The Clare Spark Blog

January 22, 2015

Orwell’s wartime essays: rethinking his politics

poster by "liberty maniacs"

poster by “liberty maniacs”

Everyone on left or right cites George Orwell when they believe they are being deceived by “authority”. This blog, though, is written to those conservatives who believe that Orwell was an un-ambivalent opponent of statist controls. He was not. He never deviated from his anti-capitalist, populist ways.

Here are some shocking details from Orwell’s wartime essays, reviews, and letters. I consulted them because I wanted to find out if Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four were roughly the same book, both directed solely (or largely) at the Soviet Union’s assaults on telling the truth. I read all of the volumes available to me, and was impressed that he admitted to errors of prediction. But the list that follows is about consistent views. I continue to wonder if Orwell identified both with Winston Smith (the victim) and O’Brien (the sadistic persecutor). (On a prior blog quoting Orwell’s pity for the Promethean Hitler of Mein Kampf, see https://clarespark.com/2014/12/27/some-irregular-thoughts-on-george-orwell/; also https://clarespark.com/2012/09/28/bibi-and-the-human-nature-debate/.)

1. Orwell admires the reactionary writers of his period: T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, Evelyn Waugh, James Joyce, in spite of their awful or neutral politics. I.e., he as much as admits to being an aesthete.

2. A self-described “Socialist” and anti-imperialist throughout the essays, he rails at the lack of artistic freedom in the fascist, “totalitarian” regimes of his time. He wants both “Socialism” and total intellectual freedom. When he uses the word “totalitarian” he refers to the lying mass media, especially journalists who perpetuate lies about the Spanish Civil War, the subject of his favorite book-child, Homage to Catalonia. He describes POUM (the faction he joined) as Trotskyist. This raises the question of why he objects to Emmanuel Goldstein, the character with both a Christian and “Jewish” name, and understood to represent Leon Trotsky, a Bolshevik with Jewish descent.

jcemmanuel.com

jcemmanuel.com

3. Though in one essay he detaches himself from the notion of “national character”, earlier he describes the “English” as “Christian”, though their allegiance to that religion is unserious. Now comes the most illuminating point: because the “English” are only superficially Christian, lacking the rejection of worldliness in the Catholicism of Chesterton and Belloc (whom he otherwise rejects as bigots), the English no longer believe in immortality. Thus, devoid of heaven and hell, they are prey to the “materialism” he associates with the Soviet Union and its lying, seductive ways. Hence, the English lack the knowledge of the distinction between “good and evil”. Thus bereft, there is no incentive but the search for power. (Enter O’Brien’s speech to Winston Smith, quoted here: https://clarespark.com/2012/10/15/orwell-power-and-the-totalitarian-state/.)

4. I have suspected previously that Orwell’s attachment to the working class was mostly sentimental, as either compensation or reparations for his military family or his early work for the British Empire in India, before he took up the cudgels for “the colored peoples” of the world.

5. His stated admiration for Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, particularly the relations between two characters, Rubashov and Gletkin, corresponding to Smith and O’Brien (?), suggest deep influence in the composition of his last book. (There are numerous internet essays on the similarities between the two books: here is one of many examples: http://www.ehistorybuff.com/koestlerdarknessatnoon08.html.)

Conclusion: In his rejection of materialism, Orwell reminds me of the social democratic inheritance passed on by Disraeli (whom he abhors as an imperialist). But his horror at the mendacious new mass media suggests the line of the counter-Enlightenment Frankfurt Institute refugees, whose critical theory dominates the teaching of the humanities today. Because Orwell is not enthused about the victorious but only weakly socialistic British Labour Party, though he does hate the money power (i.e. the British aristocracy that he longs to expropriate), Orwell should be viewed as a disgruntled artist and populist, neither conservative nor left-wing in any sense. At most, he was probably an organic conservative, hoping for mystical Goldstein-free social bonds and sacrifice to restore order to a permanently warring world.

image arcade

image arcade

As George L. Mosse once observed, populism stands outside politics. As a closet peacenik writing in the 1940s, a dystopia was Orwell’s only alternative.

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December 27, 2014

George Orwell pitied Hitler but hated the money power

Orwell passport photo, undated

Orwell passport photo, undated

I have already posted blogs on George Orwell (https://clarespark.com/2012/11/17/index-to-orwell-blogs/), but had not yet read his essays from the early 1940s. I now have a clearer and bleaker idea of his politics, which are more clearly expressed in such essays as The Lion and the Unicorn, which dismayed me as the meandering thoughts of an anti-modern populist than that of the democratic socialist portrayed by recent leftist intellectuals. (For my most recent essay see https://clarespark.com/2015/01/22/orwells-wartime-essays-some-surprises/.)
First, there is his pity for Hitler, published in his review of Mein Kampf in New English Weekly, 21 March, 1940.

