As I Please

October 31, 2011 at 10:44 pm (Orwell, religion, Rosie B)

Since Tribune is in the news, here’s an extract from one of George Orwell’s As I Please columns, which are proto blog posts.   This particular column goes to prove that Karen Armstrong and Terry Eagleton are not new phenomena.  Their cloud and vapour blowing at crude rationalists who coarsely ask them if the tenets of the religion they defend are true or not were around in 1944.

It . . . appears from my correspondent’s letter that even the most central doctrines of the Christian religion don’t have to be accepted in a literal sense. It doesn’t matter, for instance, whether Jesus Christ ever existed. ‘The figure of Christ (myth, or man, or god, it does not matter) so transcends all the rest that I only wish that everyone would look, before rejecting that version of life.’ Christ, therefore, may be a myth, or he may have been merely a human being, or the account given of him in the Creeds may be true. So we arrive at this position: Tribune must not poke fun at the Christian religion, but the existence of Christ, which innumerable people have been burnt for denying, is a matter of indifference.

……what my correspondent says would be echoed by many Catholic intellectuals. If you talk to a thoughtful Christian, Catholic or Anglican, you often find yourself laughed at for being so ignorant as to suppose that anyone ever took the doctrines of the Church literally. These doctrines have, you are told, a quite other meaning which you are too crude to understand. Immortality of the soul doesn’t ‘mean’ that you, John Smith, will remain conscious after you are dead. Resurrection of the body doesn’t mean that John Smith’s body will actually be resurrected – and so on and so on. Thus the Catholic intellectual is able, for controversial purposes, to play a sort of handy-pandy game, repeating the articles of the Creed in exactly the same terms as his forefathers, while defending himself from the charge of superstition by explaining that he is speaking in parables. Substantially his claim is that though he himself doesn’t believe in any very definite way in life after death, there has been no change in Christian belief, since our ancestors didn’t really believe in it either.
….
the Catholic intellectuals who cling to the letter of the Creeds while reading into them meanings they were never meant to have, and who snigger at anyone simple enough to suppose that the Fathers of the Church meant what they said, are simply raising smoke-screens to conceal their own disbelief from themselves.

Tribune, 3 March 1944

Permalink 2 Comments

Happy Hallowe’en

October 31, 2011 at 9:56 pm (music, Rosie B)

Especially for some of our favourite commenters:-

Permalink 3 Comments

UNESCO recognises Palestine

October 31, 2011 at 9:47 pm (anti-semitism, Jim D, Middle East, palestine, solidarity)

A good moment:

This is a small but important step forward for the Palestinian people, and all those who seek a just solution to the Isreal/Palestine conflict.

But it’s not only the Israeli and the US governments who oppose Palestine’s recognition; so, too, do ‘irreconcilables’ on the Palestinian side (aka political antisemites) who deny Israel’s very right to exist: him. for instance; and her.

Those of us who long for peace in the Middle East, and a just solution for Jews and Palestinians, must welcome UNESCO’s vote and continue to proselytize for Two States.

Permalink 2 Comments

Trotsky on anti-semitism

October 31, 2011 at 4:00 pm (anti-semitism, immigration, internationalism, israel, Jim D, Marxism, Middle East, stalinism, trotskyism)

Now that even the New Statesman (well, one writer on its blog) seems to be willing to accept that anti-semitism (a) exists and (b) is A bad Thing, it seems an appropriate time to remind people of Leon Trotsky’s stance on “The Jewish Question” (he actually wrote “Jewish Problem“…), and specifically on anti-semitism. Here’re a couple of excerpts from his long (ish)  1937 article, ‘Thermidor And Anti-semitism.’

