The interpretation of George Orwell could be a paradigm for how dead literary figures get knocked from pillar to post by the winds of political interpretation. During his lifetime, the author of 1984 and Animal Farm went from darling of the left to exile for having been willing to write the truth about Communist totalitarianism in allegories too pointed to ignore.
With the end of the Cold War, forty-two years after Orwell’s death, the poisonous fog breathed on Western intellectual life by Soviet agents of influence slowly began to lift. It became possible to say that Communist totalitarianism was evil and had always been evil, without being dismissed as a McCarthyite or reactionary not merely by those agents but by a lot of “no enemy to the left” liberal patsies who should have known better. In this climate, Orwell’s uncompromising truth-telling shone even more brightly than before. For some on the left, belated shame at their own complicity with evil transmuted itself into more adulation for Orwell, and more attempted identification with Orwell’s positions, than at any time in the previous fifty years.
Then came 9/11. Orwell’s sturdy common sense about the war against the fascisms of his day made him a model for a few thinkers of the left who realized they had arrived at another of Marx’s “world-historical moments”, another pivot point at which everything changed. Foremost among these was Christopher Hitchens, who would use Orwell to good effect in taking an eloquent and forceful line in favor of the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq. For this, he was rewarded with the same vituperation and shunning by the Left that had greeted the publication of Orwell’s anti-totalitarian allegories fifty years before.
Hitchens, who coined the term “Islamofascist” for the ideology of Al-Qaeda and its allies, is in particular responsible for having given renewed currency to the following Orwell quote addressing the war against the Nazis:
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.
Reading it in its original full form, in a 1941 essay Pacifism and the War published in Partisan Review, only makes it clearer how directly the quote applies to the War on Terror.
Stung by this, various creatures of the pro-Islamofascist Left (and, alas, some liberal and libertarian patsies who should have known better) responded by asserting that Orwell repudiated this position in his 1944 essay As I Please. But a careful reading of this essay shows that there is less here than meets the eye.
What Orwell actually warns against in this essay is not the concept of “objective pro-fascism”, it is any unwarranted leap from noticing that someone is objectively pro-fascist to assuming that the person is intentionally pro-fascist. Orwell explains that confusing these categories is dangerous because it can cause you to mis-predict peoples’ behavior.
There is nothing exceptionable here, and nothing that repudiates the substance of the earlier quote. Yes, Orwell does observe “I have been guilty of saying this myself more than once”, but his “guilty” is a rhetorical flourish, a setup for his real point about confusing effects with intentions.
Both essays are examples of the determined stab, straight through cant to the heart of the matter, that Orwell did so well and so consistently. It was perfectly consistent with the rest of his work for him to observe that there is such a thing as objective pro-fascism, then insist that we not confuse that condition with intentional treason.
As for those who would like to use this “retraction” to take Orwell out of the fight…your behavior is objectively pro-fascist in precisely the sense he intended. At the very least, it is evidence of careless reading and sloppy thinking.