The following exchange was occasioned by George Woodcock's review of The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, which appeared in January 1969. John Wain is the well-known English novelist, poet, and critic.

John Wain

Owing to the various strikes and whatnot, your January issue has only recently arrived in England, and it was not till now that I read Mr. George Woodcock's interesting and well-informed review of George Orwell's Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters.

As one who has been reading Orwell steadily for twenty years, I agree with most of what Mr. Woodcock says, but one passage in his review is really too much to swallow. Discussing Orwell's patchy but always vital and perceptive London “Letters” to Partisan Review in wartime, Mr. Woodcock gives what any attentive reader would recognize as a misleading account of their content, stressing those points where Orwell's opinion happened to fit in with Woodcock's, and adds: “Later, when the sound and fury had died down, he was to apologize profusely to all those war resisters he had called ‘objective’ fascists, to become in many cases their close friends, and to find his natural place once again in the sectarian Left, defending civil liberties among the anarchists and libertarian socialists of the Freedom Defense Committee.”

Let's take the first part first. Orwell “apologized profusely”? To all “war resisters”? He was a fair-minded man, and if it could be shown that he had made a specific charge against an individual that could not be justified, he was ready with an apology (e.g. to John Middleton Murry). But all through the war years he stuck to his point that when two nations are at war, to hinder the war effort of the one is, “objectively,” to help that of the other, so that the pacifist movement, insofar as it made its presence felt, was pro-fascist in its outcome, whatever its intentions. If Mr. Woodcock knows of some passage in Orwell's writing where this opinion is definitely unsaid and withdrawn, he should cite it.


As for Orwell's “finding his natural place” among the sectarian Left, how anyone could believe that after reading the latter part of The Road to Wigan Pier, I don't know. But then, the first sentence of Orwell's essay on Dickens comes to mind: “Dickens is one of those writers who are well worth stealing.” Mr. Woodcock admires Orwell and is out to steal him, to kidnap him and keep him in the “anarchist and libertarian” menagerie; and this would be forgiveable if it didn't involve such a flagrant example of the intellectual vice Orwell hated most and denounced all his life: the habit of re-writing history, touching up the past so as to make it seem that you were right all along.


George Woodcock

Mr. Wain may have been reading Orwell for twenty years, but he does not appear to have been reading him very thoroughly. If he had, he would not be maintaining that “all through the war years he [Orwell] stuck to his point that when two nations are at war, to hinder the war effort of the one is, ‘objectively,’ to help that of the other. . . .” In fact, in an “As I Please” item in the Tribune of December 8, 1944, pp. 288-290 of Volume IV in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Orwell categorically repudiates the “objective” argument as dishonest and short-sighted. The passage in which he does so is important since, pace Mr. Wain, it implies a clear abandonment—at least on these grounds—of his accusations against war re-sisters:

We are told that it is only people's objective actions that matter, and their subjective feelings are of no importance. Thus pacifists, by obstructing the war effort, are “objectively” aiding the Nazis; and therefore the fact that they may be personally hostile to fascism is irrelevant. I have been guilty of saying this myself more than once. The same argument is applied to Trotskyists. Trotskyists are often credited, at any rate by Communists, with being active and conscious agents of Hitler; but when you point out the many and obvious reasons why this is unlikely to be true, the “objectively” line of talk is brought forward again. To criticize the Soviet Union helps Hitler: therefore “Trotskyism is Fascism.” And when this has been established, the accusation of conscious treachery is usually repeated.

This is not only dishonest; it also carries a severe penalty with it. If you disregard people's motives, it becomes much harder to foresee their actions. . . .” (Emphasis added)

So much for Mr. Wain's first point. As for his second: since he lightly accuses me of falsifying history I must take the space to trace the vagaries of Orwell's political and personal connections. For Orwell, as good gray Mr. Wain is hardly likely to understand, was something of a chameleon, and to try—as Mr. Wain does—to base a comprehensive view of his politics on what he happened to say on one occasion in 1936 is absurd. It is true that in The Road to Wigan Pier Orwell castigates the freaks of the Left. At other times, as Mr. Wain will find if he is a little more careful in his reading of the Essays, Journalism and Letters, he is equally strong in castigating the Left establishment and the Labour party. His own record veered extremely, and, however strongly the conservatism that dominated one side of his nature might draw him toward a kind of patriotic social democracy, the radicalism that was its other side made him perpetually susceptible to the appeal of the sectarian personality.


A brief glance at Orwell's political record will suffice, I think, to justify what I said in my review about his affinities with sectarians of the Left.

After calling himself an anarchist in his first rebellion from colonial service under the British Raj, Orwell's introduction to left-wing politics was strictly sectarian. It came through his involvement with the Adelphi, which for a time followed Middleton Murry's ephemeral Independent Communist party, and later adopted the revolutionary line of the Independent Labour party, then a sectarian splinter from the Labour party. When Orwell made his researches for The Road to Wigan Pier, he did so largely through ILP contacts, and he went to Spain with ILP recommendations, which led him to join the POUM militia (nothing more sectarian than that!) and to become involved on the POUM-Anarchist side in the May fighting of 1937 in Barcelona. On his return from Spain Orwell was a convinced anti-Communist and a convinced Socialist, but he did not join the Labour party. Instead, in 1938, he joined the sectarian ILP. As late as 1939 he was denouncing the Labour party as warmongers, and writing to the anarchist Herbert Read suggesting they collaborate in laying the groundwork for an underground propaganda network in the event of war.


It is true that when war arrived Orwell's patriotism came very robustly to the surface. But even then he clung to the extreme left wing of those who supported the war, and kept the literary columns of the Tribune open to the pacifists, anarchists, Trotskyists, etc. After the war he became more critical of the Labour party and even, as his later letters show, of his former associates on the Tribune. During this period he contributed to libertarian and anarchist periodicals like the New Leader (of London); Freedom and Now (to whose publication fund he even gave money); and was prominent—as its vice chairman—in the Freedom Defense Committee, which he supported by financial contributions and public speeches. Read and I—anarchists both—were chairman and secretary respectively of that organization, and the working committee consisted entirely of members of small radical Left groups and the Peace Pledge Union.

All this is documented clearly in Volume IV of the Essays, which also includes many letters to anarchists and other Left sectarians which show clearly the close personal connections Orwell developed or renewed with them after the war. Julian Symons also has commented on this aspect of Orwell's last years in the London Magazine.

In my review I was talking of Orwell's relations with Left sectarians and pointing out that they illuminated an important aspect of his outlook. I never claimed—as Mr. Wain implies—that he was actually an anarchist, at least for the last twenty years of his life. As for the word libertarian, to which Mr. Wain appears equally strongly to object, how else, I ask, would he describe Orwell? As an authoritarian? There is surely no other alternative.

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