Nicolas Walter : Orwell and the Anarchists

Article de Nicolas Walter paru dans Freedom, Vol. 42, No. 2, 30th January 1981, p. 9-12

GEORGE ORWELL died in 1950. He had become famous with the publication of Animal Farm in 1945, and much more famous with the publication Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949. But he was too ill to enjoy his fame, and he died of tuberculosis at the age of 46. Since then, he has grown steadily more and more famous, and after becoming a classic in his own life he has now become a name known by virtually everyone who reads at all. Almost all his books have been continually reprinted, and most of his shorter writings have also been conveniently reprinted in the four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. Of all modern writers, in fact, he is one of the easiest to get hold of; he is also one of the easiest to get to grips with, for all his work has a style and structure which are so spare and simple and a personality and purpose which are so peculiar and powerful that introduction and explanation are virtually unnecessary. In a way, then, there is no need to read about Orwell at all, only to read Orwell; but this hasn’t stopped many people writing about him.

There have been many studies of his work, but few are more than useful and most are less than useless. Orwell himself asked that no biography should be written, and none appeared for more than twenty years. But again, there have been many’studies of his life, the most valuable material being personal reminiscences by some of the people who knew him, nearly all the rest being valueless or worse. Apart from sheer ignorance and irrelevance, one major problem was always that Orwell’s widow, whom he married just before his death and who controlled both his copyright and his papers, refused to allow either a full account of his work with all the necessary quotations or a full account of his life with all the necessary information. This frustrating situation changed in 1972, when the first instalment of a two volume study of Orwell’s early life by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams managed to be at the same time so detailed and so dreadful that Sonia Orwell at last authorised a proper biography by Bernard Crick, professor of politics at Birkbeck College, London, and a well-known democratic socialist and literary journalist.

The result, which was published eight years later as George Orwell: A Life (Seeker & Warburg, £10), is by far the best book yet on Orwell’s whole career. Crick’s most obvious advantage is that he is the first person to have complete freedom of quotation from the whole of Orwell’s published and unpublished writings and of access to the whole of the Orwell Archive at University College, London, so his book is based on a much wider range of material than ever before. A less obvious but just as serious advantage as that he shares many personal and political characteristics of Orwell, and is both genuinely well-informed about and generally well-disposed towards his subject. Crick’s book doesn’t entirely supersede the Stansky-Abrahams ones — The Unknown Orwell (1972) and Orwell: The Transformation (1979) –since their coverage of Orwell’s life up to 1938 is twice as full as his and they have used a few sources he hasn’t; but it will certainly become the standard biography.

The book was widely reviewed when it was published last November, and little would be gained by further general comments at this time in this place; but it will be interesting and may be useful to consider one particular aspect of Orwell’s life and work which is obscure but which the appearance of Crick’s book makes clearer than before — his relationship with anarchism and anarchists. In such a case — and there are of course several others, including Shelley, William Morris, Oscar Wilde, Edward Carpenter, E. M. Forster, Herbert Read, and so on — there is no point in going too far in either direction, in saying either that Orwell was essentially an anarchist all the time or that he never had anything to do with anarchism. In Orwell’s case, the former mistake is made, for example, by Julian Symons, the writer who was associated with anarchists during the Second World War and has remained sympathetic to anarchism ever since, and who’was a close friend of Orwell. In an article in the London Magazine (September 1963), he first drew public attention to Orwell’s own association with anarchists at the same time, but he went on to argue that Orwell continued to support libertarian socialism for the rest of his life and that this ideology « was expressed for him more sympathetically in the personalities of unpractical Anarchists than in the slide-rule Socialists who made up the bulk of the British Parliamentary Labour Party ».

