was a funk. I loathed the game, and since I could see no pleasure or usefulness in it, it was very difficult for me to show courage at it. Football, it seemed to me, is not really played for the pleasure of kicking a ball about, but is a species of fighting. The lovers of football are large, boisterous, nobbly boys who are good at knocking down and trampling on slightly smaller boys. That was the pattern of school life — a continuous triumph of the strong over the weak. Virtue consisted in winning: it consisted in being bigger, stronger, handsomer, richer, more popular, more elegant, more unscrupulous than other people — in dominating them, bullying them, making them suffer pain, making them look foolish, getting the better of them in every way. Life was hierarchical and whatever happened was right. There were the strong, who deserved to win and always did win, and there were the weak, who deserved to lose and always did lose, everlastingly…
“You were supposed to love God, and I did not question this. Till the age of about fourteen I believed in God, and believed that the accounts given of him were true. But I was well aware that I did not love him. On the contrary, I hated him, just as I hated Jesus and the Hebrew patriarchs. If I had sympathetic feelings towards any character in the Old Testament, it was towards such people as Cain, Jezebel, Haman, Agag, Sisera: in the New Testament my friends, if any, were Ananias, Caiaphas, Judas and Pontius Pilate…
“It was equally clear that one ought to love one’s father, but I knew very well that I merely disliked my own father, whom I had barely seen before I was eight and who appeared to me simply as a gruff-voiced elderly man forever saying ‘Don’t’. It was not that one did not want to possess the right qualities or feel the correct emotions, but that one could not. The good and the possible never seemed to coincide…
“I understood to perfection what it meant to be Lucifer, defeated and justly defeated, with no possibility of revenge. The schoolmasters with their canes, the millionaires with their Scottish castles, the athletes with their curly hair — these were the armies of unalterable law. It was not easy, at that date, to realize that in fact it was alterable. And according to that law I was damned. I had no money, I was weak, I was ugly, I was unpopular, I had a chronic cough, I was cowardly, I smelt…
“The conviction that it was not possible for me to be a success went deep enough to influence my actions till far into adult life. Until I was about thirty I always planned my life on the assumption not only that any major undertaking was bound to fail, but that I could only expect to live a few years longer…
“I knew that at a public school there would be more privacy, more neglect, more chance to be idle and self-indulgent and degenerate. For years I had been resolved — unconsciously at first, but consciously later on — that when once my scholarship was won I would ‘slack off’ and cram no longer. This resolve, by the way, was so fully carried out that between the ages of thirteen and twenty-two or three I hardly ever did a stroke of avoidable work…
“Boarding schools are worse than day schools. A child has a better chance with the sanctuary of its home near at hand. And I think the characteristic faults of the English upper and middle classes may be partly due to the practice, general until recently, of sending children away from home as young as nine, eight or even seven.
“I have never been back to St Cyprian’s. Reunions, old boys’ dinners and such-like leave me something more than cold, even when my memories are friendly. I have never even been down to Eton, where I was relatively happy, though I did once pass through it in 1933 and noted with interest that nothing seemed to have changed, except that the shops now sold radios. As for St Cyprian’s, for years I loathed its very name so deeply that I could not view it with enough detachment to see the significance of the things that happened to me there. In a way it is only within the last decade that I have really thought over my schooldays, vividly though their memory has always haunted me.” (Such, Such Were the Joys, May 1947.)
Crick in his biography suggests that Orwell exaggerated his problems at Prep school. Britain’s system of fee-paying schools tried to reward character rather than money, fair play rather than success. It can be blamed for many things, but not for Orwell seeing the vulgar incompetents of pre-1914 Britain as somehow the summit of creation. They were a would-be Master Race that failed to pass muster, but Orwell never quite got over his original self-image as a discontented hanger-on. Even at the time, quite a lot of people recognised these characters as the feeble tail-end of an Imperial tradition that had once been much cleverer and grander. A stratum of vain incompetents who were deservedly pushed aside by more competent people from more ordinary origins. But no such view was thinkable for Orwell. He basically hated the future. He hated the past as well, but he hated the future more.
Taylor, incidentally, gets hopelessly muddled by Britain’s class structure as it stood at the time. He is unclear about the difference between nouveaux riches and ‘landless gentry’. Nouveau riche have money but not ‘blood’ or status—and also fail to understanding the British upper class way of doing things. You’d not expect a US citizen to understand it; by British standards there are extremely few rich people in the US who are anything else besides nouveau riche. But Taylor comes from Norfolk and you’d have thought he’d have known.
‘Landless gentry’ is a much wider concept, applying to many class structures besides the British one, people who have lost the property but still have the blood and status. Most societies would in fact allow these impoverished gentry to keep their status for several generations, maybe indefinitely, whereas the British system tended to cut them off after a generation or two. In Britain, nouveau riche and ‘landless gentry’ would often hybridise to produce to produce the sort of standard gentry who used to be at the heart of British society. This was generally unacceptable to continental gentry, who kept their gentry status to the bitter end. Mollier was writing satire when he wrote Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme—normally translated as The Bourgeois Gentleman, though The Middle-Class Gentleman might be closer. In France the distinctions were maintained. The French Revolution was the result of this rigidity
In Britain, ‘middle-class gentlemen’ were once the norm, even the ideal This system has now broken down, and in fact Thatcher did more to kill it that any radical or socialist. If the rich don’t even pretend to look after the poor, why should the poor care about them? These days the focus has moved to ‘celebs’, the sort of person that anyone could imagine themselves becoming.
In an era when the modern sort of ‘celeb’ would have been unthinkable, Orwell had got in to a fancy Prep School by being clever. For a time he did well, winning a scholarship to Eton—originally founded as an educational charity, and an outstandingly good school as well as having huge snob-value. But for no very clear reason—nothing clearer than the maladjustment which I’ve quoted—he didn’t apply himself to gaining the skills and knowledge necessary for further academic success. He was clever enough to have gone on to Oxford or Cambridge, but failed to work for it, coming 138th out of 167 in his final History and Classics exam. He may have had a disagreement with the examination system, and definitely neglected to work at the topics that system rewarded. Instead he joined the Indian Imperial Police and was trained in Burma, serving five years there before resigning while back in England. He then drifted and tried to earn a living as a writer, eventually taking ‘George Orwell’ as a pen-name.
The man was unable to fit in anywhere or to work with other people. In a book called Orwell Remembered, an Old Etonian tells a story about the man issuing a ‘curse’ against another pupil. And how that pupil then got into trouble over breaches of school rules that the authorities mysteriously became aware of.
Orwell had a very negative attitude to the world, for as long as we have any definite knowledge of him. He always saw England as an outsider, as exotic as he’d have been in Burma or India. ‘There is a fault in reality; please do not adjust your mind’. He could hardly write Down And Out At Eton College. But he manages to get you feeling sorry for him, despite being in a hugely privileged environment. Others went through the system and took what they needed from it, making the best of opportunities that were denied to ordinary Britons. Orwell didn’t. He resented not being in the class above, ‘gentlemen of independent means’, the elite who had enough property to live off it and not be obliged to work.
One must also ask, just why did he join the Indian Imperial Police? Why pick that option, out of all the others that were available to an ex-Etonian? Some people join the police from a genuine belief that law must be enforced and crime suppressed. But there’s no trace of any such feelings in any of Orwell’s writings. There is some admiration for naked power, which is a different sort of sentiment:
“The Indian Police was a poor service, already tainted in the liberal press with hangings and floggings; but for the Imperial Civil Service itself one needed university-level qualifications, and of the lesser services the Police would seem more interesting than, say, Forestry, Public Health, Roads or the wretched Opium Department.” (George Orwell: A Life, by Bernard Crick. Secker & Warburg 1980.)
He also chose Burma, one of several divisions of the Indian Police at a time when British colonies were sometimes run via India rather than directly. Crick mentions that the only language requirement for the Indian Police was French, with Latin and Greek as options that Blair took. He actually did pick up the local languages and spoke them quite well. But most colonial officials did not: the British governing stratum were taught dead languages and dead politics from a culture that was no better, wiser or stronger than empires outside of Europe. They were encouraged to see their non-white subjects as clever animals rather than fellow-humans.
Orwell resented the system, but in a vague unfocused way. I agree with those who see Orwell as nostalgic for the pre-1914 world in which he’d grown up. Stuck in an Edwardian time-warp, he wanted the pre-1914 system restored in a milder form, with gross inequalities removed and with capitalism curbed. When he speaks of his admiration for the cheery cleaning ladies at the BBC, that absolutely fits a pre-1914 patriarchal viewpoint. He always avoids talking about independent and effective working-class power, at least in England. Likewise he omits positive self-action by colonial peoples.
The difference between patriarchal Tories and Thatcherites is simple. Patriarchal Tories assumed that they were Superior Persons, and that they had a duty to look after people. Thatcherites see the whole world as one big rat-race, with themselves as the Rats-In-Chief. Confusingly, the label ‘Tory Anarchist’ can be applied to both of these groups, which only shows the limits of all human-devised labelling. Orwell has been called a ‘Tory Anarchist’ in the older sense, and was not out of place in a socialist movement, which picked up a lot of people from the declining elite.
Orwell’s own class needed the military-political framework of the Empire. The rest of the society didn’t, although the global standing of English was very useful to them. Britain’s economic growth from 1950 to 1975 was actually its best ever, marginally better than the years of Thatcher / Major / New Labour and much better than the decades of ‘Imperial Glory’. But as I said, Orwell normally looked backward, and the only sort of socialism he favoured was the sort that might have happened in the pre-1914 world had continued uninterrupted. This made him blind to the way the world was going.
“In England there is only one Socialist party that has ever seriously mattered, the Labour Party. It has never been able to achieve any major change, because except in purely domestic matters it has never possessed a genuinely independent policy. It was and is primarily a party of the trade unions, devoted to raising wages and improving working conditions. This meant that all through the critical years it was directly interested in the prosperity of British capitalism. In particular it was interested in the maintenance of the British Empire, for the wealth of England was drawn largely from Asia and Africa. The standard of living of the trade-union workers, whom the Labour Party represented, depended indirectly on the sweating of Indian coolies. At the same time the Labour Party was a Socialist party, using Socialist phraseology, thinking in terms of an old-fashioned anti-imperialism and more or less pledged to make restitution to the coloured races. It had to stand for the ‘independence’ of India, just as it had to stand for disarmament and ‘progress’ generally. Nevertheless everyone was aware that this was nonsense. In the age of the tank and the bombing plane, backward agricultural countries like India and the African colonies can no more be independent than can a cat or a dog. Had any Labour government come into office with a clear majority and then proceeded to grant India anything that could truly be called independence, India would simply have been absorbed by Japan, or divided between Japan and Russia. (The Lion and the Unicorn, December 1940)
Adam Smith in 1776 treated India and China as equal to Europe, though he noted that they were static whereas Europe was changing fast. Japan, which was threatened by US warships but then left to get on with its own modernisation, produced a strong economy and an Empire based on what they’d seen of Western behaviour in East Asia. The rest of Asia faired much worse. One estimate makes India in 1820 as rich as Europe’s ‘Big Four’, while China was as rich as Europe and India put together. (Asia’s giants take different routes, by Martin Wolf. Financial Times, February 22 2005). By 1913, Europe was vastly richer, India crushed and China in chaos. From the 1950s, when India achieved independence and China became coherent under Mao, they started closing the gap. By 2025, we may be back to the approximate equality of 1820.
Orwell in 1984 imagine East Asia as a Superpower, an assumed development of Japan’s successful copying of Western values. Whereas he took a scornful view of Mahatma Gandhi:
“Gandhi has been regarded for twenty years by the Government of India as one of its right-hand men. I know what I am talking about—I used to be an officer in the Indian police. It was always admitted in the most cynical way that Gandhi made it easier for the British to rule India, because his influence was always against staking any action that would make any difference…
“Gandhi is of course personally quite honest and unaware of the way in which he is made of… I won’t undertake to say that his methods will not succeed in the long run… But it is hard to believe that the British will ever be got out of India by those means, and certainly the British on the spot don’t think so.” (Letter to the Reverent Iorwerth Jones, 1941.)
Orwell’s later judgements, after the man had successfully created a new state, were more respectful. (I quote it later on.) We can’t know whether or not Orwell would have fully grown out of his colonial attitudes if he’d lived longer. There was certainly a lot to unlearn. In Shooting An Elephant; the beast had killed someone, but he speaks of it as ‘working machinery’. He shows some sympathy for the victim:
“He was an Indian, a black Dravidian coolie, almost naked, and he could not have been dead many minutes. The people said that the elephant had come suddenly upon him round the corner of the hut, caught him with its trunk, put its foot on his back and ground him into the earth… His face was coated with mud, the eyes wide open, the teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony.”
But between the black man and the beast, Orwell was entirely neutral:
“As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him. It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant—it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery—and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided. And at that distance, peacefully eating, the elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow. I thought then and I think now that his attack of “must” was already passing off; in which case he would merely wander harmlessly about until the mahout came back and caught him.”
Every human culture has a solid rule that an animal that kills a human must die for it. In pet-loving Britain, a dog can be forgiven one bite, if there was no serious damage. It will unfailingly be executed for a second. The habit is to say ‘destroyed’ when a pet animal is killed, whereas food-animals are ‘slaughtered’. But most of our pet animals are sentient creatures with some notion of right and wrong. ‘Execution’ is exactly the right word.
The ‘Animal Rights’ people keep quiet on the issue, as far as I’ve seen. They assert that the life of an animal is just as valuable as a human life, so logically we should not execute animals in Britain, since we no longer execute people. But that would be a sure road to public anger, especially since children are often the victims.
Myself, I do not rate any animal as equal to a human, and I’d broadly support the existing rules on animal executions. The system of controls could be better and should grant the highly-intelligent squids and octopuses at least as much protection as a rat.
An elephant is clever enough to know that it is not supposed to harm people. The beast had also killed a cow, which might have been forgiven. But Orwell seems not to rate human lives above the lives of animals – at least not when the human life is only a ‘native’.
“The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie.” (Ibid.)
Orwell wrote Shooting An Elephant in 1936, and says of his viewpoint at the time “I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it.”
This is already the viewpoint of 1984—he reconciles his anti-Imperialism with his older opinions by assuming that things are going from bad to worse. It wasn’t so, and might not have been so even if the Japanese had won. Some ‘natives’ welcomed them, despite Japanese cruelty and racism towards fellow-Asians. The best of them took the chance to assert their own identity. Many who worked with the ‘younger empire’ against the older were accepted by their fellows as having made the best of a difficult time: Indians who fought for the Japanese are regarded as heroes in the Republic of India. The ‘older empires’ were in fact briefly restored, but with battered prestige and little prospect of long-term rule.
Orwell’s ‘Old Peculiar’ Socialism
To the end of his life, Orwell was a man of the left, hostile to ‘capitalism’. In the post-war period he got excessively preoccupied with the Left’s internal quarrels. He ignored much that was positive. Even so, he supported the 1945 Labour government, a government that made many radical changes, some of which Thatcher reversed in the 1980s.
