Getting Orwell Wrong

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.

23 thoughts on “Getting Orwell Wrong

  1. 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.
    Or not. The very next line, “The idea that you can somehow remain aloof from and superior to the struggle, while living on food which British sailors have to risk their lives to bring you, is a bourgeois illusion bred of money and security” highlights the difference between the then “total war” between nations and the current business-as-usual while a manifestly non-total war takes place far away cheered on by one bunch of well-fed keyboard jockeys haranguing another bunch of equally well-fed keyboard jockeys for being traitors for not supporting the troops. We’re all pretty aloof from the struggle here by comparison to Brits in 1942, when the tide was turning against the Nazis in any case. Unless you’re sure this Muslims Are Going To Sneak In Overnight And Subject Us To Dhimmitude Unless We Are Vigilant thing has legs. I’m skeptical that the New Caliphate is just around the corner myself, though if some oh-so-intellectually-rigorous “rational libertarian” would care to step me through the scenario whereby it’s going to come about I’d be appropriately intrigued.

  2. So, you think the war takes place “far away”, do you? Tell it to the people who died on 9/11, or less than a month ago in the London tube bombings. The war has already come a hell of a lot closer to me than just killing a sailor who was bringing me food. One of my brothers was within sight-line of the Towers when they went down.

  3. 3000 people is nothing compared to a “real” war, you know that. Hell, orders of magnitude more people die from accidents, heart disease, etc.

  4. I was in line of sight of the Pentagon. The smoke was white before it went dark grey.

    So it’s not ignorance of terrorism that makes me say the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are indeed pretty far away. Terrorism, which has a lot to do with Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia but not so much Iraq (until 2003) is much closer. Call me objectively pro-fascist, but what I have yet to see out of people who accuse me of not caring or being a traitor is a reason why Iraq has much to do with either, with the possible exception of stopping the $25K payments to families of suicide bombers in the Palestinian Authority and bagging Abu Nidal, who had already died. But I’m not sure that goal was worth the cost.

    So are you saying that anybody who opposes either war is objectively pro-fascist, or just those who oppose one or the other or both? And if so, which?

    Also, please deliniate where Orwell’s stricture, if it applies equally to the Blitz and to Shock and Awe, stops? If you are not actively anti-Kelo you are objectively pro-redistributionist? If you are not campaigning for the Libertarian Party are you objectively pro-statist? If you do not support Bush’s social security plan, are you against him and therefore for bin Laden and objectively pro-Islamofascist? Where’s the bright line distinction of where objective pro-fascism stops and reasonable disagreement begins?

  5. Determining what Orwell really thought doesn’t quite impress me, as it’s all argument from authority to begin with, isn’t it?

    Furthermore, the “war” didn’t take place far away on 9/11. But since then, attacks on the West have been few, far between, and of diminishing strength. Between Hurricane Katrina and last year’s tsunami, I’m not so inclined to be afraid of an enemy whose greatest achievement is destroying a couple of city blocks, four years ago.

  6. So, you think the war takes place “far away”, do you? Tell it to the people who died on 9/11, or less than a month ago in the London tube bombings.
    Two months. The Iraq war is the one about which you seem (correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m definitely picking it up from the fanboys) to be saying “Yes indeed, this has a splendid chance of working if only those pesky liberals would shut up and stop giving aid and comfort etc.” But brief episodes of terror seen on television (and by siblings) separated by multiple-year intervals of ordinary life do not constutute war as it was understood in 1942. This is something else – a kind of very intermittent large-scale criminal nihilism, and conflating it with traditional wars (and using it as an excuse to launch one) is dishonest and likely to lead to failure and embarrassment, albeit not for me.
    The war has already come a hell of a lot closer to me than just killing a sailor who was bringing me food. One of my brothers was within sight-line of the Towers when they went down.
    Was this when you decided that the chances of the beardy hordes turning up in your neighbourhood and attempting to bend your once-libertarian instincts to the Will of Allah were a thing to be taken seriously? I have a sister in London myself. It’s not that big a deal.

  7. Come off it, Eric. It’s easy to “support the war” because it’s not costing us. Look at the top marginal tax rates during the two World Wars or even during Vietnam—in the seventies and eighties. But no, this war is being waged without paying for it, to keep it popular. (It’s not working very well, but I suppose it’d be worse if we were actually paying in taxes what it cost.)

    So, yeah. It’s easy to feel that the war is going on someplace else, and all we have to do is cheer, because it won’t cost us anything. The loudest cheerleaders for this war do not live in New York City.

  8. Indeed. I was in Manhattan on 9/11, getting ready to go to a meeting three blocks from Ground Zero. Don’t tell me the war is half a world away.