NB: Birobidzhan (Russian: Биробиджа́н; Yiddish: ביראָבידזשאַנ) is a town and the administrative center of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Russia created by Stalin in 1928 and given  town status in 1937. Trotsky’s attitude towards it is of particular interest in the context of later debates about Zionism and Israel (Trotsky, of couse, didn’t live to see the creation of Israel):

“At the time of the last Moscow trial I remarked in one of my statements that Stalin, in the struggle with the Opposition, exploited the anti-Semitic tendencies in the country. On this subject I received a series of letters and questions which were, by and large – there is no reason to hide the truth – very naive. “How can one accuse the Soviet Union of anti-Semitism?” “If the USSR is an anti-Semitic country, is there anything left at all?” That was the dominant note of these letters. These people raise objections and are perplexed because they are accustomed to counterpose fascist anti-Semitism with the emancipation of the Jews accomplished by the October Revolution. To these people it now appears that I am wresting from their hands a magic charm. Such a method of reasoning is typical of those who are accustomed to vulgar, nondialectical thinking. They live in a world of immutable abstractions. They recognize only that which suits them: the Germany of Hitler is the absolutist kingdom of anti-Semitism; the USSR, on the contrary, is the kingdom of national harmony. Vital contradictions, changes, transitions from one condition to another, in a word, the actual historical processes escape their lackadaisical attention…

…”In the opinion of some “Friends of the USSR,” my reference to the exploitation of anti-Semitic tendencies by a considerable part of the present bureaucracy represents a malicious invention for the purpose of a struggle against Stalin. It is difficult to argue with professional “friends” of the bureaucracy. These people deny the existence of a Thermidorian reaction. They accept even the Moscow trials at face value. There are not “friends” who visit the USSR with special intention of seeing spots on the sun. Not a few of these receive special pay for their readiness to see only what is pointed out to them by the finger of the bureaucracy. But woe to those workers, revolutionists, socialists, democrats who, in the words of Pushkin, prefer “a delusion which exalts us” to the bitter truth. One must face life as it is. It is necessary to find in reality itself the force to overcome its reactionary and barbaric features. That is what Marxism teaches us.

“Some would-be ‘pundits’ have even accused me of ‘suddenly’ raising the ‘Jewish question’ and of intending to create some kind of ghetto for the Jews. I can only shrug my shoulders in pity. I have lived my whole life outside Jewish circles. I have always worked in the Russian workers’ movement. My native tongue is Russian. Unfortunately, I have not even learned to read Jewish. The Jewish question has never occupied the center of my attention. But that does not mean that I have the right to be blind to the Jewish problem which exists and demands solution. ‘The Friends of the USSR’ are satisfied with the creation of Birobidjan. I will not stop at this point to consider whether it was built on a sound foundation, and what type of regime exists there. (Birobidjan cannot help reflecting all the vices of bureaucratic despotism.) But not a single progressive, thinking individual will object to the USSR designating a special territory for those of its citizens who feel themselves to be Jews, who use the Jewish language in preference to all others and who wish to live as a compact mass. Is this or is this not a ghetto? During the period of Soviet democracy, of completely voluntary migrations, there could be no talk about ghettos. But the Jewish question, by the very manner in which settlements of Jews occurred, assumes an international aspect. Are we not correct in saying that a world socialist federation would have to make possible the creation of a ‘Birobidjan’ for those Jews who wish to have their own autonomous republic as the arena for their own culture? It may be presumed that a socialist democracy will not resort to compulsory assimilation. It may very well be that within two or three generations the boundaries of an independent Jewish republic, as of many other national regions, will be erased. I have neither time nor desire to meditate on this. Our descendents will know better than we what to do. I have in mind a transitional historical period when the Jewish question, as such, is still acute and demands adequate measures from a world federation of workers’ states. The very same methods of solving the Jewish question which under decaying capitalism have a utopian and reactionary character (Zionism), will, under the regime of a socialist federation, take on a real and salutary meaning. This is what I wanted to point out. How could any Marxist, or even any consistent democrat, object to this?”

NB: information on  Birobidzhan from Wikipedia

Permalink Leave a Comment

Occupy: For Good Against Evil!

October 30, 2011 at 8:42 pm (capitalism, Champagne Charlie, Civil liberties, good people, Human rights)

A stupid fuckin’ eedjit writes:

Strangely for a Marxist site very little coverage of the occupy wall street movement on this site and the crackdown by the police thugs of freedom loving imperialist state numero uno. One has to conclude that is not a coincidence to your pro imperialist views.”