George Woodcock, the writer who was associated with the anarchists during and after the war and was also a close friend of Orwell, describes this view as being « substantially correct » in his book The Crystal Spirit (1967), which is the most satisfactory study of Orwell’s work yet written. Woodcock states:

Conservatism and socialism form the two poles of Orwell’s political thought. What holds them together is the never wholly abandoned strain of anarchism… Anarchism remained a restless presence in his mind right to the end. In the light of Crick’s book, it is now possible to trace this presence from the beginning to the end.

With Orwell, it is always important to begin at the beginning, since he himself drew so muck; of his inspiration and ideology from his own childhood — or at least from what he made of his own childhood. His writings about early life at home or at school are often contradicted by the memories of his family or friends, but it is clear that the young Eric Blair was remembered by his contemporaries at Eton as a leading member of an « antinomian » party, rejecting all religious and political orthodoxy, and by his colleagues in the Burma police as a discontented member of the British establishment, repelled by social and national prejudices. Orwell himself, in the political autobiography which fills the second half of his first successful book, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), mentioned that by the time he left Eton in 1921 he « was against all authority », and that by the time he left Burma in 1928 he had « worked out an anarchistic theory that all government is evil, that the punishment always does more harm than the crime, and that people can be trusted to behave decently if only you will let them »; immediately and typically adding that « this of course was sentimental nonsense ». Yet from a slightly different, increasingly personal, perspective this was his position when he first set out to be a writer:

I had reduced everything to the simple theory that the oppressed are always right and the oppressors are always wrong: a mistaken theory, but the natural result of being one of the oppressors yourself. I felt that I had got to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man. I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants.

False consciousness, perhaps, yet a form of consciousness which is better than unconsciousness and which is capable of development. Hence on a personal level the adventures as a tramp or down-and-out which are so vividly described in some of his earliest and best writings. A couple of years later, when he was beginning to make his way into left-wing journalism in London, he was apparently describing himself as a « Tory anarchist » — according to his friends Rayner Heppenstall, in Four Absentees (1960), and Richard Rees, in George Orwell: Fugitive From the Camp of Victory (1961) — though when he described his political position in public he always seems to have been identified with some kind of socialism.

The significant development in Orwell’s politics came in his mid-thirties. The first event was his journey to the North of England in 1936 to investigate poverty for his book The Road to Wigan Pier, in which he first expressed his unrestrained and unequivocal commitment to socialism. But this was a very special and peculiar kind of socialism, being neither Marxist nor Fabian, neither egalitarian nor bureaucratic. He began with the assumption that the « underlying ideal of socialism » is « justice and liberty », and that the « mark of a real socialist » is the wish « to see tyranny overthrown ». He repeated that « socialism means the overthrow of tyranny », and from this he could reasonably argue that « any decent person, however much of a Tory or anarchist by temperament » must « work for the establishment of socialism ». This was Orwell’s basic political position for the rest of his life. The problem from our point of view is that such a view is essential to anarchism but that anarchism is not essential to such a view.

The second event, however, was his journey to Spain at the end of 1936 to investigate and indeed to inter-vene in the Civil War. There he was involved not with half-heated anarchistic theories or so-called Tory anarchism, not with the relative poverty of the Depression, but with real live anarcho-syndicalists fighting to establish a social revolution in the middle of a bitter war, between the Nationalists and Fascists in front of them and the Republicans and Communists behind them. His experience in Spain convinced him that the two great enemies of socialism were Fascism and Communism, and he considered anarchism for the first time as a serious subject.

When Orwell returned to Britain in July 1937, after first narrowly escaping death from a serious wound at the front and then narrowly escaping arrest in the purge of the non-Communist left in Barcelona, he became one of the very few people in this country who had actually been to Spain and who would defend the Spanish revolutionaries, including the anarchists. He commented that « it is almost impossible to get anything printed in favour of Anarchism or Trotskyism » (Time & Tide, 5 February 1938), and he contributed more than anyone else to the effort to change the situation.

