Spring/Summer 1995, Volume 12.2
William T. Ross
Pacifism vs. Patriotism: The Case of George Orwell
William T. Ross (Ph.D., University of Virginia) is Professor and Chair of the Department of English at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He is the author of Weldon Kees (Twayne, 1985).
Sabine Wichert points out that historians of the pre-war years have paid much more attention to the grand choreography of diplomatic move and counter-move than they have to the intellectual history of the l930s and more specifically to the leftist intellectualists' reactions to British foreign policy. Those reactions were apt to be convoluted, at least over time, and what she finds is very apropos of George Orwell's intellectual biography:
In some respects the 1930s can be seen as the last time in which a substantial number of intellectuals tried to think against the grain and apply more or less orthodox Marxist concepts to an essentially liberal political culture. The later years of the 1930s saw most of them readjust their thinking to the tradition of radical liberalism which now increasingly incorporated a social democratic end. (125)
Orwell was a member of the British Left for whom 1939 (and specifically late August 1939) was crucial. His conversion, during that month, from pacifist to war-supporter, is a crucial moment in his literary and politico-literary career. And even though his about-face, in and of itself, hardly had measurable, immediate political impact, it should have more general interest if only because it lies behind the creation of Animal Farm and 1984, two works which certainly had a great effect on leftist anti-Stalinism of the post-war era.
The casual reader, I suspect, attuned to the easy and well-nigh universal opprobrium heaped on Chamberlain after the 1938 agreement with Hitler at Munich, would hardly believe his eyes if he came upon a letter to Herbert Read that Orwell wrote on 4 January 1939. Orwell, already a notorious Stalin-basher, was asked by Read to sign an anti-Third International manifesto entitled "Towards a Free Revolutionary Art," a document signed by, among others, Diego Rivera and André Breton. Orwell signed but raised one objection:
The only point I am a bit doubtful about, though I don't press it, is this. On p. 2 you say "To make Russia safe for bureaucracy, first the German workers, then the Spanish workers, then the Czechoslovakian workers, have been left in the lurch." I've no doubt this is true, but is it strategically wise for people in our position to raise the Czech question at this moment? No doubt the Russians did leave the Czechs in the soup, but it does not seem to me that they behaved worse or very differently from the British and French Governments, and to suggest by implication that they ought to have gone to war to defend the Czechs is to suggest that Britain and France ought to have gone to war too, which is just what the Popular Frontiersmen would say and what I don't believe to be true. (Orwell 37)
Many well-thinking readers, I suspect, would assume that Orwell's editors botched the transcription or that Orwell made an incredible mistake in reference. Surely what he does not believe must refer to some debatable matter earlier in the passage instead of to the notion that we should not have abandoned the Czechs.
But that is precisely what Orwell did mean. Orwell had no use for the Popular-Front mentality of much of the Left, no desire to help Western capitalist democracies go to war against fascism. Thus from the time Orwell returned from Spain in mid-1937 until August of 1939, he was convinced that a European war was inevitable and that any true socialist should refuse to participate in it—should be a pacifist, in other words. The source of that pacifism lies in his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. The suppression of the anarcho-syndicalists and the independent Marxists by the Moscow-controlled communists (and their socialist and liberal allies) convinced Orwell that the "right-wing" leftists were of the same stripe as the fascists and that capitalism and fascism were simply "tweedledum" and "tweedledee." To ask capitalism to wage war against fascism, in other words, was to ask one moneyed institution to defend its economic interests against another. And once on war footing, if Spain was any example, those communists and liberal elements fighting against fascism would simply establish another fascist government (though they would doubtless call it something else). This rather confused vision of reality rested on Orwell's experiences with communist manipulation and the party's drive for centralized power. If a war party (with the Communist party in it as part of the Popular Front) got the upper hand, it would be just as totalitarian as the fascists. "Totalitarian," in fact, was just the umbrella term Orwell needed and would later use to describe the statist impulses of both extreme left and right authoritarianism; but, at least in early 1939, it had not become a regular part of his vocabulary.
