George Orwell Miscellany

Before I leave the topic of Orwell, I’ll throw out a few more observations from his essays, not necessarily related or in any particular order. First on the list; his take on Gandhi. It was rather less flattering than the modern consensus. For example,

As an ex-Indian civil servant, it always makes me shout with laughter to hear, for instance, Gandhi named as an example of the success of non-violence. As long as twenty years ago it was cynically admitted in Anglo-Indian circles that Gandhi was very useful to the British Government. So he will be to the Japanese if they get there. Despotic governments can stand “moral force” till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force.

If you throw in a touch of oriental mysticism and Buchmanite raptures over Gandhi, you have everything that an disaffected intellectual needs. The life of an English gentleman and the moral attitudes of a saint can be enjoyed simultaneously.

Now, I do not know whether or not Gandhi will be a “flaming inspiration” in years to come. When one thinks of the creatures who are venerated by humanity it does not seem particularly unlikely.

The people at MI5 would have done well to read Orwell’s essays. It might have spared them from being caught flat-footed by the likes of Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean, and the rest of the British spies who worked for the Soviet Union for “idealistic” reasons. The psychological type was familiar to Orwell. For example,

In the last twenty years western civilisation has given the intellectual security without responsibility, and in England, in particular, it has educated him in scepticism while anchoring him almost immovably in the privileged class. He has been in the position of a young man living on an allowance from a father whom he hates. The result is a deep feeling of guilt and resentment, not combined with any genuine desire to escape. But some psychological escape, some form of self-justification there must be, and one of the most satisfactory is transferred nationalism. During the nineteen-thirties the normal transference was to Soviet Russia.

The type sounds familiar in our own day, doesn’t it? Another, similar bit:

The English left-wing intelligentsia worship Stalin because they have lost their patriotism and their religious belief without losing the need for a god and a fatherland.

and,

The middle-class Communists, however, are a different proposition. They include most of the official and unofficial leaders of the party, and with them must be lumped the greater part of the younger literary intelligentsia, especially in the universities. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the “Communism” of these people amounts simply to nationalism and leader-worship in their most vulgar forms, transferred to the USSR.

Anti-Americanism has ebbed and flowed over time, but it has been a European fixture for many years. For whatever psychological reasons, we apparently make a much more satisfying outgroup for them than they do for us. It is hard to imagine any equivalent of the recent “bloom” in anti-American hate in Europe from about the last years of the Clinton Administration to the middle of the Bush Administration happening here. Orwell provides us with a few vignettes of the phenomenon in England during the first years of World War II.

Up till about 1930 nearly all “cultivated” people loathed the USA, which was regarded as the vulgariser of England and Europe. …But our new alliance has simply brought out the immense amount of anti-American feeling that exists in the ordinary lowbrow middle class.

People now blame the USA for every reactionary move, more even than is justified.

Sentimentally, the majority of people in this country would far rather be in a tie-up with Russia than with America, and it is possible to imagine situations in which the popular cause would become the anti-American cause.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Finally, we find some interesting presentiments of Orwell’s later work in Animal Farm and 1984 in his wartime essays.

The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, “It never happened” – well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five – well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs – and after our experiences of the last few years that is not a frivolous statement.

Readers of 1984 will recall the iconic lines, “he who controls the past controls the future, and he who controls the present controls the past.” Similar themes appear in Animal Farm.

The war hits one a succession of blows in unexpected places. For a long time razor blades were unobtainable, now it is boot polish.

Recall that in 1984, Winston was looking for equally unobtainable razor blades when he discovered the curiosity shop that he and Julia made their love nest. Of course, it turned out to be a trap set by the “Thought Police.”

…and finally, the history behind the sudden transference of the citizens of Oceania’s hatred from Eurasia to Eastasia in 1984:

The peculiarity of the totalitarian state is that though it controls thought, it does not fix it. It sets up unquestionable dogmas, and it alters them from day to day. It needs the dogmas, because it needs absolute obedience from its subjects, but it cannot avoid the changes, which are dictated by the needs of power politics. It declares itself infallible, and at the same time it attacks the very concept of objective truth. To take a crude, obvious example, every German up to September, 1939, had to regard Russian Bolshevism with horror and aversion, and since September, 1939, he has had to regard it with admiration and affection. If Russia and Germany go to war, as they may well do within the next few years, another equally violent change will have to take place. The German’s emotional life, his loves and hatreds, are expected, when necessary, to reverse themselves overnight.

Of course, 1984 has come and gone, and Orwell’s nightmare didn’t happen after all. Still, it may have been a much nearer thing than any of us imagine.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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