Orwell had gone to Spain under the auspices of the Independent Labour Party (as he had gone to the North of England a few months earlier), and he had therefore fought in a contingent of its Spanish allies, the revolutionary Marxist POUM. But he wrote privately to his friend Jack Common: « If I had understood the situation a bit better I should probably have joined the Anarchists » (Letter, October 1937); and he wrote publicly in his book on Spain, Homage to Catalonia (1938): « As far as my purely personal preferences went I would have liked to join the Anarchists. » At the same time he insisted that « most of the active revolutionaries were Anarchists » (New English Weekly, 29 July 1937), and that « the Anarchists were the main revolutionary force » (Time & Tide, 31 July 1937). His personal commitment to socialism had almost become a personal commitment to anarchism. Indeed Emma Goldman did her best to recruit Orwell to the cause — a point which is not mentioned by Crick. She persuaded him to become one of the sponsors of the International Anti-Fascist Solidarity committee which she organised in 1938 as an anarchist front organisation, and this brought him into contact with anarchists outside Spain. Among his fellow sponsors were such libertarians as Ethel Mannin, Rebecca West, John Cowper Powys, and also Herbert Read, who had recently adopted anarchism as a result of events in Spain. In this milieu he also met Vernon Richards, who had been producing Spain & the World since 1936, and thus came into personal contact with the formal anarchist movement in Britain.

But Orwell was still a pretty obscure writer. For taking his revolutionary and libertarian line on Spain, and especially for emphasising the Communist treatment of the rest of the Spanish left, he was boycotted by his publisher, Victor Gollancz, and by one of his editors, Kingsley Martin of the New Statesman, both of whom were part of what he called « the Communism racket ». His articles appeared only in little magazines, and Homage to Catalonia was one of his most unsuccessful books. The first edition of 1500 copies still hadn’t sold out when he died twelve years later, and despite some controversy at the time it and other books like it were swamped in the flood of Liberal and Marxist historiography which was only checked several decades later by honest writers like Pierre Broué and Emile Témime, Burnett Bolloten and Noam Chomsky. Yet Orwell had some value for the anarchists themselves. As Emma Goldman wrote to Rudolf Rocker, « For the first time since the struggle began in 1936 someone outside our ranks has come forward to paint the Spanish anarchists as they really are » (Letter, 6 May 1938). For this alone, anarchists owe Orwell a debt of deep gratitude.

Despite his sympathetic attitude, however, it is significant that Orwell didn’t join any specifically anarchist organisation. As Crick shows, when he came back from Spain he joined the Independent Labour Party and the Peace Pledge Union, clearly believing that the most urgent political priority was socialism and peace. Indeed for more than a year his position was virtually pacifist. This phase coincided with his first serious attack of tuberculosis, being out of action from March 1938 to March 1939, first in a Kent sanatorium and then in French Morocco. The most remarkable episode came at the beginning of 1939, when he wrote to Herbert Read « about a matter which is much on my mind »:

I believe it is vitally necessary for those of us who intend to oppose the coming war to start organising for illegal anti-war activities. It is perfectly obvious that any open and legal agitation will be impossible not only when war has started but when it is imminent, and that if we do not make ready now for the issue of pamphlets etc. we shall be quite unable to do so when the decisive moment comes. At present there is considerable freedom of the press and no restriction on the purchase of printing presses, stocks of paper etc., but I don’t believe for an instant that this state of affairs is going to continue. If we don’t make preparations we may find ourselves silenced and absolutely helpless when either war or the pre-war fascising processes begin…

It seems to me that the commonsense thing to do would be to accumulate the things we should need for the production of pamphlets, stickybacks etc., lay them by in some unobtrusive place and not use them until it became necessary. For this we should need organisation and, in particular, money, probably three or four hundred pounds, but this should not be impossible with the help of the people one could probably rope in by degrees (Letter, 4 January 1939).

