1942 – A Year Well Spent, pt 1, by Desmond Avery


Becoming Propaganda-Minded

Winter and Spring 1942

 Fighting defeatism

In his ‘London Letter’ to American readers dated 1 January 1942, Orwell mentions that Dylan Thomas is doing jobs for the BBC and the Ministry of Information. ‘So is nearly everybody that used to be a writer, and most of us rapidly going native.’[1] It implies that one cannot write for the government and still be a proper writer, but the tenor of this whole piece suggests the opposite. Not only is he writing strongly but he extends his propaganda work into this unofficial, spare-time article by launching an attack on pacifism. He has already ‘gone native’, but, as he himself could perhaps agree as an anti-colonialist, that is not always or necessarily a bad thing. Winston Churchill had got into broadcasting as well, and it was not doing his writing ability any obvious harm.

            ‘Since we probably have ahead of us a long and exhausting war in which morale will be all-important’, Orwell says at the beginning of his letter, he proposes to survey some of the currents of thought affecting it. They consist mainly of confusions helped along by enemy propaganda and surreptitiously fascist sympathies among the English. Of particular interest to him here are the pacifists he describes in a section on ‘leftwing defeatism’. As a left-wing novelist whose protagonists always ended up defeated, it was important for Orwell’s own moral clarity, as well as that of his readers, to get this right.

With the out-and-out, turn-the-other-cheek pacifists you come upon the much stranger phenomenon of people who have started by renouncing violence ending by championing Hitler. The antisemitic motif is very strong though usually soft-pedalled in print. But not many English pacifists have the intellectual courage to think their thoughts down to the roots, and since there is no answer to the charge that pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist, nearly all pacifist literature is forensic – i.e. specializes in avoiding awkward questions.[2]

It sounds like a typical Orwell overstatement to say that pacifism is objectively pro-fascist, and there is no answer to that charge, but it is more like a simplification: however pacifists may feel about it, their position is more of a help than a hindrance to fascism.

He had worked this out a few months earlier in a review of a pacifist novel, No Such Liberty. The choice, he had said there, was not between good and evil but between two evils: ‘You can let the Nazis rule the world; that is evil; or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil.’[3] Everyone had to make that choice in the current situation, he argued, and ‘the notion that you can somehow defeat violence by submitting to it is simply a flight from fact.’[4] He had written that for The Adelphi, whose pacifist editor (John Middleton Murry) praised it for being cogent but disagreed because he held it ‘as a matter of religious faith’ that ‘we should “resist not evil”’, and that Hitlerism was ‘the scourge of the Lord.’[5] The rejoinder makes Orwell look more cogent still. The ‘London Letter’ with his renewed attack on pacifism came out in the March issue of Partisan Review, detonating a volley of ripostes. These and his response to them, which he wrote in the summer, were printed in the September issue. The argument displays not only a hardening of his personal conviction during his BBC time but increased power to argue for it publicly, as we shall see.

In the meantime he had to get on with his main work of maintaining the fighting spirit with radio talks. In the script for a talk on the meaning of sabotage, lasting ten minutes and ten seconds (worth noting for the kind of precision now required), he covers the whole distance from the origin of the word to the practical power it represents.  ‘Once, many years ago, some working men who had a grievance against their employer threw their sabots into a piece of machinery while it was running, and thus damaged it. This action was nicknamed sabotage…’[6] It had to be written that simply so it could be read out intelligibly by Balraj Sahni and get through to listeners whose first language was not English. The effect was a fairy-story style which was new for Orwell but thoroughly well practised by the time he got back to his ‘real writing’ in 1943.

Sabotage, this piece explained, was the last resort of a conquered population against their own enslavement, but it was invincible. What the fascists wanted from their conquests was not more living-space or ‘Asia for the Asiatics’, but more slaves for the self-appointed master races.