For the record, ‘Shiraz Socialist’ is (generally) for Good against Evil (as illustrated below); guess which side we’re on in this particular instance…

‘Shiraz Socialist’ does not attempt to comment upon every item in the news. We prioritise items that may be of particular interest to socialists and/or trade unionists; but even then, if we have nothing of originality or particular interest to add to what other commentators have already said, then we may not say anything at all. That doesn’t mean we think the matter is of no importance

You may have noticed, like “Steve” (quoted at the top of this post), that none here has commented upon the “Occupy” movement as yet. I should hope that it goes without saying that all of us at Shiraz support them, for all their incoherence. I, personally, agree with this.

By far the best and  most perceptive reports of the London and other UK occupations, that I’ve seen, have been from ‘History Is made At Night’, here and here.

Anything that is supported by the Tory Richard Littlejohn, the Social Democrat  Polly Toynbee and the Blairite Andrew Rawnsley, must be so banal as to be virtually meaningless. But that doesn’t mean they should be forcibly removed. As and when that happens, we must, and will,  stand with them.

Trade unionists are urged to sign the trade union statement of support for the St Paul’s
occupation, backed by Mark Serwotka and John Mc Donnell…and pass it on!
http://www.petitiononline.com/tulsx/petition.html

This report from the AWL is interesting – especially regarding the antisemitism of the so-called ‘Zeitgeist Movement’ who have muscled in in the occupations.

Permalink 5 Comments

The anti-EU “left” should read the Daily Mail

October 30, 2011 at 7:19 pm (Conseravative Party, Europe, Jim D, populism, stalinism)

The anti-EU “left” should read the Daily Mail. I was tempted to go on and write that they might find more in it to agree with than they would expect. But that would be unfair. I suspect they would, in the main, be suitably appalled. By this poll , in Saturday’s Mail, for instance:

Worryingly for Mr Cameron, most of those
polled believe the 81 Eurosceptic MPs who rebelled in the Commons this week are
‘more in tune with Tory voters’ than the Prime Minister.

Three-quarters said rebel MPs were right to
defy his three-line whip. Mr Cameron admitted yesterday that he must ‘work
harder’ to persuade his backbenchers he is on their side.

The Daily Mail has learned that he has ordered
every Whitehall department to draw up a list of powers to be grabbed back from
Brussels.

Europe Poll: The Results

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2054773/EU-Britain-Majority-British-public-want-powers-Brussels.html#ixzz1cIGqzxm9

Right, you Morning Star “lefties”: study that Mail poll, and study it good. Note the areas in which the Mail’s respondents want “powers returned”:

* Immigration (86%)

* Human rights law (71%)

* Employment law (65%)

…and you lot (the idiot-”left” who campaign against EU membership) still think your pathetic little “left” anti-EU campaign(s) can somehow be “progressive”? Wake up, you morons! Sometimes the left has to fight for leadership of public opinion…this is one of those times.

Permalink 5 Comments

Louis at Hallowe’en: The Skeleton in the Closet

October 28, 2011 at 11:17 am (cinema, comedy, good people, jazz, Jim D)

Ricky Riccardi (at The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong) writes:

The song comes from Pennies From Heaven, Armstrong’s first major studio picture.  He was hired for the film at the insistence of its star, Bing Crosby, a lifelong student, friend, collaborator and admirer of Pops.  When the film came out, Armstrong got his own credit during the main titles, making him the first African-American to get featured billing alongside white actors.  So Pops was pioneering, though some critics have frowned upon the way Armstrong was used in the film.  Playing a bandleader who is hired by Crosby to perform at his nightclub, Armstrong’s “role, as written, makes one cringe,” according to Lawrence Bergreen.  Bergreen quotes an exchange between Armstrong and Crosby in the film, comedically playing on the ignorance of Armstrong’s character, who asks for seven percent instead of accepting Bing’s offering of ten percent because his is a seven-piece band, “And none of us knows how to divide ten percent up by seven.”

Bergreen writes that this banter dwells “on black inferiority and subservience” but what he doesn’t mention is that Pops legitimately loved this scene, quoting it in front of friends on one of his later private tapes.  One of Armstrong’s last television appearances was made with Crosby on the David Frost Show from February 10, 1971.  During the interview portion, Armstrong talks about how much fun they had making the film and though 35 years had gone by, Armstrong quotes the entire “percent” scene, line by line, as it originally appeared in the film.  Thus, it’s easy for a white critic to “cringe” while watching Pennies From Heaven but for Pops, funny was funny and he cherished the gags he was asked to deliver (and besides, would one “cringe” if the same exact dialogue was delivered by Stan Laurel or Chico Marx?).