Given Orwell's equation of capitalism (and Popular Frontism) with fascism, he naturally chose, in the face of the nightmare he saw unfolding, to link himself with the tradition of pacifist reaction against the first World War:
And thus we are one step nearer to the greater war "against Fascism" (cf 1914, "against militarism") which will allow Fascism, British variety, to be slipped over our necks during the first week. (I, 276)
This view of a collusion between capitalism and the statist elements of the left and the view of facism as just another form of capitalism will continue until the Hitler-Stalin pact is announced—and so will, naturally, his pacifism.
But his is not a pacifism of the turn-the-other-cheek variety. Orwell's personality was far too bellicose for him to deceive himself into thinking along those lines. On 31 July 1937, he wrote to his pacifist friend Rayner Heppenstall insisting that "I still think one must fight for socialism and against Fascism, I mean fight physically with weapons, only it is as well to discover which is which." Since genuine Socialism, Orwell assumed, would only arise out of the worker's struggle in a specific country, he could simultaneously be against aggressive wars (or defensive wars against foreign invaders, for that matter) while still letting a bit of belligerence hang out. Thus in a review of a pacifist book written by a former general in the British Army, Orwell insisted on a codicil to any pacifist theme:
The test for any pacifist is, does he differentiate between foreign war and civil war? If he does not, he is simply saying in effect that violence may be used by the rich against the poor but not by the poor against the rich. This test General Crozier passes…. (I, 283)
The most extreme example of Orwell's commitment to this anti-imperialistic pacifism was published in the Adelphi, a pacifist journal edited by Middleton Murray, ironically just one month before the Hitler-Stalin pact was signed. "Not Counting Niggers" is an examination of Clarence Streit's Union Now, a proposal for a closer confederation of the Western democracies. Essentially Orwell argues that while Streit is an honorable man, what, in his American naivete, he is proposing is a tighter confederation of imperialist countries, shored up (against "subject races") by the military might of the United States. As long as the "democracies" are also colonial powers, then they will fight against fascism to preserve their colonial, imperial privileges—not for genuine democracy. Thus even the leftists who support opposing fascism militarily are doing so not on moral grounds but in defense of imperial interests (no matter how much egalitarian chatter they may make from time to time).
That is the thrust of Orwell's argument. And there can be little doubt of his sincerity. Having served five years in the Burmese police, he spent a great deal of his subsequent life making up for his imperialist sins, in part by deliberately impoverishing himself. At least this is the explanation given by Orwell himself and some of his psychological critics to explain the tramping that he did and partially described in Down and Out in Paris and London. He also wrote a novel, Burmese Days, which satirized white colonial society, and he admitted his guilt for his colonial experiences to the world in 1937 in Road to Wigan Pier. One must also remember how much imperialism was still a part of the world scene. Hitler wanted Lebensraum, Mussolini had taken Abyssinia, and Churchill, among others, was determined never to surrender India. Thus the argument came both from conviction and doubtless from simple honesty—the honesty of a man who was seeing the term "democracy," unqualified by any complexity of context, fitted into all the latest anti-fascist slogans.
But simple honesty cannot explain Orwell's feverish state of mind. Orwell was not always coolly rational during the thirties, and this essay is a good example of how emotional his language could be. "Not Counting Niggers" is filled with terms which are, to say the least, dyslogistic in their force, designed to advance the argument through emotional shading rather than analysis. The period before Hitler becomes a "golden age," left-wing adherents "politicians and publicists." And one long sentence early on manages to produce a catalogue of Orwell's prejudices:
But it is a fact that the political obscenities of the past two years, the sort of monstrous harlequinade in which everyone is constantly bounding across the stage in a false nose—Quakers shouting for a bigger army, Communists waving Union Jacks, Winston Churchill posing as a democrat—would not have been possible without this guilty consciousness that we are all in the same boat. (I, 395)
The "same boat" is the vessel of threatened British economic self-interest, but the hypocrisy and self-deception are carried by the same foils Orwell first abused in Road to Wigan Pier—Quakers, Communists, and Conservative politicians pretending to be friends of equality. (Orwell developed significantly more respect for Churchill later.)