Orwell noticed the beginnings of the New Right, at a time when they seemed unlikely to grow into anything much. In 1944, he reviewed Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom along with The Mirror of the Past by Zilliacus, a prominent left-wing Labour MP:
“Taken together, these two books give grounds for dismay. The first of them is an eloquent defence of laissez-faire capitalism, the other is an even more vehement denunciation of it. They cover to some extent the same ground, they frequently quote the same authorities, and they even start out with the same premise, since each of them assumes that Western civilization depends on the sanctity of the individual. Yet each writer is convinced that the other’s policy leads directly to slavery, and the alarming thing is that they may both be right.
“Of the two, Professor Hayek’s book is perhaps the more valuable, because the views it puts forward are less fashionable at the moment than those of Mr Zilliacus. Shortly, Professor Hayek’s thesis is that Socialism inevitably leads to despotism, and that in Germany the Nazis were able to succeed because the Socialists had already done most of their work for them, especially the intellectual work of weakening the desire for liberty. By bringing the whole of life under the control of the State, Socialism necessarily gives power to an inner ring of bureaucrats, who in almost every case will be men who want power for its own sake and will stick at nothing in order to retain it. Britain, he says, is now going the same road as Germany, with the left-wing intelligentsia in the van and the Tory Party a good second. The only salvation lies in returning to an unplanned economy, free competition, and emphasis on liberty rather than on security.
“In the negative part of Professor Hayek’s thesis there is a great deal of truth. It cannot be said too often – at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough – that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamed of.
“Professor Hayek is probably right in saying that in this country the intellectuals are more totalitarian minded than the common people. But he does not see, or will not admit, that a return to ‘free’ competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the State. The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them. Professor Hayek denies that free capitalism necessarily leads to monopoly but in practice that is where it has led, and since the vast majority of people would far rather have State regimentation than slumps and unemployment, the drift towards collectivism is bound to continue if popular opinion has any say in the matter.
“Mr Zilliacus’s able and well-documented attack on imperialism and power politics consists largely of an exposure of the events leading up to the two world wars. Unfortunately the enthusiasm with which he debunks the war of 1914 makes one wonder on what grounds he is supporting this one. After retelling the sordid story of the secret treaties and commercial rivalries which led up to 1914, he concludes that our declared war aims were lies and that ‘we declared war on Germany because if she won her war against France and Russia she would become master of all Europe, and strong enough to help herself to British colonies’. Why else did we go to war this time? It seems that it was equally wicked to oppose Germany in the decade before 1914 and to appease her in the nineteen-thirties, and that we ought to have made a compromise peace in 1917, whereas it would be treachery to make one now.
“Between them these two books sum up our present predicament. Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war. There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.“
Orwell blamed socialism for the Nazis, without apparently realising that the Nazis came to power at a time when Germany was suffering massive unemployment and a collapsing economy. The Great Slump hit everyone, but Germany worst of all. In days of prosperity, Hitler had been marginal. He was made Chancellor after the Nazi vote expanded massively and made him the only viable right-wing alternative in a mess created by ‘economic liberalism’. Orwell should have known this, he had lived through those years, but his understanding of fascism was always a caricature.
Orwell’s condemnation of Zilliacus is also foolish. The British Government made war for much the same reasons in 1914 and 1939. But in 1914, Germany and Austria-Hungary had at least as much socialism and ‘progressive thinking’ as Britain and France. The main reactionary power was Tsarist Russia, the West’s ally. Things were very different in 1939; Nazi Germany was clearly the major threat to all progressive causes. The moot point was whether Britain and France would actually fight: until Churchill took over this remained very doubtful.
Hitchens quotes bits of the Hayek / Zilliacus review in his chapter Orwell and the Right, but without mentioning Zilliacus. He cuts out the first paragraph and the first sentence of the first paragraph, and then cuts Orwell short after the third paragraph. Hitchens summarises it as “he went on to make some clear objections to Hayek, about the relationship between free competition and monopoly.” Sounding quite technical and mild, the sort of treatment you’d give an author you basically agreed with. Much softer than Orwell’s “the trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them”, which is one of his better-known remarks. I found nine distinct citations on the web, one of which believes that he probably did not say it.
Of course a ‘Privatised Orwell’ would not be saying such things. But Hitchens has to muddy Orwell a great deal, in order to make him fit Hitchens’s current vision of Eternal Truth. He cannot accept that the man had his own agenda, or that it was off the scale of modern politics.
For much of his political career, Orwell was associated with the Independent Labour Party. The ILP by the 1930s was a left-over from the formation of the Labour Party, a kind of ‘afterbirth’. The original party had been founded by Kier Hardy in 1898, as a step towards emancipating the working class from the Liberal Party. This culminated with the formation of the actual Labour Party in 1906, but elements of the ILP stayed distinct. In 1932, after the crisis caused by Ramsey Macdonald’s defection to form a ‘National Government’, Maxton unwisely disaffiliated the ILP from the actual Labour Party, which was the main functional opposition to a government led by its former leader. By the time Orwell joined it, the ILP was a kind of political asteroid-belt, a collection of scattered elements that didn’t really belong together. If you were on the left but didn’t approve of either Labour or the Communists, the ILP was where you were likely to end up.
P.O.U.M in Spain were also a political fragment. The core was Spanish Socialists who had heeded Lenin’s call to split world socialism and create separate Communist Parties everywhere, regardless of the actual politics. They had then backed the losers in the Bolshevik splits after Lenin’s death. P.O.U.M was a union of two small groups, one strictly Trotskyist and one not. It was out of tune with Trotsky, in as much as it knew better than to pretend to be a real Bolshevik party, a political machine capable of grabbing total power for itself. And it got a few overseas volunteers, though they did nothing important, unlike the Communist-led International Brigade. Though they were not very much alike, the ILP and P.O.U.M chose to view each other as allies.
During World War Two, the ILP stuck to neutrality, the same position Maxton had upheld during World War One. But a victory for the Kaiser would not have been a disaster for the British working class: it might have strengthened the case for Germany-style social welfare. A victory for Hitler would have been utterly different and Maxton was out of touch with reality. Orwell was one of many who left the ILP at this time.
Workers & Other Animals
At times Orwell seems to be yearning for something positive. He genuinely regretted the barriers between him and his fellow Britons:
“All the men at the N.U.M.W. [National Unemployed Workers Movement] very friendly and anxious to supply me with information as soon as they heard I was a writer and collection information about working-class conditions. I cannot get them to treat me precisely as an equal, however. They call me either ‘Sir’ or ‘Comrade’. (The Road to Wigan Pier Diary).
It might be that he was not trusted because he wasn’t trustworthy, of course. The book itself doesn’t live up to the potential of the diary. Orwell could only really ‘bridge the gap’ by seeing everyone as equally degraded and dirty. There was plenty that was hopeful and self-respecting amidst the poverty, stuff that Orwell’s diary records him as seeing. Thing which his published writings unfortunately omit.
Orwell could be an acute observer of inequalities that would take a long time to set right:
“I was surprised by Mrs S’s grasp of the economic situation and also of abstract ideas—quite unlike most working-class women in this, though she is I think not far from illiterate. She does not seem resentful against the people who employ her—indeed she says they are kind to her—but sees quite clearly the essential facts about domestic service…
“She said that in the North working-class men never offered any courtesies to women (women are allowed to do all the house-work unaided, even when the man in unemployed, and it is always the man who sits in the comfortable chair), and she took this state of things for granted, but did not see why it should not be changed.” (Ibid.)
I began studying Spain and Orwell just to defend my father’s reputation, and hopefully trash Hitchens’s at the same time. But a lot of other interesting topics opened up in the process. Orwell has some intelligent observations, well beyond the usual stuff, and I’ll be quoting more of them later on. And since Orwell was suspicious of Bolshevism as such—not just its ‘Stalinist’ mainstream—has he been justified by events?
No, he definitely hasn’t. Although clever, Orwell is horribly dated, the most interesting literary figure from of a dead line of development, socialism run and regulated Britain’s Almost-Ruling Class. There were many such, most of them much nicer people than Orwell, intellectually more substantial, though without his journalistic flair. Orwell was an oddity, a man who quit the service of the British Empire without having any clear idea what he wanted to do next, except he did want to write. In the 1947 Preface to the Ukrainian Edition of Animal Farm, he says the following:
“Shortly after I left school (I wasn’t quite twenty years old then) I went to Burma and joined the Indian Imperial Police. This was an armed police, a sort of gendarmerie very similar to the Spanish Guardia Civil or the Garde Mobile in France. I stayed five years in the service. It did not suit me and made me hate imperialism, although at that time nationalist feelings in Burma were not very marked, and relations between the English and the Burmese were not particularly unfriendly. When on leave in England in 1927, I resigned from the service and decided to become a writer: at first without any especial success. In 1928—9 I lived in Paris and wrote short stories and novels that nobody would print (I have since destroyed them all). In the following years I lived mostly from hand to mouth, and went hungry on several occasions. It was only from 1934 onwards that I was able to live on what I earned from my writing. In the meantime I sometimes lived for months on end amongst the poor and half-criminal elements who inhabit the worst parts of the poorer quarters, or take to the streets, begging and stealing. At that time I associated with them through lack of money, but later their way of life interested me very much for its own sake. I spent many months (more systematically this time) studying the conditions of the miners in the north of England. Up to 1930 I did not on the whole look upon myself as a Socialist. In fact I had as yet no clearly defined political views. I became pro-Socialist more out of disgust with the way the poorer section of the industrial workers were oppressed and neglected than out of any theoretical admiration for a planned society.”
Orwell fits best if you see him as a believer in the Edwardian vision of socialism, the sort of thing that H G Wells advocated. The middle class would moderate the plight of the workers and also admit some of them to the elite. A classless society is not on the agenda. Both Animal Farm and the world of 1984 have considerably less social mobility than actually existed in Edwardian Britain or in Nazi Germany (never mind Soviet Russia, where every top leader since Lenin has risen from quite humble beginnings). Orwell’s future was ‘forward to the past’, and he was not the only one. Brave New World assumes that the English class structure as it stood between the World Wars will stay unchanged even when human biology is radically altered. In the 1950s, The Rise Of The Meritocracy – another dystopia – assumes a social gulf in a mobile society. It also supposed that women would be docile and keep their 1950s position. Writers are often the last people to come to terms with a changing world.
Nor can you always credit Orwell with being honestly mistaken. He gives the appearance of honesty, but this appearance does not survive a cold hard look at the way he worked. As my father put it:
“Orwell’s strategy Is always to try to write as if any decent person standing where he was would be bound to see things this way… There is briefly something of this in the trip down the mine in The Road to Wigan Pier, but it is preceded by his suppression of how he got to go down the mine, and how he stayed in the homes of working-class socialists, who he then denied ever existed…
“The recruitment of very private feelings against socialism becomes intolerable by 1984. It is profoundly offensive to state as a general truth, as Orwell does, that people will always betray each other. If human beings are like that, what could be the meaning of a democratic socialism? But this dimension of Orwell’s writing is also part of a very large form which has even deeper roots that the neutral observer. For the mode of an extreme distaste for humanity of every kind, especially concentrated in the figures of the working class, goes back after all to the early Eliot—it was the mode of probably two successive generations and it has not yet exhausted itself. You can see it in Orwell’s choice of the sort of working-class areas he went to, the deliberate neglect of the families who were coping—although he acknowledged their existence in the abstract—in favour of the characteristic imagery of squalor: people poking at drains with sticks. His imagination always and submissively goes to that…
“If I had to say which writings have done the most damage, it would be what you call the social patriotism—the dreadful stuff from the beginning of the war about England as a family with the wrong members in charge, the shuffling old aunts and uncles whom we could fairly painlessly get rid of…
“As for 1984, its projection of ugliness and hatred, often quite arbitrarily and inconsequentially, onto the difficulties of revolution or political change, seem to introduce a period of really decadent bourgeois writing in which the whole status of human beings is reduced.
“I would not write about Orwell in the same way now, partly because I have had more and more doubts about the character he invented. For example, there was no objective reason at all for the disgraceful attacks he made on pacifists or revolutionary opponents of the war in American periodicals, denouncing people here who were simply in his own position of three or four years earlier. The impression of consistent decency and honesty that Orwell gave went along with the invention of a character who comes up new in each situation, who is able to lose his whole past, and again be looking as the frank, disinterested observer who is simply telling the truth. When he does that to fellow socialists whose position he recently shared, I can see the basis for a much harder assessment of this kind of man and this kind of writing. The book was the last stage of working through a sense of questioning respect. I am bound to say, I cannot read him now: at every point it is these bad moves he made that stick in my mind. (Politics and Letters, New Left Review 1979.)
My father didn’t go in for polemics, the quest for clarity by taking apart someone else’s ideas (or sometimes just the quest for a good quarrel). Me, I have a background in sectarian Marxism. I retain the habits even though my thinking has moved on. I would also assert that there is nothing better than Marxism to have moves on from. The only substance in the New Right comes from people on the rebound from the Hard Left.
As my father said, Orwell had a distinct talent for finding the dross of life, and is nowadays associated with the decline of the British Empire. But Britain has not declined; Britain has benefited a great deal from being free of all that Imperial clutter. It just discarded Orwell’s ‘Almost-Ruling’ class, along with the real Ruling Class, leaving the scattered members of the fallen order to find their own level in a changed world.
Orwell’s vision of power existing for its own sake is a peculiarity of his own class, the people whose importance is dependent on the degree of control they possess over other people’s lives. The actual rulers are much more interested in the resources they can draw from those they rule; control is a means to an end.
Behind Orwell’s far-left language you find a lot of resentment that unreconstructed workers were exercising more authority than they had. Workers should ‘know their place’, but also they should be living comfortably in that traditional place. Fascism was an extension of this older attitudes to the new reality, in which the Great War had smashed many traditions and left others horribly weakened. (Contrary to Nietzsche, that which does not kill you often leaves you wishing it had.) The old order was weak and unpopular by the 1930s. A lot of people knew that benevolent methods just were not going to achieve anything—and it was anyway constitutional democracies and liberal politicians who had overseen the mass slaughter of the trenches and then the destruction of economic wealth by market forces. Fascism was popular because it affirmed that anyone who was ‘part of the nation’ had a right to be looked after and guaranteed the basic minimum of life.
Germany under Hitler had come back from the brink of civil war and economic collapse. Knowing nothing of economics, Hitler applied the methods later known as ‘Keynesianism’, with the government ignoring market signals and creating jobs to break out of a spiral of decline. Orwell never showed the foggiest notion of what it was that made Nazism attractive to those Germans who were racially and politically acceptable. What he did notice was that it was something foreign and unpleasant, and also a likely future threat to Britain. If Germany had been wrong in World War One—a point which Orwell never doubted—then a revived and militaristic Germany was bound to offend again.
Orwell said the following about Jack London:
“London could foresee Fascism because he had a Fascist streak in himself: or at any rate a marked strain of brutality and an almost unconquerable preference for the strong man as against the weak man. He knew instinctively that the American businessmen would fight when their possessions were menaced, because in their place he would have fought himself. He was an adventurer and a man of action as few writers have ever been…
“When he was already a successful and famous man he could explore the worst depths of poverty in the London slums, passing himself off as an American sailor, and compile a book (The People of the Abyss) which still has sociological value. His outlook was democratic in the sense that he hated exploitation and hereditary privilege, and that sense he felt most at home in the company of people who worked with their hands: but his instinct lay towards acceptance of a ‘natural aristocracy’ of strength, beauty and talent…
“If one imagines him as living on into our own day, instead of dying in 1915, it is very hard to be sure where his political allegiance would have lain. One can imagine him in the Communist Party, one can imagine him falling a victim to Nazi political theory, and one can imagine him the quixotic champion of some Trotskyist or Anarchist sect.” (Introduction to Jack London’s Love of Life and Other Stories, November 1945.)