Read must have replied discouragingly, since a couple of months later Orwell wrote on the subject again:

I quite agree that it’s in a way absurd to start preparing for an underground campaign unless you know who is going to campaign and what for, but the point is that if you don’t make some preparations beforehand you will be helpless when you want to start, as you are sure to sooner or later. I cannot believe that the time when one can buy a printing press with no questions asked will last for ever…

Orwell explained that he expected both the Conservative-dominated National Government and any Labour Government elected in the near future to prepare for war with Nazi Germany, that there would be a « fascising process leading to an authoritarian regime » supported by both right and left, and that the only opposition would come from the real Fascists and from « dissident lefts like ourselves » who must organise « some body of people who are both anti-war and anti-fascist ».

I doubt whether there is much hope of saving England from fascism of one kind or another, but clearly one must put up a fight, and it seems silly to be silenced when one might be making a row merely because one had failed to take a few precautions beforehand. If we laid in printing presses etc. in some discreet place we could then cautiously go to work to get together a distributing agency, and we could then feel, « Well, if trouble comes we are ready. » On the other hand, if it doesn’t come I should be so pleased that I would not grudge a little wasted effort (Letter, 5 March 1939).

He suggested approaching independent intellectuals like Bertrand Russell and Roland Penrose. But Read must have remained discouraging, for nothing came of Orwell’s plan. He supported Revolt !, which followed Spain & the World when the Civil War ended, and he also seems to have written anti-war material. At the time of Munich he wrote to Jack Common, remarking:

« I wish someone would print my anti-war pamphlet I wrote earlier this year, but of course no one will » (Letter, 12 October 1938). And he later said in his essay « My Country Right or Left » that in his opposition to war he « even made speeches and wrote pamphlets against it » (Folios of New Writing, Autumn 1940). No such pamphlet has yet been traced, though it was rumoured to have been circulated in duplicated form. But in his essay « Not Counting Niggers » he did argue against supporting the Western democracies in a war against Fascism because imperialism and capitalism weren’t worth defending, and he advocated « a real mass party whose first pledges are to refuse war and to right imperial injustice » (The Adelphi, July 1939).

But all this was completely superseded by the next significant development in Orwell’s politics, which came overnight at the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in August 1939, according to the account in « My Country Right or Left ». He said that he had a dream that war had began, from which he learnt « first, that I should be simply relieved when the long-dreaded war started, secondly, that I was patriotic at heart, would not sabotage or act against my own side, would support the war, would fight in it if possible ». It was just as well that Read hadn’t been persuaded to support Orwell’s anti-war campaign! Instead, the anarchists and pacifists (and some revolutionary Marxists) did resist the war without his help, and indeed with his bitter opposition.

After 1939, Orwell never again defended anarchism and often attacked it. During the Second World War he had no hesitation in describing anarchists (and pacifists) as « objectively pro-Fascist », a usage which had infuriated him when it was applied by the Communists against anarchists (and Trotskyists) in Spain. Be indulged in particularly extreme abuse in the occasional « London Letter » which he contributed to Partisan Review, the semi-Trotskyist American magazine. The worst example appeared in the issue of March/April 1942. As well as including both anarchists and pacifists in what he called « left-wing defeatism », he gave an account of the semi-anarchist British magazine Now which suggested that it was a pacifist-Fascist front and even stated that « Julian Symons writes in a vaguely Fascist strain ». Vehement replies followed in the issue of September/October 1942 from George Woodcock, the editor of Now, and Alex Comfort. Orwell characteristically became friends with them and with Symons; but he had another angry encounter with Comfort in Tribune in June 1943, the two exchanging satirical Byronic in the course of which Orwell accused Comfort of wanting to « kiss the Nazi’s bum »!