Armstrong gets one music number to himself in the film and it’s a great one.  “The Skeleton in the Closet” was written by Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke, the same two men wrote the rest of the Pennies From Heaven score.  Filmed in California, Armstrong was seen leading a contingent of some of the finest west coast jazzmen, including trumpeter (and Armstrong disciple) Teddy Buckner, saxophonist Caughey Roberts, future Nat Cole bassist Wesley Pince and as already advertised, the grand reunion of Armstrong and Lionel Hampton.

Hampton was in the midst of a steady engagement as a leader at the Paradise Nightclub in Los Angeles and was just about to explode.  Pennies From Heaven was filmed in August 1936 and while out there, Armstrong asked Hampton to sit in on drums and vibes on two Hawaiian cuts made with “The Polynesians” on August 18.  One week later, on August 24, Hampton took part in a Teddy Wilson session with Benny Goodman on clarinet and just a few months later, in November, Hampton joined Goodman’s Quartet and, well, you know the rest!

But for “Skeleton in the Closet,” Hamp sticks to the drums, wearing a mask to keep the whole “haunted house” motif going.  This is Armstrong at his finest:  storytelling, acting, singing, swinging and playing beautifully.  Here’s the clip (a bit jerky, I’m afraid, but the soundtrack is fine):

As well as Hamp on drums, the band includes Joe Sullivan on piano.

A better-quality film of the same number (also including a Sullivan piano solo), here.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Pete Carter “airbrushed from history” by Morning Star

October 28, 2011 at 12:01 am (good people, Jim D, sectarianism, stalinism, unions, workers)

“Despite differences between sections of the left, what unites us in our struggles is the collective wish for a better world for working class people” - Gerry Kelly

Pete Carter, building workers’ union organizer, former Communist Party youth leader, Communist Party industrial organizer, and (later in life)  a committed environmentalist, will be cremated today.

Pete Carter

The Guardian published an obituary.

The Morning Star hasn’t even mentioned his passing.

Gerry Kelly – a former IS’er  who doesn’t share Carter’s politics – expresses his disgust at the Morning Star‘s sectarianism :

I was a shop steward on Woodgate Valley B in 1971-2 and worked with Mick Shilvock there. Pete, Shilvock, Phil Beyer and me struggled together in Brum to kill the lump and organise the building workers.

Pete was the best working class orator I ever heard and was a great organiser. We had a couple of years in Birmingham in which we fought a desperate struggle, acheived some great victories and also had some laughs. Pete was an inventive class warrior and we carried out some stunts that publicised our cause and made us laugh as well.

I was tried with Phil Beyer and others at Birmingham Crown Court as a result of the Rotunda occupation. We were acquitted, mainly because Pete Carter was at the forefront of a ferocious solidarity campaign in our support.

Two years ago, I went to Mick Shilvock’s house for a re-union with him, Pete and Phil Beyer. We had a good time discussing and reflecting on what we had done in the early 70s.

The workers’ movement has lost a man who was a great rank and file  leader…

… It is disgraceful that the Morning Star has not even mentioned Pete Carter. I was an IS member at the time I was I was active in UCATT and of course I had political differences with Pete and the other CP members in the union. I continued to disagree with Pete over a number of issues (I had quite an argument with him over the miners’ strike when I bumped into him in London in 1984 – he was, I thought, wrong in attacking the tactics adopted by Scargill and the NUM leadership – tactics he had advocated during the 1972 national builders’ strike) and I completely disagreed with the EuroCommunist line (just soft Stalinism, I thought).

However, as a union militant and organiser  he was outstanding and I seldom disagreed with him, Beyer and Shilvock on tactics . Further, it is disturbing that the CP is trying to airbrush from its history a man who at different times was leader of their youth organisation, their industrial organiser and one of their most prominent and influential rank and file union activist.

I will be at his funeral … and will be sorry to say goodbye to him, but also proud to have served the labour movement as an ally of one of the best union militants I have ever known.

Shame on the Morning Star!  Despite differences between sections of the left, what unites us in our struggles is the collective wish for a better world for working class people.

