Orwell’s Anti-Fascism: A Clarification

I happened to notice this graphic appearing on my Facebook news feed over the  past couple days. The sentiment is certainly one I can appreciate. The tradition of revolutionary socialism has always argued forcefully for confrontation with fascism in its various current forms. In this sense, it might be a plea for open demonstrations and confrontations with fascism in an era where the dominant ideological trend of bourgeois liberalism looks to the “marketplace of ideas” to disabuse fascists of their dangerous notions and will argue, for instance, against a militant counter-rally in favor of an “anti-racist picnic” or something similar.

Orwell was, of course, of a very different breed, having lived as a revolutionary leftist in a time when fascism was on the rise and it looked much like it might be the wave of the future, having seized state power in Italy, Germany, Austria and elsewhere, and was a tangible mass movement in practically every European country whose followers engaged in provocations designed to wipe out the militant vanguard of the working class left over from the post-war revolutionary wave. Orwell, as many leftists will remember, was a hero of militant anti-fascism. He took a bullet in the throat for the cause, quite literally as it happened, while on the front lines defending the Spanish Republic against Franco’s military coup.

What concerns me about this quote is not the militant spirit in which it is offered and in which I hope most people must be taking it. The problem is that it comes from a very different part of Orwell’s anti-fascist career than what he wrote of in Homage to Catalonia (which, by the way, is the first revolutionary book I read and one whose influence on me is hard to overestimate). Rather than endorsing a militant defense against fascism as part of an openly revolutionary war effort which aimed not only to sweep away Franco but the Spanish ruling class as a whole, and reconstruct society on a socialist or anarchist basis, by this point Orwell had moved away from his revolutionary convictions under the intense pressure of the war. Rather than calling for resistance to the Nazis as part of a revolutionary offensive, as the war went on he would become an open partisan of the British state’s imperialist war effort, in effect an apologist and in real terms a propagandist for the side which claimed to fight fascism although it could barely manage to cover its own heinous crimes against the people lucky enough to live in the “democratic camp.” I will detail this after a sketch of Orwell’s political career.

Orwell, or Eric Arthur Blair, was born to a family of the upper middle class of English India. Though he was schooled in England, the career path he chose early on was that of a colonial policeman in Burma. After a few short years in the service, however, he walked away from a promising career, having come to hate the exploitation of the colonies conducting for the benefit of the British ruling class, and no doubt hating himself for having been a willing accomplice to that oppression for so long. The essay “Shooting an Elephant” and the novel Burmese Days, which are based on his own experiences during this period, are among literature’s foremost anti-colonial pleas.

Back in England at the end of the 1920s, Orwell attempted to eke out a career as a writer and journalist. He failed much more than he succeeded, and the conditions of extreme material depredation, as recorded in the semiautobiographical novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, caused him to extend his anti-colonial critique into a critique of the functioning of capitalism in general. Down and Out in Paris and London as well as The Road to Wigan Pier are important in their own right as documents of a middle class intellectual breaking more and more with the system that fed him, reared him, and trained him to preserve and defend it.

Orwell came to revolutionary politics, however, in a period when the revolution was on the defensive. He had missed the wave of revolutions which swept Europe after World War I. In England as anywhere else, the left was dominated by two alternatives: Social Democracy and Stalinism. The British Communist Party (CPGB) compared to the CPs of Europe was a negligible force, whose Stalinist line served to implement and worsen a general climate of practical and theoretical mediocrity. Orwell had as little time for Stalinist party discipline as he did for tepid Labour Party reformism. A third way seemed to be offered by the Independent Labour Party (ILP). The ILP was a member of the London Bureau, also known as the “Third and a Half International,” whose groups in Europe occupied the ground between left-reformism and oppositional communism of the type loosely affiliated with Trotsky as well as Bukharin. When Orwell went to Spain, his membership in the ILP transferred to the militia of the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM), a fusion of Right and Left Communist Opposition groups.

Orwell’s account of revolutionary Spain during the war is exhilarating to read. “It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle,” he wrote:

Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared.

While serving in the POUM militia and on brief trips he took to Barcelona, Orwell became aware of the encroachment of the Spanish CP (PCE) over the army, with help from the Soviet Union. Though he at first thought the Communist line of winning the war and later dealing with revolutionary changes in Spain was sensible and applied for a transfer to the Madrid front to serve under Communist command, this gave way to deep suspicions about the role of the Soviet Union, which he saw was undermining the revolutionary war effort and resuscitating the Spanish ruling class. His misgivings were confirmed by the May Days episode in Barcelona, when the police under the command of a Communist, Eusebio Rodríguez Salas, attempted to take over the anarchist-controlled telephone exchange. In the ensuing street warfare between the anarchist CNT-FAI and POUM on one hand and the Communists, Socialists and Catalan government on the other, the left’s leadership wavered and finally ordered its militias to stand down. Correctly predicting that there would be no resistance, the Communists quickly moved to decapitate the revolutionary opposition.