It’s not fair to speak just of “an almost unconquerable preference for the strong man as against the weak man”. Jack London always shows the better sort of ‘strong man’ protecting the weak. He acknowledged rules of honour and duty, even though he grew up in California, the land that gave us Nixon and Reagan. London’s main characters are sometimes racist, but very seldom lacking in honour or sympathy for the weak.
Orwell protests at the treatment of the ‘natives’ in Burmese Days, but never manages go further and imagine himself one of the underlings. This was something that Jack London did in some of his stories, despite the appalling racism that London showed at other times. Of course Jack London had been brought up as part of the USA’s self-assertive working class, though his mother had a middle-class background and his biological father was probably a university professor. London knew about being an ordinary worker doing ordinary jobs, by land or by sea.
What would be really interesting would be for someone to write a double biography of Orwell and Jack London, with their interesting similarities and differences. Though London died while Orwell was still at school, it is London who seems the more modern and relevant figure.
How would Jack London have developed if he had avoided the accident or suicide of 1916 and had lived to see the start of the Russian Revolution? My own view is that he would have become part of the American Communist Party, which would have been boosted by his presence. London could get through to ordinary US citizens in a vigorous and non-patronising way, a way that no actual US communist writer ever managed. He was already a pamphleteer, and a lot of his stuff is still very readable. With Jack London in it, US Communism might have become something very much bigger, despite an electoral system rigged to favour two parties competing for campaign funds and floating voters.
Missing from Orwell’s list is the possibility of Jack London forming his own sort of National-Socialism, one strongly rooted in the actual culture and values of the US working class. You can always get a crowd together to imitate a foreign movement that is visibly strong and glamorous. The creation of a deep-rooted creed is much harder, and mostly happens by accident and among people who have no interest in copying anyone else.
No one in either the US or Britain managed to overcome the strong impression that fascism was something foreign. No one managed to create something that was similar to fascism and yet home-grown, as Pilsudski did in Poland.
I also feel—and I’d be happy to argue it with those who’ll undoubtedly be outraged by the suggestion—that Orwell would have been a natural for a serious British Fascism, if it had ever developed.
If you think a left-wing journalist couldn’t become a fascist, you can’t know the history of Mussolini, who was exactly that. Mussolini always considered himself a Marxist, though an enemy of the Communist development within Marxism. Mussolini invented Fascism as a way of stopping Italy going Communist, whereas Britons could always be confident that Britain had a strong government that would prevent this. I also doubt that Orwell had it in him to be a successful leader, but he could have been an able lieutenant to someone else.
In the event, the sort of people who made Fascism serious in Germany and Italy failed to see why comfortable British habits need be given up. And from a British right-wing viewpoint they did not, since the National Government had got everything under control without any need to suppress the opposition. The Tories remained strong and were even able to absorb some Labour and Liberal elements as a ‘National Government’. Actually existing British fascists were mostly fools who imitated foreign fashions, and didn’t even imitate very well. Sir Oswald Mosley was always marginal.
Whether or not Orwell would have found a suitable home in some imaginary ‘EngNatSoc’, he must be classed as a man against. ‘Against what?’, you might ask. It’s a sound question for most people, but not for all and not at all for Orwell. A general feeling of negativeness and againstness is present in all of his published writings. By his own account, he was always like that. He takes no joy in anything whatsoever.
Down & Out In Paris and London is a dismal book about dishonest and unlikeable people. That, at least, is the side of down-and-out life he shows. He’d also have you believe that the Parisians in the 1930s actually didn’t care about good food. He says his time in the kitchen of a Paris restaurant “destroyed one of my illusions, namely, the idea that Frenchmen know good food when the see it.” (Chapter XXI.) Now I can believe that Paris had lots of characters for whom fashion was more important than enjoyment—there are always plenty like that, and not just among the French. But French enjoyment of life and especially food seems to me a constant. It is the ordinary English who’ve moved, eating a much wider range of foods than was normal when I was young.
Orwell, of course, is playing his normal trick of focusing exclusively on the negative. Each item may be real but the whole picture is wildly false. I currently live in Peterborough, and I could give you a dozen totally authentic stories that would make Peterborough seem terrible, dangerous, depressing, declining. Or a dozen more, equally true, that would make it seem merry, bright, expanding, a nice little boom-town. Actually the second picture would be less untrue: it is a rising place and the ‘Peterborough Effect’ is not just a matter of advertising jingles, despite some crime and some loss of traditional jobs. But the point is, you can go anywhere and give any impression you like by a biased selection of just the data that fits your preference.
I’d define Orwell as a ‘self-defeating personality’, to borrow a bit of psychoanalytical jargon. It also gets called ‘masochist’, and Orwell has also been called that, but I think the term confuses the issue. Sexual masochism is a distinct phenomenon, or maybe several intertwined phenomena. It is often found in people with very strong and effective personalities, ‘men of power’ who maybe feels an unconscious need to ‘balance the books’ and take a break from being dominant. Or it can be other things besides that, but none of it is relevant to Orwell, as far as I know. Self-defeating, though, he very definitely was. He greatly resented anyone who seemed to be achieving anything—he suddenly began sympathising with fascists when they ceased to be big dominant ‘masters of the universe’ and became slightly pathetic figures, rather pathetic when they were being brought to book for their crimes.
Orwell was always likely to attack whatever he was closest to. Down & Out would not have appeared without Victor Gollancz’s idealistic publishing venture, which Orwell later sneered at. The book was also why he became ‘George Orwell’ rather than Eric Blair. He knew his writings would cause offence, so he chose an alias that would not reflect badly on his family name.
Incidentally, the choice of name from gives him a point in common with Lenin. Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov took his name from a Russian river; the Orwell is an English river. Lenin himself was an hereditary aristocrat, as Orwell’s ancestors had been, though Lenin held this rank on account of his father’s achievement as a liberal reformer in the Tsarist education system. Not that he ever took it seriously; he was a bitter foe of a system which had had his elder brother executed following a Nihilist-style bomb plot that actually killed no one. (Worth thinking about next time Capital Punishment gets debated.)
Lenin came from Russia’s elite, but the revolution was made by a mix of workers and radical intellectuals, with officials of working-class origin becoming more important as the state developed. The process that was later called the Managerial Revolution happened first in the Soviet Union. The ruling elite could come from almost anywhere, a rule established much more definitely than it has been even today in the USA. This last is bound to be disputed, so let’s check the details. Since Lenin, every ruler of Russia has been from an ordinary background, rising by personal merit and without well-known relatives. In the USA from 1924 to 2004, Roosevelt, Kennedy, and the two Bushes were all from the elite. They ruled for a total of 24.5 years, more than a quarter of the period.
Spaniards & Unicorns
To return to Orwell, Orwell sometimes called himself a ‘democratic socialist’. But he never showed much interest in what ordinary people actually wanted. He was similar to the Anarchists in this; objecting to authority applied against himself and people he knew, but Anarchists don’t really allow for people wanting to be free in some other non-Anarchist manner. Orwell says it nicely:
“This illustrates well the totalitarian tendency which is implicit in the Anarchist or pacifist vision of society. In a society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law. When human beings are governed by ‘thou shalt not’, the individual can practise a certain amount of eccentricity: when they are supposedly governed by ‘love’ or ‘reason’, he is under continuous pressure to make him behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone else.” (Politics vs Literature September-October 1946.)
This could be applied just as much to our modern Libertarians, and explains why some of them have become Libertarian-Authoritarians, breaking down long-standing checks and balances in the ‘war against terrorism’—actually a crusade against anyone who dares to think in an un-American fashion. You can’t run a society without coercion, because real people want too many different things, some of them unreasonable, some of them at the expense of their fellow-humans. ‘Freedom of The Individual’ depends on having a strict and limited definition of The Individual, with pressure and punishment for those who fail to be an obedient unit of The Individual along the currently approved lines.
US Individualism is Standardised Individualism. In its own terms, it worked much better in the 1950s, when acceptable variants for specimens of The Individual was very much narrower. The Thatcher / Reagan compromise between 1960s individualism and old-style capitalism is very much ‘new wine in old bottles’. I doubt it will work in the long run, the time-scale of generations where the decisive issues are settled.
You can’t hope to abolish state authority without a standard and imposed vision of The Individual—something like tribalism, except that a tribe relies on being able to drive out anyone who doesn’t behave properly according to tribal custom. Impersonal state authority was in some measure a liberation—see Brendan Clifford’s Hidden Ulster Explored for more on this concept. The idea of getting rid of nasty expensive oppressive state authority sounds fine, until you really think about how people are going to coexist and coordinate without it.
The advantage of a parliamentary system is that it allows for a permanent and legal opposition that the government must take seriously. There is always a cost in immediate efficiency. But without some sort of legal opposition, a system cannot renew itself. The breakdown of European Leninism occurred because Brezhnev stopped it from renewing itself in the 1960s. This was inherent in the system built by the Bolsheviks, and it’s a great pity that Lenin in his polemics pretended it was something else, a superior sort of democracy rather than a tough regime that was justified by a tough situation. This could also have been admitted in the 1950s, instead of blaming Stalin because Stalin had been tough within a tough system and had actually used it for vast achievements. Rather than moving beyond Leninism, almost everyone got caught up in the mad notion that you could somehow have a nice Dictatorship of the Proletariat. This is also the Trotskyist notion, though not the Trotskyist reality whenever they get a little bit of power for themselves.
Orwell didn’t exactly believe in having a nice Dictatorship of the Proletariat, but he also lacked any clearly different notion. Orwell’s unfocused radicalism and resentment could be expressed best by the left, mostly the hazy leftism of the Independent Labour Party. He believed in a kind of socialism that he found compatible with elements of traditional nationalism, though not with the nation as it was being run in his time. In fact he found nothing that suited him, though he was definite that Fascism should be opposed. Possibly also his long-standing resentment of own father got projected onto Stalin, who was seen as very patriarchal in those days.
In the 1930s, the Soviet Union was the main hope of defeating Fascism. The main means by which Fascism actually was defeated, though you’d never guess it from current coverage of that war. The material means for Fascism’s defeat had been created by Stalin’s ruthless industrialisation of the 1930s; a Soviet leader who had tried to be kinder and gentler would not have had the means to break the German Wehrmacht. And while Russian aid had undoubtedly helped the advance of the Spanish Communists during the Civil War, other Communist groups in Occupied Europe were able to achieve great strength from very small beginnings.
And what was Orwell doing in the meantime? He remained a socialist, but not consistently a ‘democratic socialist’. He was a bitter critic of the particular forms of authority exercised by Stalin and by the Spanish Communists, but he usually doesn’t offer Parliamentary Democracy as the alternative. He treats the difference between Franco’s forces and the Parliamentary-Democratic government of the Republic as unimportant. Having refused an invitation to join the International Brigade and take part in the critical fighting on the Madrid front, he said:
“It is the left-wing papers, the News Chronicle and the Daily Worker, with their far subtler methods of distortion, that have prevented the British public from grasping the real nature of the struggle.
“The [Republican] Spanish Government (including the semi-autonomous Catalan Government) is far more afraid of the revolution than of the Fascists. It is now almost certain that the war will end with some kind of compromise, and there is even reason to doubt whether the Government, which let Bilbao fail without raising a finger, wishes to be too victorious; but there is no doubt whatever about the thoroughness with which it is crushing its own revolutionaries…
“Meanwhile the war against Franco continues, but, except for the poor devils in the front-line trenches, nobody in Government Spain thinks of it as the real war. The real struggle is between revolution and counter-revolution; between the workers who are vainly trying to hold on to a little of what they won in 1936, and the Liberal-Communist bloc who are so successfully taking it away from them. It is unfortunate that so few people in England have yet caught up with the fact that Communism is now a counter-revolutionary force; that Communists everywhere are in alliance with bourgeois reformism and using the whole of their powerful machinery to crush or discredit any party that shows signs of revolutionary tendencies…
“Broadly speaking, Communist propaganda depends upon terrifying people with the (quite real) horrors of Fascism. It also involves pretending – not in so many words, but by implication – that Fascism has nothing to do with capitalism. Fascism is just a kind of meaningless wickedness, an aberration, ‘mass sadism’, the sort of thing that would happen if you suddenly let loose an asylumful of homicidal maniacs. Present Fascism in this form, and you can mobilize public opinion against it, at any rate for a while, without provoking any revolutionary movement. You can oppose Fascism by bourgeois ‘democracy, meaning capitalism. But meanwhile you have got to get rid of the troublesome person who points out that Fascism and bourgeois ‘democracy’ are Tweedledum and Tweedledee.” (Spilling The Spanish Beans, June & September 1937.)
That was Orwell’s position while Fascism was not a threat to England. Fascism and ‘bourgeois democracy’ were just the same, so there was no merit in the Popular Front policy of trying to unite all anti-Fascists. But when the Soviet Union followed the logic of this position and made an advantageous non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, this too was wrong. Suddenly ‘bourgeois democracy’ had merits again.
“For several years the coming war was a nightmare to me, and at times I even made speeches and wrote pamphlets against it. But the night before the Russo-German pact was announced I dreamed the war had started… I was patriotic at heart, would not sabotage or act against my own side, would support the war, would fight in it if possible… even the Chamberlain Government was assured of my loyalty…
“To be loyal both the Chamberlain’s England and to the England of tomorrow might seem an impossibility, if only one did not know it to be an everyday phenomenon. Only revolution can save England, that has been obvious for years, but now the revolution has started, and it may proceed quite quickly if only we can keep Hitler out. Within two years, maybe a year, if only we can hang on, we shall see changes that will surprise the idiots who have no foresight. I dare say the London gutters will have to run with blood. All right, let them, if necessary. But when the red militias are billeted in the Ritz I shall still feel that the England I was taught to love so long ago and for such different reasons is somehow persisting…
“I grew up in an atmosphere tinged with militarism, and afterwards I spent five boring years within the sound of bugles. To this day it gives me a faint feeling of sacrilege not to stand to attention during ‘God Save the King’… It is exactly the people whose hearts have never leapt at the sight of a Union Jack who will flinch from revolution when the moment comes… They young Communist who died heroically in the International Brigade was public school to the core. He had changed his allegiance but not his emotions.” (My Country Right or Left, Autumn 1940.)
By February 1941 he was saying:
“One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognises the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalties… Christianity and international Socialism are as weak as straws in comparison with it. Hitler and Mussolini rose to power in their own countries very largely because they could grasp this fact and their opponents could not.” (The Lion and the Unicorn).
Orwell did correctly see that the war would change Britain for the better. He supported the 1945 Labour government. But he also moved back to his anti-Communist position in Animal Farm and 1984, before dying in 1950 (the same year I was born). How he’d have developed if he’d lived longer is anyone’s guess. But in The Lion and the Unicorn, he takes a soft line towards a Tory party that had never objected to Fascism until it became an anti-British force.