The German picture of Europe is of two hundred million people all working from morning to night and turning over the products of their work to Germany, and getting in return just as much help as will keep them from dying of starvation. The Japanese picture of Asia is similar. To some extent the German aims have already been achieved. But it is just here that the importance of sabotage comes in.[7]

The Germans were reporting more and more executions for sabotage to discourage people from doing it, but in a way, Orwell suggested, the trend was encouraging: it showed that there were more and more ‘brave men who have grasped the nature of German rule and are willing to risk their lives to overthrow it.’[8] They reflected ‘the immense power and importance of the ordinary working man,’ who always had it in his power to throw the oppressor’s systems out of gear.

A few blows from a sledge hammer, in the right place, can stop a power station working. One tug at the wrong signal lever can wreck a train. Quite a small charge of explosive can sink a ship. One box of matches, or one match, can destroy hundreds of tons of cattle fodder. Now, there is no doubt that acts of this kind are being carried out all over Europe and in greater and greater numbers.[9]

Because of this, everyone had to be watched by ‘huge armies of police, SS-men, ordinary uniformed police, plain-clothed police and spies and provocateurs of all kinds.’[10] This reduced the manpower available for further conquests.

Not everyone was heroic enough for that kind of war work, but that was where passive sabotage came in, offering splendid opportunities for slackers, cowards and standard Orwellian antiheroes, who could be just as useful and were harder to catch. ‘When Hitler finally falls,’ this thought for the day concludes, ‘the European workers who idled, shammed sickness, wasted material and damaged machinery in the factories, will have played an important part in his destruction.’[11] Here strategic thinking, personal interest and workaday propaganda go well together.

Finding a tenable position

Gandhi, with his non-violent resistance movement in India, could wholeheartedly agree, and that was the problem: passive sabotage could be used as effectively against the British as against the Japanese who at that point were rapidly supplanting them on the eastern side of the empire. To discourage its use against the Allies while encouraging it against the Axis, Orwell needed to show the difference between the two evils of old-fashioned British imperialism and the modern ‘gangster fascist’ variety. T. S. Eliot had brought out A Choice of Kipling’s Verse in December 1941, and these popular jingles by such a wholehearted believer in the empire provided a good opportunity to examine the old British version. It was a culture into which Orwell had been born, in Bengal in 1903. He was taken to England with his mother and sister the following year, but his father continued to work in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service until his retirement in 1912. Orwell followed in his footsteps, serving as an increasingly disaffected imperial policeman in Burma for five years after leaving Eton. This background of involvement in the Empire had helped to make him eligible for his current job and was now something about which he needed to be as clear as possible, if only to fulfil his contractual obligation. When Kipling died, in 1935, Orwell had written in New English Weekly, ‘I worshipped Kipling at thirteen, loathed him at seventeen, enjoyed him at twenty, despised him at twenty-five, and now again rather admire him.’[12] The luxury of that kind of floating with whatever current of feeling happened to carry him along had gone with other peacetime pleasures.

His essay on Kipling for Horizon in February 1942 was thus responding to a chronic ambivalence as well as an acute pressure. He needed to decide, so he did: ‘Kipling is a jingo imperialist,’ he asserts, differing with Eliot who had tried to defend him. ‘He is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. It is better to start by admitting that and then to try and find out why it is that he survives while the refined people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly.’[13] Instead of dismissing him, he deplores both the ‘bouncing, vulgar vitality’[14] with which Kipling had expressed the self-confidence of the British, and the facility with which people without responsibility could, in Kipling’s adroit phrase, ‘make mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep’.[15] The enduring popular appeal of Kipling, as Orwell saw it now, came as much from the obviousness of his ideas as from the deftness with which he expressed them. This he thought was an effect on the writer’s intelligence of responsibility.