- Gerry Kelly

Permalink 2 Comments

Libya: Clive answers Milne’s distortions and half-truths

October 27, 2011 at 1:10 pm (apologists and collaborators, Guardian, Jim D, Libya, Middle East, stalinism)

Public school Stalinist Seumas ‘Posh-boy’ Milne (above) is at it again, denouncing the Libyan revolution, taking the worst possible view of the rebels and minimising (well, virtually ignoring) the crimes of Gaddafi’s murderous regime:

“As the most hopeful offshoot of the ‘Arab spring so far flowered this week in successful elections in Tunisia, its ugliest underside has been laid bare in Libya. That’s not only, or even mainly, about the YouTube lynching of Gaddafi, courtesy of a Nato attack on his convoy.

“The grisly killing of the Libyan despot after his captors had sodomised him with a knife, was certainly a war crime. But many inside and outside Libya doubtless also felt it was an understandable act of revenge after years of regime violence. Perhaps that was Hillary Clinton’s reaction, when she joked about it on camera, until global revulsion pushed the US to call for an investigation.

“As the reality of what western media have hailed as Libya’s ‘liberation’ becomes clearer, however, the butchering of Gaddafi has been revealed as only a reflection of a much bigger picture. On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch reported the discovery of 53 bodies, military and civilian, in Gaddafi’s last stronghold of Sirte, apparently executed – with their hands tied – by former rebel militia.

“Its investigator in Libya, Peter Bouckaert, told me yesterday that more bodies are continuing to be discovered in Sirte, where evidence suggests about 500 people, civilians and fighters, have been killed in the last 10 days alone by shooting, shelling and Nato bombing.

“That has followed a two month-long siege and indiscriminate bombardment of a city of 100,000 which has been reduced to a Grozny-like state of destruction by newly triumphant rebel troops with Nato air and special-forces support.

“And these massacre sites are only the latest of many such discoveries. Amnesty International has now produced compendious evidence of mass abduction and detention, beating and routine torture, killings and atrocities by the rebel militias Britain, France and the US have backed for the last eight months – supposedly to stop exactly those kind of crimes being committed by the Gaddafi regime.

“Throughout that time African migrants and black Libyans have been subject to a relentless racist campaign of mass detention, lynchings and atrocities on the usually unfounded basis that they have been loyalist mercenaries. Such attacks continue, says Bouckaert, who witnessed militias from Misrata this week burning homes in Tawerga so that the town’s predominantly black population – accused of backing Gaddafi – will be unable to return.

“All the while, Nato leaders and cheerleading media have turned a blind eye to such horrors as they boast of a triumph of freedom and murmur about the need for restraint. But it is now absolutely clear that, if the purpose of western intervention in Libya’s civil war was to “protect civilians” and save lives, it has been a catastrophic failure.”  – You can read the rest of this Stalinist rubbish here.

Happily, Comrade Clive is on hand to take Posh-boy (and his co-thinker Jonathan Steele) to pieces:

“I feel moved to comment on Seamas Milne’s piece in the Guardian today about Libya.