  9. I agree that Orwell’s personal position as expressed in the two essays is entirely consistent. You assume without proof, however, that “Islamofascism” is as dangerous a threat to the rest of the world as Fascism, Nazism, and Japanese militarism were, and further that Orwell would have agreed that it is. I take the liberty to doubt both claims.
    History has shown that Orwell’s claim “Despotic governments can stand ‘moral force’ till the cows come home” cannot be accepted unqualified; since his day, a fair number of despotic governments have fallen without the use of physical force. Some were reinstated by externally applied force (Hungary ’56, Czechoslovakia ’68), others were not; some of their replacements have been equally despotic, others have not been. If it comes to that, the well-documented conduct of German officials in Denmark during the failed attempt to implement the Final Solution there shows how effective direct nonviolent political resistance was, applied over a period of several years, even against the Nazis themselves. (If the King did not really offer to wear the yellow star himself, the story is still emblematic of the conduct and attitude of the Danish people.) Nor is Denmark unique: similar things happened in Bulgaria and Italy.

    With my geolib hat on, I am pleased to see the second section of this “As I Please” and the first section of this one. It only adds to my long-standing admiration of Orwell as a socialist and a thoughtful human being, and as a controversialist who does not assume that his opponents are ipso facto traitors to civilization.

  10. Yes, the war is taking place far away. In 1941, the British were:

    1. Under attack by the Luftwaffe.
    2. Conscripted.
    3. Rationing.
    4. Under threat of invasion.
    5. In danger of being forced into submission via supply lines.
    6. Facing the very real possibility Hitler would triumph.

    Yes, people have been killed, but it hasn’t really changed the way people live their lives; you don’t worry about when (not if) you’ll have to fight, whether there’ll be food in the shops, if you’ve enough ration tickets to last the week, whether there’s any energy available for your heating / vehicle / etc. or whether an army is about to invade.

    In the sentence quoted, I think Orwell’s point was that you cannot remain aloof whilst the food you eat can only arrive if someone risks their life. The war may have “already come a hell of a lot closer to me than just killing a sailor who was bringing me food” (by fact of you knowing someone who saw the towers come down, i.e. that fact making it personal to you), but if said sailor was killed, it wouldn’t really affect you, you’re not dependent on him. That’s the difference between now and when Orwell was writing.

  11. Amusingly, I just picked up a copy of 1984 at a yard-sale this past weekend. I’ll be rereading it for the first time since I first read the work in 1968.

  12. I’m somewhat agnostic on the “what Orwell meant” debate. However, in response to the comparison between the situation in Britain during National Socialist tyranny and the situation in America during Islamofascist tyranny, it seems to me the relevant year to compare is not 1941 (or 1942) but 1935(-1938). Had Britain (or the West, in general) not been unilaterally disarming – miltarily, geo-politically and philisophically – during the pre-war period, it is at least a debatable hypothesis that the eventual financial and human cost (both military and civilian) could have been very much reduced. We have not let AQ and their “sovereign” sympathizers and fellow travelers get as far along as Hitler, but the argument is that this is not a bad thing in that – if we don’t fail miserably – we avoid the much worse war which would become inevitable as the enemies of freedom are emboldened.

    Now, some retort that we are failing miserably, and there is, unfortunately a plausible case for this pessimism. But, at least part of this is due to “objective pro-fascism”, and how it permeates our culture, leaving our less-than-competent leadership without sufficient moral self-confidence to conduct these battles as they need to be conducted: with the enemy completely vanquished, and all of its potential abettors with a clear understanding that this will happen to them as well if they show the slightest inclination to help the Islamofascists. Of course, this lack of moral clarity had been growing for upward of 50 years before the present administration was shocked into having to do something in the wake of 9/11. So, I, for one, am grateful that they actually were capable of being shocked, as I’m not sure that would have been the case for the previous administration.

    On the other hand, I am sympathetic to those that complain that we – as a society – have not been asked to do enough in support of this war, and I have no doubt that this stems from this lack of moral clarity. The appropriate alternative – for a free society involved in what I believe must be a long-term proactive battle against this enemy – is for the President to use his bully pulpit to consistently ask for Americans to volunteer whatever they can give to this effort. This should include all kinds of support in addition to actually joining the armed forces; intellectual, industrial, and financial contributions may be the best that some can offer, and they indeed may be very valuable. I am saddened that the virtually none of our national political leaders would be capable of making the case for this kind of committment with any kind of intellectual rigor, even though many of our best intellectuals can. I’m afraid we’ll just have to continue to “muddle through” this war depending upon the inherent strengths of our social/economic system – and the bravery and professionalism of our armed forces – to keep the bastards at bay.

  13. The war is taking place far away.

    Liar.

    Was Leon Klinghoffer, in his wheelchair, far away? How about Munich ’72? Honor killings in Europe? Atomic proliferation? Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait? Or Iran? Was Pakistan’s support of the Taliban far away on September 10, 2001?

    How about Iran’s current efforts to promote an Islamic theocratic state in Iraq? Wahhabist madrassas?

    How far from Poland were the UK and France? How far was Czechoslovakia? Should white Northerners have rallied to help protest Jim Crow? Wasn’t it pretty far from them? If Eisenhower could have negotiated a good trade agreement with the Soviet Union, shouldn’t we have given the USSR a free, unopposed hand in Europe? I mean, aside from a few trade issues, isn’t Europe pretty far away?