“In spite of the campaigns of a few thousand left-wingers, it is fairly certain that the bulk of the English people were behind Chamberlain’s foreign policy. More, it is fairly certain that the same struggle was going on in Chamberlain’s mind as in the minds of ordinary people. His opponents professed to see in him a dark and wily schemer, plotting to sell England to Hitler, but it is far likelier that he was merely a stupid old man doing his best according to his very dim lights. It is difficult otherwise to explain the contradictions of his policy, his failure to grasp any of the courses that were open to him. Like the mass of the people, he did not want to pay the price either of peace or of war. And public opinion was behind him all the while, in policies that were completely incompatible with one another. It was behind him when he went to Munich, when he tried to come to an understanding with Russia, when he gave the guarantee to Poland, when he honoured it, and when he prosecuted the war half-heartedly. Only when the results of his policy became apparent did it turn against him; which is to say that it turned against its own lethargy of the past seven years. Thereupon the people picked a leader nearer to their mood, Churchill, who was at any rate able to grasp that wars are not won without fighting. Later, perhaps, they will pick another leader who can grasp that only Socialist nations can fight effectively.
“Do I mean by all this that England is a genuine democracy? No, not even a reader of the Daily Telegraph could quite swallow that.
“England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly. But in any calculation about it one has got to take into account its emotional unity, the tendency of nearly all its inhabitants to feel alike and act together in moments of supreme crisis. It is the only great country in Europe that is not obliged to drive hundreds of thousands of its nationals into exile or the concentration camp. At this moment, after a year of war, newspapers and pamphlets abusing the Government, praising the enemy and clamouring for surrender are being sold on the streets, almost without interference. And this is less from a respect for freedom of speech than from a simple perception that these things don’t matter. It is safe to let a paper like Peace News be sold, because it is certain that ninety-five per cent of the population will never want to read it.” (The Lion and the Unicorn).
Of course the people had not picked Churchill back in 1940. He was chosen by the Tory elite after Halifax decided that he did not want to be Chamberlain’s successor, at least not then. And Halifax must soon have regretted this: Halifax wanted to make a peace and admit defeat after the Fall of France. But Churchill was Prime Minister: Churchill did not feel the cause was lost and Churchill was able to get his way. We know this from sources who were silent at the time, but it was widely suspected even then.
Orwell was an early advocate of the idea that Chamberlain was a decent fellow who had no idea what he was doing, rather than a competent representative of the large chunk of Britain that thought Fascism was vastly preferable to Communism. It is even possible that Orwell originated this idea, which has now become Britain’s Received Standard vision of history.
Orwell is sometimes a very sharp observer. In a 1940 review of the unabridged translation of Mein Kampf, he says:
“When one compares [Hitler’s] utterances of a year or so ago with those made fifteen years earlier, a thing that strikes one is the rigidity of his mind, the way in which his world-view doesn’t develop.”
Hitler was brilliant at manipulating Britain and France, which were much the same in the 1930s as they’d been in the 1920s. His alliance with Mussolini was based on his memories of Mussolini as a mighty leader at a time when Hitler was marginal. Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 made no allowance for Stalin’s vastly successful industrialisation. He failed to recognise that Roosevelt was the most dangerous of his other potential foes. Roosevelt couldn’t possibly have been stood for a third term in 1940 if Hitler hadn’t started a war in 1939.
Not, of course, that Orwell saw any of this. But he did understand Hitler very well, being almost of the same generation, the people who remembered the ‘normal’ world before 1914. People who thought they knew how they would live when they grew up, and then found themselves stranded in a very different sort of world.
Orwell expressed bitter resentment against the Soviet Union. He says very little about how the British government ensured the defeat of the Spanish Republic. Had the normal rules applied, the Republic could have freely bought arms with the gigantic gold reserves that it controlled. Fascism would have been defeated in Spain and the Spanish Communists would have remained a small party. But that is never how he sees it. At the time he wrote Homage To Catalonia, Orwell had a wildly false idea of what was happening in Spain. The Republic had been steadily losing ground from the beginning, because France and Britain refused supplies to either side whereas German and Italy sent both supplies and combat soldiers.
The final fall came in March 1939, with a miniature civil war on the Republican side. This consisted of non-Communist Republicans ousting the Communists and then trying to get terms from Franco. Since the non-Communist position in that particular conflict looks extremely foolish—Franco had refused compromise all along—it doesn’t get mentioned much in the British media. It gets glossed over in Radosh’s Spain Betrayed. Orwell mentions the surrender, but from a doggedly anti-Communist viewpoint:
“Colonel Casado’s name will always be among those that are remembered in connection with the Spanish Civil War. He it was who overthrew the Negrin Government and negotiated the surrender of Madrid—and, considering the actual military situation and the sufferings of the Spanish people, it is difficult not to feel he was right.” (Review of The Last Days of Madrid, January 1940.)
Casado didn’t ‘negotiate the surrender’ of Madrid; he gave it as a free gift to the enemy. And he did this at the same time as Britain was finally taking a stand against Hitler, giving a guarantee to Poland against German demands. The Republic still held Madrid and a substantial chunk of south-east Spain and had a sporting chance of surviving to the actual outbreak of World War Two. This was stupidly thrown away for a vain hope of mercy from Franco, who had been merciless from the start and remained merciless in victory.
By 1942, Orwell was singing another tune about the Spanish surrender:
“Whether it was right, as all left-wingers in other countries undoubtedly did, to encourage the Spaniards to go on fighting when they could not win is a question hard to answer. I myself think it was right, because I believe that it is better even from the point of view of survival to fight and be conquered than to surrender without fighting. ” (Looking Back on the Spanish War, Autumn 1942)
Let The Heavens Fall—But Not In My Backyard
There are people who genuinely do reject lying and stick to truth, no matter how inconvenient. These are mostly religious characters living lives of quiet virtue and piety, and I’ve no quarrel with them.
There are many more of a different sort—characters who strike grand rhetorical attitudes and then fail to live up to them. ‘Let justice prevail, though the heavens fall’. ‘Let the truth be told, though the world perish’. This is fine for condemning lies and injustice that hurt other people and does not hurt the speaker. It is always highly likely that anyone so noisy in their rhetoric is not seriously planning to live up to their noble sentiments.
As well as an outlook irreconcilable with Homage To Catalonia, the 1942 essay Looking Back on the Spanish War contains Orwell’s much-quoted remarks about the distortion of truth:
“I remember saying once to Arthur Koestler, ‘History stopped in 1936’, at which he nodded in immediate understanding. We were both thinking of totalitarianism in general, but more particularly of the Spanish civil war. Early in life I have noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. 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 these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional 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’.”
These grand words are followed by no actual examples of specific false histories. In a work of some 8000 words, he says nothing about Catalonia or P.O.U.M, where Orwell in 1937-8 had had a reasonable case against the accusations made at the time. Of course those P.O.U.M leaders who stood trial had been acquitted of Fascist links, while found guilty of rebellion. Their side of the story was available for those who wished to study it. It was rejected by most Britons who had actually fought for the Republic.
What about the ‘great battles reported where there had been no fighting’? Which battles? Why not name a few? From my own reading, battles in the Spanish Civil War were no more muddled or disputed than is normal in war. Waterloo from a French, British or Prussian perspective might be three quite separate events.
As for ‘troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors’: if this refers to the P.O.U.M militia, then Orwell’s own account in Homage To Catalonia confirms that their front was ‘comic opera with an occasional death’.
The nearest Orwell gets to a specific example is an accusation against the Militarist-Rightists:
“Out of the huge pyramid of lies which the Catholic and reactionary press all over the world built up, let me take just one point—the presence in Spain of a Russian army. Devout Franco partisans all believed in this; estimates of its strength went as high as half a million. Now, there was no Russian army in Spain. There may have been a handful of airmen and other technicians, a few hundred at the most, but an army there was not. Some thousands of foreigners who fought in Spain, not to mention millions of Spaniards, were witnesses of this. Well, their testimony made no impression at all upon the Franco propagandists, not one of whom had set foot in Government Spain. Simultaneously these people refused utterly to admit the fact of German or Italian intervention at the same time as the Germany and Italian press were openly boasting about the exploits of their’ legionaries’.” (Looking Back on the Spanish War)
While it would suit me nicely to suppose that Orwell is correct in what he says about the Militarist-Rightists, I find myself unable to trust him on anything whatsoever. His estimates of foreign help to the Republic are a bit low. And I’d want to check independently what the more serious commentators from the Militarist-Right actually said. He fails to cite a specific Francoist authority who exaggerated, though I’d have thought there would be plenty.
I find it interesting that he cites Koester as his fellow defender-of-truth. Koester is deeper and more interesting than Orwell, but he no more honest. Koester eliminates Giordano Bruno from The Sleepwalkers, his interesting account of cosmology from Copernicus to Galileo. Mentioning Bruno’s case would cast doubt on Koester’s thesis that the Catholic hierarchy were moving towards an acceptance of Copernicanism. The best scientific argument against Copernicanism was that the stars did not show parallax, apparent relative movement as the Earth moved about the sun. The most sensible answer—the correct answer—is that the stars are other suns and thus far too distant to show parallax until much bigger and better telescopes were developed. It was not an automatic consequence of Copernicanism; we’ve no way of knowing what Copernicus may have privately believed, but Kepler definitely considered that the stars were much smaller than the sun and just distant enough to avoid showing any visible parallax. Kepler was the last major astronomer to believe this, and it is such an embarrassment to Modernism that most accounts of his life leave it out. Bruno was no astronomer, but was sharp enough to see that the idea of the stars being other suns fitted the older notion of a ‘plurality of worlds’, which the Church in that era could not then have swallowed.
That’s Koestler on physics. Regarding his former comrades in World Communism, he twists Bukharin’s very interesting Last Speech at his trial to make it fit what Koestler thinks he ought to be saying. (See Labour & Trade Union Review, April 2005.)
Orwell himself makes some extraordinary claims, saying on one occasion that he wasn’t an ideological enemy of Soviet Communism, but merely harboured doubts about its expression in practice:
“I have never visited Russia and my knowledge of it consists only of what can be learned by reading books and newspapers. Even if I had the power, I would not wish to interfere in Soviet domestic affairs: I would not condemn Stalin and his associates merely for their barbaric and undemocratic methods. It is quite possible that, even with the best intentions, they could not have acted otherwise under the conditions prevailing there.
“But on the other hand it was of the utmost importance to me that people in western Europe should see the Soviet regime for what it really was. Since 1930 I had seen little evidence that the USSR was progressing towards anything that one could truly call Socialism. On the contrary, I was struck by clear signs of its transformation into a hierarchical society, in which the rulers have no more reason to give up their power than any other ruling class.
“Yet one must remember that England is not completely democratic. It is also a capitalist country with great class privileges and (even now, after a war that has tended to equalise everybody) with great differences in wealth. But nevertheless it is a country in which people have lived together for several hundred years without major conflict, in which the laws are relatively just and official news and statistics can almost invariably be believed, and, last but not least, in which to hold and to voice minority views does not involve any mortal danger.
“I do not wish to comment on the work; if it does not speak for itself, it is a failure. But I should like to emphasise two points: first, that although the various episodes are taken from the actual history of the Russian Revolution, they are dealt with schematically and their chronological order is changed; this was necessary for the symmetry of the story. The second point has been missed by most critics, possibly because I did not emphasise it sufficiently. A number of readers may finish the book with the impression that it ends in the complete reconciliation of the pigs and the humans. That was not my intention; on the contrary I meant it to end on a loud note of discord, (Preface to the Ukrainian Edition of Animal Farm, by George Orwell, March 1947)
Orwell has actually removed a great deal from the ‘actual history of the Russian Revolution’, beginning with the Great War. Russians didn’t overthrow the Tsar arbitrarily: Tsarism collapsed under the strain of a war that killed millions. A war that Germany wanted to end and which the British Empire insisted on fighting until Germany was crushed. Not only the Tsar was sacrificed: so too was the moderate government that took over from February to October 1917. Lenin would not have been listened to if the moderates hadn’t been persuaded by Britain to keep on sacrificing Russian lives in a deadlocked war.
Orwell could not have made good propaganda if he had stuck closer to the facts, represented the revolutionary animals struggling for stability after their first revolution.
At no time in Animal Farm is there any representative democracy. The Russian reality was a highly efficient system of Soviets, councils formed by ordinary people. This system was both stabilised and subverted by party control, under conditions when conquest by Russia’s anti-democratic White Guards was a very real danger.
Also written out of Orwellian history are Anarchists, Mensheviks, Social-Revolutionaries (Left & Right), Constitutional-Democrats and the Brest-Litovsk peace.
The Russian Civil War is the most drastic omission. The Bolshevik government began by abolishing the death penalty and released various rebellious military officers who later became formidable as White Guard leaders. It was Russian right-wingers with British support who turned politics into a matter of mass killing. If they had won, Russia would have become another Military-Rightist regime keen to restore the pre-1914 order. Though the loss of independent working-class democracy was tragic, the context should not be forgotten, and is forgotten in Orwell’s untruthful fable.
People suppose that Animal Farm is missing a Lenin figure. I can’s agree with this. The despot ‘Napoleon’, joint leader of the initial uprising, stands equally for Lenin and Stalin as Orwell saw them. Maybe even for aspects of Trotsky. Orwell said:
“It is probably a good thing for Lenin’s reputation that he died so early. Trotsky, in exile, denounces the Russian dictatorship, but he is probably as much responsible for it as any man now living, and there is no certainty that as a dictator he would be preferable to Stalin, though undoubtedly he had a much more interesting mind. The essential act is the rejection of democracy; once you have decided upon that, Stalin—or at any rate someone like Stalin—is already on the way.” (Review of Russia under Soviet Rule, by N. de Basily. January 1939.)
What was rejected was actually constitutional rule, not democracy, since Soviet Communism always did express the will of a large block of public opinion. It was moot if Russia would have stayed democratic, even if the Bolsheviks had done nothing. A moderate-left Russian government would probably still have had to face a Military-Rightist revolt. If they’d been lucky enough to survive that, then a democratic Russia Republic would probably have collapsed in the early 1930s. The Great Slump brought down most democratic governments east of Germany, as well as persuading Germany to turn to Hitler.
Orwell is also typically little-England in seeing all the enemies of England as monsters. Much of Europe saw Napoleon as a liberator: Poland especially. Many nations spent much of the 19th century trying to get back what they had lost with his fall. He did damage in Spain, certainly, and might have done worse had he got as far as England. But Ireland conquered by Napoleon could have moved to small-farmer agriculture much sooner and would have avoided the potato famine of the 1840s, in which millions died while Irish-grown grain was exported.
The error in Soviet Russia was not the 1917 suppression of constitutional rule, but the elevation of party rule to a fixed principle, which Khrushchev enshrined at the same time he denounced Stalin. If they’d agreed to multi-party elections in the 1960s, when the system was still vigorous, they’d probably have won them. In those days, the Western system called itself ‘Mixed Economy’, and only its foes called it capitalism.