Elsewhere, the soi-disant opposition—the Labor party—"keeps up a pettyfogging grizzle against conscription at the same time as its own propaganda makes any real struggle against conscription impossible." And this grand masquerade and contradiction is accompanied by another contradictory process. Armaments "pour" from the factories, "books with titles about the "next war" "pour" from the presses, and left-wing journalists, renamed the "warriors of the New Statesman," "gloze over" the belligerent process by using phrases like "Peace Bloc," "Peace Front," "Democratic Front," etc. The reader who participates in the flood of armaments and books can hardly help from acquiescing in Orwell's sense that the "glozing over" by the left is a complementary process designed to produce the same militaristic aim—especially once the agents of that second process are identified as "warriors." The presence of "loaded," dyslogistic description of the warmongers' activities is accompanied by reductionist equations and definitions which tend to overlook any complexity of motivation or outlook. British capitalists, for example, are only interested in opposing Hitler because he threatens their property. They will only fight Hitler when "the alternative would be to give away some of their own property instead of, as hitherto, other people's." This dig at the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and Abyssinia reduces any complex concerns about principles or policies to simple self-interest and protection of property. The British and French empires become nothing more "in essence… but mechanisms for exploiting cheap coloured labour…" (I, 396). And the colonies represent "a far vaster system of injustice over which Hitler has no "power." Here the reduction is accompanied by more lexical sleight-of-hand. Ultimately Orwell means by "vaster" geographical extension, but before making that clear he lets the phrase "vaster injustice" sit by itself at the end of a paragraph, insinuating that the injustice is in some ways more monumental or profound than Hitler's. Likewise, his suggestion that Hitler's power is nothing compared to a colonial state's simply overlooks the multiple ways in which Hitler's power can and had been used (e.g., to alter the course of the Spanish Civil War to the detriment of the side Orwell fought for).
But the master-stroke of Orwell's reductionism comes early on when he pretends to utter a non-reductionist sentence. It would be very shallow and unfair to suggest that there is "nothing" (Orwell's emphasis) in what is now called "antiFacism except a concern for British dividends." The italicized "nothing," of course, sends the statement back on its reductionist path (how far from nothing would such a suggestion be?) and, in fact, the sentences on either side of the one in question suggest the essential truth of what Orwell purports to be denying. Clearly such tactics are not the most admirable performance for a man already gathering the reputation as the "conscience of the left."
Orwell concludes the essay by calling for the emergence of a "mass party whose first pledges are to refuse war and right imperial injustice" (I, 398). No matter how "decent" he thought the common man was, Orwell knew very well that anti-imperialism was not high on the popular agenda, hence he could have little real faith in such a party's genesis. And he admits as much in his last sentence. Besides, he is, in effect, preaching to the converted minority, not the masses. The question remains, why all this polemical energy?
The impulse was twofold, I suspect. He needed to vent his real feelings about the hypocrisy of war preparations. And he feared the consequences of rearmament. In another reductive equation, he asserts, in his penultimate paragraph, that "it is doubtful whether prolonged war-preparation is morally better than war itself." Presumably the society will be put on a sort of war-footing and authoritarian rule (Orwell calls it "austro-fascism") will merge, to be followed, as Nazism followed the Dolfuss regime in Austria, by a real fascist movement. Fascist or merely predatory capitalist, any government bringing about war would be anathema to him, or so he thought before the summer of 1939. Indeed, he was even prepared to rebel against it, to act treasonously, as it were.
In the same letter containing his comments on Czechoslovakia, Orwell tells Read what he will also state in "Not Counting Niggers"i.e., that war will come in 1941 when rearmament is completed—and that Chamberlain will soon begin a "fascising" (surely the most awkward word in all of Orwell's lexicon) process. Before that process is too far along, "it is vitally necessary for those of us who intend to oppose the coming war to start organizing for illegal anti-war activities" (I, 377-78). What he has in mind turns out to be laying aside printing presses and paper stock so that the proper "underground organization" can issue a flood of pamphlets and broadsides to Fascist Britain.