Orwell himself barely escaped the ensuing bloodbath, and managed to get home to England after a period of convalescence. He was left with a deep and abiding hatred of the Soviet Union and Stalinism along with his hatred of fascism. Though he remained a revolutionary, he was convinced that “the Soviet myth would have to be destroyed” before a fundamentally more democratic and liberating form of socialism could re-emerge.

His approach to World War II, when it broke out in 1941, initially matched that of many on the anti-Stalinist left. Trotsky and his supporters had argued for a “proletarian military policy,” which would extend support to the war to defend democracy but would try to create room for an independent role for the working class charged with fighting it. Orwell was not a Trotskyist, but his position of “revolutionary patriotism” matched that of many Trotskyists. In the event of a fascist conquest of Britain, he argued, reform or revolution was somewhat of a moot question. Though he supported the patriotic war against fascism, he argued like the Trotskyists that the participation of the working class had the potential of transforming the anti-fascist war into an openly revolutionary war against capitalism that would sweep away the British ruling class. His quote that “pacifism is objectively pro-fascist” comes from this period in his thinking, in fact from a polemic against the American renegade Trotskyists Max Shachtman and Dwight Macdonald who argued against extending support to the war effort.

As the war went on, however, his thinking began to shift rapidly. The popular resistance to fascism in Britain had not led to a strengthening of the revolutionary left, but to a resurgence of the prewar Conservatism under Winston Churchill, which could for the first time be perceived as a moderate, even a progressive force. With his hopes for a revolution rapidly dwindling, Orwell concluded that it remained imperative to defeat fascism. The “degenerated” or “decadent” imperialism of Britain and France, he decided, was in any case better than the new, bloodthirsty imperialism of Germany, Italy and Japan. His work for the BBC’s India Service during the years 1942 and 1943 was the period in which we see this transition in his thinking, which I will go into a bit.

In 1942, Blair went to work for the BBC’s India service, which he saw as doing his part for the war effort in countering German and Japanese propaganda, which claimed to offer India independence, alongside the efforts of Subhash Chandra Bose, Rash Behari Bose and other Indian nationalists who linked their cause with the Axis powers. At the BBC he produced literary programs for the consumption of Indian intellectuals and wrote news broadcasts that were translated into Bengali, Gujarati and Marathi. During this time he was friends with many Indians in Britain, including the leftist writers Ahmed Ali and Mulk Raj Anand.

As he worked at the BBC, Blair’s positions toward India evolved quickly. Being in his own words a “propagandist,” he wrote in the text of a broadcast to India that in the war, “India is compelled to be with Britain, because a victory of the Germans or the Japanese would postpone Indian independence far longer than the most reactionary British government would either wish or be able to do.”[1] In private, while he continued to support independence for India, he was deeply pessimistic that it would be achieved, writing in his diary in April 1942 that “the basic fact about nearly all Indian intellectuals is that they don’t expect independence, can’t imagine it and at heart don’t want it. They want to be permanently in opposition, suffering a painless martyrdom.”[2]

Nevertheless, Orwell was quite disappointed by the failure of the Cripps Mission several months later. The attempt by Sir Stafford Cripps to win over the leaders of the Indian National Congress to the war effort had cheered Orwell greatly, as he still hoped for a democratic anti-fascist war with the cooperation of the popular nationalist forces in the colonies. He was shocked by the British government’s violent crackdown on India in response to the Quit India campaign, in which thousands of Indians rose up in violent and nonviolent ways against British rule. Shortly afterward, he wrote in his diary of a

ghastly speech by [Leo] Amery, speaking of Nehru and Co. as “wicked men,” “saboteurs,” etc.… It is strange, but quite truly the way the British government is now behaving upsets me more than a military defeat.”[3]

Two months after he wrote the previous diary entry, he reflected after a conversation with a friend who had returned from India that “affairs are much worse in India than anyone here is allowed to realize, the situation is in fact retrievable but won’t be retrieved because the government is determined to make no real concessions,” forecasting that “all hell will break loose” in the event of a Japanese invasion of the subcontinent.[4] Concluding that his work did not matter, Orwell was to leave the BBC soon after, using his experiences of its oppressive, bureaucratic atmosphere several years later as those of Winston Smith in 1984.