I’ve argued elsewhere that capitalism is an economic method that can flourish within a number of different political systems. Something that now gets called ‘capitalism’ emerged in the British Empire at a time when it was dominated by a comfortable and progressive-minded gentry that had no respect for official Christianity. Free-flowing capitalist forces ate their way right through that stratum, which was substantially replaced during the 19th century by a mostly-puritan middle class that wasn’t at first sure it wanted the Empire. Gradually it was seduced. The Boer War—pure aggression by the British Empire against Afrikaners who wanted only to be left alone—was opposed by a big portion of the Liberal Party. By 1914, they had largely been won over.
Lloyd George had opposed the Boer War, but supported the vastly more dangerous war in Europe. He kept it going when he should have recognised that a victory would be as damaging as a defeat. That was almost the end of British Liberalism, and brief signs of a ‘return to normal’ in the later 1920s had faded by the 1930s, blighted by the massive economic crisis. Vigour and coherence were to be found mainly in fascism and communism, and partly also in the USA after Roosevelt broke conventional rules to get the economy going again. But the massive political and resistance to Roosevelt’s tax-and-spend policies looked likely to tip the USA back into another recession by 1938, when Hitler obligingly provided a crisis for him.
Before that, back in 1936, Hitler and Mussolini had been as much rivals as allies. The Spanish Civil War made them allies, and also led Hitler to believe that Britain and the USA were happy to let him do the dirty work of smashing the Left in the hope that Hitler would respect the West’s interests. Which he had no intention of doing, but also he had planned to take things more slowly and to fight his anti-British war in the mid-1940s.
There is a much-quoted comment by a German Protestant priest called Martin Niemöller, who spoke about moral failure:
Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten, habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Kommunist.
Als sie die Sozialdemokraten einsperrten, habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Sozialdemokrat.
Als sie die Gewerkschafter holten, habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Gewerkschafter.
Als sie die Juden holten, habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Jude.
Als sie mich holten, gab es keinen mehr, der protestieren konnte.
This is normally translated as:
“First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I said nothing. Then they came for the Social Democrats, but I was not a Social Democrat, so I did nothing. Then came the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist. And then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did little. Then when they came for me, there was no one left to stand up for me.” I suspect that the last line has an untranslatable pun. Another way to put it would be “When the Nazis took the Communists, I was silent, because I was no Communist…’ etc. and ending with “When they took Protestants like me, there was no one left to protest.”
The lines are generally given in a garbled form, mostly with the Communists omitted, often with Jews placed first. Which is not how things actually happened. Non-political Jews were ill-treated but in no danger of death, until Churchill chose to fight on despite a German victory that seemed decisive.
Spain was the time to protest, the moment when the expansion of Fascism could have been stopped with vastly less bloodshed. But the Spaniards had elected the wrong sort of government, from a British and US point of view. Most people play by democratic rules, only when the outcome is acceptable. In 1936, the ruling class still hoped the 1914 norm might be restored eventually. Franco offered more hope for that than the Republicans. Nothing the Republic did seems very radical nowadays, but that is only because Western values shifted radically during the war against fascism and in alliance with the Soviet Union. And then shifted again in the 1960s, with the Soviet Union unfortunately rejecting further progress and opting for Brezhnevite stagnation.
A victory for moderate Socialists in Spain was feasible, and would not have been to the taste of Britain’s Tory government. The British public was mostly more sympathetic, but only for as long as moderate Socialism seemed to be the likely outcome of a Republican victory. There had been outbreaks of something much more radical in some parts of Spain, but only some parts. That’s the tale that Orwell should have told, but he got diverted into a backwater where the threat was far away:
“Owing partly to an accident I joined the P.O.U.M. militia instead of the International Brigade which was a pity in one way because it meant that I have never seen the Madrid front; on the other hand it has brought me into contact with Spaniards rather than Englishmen and especially with genuine revolutionaries”. (Letter to Victor Gollancz, 9 May 1937.)
This was just after the ‘May Events’. He doesn’t then say anything about Barcelona having been a wonderful place a few months back. I could find no independent evidence that he took the views he later claimed in Homage to Catalonia.
One of the few useful facts I got from Taylor’s biography is that the papers seized from Orwell in Spain by the Republic’s police may be sitting in a Russian archive. It would be interesting to discover whether there was the same gap between diary and book as there was for Wigan Pier. For now, all we know is that he returned from Spain without having seen the serious forces of the Military-Rightists and obsessed with the Republic’s internal feuds:
“In Spain, to some extent even in England, anyone professing revolutionary Socialism (i.e. professing the things the Communist Party professed until a few years ago) is under suspicion of being a Trotskyist in the pay of Franco or Hitler.
“The accusation is a very subtle one, because in any given case, unless one happened to know the contrary, it might be true. A Fascist spy probably would disguise himself as a revolutionary. In Spain, everyone whose opinions are to the Left of those of the Communist Party is sooner or later discovered to be a Trotskyist or, at least, a traitor” (Spilling The Spanish Beans, July 1937, emphasis added)
Orwell doesn’t explain how one could know that an apparent leftist was not a spy. Of course no one could know; characters who were regarded as genuine leftists have turned out to be actual spies or traitors, including a fellow I worked with on the Workers Control issue. Back in the 1930s, the leaders of Global Communism knew that they had some outright agents in the enemy camp—characters like Kim Philby, who was later put in charge of anti-Communist operations that mysteriously ended in disaster. They were also aware of sympathisers, people like Klaus Fuchs, who gave the Soviet Union the substance of the British-US development of nuclear weapons.
Suspicions of treason are much more acute during the gigantic emotional stress of warfare, and are not always wrong. Even Orwell half-recognised the logic of greater discipline and control:
“The Communist influence has been against revolutionary chaos and has therefore, apart from the Russian aid, tended to produce greater military efficiency. If the Anarchists saved the Government from August to October 1936, the Communists have saved it from October onwards. But in organizing the defence they have succeeded in killing enthusiasm (inside Spain, not outside). They made a militarized conscript army possible, but they also made it necessary. It is significant that as early as January of this year voluntary recruiting had practically ceased. A revolutionary army can sometimes win by enthusiasm, but a conscript army has got to win with weapons, and it is unlikely that the Government will ever have a large preponderance of arms unless France intervenes or unless Germany and Italy decide to make off with the Spanish colonies and leave Franco in the lurch. On the whole, a deadlock seems the likeliest thing.
“And does the Government seriously intend to win? It does not intend to lose, that is certain. On the other hand, an outright victory, with Franco in flight and the Germans and Italians driven into the sea, would raise difficult problems, some of them too obvious to need mentioning.” (Ibid.)
It’s not clear to me why they should have not wanted to win. I suppose Orwell is referring back to his claim that the Republic was afraid of its own left-wing. But why? They had successfully curbed P.O.U.M by July 1937, and it had never been likely to have been much of a problem. P.O.U.M controlled one division of some 4000 armed men; enough to be a nuisance in Catalonia, but hardly threatening in a war in which the Republic had an army of half a million. P.O.U.M had no more chance of achieving their own Spanish Revolution than Arthur Scargill has of winning a British General Election. P.O.U.M mattered, because it was a bad influence on the much larger Anarchist movement. Anti-Communist politics using Far Left arguments demoralised or diverted militants. Wasted the energies of those who had to be mobilised for positive ends if the Republic’s war was to be actually won.
Why could not Orwell see it? Why couldn’t he even be wise after the event, rather than shifting to a new and incompatible view of the Spanish War when he ‘looked back’. I’d guess that resentments are the key to Orwell’s personality and his odd ever-shifting viewpoints. I’m not sure he ever met anything he didn’t dislike.
Orwell saw very little of the Spanish Military-Rightists, and so found nothing much to resent. Things not right under his own nose had little meaning for him, though it should have been damn clear what Franco was up to. Not just conquering his enemies, but using systematic killing to ‘clear’ Spain of its Anarchists, Communists, Socialists and Liberals. None of his enemies were going to be spared. Barcelona on its own did not have the power to stop him.
While Franco Marched ‘Widdershins’
There had been a long-running antagonism between Anarchists and Socialists in Spain, which did a great deal to weaken the Left. Orwell had an idea of how the war could better have been won, but it is not a sensible idea:
“In Catalonia, in February, there had been a wave of enthusiasm over the first big drive for the Popular Army, but it had not led to any great increase in recruiting. The war was only six months old or thereabouts when the Spanish Government had to resort to conscription, which would be natural in a foreign war, but seems anomalous in a civil war. Undoubtedly it was bound up with the disappointment of the revolutionary hopes with which the war had started. The trade union members who formed themselves into militias and chased the Fascists back to Zaragoza in the first few weeks of war had done so largely because they believed themselves to be fighting for working-class control; but it was becoming more and more obvious that working-class control was a lost cause, and the common people, especially the town proletariat, who have to fill the ranks in any war, civil or foreign, could not be blamed for a certain apathy. Nobody wanted to lose the war, but the majority were chiefly anxious for it to be over. You noticed this wherever you went. Everywhere you met with the same perfunctory remark: ‘This war — terrible, isn’t it? When is it going to end?’ Politically conscious people were far more aware of the internecine struggle between Anarchist and Communist than of the fight against Franco. To the mass of the people the food shortage was the most important thing. ‘The front’ had come to be thought of as a mythical far-off place to which young men disappeared and either did not return or returned after three or four months with vast sums of money in their pockets. (A militiaman usually received his back pay when he went on leave.)” (Homage to Catalonia).
In Catalonia, there had been a quick victory over the local Military-Rightists (who included fascists but were many other things besides fascist). Had Catalonia been an independent republic, or had it managed to secede, then indeed the Anarchist / Communist conflict would have been the main issue. But Catalonia’s future was going to be settled by the war in Spain as a whole.
General Franco had been proceeding methodically, in a kind of gigantic anti-clockwise march around the whole of Spain. His supporters had secured him Spanish Morocco, and German aircraft then ferried large numbers of his troops back to southern Spain. He proceeded north along the border with Military-Rightist Portugal, easily mopping up local militias with his regular troops and Moroccan mercenaries. He joined forces with other Military-Rightist forces in the north of Spain, but got diverted into an attack on Toledo, where he saved a Military-Rightist garrison at a garrison-building called the Alcazar. This may have been a military blunder, missing the opportunity to take Madrid before its defenders rallied. It was definitely a good move for Franco personally, confirming him as the chief military leader of the Military-Rightists.
While the Republic’s rival factions quarrelled and fought miniature civil wars among themselves, the Military-Rightists consolidated themselves around Franco. He had originally been just one of many Military-Rightist leaders, and one whose commitment was doubtful until the actual uprising. He was helped by a number of deaths on the Military-Rightist side; whether he had anything to do with those deaths is a complex topic and I’ll not go into it here. Let it just be noted, he had become the unquestioned leader for at least the war’s duration, and was applying a systematic ‘clearance’ strategy that took and digested Republican Spain, one chunk at a time. Catalonia’s turn would come later, but it would definitely come. Radical Catalonia was doomed unless there was a successful counter-attack of the sort the Communists were trying to organise.
After taking Toledo and lifting the siege of the Alcazar, the Military-Rightists had attacked Madrid, fully expecting to capture it quickly. Had that happened, it’s pretty certain that the Spanish Civil War would have ended in 1936, with Catalonia crushed as it had been crushed many times before by the central power in Spain. But Madrid held, mostly due to the Spanish Communists, the International Brigade and Soviet arms. There was much more fighting but Madrid held and gave the Republic some hope of eventual victory.
Unfortunately for the Republic, Franco was too smart to go on losing people battering against the defences of Madrid. At the time of the ‘May Events’ in Barcelona, the Military-Rightist forces were methodically crushing the Republican enclave in the north, which included Basque Nationalists and which was weakened by being a combination of mutually mistrustful elements. The divisions in the north were at least as bad as those in Catalonia, but are less well known in Britain, because they cannot easily be used for Cold War propaganda.
The war dragged on into 1938, with some hope that it might merge with a wider anti-Fascist World War, a hope that was spoiled by Chamberlain’s decision to give Hitler everything he asked for with the Munich Agreement. Basil Lidell-Hart explains in his History of the Second World War that the German generals seriously doubted if they could break through Czechoslovakia’s formidable mountain defences while also fighting a war with Britain and France. Hitler explained that there was not going to be a war just then: he fully planned a war in a few years times but he was certain that Czechoslovakia would be forced to surrender by the British and French. As indeed it was.
Chamberlain’s actions make perfect sense, if you assume he saw fascism as much less of a danger than the menace of socialism and the left, including moderate and democratic leftists. He didn’t want to save the Spanish Republic, because it was certain to be a left-wing government, whether or not the Communists dominated it. He did not particularly want to help Czechoslovakia, which had made a treaty with the Soviet Union in 1935 and where the democratic left was strong. It was another matter giving a guarantee to Poland, which was itself Military-Rightist and which had been on good terms with Nazi Germany until Hitler made demands on territory given to Poland by the Versailles Treaty.
Britain’s March 1939 guarantee to Poland could have been very relevant to Spain, where the Republic was reduced but still holding out. In 1938, Franco had continued his anti-clockwise march by breaking through to the Mediterranean, splitting Catalonia from Valencia and Madrid. Catalonia itself followed a few months later, a swift collapse over a few weeks at the end of 1938 and the start of 1939. The miniature civil war in 1937 had done damage, but Catalonia’s fate was not so different from other parts of Spain when the Military-Rightists got round to making them the prime target.
Given their previous rate of progress, it might have taken the Military-Rightists another couple of years to complete the cycle. They’d got three-quarters of the way round Spain, but Madrid in the centre still held out. And of course there would have been lots of possibilities once the world war had started, if it had started. But Britain under Chamberlain was keen to avoid this. They hastened to recognise the Military-Rightists as the authentic Spanish government after the fall of Catalonia, even though the Republic was a legitimate government that still possessed its capital and about a quarter of the country.
It’s also worth mentioning that Catalonia before its fall had seriously considered seceding from Spain and seeking to unite with France. This might have happened if Chamberlain had recognised Franco’s Spain while Catalonia was holding out. If the struggle for a progressive Spain was over, why should not Catalonia go its own way? It’s doubtful if Britain would have approved of such an extension of French power, so there was a great deal of logic in the British Government choosing to declare the war over only after it was too late for Catalonia. There were protests from in the British Parliament from the Labour Party and Liberal Party, but the Tories had the majority and got their way.
It was at this point that Colonel Casado’s faction within the Republic got the idea that there could be a negotiated settlement with Franco if they only got rid of the Communists. This was complete rubbish: Franco was committed to rooting out all of his enemies, including liberals and non-socialist republicans. But there is some evidence that the British Foreign Office encouraged this false belief. Casado’s coup happened in March 1939 and led to the Republic’s ignominious collapse, very conveniently for Chamberlain.
After March 1939, Chamberlain had the anti-German alliance he wanted. France and Britain were lined up with right-wing Poland. Italy was neutral, and the Spanish Republic was conveniently gone. On the face of it, he had power enough to force Germany to a settlement on his terms—probably dropping the claim against Poland and resuming the general anti-Leftist crusade, which he approved of. Chamberlain would not then have felt he was in much danger of defeat:
“In September 1939 the Allies, namely Great Britain, France, and Poland, were together superior in industrial resources, population, and military manpower, but the German Army, or Wehrmacht, because of its armament, training, doctrine, discipline, and fighting spirit, was the most efficient and effective fighting force for its size in the world. The index of military strength in September 1939 was the number of divisions that each nation could mobilize. Against Germany’s 100 infantry divisions and six armoured divisions, France had 90 infantry divisions in metropolitan France, Great Britain had 10 infantry divisions, and Poland had 30 infantry divisions.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, DVD edition of 2002.)
