A few thoughts on Orwell, Kipling and left-baiting

Thoughts on “Rudyard Kipling” by George Orwell, Horizon, February 1942
By Dominic Cavendish

The Society website has recently republished an article by Douglas Kerr on Orwell, Kiping and Empire – which was originally presented on the Finlay Publisher site. It’s also very easy for readers to acquaint (or re-acquaint) themselves with Orwell’s Horizon essay of 70 years ago, widely available on the web (you can go via the Orwell Prize or elsewhere). 

Those wishing to give Orwell and Kipling detailed consideration should obviously read the essay itself, and Kerr’s article, rather than these reflections in the first instance but nevertheless I still wanted to mark the “anniversary” of this famous essay (which took as its starting-point the publication of A Choice of Kipling’s Verse with introduction by TS Eliot in December 1941) with a few remarks – the chief being to wonder at how often in the essay Orwell baits the Left.

Something about the act of evaluating Kipling’s reputation makes Orwell quite pugnacious; he finds Eliot too defensive – his tactics by contrast are far more on the front-foot, spear raised – or at any rate involve deploying the weapons of acid contempt and jabbing jeers at his subject’s detractors. You cannot begin to understand Kipling – “morally or politically” – if you regard him as a Fascist, runs his argument; there is the world of difference between the imperialism he thought he was endorsing and basic power-grab Fascism.

Kipling, without being given too lenient a treatment, didn’t – and couldn’t – rightly understand what the empire he stood up for – stood for, in fact – truly represented, Orwell maintains. His was the sort of blinkered mindset that while culpably overlooking the evils of empire could plead a certain 19th-century naivety about the British expansionist “mission”. “Kipling belongs very definitely to the period 1885-1902” Orwell asserts.

Having sniffed at the quick-to-judgement (wrong-headed, ill-informed judgement we glean) tendency of “pansy-left circles” in their hostile (mis)readings of the line “Lesser breeds without the Law” in the poem “Recessional” – he ups the ante still further about a third of the way in.

Even Kipling’s partial, selective, blinkered-to-the-point-of-blind understanding of what the British empire did in the world was better, so Orwell argues, than the hypocrisy of the Left (I’m paraphrasing of course). He may have been a crass patriot but he wasn’t a sham – because he appreciated who benefited from the imperial system, and how the empire-builder’s exalted position was dependent on others having a lower one, even if he failed to acknowledge its full injustice.

“Because he identifies himself with the official class, he does possess one thing which ‘enlightened’ people seldom or never possess, and that is a sense of responsibility. The middle-class Left hate him for this quite as much as for his cruelty and vulgarity. All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our ‘enlightenment’, demands that the robbery shall continue. A humanitarian is always a hypocrite, and Kipling’s understanding of this is perhaps the central secret of his power to create telling phrases. It would be difficult to hit off the one-eyed pacifism of the English in fewer words than in the phrase, ‘making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep’. It is true that Kipling does not understand the economic aspect of the relationship between the highbrow and the blimp. He does not see that the map is painted red chiefly in order that the coolie may be exploited. Instead of the coolie he sees the Indian Civil Servant; but even on that plane his grasp of function, of who protects whom, is very sound. He sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them.”

Later on, for all his Kipling’s failure to get fully inside the thankless life of the private soldier, at least his superficial admiration digs deeper, Orwell suggests, than those with less of an eye for the harsh conditions of military service: “He has far more interest in the common soldier, far more anxiety that he shall get a fair deal, than most of the ‘liberals’ of his day or our own. He sees that the soldier is neglected, meanly underpaid and hypocritically despised by the people whose incomes he safeguards.”

What further sticks in the craw about Kipling’s accusers is that sometimes the debate they’re participating in, even the language they reach for, has been shaped by the very author they despise. “Nothing could exceed the contempt of the New Statesman, for instance, for Kipling, but how many times during the Munich period did the New Statesman find itself quoting that phrase about paying the Dane-geld?” [ie A Kipling coinage]? “ The fact is,” Orwell continues “that Kipling, apart from his snack-bar wisdom and his gift for packing much cheap picturesqueness into a few words (‘palm and pine’–’east of Suez’–’the road to Mandalay’), is generally talking about things that are of urgent interest. It does not matter, from this point of view, that thinking and decent people generally find themselves on the other side of the fence from him. ‘White man’s burden’ instantly conjures up a real problem, even if one feels that it ought to be altered to ‘black man’s burden’. One may disagree to the middle of one’s bones with the political attitude implied in ‘The Islanders’, but one cannot say that it is a frivolous attitude. Kipling deals in thoughts which are both vulgar and permanent.”

Perhaps the paragraph that most chimes with present sentiment, or at least feels pretty applicable right now is the following: “He identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition. In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality. The ruling power is always faced with the question, ‘In such and such circumstances, what would you DO?’, whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions. Where it is a permanent and pensioned opposition, as in England, the quality of its thought deteriorates accordingly.” Could one say that of today’s opposition, or even members of the Coalition government who got rather too used to the comfort of being at one remove from the fray? In any event, it’s worth I think pointing out that Orwell’s gung-ho assault on Kipling’s detractors – an assault that has long out-lived those it was originally aimed at and continues to meet head-on those who, even today, would do battle with Kipling’s memory -is every bit as interesting as anything else he has to say in praise of the man himself.

Dominic Cavendish

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