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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August 20, 2012

Ernest Hemingway, Carlos Baker, and the Spanish Civil War

Orwell, 1938 dust jacket

This blog is not a defense of Trotskyism. The Spanish Civil War and its treatment by literary historians is important because only the “Trotskyists” of, say, Partisan Review or The New Leader in the late 1930s nailed the Stalinists and their fellow travelers for covering up such events as the purges of the old Bolsheviks (1936 onward), and for penetrating liberal organizations devoted to cultural freedom, turning them toward statism, dialectical materialism, silencing criticism of the Soviet strategy in Spain, and joining with the “only” antifascist forces, i.e, the Comintern and its docile filmmakers, novelists, screenwriters, and other artists.

The “liberals” (who succumbed to the Popular Front during the 1930s), and who continue to opine on the course of the Spanish Civil War, leave out the Soviet-directed destruction of Jose Robles, POUM, and the Anarchists, thus passing over these atrocities but also skipping over the twists and turns of the Comintern during the 1930s and early 1940s. (Examples: from 1928 on, Communists were devastating critics of the “social fascism” of the New Deal and of Social Democracy in general; but the Popular Front was effectively in charge from 1935 onward; then the Nazi-Soviet Pact (1939) reawakened the older critique of the Western democracies as really imperialists, like Hitler; but then the Nazi invasion of the S.U. reawakened the Popular Front with the American bourgeoisie in order to defend the Soviet Union and to quash isolationist sentiment.) (See Stephen Schwartz’s article on Stalinist treachery in Spain here: http://www.jewcy.com/post/cheapest_transaction. )

Carlos Baker’s 1969 biography of Ernest Hemingway had no problem describing Joris Ivens as a Communist filmmaker: I don’t know enough about Baker’s own political allegiances to say why. Perhaps Baker agreed with those for whom the communists were just another form of enlightened and moral liberal, maybe a bit more serious about uplifting the masses and rooting out nativism and American sympathizers with Hitler and Mussolini. Such naiveté was how communism infiltrated the New Dealers and their populist sympathizers: Only the Stalinist Left was held to be serious about fighting fascism or criticizing the Neutrality Act of the Western democracies that prevented the supplying  of arms and oil to the Spanish Loyalists. “Trotskyites,” the Comintern declared, were in league with fascism and Nazism! The Comintern-controlled Abraham Lincoln Battalion is still presented as comprised of idealistic young Americans, for instance in the atrociously slanted and mendacious HBO movie Hemingway and Gellhorn, most of which is devoted to the Spanish Civil War, and which ignored the bloody, faction-ridden history of that crucial conflict, without any political criticism from dozens of reviewers all over the world. (For a brief review of the HBO offering, see https://clarespark.com/2012/07/09/hbo-does-gellhorn-in-red/,)

Princeton professor Carlos Baker was oblivious to George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938),* a deafness that allowed him to record, without comment, that Hemingway sent his editor Maxwell Perkins as a taste of what to expect in For Whom The Bell Tolls, “Pilar’s” account of the Anarchist massacre of the “Fascists” of [Ronda]. Worse, Baker described Gustav Regler only as a friend of Hemingway’s. But Regler’s 1959 memoir The Owl of Minerva (cited by Baker) did describe a conversation with Hemingway in 1940, wherein Hemingway chastised Regler, the former political Commissar of the Twelfth International Brigade, for deserting the Communists! Having read Regler’s fascinating memoir and having quoted from his book regarding Hemingway’s feisty defense of the Communists in Spain (see https://clarespark.com/2011/06/30/ernest-hemingway-and-gellhorn-in-china-1941-4/) I was not amazed that briefly opened Soviet archives revealed that Hemingway was recruited by the KGB in late 1940, despite his strong criticism of André Marty and Dolores Ibárruri (La Pasionaria) in his popular novel—a criticism that did enrage such American Communists as Mike Gold or the reviewer writing for The Daily Worker.

La Pasionaria

And while well-situated liberals in the most prestigious newspapers might have thought in their own minds that they were allies to “the common man,” they were in practice tolerant of their friends on the Soviet-controlled Left. After the war, these same Popular Fronters hated to be associated with (vulgar) McCarthyism, so that the identification of communist penetration of American institutions left the nailing of an American Fifth Column to the far Right. Since the Soviets had defined the Right (Big Business) as fascist, the “liberals” would characterize these “loons” as paranoid extremists, a label that persists to this day, notwithstanding the archival research of Mark Kramer, Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Alexander Vassiliev, to  name a few.

And that is how we lost the Cold War and the struggle for hearts and minds—until the Soviet Union collapsed from within. Sadly, it was too late for the better American universities. The Popular Front had done its work and generations of Americans were disabled from seeing into the wildly successful cultural work of the Soviet Union and/or Communist China.

*[Added, August 23, 2012: A dispute has broken out in the Comments section to this blog, regarding Orwell’s intentions in his novel 1984. John Dos Passos wrote a biographical chapter on Orwell in his Century’s Ebb (1975): “Orwell’s mind was shaking loose from the Socialist dogma. He began to see history whole: ‘What is obviously happening,’ he wrote in his offhand way, ‘is the breakup of laissez-faire capitalism and of the liberal-Christian culture. Until recently the implications of this were not foreseen because it was generally imagined that Socialism could preserve and even enlarge the atmosphere of liberalism. It is now beginning to be realized how false this idea was. Almost certainly we are now moving into an age of totalitarian dictatorships–an age in which freedom of thought will at first a deadly sin and later on a meaningless abstraction.'” (p.64). Dos Passos finishes with this thought (relating how Orwell had become an invalid, afflicted with tuberculosis): “Relapses took him to hospitals. All the while he stuck with ferocious tenacity to the novel he was writing. 1984 was a bitter parable of the totalitarian world he saw developing out of German Nazism, Russian Communism, and the decay of the spirit of liberty in Britain….(65-66) I.e., Dos Passos sees the parable as the last stage of Orwell’s gradual disillusion with the libertarian promise of Socialism and Communism. The following chapter is a scathing account of the indifference of Hemingway and Gellhorn to his search for his friend Jose Robles, using fake names.]

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