Orwell totally misunderstood the central fact of the Spanish war, the steady advance of the Military-Rightists. Though a genuine anti-fascist, he managed to act very much as a fascist saboteur would have acted:
“I would keep silent about the whole affair [May 1937] if I thought it would help the Spanish Government (as a matter of fact, before we left Spain, some of the imprisoned people asked us not to attempt any publicity abroad because it might tend to discredit the Government), but I doubt whether it helps in the long run to cover things up as had been done in England.” (Letter to Raymond Mortimer, 9 February 1938.)
Orwell’s excuse was that it was the Communists’ fault for repressing revolutionary enthusiasm. But what was the viable alternative? The first disorganised resistance had stopped a smooth Military-Rightists take-over, but had failed against Franco’s much-better-organised forces. Harsh measures like conscription and internal repression were in fact unavoidable. A loss of enthusiasm is a feature of warfare in general. It’s hardly surprising that there were few additional enthusiasts after the first six months; most enthusiasts would have joined early. Conscription is entirely normal in Civil Wars—the US Federal Government crushing the Confederacy, for instance. Orwell himself says:
The chief excitement was the arrival of Fascist deserters, who were brought under guard from the front line. Many of the troops opposite us on this part of the line were not Fascists at all, merely wretched conscripts who had been doing their military service at the time when war broke out and were only too anxious to escape. Occasionally small batches of them took the risk of slipping across to our lines. No doubt more would have done so if their relatives had not been in Fascist territory. (Homage to Catalonia)
That the P.O.U.M militia were stalemated against an unenthusiastic enemy tells you something about their quality. Not only were the POUMists few in number; they were poor fighters. Second-raters holding a quiet section of the line against an enemy who were just as mediocre. They could not successful adjust to a new world in which revolutionary rhetoric had to be transformed into effective military organisations. But they did successfully transmit their misunderstanding to George Orwell during his time with them.
“In August  the Government was almost powerless, local soviets were functioning everywhere and the Anarchists were the main revolutionary force; as a result everything was in a terrible chaos, the churches were still smouldering and suspected Fascists were being shot in large numbers, but there was everywhere a belief in revolution, a feeling that the bondage of centuries had been broken. By January power had passed, though not so completely as later, from the Anarchists to the Communists, and the Communists were using every possible method, fair and foul, to stamp out what was left of the revolution.” (Review of The Spanish Cockpit & Volunteer in Spain, July 1937.)
Orwell was able to recognise why the non-communist alternative was not working. At least he could see how it was weakening itself. He underestimates the much larger number of Spaniards who belonged to the Centre or Right rather than the left, and the practical necessity of keeping the Centre in order to win the war. But he does see real problems in what existed:
“Philosophically, Communism and Anarchism are poles apart. Practically — i.e. in the form of society aimed at — the difference is mainly one of emphasis, but it is quite irreconcilable. The Communist’s emphasis is always on centralism and efficiency, the Anarchist’s on liberty and equality. Anarchism is deeply rooted in Spain and is likely to outlive Communism when the Russian influence is withdrawn. During the first two months of the war it was the Anarchists more than anyone else who had saved the situation, and much later than this the Anarchist militia, in spite of their indiscipline, were notoriously the best fighters among the purely Spanish forces. From about February 1937 onwards the Anarchists and the P.O.U.M. could to some extent be lumped together. If the Anarchists, the P.O.U.M., and the Left wing of the Socialists had had the sense to combine at the start and press a realistic policy, the history of the war might have been different. But in the early period, when the revolutionary parties seemed to have the game in their hands, this was impossible. Between the Anarchists and the Socialists there were ancient jealousies, the P.O.U.M., as Marxists, were sceptical of Anarchism, while from the pure Anarchist standpoint the ‘Trotskyism’ of the P.O.U.M. was not much preferable to the ‘Stalinism’ of the Communists. Nevertheless the Communist tactics tended to drive the two parties together. When the P.O.U.M. joined in the disastrous fighting in Barcelona in May, it was mainly from an instinct to stand by the C.N.T., and later, when the P.O.U.M. was suppressed, the Anarchists were the only people who dared to raise a voice in its defence.
“So, roughly speaking, the alignment of forces was this. On the one side the C.N.T.—F.A.I., the P.O.U.M., and a section of the Socialists, standing for workers’ control: on the other side the Right-wing Socialists, Liberals, and Communists, standing for centralized government and a militarized army.
“It is easy to see why, at this time, I preferred the Communist viewpoint to that of the P.O.U.M. The Communists had a definite practical policy, an obviously better policy from the point of view of the common sense which looks only a few months ahead. And certainly the day-to-day policy of the P.O.U.M., their propaganda and so forth, was unspeakably bad; it must have been so, or they would have been able to attract a bigger mass-following. What clinched everything was that the Communists — so it seemed to me — were getting on with the war while we and the Anarchists were standing still. This was the general feeling at the time. The Communists had gained power and a vast increase of membership partly by appealing to the middle classes against the revolutionaries, but partly also because they were the only people who looked capable of winning the war. The Russian arms and the magnificent defence of Madrid by troops mainly under Communist control had made the Communists the heroes of Spain. As someone put it, every Russian aeroplane that flew over our heads was Communist propaganda. The revolutionary purism of the P.O.U.M., though I saw its logic, seemed to me rather futile. After all, the one thing that mattered was to win the war. (Homage to Catalonia)
What he doesn’t explain is why it suddenly ceased to matter to him after he and his friends got picked on after the miniature civil war of May 1937. It wasn’t as if such a split was unexpected. Nor were accusations of treason unexpected:
“Anyone who has given the subject a glance knows that the Communist tactic of dealing with political opponents by means of trumped-up accusations is nothing new. Today the key-word is ‘Trotsky-Fascist’; yesterday it was ‘Social-Fascist’. It is only six or seven years since the Russian State trials ‘proved’ that the leaders of the Second International, including, for instance, Leon Blum and prominent members of the British Labour Party, were hatching a huge plot for the military invasion of the U.S.S.R. Yet today the French Communists are glad enough to accept Blum as a leader, and the English Communists are raising heaven and earth to get inside the Labour Party. I doubt whether this kind of thing pays, even from a sectarian point of view. And meanwhile there is no possible doubt about the hatred and dissension that the ‘Trotsky-Fascist’ accusation is causing. Rank-and-file Communists everywhere are led away on a senseless witch-hunt after ‘Trotskyists’, and parties of the type of the P.O.U.M. are driven back into the terribly sterile position of being mere anti-Communist parties. There is already the beginning of a dangerous split in the world working-class movement. A few more libels against life-long Socialists, a few more frame-ups like the charges against the P.O.U.M., and the split may become irreconcilable. The only hope is to keep political controversy on a plane where exhaustive discussion is possible. Between the Communists and those who stand or claim to stand to the Left of them there is a real difference. The Communists hold that Fascism can be beaten by alliance with sections of the capitalist class (the Popular Front); their opponents hold that this manoeuvre simply gives Fascism new breeding-grounds. The question has got to be settled; to make the wrong decision may be to land ourselves in for centuries of semi-slavery. But so long as no argument is produced except a scream of ‘Trotsky-Fascist!’ the discussion cannot even begin.” (Ibid)
Hemingway was much smarter about such matters. He recognised the quasi-religious fervour of the Communist cause:
“At either of those places [Communist centres] you felt that you were taking part in a crusade. That was the only word for it although it was a word that had been so worn and abused that it no longer gave its true meaning. You felt, in spite of all bureaucracy and inefficiency and party strife something that was like the feeling you expected to have and did not have when you made your first communion. It was a feeling of consecration to a duty toward all of the oppressed of the world which would be as difficult and embarrassing to speak about as religious experience and yet it was authentic as the feeling you had when you heard Bach, or stood in Chartres Cathedral” (For Whom The Bell Tolls)
You can’t combine such an enthusiasm with a relaxed and tolerant attitude towards enemies. Especially not enemies who claim to be the true upholders of your own creed. Leninism had to strike a very difficult balance between commitment and flexibility. Trotskyists are hopelessly inflexible. Moderate drop-offs tend to lack commitment and gravitate to whoever pays best. Not many people are ready to die for moderation.
When Orwell says “parties of the type of the P.O.U.M. are driven back into the terribly sterile position of being mere anti-Communist parties”, he is unduly forgiving of their position. Also not entirely accurate; they did make some effort to avoid damaging the Republican cause, but were gripped by a foolish conviction that the war was unwinnable without them in charge of everything. Both P.O.U.M and the Spanish Communists thought within a Leninist framework, but the Communists were also capable of winning. P.O.U.M won nothing. Strict Trotskyists also counted for nothing: there were a small number in Spain, sniping at P.O.U.M. as well as everyone else. Everywhere else they also won nothing, sniping at functional Communist parties and also preventing feasible reforms (as in Britain in the 1970s).
A Distorting Mirror
Orwell’s world-view was incoherent, but often led him to sharp insights on particular matters. I’ll give a selection here, my own pick of the Collected Essays:
“The basic trouble with all orthodox Marxists is that, possessing a system which appears to explain everything, they never bother to discover what is going on inside other people’s heads. That is why in every western country, during the last dozen years, they have played straight into the hands of their adversaries. In a book of literary criticism, unlike a tract on economics, the Marxist cannot take cover behind his favourites polysyllables; he has got to come out into the open and you can see just what kind of blinkers he is wearing.” (Review of Philip Henderson’s The Novel Today, written at the end of 1936 and before Orwell went to Spain.)
“In Burma, I was constantly struck by the fact that the common soldiers were the best-hated section of the white community, and, judged simply by their behaviour, they certainly deserved to be. Even as near home as Gibraltar they walk the streets with a swaggering air which is directed at the Spanish ‘natives’.” (Democracy in the British Army, Sept. 1939.)
On British attitudes to Hitler:
“It is a sign of the speed at which events are moving that Hurst and Blackett’s unexpurgated edition of Mein Kampf, published only a year ago, is edited from a pro-Hitler angle. The obvious intention of the translator’s preface and notes is to tone down the book’s ferocity and present Hitler in as kindly a light as possible. For at that date Hitler was still respectable. He had crushed the German labour movement, and for that the property-owning classes were willing to forgive him almost anything. Both Left and Right concurred in the very shallow notion that National Socialism was merely a version of Conservatism…
“When one compares his utterances of a year or so ago with those made fifteen years earlier, a thing that strikes one is the rigidity of his mind, the way in which his world-view doesn’t develop…
“I should like to put it on record that I have never been able to dislike Hitler. Ever since he came to power – till then, like nearly everyone, I had been deceived into thinking that he did not matter – I have reflected that I would certainly kill him if I could get within reach of him, but that I could feel no personal animosity. The fact is that there is something deeply appealing about him.
“Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarized version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time’, Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death’, and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.” (Review of Mein Kampf, March 1940.
Orwell never understood what a mess Germany was in when Hitler took over. In the 1930s, the Great Depression was widely seen as a final collapse of capitalism and liberalism, with the main issue being what should replace it. Hitler’s solution was widely admired by the Centre-Right in both Britain and the USA. Only when Hitler became the open foe of Anglo interests was fascism re-classified as evil.
During the war, Orwell was clear about the difference between Socialism and ‘National Socialism’:
“But the idea underlying Fascism is irreconcilably different from that which underlies Socialism. Socialism aims, ultimately, at a world-state of free and equal human beings. It takes the equality of human rights for granted. Nazism assumes just the opposite. The driving force behind the Nazi movement is the belief in human inequality, the superiority of Germans to all other races, the right of Germany to rule the world. Outside the German Reich it does not recognize any obligations. Eminent Nazi professors have ‘proved’ over and over again that only nordic man is fully human, have even mooted the idea that non-nordic peoples (such as ourselves) can interbreed with gorillas! Therefore, while a species of war-Socialism exists within the German state, its attitude towards conquered nations is frankly that of an exploiter. The function of the Czechs, Poles, French, etc. is simply to produce such goods as Germany may need, and get in return just as little as will keep them from open rebellion. If we are conquered, our job will probably be to manufacture weapons for Hitler’s forthcoming wars with Russia and America. The Nazis aim, in effect, at setting up a kind of caste system, with four main castes corresponding rather closely to those of the Hindu religion. At the top comes the Nazi party, second come the mass of the German people, third come the conquered European populations. Fourth and last are to come the coloured peoples, the ‘semi-apes’ as Hitler calls them, who are to be reduced quite openly to slavery.” (The Lion and the Unicorn).
This misunderstands Nazi racism—Britons were Anglo-Saxon or Celtic, both racially acceptable and ‘Nordic’. And he fails to mention female equality, which socialists were determined to advance and which the Nazis had drastically reversed.
Orwell in 1941 thought the war was lost, but could still comment intelligently about British culture:
“The German Army has overrun the Balkans and reconquered Cyrenaica, it can march through Turkey or Spain at such time as may suit it, and it has undertaken the invasion of Russia. How that campaign will turn out I do not know, but it is worth noticing that the German general staff, whose opinion is probably worth something, would not have begun it if they had not felt fairly certain of finishing it within three months…
“Mr. Wells, like Dickens, belongs to the non-military middle class. The thunder of guns, the jingle of spurs, the catch in the throat when the old flag goes by, leave him manifestly cold. He has an invincible hatred of the fighting, hunting, swashbuckling side of life, symbolised in all his early books by a violent propaganda against horses…
“The people who have shown the best understanding of Fascism are either those who have suffered under it or those who have a Fascist streak in themselves. A crude book like The Iron Heel, written nearly thirty years ago, is a truer prophecy of the future than either Brave New World or The Shape of Things to Come. If one had to choose among Wells’s own contemporaries a writer who could stand towards him as a corrective, one might choose Kipling, who was not deaf to the evil voices of power and military ‘glory’. Kipling would have understood the appeal of Hitler, or for that matter of Stalin, whatever his attitude towards them might be.” (Wells, Hitler and the World State, August 1941)
Orwell failed to recognise how strong the Soviet Union had become, but had an excellent understanding of Britain’s social structure. Even the existence of the ‘non-military middle class’ in Britain is easily missed by outsiders. The society consisted of many diverse elements who managed to find common ground:
“A French journalist once said to me that the monarchy was one of the things that had saved Britain from Fascism. What he meant was that modern people can’t, apparently, get along without drums, flags and loyalty parades, and that it is better that they should tie their leader-worship on some figure who has no real power.” (London Letter to the Partisan Review, Spring 1944.)
It was a restored Spanish monarchy that would eventually release Spain from Franco’s Military-Rightist rule. The British monarchy likewise had its uses up until the 1960s—I doubt it matters now or will have much prestige after the present monarch. The current crop of royals show no sign of strong beliefs—and who can respect them, when it comes to the crunch?
Orwell should always be seen as a man of his own time. Hitchens claims that Orwell was ‘homophobic’. He doesn’t cite any specific evidence—he seems to rate himself as much too superior to be bothered with boring old facts. Like most modern journalists, he uses various UnGood and PlusGood words without any concern for detail. If something is UnGood, apply the nearest UnGood word, without the tiresome necessity of serious thought.