“What he nowhere acknowledges is that the Libyan revolution has now succeeded and Gaddafi has been overthrown. It beggars belief that anyone could attempt any kind of balance sheet without including this fact.
.
“But underlying the whole argument – and this is something I’ve seen a lot of – is a confusion of separate points. If you want to support/defend/not oppose NATO intervention purely in humanitarian terms – saving lives – there is some force to the point that 50,000 lives seem to have been lost anyway. But neither we – nor the Seamas Milnes of the world – do see the world simply in those humanitarian terms. It’s also about sides in a revolution.
.
“The fundamental reason there have been so many deaths in Sirte – and elsewhere – is that a brutal dictator hung on to power. Assessing the humanitarian consequences of a revolutionary movement finally defeating him simply is not – except on terms too wooly for most wooly liberals – the same thing as assessing those consequences if the dictator enters a city with the expressed intention of massacring his opponents.
.
“This is not to say – obviously – that the ‘rebels’ are all sweetness and light or that there is not much to criticise – though the balance of criticism is important. Milne and others seem more than willing to accept the worse possible interpretation of what has been done by the revolutionary movement – and NATO – but in all seriousness question whether Gaddafi really would have massacred people (and suggest that elsewhere Gaddafi’s forces weren’t so bad. Huh? What do you think happened in Misrata? Why do you think it took so long for Tripoli to throw him off?
.
“Milne also, like many others, is all rosy optimism about An Nahda’s election victory in Tunisia. Well, we’ll see. (Personally I think it’s likely they will prove to be pretty moderate in Islamist terms, and will be anxious to show the West how dependable they are. One consequence of that, though, will be their economic policies.)
.
“But look at this revealing comment, by Milne’s buddy Jonathan Steele, the other day: ‘While several smaller secular parties tried to manipulate Islamophobia – a relatively easy card to play given the official state-controlled media’s demonisation of the Islamists over several decades – their efforts have failed. Voters had their first chance to listen to An-Nahda’s candidates and they were not put off by what they heard.’ (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/25/tunisia-election-middle-east?INTCMP=SRCH)
.
“I don’t really have a problem with using ‘Islamophobia’ as a shorthand way of describing racism towards people who are Muslims. But in Tunisia – where the vast majority are Muslims – what the hell is Islamophobia except actual hostility to the religion? How can a secular party be Islamophobic in the way that term is generally used in Britain in a mainly-Muslim country?”

Permalink 29 Comments

Orwell in Tribune

October 27, 2011 at 12:39 am (history, Jim D, labour party, literature, Orwell, socialism, trotskyism)

Orwell in Tribune: ‘As I Please’ and other writings 1943-47
edited by Paul Anderson (Methuen, £14.99)

Orwell and
Marxism:The political and cultural thinking of George Orwell
by

Philip Bounds (I. B. Tauris. £52.50)

By Richard Vinten, Times Literary Supplement (Aug 2009)

More than any other British
author of the twentieth century, George Orwell has escaped from his own time.
Every schoolchild who gets as far as GCSE English will have read at least one
Orwell novel, and the one that they are most likely to have read (Nineteen Eighty-Four) is, ostensibly at least,
not set in Orwell’s own lifetime. Orwell was fascinated by children’s literature
and some of his books have a special appeal to children (particularly, I
suspect, boys in their early teens). This means that most people read Orwell
before they have any sense of the period in which he wrote; indeed, before they
have much sense of why it might matter to understand the period in which a
writer worked.

Even the most sophisticated readers take Orwell out of
context. In 1940, Q. D. Leavis argued that Orwell’s early novels (the ones with
clear temporal settings) were “wasted effort”. Ever since then, critics have
judged him largely on his long essays, and these reinforce the impression of a
man outside his own time – big enough to interpose himself between Tolstoy and
Shakespeare at a time when his contemporaries were locked in petty Bloomsbury
disputes. His admirers think of him as an emblem of universal integrity. Central
European dissidents in the 1980s appealed to his memory, and committees of the
great and good award an Orwell Prize to writers who have made their reputations
writing about, say, Sweden since the 1970s. I doubt if a day passes when some
politician or journalist does not denounce something or other as “Orwellian”, a
word that Orwell would have hated.

Orwell did not enjoy such special
status in the eyes of his contemporaries. Much of his writing was made up of
book reviews churned out to pay the bills. The flavour of this life is captured
in a short letter that he wrote to T. S. Eliot asking whether Faber might be
interesting in commissioning him to translate Jacques Roberti’s À la Belle de Nuit, a task that apparently
required a command of low-life Paris argot. Some of his work seemed to fit into
easily identifiable patterns. Cyril Connolly had admired Orwell since meeting
him at prep school, but, in Enemies of
Promise (1938), he stitched together quotations from Orwell, Hemingway
and Christopher Isherwood into a single passage to show how indistinguishable
“colloquial” writers could be.