He continued to attack anarchism more generally too. In a review of a book by Lionel Fielden advocating Indian independence, he included a reference to what he called « Parlour Anarchism — a plea for the simple life, based on dividends ». In his booklet on The English People (written in 1944 but not published until 1947), he mentioned that « English people in large numbers will not accept any creed whose dominant notes are hatred and illegality » — among which he included anarchism as well as Communism, Fascism and Catholicism. In a later « London Letter » to Partisan Review he included anarchists among those responsible for the fact that, « particularly on the Left, political thought is a sort of masturbation fantasy in which the world of facts hardly matters ». In a review of Herbert Read’s collection of essays, A Coat of Many Colours, he argued that Read’s version o anarchism avoids the enormous question: how are freedom and organisation to be reconciled », and that « unless there is some unpredictable change in human nature, liberty and efficiency must pull in opposite directions » (Poetry Quarterly, Winter 1945).

After the war he produced two major essays in which he made serious criticisms of anarchism. In « Politics versus Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels » (Polemic, September/October 1946), he says that Jonathan Swift was « a kind of anarchist » — a « Tory anarchist », in fact, as Orwell had once described him-self — « despising authority while disbelieving in liberty »; and he adds that the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels « is a picture of an anarchistic society, not governed by law in the ordinary sense, but by the dictates of « Reason », which are voluntarily accepted by everyone ». He comments that « this illustrates very well the totalitarian tendency which is explicit in the anarchist or pacifist vision of society » (explicit? does he mean implicit?); and he continues:

In a society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law. When human beings are governed by « Thou shalt not », the individual can practise a certain amount of eccentricity; when they are supposedly governed by « love » or « reason », he is under continuous pressure to make him behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone else.

Again, in « Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool » (Polemic, March 1947), which is less about Tolstoy’s view of Shakespeare than about Orwell’s view of Tolstoy, he took the same line about Tolstoy’s religious combination of anarchism and pacifism:

Tolstoy renounced wealth, fame and privilege; he abjured violence in all its forms and was ready to suffer for doing so; but it is not easy to believe that he abjured the principle of coercion, or at least the desire to coerce others… The distinction that really matters is not between violence and non-violence, but between having and not having the appetite for power.

Orwell insisted that « there are people who are convinced of the wickedness both of armies and of police forces, but who are nevertheless much more intolerant and inquisitorial in outlook than the normal person who believes that it is necessary to use violence in certain circumstances », and he added that « creeds like pacifism and anarchism, which seem on the surface to imply a complete renunciation of power, rather encourage this habit of mind ».

It is hard to know whether Orwell really believed this sort of thing, forgetting how he himself made a living and a reputation out of defying public opinion over and over again, and ignoring the crucial distinction between holding authoritarian views in theory and having the power to put them into practice. After all, the most intolerant and totalitarian ideology or temperament has no effect until someone is able not only to give orders but to get them obeyed. In his own greatest books, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the worst thing about the tyranny he described is notits moral conformity but its physical power, and of course the same was true of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. Orwell cannot be taken as one of the most serious enemies of anarchism.

Indeed, the curious if characteristic thing about Orwell is that he was one of the best friends of anarchists even when he was attacking anarchism. At the very time he was calling them « objectively pro-Fascist », in the worst days of the Second World War, he was going out of his way to help them. While he was working as a talks producer in the Indian Section of the BBC, from 1941 to 1943, and then as literary editor of Tribune, from 1943 to 1945, he did his best to encourage a wide variety of opinions, including anarchists as well as pacifists, and anarchists were among his closest friends. Crick comments of this period that the did not accept anarchism in principle, but had, as a socialist who distrusted any kind of state power, a speculative and personal sympathy with anarchists » — like Crick himself, one may add. It was at the end of the war, when Orwell and his first wife adopted a child, that the famous series of photographs began, taken by Vernon Richards, who was still active in the group producing War Commentary, the successor of Spain & the World and Revolt !.

