Two quotations from George Orwell

Posted by Tory Historian Friday, October 03, 2008 , ,

Tory Historian finds that re-reading George Orwell's essays is a remarkably useful exercise as one always finds something new and something appropriate. It is also interesting to look out for Orwell's weak points in politics and literature.

Writing about propaganda, for instance, he rightly compares Soviet films about the Civil War in which the evil Whites are vanquished by the heroic Reds after a great deal of fighting and with many losses with Hollywood films where similar scenarios are played out on the opposite side. However, the films with heroic Reds, in Orwell's opinion, are more useful in the long run than the ones with heroic Whites. Admittedly, this was written before he recognized fully the evil of Communism but he remained a man of the left.

The essay that Tory Historian concentrated on this time was "Notes on Nationalism", written in 1945 and an excellent analysis of the intelligentsia and its political attitudes before and during the Second World War.

The whole piece is worth reading but here are two quotations that remain relevant:

It is curious to reflect that out of all "experts" of all the schools, there was not a single one who was able to foresee so likely an event as the Russo-German pact of 1939. [It is worth adding that Orwell always referred to Russia when he meant the Soviet Union and, also, that, as he himself acknowledges in a footnote, some conservative writers, such as Peter Drucker, did realize that there would be some kind of an alliance.] And when the news of the Pact broke, the most wildly divergent explanations of it were given, and predictions were made which were falsified almost immediately, being based in nearly every case not on a study of probabilities but on a desire to make the U.S.S.R. seem good or bad, strong or weak.

Political or military commentators, like astrologers, can survive almost any mistake, because their more devoted followers do not look to them for an appraisal of the facts but for the stimulation of nationalistitc loyalties.
The other quotation Tory Historian found particularly apt comes from the same essay in the discussion of political Catholicism, the precursor of Communism as the intelligentsia's nationalism of choice.

Writing about G. K. Chesterton's later work Orwell points out that it consisted almost entirely of loud statements that demonstrated "beyond possibility of mistake the superiority of the Catholic over the Protestant or the pagan".

This was not enough:
But Chesterton was not content to think of his superiority as merely intellectual or spiritual: it had to be translated into terms of national prestige and military power, which entailed an ignorant idealization of the Lating countries, especially France. Chesterton had not lived long in France, and his picture of it - as a land of Catholic peasants incessantly singing the Marseillaise over glasses of red wine - had about as much relation to reality as Chu Chin Chow has to everyday life in Baghdad.

And with this went not only an enormous overestimation of French military power (both before and after 1914 - 1918 he maintained that France, by itself, was stronger than Germany), but a silly and vulager glorification of the actual process of war. Chesterton's battle poems, such as Lepanto or The Ballad of Saint Barbara, make The Charge of the Light Brigade read like a pacifist tract:
they are perhas the most tawdry bits of bombast to be found in our language.

The interesting thing is that had the romantic rubbish which he habitually wrote about France and the French army been written by somebody else about Britain and the British army, he would have been the first to jeer.

In home politics he was a little Englander, a true hater of jiongoism and imperialism, and according to his lights a true friend of democracy. Yet when he looked outwards into the international field, he could forsake his principles without even noticing that he was doing so.

Thus, his almost mysical belief in the virtues of democracy did not prevent him from admiring Mussolini. Mussolini had destroyed the reperesentative government and the freedom of the Press for which Chesterton had struggled so hard at home, but Mussolini was an Italian and had made Italy strong, and that settled the matter.
One can argue about the literary merits of Chesterton's poems (Orwell is falling into the trap he so clearly describes of dismissing the literary merits of a work with which he disagrees) and, undoubtedly, Tennyson's can be used for pacifist arguments but the main argument remains as valid as ever.

There was nothing new about this curious juxtaposition of ideas. The crusading left-wing journalist W. T. Stead was also one of the strongest supporters of Alexander III's authoritarian regime in Russia. Nor has anything much changed. We know about the left-wing support for every kind of oppressive and totalitarian regime in the twentieth and twenty-first century. But less has been said about people, on the left and on the right, who while arguing for democracy and national sovereignty as far as Britain is concerned, also support certain Russian and Balkan leaders whose views and behaviour are the very antithesis of that. Chesterton's spirit hovers over them all.


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