One reason for Kipling’s power as a good bad[16] poet I have already suggested – his sense of responsibility, which made it possible for him to have a world-view, even though it happened to be a false one. Although he had no connection with any political party, Kipling was a Conservative, a thing that does not exist nowadays. Those who now call themselves Conservatives are either Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices of Fascists. 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.[17]

As a salaried bureaucrat and a patriot, Orwell was now a supporter of the ruling power himself, and so could base the assertion on his own experience. However ‘strange and disgusting’ his own position may have seemed to him, he had chosen it, and the sense of responsibility that came with it was giving him a fuller world-view and a firmer grip on reality than he had had before.

But Kipling had ‘sold out to the British governing class,’ and that had ‘warped his political judgment.’[18] Whether or not his diagnosis was correct, Orwell was improving his chances of avoiding that pitfall himself by naming it. He has the appearance here of measuring himself against his predecessor, while approaching a success that was in some ways similar. Both writers became by-words for their kind of deeply English and politically loaded literature. And, Orwell noted, ‘Kipling is the only English writer of our time who has added phrases to the language.’[19] He cites ‘East is East and West is West’ and ‘the white man’s burden’ as examples, as well as others that have since faded out. He of course was to repeat that distinction with his own coinages such as ‘some are more equal than others’, ‘Big Brother is watching you’, ‘newspeak’, ‘doublethink’, ‘thoughtcrime’ etc. which are such common currency now that they have themselves become components of a kind of ‘duckspeak’.[20] Like Kipling too, Orwell arguably found his way into his full strength as a writer via working, especially at the beginning of his working life and towards the end of it, as a committed and sincere supporter of the establishment. It was certainly worth the trouble to revisit the work of this highly influential writer to assess both the bad and the good effects of that commitment.

Meanwhile, the object of Kipling’s faith was dissolving as the sun continued to set on the British Empire. A massive setback occurred on 15 February 1942 with the fall of Singapore, in which 70,000 Allied soldiers were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Churchill, with his knack of making bad news a means of deepening determination, called it ‘the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history,’[21] but Orwell as a mere talks producer in the Empire Service did not have that kind of latitude. His job was to comment in a positive way and he did his best. In his news review of 14 February, while the defeat was still in progress, he presented what he called ‘a realistic and un-varnished view of the situation.’ Contemplating the prospect of Japan gaining control of the Indian Ocean and Germany breaking through to the Persian Gulf, he concluded that ‘even if this grandiose plan should succeed in its entirety, it would not give the Axis Powers victory, unless the Allied peoples of America, Soviet Russia, Britain and China lost heart. It still remains true that the balance of power, both in men, materials and industrial plant, is heavily against the Axis Powers.’[22]

Losing heart is easier to guard against if you have the upper hand physically, and for Indians it was not so clear which was more disheartening: continued domination by the British or a new Japanese variety. This made the task of maintaining pro-British sentiments both more urgent and more difficult. Orwell called for ‘resolution, calmness and faith in final victory’[23] and asserted that ‘if the great peoples of China and India stand together, they cannot be overwhelmed even by the most powerful and ruthless aggressor.’[24] It was probably true, and the phrases were perhaps unavoidable, but they must have sounded the same as all the other competitive quacking on the airwaves at that time.

Churchill of course still believed in the Empire and was especially fond of Kipling’s ‘If’,[25] but could see that new sources of hope were needed in India. He sent Sir Stafford Cripps, who was now Lord Privy Seal and a member of the War Cabinet, to rally support in India for Britain in return for self-government after the war. Nicknamed ‘the red squire’, and classed as a ‘high-minded toff’,[26] as Orwell himself sometimes was, Cripps had achieved fame as a barrister defending working-class causes. His socialism, unlike Orwell’s, came from inherited family values rather than rebellion: his father, Lord Parmoor, was a prominent Labour MP, and one of his aunts, Beatrice Webb, was a founder of Britain’s Labour Party. Stafford was viewed at that time as a potential alternative to Churchill, whose abilities and beliefs were in doubt while the war was going badly. Russia’s alliance with Britain was widely attributed to Cripps, as he had, at his own initiative, been Ambassador to Moscow from 1940 to early 1942.