Indeed there is a story that this group, the Freedom Press, could actually have published Animal Farm in 1944. Crick repeats the version told by George Woodcock, that when the book had been rejected by Victor Gollancz, Jonathan Cape, Faber & Faber, and possibly other publishers, he offered it through Woodcock to the Freedom Press, but that it was rejected because the press included « many belligerent pacifists ». Crick mentions that Vernon Richards « is adamant that it was never submitted », but comments that « he was in prison at the relevant time and might not have been told ». Since this is meant to have happened in July 1944, before the book was accepted by Seeker & Warburg (who had published Homage to Catalonia), and since Richards was not imprisoned until several months later, it seems more likely that Richards is right. Woodcock refers only to the hostile reaction of Marie Louise Berneri, who died in 1949. The surviving members of the Freedom Press at that time agree that the book was certainly not offered to them and that if it had been it would certainly not have been rejected. There is also a story that the book was nearly published by Paul Potts, the poet who had a private publishing company, and it does at least seem that Orwell seriously considered producing it at his own expense; but in the event it was published by Secker & Warburg in 1946, and made him famous.

There is another similar story, which also seems to originate with George Woodcock. Crick takes it from a letter Orwell sent to Dwight Macdonald, the American journalist, in 1946, as follows:

When Queen Elizabeth, whose literary adviser was Osbert Sitwell, sent the Royal Messenger to Secker & Warburg for a copy in November, he found them utterly sold out and had to go with horse, carriage, top hat and all, to the anarchist Freedom Bookshop, in Red Lion Square, where George Woodcock gave him a copy.

Again, the surviving members of the Freedom Press at that time remember rather that it was a publisher’s messenger who came to collect the book. But it’s a good story, even if it’s only a story — though the Freedom Bookshop was of course in Red Lion Street, not Red Lion Square.

What certainly isn’t only a story is Orwell’s later support for the anarchists. When the Freedom Press was raided and four editors of War Commentary prosecuted for attempting to « undermine the affections of members of His Majesty’s Forces », at the end of 1944 and the beginning of 1946, he not only wrote articles and signed letters in protest, but he became vice-chairman of the Freedom Defence Committee, which was established because the National Council for Civil Liberties was then a Communist front. The FDC was run by George Woodcock, who has recorded that Orwell, then becoming increasingly ill, contributed time, money, and a typewriter as well as his name. He later became involved in more ambitious attempts to establish a League for the Dignity and Rights of Man with Arthur Koestler and Bertrand Russell, which came to nothing, though some of its ideas were taken up by the Congress of Cultural Freedom and Amnesty International.

The point of course is that Orwell genuinely believed in the freedom of the press — and of speech and assembly — not only for people he agreed with but for people he disagreed with. This extended not only to anarchists and pacifists but also to Fascists and Communists. But he never wrote for Fascist or Communist papers, as he wrote for Woodcock’s Now and for FREEDOM, the successor to War Commentary after the war. It is not surprising that when the Freedom Defence Committee was dissolved in 1949, Orwell let the Freedom Press keep the old typewriter (sometimes rumoured to be the one on which FREEDOM is still typed).

One last event linked Orwell and the anarchists. When he was very ill with tuberculosis in 1949, the year after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four and the year before his death, he had his adopted son brought to stay near his sanatorium in the Cotswolds. Crick records that the boy was kept « in the care of Lilian Woolf, a 73-year-old veteran of the British anarchist movement who lived at the nearby anarchist and craft colony, Whitelands » (Lilian spelt her name Wolfe, and the colony is called Whiteway, but never mind). How nice to know that at the end of his life Orwell was helped by an anarchist and pacifist — a perfect irony to close the case of Orwell and the anarchists. For us, of course, what matters is not what Orwell said about this or that kind of anarchism or did about these or those anarchists, but what he meant when he took as his fundamental political position the form of socialism based on the overthrow of tyranny and the establishment of justice and liberty, and what he said in fictional or satirical writings about the implications of such a position. At most, he was an anarchist fellow-traveller, but he was one of the beat.

N. W.

2 réponses sur « Nicolas Walter : Orwell and the Anarchists »

Alors je m’en réjouis ! Si je trouve d’autres pépites de ce genre, je ne manquerai pas de les publier…

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