[Orwell:] “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 really 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. One feels it again when one sees his photographs—and I recommend especially the photograph at the beginning of Hurst and Blackett’s edition, which shows Hitler in his early Brownshirt days. It is a pathetic, dog-like face, the face of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs. In a rather more manly way it reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ crucified, and there is little doubt that that is how Hitler sees himself. The initial, personal cause of his grievance against the universe can only be guessed at; but at any rate the grievance is there. He is the martyr, the victim, Prometheus chained to the rock, the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds.

“…Also he has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life…. However they may be as 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 people….” [End, Orwell excerpt]

Second, there is the strongly embedded populist antisemitism in his declaration of his own English brand of Socialism in The Lion and the Unicorn, published in December 1940. For he not only wants a distinctively English Socialism (think of IngSoc in 1984), he is adamant about the outrageous role of usury, the domination of the money power, and the resultant income inequality derived from the English class system. He means to expropriate the English aristocracy and their unearned wealth, all along believing that his statist plan is part of the English tradition that spreads itself uniquely into past, present, and future. I.e., he believes in English national character, defined as vaguely Christian, but not observant.

And his view of Jews is often characteristically European. Nowhere, though he believes himself to be an anti-antisemite, he fails to understand that Jews represent modernity and its endless intellectual combativeness. Indeed, he professes great admiration for the admittedly reactionary poets whose anti-Semitism is too little noticed by literary historians: Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, Yeats, even Kipling (on the latter see http://www.heretical.com/miscella/kipling2.html).

Finally, there is the homoerotic and misogynistic poem of his own that he quotes in Looking Back on the Spanish War, published in 1943. I quote only the first two verses of a longer poem written to an Italian militiaman “two years after the war was visibly lost.”

[Orwell:] “The Italian soldier shook my hand/ Beside the guard-room table;/ The strong hand and the subtle hand/ Whose palms are only able/ To meet within the sound of guns,/ But oh! What peace I knew then/ In gazing on his battered face/Purer than any woman’s!….”

What may we infer about these excerpts? Putting them together, we must ask, given Orwell’s ambivalence about Trotsky, what should we make of “Emmanuel Goldstein”? “Emmanuel” is a synonym for Christ, while the populist animus to gold is all too apparent. In combining these names, is Orwell rejecting Jesus as Jew? Is Eric Blair (Orwell’s birth name), perhaps, the crucified Christ he projected into Hitler?

1984-two-minute-hate

And yet conservatives frequently cite Orwell in their general critique of “totalitarianism”—a term that I have criticized as outdated and historically incorrect, as the various fascisms and communism have nothing in common but their use of terror as a method of disciplining the masses. Still it should be kept in mind that some of the essays I read (1940-43) were written during the shocking Nazi-Soviet Pact; moreover Orwell predicted that if Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, the Russians would not resist. So his initial views on “totalitarianism” are not so surprising. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/02/02/totalitarianism-polarization-and-single-issue-politics/.)

I continue to find George Orwell as problematic as in my earlier blogs, and am disgusted with the British Left’s failure to cite these obvious motes in the great man’s eye. Might it be his own sadism that is most salient in the Orwell biography?

Eric Blair with Mother, 1903

Eric Blair with Mother, 1903

December 21, 2014

Origins of free speech and the Cuba question

War Production Board, 1942-43, NARA

War Production Board, 1942-43, NARA

There is an impression, widely disseminated by supporters of the Obama administration, that renewing “diplomatic relations” and/or freer trade with Cuba (i.e., the lifting of the embargo) will lead to an improvement in the human rights situation there. This blog explores the origins of free speech, and it had nothing to do with free trade or capitalism, though one leftist newspaper thinks it does, perhaps because Marx supported free trade in the hopes of accelerating the socialist revolution: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/jul/01/in-praise-of-william-cobbett, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Cobbett.

Here are some other societies thought to be outposts of cultural freedom: ancient Greece (although Plato wanted to banish poets from the Republic, and Aristotle wrote that some men were born to be slaves); England, both in the Magna Carta and in the time of the English Civil War (Milton’s Areopagitica and/or Paradise Lost its most famous examples); the seventeenth century scientific revolution, mostly British, but also the short-lived Dutch Republic, with Spinoza leading the way; and most famously the American Revolution with its Constitution, particularly the First Amendment, soon to be followed by the French Revolution and its Declaration of Human Rights; and finally the invention of social media and the no-holds-barred free-wheeling internet. But free speech was a privilege of elites and did not extend to ordinary persons, who were either slaves, serfs, landless, or under-educated and irrational. (New England Puritans were ever in the vanguard of free public education.)