    All those comments by people like Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Niemoeller, Winston Churchill, FDR, John Brown, &c. on how a tyrant who injures one man injures us all?

    Yeah, you’re right: it all seems pretty far away from us all today.

    And John Cowan: It seems that the despotic government of the USSR withstood “moral force” after crushing Hungary and Czechoslovakia for decades. Apparently, despotic government requires actual despots: something that Taliban Afganistan, Iran, Lybia, Baathist Iraq and Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority seem or seemed well-capable of supplying and that Hungary and Czechoslovakia were, for some reason, in short supply of.

  14. It delights me that an avowed Libertarian worries about what Orwell meant or might have meant, him being an avowed socialist, and a person who took “human brotherhood”(TM) pretty seriously on his own account (read “Why Socialists don’t Believe in Fun” for an example).

    Is this Libertarian doublethink, that a man who says the same things by which others are condemned to be called traitors to the West, or lovers of tyranny, or Statists, or clueless lunatic fanatical dangerous agents of some kind of conspiracy to destroy the values of individualism and private property, can be admired as a whole, and what he says taken seriously? Interesting.

  15. Honor killings in Europe?
    I agree that Kurdish and Pakistani guys tracking down and killing female family members who’ve refused to marry who they’re told to is pretty loathsome, but I don’t quite see the part it plays in this Great International Secret Jihad Forever Concealed From Feckless Liberal “Objectively Pro-Fascist” Dupes I’m inferring from what you’ve written – could you shed any light?
    Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait? Or Iran?
    He had permission from Bush 1 for the former (though he wasn’t supposed to take the whole thing) and wholehearted support from the US for the latter.
    How about Iran’s current efforts to promote an Islamic theocratic state in Iraq?
    Hey, if the US insists on preparing the ground for a nicely democratic Shia-dominated Iraqi assembly, what do you *expect* the Iranians to recommend? Chains of titty bars and a massive drive to import more pork?

  16. Roger Zimmerman: What exactly do you mean by “with the enemy completely vanquished, and all of its potential abettors with a clear understanding that this will happen to them as well if they show the slightest inclination to help the Islamofascists”?

    Who exactly is the enemy and who are its abettors? The whole point to how any terrorist organisation works is that it gets its community to close ranks. Even those within the community who don’t support the terrorist organisation know that ratting on it means death for them and probably their families as well. This is as true of Hamas as it is of the IRA as it is of insurgents in Iraq.

    So what would you suggest then in completely vanquishing the enemy and its abettors? I suppose you could go in with the approach of “if you won’t tell us who did it or supported it, then we’ll just grab ten random people”. That might work. Then again, maybe it would also just galvanise more support for the terrorists within the community, whilst turning more and more people off back home in the west for such unethical practises. It seems to me that far from crying every time an innocent civilian is killed in the middle-east by westerners or Israelis, the local terrorist organisations are rubbing their hands together in glee.

  17. If you hamper the war effort of one side, you automatically help out that of the other.

    But this doesn’t seem quite true, does it. Orwell naturally forgot the possibility that our side would do exactly what the enemy wants. If our “war effort” itself helps the enemy, as the war in Iraq helps Al-Qaeda, then this argument falls apart.

  18. If you hamper the war effort of one side, you automatically help out that of the other.

    But this doesn’t seem quite true, does it. Orwell understandably forgot the possibility that our side would do exactly what the enemy wants in the name of war. If our “war effort” itself helps the enemy, as the war in Iraq helps Al-Qaeda, then this argument falls apart.

    In general, it seems like the phrase “objectively pro-foo” encourages confusion between the map and the territory. You could theoretically use it in an accurate way, but in practice I think it violates General Semantics principles. See numbers 3, 4, 7 and perhaps 8 here.

  19. He was what in Europe used to be called a libertarian socialist, indeed, or, in shorthand, an anarchist. However, I’ve read ESR elsewhere repudiating socialist anarchists and in particular the Spanish breed thereof. Even, to some extent, justifying Franco. So it does surprise me to read him backing Orwell.

  20. leaders love war, they always have. they need war, lest people discover who their real enemies are. so we get riled up into fits of patriotism (nationalism) by FOX NEWS,NPR,ABC,NBC,CBS,CNN and project our hatred to country X, who incidentally was our friend last week. country Y is on our side now, but wait till next week! leaders on the other side are benefitting as much as our leaders are. we good, them bad: if the public discourse never gets past this then we have the permanent war the fascists in this country have always dreamed of.

  21. If by “leaders on the other side” you mean Al-Qaeda, then yes. Your phrasing sounds odd because Al-Qaeda has no official government status, and in fact wants to overthrow the current governments in the Middle East. From what I’ve read, at least, they want to unite the Islamic nations. So they seek to mobilize Arabs who agree with this goal but (until we invaded) didn’t want to kill for it.

  22. well, i can’t say what Al Qaeda wants to do, as i’m not in an islamic country and i’ve never talked to anyone in that organization, and most importantly, i cannot change anything about that organization. i prefer to focus on the things i can change, the things i;m responsible for, and that is my government and it’s policies. i’m a US citizen by the way.

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