Orwell: "I have never been able to dislike Hitler"
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jan 20 07:21:28 MST 2003
Orwell thought that any Englishman who boasted of liberty and prosperity
while India was still a colony was a hypocrite. "In order that England may
live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the
verge of starvationan evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every
time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream," he
wrote in "The Road to Wigan Pier." Still, he did not believe that India was
capable of complete independence, and was still saying so as late as 1943.
At first, he had the idea that the British Empire should be turned into "a
federation of Socialist states, like a looser and freer version of the
Union of Soviet Republics," but eventually he arrived at another solution.
In 1943, entering a controversy in the pages of the Tribune over the future
of Burma, which had been invaded by Japan, he laid out his position. The
notion of an independent Burma, he explained, was as ludicrous as the
notion of an independent Lithuania or Luxembourg. To grant those countries
independence would be to create a bunch of "comic opera states," he wrote.
"The plain fact is that small nationalities cannot be independent, because
they cannot defend themselves." The answer was to place "the whole
main-land of south-east Asia, together with Formosa, under the guidance of
China, while leaving the islands under an Anglo-American-Dutch
condominium." Orwell was against colonial exploitation, in other words, but
not in favor of national self-determination. If this is anti-imperialism,
make the most of it.
Orwell took a particular dislike to Gandhi. He referred to him, in private
correspondence, as a "bit of a charlatan"; in 1943, he wrote that "there is
indeed a sort of apocalyptic truth in the statement of the German radio
that the teachings of Hitler and Gandhi are the same." One of his last
essays was on Gandhi, written two years after India, and one year after
Burma, became independent, and a year after Gandhi's assassination. It is a
grudging piece of writing. The method of Satyagraha, Orwell said, might
have been effective against the British, but he was doubtful about its
future as a tactic for political struggle. (A few years later, Martin
Luther King, Jr., would find a use for it.) He confessed to "a sort of
aesthetic distaste" for Gandhi himselfGandhi was, after all, just the sort
of sandal-wearing, vegetarian mystic Orwell had always abhorredand he
attributed the success of the Indian independence movement as much to the
election of a Labour government in Britain as to Gandhi's efforts. "I have
never been able to feel much liking for Gandhi, but I do not feel sure that
as a political thinker he was wrong in the main, nor do I believe that his
life was a failure" was the most that he could bring himself to say.
Hitler, on the other hand, Orwell did find personally appealing. "I have
never been able to dislike Hitler," he admitted, in 1940. Hitler, it seems,
"grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life," which Orwell
called the attitude of "nearly all Western thought since the last war,
certainly all 'progressive' thought." This responsethe idea that fascism,
whatever might be wrong with it, is at least about the necessity of
struggle and self-sacrificeis not that far from the response of the
relatively few people in England (there were more in France) who actively
Q: Although Orwell was an inconsistent thinker, he also seems to have been
incorruptible. He wasn't swayed by money or fame or by rewards within
institutions, and until the bitter end he wasn't swayed by women. As a
result, he remained a maverick, and said what he thought and only what he
thought most of the time. Did this help build the case for him as an
intellectual hero, or did it just turn him into a loose cannon?
A: Well, he tried to be swayed by women; he was just unlucky. Orwell's
integrity was totally genuine and is totally admirable. He refused to hedge
and was happy to pay the price, if there was one. Keep in mind, though,
that he was not writing behind the Iron Curtain. He was in no danger of
persecution for what he wrote, and, in fact, his position on the Soviet
Union was fairly compatible with official policy most of the time. It was
not dangerous to be an anti-Communist in Englandexcept among leftist
intellectuals. So when we talk about Orwell having the courage of his
convictions, we are talking about the relatively parochial difficulty of
disagreeing with friends and fellow-writers on the Soviet Union. It is a
little like saying that Christopher Hitchens is courageous for breaking
with other leftist writers by supporting the war on terror. An overwhelming
majority of Americans support the war on terror.
Q: How has Orwell's reputation changed over time? Wasn't there a period
when he was very much out of fashion with intellectuals on the American left?
A: When Orwell became a hero to Cold War liberals, his work, particularly
"Animal Farm" and "1984," was seen as propagandistic and fatalistic. Even
something like "Inside the Whale," a piece of literary criticism about
Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer," was taken (incorrectly) as an invitation
to political passivity. The collapse of Soviet Communism seems to have
tilted the balance back in Orwell's favor.
Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org
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