In my view, Orwell classed homosexuality as a bad habit, on a par with drunkenness or gluttony. He came from the public-school background in which adolescent homosexuality was quite common. The topic is mentioned a couple of times in Down & Out. One time he was sharing a room with a man who made homosexual advances. And another time he was at a lodging house notorious for ‘nancy boys’ and encountered another Old Etonian whom he suspected of being there for that purpose. He treats the matter as rather distasteful but not very important. Likewise in Spain:
“With a little organisation it would have been possible to arrange immediately behind the lines for hot baths, delousing, entertainment of some kind .. and also women. The very few women who were in or near the line and were getatable were simply a source of jealousy. There was a certain amount of sodomy among the younger Spaniards.” (Notes on the Spanish Militias.)
This is mentioned this as one item in a long description of how thing could have been managed better among the POUM militia, the only part of the war he saw close up. His view is patriarchal, old-fashioned:
“I doubt whether troops can simultaneously engage in trench warfare and be trained for mobile warfare, but more training would certainly have been possible if more care had been devoted to resting the men.”
Orwell is not flattering or sympathetic towards homosexuals, obviously. But nor is he hostile, especially by the standards of the time. Orwell’s attitude would undoubtedly draw protests if a modern writer said such things. But there is a very big difference between impoliteness and phobia; phobia means fear or hatred or a mix of both.
Note also that Orwell hardly ever sympathises with anyone except himself. His precise descriptions of what he’s seen of horror and degradation may rouse sympathy among readers. But what is the man himself feeling? He seems to be just a spectator in a world full of evils, a world whose faults cannot be cured and are certain to grow worse.
Then there’s Orwell’s supposed anti-Semitism. He is certainly negative about particular individual Jews. But then, how often is he positive about anyone whatsoever? And when it came to blanked condemnation of Jews, Orwell clearly rejected it:
“Although Jews in England have always been socially looked down on and debarred from a few professions (I doubt whether a Jew would be accepted as an officer in the navy, for instance) antisemitism is primarily a working-class thing, and strongest among Irish labourers… (London Letter to Partisan Review)
This is the first I’ve heard about the Irish being much concerned with Jews. Whereas racism was widespread among the British middle-class, including various developed racist theories. Most of these would include Jews among the superior white races, but a significant minority were bitterly anti-Jewish – though not as strong as in the USA in the same period, where Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent was full of talk of Jewish financial conspiracies. Orwell seems keen to blame outsiders for anti-Jewish sentiments, as with his visit to Morocco:
“You hear the usual dark rumours about the Jews, not only from the Arabs but from the poorer Europeans…
“”The Jews! They’re the real rulers of the country, you know. They’ve got all the money. They control the banks, finance—everything.’
“’But’, I said, ‘isn’t it a fact that the average Jew is a labourer working for about a penny an hour?’
“’Ah, that’s only for show! They’re all moneylenders really. They’re cunning, the Jews.’
“In just the same way, a couple of hundred years ago, poor old women used to be burned for witchcraft when they could not even work enough magic to get themselves a square meal.” (Marrakech, Winter/Spring 1939.)
D J Taylor fails to quote Orwell’s remarks in a ‘topic chapter’ called Orwell and the Jews. He loosely refers to them, but is more interested in circumstantial evidence regarding negative Jewish characters in deeply negative books. And it so happens that his own ‘topic’ follows one entitled Orwell and the rats!
In a book of more than 400 paperback pages, Taylor hardly ever lets Orwell speak for himself. Which is a pity, since Orwell is always wonderfully clear and understandable, even when he’s talking rubbish. He’s not a writer you should try to paraphrase.
Regarding pacifism, Orwell said:
“You are wrong also in thinking that I dislike wholehearted pacifism, though I do think it mistaken. What I object to is the circumspect kind of pacifism which denounces one kind of violence while endorsing or avoiding mention of another.” (Letter to John Middleton Murry, July 1944.)
Orwell was also no respecter of private property: “If giving the land of England back to the people of England is theft, I am quite happy to call it theft… consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds.
“Except for the few surviving commons… every square inch of England is ‘owned’ by a few thousand families. These people are just about as useful as so many tapeworms. It is desirable that people should own their own dwelling houses, and it is probably desirable that a farmer should own as much land as he can actually farm. But the ground-landlord in the town area has no function and no excuse for existing.” (As I Please, August 1944.)
Most land in England would have been purchased with money acquired elsewhere. The baronial conquerors mostly lost it long ago, but their successors remain a vast useless burden on the society. It was even more so in Orwell’s day.
I mentioned earlier that his initial view of Gandhi was scornful. Later on, he grew wiser:
“Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent, but the tests that have to be applied to them are not, of course, the same in all cases. In Gandhi’s case the questions one feels inclined to ask are: to what extent was Gandhi moved by vanity — by the consciousness of himself as a humble, naked old man, sitting on a praying mat and shaking empires by sheer spiritual power — and to what extent did he compromise his own principles by entering politics, which of their nature are inseparable from coercion and fraud? To give a definite answer one would have to study Gandhi’s acts and writings in immense detail, for his whole life was a sort of pilgrimage in which every act was significant. But this partial autobiography, which ends in the nineteen-twenties, is strong evidence in his favor, all the more because it covers what he would have called the unregenerate part of his life and reminds one that inside the saint, or near-saint, there was a very shrewd, able person who could, if he had chosen, have been a brilliant success as a lawyer, an administrator or perhaps even a businessman…
“It was also apparent that the British were making use of him, or thought they were making use of him. Strictly speaking, as a Nationalist, he was an enemy, but since in every crisis he would exert himself to prevent violence — which, from the British point of view, meant preventing any effective action whatever — he could be regarded as “our man”. In private this was sometimes cynically admitted. The attitude of the Indian millionaires was similar. Gandhi called upon them to repent, and naturally they preferred him to the Socialists and Communists who, given the chance, would actually have taken their money away. How reliable such calculations are in the long run is doubtful; as Gandhi himself says, “in the end deceivers deceive only themselves”; but at any rate the gentleness with which he was nearly always handled was due partly to the feeling that he was useful. The British Conservatives only became really angry with him when, as in 1942, he was in effect turning his non-violence against a different conqueror.
“But I could see even then that the British officials who spoke of him with a mixture of amusement and disapproval also genuinely liked and admired him, after a fashion. Nobody ever suggested that he was corrupt, or ambitious in any vulgar way, or that anything he did was actuated by fear or malice. In judging a man like Gandhi one seems instinctively to apply high standards, so that some of his virtues have passed almost unnoticed. For instance, it is clear even from the autobiography that his natural physical courage was quite outstanding: the manner of his death was a later illustration of this, for a public man who attached any value to his own skin would have been more adequately guarded…
“And though he came of a poor middle-class family, started life rather unfavorably, and was probably of unimpressive physical appearance, he was not afflicted by envy or by the feeling of inferiority. Color feeling when he first met it in its worst form in South Africa, seems rather to have astonished him. Even when he was fighting what was in effect a color war, he did not think of people in terms of race or status. The governor of a province, a cotton millionaire, a half-starved Dravidian coolie, a British private soldier were all equally human beings, to be approached in much the same way. It is noticeable that even in the worst possible circumstances, as in South Africa when he was making himself unpopular as the champion of the Indian community, he did not lack European friends…
“Nor did he, like most Western pacifists, specialize in avoiding awkward questions. In relation to the late war, one question that every pacifist had a clear obligation to answer was: “What about the Jews? Are you prepared to see them exterminated? If not, how do you propose to save them without resorting to war?” I must say that I have never heard, from any Western pacifist, an honest answer to this question, though I have heard plenty of evasions, usually of the “you’re another” type. But it so happens that Gandhi was asked a somewhat similar question in 1938 and that his answer is on record in Mr. Louis Fischer’s Gandhi and Stalin. According to Mr. Fischer, Gandhi’s view was that the German Jews ought to commit collective suicide, which ‘would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.’ After the war he justified himself: the Jews had been killed anyway, and might as well have died significantly. One has the impression that this attitude staggered even so warm an admirer as Mr. Fischer, but Gandhi was merely being honest. If you are not prepared to take life, you must often be prepared for lives to be lost in some other way. When, in 1942, he urged non-violent resistance against a Japanese invasion, he was ready to admit that it might cost several million deaths.
“At the same time there is reason to think that Gandhi, who after all was born in 1869, did not understand the nature of totalitarianism and saw everything in terms of his own struggle against the British government. The important point here is not so much that the British treated him forbearingly as that he was always able to command publicity. As can be seen from the phrase quoted above, he believed in “arousing the world”, which is only possible if the world gets a chance to hear what you are doing. It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again…
“I have never been able to feel much liking for Gandhi, but I do not feel sure that as a political thinker he was wrong in the main, nor do I believe that his life was a failure. It is curious that when he was assassinated, many of his warmest admirers exclaimed sorrowfully that he had lived just long enough to see his life work in ruins, because India was engaged in a civil war which had always been foreseen as one of the byproducts of the transfer of power. But it was not in trying to smooth down Hindu-Moslem rivalry that Gandhi had spent his life. His main political objective, the peaceful ending of British rule, had after all been attained. As usual the relevant facts cut across one another. On the other hand, the British did get out of India without fighting, and event which very few observers indeed would have predicted until about a year before it happened. On the other hand, this was done by a Labour government, and it is certain that a Conservative government, especially a government headed by Churchill, would have acted differently. But if, by 1945, there had grown up in Britain a large body of opinion sympathetic to Indian independence, how far was this due to Gandhi’s personal influence? And if, as may happen, India and Britain finally settle down into a decent and friendly relationship, will this be partly because Gandhi, by keeping up his struggle obstinately and without hatred, disinfected the political air? That one even thinks of asking such questions indicates his stature. One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi, one may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such claim himself, by the way), one may also reject sainthood as an ideal and therefore feel that Gandhi’s basic aims were anti-human and reactionary: but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!” (Reflections on Gandhi, 1949.)
Orwell sometimes speaks wisely, but also says some very foolish things. He returned from Spain in the grip of a dysfunctional version of Revolutionary Socialism, convinced that the actual anti-Fascist struggle was a mistake.
“Of course all the Popular Front stuff that is now being pushed by the Communist press and party, Gollancz and his paid hacks etc. etc. only boils down to saying that they are in favour of British Fascism (prospective) as against German Fascism. What they are aiming to do is to get British capitalism-imperialism into an alliance with the U.S.S.R. and thence into a war with Germany. Of course they piously pretend that they don’t want the war to come and that a French-British-Russian alliance can prevent it on the old balance of power system. But we know what the balance of power business led to last time…
“But everyone with any imagination can foresee that Fascism, not of course called Fascism will be imposed on us as soon as the war starts. So you will have Fascism with Communists participating in it, and, if we are in alliance with the U.S.S.R., taking a leading part in it. This is what has happened in Spain. After what I have seen in Spain I have come to the conclusion that it is futile to be ‘anti-Fascist’ while attempting to preserve capitalism. Fascism after all is only a development of capitalism, and the mildest democracy, so-called, is liable to turn into Fascism when the pinch comes. We like to think of England as a democratic county, but our rule in India, for instance, is just as bad as German Fascism, though outwardly it may be less irritating. I do not see how one can oppose Fascism except by working for the overthrow of capitalism, starting, of course, in one’s own country.” (Letter to Geoffrey Gorer, 15th September 1937)
Orwell was wrong on his history. The Germans in 1914 would have been much more hesitant if they had had strong reason to believe that Britain would be joining the existing alliance between Republican France and Tsarist Russia. A clear statement that an invasion of Belgium would be grounds for war by Britain would have probably caused a change of plan. British behaviour makes no sense unless the aim was to lure Germany into a war that they were expected then to lose quickly, and without any great cost to the British Empire.
A democratic country can be imperialist. 19th century Britain extended the vote to the majority of the male population at the same it was expanding its Empire. The USA was from the start a racist democracy, and also expansionist. Not strictly imperialist; they had no desire to rule lands that could not be incorporated as states of the USA. But they seized Texas and California from Mexico, intimidated Spain into selling them Florida and had made a very serious effort to conquer Canada in 1812.
By 1937, the USA had also worked out the system of SubAmericanisation; dominating territories that they did not want to take over. They held the Philippines on the assumption that it would eventually be an independent nation, but also a nation subordinate to the USA. Likewise Cuba and much of Central America, with US marines used to stop any government getting out of line.
Some of Orwell’s wider social attitudes read oddly today:
“When I was a kid you could walk into a bicycle-shop or ironmonger’s and buy any firearm you pleased, short of a field gun, and it did not occur to most people that the Russian revolution and the Irish civil war would bring this state of affairs to an end, It will be the same with printing presses etc.” (Letter to Herbert Read, March 1939.)
It is strange that he says “Irish civil war”. I doubt that he means the internal Irish conflict in the Free State after it won its own War of Independence. Guns could be freely available in pre-1914 Britain, simply because no one was likely to use them for anything except shooting animals, mostly for food. Rabbits were a regular item at mealtimes when my father was growing up. Britain’s strict regulations of firearms has saved us from US-style drive-by killings. Nowadays some criminals have guns, but mostly use them on other criminals.
Orwell had a mosaic mind; consistently inconsistent. He was one of those people who are often in error, but never in doubt. How often do you find him saying ‘I don’t know enough about the matter’? When he does say it, it looks suspiciously like a dodge, as when he admits his whole experience of Spain was on a minor front. He had a nice turn of phrase and some startling insights, but was often ill-informed and wrong about the future. On British politics, he said:
“The chances of Labour or any Left combination winning the election are in my opinion nil, and in any case if they did get in I doubt whether they’d be better than or much different from the Chamberlain lot… I doubt whether there is much hope of saving England from fascism of one kind or another, but clearly one must put up a fight.” (Letter to Herbert Read).
Orwell has a knack for making false prophecies. I can’t think of a single case where he foresaw anything that wasn’t generally expected. What he foresees is usually unlikely and often the reverse of actual events:
“It is obvious that the period of free capitalism is coming to an end and that one country after another is adopting a centralised economy that one can call Socialism or state capitalism according as one prefers, With that the economic liberty of the individual, and to a great extent his liberty to do what he lives, to choose his own work, to move to and fro across the surface of the earth, comes to an end.” (Literature and Totalitarianism, June 1941).
