George Orwell and the Pacifists

Orwell despised pacifism, and wrote some very interesting critiques of pacifist ideology during World War II.  On reading them, one notes a striking similarity between the pacifist ideology of Orwell’s time and the different variants thereof that existed in the United States during the Vietnam era and thereafter.  A particularly interesting example appeared in the US literary and political journal Partisan Review entitled A Controversy.  The piece included an attack on Orwell and elaboration of their own ideas by several pacifists, and Orwell’s reply.  The bit by the pacifists actually amounts to an excellent piece of self-analysis.  The reply exposes the gross self-deception that has always been inherent in pacifist thought, and points out the equally obvious fact that pacifists during wartime are, objectively, enemy collaborators in whatever country they happen to be active.

A remarkable similarity between the Vietnam-era pacifists and those of Orwell’s day is their tendency, against all odds, to perceive their own side as the moral equivalent of the enemy.  Occasionally their own side is recognized as an outgroup, as for example by Jane Fonda who struck a heroic pose on a Communist anti-aircraft gun as her countrymen fought them further south.  By that time Gulag Archipelago had been published, and a torrent of details was available about the mass slaughter, misery and torture that was a common feature of Communist regimes.  As for Orwell’s British pacifists, the murderous nature of Hitler’s regime was already abundantly clear by 1940.  It didn’t matter.  In both cases, the facts were simply ignored.   D.S. Savage, one of the pacifists writing against Orwell in the Partisan Review, provides us with what could well be described as a self-caricature:

It is fashionable nowadays to equate Fascism with Germany. We must fight Fascism, therefore we must fight Germany. Answer: Fascism is not a force confined to any one nation. We can just as soon get it here as anywhere else. The characteristic markings of Fascism are: curtailment of individual and minority liberties; abolition of private life and private values and substitution of State life and public values (patriotism); external imposition of discipline (militarism); prevalence of mass-values and mass-mentality; falsification of intellectual activity under State pressure. These are all tendencies of present-day Britain. The pacifist opposes every one of these, and might therefore be called the only genuine opponent of Fascism.

Don’t let us be misled by names. Fascism is quite capable of calling itself democracy or even Socialism. It’s the reality under the name that matters. War demands totalitarian organisation of society. Germany organised herself on that basis prior to embarking on war. Britain now finds herself compelled to take the same measures after involvement in war. Germans call it National Socialism. We call it democracy. The result is the same.

…we regard the war as a disaster to humanity. Who is to say that a British victory will be less disastrous than a German one?

…and so on from one of Hitlers most valuable “useful idiots.”  The striking similarity between these puerile arguments, as transparently specious to Orwell then as they are to us now, and those of the Vietnam-era pacifists must be apparent to anyone who lived through those times.  Orwell points out the disconnect with reality, seemingly obvious to any child, in his rebuttal:

Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help 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”. 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. Mr. Savage remarks that “according to this type of reasoning, a German or Japanese pacifist would be ‘objectively pro-British’.” But of course he would be! That is why pacifist activities are not permitted in those countries (in both of them the penalty is, or can be, beheading) while both the Germans and the Japanese do all they can to encourage the spread of pacifism in British and American territories. They would stimulate pacifism in Russia as well if they could, but in that case they have tougher babies to deal with. In so far as it takes effect at all, pacifist propaganda can only be effective against those countries where a certain amount of feedom of speech is still permitted; in other words it is helpful to totalitarianism.

If Mr. Savage and others imagine that one can somehow “overcome” the German army by lying on one’s back, let them go on imagining it, but let them also wonder occasionally whether this is not an illusion due to security, too much money and a simple ignorance of the way in which things actually happen.

I am interested in the psychological processes by which pacifists who have started out with an alleged horror of violence end up with a marked tendency to be fascinated by the success and power of Nazism. Even pacifists who wouldn’t own to any such fascination are beginning to claim that a Nazi victory is desirable in itself.

As one who listened to the chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho chi Minh, NLF is going to win” back in the Vietnam era, I know exactly what Orwell is talking about. As students of the Civil War will know, there were pacifists in those days with precisely similar arguments. Just as Orwell’s pacifists were objectively pro-Nazi and tended to sympathize with the Nazis, and the Vietnam-era pacifists were objectively pro-Communist, and tended to sympathize with the Communists, the Civil War pacifists were objectively pro-slavery, and tended to sympathize with the slavers.

In a word, when it comes to pacifism, we have left the realm of rational argument. As Orwell points out, we are dealing with a psychological type, very similar across populations and across long stretches of time. The pacifist equates peace with “the Good,” and war with “evil.” Identification of “the Good” represents, not a logical, but an emotional process. If peace is “the Good,” one becomes “good” and defends “the Good” by supporting “peace,” regardless of any real situation or consequences, no matter how obvious to anyone whose mind has not been artificially closed in the same fashion.

One should not become too smug in judging the pacifists. After all, we are all human, and we all have a similar tendency to form emotional attachments to “the Good,” whether it be pacifism or any other ideological tendency. As a Monday morning quarterback, it seems to me I can detect similar phenomena, associated with other “Goods,” going on in Orwell’s own mind. For him, socialism was “the Good,” so, for a long time, he had the fixed idea that Britain must try the highly dubious experiment of attempting a socialist revolution if she was to win the war. For him, the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War was “the Good,” as well. After all, he had nearly been killed fighting for that side. As a result, one finds highly exaggerated predictions of the disastrous results that would “inevitably” follow because the Allies had allowed Franco to win. In retrospect, with Franco safely in the grave and Spain a democratic state, Orwell’s prediction that she would remain a totalitarian dictatorship until the fascists were overthrown by force didn’t exactly pan out.

I have any number of similar emotional attachments of my own. Perhaps the example of a man as brilliant as Orwell will help me to detect and compensate for some of them. It would seem to me that it would behoove us all to make the attempt, assuming we really value the truth.

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