Cultural Cohesion, p.36Clive James
Every weapon seems unfair until you have adopted it yourself. But I would not deny that the pilotless plane, flying bomb, or whatever its correct name may be, is an exceptionally unpleasant thing, because, unlike most other projectiles, it gives you time to think. What is your first reaction when you hear that droning, zooming noise? Inevitably, it is a hope that the noise won’t stop. You want to hear the bomb pass safely overhead and die away into the distance before the engine cuts out. In other words, you are hoping that it will fall on somebody else.
Along with the exterior drama, however, an interior drama is now, at long last, fully revealed. Tracking his mind from note to memo, from letter to book review, from article to essay, we can see what happened to those early beliefs—which two of them were modified, and which one of them was elaborated into a social, political, ethical and even philosophical concept whose incorporation into Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four would make him into a man of action all over again, a writer whose books helped to bring down an empire, even if it wasn’t the same empire he originally had in mind.
First, though, with the Spanish war over and the full European war not yet begun, he had another battle on his hands, bloodless this time but almost as noisy: the battle against Britain’s left-wing intellectuals. He realized that they had wilfully declined to get the point about Spain: they still saw communism as the only bulwark against Fascism. Worse, they thought that the Moscow trials were justified or otherwise to be condoned—a price worth paying to Build Socialism. Orwell’s conviction that no socialism worth having could be built that way set him at odds with the progressive illuminati of his generation, and that altercation was made sharper by how much he and they had in common. He, too, had had the generosity to declare his own privileges meaningless if they were bought at the expense of the downtrodden. He, too, believed that the civilization that had given birth to him was a confidence trick. And, although he had already concluded that free speech was the one liberal institution no putative future society could abolish if it was to remain just, he still thought that the plutocratic oligarchy allowed liberal institutions to continue only as part of the charade that favoured the exploitation of the poor. (In the 1960s, the same notion lived again, as “repressive tolerance.”) Fascism, he proclaimed, was just bourgeois democracy without the lip service to liberal values, the iron fist without the velvet glove. In 1937, he twice ventured the opinion that democracy and Fascism “are Tweedledum and Tweedledee.” In the same year, he warned that “the moneyed classes” might trick Britain into “another imperialist war” with Germany: language hard to distinguish from Party-line boilerplate.
Orwell could always see the self-serving fallacy of pacifism, but he had a soft spot for Bertrand Russell’s version of it, which should have been detectable as pure wind even at the time, when Hitler had already spent more than five years abundantly demonstrating that the chances of the non-violent to temper his activities by their moral example were exactly zero. But Orwell gave the philosopher’s well-intended homilies a sympathetic review. Orwell was thus in line with the Labour Party, which, from the opposition benches, railed against the threat of Fascism but simultaneously condemned as warmongering any moves towards rearmament. It was the despised reactionaries, with Chamberlain at the head of the Conservative government and Churchill growling encouragement from the back benches, who actively prepared for war against Hitler. Distancing himself from the Communists and their fellow-travellers in his attitude to the USSR, Orwell was dangerously close to them in supposing bourgeois democracy to be teetering on the rim of history’s dustbin, into which more realistic forces would combine to shove it beyond retrieval. In Germany, the same aloof attitude on the part of the social democrat intellectuals had fatally led them to high-hat the Weimar Republic while the Communists and the Nazis combined to strangle it, but Orwell had not yet fully learned the lesson. On the Continent, or already fleeing from it, there were plenty of veteran political commentators who had learned it all too well at the hands of one or the other of the two extremist movements and sometimes both, but apart from Franz Borkenau, Arthur Koestler and perhaps Boris Souvarine it is remarkable how few of them influenced Orwell’s views. By international standards he was a late developer.
