George Orwell has never really gone out of style, but since the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States it seems Orwell scholarship has gone into overdrive. That’s never a bad thing, though; Orwell was one of the 20th century’s finest progressive minds and nearly a century later there’s no shortage of important ideas to be plumbed from his vast and complex oeuvre. Two recent books from radical publishing house AK Press offer interesting contemporary insights on his work.
Orwell Versus the Anarchists
Kristian Williams’ Between the Bullet and the Lie: Essays on Orwell offers a diverse set of reflections on the prolific writer. Williams’ essays on Orwell are a mixed bag. A self-proclaimed anarchist, Williams offers a combination of literary reflections on the man and his work, along with what he aspires to offer as applications of Orwell’s ideas to contemporary politics and events.
His literary reflections are the more successful ones. Two essays in particular — “Not Too Good”, a comparison of Orwell and Oscar Wilde; and “On Common Decency” — are especially good. The former compares the differing ways in which both Orwell and Wilde rebelled against the notion that humans should strive toward perfection. Both found the notion appalling, but for very different reasons and they rebelled against it in very different ways. Wilde resisted Victorian morality head-on in sensuous, aesthetic resistance, while Orwell resisted the aspiration toward perfection on the grounds that it was inhuman. A society which pursued perfection in single-minded fashion inevitably wound up under the heel of authoritarianism, he warned (Stalin and Hitler were the two examples he was most familiar with, but he also feared that western bureaucratic capitalism was marching along the same path. If Animal Farm was his warning against Stalinism, 1984 was his warning against the sort of neoliberal authoritarianism we seem to have wound up with today, despite Orwell’s best efforts to warn us).
In “On Common Decency”, Williams explores Orwell’s efforts to articulate his vision of democratic socialism. Orwell’s own socio-political aspirations for the world were expressed less in terms of complex and jingoistic political theory, and more in terms of simple folk concepts like ‘decency’. Democratic socialism would never be won by imposing high theory on the average person, his work implies; but the essential ideas are already there, in the everyday notions of decency that so many common folk enact every day, and which the others — the elites, the academics, the revolutionaries — simply need to listen to.
The second half of the book sees Williams applying Orwell to various ongoing debates in the world of contemporary anarchism. These debates are somewhat arcane and the essays themselves not that accessible to anyone who is not ensconced in this world, which is undoubtedly a niche audience.
The thing about Orwell — and it becomes intensely apparent in this book, as in others — is that his prolific body of work can be easily and selectively applied by many different sides in many different debates. Much like the political and economic theory of Karl Marx, Orwell’s ideas are profound yet so multi-layered that they can lend themselves to all sorts of perspectives, ideas, and causes. Two different people reading the same set of Orwell articles could come away with very different interpretations of what his key point was (his inability to refrain from a pithy sense of wit and humour exacerbates this process: one is never entirely sure when Orwell is serious and when he’s poking fun at those who take him seriously).
Also, he was a tremendously flexible thinker, shifting his own point of view on any number of things over the years. There’s a teachable honesty in this, but it has the effect both of making it frustrating for anyone to develop an over-arching sense of his political ideas, and at the same time making it all too possible to criticize him for views he held at various points (yet almost invariably refuted at other points). It’s one of the things that makes Orwell’s work refreshing, but it also means that critiques of Orwell are often misplaced since he was his own best critic. While this is one of the things that is most stimulating about his work, it also means that reading someone else’s critique of his politics can be frustrating, if it doesn’t accord with your own understanding and image of Orwell.
All this to say that it’s less interesting to see Orwell critiqued by present-day anarchists who have an axe to grind with him, and more interesting to see him placed in discussion with his own peers. The literary essays in Williams’ collection achieve the latter effect quite nicely.
Orwell Versus the Pacifists
Eric Laursen’s study The Duty to Stand Aside: Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Wartime Quarrel of George Orwell and Alex Comfort is an excellent and provocative read, centred around a very public argument that took place during the Second World War between Orwell and Comfort. Laursen’s book tackles “the war-time quarrel” of the two authors; namely, the debate over how progressive-minded, peace-loving folks ought to respond to war.
Orwell and Comfort were both progressive-minded writers and poets, and both operated in the same broadly leftist literary circles of the ’30s and ’40s. They were both generally peace-loving and both deeply skeptical of capitalist and fascist governments alike, whether liberal, conservative, or outright totalitarian.
But there was a line between their beliefs which ballooned into stark contrast with the outbreak of World War II. As fascist armies stormed through Europe, Orwell denounced pacifism and urged freedom-loving folks – particularly socialists – to join the Allied war effort against fascism. Comfort however would stick to his guns, so to speak, clinging to pacifism and denouncing the hypocrisy of his own government, which continued to lock up dissidents and many prominent members of whom had directly or indirectly supported the Nazi rise to power. The Allied forces also waged a brutal war—with aerial bombing campaigns targeting German civilians and population centres—that Comfort and many others considered appalling (Gallup polls of the time showed only a razor-thin majority of the British public supported Allied bombing of German population centres, Laursen points out. Opposition was highest in the British cities that had themselves been bombed by the Germans. It’s heartening to see so many British war victims opt for sympathy and solidarity with German civilians, not revenge).