Both these books are designed, in part, to
put Orwell back into the context of his own times. The articles he wrote for
Tribune between 1943 and 1947 are
gathered into a single volume with an excellent introduction by Paul Anderson.
They have all been published in previous collections and some of them, such as
“The Decline of the English Murder”, are already well known, but publication of
the Tribune articles is useful because
Orwell wrote for the paper at a time when he was writing Animal Farm and thinking about Nineteen Eighty-Four. His article on Yevgeny
Zamyatin’s We, a book which is sometimes
seen as a model for Nineteen
Eighty-Four, appeared in January 1946, though any reader of the Tribune articles will conclude that Burnham’s
The Managerial Revolution was a more
important influence on Orwell’s thinking. For most of this time, large parts of
the British Left, including some of the other writers for Tribune, were pro-Soviet. More importantly,
support for the Soviet alliance was part of the official policy of both Britain
and the United States. In short, Orwell’s most famous books need to be
understood against the backdrop of Yalta rather than that of, say, the Berlin
airlift. The Tribune articles show how
intermittent anti-Americanism, suspicion of the British ruling classes and
distaste for the realpolitik of the great powers were blended with a personal
dislike of Stalinism. Orwell repeatedly drew attention to facts about the Soviet
Union that were inconvenient to the Western Allies; he wrote, for example, about
the mass rape of women in Vienna by Russian soldiers. An article of September
1944 about the Warsaw Uprising is particularly striking; in it he asked why the
British intelligentsia were so “dishonestly uncritical” of Soviet policy, but he
also suggested that Western governments were moving towards a peace settlement
that would hand much of Europe to Stalin.

If the Tribune articles tell us mainly about Orwell
after 1943, Philip Bounds sets him against the fast-changing political backdrop
to his whole writing career. In the mid 1930s, the Communist International
turned away from “class against class” tactics to encourage Popular Front
alliances of anti-Fascist forces. This position changed with the
Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, then changed again with the German
invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. These gyrations produced odd
consequences in Britain, a country in which there was not a large Communist
party (though there were some significant figures who, as Orwell put it,
believed in the Russian “mythos” ) and in which the most important leaders of
the Labour Party were not tempted by an anti-Fascist alliance with the
Communists. The Popular Front was supported by an odd coalition that ranged from
Stafford Cripps to the Duchess of Atholl.

Orwell opposed the Popular
Front, or, at least, he was rude about its English supporters. During the
Spanish Civil War he fought with the non-Stalinist POUM rather than the
International Brigade (joined by most Communists). He reversed his position
overnight in 1939: he claimed to have dreamt of war and then come downstairs to
see the newspaper reports of the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact. He supported the war
against Hitler and became an eloquent defender of patriotism though he also
thought, at least in 1940 and 1941, that the British war effort might be
combined with a revolutionary transformation of British society. His position
was sometimes close to that of Trotskyists and he quoted the Trotskyite slogan
“the war and the revolution are inseparable” with approval in 1941. Orwell’s
interest in Trotsky, however, seems to have been rooted in a sympathy for
outsiders and in the sense that, to quote his friend Malcolm Muggeridge,
“Trotsky blows the gaff” on the Soviet Union. Orwell did not believe that Russia
would necessarily have been less repressive if ruled by Trotsky rather than
Stalin. He was not much interested in Marxist theory and his remark, apropos of
T. S. Eliot, that Anglo-Catholicism was the “ecclesiastical equivalent of
Trotskyism”, was probably designed to annoy Trotskyites as much as
Anglo-Catholics.

Bounds covers all of Orwell’s writing – the early
autobiographical novels and exercises in fictionalized autobiography as well as
the better-known works – and tries to trace the themes that run through them
all. In particular, he argues that, for all of his anti-Soviet talk, Orwell was
influenced by Communist or fellow-travelling writers. This influence was masked
by his general cussedness and by a capacity for annexing the ideas of authors he
had once denounced; for example, he wrote a savage review of The Novel Today (1936) by the Communist Philip
Henderson. However, Orwell’s remarks about modernism in his essay “Inside the
Whale” (1940) seem to owe something to Henderson’s assault on literature that
avoids “the urgent problems of the moment”. Orwell even transports the same
rather laboured joke from Punch – about the young man who tells his aunt “My
dear, one doesn’t write about anything; one just writes” – from his 1936 review
to his 1940 essay. The changes in Communist strategy made Orwell’s relations
with its cultural commentators all the more complicated. Sometimes he seemed to
draw on ideas expressed by Communist writers during the “class against class”
period to attack the Popular Front, and then to draw on the Popular Front’s
discovery of national culture to attack Communists after the Molotov–Ribbentrop
pact.