Read must have indicated in reply that he was not sure who Orwell intended to battle against in this underground campaign. Orwell answered at length on 5 March 1939 (from Marakech, where he was spending the winter on doctor's order to allow a tubercular lesion to heal). This reply gives the clearest indication of what he thinks is going to happen in the coming years and of what he thinks the role of the pacifist left should be. He begins by admitting that Read is right to point out that his proposal might be somewhat premature. But he is convinced that oppression will come, that it is wise to purchase items while they are still available. His scenario unfolds:
The chances of Labour or any Left combination winning the elections are in my opinion nil, and in any case if they did get in I doubt whether they'd be better than or much different from the Chamberlain lot. We are therefore in either for war in the next two years, or for prolonged war-preparation, or possibly only for sham war-preparations designed to cover up other objects, but in any of these cases for a fascising process leading to an authoritarian regime, i.e., some kind of austro-fascism. So long as the objective, real or pretended, is war against Germany, the greater part of the Left will associate themselves with wage-reductions, suppression of free speech, brutalities in the colonies, etc. (I, 386)
The "official Left" having been disqualified by its warmongering, only the splinter-party socialists like Orwell will have any credibility on the Left. But there will be another political faction with anti-war credibility: the British fascists. At some point, Orwell believed, the British people will be so appalled by war or war-preparations that they may very will turn to the fascists for salvation—unless there is a left-alternative. And, one way or another, he is convinced that fascism will come to England, but "clearly one must put up a fight." Perhaps his distance from the scene made Orwell such a poor judge, perhaps his loyalty to the Independent Labour Party (a residue of his Spanish experience) and his dislike of those leftists who had closed their eyes to the Communist Party's shenanigans, clouded Orwell's judgment. In any event, four months after his return to England, the Hitler-Stalin pact was signed and all of Orwell's fear about a fascist England dissolved.
Indeed Orwell claims his change-of-heart occurred as a result of a dream he had the night before Ribbentrop's flight to Moscow was announced, two day before the pact was signed.
…I dreamed that the war had started. It was one of those dreams which, whatever Freudian inner meaning they may have, do sometimes reveal to you the real state of your feelings. It taught me two things, first, that I should be simply relieved when the long-dreaded war started, secondly, that I was patriotic at heart, would not sabotage or act against my own side, would support the war, would fight in it if possible. (I, 539)
The "relief" is understandable. Orwell had thought war inevitable for some time. But his new-found patriotism was completely counter to the internationalist assumptions of his socialist pacifism and, of course, his certainty that he would not engage in sabotage went completely against his thoughts and actions of a mere five months previously. Indeed, when push came to shove, as he recognized himself, the internationalist was overwhelmed by his class background.
What I knew in my dream that night was that the long drilling in patriotism which the middle classes go through had done its work, and that once England was in a serious jam it would be impossible for me to sabotage. (I, 539)
Sure enough, the man who two years previously had written that "war against a foreign country only happens when the moneyed classes think they are going to profit from it" now turned exceedingly patriotic and, in the process, turned on his former compatriots. In April, 1940, writing once again to Heppenstall, he claimed that he had been invited to a conference at the Adelphi Centre, an offshoot of the journal in which he had published "Not Counting Niggers." He could not manage to attend, or so he claimed, "but sent a lecture to be read by someone else, attacking pacifism for all I was worth." The lecture has not survived but the intemperance of his remarks can be gauged by his comments, written for the readers of the Partisan Review (March-April 1942) that "there is no real answer to the charge that pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist." "Objectively" is Marxist cant, of course, and just the kind that Orwell had been objecting to for years. Nevertheless, two issues later, when the pages of Partisan Review contained a heated exchange between Orwell and the pacifists D. S. Savage, George Woodcock, and Alex Comfort, he repeated the charge, identified it as "elementary common sense" and went on (I, 229) to refer to the current pacifists as the "Fascifist gang." Orwell had definitely become pro-war.
