Orwell and Pacifism
Right after 9/11 American hawks, notably
Christopher Hitchens, Michael Kelly, and Andrew Sullivan, launched
preemptive attacks on whichever opponents there eventually would be
to a war which hadn't even started yet. All three of them cited
George Orwell's World War Two criticisms of pacifists, adding plenty
of venom of their own. From this point on, all opponents of any
military action proposed by Bush were accused of being pacifists,
regardless and whether they were or not, and were subjected to
The late Michael Kelly was the worst, adding to
the mix the own absurd insinuation that the Taliban might someday
conquer the US:
In 1942 George Orwell wrote this, in Partisan
Review, of Great Britain's pacifists: "Pacifism is objectively
That is the pacifists' position, and it is
Do the pacifists. . . . wish to live under an
occupying power? Do they wish to live under, say, the laws of the
Taliban or the Baath Party of Iraq?. . . .
Liars. Frauds. Hypocrites.
Sullivan outdid Kelly with this snippet:
The decadent left in its enclaves on the
coasts is not dead--and may well mount a fifth column.
Ron Rosenbaum worshipfully described Hitchens and
Sullivan as avatars of Orwell:
Maybe it's not an accident that these two
self-exiles from the U.K. have dominated the American debate.
Perhaps it does have something to do with their expatriate Brit
identity: As part of their intellectual birthright, both are in
possession of, both are possessed by, the spirit of George Orwell.
Both are steeped in Orwell; both have quoted him during the current
crisis. Both have looked on our Sept 11 through the lens of Orwell's
July 1940, when he was a lonely voice confronting defeatism on the
Right and left in the face of Hitler, at a time when England itself
stood virtually alone in defying the Third Reich.....Mr Sullivan and
Mr Hitchens seem to be winning the war over the war, the war of
words. And . . . It is Orwell's vision - his legacy and example, and
the perhaps-unspoken competition for his mantle - that has made the
It's worth taking a look at Orwell's history with
pacifism, which he discussed a number of times in his WWII
journalism. The hawks' favorite passages are these two, from 1941
In so far as it hampers the British war
effort, British pacifism is on the side of the Nazis, and German
pacifism, if it exists, is on the side of Britain and the USSR.
Since pacifists have more freedom of action in countries where
traces of democracy survive, pacifism can act more effectively
against democracy than for it. Objectively the pacifist is pro-Nazi.
From a review of Alex Comfort's book No
Such Liberty cited by Sullivan.
Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is
elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side
you automatically help out that of the other. Nor is there any real
way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice,
'he that is not with me is against me.'
1942 Partisan Review “London Letter”
In 1944, however, Orwell pulled back from his
For instance, I particularly regret having
said in one letter that Julian Symons 'writes in a vaguely Fascist
strain' - a quite unjustified statement based on a single article
which I probably misunderstood. But this kind of thing
results from the lunatic atmosphere of war, the fog of lies and
misinformation in which one has to work and the endless sordid
controversies in which a political journalist is involved.
Partisan Review "London
We are told that it is only people’s objective
actions that matter, and their subjective feelings are of no
importance. Thus pacifists, by obstructing the war effort, are
‘objectively’ aiding the Nazis; and therefore the fact that they may
be personally hostile to Fascism is irrelevant. I have been guilty
of saying this myself more than once. The same argument is applied
to Trotskyism. Trotskyists are often credited, at any rate by
Communists, with being active and conscious agents of Hitler; but
when you point out the many and obvious reasons why this is unlikely
to be true, the ‘objectively’ line of talk is brought forward again.
To criticize the Soviet Union helps Hitler: therefore ‘Trotskyism is
Fascism’. And when this has been established, the accusation of
conscious treachery is usually repeated.
This is not only dishonest; it also
carries a severe penalty with it.
If you disregard people’s motives, it becomes much harder to
foresee their actions. For there are occasions when even the most
misguided person can see the results of what he is doing. Here is a
crude but quite possible illustration. A pacifist is working in some
job which gives him access to important military information, and is
approached by a German secret agent. In those circumstances his
subjective feelings do make a difference. If he is subjectively
pro-Nazi he will sell his country, and if he isn’t, he won’t. And
situations essentially similar though less dramatic are constantly
In my opinion a few pacifists are inwardly
pro-Nazi, and extremist left-wing parties will inevitably contain
Fascist spies. The important thing is to discover which individuals
are honest and which are not, and the usual blanket accusation
merely makes this more difficult. The atmosphere of hatred in which
controversy is conducted blinds people to considerations of this
kind. To admit that an opponent might be both honest and intelligent
is felt to be intolerable. It is more immediately satisfying to
shout that he is a fool or a scoundrel, or both, than to find out
what he is really like. It is this habit of mind, among other
things, that has made political prediction in our time so remarkably
Vol. III, p. 292 ("As I Please", Tribune,
Dec. 8, 1944)
Oliver Kamm wants to give these passages a
This bears careful reading. It does not say
what critics of Kelly claim, for Orwell at no point resiles from his
belief that pacifism is helpful to fascism, still less recants his
1942 article. Rather, he introduces a qualification to his position,
by allowing that the distinction between motive and outcome does
matter, and that overlooking that distinction has the undesirable
consequence of making it more difficult to predict how pacifists
will in fact behave.
However, Kamm's interpretation is misleading --
the restricted interpretation is really quite unlikely. He claims that the
main point is expressed in the second paragraph of the second
passage, which details the practical disadvantages of the “objective
Fascist” accusation. However, it's clear that the second paragraph
just adds an additional subordinate point to the first. What Orwell was trying to
say is that it is wrong, dishonest, and Stalinist to use the phrase
“objective fascist” to describe non-fascists you disagree with.
