As we approach Banned Books Week 2018 we consider George Orwell and his struggle against oppression and silence. That took the form of essays such as “The Prevention of Literature”, and more practical efforts. It is thought that the only organisation in which George Orwell took a organising role was the Freedom Defence Committee. Steve Foulger considers George Orwell’s work there.
Orwell, War Commentary, and the Freedom Defence Committee
by Steve Foulger
George Orwell knew and approved of Rosa Luxemburg’s famous dictum
“Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party –- however numerous they may be— is not freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively for the one who thinks differently.”*i
During the course of World War 2 Orwell clearly did not agree with the anti-militarist/radial pacifist line adopted by the editors of the anarchist magazine War Commentary. In 1943 he had entered into a public spat with Alex Comfort over the latter’s condemnation of the area bombing campaign and the need for people to ‘stand aside’ from their government’s actions*ii. Orwell felt, however, that “all one could do was to “support” the war, which involved supporting Churchill, and hope that in some way it would all come right on the night..”*iii Orwell’s position was highly pragmatic, he had no illusions about Churchill but the war had to be fought and won. This was no time for “Revolutionary defeatism, or anything approaching it”*iv. Wind the clock back to January 1939, however, and we find Orwell writing from Marrakech to the anarchist Herbert Read concerning the need for “those of us who intend to oppose the coming war to start organising for illegal anti-war activities”*v He suggested that it would be a good time to acquire a printing press and paper as they would be unable to do so after the start of hostilities and the likely imposition of strict controls on the press. Read, it appeared, was less than enthusiastic and the idea was shelved. A lot could be written on Orwell and his long and ambiguous relationship with anarchists. At most, as Nicholas Walter wrote, “Orwell may be said to have been an anarchist fellow-traveller; but he was one of the best there ever was”*vi .
Contrary to Orwell’s initial misgivings about onerous wartime censorship he was able to write “Any fair‐minded person with journalistic experience will admit that during this war official censorship has not been particularly irksome. We have not been subjected to the kind of totalitarian “coordination” that it might have been reasonable to expect. The press has some justified grievances, but on the whole the Government has behaved well and has been surprisingly tolerant of minority opinions”*vii As the end of the war approached and victory seemed likely, however, there was an increasing intolerance shown towards the small group of anarchists publishing the journal War Commentary. They had maintained a strong anti-militarist stance throughout the war, though until 1944 the official opinion had been they they should be ignored as they had virtually no support and prosecution could be seen as counter productive*viii. In November 1944 police raided several homes and the offices of Freedom Press, seizing material and arresting the editors. A leaflet had been sent to supporters serving in the forces (mostly conscientious objectors in non-combat roles) and articles in the paper had looked back at the revolutionary era that had accompanied the end of the First World War. The accused were charged under wartime regulations that forbade the seduction of members of the armed forces from their duty. No serving members could be found that had been so seduced.
The arrests and trial provoked a wave of disquiet and protests, it was widely felt, on the independent left and liberal front at any rate, that this was an inappropriate and illiberal politically motivated prosecution. A campaign to provide funds for the defence had been successful and Herbert Read had been instrumental in setting up the Freedom Press Defence Committee, the existing civil liberties organisation (The National Council for Civil Liberties) being seen as a Communist Party front with no interest in supporting the anarchists. Herbert Read was the chairman and George Orwell the vice-chairman. Orwell was not a ‘joiner’ and George Woodcock (a fellow member) believed that this was the only such office he ever held in an organisation of this type. Despite increasing ill health and an understandable desire to spend more time writing Orwell took a keen interest in the Committee, boosting its funds, donating his late wife’s typewriter and publicising the case in his Tribune column. The committee had the support of many liberal/independent socialist writers and artists who held strong opinions on freedom of expression as well as a scattering of Labour politicians. Orwell stayed with the committee, renamed the Freedom Defence Committee, until it was wound up in 1949. He wrote his Tribune essay “Freedom of the Park” as a result of a later campaign*ix.
The point as Nicholas Walter wrote is that Orwell “genuinely believed in the freedom of the press and of speech and assembly not only for people he agreed with but for people he disagreed with. This extended not only to anarchists and pacifists but also to Fascists and Communists. But he never wrote for Fascist or Communist papers”*x In a letter to George Woodcock written from Hairmyres Hospital in January 1948 Orwell set out the limits, as he saw it, of free expression. After condemning the treatment accorded to Mosley by Tribune as ‘shameful’ he opined that “no one should be persecuted for expressing his opinions, however anti-social, & no political organisations suppressed unless it can be shown that there is a substantial threat to the stability of the State.”*xi Democracy in other words should not be used to destroy democracy – a variation on Popper’s paradox of toleration argument.
At a time when large swathes of the left seem far more interested in banning, no-platforming and shaming anybody who they think has transgressed their standards it is refreshing to look back upon a time where the independent minded left embraced the ideals of free expression and organised in favour of free speech.
ii See Laursen, Eric The Duty to Stand Aside. AK Press 2018
iii London Letter 8th May 1942 = Partisan Review July August, 1942. The British Crisis.
v Letter to Herbert Read 4th January, 1939
vi Nicholas Walter Orwell and Anarchism, 1998
vii Unpublished introduction to Animal Farm
viii Honeywell, Carrisa Anarchism and the British Warfare State: The Prosecution of the War Commentary Anarchists, 1945
ix Woodcock, George The Crystal Spirit: a study of George Orwell
x Walter op cit
xi Letter to George Woodcock 4th January, 1948
Illustrations supplied by Steve Foulger