Orwell lacked a positive vision. In 1984, EngSoc is a parody of the Labour Left. The language is neither that of mainstream Marxists nor that of US Business, either of which would have made more sense. He had borrowed a lot from James Burnham, a former Trotskyist:
“James Burnham’s book, The Managerial Revolution, made a considerable stir both in the United States and in this country at the time when it was published, and its main thesis has been so much discussed that a detailed exposition of it is hardly necessary. As shortly as I can summarise it, the thesis is this:
“Capitalism is disappearing, but Socialism is not replacing it. What is now arising is a new kind of planned, centralised society which will be neither capitalist nor, in any accepted sense of the word, democratic. The rulers of this new society will be the people who effectively control the means of production: that is, business executives, technicians, bureaucrats and soldiers, lumped together by Burnham, under the name of “managers”. These people will eliminate the old capitalist class, crush the working class, and so organise society that all power and economic privilege remain in their own hands. Private property rights will be abolished, but common ownership will not be established. The new “managerial” societies will not consist of a patchwork of small, independent states, but of great super-states grouped round the main industrial centres in Europe, Asia, and America…
“In his next published book, The Machiavellians, Burnham elaborates and also modifies his original statement. The greater part of the book is an exposition of the theories of Machiavelli and of his modern disciples… What Burnham is mainly concerned to show is that a democratic society has never existed and, so far as we can see, never will exist. Society is of its nature oligarchical, and the power of the oligarchy always rests upon force and fraud. Burnham does not deny that “good” motives may operate in private life, but he maintains that politics consists of the struggle for power, and nothing else. All historical changes finally boil down to the replacement of one ruling class by another. All talk about democracy, liberty, equality, fraternity, all revolutionary movements, all visions of Utopia, or “the classless society”, or “the Kingdom of Heaven on earth”, are humbug (not necessarily conscious humbug) covering the ambitions of some new class which is elbowing its way into power. The English Puritans, the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks, were in each case simply power seekers using the hopes of the masses in order to win a privileged position for themselves…
“But curiously enough, when one examines the predictions which Burnham has based on his general theory, one finds that in so far as they are verifiable, they have been falsified. Numbers of people have pointed this out already. However, it is worth following up Burnham’s predictions in detail, because they form a sort of pattern which is related to contemporary events, and which reveals, I believe, a very important weakness in present-day political thought…
“Power worship blurs political judgement because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible. If the Japanese have conquered south Asia, then they will keep south Asia for ever, if the Germans have captured Tobruk, they will infallibly capture Cairo; if the Russians are in Berlin, it will not be long before they are in London: and so on. This habit of mind leads also to the belief that things will happen more quickly, completely, and catastrophically than they ever do in practice…
“It is curious that in all his talk about the struggle for power, Burnham never stops to ask why people want power. He seems to assume that power hunger, although only dominant in comparatively few people, is a natural instinct that does not have to be explained, like the desire for food. He also assumes that the division of society into classes serves the same purpose in all ages. This is practically to ignore the history of hundreds of years. When Burnham’s master, Machiavelli, was writing, class divisions were not only unavoidable, but desirable. So long as methods of production were primitive, the great mass of the people were necessarily tied down to dreary, exhausting manual labour: and a few people had to be set free from such labour, otherwise civilisation could not maintain itself, let alone make any progress. But since the arrival of the machine the whole pattern has altered. The justification for class distinctions, if there is a justification, is no longer the same, because there is no mechanical reason why the average human being should continue to be a drudge. True, drudgery persists; class distinctions are probably re-establishing themselves in a new form, and individual liberty is on the down-grade: but as these developments are now technically avoidable, they must have some psychological cause which Burnham makes no attempt to discover. The question that he ought to ask, and never does ask, is: Why does the lust for naked power become a major human motive exactly NOW, when the dominion of man over man is ceasing to be necessary? As for the claim that “human nature”, or “inexorable laws” of this and that, make Socialism impossible, it is simply a projection of the past into the future. In effect, Burnham argues that because a society of free and equal human beings has never existed, it never can exist. By the same argument one could have demonstrated the impossibility of aeroplanes in 1900, or of motor cars in 1850…
“But, in any case, one should have been able to see from the start that such a movement as Nazism could not produce any good or stable result. Actually, so long as they were winning, Burnham seems to have seen nothing wrong with the methods of the Nazis. Such methods, he says, only appear wicked because they are new…
“This implies that literally anything can become right or wrong if the dominant class of the moment so wills it. It ignores the fact that certain rules of conduct have to be observed if human society is to hold together at all. Burnham, therefore, was unable to see that the crimes and follies of the Nazi régime MUST lead by one route or another to disaster. So also with his new-found admiration for Stalinism. It is too early to say in just what way the Russian régime will destroy itself. If I had to make a prophecy, I should say that a continuation of the Russian policies of the last fifteen years–and internal and external policy, of course, are merely two facets of the same thing–can only lead to a war conducted with atomic bombs, which will make Hitler’s invasion look like a tea-party. But at any rate, the Russian régime will either democratise itself, or it will perish. The huge, invincible, everlasting slave empire of which Burnham appears to dream will not be established, or, if established, will not endure, because slavery is no longer a stable basis for human society.” (New English Weekly, May 1946)
It is a great pity that Orwell didn’t stick to this position. 1984 is a capitulation to Burnham’s dismal view. Dismal—and also foolish. Leaders of mass movements are usually a product of that movement and share its beliefs and prejudices. Puritans, Jacobins and Bolsheviks ran up against the practical problem of organising a complex society, full of people who didn’t agree with the ruling ideals, or else misunderstood them. Leaders emerge because they achieve at least some of the aims of the movement—Cromwell defeated the Royalists, the Jacobins saved France from foreign armies. The Bolsheviks ended Russia’s participation in the senseless massacres of World War One, and went on to try to build a World State on the model popularised by H G Wells.
Hitler offered the majority of Germans a mix of nationalism and socialism that seemed to work wonders. Hitler was widely admired by the Centre-Right in Britain and the USA, for as long as he did not seem to threaten the world dominance of the English-speaking nations.
As for Machiavelli, he was basically a recorder of Italian politics as they actually were, at a time when Italy was the richest part of Europe but at the mercy of outsiders. His solution was more of the same—quick and dirty methods that bring quick rewards and do lasting damage by destroying trust and tradition. A mass of separate people separately following their own interests will be incoherent and at the mercy of outsiders with a crude sense of unity—exactly the fate of Italy. Idealism can be faked to a degree, but there are limits.
Burnham’s vision of three world-states rested on a belief that Germany and Japan would triumph, while the USA would stay separate, as a third concentration of industrial power. Burnham failed to realise that the Soviet Union had become a massive industrial society. He was also wrong about East Asia: in the 1940s its industry was the best in the non-European world, but still nothing much.
Orwell in 1984 re-jigged Burnham’s vision to adjust for what had happened since the publication of The Managerial Revolution. ‘Eurasia’ was now assumed to be a Soviet Union triumphant over all continental Europe, rather than Nazi Germany with the Soviet Union crushed. ‘East Asia’ was left vague, because Japan was weak and under US occupation. China was about to unify itself under Mao, but Orwell never noticed.
Burnham was right in expecting that the rival superpowers would fight a war along the ‘edges’ and not attack each other’s core. But the main contest was not about naked power; it was about who offered the most attractive vision to the rest of the world.
The Soviet Union fell, because Khrushchev smashed the existing system of Stalinist idealism and failed to put anything else in its place. The ‘Prague Spring’ offered a way forward, but this was suppressed in 1968. After which the system slowly came apart, and would probably have done so whatever the West had done.
There was never an atomic war, because both sides saw that they would lose from it. The only military use of atom bombs has been to ensure that the USA got a cheap victory over Japan. North Korea took advantage of the invasion of Iraq—which never had any serious ‘weapons of mass destruction’—to declare itself as a nuclear power. Iran may be doing the same.
Orwell As Sneak
I’ll deal finally with the matter of the mysterious ‘blacklist’. This was a list of names drawn up by him and found among the records of the ‘Information Research Department’ of the British Foreign Office.
In his biography of Orwell, Christopher Hitchens devotes a whole chapter to the ‘blacklist’. Which probably didn’t actually blacken anyone’s name or get them deprived of a job. But nor was it an innocent listing of pro-Soviet writers—a simple set of names would have been enough for this, and the list was much more that. It includes personal details and even the presumed or actual homosexuality of some of those reported by Orwell to the authorities.
Hitchens tries to make light of the matter, saying
“The existence of Orwell’s list of Stalinized intellectuals was not ‘revealed’ in 1996. It appears in Professor Bernard Crick’s biography, which was first published in 1980.”
Now that a ‘Grant’s Tomb’ formulation. The riddle of ‘Grant’s Tomb’ is to ask who is buried there. The best answer is to say that no one is buried there, although General Grant and his wife are entombed there. That’s OK for a riddle or a work of fiction: readers of non-fiction have a right to be given the full picture, as the author sees it. But to expect straightforwardness from Hitchens is like expecting a cow to lay eggs.
Crick does indeed mention the list as a document found among Orwell’s private papers. But he says nothing about it being sent to a government agency— there is no reason to think he knew. What he says is:
“When Orwell heard that the Freedom Defence Committee had folded up, now that the National Council for Civil Liberties (shaken by E. M. Forster’s resignation) had ceased to be Communist-dominated, he wrote to Vernon Richards that the Freedom Press could keep Eileen’s typewriter. He worried about Communist infiltration elsewhere, however, and kept a notebook of suspects.”
Attached to this is Note 49, buried among other footnotes at the back of the book, which says:
“A notebook of 1949 (Orwell Archive) contains 86 names of Communists or Communist sympathisers in columns under ‘Names’, ‘Jobs’ and ‘Remarks’. Most of the entries are by another unidentified hand, but with frequent annotations by Orwell and some of the original entries are by him. Many of the entries are plausible as possible underground or front members, but a few seem far-fetched and unlikely, listed simply for ‘Communist-like’ opinions.’”
Note first that it is not a simple list of those who should not be invited to write because they were pro-soviet. It was the sort of data that police or security people would always be after. Orwell had served for several years as a policeman, remember.
Orwell must have been aware that homosexuals were ‘soft targets’ for the authorities. Sometimes they could be blackmailed into becoming informers. Failing that, it was a way of damaging your opponents at a time when homosexuality was both illegal and generally disapproved-of. If anyone can suggest any other reason for Orwell including people’s presumed sexuality on the list, I’d be interested to hear it.
Crick clearly found the list distasteful, but did not consider it all that important. Of course not—as far as he could know, it was a private matter among a few friends. There is a massive difference between a man making his own list and a man sending such a list to a department of the Foreign Office, which is where it turned up in 1996. True, the department was relatively low-level. But such things get passed on, when they are of any value. We’re never going to get to rummage through MI5’s files, but probably they also saw the list.
If I drew up an archive-type list of my friends, enemies and acquaintances, that would be slightly eccentric. If I then sent it to the police, or to the British Secret Service, that would be something completely different. What Orwell actually did was send his list to the one person he knew in the government apparatus, the best-place person to get it circulated.
We have no idea whether Orwell sent the list to anyone else. Britain’s various spooks keep their own files private. They even managed to ‘lose’ documents like Lenin’s police file from his time in London, which would pose no security risk and would be of some historic interest. And might well show them to be ignorant wallies: who knows? But the point is, if you find a cockroach in a kitchen, you do not assume that the kitchen is infested by a single cockroach. The Orwell document became public knowledge because it came from a rather unimportant department and its real importance may have been missed.
It’s been said in Orwell’s defence that (a) many of the names were well known and (b) no one seems to have suffered on account of being there. But not all of the names were well known, and maybe not all of them definitely belonged there. We are told by Taylor that not all of the names have yet been published, because some of those named are still alive and could sue, presumably with good hope of success. That’s the other useful fact I got from Taylor (who says much less than Hitchens about the list and is reduced to saying that the KGB were worse).
Even their best friends would not have claimed that the KGB were upholders of individual liberty. That was Orwell’s claim to fame, but was it valid?
I’d also question whether the KGB were the worst, if you look at it globally and put non-white lives on a par with those of sophisticated Middle-Europeans. The USA’s intelligence community—not just the CIA and maybe not even principally the CIA—made use of somewhat similar lists of Communists and fellow-travellers, giving these to local right-wingers who used them for mass slaughter in places like Indonesia and Iraq.
Nothing like that happened to British Communists, who were part of the ‘true British’ population, with many of them coming from the traditional elite. We didn’t even have the sort of bloodless but life-blighting witch-hunt that happened in the USA (and which extended far wider that Senator Joe McCarthy). Britain’s labour party chose then not to cut its ties with the pro-Soviet left, but that was no thanks to Orwell.
At The End Of The Day…
So how do we sum up the man? First, Orwell was not a believer in ‘Capitalist Democracy’. Like most of his ‘Almost-Ruling’ class, he had a distaste for commerce, the undignified occupations that were classed as ‘trade’. The single consistent idea he had from 1930 to his death in 1950 was that capitalism was bad and must be replaced.
His protests at the Soviet Union had a solid basis, but were inconsistent and often foolish. He failed to say ‘these are people achieving some good ends by nasty methods’—he was like the Trotskyists, pretending that various unpleasant choices could somehow be evaded. He could have said ‘some hopeful developments in Catalonia had small chance of survival without the sort of rigorous concentration on warfare that the communists demanded’. He preferred to belied that the weak and divided forces of the Far Left could somehow have triumphed. He stuck to this position until England itself was threatened—he always thought of England, like most of his class and generation, with small concern for other elements within Britain. He rallied to the patriotic cause, and also defended Chamberlain when Chamberlain deserved to be condemned.
He wasn’t either honest or consistent: the other famous Blair was also a Bliar. ‘Bliar’ was coined for Prime Minister Tony Blair, after his twisty words on 45-minute dangers from Iraq, but Orwell in his day was no more honest. I’ve detailed this enough. If you take yourself out of the power-political game, then you have the chance to say just what you think, without worrying how your ideals can be realised. You can and he didn’t. In his final years, he preferred a crude anti-Communism that was wide open to being used against socialism in general.
He belonged with the tail-end of a ruling class that was authentically great in the 18th century, crudely powerful in the 19th. When the British ruling class stopped cherishing knowledge and started fearing it—a change that happened when they set themselves against the French Revolution—they were on a downward path. The economy peaked somewhat after that, and had its maximum share of world trade in the 1840s, but there was already a fatal unwillingness to grow or change in the way that the USA was doing, in the way that the German Empire began to do. Then when British economic dominance began to visibly slip away, they thought the best way to preserve it was a preventative war against the German Empire.
Germany before 1914 was not especially expansionist. If it had been, it would not have missing the golden opportunity to attack the Tsarist Empire in 1905, when Russia was on bad terms with Britain, had just been defeated by Japan and faced revolution at home.
The German Empire created by Bismarck showed no large desires except to carry on as it was, with power accumulating within the framework of world trade that Britain had invented. Britain’s ruling class thought that they could preserve themselves through a war, and stuck to this belief through 1915 and 1916, when Germany would have been quite happy to call the war a draw. It thought that a little more effort would get them all they wanted. Then in 1917 they became dependent on the USA after Tsarist Russia collapsed and a German victory seemed immanent. It was a vast error even from a selfish British-ruling-class viewpoint: it accelerated their decline, which was complete by the 1950s.
Orwell was part of Britain’s 20th century mistake. His vision of socialism would have been an improved British Empire using socialist ideology. Not hugely different from the Soviet Union acting as a kind of improved Tsarism, or China restoring its traditional patterns with Marxism as the core ideology in place of Confucianism.
Orwell would never have seen it so. His education was very much that of the British ruling elite. He never read much history or economics. Little did he know how little he knew, you might say.
He was however always interesting, and needs to be rescued from the clutches of characters like Hitchens. Not that I’d expect Hitchens to last long as an influence on anyone, but there are always more of those characters, seeking to ‘privatise Orwell’, fit him into whatever is currently fashionable.
Dedicated followers of fashion always do well in the short run, as you’d expect. But truths have a way of asserting themselves in the longer run.