Pre-war, Orwell was in a false position, and his journalistic output during the war is largely the story of how he came to admit it. But before he started getting round to that, he had one more, even more glaring, false position still to go. When the war began he said that Britain was bound to be defeated unless it had a social revolution, which might even require an armed uprising. Possibly he had been carried away by the rifles issued to the Home Guard, and had visions of an English POUM taking pot shots at the oppressor. (Orwell rose to the rank of sergeant in the Home Guard, but Davison should have found room to say, in a footnote, that his hero was notoriously more enthusiastic than competent: a Court of Inquiry was conducted after he supervised a mortar drill that almost resulted in the decapitation of one of his men.) Even in 1941, well after the Battle of Britain demonstrated that this bourgeois democracy might well hope to withstand Hitler, we can still hear Orwell promising that “England is on the road to revolution” and that to bring the revolution about a “real English socialist movement” would be “perfectly willing to use violence if necessary.”
But if a pious wish helped to sustain him, the facts were simultaneously hard at work on a mind whose salient virtue was its willingness to let them in. He had noticed that Poland, whatever the condition of its liberal institutions under the pre-war regime, was immeasurably worse off now that the Nazis and the Soviets (following the letter of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact’s secret protocols, although he had no means of knowing that yet beyond guesswork) had combined to expunge all traces of its civilization, including as many of its intelligentsia as they could round up. There were steadily accumulating written indications that he was becoming more and more impressed by the one fact about his country he had never been able to argue away. A state against which he could say out loud that he “was perfectly willing to use violence if necessary” might have something to be said for it—something central, and not just peripheral—if it was not perfectly willing to use violence against him.
Probably armed more by his ability to interpret news than by solid reading of social theorists, Orwell can be seen elaborating his own theory of society towards the point where he would begin to abandon some of its postulates, which had come from classical Marxism and its dubious historiographic heritage. Reviewing, in that same year, 1941, a book of essays about the English Revolution of 1640 edited by the Marxist historian Christopher Hill, Orwell pinpointed “the main weakness of Marxism,” its inflexible determination to attribute to “the superstructure” (his quotation marks as well as mine) even the most powerful human motives, such as patriotism. Orwell asked the Marxist contributors an awkward question: “If no man is ever motivated by anything except class interests, why does every man constantly pretend that he is motivated by something else?”
Orwell had spent a lot of time before the war saying that class interests were indeed predominant—especially the interest of the ruling class in sacrificing the interests of every other class in order to stay on top—but now he had discovered his own patriotism, and typically he followed up on the climbdown. Even before the war, he had been impressed by how the English people in general had managed to preserve and develop civilized values despite the cynicism of their rulers. Now he became less inclined to argue that all those things had happened merely because the sweated labour of colonial coolies had paid for them, and were invalidated as a result. He was even capable, from time to time, of giving some of the cynical rulers a nod of respect: Orwell’s praise of Churchill was never better than grudging, but nobody else’s was ever more moving, because nobody else would have so much preferred to damn Churchill and all his works. From the early war years until the end of his life, Orwell wrote more and more about British civilization. He wrote less and less about th
Most of the left-wing intellectuals hadn’t. After Hitler clamorously repudiated his non-aggression pact with Stalin by launching Operation Barbarossa, they were once again able to laud the virtues of the Soviet Union at the tops of their voices. Even on the Right, keeping Uncle Joe sweet was regarded as mandatory. In this matter, Orwell showed what can only be described as intellectual heroism. Though his unpalatable opinions restricted his access to mainstream publications—most of his commentaries were written for Tribune, an influential but small-circulation weekly newspaper backed by the Labour Party’s star heavyweight, Aneurin Bevan—Orwell went on insisting that the Soviet regime was a tyranny, even as the Red Army battled the Panzers to a standstill on the outskirts of Moscow. At this distance, it is hard to imagine what a lonely line this was to take. But when it came to a principle Orwell was the sort of man who would rather shiver in solitude than hold his tongue.
