The Duty to Stand Aside: Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Wartime Quarrel of George Orwell and Alex Comfort, by Eric Laursen, AK Press, 176 pages, $ 16
In 1972, Dr Alex Comfort had colossal success with The joy of sex, making him suddenly rich and famous. Less famous, in WWII Britain, a much younger Alex Comfort had a heated argument with George Orwell.
Orwell was an enthusiastic supporter of the war against Hitler, while Comfort was opposed to the war. Outside of narrow literary and political circles, neither man was well known. Orwell had published several books and dozens of articles, but he had not yet written Farm animal Where 1984. Comfort, 17 years younger than Orwell, had produced a few novels, several poems and a few works of anarchist theory. His most enduring work came a few years later: Authority and delinquency in the modern state, which shows that politics is an artificial game reserved for the types of antisocial predators that normal social life should curb and discourage.
Later, Comfort would make a name for himself as a medical researcher and gerontologist – a scientific theorist of aging. He could hardly dream, in 1942, that his novels, his poems and his political writings would never attract a large readership, that his medical studies would be known only to specialists, and that he would nevertheless become, at least for a few. years. , the most famous man in the worldâ “Dr. Sex.” He also could hardly have imagined that although he had outlived the 50-year-old Orwell (Orwell died in 1950, Comfort in 2000), and although he briefly became a household name, even his extraordinary fame would eventually be largely exceeded by that of Orwell.
We don’t know how Orwell would have changed his mind had he lived longer. He was sensitive to changes in political allegiance, some sudden and some gradual. We know what happened to Comfort: Less intellectually unstable than Orwell, he maintained essentially the same anarcho-pacifist outlook for the rest of his life.
The Orwell-Comfort debate took place in 1942, especially in the pages of the Partisan review, an American newspaper run at the time by former Trotskyists and open to various types of left-wing anti-Communist thought. There was a brief continuation of the debate (in verse!) The following year, in a British socialist weekly, Tribune. The editors of Partisan review were themselves divided over whether to support America’s war against the Axis powers. The main character, Dwight Macdonald, was strongly opposed to war and never looked back.
A striking fact about debates about “pacifism”, especially when taking place during a war or during preparations for war, is that the discussion of the most fundamental abstract principles tends to become disconnected from practical choices. faced by decision-makers. In the early 1940s there was only one major political choice for Britain: either to continue the war against Germany or to accept Hitler’s repeated offers of a peace deal. There were strong arguments on both sides. But in his new book, The duty to stay away, Eric Laursen gives the impression that there was a third alternative.
Suppose the impossible, that “pacifism” steadily increased in popular appeal in the 1940s. Then there would have come a point (20% pacifist support? 25%? 30%?) When the government felt compelled to send back Churchill and bring back Halifax to begin talks with Ribbentrop. What third option could there be? Yet the anarchists did not campaign for a peace settlement. They would have nothing, in principle, to do with the bad British government, not even to stop the massacre.
Orwell and the anarchists talked to each other most of the time. Orwell argued that if you were a pacifist, you were objectively “pro-fascist”. He added the further assertion that pacifists have a psychological tendency to become sympathetic to fascism. So Orwell called pacifists “fascifists,” a term he liked to pretend to cite as an already common phrase, although it seemed to be terminology he had personally invented. In common with the left in general, Orwell used the word “fascist” primarily to refer to National Socialist Germany.
There is certainly something in the suggestion that if you oppose your own government when it is in conflict with X, then you have to help to some extent objectively X. But to put that fact into perspective, it was a war of choice for Britain. Britain declared war on Germany and continued the war after France surrendered. Britain has rejected all of Hitler’s offers to negotiate a peace. A negotiated peace would have saved millions of lives. Orwell, like other supporters of the war, spoke of the danger of being invaded by Germany, not to mention that Germany had no interest in invading Britain except to stop the war that Britain was pursuing.
Anarcho-pacifists seemed less concerned than Orwell with the practical results of their arguments, more concerned with doing what was morally right. Under the guise of fighting fascism, Britain and the United States sometimes equaled or even surpassed fascist atrocities, especially with their campaign of “area bombing” – the bombardment of extermination of working class communities. Orwell responded (in his exchange with peace activist Vera Brittain) by happily stating that it was a good thing that the war dead were now more randomly distributed among the population.
Anarchists and other anti-war leftists often said that in the event of a German invasion, they would support armed resistance against the Nazis but that they would not support the Churchill government’s war against Germany. Independent Labor Party leader and Member of Parliament James Maxton continued to maintain this position throughout the war. This was inherently unconvincing, as getting a German army across the Channel and into Britain was about 80% of Britain’s occupation task. It made more sense to prevent them from coming than to wait for them to arrive to fight them. (We now know that for Germany, attempting to invade and occupy Britain would have had virtually no chance of success. But at the time, it was generally thought to be both feasible and likely.)
Laursen gives a fair account of the Orwell-Comfort confrontation and the surrounding circumstances. There are a couple of small inaccuracies. For example, Laursen follows many other writers in stating that Orwell went from anti-war to pro-war after Hitler invaded Poland. But we have no reason to reject Orwell’s own account that he suddenly underwent this conversion upon awakening from a dream about the coming war on the morning of August 22, 1939, 10 days before the invasion of the Poland and a few minutes before reading the press reports of the flight from Ribbentrop to Moscow.
Comfort then, and various anarchists since, tended to overestimate the extent to which Orwell and Comfort thought in the same direction and therefore could have come close to a deal. Orwell got along well with individual anarchists, with whom he shared many leftist assumptions as well as a loathing of the Communist Party. But it was no surprise to anyone that the anarchist Freedom Press refused to publish. Farm animal because of the state ideology of its author. After 1935 Orwell had absolutely no means, and hardly any patience, with any sort of anarchism or pacifism. His thinking is closer to that of Arthur Koestler and even James Burnham: he believed that social order is always based on coercion, and that the future inevitably lies in a large-scale, centrally-run organization.
Laursen attempts to reaffirm and defend Comfort’s conception of anarchist society. But the variety of anarchism envisioned by Comfort cannot exist. The British anarchists of the 1940s were socialists. They viewed anarchist society as being controlled by small, autonomous groups not mediated by commercial transactions. The possibility for (for example) an investor to receive an interest return on the production made possible by his savings is excluded from their system. Yet they assumed that their anarchism would allow modern industry and a high standard of living.
These two characteristics of their imaginary anarcho-socialism cannot coexist in reality. Modern industry depends on the transmission of information through market prices. Without it, their society could only be a society of primitive technology and low standard of living. (Orwell actually said this in his 1945 review of a book by British anarchist Herbert Read, although he gave the wrong reason: he assumed that the production of machines inevitably led to a managed economy in such a way. centralized.)
According to Orwell, neither capitalism nor anarchy had an imaginable future. His pressing intellectual problem was how to prevent what he saw as the inevitable collectivist system of the future from extinguishing democracy and all personal freedom, as in 1984. This problem simply did not arise in the minds of anarcho-pacifists like Comfort, because unlike Orwell, they saw no fatality in a centrally planned economy. And on this point they were right.