Bounds’s book is wide-ranging, stimulating and well written. I was
not, however, entirely convinced by its arguments. This is partly because it is
hard to prove influence. Bounds himself frequently admits that we cannot be sure
that Orwell read a particular author whose ideas seem, in some respects, to run
parallel to his own. Some Marxist authors whom Orwell had read seem not to have
influenced him very much. He reviewed Christopher Hill’s The English Revolution 1640, though he himself
did not go in for the celebration of seventeenth-century radicalism that was so
common among English left-wingers – rather unconvincingly, Bounds attributes
this to the belief that Orwell’s readers were likely to be “culturally ambitious
members of the lower middle class”.

Emphasizing Orwell’s roots on the
Left means playing down his links to writers on the Right. Anthony Powell, a
friend of Orwell, does not feature in this book at all. Bounds suggests that
Orwell’s interest in conservative writers – notably Rudyard Kipling – sprang
partly from a desire to answer a certain kind of Communist attack on them.
Orwell wanted to show the peculiarity of English conservatism and to distinguish
it from Fascism. He certainly underlined the difference between Kipling and
Wodehouse and Fascists. However, there were times when he argued that Fascism
itself might assume a particularly English form. In any case, he admired many
right-wing writers – including, for example, Louis-Ferdinand Céline – for
reasons that cut across his politics.

Bounds’s careful researches into
relatively minor English Marxists can sometimes obscure the importance of the
two most important left-wingers with whom Orwell was associated: John Strachey
and Victor Gollancz. Neither of these men was a member of the Communist party,
though both were close to it at times. Strachey’s The Coming Crisis (1932) presented a Marxist
analysis, but Strachey, like Orwell, also admired the work of some authors on
the Right: he described The Waste Land
as “the most important poem produced in English in our day”. Gollancz was a
publisher and founder, along with Strachey and Stafford Cripps, of the Left Book
Club, and it is tempting to present him as a kind of antiOrwell: devious, shrewd
about money, politically conformist and an intellectual who was not intelligent.
Orwell himself thought privately that Gollancz was “very enterprising about left
stuff and . . . not too bright”. However, relations between the two men were
sometimes closer than Orwell cared to admit. Gollancz published Orwell’s first
book, Down and Out in Paris and London
(1933), and, according to one account, it was he who chose “Orwell” as Eric
Blair’s pen name (the alternatives were “Kenneth Miles” and “H. Lewis Allways”).
It is true that Gollancz, or the Left Book Club, turned down Homage to Catalonia and Animal Farm, for fear of offending Communists,
but the Left Book Club did publish The Road to
Wigan Pier, though with an introduction by Gollancz himself in which he
said that he had noted at least a hundred points with which he disagreed. It is
also important to remember that there was a period, from September 1939 until
the summer of 1941, when Orwell, Gollancz and Strachey were united by common
distaste for what they called the Communist Party’s “betrayal of the
left”.

Should we see Orwell as primarily a political writer? He certainly
came to see himself as one. In 1946, he wrote: “Every line of serious work that
I have written since 1936 has been written . . . against totalitarianism and for
democratic Socialism . . . it is where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote
lifeless books”. However, not all his early work was “lifeless”, and his later
books are not entirely animated by politics. Throughout his career, Orwell saw
that literature might be an end in itself. As a twenty-year-old policeman in
Burma, during his brief attempt to flee from his destiny as a writer, he had
read War and Peace and been seduced by
its characters: “people about whom one would gladly go on reading for ever”. He
had begun the 1940s hoping to produce a three-volume family saga. Would he have
returned to this apparently unpolitical work if he had believed that he would
have time to finish it?

The fact that Orwell was very ill for much of the
period when he wrote his most famous works, and that he died in January 1950 a
few months after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, raises all sorts of
questions. His most savage critics see his last works as reflecting the despair
of a dying man – but, for my money, Burmese
Days (1934) is the most despairing of his works. And how would he have
reacted to the Cold War, and to seeing his own books used as weapons in that
war? Perhaps most importantly, how would an author who had defined himself in
terms of failure and obscurity have reacted to wealth and fame?

H/t: Paul Anderson, Gauche

Permalink 1 Comment

Next page »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 420 other followers