Orwell and the Left Book Club: Macartney's Walls Have Mouths

Orwell and the Left Book Club: Some of his selections 2


Four years after he first read Walls Have Mouths Orwell used it as part of his argument in The Lion And The Unicorn: ‘…everyone takes it for granted that the law, such as it is, will be respected, and feels a sense of outrage when it is not. Remarks like “They can’t run me in; I haven’t done anything wrong”, or “They can’t do that; it’s against the law”, are part of the atmosphere of England. The professed enemies of society have this feeling as strongly as anyone else. One sees it in prison-books like Wilfred Macartney’s Walls Have Mouths [1936] or Jim Phelan’s Jail Journey [1940] … Everyone believes in his heart that the law can be, ought to be, and, on the whole, will be impartially administered. The totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as law, there is only power, has never taken root.’

Earlier, in a 1936 review (according to the Wilhed blog), Orwell wrote of Walls Have Mouths: ‘Actually, the cold, rigid discipline of a modern English jail, the solitude, the silence, the everlasting lock-and-key, is more cruel and far more demoralising than the barbarous punishments of the Middle Ages. Worse than the loss of liberty, worse even than sexual deprivation, is boredom.’  Orwell would have experienced this boredom himself only in nights or perhaps weekends in ‘the spike’, when he was tramping from one Poor Law Ward to the next, but was held during darkness or on a Sunday. By the time he came to write The Lion And The Unicorn he had learned of the methods of the NKVD himself and of the Gestapo from German refugees.

Philip Bounds, in Orwell and Marxism, emphasises the historical precedence of Macartney and Orwell in writing about the lumpenproletariat when no one else would: ‘There were no obvious parallels between Orwell’s writings on the underclass and the Marxist criticism of the 1930s. With the exception of Wilfred Macartney, whose prison memoir Walls have Mouths was reviewed admiringly by Orwell in November 1936, there were practically no communist intellectuals who wrote sympathetically about the ‘lumpenproletariat’. This was probably because the genuinely dispossessed were often regarded as politically unreliable, usually on the grounds that their desperate circumstances made them susceptible to the appeal of fascism.’

One can read more about the Left Book Club on the Spartacus Educational website.


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