Thursday, October 12, 2006

Arguing about Orwell

Ever since Animal Farm became a surprise bestseller in the late 1940s, George Orwell's life and oeuvre have been contested territory. In his magisterial study Orwell and the Politics of Literary Reputation, John Rodden surveys the bewildering variety of political trends, from the far right to the far left, which found comfort in Orwell's work during the four decades of the Cold War. Weighty as it is, Rodden's book is sadly out of date today: the last fifteen years have seen Orwell invoked by a host of new commentators and forecasters, as well at least half a dozen major biographies which strike various attitudes towards Orwell's politics.

One of the more odious political currents to appeal to Orwell for support is formed by the small group of bloggers and journalists sometimes called the pro-war 'left'. Harry's Place, the most popular blog of this current, keeps a quote from the great man on its masthead, and regularly uses his support for the Churchill government as an argument for support for the adventures of Bush and Blair in Iraq. Christopher Hitchens, who is perhaps the most famous of the 'left-wing' supporters of Bush's war, has published a rambling hagiography called Orwell's Victory, in which he views the wartime writing and novels like 1984 and Animal Farm through the prism of his post-9/11 politics.

There are obvious links between Hitchens' use of Orwell to bolster the case for the 'war against Islamofascism' and the efforts of rightward-moving intellectuals like Kingsley Amis in Britain and the Partisan Review circle in America to turn 1984 and Animal Farm into justifications for US policy towards the Soviets in the 1950s and '60s. Over at Lenin's Tomb Richard Seymour is understandably miffed by the attempts of the right to appropriate Orwell. Richard argues that:

Orwell, despite the list-making of his later years, despite his petty bigotries, despite his increasing pessimism, never abandoned anti-imperialism, any more than he abandoned his hatred of capitalism and his commitment to working class self-organisation.

Orwell was a professional writer, and despite his early death his Collected Works extend to twenty thick volumes. Trying to find a single coherent, systematic political philosophy in the reviews, essays, letters, and novels - many of them written in haste, to meet deadlines - that fill these volumes is a task for ideologues like Hitchens, and to his credit Richard does not attempt to place some sort of simplistic theoretical framework over Orwell's work. I think he bends the stick too far, though, when he says that, contra Hitchens et al, Orwell never abandoned anti-imperialism. It seems to me indisputable that during World War Two Orwell did support British against German imperialism. One of the commenters at Lenin's Tomb makes the same point:

Orwell - quite rightly - took the side of Britain, the US, and the USSR against German-Italian-Japanese Fascism because, as he put it, "half a loaf is better than no bread".

Orwell wrote with unflagging energy in support of the war effort, and made scathing attacks on those - pacifists, Trotskyists and, before mid-1941, Communist Party of Great Britain members - who questioned the wisdom of supporting the coalition government Winston Churchill led. Admittedly, Orwell's support for the war did not mean he had given up on socialism. On the contrary, he believed, for a time at least, that World War Two opened up the prospect of the transition of British society to socialism.

In a strange book published in 1941 under the title The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, Orwell argued that Britain could only defeat the Nazis if it reformed its political system, economy, and military, abandoning the ossified institutions and methods of class-based society and embracing new, egalitarian models of organising, as well as a large degree of state planning. Orwell saw the Home Guard, which sprung up spontaneously as a result of popular alarm at the defeat of the British army in France and the blundering that led to it, as an example of one of the new and necessary models of organisation.

Orwell was wrong: Britain defeated Germany without undergoing a socialist transformation. The economic planning that the war brought was a temporary necessity, and did not affect underlying relations of class power; the Attlee government that took office in 1945 nationalised a few aged and unprofitable industries, and established a welfare state that had long been advocated by respectable liberals like Keynes and Lord Beverage, but it did nothing to threaten Britain's bourgeoisie. Had he lived long enough the author of Keep the Apidistra Flying and Coming Up for Air would have recognised the same ossification and apathy in 1950s Britain that he had observed with such disgust in pre-war society.

For some of the commenters at Lenin's Tomb, though, the mere fact that Orwell hoped for the war to lead to the transformation of British society, and maintained his verbal opposition to the inequities of that society and the Empire that sustained it, is enough to excuse him of support for imperialism. Orwell, it appears, could pick and choose his causes with exceptional subtlety.

I know this argument is meant in good faith, but it strikes me as worryingly similar to the rhetoric that we increasingly hear from Bush's band of beleagured 'left-wing' supporters. The likes of Christopher Hitchens, Norm Geras and Nick Cohen temper their support for the occupation of Iraq with criticisms of the worst abuses of that occupation. Hitchens and co are happy to condemn opponents of the war in language as violent and - dare we say it? - Orwellian as that used by George, who coined the unhappy term 'objectively pro-fascist' to put down the Quakers, but when they are challenged about Abu Ghraib, the repression of trade unions, or rampaging death squads they become indignant, and protest that their support for the occupation is 'critical'. They are still good lefties, and the fact that Bush's adventure has led to civil war, widespread human rights abuses and creeping theocracy can't be used to impugn their support for it: they were, you see, hoping that Bush would make Iraq a functioning liberal democracy.

In much the same way, some of the commenters at Lenin's Tomb seem to excuse Orwell from support for the worst excesses of Churchill's war - the genocidal famine in India that killed as many people as the Shoah; the deliberate inaction for years over death camps like Auschwitz; the division of Europe decided at Yalta, over the heads of the European peoples who had fought heroically against fascism; the hundreds of thousands of German civilians killed by Bomber Harris' airplanes; the handing of huge chunks of Asia back to colonial powers like France and the Netherlands after the Japanese had been chased out by local resistance; the destruction of the communist-led forces that had resisted the Nazis in Greece and the installation of a fascist regime there - because he hoped that the war would lead to socialism and an end to imperialism. It didn't, and Orwell should have known that, just as Hitchens and his friends should have known that the invasion of Iraq would not lead to liberal democracy.

Of course, a lot of people, even on the far left, would argue that Churchill's war was worth supporting, despite all of the bad things I've mentioned, because the alternative was even worse. I'll address this argument in another post.


Blogger ejh said...

Suppoorting the war against worldwide fascism, real genuine worldwide fascism that was really genuinely seeking to control the world, is not the same as supporting imperialism. Many socialists realised that in 1939-40: they included Orwell, who had spent much time in the previous months saying how he would work against the coming war in any way he could. (Another was my great-aunt, as it happens.) It wasn't a case of going into some small, weak country and removing a regime which was both unpleasant and hostile to London, it was a case of fascist bombs and concentration camps and executions coming here unless they were fought. The difference is crucial, and enormous. Just because the Euston crowd misuse this fact, is no reason to overlook why the situations are so different.

9:38 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As you said in another article, the pro-war Left like to draw parallels between 1956 and 2003. They are right, though not in the way that they think. It is quite likely that 2003 will slowly finish off the British Labour Party in the way 1956 finished off the Communist Party.

5:23 am  
Blogger ejh said...

As regards that last sentence, I'm reminded of what Orwell wrote in his comments on Enemies of Promise, about looking for the "not" that isn't there...

7:39 am  

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