But despite his new-found willingness to fight against Hitler—and for his own country—Orwell still did not adopt the Popular Fron mentality. (Though he did enjoy watching the British CP quickly disavow its interest in a Popular Front.) Instead, Orwell managed to convince himself that the war, far from being a "moral evil," presented the ideal opportunity for a socialist revolution. And though he was foolish enough to think, as late as 1940, that there was a chance for a Leftist revolt in Germany, his focus was now on a specifically British revolution. It is interesting to see how his views developed during the first six or eight months of the war. In an essay entitled "Democracy in the British Army," first published in Left Forum (September 1939), Orwell notes that despite left-wing assertions that the current rearmament will not produce a class-bound Army, there is no real alternative. Furthermore, any increase in military strength "means more power for the forces of reaction" (I, 405). Surely, he suggests darkly, some of our "left-wing jingoes" are acting with their eyes open "to this fundamental truth." This piece was obviously written before hostilities began, but by 10 January 1940, Orwell writes to the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer that he has "so far completely failed to serve HM government in any capacity, though I want to, because it seems to me that now we are in this bloody war we have got to win it & [sic] I would like to lend a hand." This from a man who was trying to get into the army despite having spent much of the last 18 months in a tuberculosis sanatarium or wintering in Morocco to protect his lungs from a British winter. England had "got to win the war," and what she had "got to do," in his opinion, was to bring about a revolution "equalising incomes, abolishing class priviledges and setting free the subject peoples" (I, 530). This agenda is found in a letter to the literary scholar Humphrey House (11 April 1940). Without this revolution, he tells House, "I don't believe the war can otherwise be won."
The revolutionary, then, had found a way to co-exist with the patriot. And over the next two years, most of his writing would be devoted to advancing a political outlook which was anti-totalitarian, nationalistic, populist, and leftist. He would write at least three major essays advancing these views: "My Country Right or Left," "Fasicsm and Democracy," and "Patriots and Revolutionaries," the latter two printed in The Betrayal of the Left, a volume edited by Victor Gollancz, and aimed, of course, at renouncing (and denouncing) the apostate Soviet Union. He would also write The Lion and the Unicorn, a separately published pamphlet which Bernard Crick calls "the only book that has ever been written about the possibility of revolution in terms of English national character" (Crick 256). And he would maintain a wartime diary in which he obviously hoped to be able to chart the progress of the English towards his kind of revolution. He would also tell American readers, in his "Letters from London" in Partisan Review, that England was on the verge of revolution, and, on a more personal level, he would join the Home Guard, clearly hoping, as Crick documents, that it would be the nucleus of a new people's army which could eventually bring about the revolution that he hoped for (268-272). Some time later, he would even go to work for the BBC, in charge of broadcasting to India, an assignment which he undertook without ever compromising his belief that India should be free, but also convinced that she too should help prosecute the war and not collaborate with, or revolt in favor of, the Japanese.1
In "My Country Right or Left," published in Folio of New Writing, Autumn, 1940, Orwell tries to bring out the implications of his "patriotic dream." It is, to say the least, a crazy salad. To begin, patriotism has got to be re-defined:
Patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism. It is devotion to something that is changing but is felt to be mystically the same, like the devotion of the ex-White Bolshevik to Russia. To be loyal both to Chamberlain's England and to the England of tomorrow might seem an impossibility, if one did not know it to be an everyday phenomenon. (I, 539)
But this permission, so to speak, for the leftist to be a patriot has to be divorced from a reliance on evolutionary changes to bring about the England of "tomorrow." Instead, Orwell raises the rhetorical temperature:
Only revolution can save England, that has been obvious for years, but now the revolution has started, and it may proceed quite quickly if only we can keep Hitler out. Within two years, maybe a year, if only we can hang on, we shall see changes that will surprise the idiots who have no foresight. I dare say the London gutters will have to run with blood. All right, let them, if necessary. But when the red militias are billeted in the Ritz I shall still feel that the England I was taught to love so long ago and for such different reasons is somehow persisting. (I, 539-40)
The start of the revolution has not been previously noted and certainly not argued, but this oversight is quickly engulfed by the images of blood from civil conflict and the choice of red to describe the army billeted at the Ritz. It is as if Orwell wants to assure the most bellicose leftist that his nationalist patriotism allows plenty of space for bloodletting. Indeed, in his last paragraph, he cites John Cornford's "Before the Storming of Huesca" to prove that the young communist who was killed in Spain had learned the virtues of loyalty to the cause at his English public school. "He had changed his allegiance but not his emotion" (I, 540). And from this example Orwell moves to assert that one can build a socialist revolution "on the bones of a Blimp" and that man has a "spiritual need for patriotism and the military virtues." This is true, he asserts in one final blast of rhetorical violence aimed at the pacifist Left, no matter what the "boiled rabbits of the Left" may think. The "boiled rabbits of the Left" had been Orwell's target since at least 1936 precisely because, in putting down traditional English values, they frightened off the more impoverished elements of the middle classes—elements to which Orwell could never deny that he belonged and which he felt were crucial for any successful revolution.
