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 vicious abuse.

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 pro-Fascist....”

That is the pacifists' position, and it is evil....

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 difference.

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 and 1942:

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 earlier statements:

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.

December, 1944 Partisan Review "London Letter".

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 arising.

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 unsuccessful.

Vol. III, p. 292 ("As I Please", Tribune, Dec. 8, 1944)

Oliver Kamm wants to give these passages a restricted interpretation:

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 point:

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......

May 1945, 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 unconvincing:

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 successful cruelty.

Why 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 principles of 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 in.

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 like.

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 Gandhi:

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. 470).

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 little, and 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 propaganda.

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.



Michael Kelly, "Pacifists are not serious people," Washington Post, September 26, 2001; Michael Kelly, "Pacifists: part II," Washington Post, October 3, 2001.

Michael Sullivan: http://time-blog.com/daily_dish/print.php?artnum=dish&dish_inc=archives/2001_09_01_dish_archive.html

Ron Rosenbaum
New York Observer of January 14 2002; "The Men Who Would Be Orwell," Ron Rosenbaum, New York Observer, March 23, 2002; http://www.ijamming.net/Home/June29-July5.html.

Review of Alex Comfort's book No Such Liberty: "No, Not One," Adelphi, Oct. 1941 (cited by Andrew Sullivan, Wednesday, September 19, 2001.)

"As I Please", Tribune,  Dec. 8, 1944(in Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, ed. Orwell and Angus, Vol. III, p. 292.) http://whitewolf.newcastle.edu.au/words/authors/O/OrwellGeorge/essay/tribune/

London Letter, Partisan Review, December, 1944 (in Orwell and Angus, Volume III, p. 335. http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwelnat.htm

George Orwell, May 1945, Notes on Nationalism (reprinted in England Your England and Other Essays, 1953.)

George Orwell, "Reflections on Gandhi, Collected Essays, etc.,  463.

Oliver Kamm: http://oliverkamm.blogspot.com/2003_06_29_oliverkamm_archive.html



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Original materials copyright John J Emerson

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