(Orwell does not use the word “Stalinist”, but the context he gives
is clearly Stalinist).
So far, so good. However, Kamm and Sullivan both
cite a still later passage from Orwell, which does support their
Pacifist literature abounds with equivocal
remarks which, if they mean anything, appear to mean that statesmen
of the type of Hitler are preferable to those of the type of
Churchill, and that violence is perhaps excusable if it is violent
enough. After the fall of France, the French pacifists, faced by a
real choice which their English colleagues have not had to make,
mostly went over to the Nazis......
Notes on Nationalism
It's an understatement to say that Orwell's politics were complex.
An anti-Soviet leftist who rejected both holier-than-thou purist
disengagement (including pacifism) and thuggish Stalinist agitprop
and polemics, he continually had to struggle (as the purists and
thugs did not) to remain relevant without
succumbing to the lunacy. In 1945 I'd say he slipped a little; this,
for example (continuing the above passage), seems far-fetched and
In England there appears to have been some
small overlap of membership between the Peace Pledge Union and the
Blackshirts. Pacifist writers have written in praise of Carlyle, one
of the intellectual fathers of Fascism. All in all it is difficult
not to feel that pacifism, as it appears among a section of the
intelligentsia, is secretly inspired by an admiration for power and
do we honor Orwell today? We admire him, not because of his courage
in raining abuse on pacifists in his wartime journalism, but
primarily because of two books and an essay: Animal Farm,
1984, and “Politics and the English Language”. Animal Farm
is an anti-Communist parable, and this is the Orwell of Kelly,
Hitchens, and Sullivan. 1984
is anti-Communist too, but it also portrays a propaganda in a state
of permanent mobilization against changing enemies selected on
realpolitik. “Politics and the English Language”
favors clear writing and opposes the use of bad bureaucratic or
ideological writing to obscure meaning, but it also rejects the
kinds of smearing of opponents which Orwell himself at times engaged
When American hawks picked up the Stalinist
“objective fascist” phrase, they were taking as a model works of
Orwell of which he repented; and in fact, the “objective Fascist”
smear could have been found in the writings any of hundreds of his
Stalinist agitprop contemporaries. But I think that we can say that
his real message was rather this:
The atmosphere of hatred in which controversy
is conducted blinds people to considerations of this kind. To admit
that an opponent might be both honest and intelligent is felt to be
intolerable. It is more immediately satisfying to shout that he is a
fool or a scoundrel, or both, than to find out what he is really
In point of fact, in the last years of his life
became friends with the two of the men had earlier denounced, the
pacifist George Woodcock and the “vaguely fascist” Julian Symons (writing 21 letters to these two men during the period from 1945 to
1949). He worked with Woodcock and the anarchist Herbert Read on
the Freedom Defense Committee, which tried to defend against the
”threat to individual liberty contained in the modern centralized
state” (with specific reference to the persecution of unpopular
political minorities, including Communists). He also wrote the
following at the end of one of his
last few publications, a mostly critical piece on the anti-British pacifist
“Regarded simply as a politician, and compared
with the other leading political figures of his time, how clean a
smell he managed to leave behind.”
(Collected Letters, etc., vol. IV, p.
Within a consistently leftist framework, Orwell struggled all his
life with questions of practice, and he was far more willing than
most leftists to change his ideas and to criticize the movement of which he was
part. Earlier than most he came to understand the
destructiveness and authoritarianism of Leninist or Stalinist
politics, but he always was also engaged in practical political
work, and he was critical of high-minded movements such as
pacifism or anarchism which he regarded as incapable of ever
accomplishing anything real.
Early in World War Two his practical side became dominant, and he
made some unnecessarily harsh statements about Symons and Woodcock.
He quickly came to realize, however, that the phrase “objective
Fascist” he had used was borrowed from the Stalinist glossary, and upon
doing this he apologized and befriended the men he had attacked,
working his apology into
“Politics and the English Language”.
Orwell never became a pacifist or an anarchist, nor should he have.
In 1984, however, besides the anti-totalitarian theme there
is also a second anti-statist, anti-war theme. 1984 describes a nightmare
world in a permanent state of military mobilization, within which allies and
enemies switched arbitrarily on grounds of realpolitik. It
sounds as though he might have been listening to the anarchists a
pace Kelly, Hitchens, and Sullivan, I believe that it would be very difficult
for someone who has actually read 1984 to interpret it as war
And it is certainly impossible to imagine Orwell,
even on his worst day, using language as venomous and contemptible
as Kelly's. When Kelly and the others affiliated themselves with
Orwell at his most embarrassingly Stalinist worst, they showed
themselves for what they were.
Kelly, "Pacifists are not serious people," Washington Post,
September 26, 2001; Michael Kelly, "Pacifists: part II," Washington
Post, October 3, 2001.
New York Observer of January 14 2002; "The Men Who Would Be Orwell,"
Ron Rosenbaum, New York Observer, March 23, 2002;
Review of Alex Comfort's book No Such Liberty: "No, Not One,"
Adelphi, Oct. 1941 (cited by Andrew Sullivan, Wednesday, September
Please", Tribune, Dec. 8, 1944(in Collected Essays,
Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, ed. Orwell and Angus, Vol.
III, p. 292.)
Letter, Partisan Review, December, 1944 (in Orwell and Angus, Volume
III, p. 335.
Orwell, May 1945,
Notes on Nationalism (reprinted in
England Your England and Other Essays,
George Orwell, "Reflections on Gandhi,
Collected Essays, etc., 463.
I am emersonj at gmail dot com.
Original materials copyright John J