For Comfort, to support the militaristic governments of either side was to support tyranny. The only principled thing to do was to continue denouncing war and urging both sides to lay down their arms. To resist fascism—which was laudable—was not the same as supporting a full-scale modern war against fascist countries, he argued.
Their difference of perspective continued after the War. Orwell turned the full fury of his pen against the totalitarian tyranny of Stalin and the Soviet Union (his actions ranged from the brilliantly satirical— Animal Farm—to the overenthusiastic and morally questionable, namely a controversial list he drew up and shared with his government of potential Soviet supporters in the arts and media community). Comfort, again, stuck to his guns, refusing to embrace either side and calling for an end to the arms race which already characterized the nascent Cold War.
Laursen’s book offers a thorough, exhaustive and fascinating study of these two men’s positions and the broader ethical questions their disagreement provokes.
It taps into three key questions: the age-old question of the merits and limits of pacifism; the political role and responsibility of writers and creators; and the need to resist totalizing political ideologies that shut down free speech in the name of political or ideological purity.
Pacifism – What Is It Good For?
The quarrel over the rights or wrongs of pacifism occupies the bulk of the book. Laursen sympathizes with Comfort’s position but offers a fairly balanced look at the debate.
Not that one needs to take sides. One could argue (I would) that both authors tapped into important elements of a complex debate. Orwell’s choice to be part of the Allied war effort against fascism makes a great deal of sense: without exonerating liberal western democracies for their many faults, it’s safe to say they offered greater freedom, respect for civil rights and space for democratic dialogue than the Nazis and other fascist states. Orwell criticized those who said “One side is as bad as the other. I am neutral.” On the contrary, he said, “there is hardly such a thing as a war in which it makes no difference who wins. Nearly always one side stands more or less for progress, the other more or less for reaction.”
Orwell wrote with the urgency of someone who had witnessed the crushing military might of fascism first-hand—he’d been a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, and was nearly killed fighting the ultimately victorious fascists there—while Comfort wrote from the comfort of a mostly theoretical perspective.
Comfort too raised important and compelling points, particularly in his ardent denunciation of the air war and bombing campaigns against German cities. The air war against Germany (and later, Japan) was sold to the public on the basis that it would undermine the enemy war effort and induce the civilian population to rise against the tyrannical regimes that had drawn them into this war.
Like all air wars, that proposition was entirely untrue. All evidence shows that air wars against civilians are complete failures when it comes to demoralizing civilians and turning them against their regimes. Britain’s own Blitz was a prime example—instead of compelling the British public to push their government toward a negotiated treaty with the Germans, it only hardened British resolve. The same is true in other countries (witness Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan…).
Moreover, where there actually is active opposition to a regime, aerial bombings destroy the infrastructure and organization that opposition movements require if they are to achieve political change. And they rarely even accomplish their military objectives. Even the horrific scale of the atomic bombings in Japan was insufficient to persuade the Japanese government to surrender; it was, arguably, the entry of Russia into the war and the prospect of having to choose between a Japan defeated by Russia or a Japan defeated by America, that drove the Japanese to pick their conqueror from the less brutal power. Suffice it to say that Comfort was on strong ground in asserting that aerial bombings campaigns are a failure and the only benefit they bring are to the wallets of arms manufacturers, who peddle their destructive armaments to gullible governments and rake in profits while civilians die. He contributed to a vital public campaign in wartime UK against the military’s aerial bombing, a campaign that is not often remembered alongside mainstream narratives of the Second World War. It’s a lesson today’s generals still haven’t seem to have absorbed. Or perhaps it’s one they and their arms dealers simply prefer not to.
Regardless of who you might side with, a holistic reading of both authors’ positions allows a much more balanced and nuanced understanding of the rights and wrongs of the Second World War, and how it was waged by both sides.
Differences and Agreements
Where Orwell and Comfort both shared a position was their perspective that writers ought to engage politically. While he disagreed with some of Comfort’s political ideas, Orwell still admired Comfort’s literary skill, and even published poems by him in the journals he edited, despite their previous public disputes. When Comfort was attacked for his pacifism by readers, Orwell even defended him, arguing that “giving a hearing to unpopular opinions” was essential to preserving the freedoms which distinguished democracies from totalitarian states. Yet at other times, Orwell could be a daunting, caustic opponent in print.
Another element which united both writers was their tendency to form and express their arguments in the moral sphere. It’s what we love most about Orwell—that pithy straight-forwardness which doesn’t dance around the bush but puts his arguments in remarkably clear language that resonates with the average person. Comfort too eschewed high theory. It’s perhaps part of what made them public intellectuals—the ability to engage in fundamentally important, and intellectually complex, arguments and debates, but in ways which the general public could follow and find themselves motivated to participate in.
Again, the thing about Orwell’s work is it’s possible to interpret through many different lenses. There’s much that one could dispute in Laursen’s analysis of Orwell, but that would be neither helpful nor fair. Laursen makes a good case, and either way the debate which frames the book transcends both Orwell and Comfort, who become primarily vehicles through which to consider the still potent issues of pacifism and authorial responsibility in war.
Laursen’s work does both these important writers credit by also making their debates accessible. It’s a worthwhile enough task simply to remind us of the important intellectual contributions of Alex Comfort, who these days is remembered mostly for his surprise 1972 bestseller The Joy of Sex. But even more worthwhile is the excellent job Laursen does of reminding us of the continued importance these debates have for our present moment.