In The Lion and the Unicorn, subtitled "Socialism and the English Genius," he tries to construct a basis for revolutionary values and action which is more likely to appeal to a middle class with nationalistic affinities. Since Orwell always thought that "common decency" was one of the hallmarks of the average Englishman, any egalitarian government based on English values would eschew the possibility of totalitarian excesses, of which Orwell, among others, was becoming increasingly aware. After all, he claims, Englishmen have a different "code of conduct," know the distinction between "law" and "power" (II, 63), indeed "breathe a different air" (II, 56). What England is, in effect, is a "family" but a family "with the wrong members in control." The implications of this metaphor more or less explain Orwell's revolutionary goals. He is essentially interested in nationalizing industry, equalizing incomes, and attacking the whole notion of "privilege." Clearly something will have to be done also about the colonies—and what he proposes is closely akin to the Commonwealth system that emerged after the war. But he is prepared to be illogical. The privileged monarchy would remain; the church would be disestablished but otherwise unharmed.
But this is a proposal for radical change in time of war, and Orwell's real emphasis is on winning the war. Precisely because, despite his own hatred of fascism, he could see no real reason for the English working class or the poorer middle classes to support the war, he came to feel that "the war and the revolution are inseparable." Halifax (the aristocratic Foreign Secretary) could have no real war aim except to restore the world of 1933, an aim the average Briton would not care to fight for. And the war had made the absurdity of Halifax's view, the inequality of the sacrifice, and the injustice of privilege stand out in much starker contrast. Therefore, the former pacifist now finds reason to praise war: "War is the greatest of all agents of change. It speeds up all processes, wipes out minor distinctions, brings realities to the surface" (II, 94). And the reality is that the successful prosecution of the war requires a revolution, a revolution by patriotic Englishmen intent upon restructuring England.
Clearly Orwell thought such a restructuring might actually occur. His first war-time diary, which runs from May 1940 to August 1941 was probably meant to be a record of such a revolution. The entry for 30 May 1940, for example, notes that his fellow anti-Stalinist Franz Borkenau reports that "England is now definitely in the first stage of a revolution." And the early pages are peppered with examples of stupidity of the upper classes. By 24 June, he is noting that Churchill must go since he cannot see that "any real struggle means revolution." On the same date he notes that Local Defense Volunteers (later to be renamed the Home Guard) had been asked to give up all revolvers to the police "as they are needed for the army."
Clinging to useless weapons like revolvers, when the Germans have sub-machine-guns, is typical of the British army, but I believe the real reason for the order is to prevent weapons getting into "the wrong" hands. (I, 354-55)
Of course, the wrong hands are not criminal but revolutionary, and LDV-member Orwell was not alone in hoping that it was the first step to a people's army.
But the revolution did not come, and on August 1941 Orwell sees that it is time to close the diary:
There is no victory in sight at present. We are in for a long, dreary exhausting war, with everyone growing poorer all the time. The new phase which I foresaw earlier has now started, and the quasi-revolutionary period which began with Dunkirk is finished. I therefore bring this diary to an end, as I intended to do when the new phase started. (I, 409)
Patriotism without revolution would apparently be enough. But Orwell did not abandon his own "war aims"—and on 14 March 1942 he re-opened the diary because the war now in a "new" phase. What was new were actually rumors of Stafford Cripp's mission to India, which fueled for the moment Orwell's hope that at least there would be a revolution in Britain's imperialist policy. In fact, Cripp's mission failed, and Orwell spent the next several months noting the steady deterioration of Anglo-Indian relations. The last entry is for 15 November 1942, where he notes that for the first time in two years he had heard church bells ringing for "the victory in Egypt."
That Orwell could celebrate victory without domestic revolution suggests that Sabine Wichert is right—that radicalism had given way to social democratic goals. But the more immediate concern here is the conversion from a radical pacifism to a sort of domestic revolutionism. What motivated Orwell's sudden change of heart? My suspicion is that if Orwell had really known why he did an about-face, he would have told us, instead of reverting to the suspect genre of the meaningful or prophetic dream. (Which, by the by, may not even be true. Orwell and other documentarians of the period have been known to alter and invent details presented as "factual.")