Perhaps in the hope of finding someone to believe in for himself, as well as for the Indians, Orwell talked Cripps up as much as possible in his news reviews. ‘He is a man of great personal austerity, a vegetarian, a teetotaller and a devout practising Christian,’[27] he told them in the build-up before Cripps’s visit. That should have made a good impression on Gandhi’s followers, but he himself disliked all those virtues with the possible exception of austerity. He gave that one an extra fillip with a touching hagiographical detail: ‘So simple are his manners that he is to be seen every morning having breakfast in a cheap London eating house, among working men and office employees.’[28] 

Entering a new phase

If the job had been confined to this kind of bland and rather silly-sounding diplomacy, his talents might indeed have atrophied, but there were opportunities for exercising some of them more vigorously during work time. Earlier in the week he had broadcast a half-hour talk on ‘Literature between the Wars’ for which he had marshalled extensive knowledge while indulging his quirky tendency to overstate his case. He called his talk ‘The Re-discovery of Europe’ to characterize the difference between English literature before and after the First World War. Before it there was ‘a complete unawareness of anything outside the contemporary English scene’[29] in writers such as Shaw, Wells, Kipling, Bennett, Hardy, Housman and Rupert Brooke. After it, writers such as Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Huxley, D. H. Lawrence and Wyndham Lewis ‘broke the cultural circle in which England had existed for something like a century. They re-established contact with Europe, and they brought back the sense of history and the possibility of tragedy.’[30] There is a sense of Orwell’s own liberation in this perspective as he ends bracingly: ‘On that basis all subsequent English literature that matters twopence has rested, and the development that Eliot and the others started, back in the closing years of the last war, has not yet run its course.’[31] In retrospect it sounds like a personal resolve to write something that matters twopence himself.

While drawing the contrast between the defunct and the new kind of writing, he had dismissed the ‘Science-worship’ of H. G. Wells along with the ‘shallow Fabian progressivism’ of Bernard Shaw. Both these revered figures were still alive, aged 76 and 86 respectively, and kicking.[32] Shaw let it pass but Wells sent an acid response to The Listener, in which Orwell’s talk had been published. He also wrote an angry personal letter to Orwell it, telling him to ‘read my early works you shit.’[33] In his younger days Orwell had been an admirer of Wells, especially for his science fiction. Such peevishness must have added to his disenchantment with him now. Other indignant letters appeared in The Listener as well.

In this area of cultural studies, working for the BBC was comparable to getting a university education, only better: free from the competitively orthodox thinking bred by academia but having to perform to a high standard under plenty of well-qualified scrutiny. Usually it is Orwell’s time of penury in Paris in his mid-twenties that is seen as his equivalent of a university education, but the BBC period probably drove him to study both harder and more productively.

To hold fast to his own point of view, he reopened his wartime diary on 14 March 1942, ‘after an interval of about 6 months, the war being once again in a new phase.’[34] He does not define that phase but since his last entry, on 28 August 1941, a lot had happened. The Germans had failed to capture Leningrad and Moscow, the US had entered the war (on 8 December 1941, directly after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour); Singapore had fallen; the Germans were in deadlock with the British in North Africa but seemed likely to prevail there; and there were now 26 countries in the ‘United Nations’ against Germany, Japan and Italy. Now that it is history, it seems obvious that the Axis powers would be defeated, but Japan was still making alarming progress in the Western Pacific, the Russians were thought to be liable to cave in or make a new pact with Germany, a German invasion of Britain was still thought likely, Churchill, then aged 68, looked too incompetent to do much good, and America’s war aims were not necessarily the same as those of Britain.