I prefer to periodize the onset of free speech with the invention of the printing press, enabling the progress of mass literacy over many centuries. In prior blogs, I have suggested that although we technically enjoy freedom of expression, various elites have placed road blocks to the “liberty” we imagine that we possess. Moreover, I have more than hinted that the chief target of anti-Semitism is intellectual combativeness, a habit of mind that led one Melville scholar (Princeton’s Lawrance Thompson) to entitle his study of Herman Melville, “Melville’s Quarrel With God”(1952). In other words, HM was all too ‘Hebraic’, luring readers to perdition. Such consistent double-talking, self-erasing texts, and unequivocal assaults on authority, even his own (Ahab! See https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/). “Such a Jew” (Charles Olson’s notes) could not be tolerated in “free Ameriky” as one character mocked in The Confidence-Man and again in his post-Civil War poem Clarel.

AhabJezebel

I will end this blog with a quote from George Orwell, who has been taken up by conservatives as a fierce critic of “totalitarianism,” ignoring his strong attachment to working class men, to materialism, and to the Left:

[Orwell, Looking Back on the Spanish War, 1942:] “I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway. I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written. In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, of they struggled after the truth, knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that “the facts” existed and were more or less discoverable. …Nazi theory…specifically denies that such a thing as “the truth” exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as “science.” There is only “German science”, “Jewish science” etc. The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future, but the past….”

orwell

We are living in this nightmare world today, and until we all rouse ourselves to address the “postmodern” “multicultural” education that is hegemonic and that supports only “group facts” indecipherable to other “races” or “genders” we will continue to wither, or at best, to sell out inside Nineteen Eighty-Four.

For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2014/10/08/index-to-blogs-on-totalitarianism/. “Totalitarianism” is a term that Orwell used frequently, but is now out of date. Equating Nazis and Soviets was a tool in the Cold War, tarring the “progressive” brush with Soviet communism.

November 17, 2012

Index to Orwell blogs

The administrative State?

https://clarespark.com/2012/11/15/female-genitals-as-red-flag/

https://clarespark.com/2012/11/13/orwell-superpatriots-and-the-election/

https://clarespark.com/2012/10/29/index-to-blogs-on-big-brother/

https://clarespark.com/2012/10/15/orwell-power-and-the-totalitarian-state/

https://clarespark.com/2012/10/27/melville-orwell-doublethink/

https://clarespark.com/2012/10/07/christian-socialism-as-precursor-to-orwell/

https://clarespark.com/2012/09/28/bibi-and-the-human-nature-debate/

https://clarespark.com/2014/12/27/some-irregular-thoughts-on-george-orwell/

https://clarespark.com/2015/01/22/orwells-wartime-essays-some-surprises/

Eric Blair's family 1916

Eric Blair’s family 1916

Compare Orwell’s pessimism to his admirer John Dos Passos’s sunnier views, who wrote of Orwell in his later years, and once voiced this more optimistic assessment of humanity’s future:

[Responding to German students as to what is admirable about USA:] “I told them they should admire the United States not for what we were but for what we might become. Selfgoverning democracy was not an established creed, but a program for growth. I reminded them that industrial society was a new thing in the world and that although we Americans had gone further than any people in spreading out its material benefits we were just beginning, amid crimes, illusions, mistakes and false starts, to get to work on how to spread out what people needed much more: the sense of belonging, the faith in human dignity, the confidence of each man in the greatness of his own soul without which life is a meaningless servitude….Faith in self-government, when all is said and done, is faith in the eventual goodness of man.” (p.508, Virginia Spencer Carr’s bio of John Dos Passos, whose USA trilogy, written in his younger years, was one of the most radical and brilliant of all the left-wing literature. After his quarrel with Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War, he gradually turned away from the Left, but his optimism and defense of the dissenting individual are the legacy of the Enlightenment.)

October 29, 2012

Index to blogs on Big Brother

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 7:16 pm
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The Way We Live Now

https://clarespark.com/2009/08/24/the-people-is-an-ass-or-a-herd/

https://clarespark.com/2011/10/09/vox-populi-vox-big-brother/

https://clarespark.com/2012/10/15/orwell-power-and-the-totalitarian-state/

https://clarespark.com/2012/10/27/melville-orwell-doublethink/

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