I would speculate that one of the things that drove Orwell to abandon pacifism even if it meant helping capitalism was his discovery of the inexorableness of totalitarianism. As early as January, 1939, in a review of Bertrand Russell's Power: A New Social Analysis, Orwell indicated he had grasped the reality-denying essence of totalitarianism he would explore in 1984:
It is quite possible that we are descending into an age in which two and two will make five when the Leader says so. Mr. Russell points out that the huge system of organized lying upon which dictators depend keeps their followers out of contact with reality and therefore tends to put them at a disadvantage as against those who know the facts. This is true so far as it goes, but it does not prove that the slave-society at which the dictators are aiming will be unstable. It is quite easy to imagine a state in which the ruling caste deceive their followers without deceiving themselves. Dare anyone be sure that something of the kind is not coming into existence already? (I, 376)
That Germany would follow this path was one thing, but with Germany and Russia combined, it was quite possible that the world could be taken over by totalitarian powers. Hence it became more important to oppose them than to maintain an absolutely anti-capitalistic stance.
Secondly, the pact itself showed up the shallowness of many leftist intellectuals. Alex Zwerdling, in his excellent book, cites many examples of Orwell's contempt for those who had to do an about-face after the pact was signed, moving from a pro-war-with-Germany to anti-war position (Zwerdling 11, 49, 51, 83). He does not point out the irony of Orwell's doing just the opposite. By supporting a war against fascism Orwell could go against the political movement he had wanted to fight at least since 1936 and against those elements of the Left that he despised. With the fascists and the Cominter—nor its successors—in the same boat, it became an irresistible target.
Finally, for all of his support of pacifism, Orwell had worked himself into a state of mind where war seemed like a desirable purgative.2 Coming Up For Air, a novel written in part during his stay at Marakesh and published in 1939 is a jeremiad against peacetime Britain, a land of boring and meaningless existence dominated by ersatz products forced upon the public by tasteless advertising. War could purge away all this (and the novel makes clear that war is coming). Orwell had been fighting the battle for pacifism, but now the veteran of the Spanish Civil War needed a real battle. Oddly enough, he found in Adolph Hitler a kindred spirit in this anti-hedonistic desire to confront essential reality. Reviewing a new and unabridged translation of Mein Kampf, he points out that the typical Socialist has no place in his value scheme for "struggle and sacrifice," for which, at least intermittently, people feel a need (II,14). Socialists are horrified to find their children playing with toy soldiers, but they can never find a substitute: "tin pacifists somehow won't do." Especially when one remembers how sincere Orwell was about wanting to join the army as soon as war was declared, one ultimately comes to suspect that the Hitler-Stalin Pact gave Orwell the excuse to put away his tin pacifists, to stop making mere rhetorical war and satisfy his own need for the real thing. And when he was not allowed to participate in the real thing, he turned back to the rhetorical war—first in Animal Farm, then in 1984.
1But he certainly compromised some of his other beliefs as he tried to hew the "official" line. See W. J. West, ed., Orwell: The War Commentaries (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985) which reprints all of Orwell's weekly summations of war news for an Indian audience.
2Ian Slater in his Orwell: The Road to Airstrip One (New York: W. W. Norton, 1985), p. 180, suggests that Orwell might have had to overcome a feeling of "acceptance" of totalitarian inevitability brought on by the collapse of the Spanish Republic in 1939. But Orwell never considered not fighting against fascism and he knew as early as late in 1937 that the outcome of the Spanish war would not be to his liking.
Crick, Bernard. George Orwell: A Life. London: Secker and Warburg, 1980.
Orwell, George. The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell. Ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. 4 vols. London: Secker and Warburg, 1968.
Wichert, Sabine. "The British Left and Appeasement: Political Tactics or Alternative Policies?" in Wolfgang J. Mommsen and Lothar Kettenocker, The Fascist Challenge and the Policy of Appeasement. Ed. Wolfgang I Mommsen and Lothar Keltenbocker. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1983.
Zwerdling, Alex. Orwell and the Left. New Haven: Yale UP, 1974.