Solitude fitted his character. Though he was sociable, and even amorous, in his everyday life, he didn’t look it: he looked as gauntly ascetic as John Carradine, and in his mental life he was a natural loner. Collectivist theories could appeal to his temperament for only so long, and in this strictly chronological arrangement of his writings we can watch him gradually deconstructing his own ideology in deference to a set of principles. Even with this degree of documentation, it is not easy to see quite when he shifted aside a neat notion in order to let an awkward fact take over, because for a crucial period of the war he metaphorically went off the air. Literally, he had gone on it. For a two-year slog, from 1941 to late 1943, he expended most of his time and energy broadcasting to India for the BBC. Belated market research on the BBC’s part revealed that not many Indians were listening (you guessed it: no radios), but the few who did manage to tune in heard some remarkable stuff from a man who had expended so much ink on insisting that the British would have to quit India. Orwell told them the truth: that they had a better chance with the British than with the Japanese. He also scripted weekly summaries of the war’s progress. Writing on January 10, 1942, he remarked on a tonal shift in Germany’s official pronouncements:
Until a week or two ago, the German military spokesmen were explaining that the attack on Moscow would have to be postponed until the spring, but that the German armies could quite easily remain on the line they now occupied. Already, however, they are admitting that a further retreat—or, as they prefer to call it, a rectification of the line—will be necessary. . . . Before the end of February, the Germans may well be faced with the alternative of abandoning nearly all their conquests in the northern part of the Russian front, or of seeing hundreds of thousands of soldiers freeze to death.
It was an optimistic forecast for 1942, but it all came true in 1943, and it showed two of Orwell’s best attributes operating at once: he had a global grasp, and he was able to guess the truth by the way the other side told lies. The broadcasts make such good reading today that you almost feel sorry he ever stopped. From these indirect sources, you can surmise something of what was going on deep within his mind, and when he started writing journalism again he retroactively filled in some of the gaps. From the realization that the violent socialist revolution would not take place, he was apparently moving towards the conclusion that it should not. Reviewing a collection of Thomas Mann’s essays published in English translation in 1943, he praised Mann in terms that would have been impossible for him before the war: “He never pretends to be other than he is, a middle-class Liberal, a believer in the freedom of the intellect, in human brotherhood; above all, in the existence of objective truth.” While careful to point out that Mann was pro-socialist, and even excessively trustful of the USSR, Orwell went on to note, approvingly, that “he never budges from his ‘bourgeois’ contention that the individual is important, that freedom is worth having, that European culture is worth preserving, and that truth is not the exclusive possession of one race or class.” For Orwell, who had once preached that bourgeois democracy existed solely in order to bamboozle the proletariat into accepting its ineluctable servitude, this was quite a switch.
At no time did Orwell come quite clean about having rearranged the playing field. Near the end of 1943 he conceded that he had been “grossly wrong” about the necessity of a revolution in order to stave off defeat. But to concede that he had been “grossly wrong” about his view of society was beyond even him, and no wonder. It would have been to give away too much. By now he was always careful to say that he wanted a democratic socialism, and was even ready to contemplate that reconciling a command economy with individual liberty might be a problem: but he still clung tenaciously to the socialist part of his vision, in his view the only chance of decent treatment for everyone. Piece by piece, however, he was giving up on any notion that his socialist vision could be brought about by coercion, since that would yield liberty for no one. If he had lived long enough, his fundamental honesty might have given us an autobiography which would have described what must have been a mighty conflict in his soul. As things are, we have to infer it.
His socialist beliefs fought a long rearguard action. In that same year, 1943, he gave The Road to Serfdom a review tolerant of Hayek’s warnings about collectivism, but there was no sign of Orwell’s endorsing the desirability of free market economics. Orwell was still for the centralized, planned economy. He never did quite give up on that one, and indeed, at the time, there must have seemed no necessity to. To stave off defeat, Britain had mobilized its industry under state control—had done so, it turned out, rather more thoroughly than the Nazis—and, with the war won and the country broke, even the Royal Family carried ration books without protest. So a measure of justice had been achieved.