After he left the BBC in September 1943, Orwell’s writings on India, which appeared in the London Tribune and other left-wing publications, continued in the vein of pessimism and demonstrated the same latent colonial chauvinism seen in “Shooting an Elephant” and in his private reflections on India. In a review of a book about Gandhi, he wrote that Indian independence could not be achieved because

she is unable to defend herself… what is now called independence means the power to manufacture aeroplanes in large numbers. Already there are only five genuinely independent states in the world…[5]

In another review of a book on India, he noted that while “India’s major grievance against the British is justified… India’s immediate problems will not be solved by the disappearance of the British.” By saying this Congress Party politicians were being “dishonest as well as hysterical,” and furthermore, their organization was not leftwing but in fact “has considerable resemblances to the Nazi Party and is backed by sinister business men with pro-Japanese leanings.”[6]

It can therefore be seen that by the middle of the war, Orwell had departed from a revolutionary socialist and anti-imperialist viewpoint. In the period when thousands in Bengal starved to death as a result of British war rationing and when millions of Indians took to the streets in a militant effort to gain independence, Orwell was in the pay of the British state, and equated militant resistance to imperialism with pro-fascist activity. Perhaps the best explanation for these remarks lies not just in his background as an Anglo-Indian and colonial police officer, but also in his acceptance of the fundamentally democratic nature of the war. Once he accepted that, it was natural that he should somewhat take the viewpoint, even if he didn’t intend to, of his “democratic” imperialist homeland.

It might be said that perhaps we shouldn’t blame Orwell overly much for abandoning his revolutionary convictions. This was the period in which barely any independent leftist opposition survived even in the Allied countries. Many on the left followed Orwell into apology for the Allied ruling classes, most notoriously of all the Stalinists he hated with every fiber of his being, who supported no strike pledges in the West, and in India openly scabbed on the freedom struggle. This, to my mind, is a bit of intellectual laziness. Orwell was a smart man and a dedicated revolutionary in his time, and he knew what he was getting into. It also does a disservice to those on the anti-Stalinist left in Europe and the United States who bravely resisted the no strike pledge, as well as the racist and imperialist terms on which the war was conducted – most especially Trotskyists in the United States and Left Communists in France. Even many revolutionaries who went with the working class into the war against Germany did not abandon their internationalist convictions. One such was Duncan Hallas, much later a leader of the British SWP, who led a strike in the British Army in Egypt toward the end of the war.

To revolutionaries who recognize Orwell as one of us, this will not be a problem, as we have long known there is much to criticize even those of his writings that we hold dear. We might remember how in “Shooting an Elephant” he referred to the “sneering yellow faces of the young men that met me everywhere,” or that Winston in 1984 refers to his lover Julia as, “a revolutionary from the waist down.” A true appreciation of Orwell’s writings, which continue to move us as human beings and as revolutionaries, requires that we are unafraid to mercilessly criticize him when he got it wrong.

[1] George Orwell, “Weekly News Review, 16 May 1942,” in The Complete Works of George Orwell (hereafter CW), ed. Peter Davison (London: Seeker and Warburg, 1986) vol. 13, 324.

[2] Orwell, “War-time Diary, 18 April 1942,” in CW, vol. 13, 276.

[3] Orwell, “War-time Diary, 10 August 1942,” in CW vol. 13, 458.

[4] Orwell, “War-time Diary, 5 October 1942,” in CW vol. 14, 76.

[5] Orwell, “Gandhi in Mayfair: Review of Beggar My Neighbor by Lionel Fielden,” in CW, vol. 15, 211.

[6] Orwell, “Review of Verdict on India by Beverley Nichols,” in CW, vol. 16, 446-47.

1 Comment

Filed under History, Literature, Politics

One response to “Orwell’s Anti-Fascism: A Clarification

  1. Marade

    Well damn.

    “Orwell was, of course, of a very different breed, having lived as a revolutionary leftist in a time when fascism was on the rise and it looked much like it might be the wave of the future”

    Only four years from this post to the 2016 US elections… *sigh*

    “Orwell concluded that it remained imperative to defeat fascism. The “degenerated” or “decadent” imperialism of Britain and France, he decided, was in any case better than the new, bloodthirsty imperialism of Germany, Italy and Japan.”

    And here’s history repeating again.
    De-emphasise fighting facism in favour of fighting democratic imperialism, neoliberalism, whatever the term du jour is, facism all too quickly rears its head again.
    We hadn’t got past the risk of facism, we haven’t got past it, and we won’t for a very long time.
    When there’s a two horse race, you first evaluate your choices in the light of antifacism, and THEN you drill down to more nuanced political choices.

    Yeah, essentially Orwell would have been a Gore supporter, a Clinton supporter.
    It is *still* imperative to defeat facism.

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