‘I have now been in the BBC about six months,’ he continued. ‘Shall remain in it if the political changes I foresee come off, otherwise probably not. Its atmosphere is something halfway between a girls’ school and a lunatic asylum,…’[35] He must have taken some therapeutic pleasure in writing this, like Winston Smith voluptuously penning ‘down with big brother’ in his diary. The political changes he was hoping for included a fair deal for Indian independence and a shift towards a classless society in Britain, both of which Cripps also seemed to favour. If Orwell’s efforts could help bring those about, his note to himself implies, they would be worth making, even in an environment he found so pathological and childish. However, he was not ideally placed to help, and did not have enough access to the information he needed. For instance he notes, ‘The actual date of Cripps’s departure for India has not been given out, but presumably he has gone by this time,’ though in fact Cripps did not leave until eight days later.[36]

The diary goes on ‘…all we are doing at present is useless or slightly worse than useless. Our radio strategy is even more hopeless than our military strategy. Nevertheless one rapidly becomes propaganda-minded and develops a cunning one did not previously have.’[37] To illustrate this, he describes how he has been alleging in his News Reviews that the Japanese are preparing to attack Russia, not because he thinks they are but because there are some advantages to be gained from raising that expectation, or from being thought to think so. ‘All propaganda is lies,’ he tells himself, ‘even when one is telling the truth. I don’t think this matters so long as one knows what one is doing, and why.’[38] Even before he went to Spain he had been stressing the need for ‘intelligent propaganda’[39] as a way to fight fascism, but his present combination of professionalism and detachment is new. Knowing what one was doing meant not selling out like Kipling or, as he put it later, like G. K. Chesterton, ‘a writer of considerable talent who chose to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda.’[40]

The diary was a means of avoiding that fate by recording real perceptions and feelings, however simple, rather than suppressing them. Other examples from that spring of 1942: ‘Crocuses now full out. One seems to catch glimpses of them dimly through a haze of war news’ (27 March). ‘Greatly depressed by the apparent failure of the Cripps mission’ (1 April). ‘We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth’ (27 April).

Desmond Avery

[1] ‘London Letter’ dated 1 January 1942, in March–April 1942 issue of Partisan Review. Works XIII, p. 113.

[2] Ibid., p. 110.

[3] ‘No, Not One’. Review of No Such Liberty by Alex Comfort, The Adelphi, October 1941. Works XIII, p. 43.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., pp. 43-44.

[6] ‘The Meaning of Sabotage’, in the series ‘Through Eastern Eyes’, broadcast on 29 January 1942. Works XIII, p. 142.

[7] Ibid., p. 143.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 144.

[11] Ibid., 144-5

[12] Essays 2, p. 183.

[13] ‘Rudyard Kipling’, Horizon, February 1942. Works XIII, p. 150.

[14] Ibid., 152.

[15] Ibid., 153.

[16] Christopher Hitchens refers to ‘the good-bad book, as G. K. Chesterton (later plagiarized by Orwell) was to term this tempting genre’ in Hitch-22 (London: Atlantic, 2011, p. 57).

[17] Works XIII, p. 160.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., p. 157.

[20] ‘Not speech in the true sense: it was a noise uttered in unconsciousness, like the quacking of a duck.’ Nineteen Eighty-Four. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954, p. 47. 

[21] Winston Churchill, The Hinge of Fate (1951). London: Penguin, 2005; p. 81.

[22] Works XIII, p. 179.

[23] Ibid., 180.

[24] Ibid.

[25] ‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two imposters just the same;’ for instance; Churchill, p. 386.

[26] Peter Clarke, The Cripps Version. London: Penguin, 2002, p. 107.

[27] Weekly News Review 14, 14 March 1942. Works XIII, p. 225.

[28] Ibid.

[29] ‘The Re-discovery of Europe’ in The Listener, 19 March 1942. Works XIII, p. 211.

[30] Ibid., 217.

[31] Ibid., 217.

[32] Wells was only a year younger than Kipling, and Shaw was nine years older than him.

[33] D. J. Taylor, p. 305.

[34] Peter Davison, ed., George Orwell Diaries. London: Harvill Secker, 2009; p. 321.

[35] Ibid., 322.

[36] Ibid., 321, and note 1, p. 323.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961; p. 202.

[40] ‘Notes on Nationalism’ (1945), in Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965; p. 160.


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