In hindsight, the post-war British society that began with the foundation of the National Health Service was the socialist revolution—or, to put it less dramatically, the social-democratic reformation which Orwell had gradually come to accept as the only workable formula that would further justice without destroying liberty. The Welfare State began with shortages of almost everything, but at least the deprivations were shared, and for all its faults, British society, ever since World War II, has continuously been one of the more interesting experiments in the attempt to reconcile social justice with personal freedom. (The Scandinavian societies might be more successful experiments, but not even they find themselves interesting.) If Orwell had lived to a full span, he would have been able, if not necessarily delighted, to deal with the increasing likelihood that his dreams were coming true. Even as things were, with only a few years of life left to him, he might have given a far more positive account, in his post-war journalism, of how the British of all classes, including the dreaded ruling class, were at long last combining to bring about, at least in some measure, the more decent society that had haunted his imagination since childhood. But he was distracted by a prior requirement. His own war wasn’t over. It had begun all over again. There was still one prominent social group who had learned nothing: the left-wing intellectuals.
The last and most acrimonious phase of Orwell’s battle with the left-wing intelligentsia began not long after D-Day. As the Allied forces fought their way out of Normandy, a piece by Orwell landed on a desk in America. Partisan Review would publish a London Letter in which Orwell complained about the Western Russophile intellectuals who refused to accept the truth about Stalinist terror. Clearly, what frightened him was that, even if they did accept it, Soviet prestige would lose little of its allure for them. For Orwell, the Cold War was already on, with the progressive intellectuals in the front rank of the foe. Orwell was the first to use the term “cold war,” in an essay published in October 1945 about the atomic bomb—the very device that would ensure, in the long run, that the Cold War never became a hot one. At the time, however, he saw no cause for complacency.
But unreconstructed gauchiste pundits who would still like
To the end, Orwell’s tendency was to overestimate the potential of the people he supposed to be in the grip of the capitalist system, while simultaneously underestimating the individuality they were showing already. In his remarks on the moral turpitude of the scientists who had cravenly not “refused” to work on the atomic bomb—clearly he thought they should have all turned the job down—there was no mention (perhaps because he didn’t yet know, although he might have guessed) of the fact that many of them were European refugees from totalitarianism and had worked on the bomb not just willingly but with anxious fervour, convinced, with excellent reasons, that Hitler might get there first.
On the other hand, he was still inclined to regard Stalin’s regime as a perversion of the Bolshevik Revolution instead of as its essence: as late as 1946, it took the eminent émigré Russian scholar Gleb Struve (the future editor of Mandelstam and Akhmatova) to tell him that Zamyatin’s We, written in 1920 but never published in Russia, might well have been, as Orwell thought, a projection of a possible totalitarian future, but had drawn much of its inspiration from the Leninist present. If Orwell took this admonition in, he made little use of it. (He made great use of We, however: if the English translation of Zamyatin’s little classic had been as good as the French one, a lot more of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s reviewers might have spotted that Orwell’s phantasmagoria was a bit less sui generis than it seemed.) Already in 1941, reviewing Russia under Soviet Rule by the émigré liberal de Basily, Orwell had taken on board the possibility that Lenin’s callous behaviour made Stalin inevitable—after all, Lenin had actually said that the Party should rule by terror—but neither then nor later did Orwell push this point very hard. It flickers in the background of his anti-Soviet polemics and can be thought of as the informing assumption of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but in his journalism he was always slow to concede that the Bolshevik Revolution itself might have been the culprit. Perhaps he thought he had enough trouble on his hands already, just trying to convince his starry-eyed Stalinist contemporaries that they had placed their faith in a cynic who left their own cynicism for dead, and would do the same to them if he got the chance. “The direct, conscious attack on intellectual decency comes from the intellectuals themselves.”
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