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George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 19. London Letter to Partisan Review


George Orwell

George Orwell

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George Orwell,

The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters

19. London Letter to Partisan Review

London NW8

15 April 1941

 

Dear Editors,

As you see by the above date, I only received your letter a month after it was sent, so there is not much hope of my getting a reply to you by 20 April. I expect this will reach you before June, however. I will try to make some sort of answer to all your questions, but I should go over the allotted space if I answered them all in full, so I will concentrate on the ones I know most about. You don’t mention anything in my previous letter having been blacked out by the censor, so I presume I can speak fairly freely.13

13. The British Censorship Bureau later notified Orwell it excised from his letter of 15 April a reference to the possible lynching of German airmen who baled out.

 

1. What is the level and tone of the popular press these days? How much real information about the war effort comes out? How fully are strikes and labour troubles reported? Debates in Parliament? How dominant is the propaganda note? Is this propaganda mostly anti-Hun and jingoistic flag-waving as in the last war, or is it more anti-Fascist? What about the radio? Cinema?

The tone of the popular press has improved out of recognition during the last year. This is especially notable in the Daily Mirror and Sunday Pictorial (“tabloid” papers of vast circulation, read largely by the army), and the Beaverbrook papers, the Daily Express, Sunday Express and Evening Standard. Except for the Daily Mail and certain Sunday papers these used to be the most lowbrow section of the press, but they have all grown politically serious, while preserving their “stunt” make-up, with screaming headlines, etc. All of them print articles which would have been considered hopelessly above their readers’ heads a couple of years ago, and the Mirror and the Standard are noticeably “left”. The Standard is the least important of Beaverbrook’s three papers, and he has apparently taken his eye off it and left its direction almost entirely to young journalists of left-wing views who are allowed to say what they like so long as they don’t attack the boss directly. Nearly the whole of the press is now “left” compared with what it was before Dunkirk — even The Times mumbles about the need for centralized ownership and greater social equality — and to find any straight-forward expression of reactionary opinions, i.e. reactionary in the old pre-Fascist sense, you now have to go to obscure weekly and monthly papers, mostly Catholic papers. There is an element of eyewash in all this, but it is partly due to the fact that the decline in the trade in consumption goods has robbed the advertisers of much of their power over editorial policy. Ultimately this will bankrupt the newspapers and compel the State to take them over, but at the moment they are in an interim period when they are controlled by journalists rather than advertisers, which is all to the good for the short time it will last.

As to accuracy of news, I believe this is the most truthful war that has been fought in modern times. Of course one only sees enemy newspapers very rarely, but in our own papers there is certainly nothing to compare with the frightful lies that were told on both sides in 1914-18 or in the Spanish Civil War. I believe that the radio, especially in countries where listening-in to foreign broadcasts is not forbidden, is making large-scale lying more and more difficult. The Germans have now sunk the British navy several times over in their published pronouncements, but don’t otherwise seem to have lied much about major events. When things are going badly our own Government lies in a rather stupid way, withholding information and being vaguely optimistic, but generally has to come out with the truth within a few days. I have it on very good authority that reports of air-battles etc. issued by the Air Ministry are substantially truthful, though of course favourably coloured. As to the other two fighting services I can’t speak. I doubt whether labour troubles are really fully reported. News of a large-scale strike would probably never be suppressed, but I think you can take it that there is a strong tendency to pipe down on labour friction, and also on the discontent caused by billeting, evacuation, separation allowances for soldiers’ wives etc. etc. Debates in Parliament are probably not misrepresented in the press, but with a House full of deadheads they are growing less and less interesting and only about four newspapers now give them prominence.

Propaganda enters into our lives more than it did a year ago, but not so grossly as it might. The flag-waving and Hun-hating is absolutely nothing to what it was in 1914-18, but it is growing. I think the majority opinion would now be that we are fighting the German people and not merely the Nazis. Vansittart’s hate-Germany pamphlet, Black Record, sold like hot cakes. It is idle to pretend that this is simply something peculiar to the bourgeoisie. There have been very ugly manifestations of it among the common people. Still, as wars go, there has been remarkably little hatred so far, at any rate in this country. Nor is “anti-Fascism”, of the kind that was fashionable during the Popular Front period, a strong force yet. The English people have never caught up with that. Their war morale depends more on old-fashioned patriotism, unwillingness to be governed by foreigners, and simple inability to grasp when they are in danger.

I believe that the B.B.C., in spite of the stupidity of its foreign propaganda and the unbearable voices of its announcers, is very truthful. It is generally regarded here as more reliable than the press. The movies seem almost unaffected by the war, i.e. in technique and subject-matter. They go on and on with the same treacly rubbish, and when they do touch on politics they are years behind the popular press and decades behind the average book.

2. Is there any serious writing being done? Is there any antiwar literature like Barbusse etc. in the last war? Over here we hear there is a tendency towards romanticism and escapism in current British writing. Is this true?

So far as I know, nothing of consequence is being written, except in fragmentary form, diaries and short sketches for instance. The best novels I have read during the past year were either American or translations of foreign books written several years earlier. There is much production of anti-war literature, but of a one-eyed irresponsible kind. There is nothing corresponding to the characteristic war books of 1914-18. All of those in their different ways depended on a belief in the unity of European civilization, and generally on a belief in international working-class solidarity. That doesn’t exist any longer — Fascism has killed it. No one believes any longer that a war can be stopped by the workers on both sides simultaneously refusing to fight. To be effectively anti-war in England now one has to be pro-Hitler, and few people have the intellectual courage to be that, at any rate wholeheartedly. I don’t see why good books shouldn’t be written from the pro-Hitler angle, but none are appearing as yet.

I don’t see any tendency to escapism in current literature, but I believe that if any major work were now produced it would be escapist, or at any rate subjective. I infer this from looking into my own mind. If I could get the time and mental peace to write a novel now, I should want to write about the past, the pre-1914 period, which I suppose comes under the heading of “escapism”.

3. What is the morale of the regular army like? Is there any tendency towards more democracy? Is it, so to speak, a British army primarily, or an anti-Fascist army — like the Loyalist army in Spain?

I believe that the morale of the army is very good in a fighting sense but that there is much discontent about low separation allowances and class-privilege in the matter of promotion, and that the troops in England are horribly bored by the long inaction, the dull, muddy camps where they have spent the winter while their families were being bombed in the big towns, and the stupidity of a military system which was designed for illiterate mercenaries and is now being applied to fairly well-educated conscripts. It is still primarily a “non-political” British army. But there are now regular classes in political instruction, and subject to local variation, depending on the commander of the unit, there seems to be a good deal of freedom of discussion. As to “tendency towards democracy”, I should say that there is probably less than there was a year ago, but that if one looks back five years the advance is enormous. On active service the officers now wear almost the same uniform as the men (battledress), and some of them habitually wear this on home service. The practice of saluting officers in the street has largely lapsed. New drafts of recruits all have to pass through the ranks and promotion is theoretically on merit alone, but the official claim, based on this, that the army is now entirely democratic should not be taken seriously. The framework of regular officers is still there and newcomers tend to be promoted on social grounds, with, no doubt, an eye to political reliability. But all this will gradually change if the war goes on. The need for able men will be too great, and the difference between the middle class and the better-paid working class is now too small, for at any rate the lower ranks of the army to remain on a class basis. The disasters now probably ahead of us may push the process of democratization forward, as the disaster in Flanders did a year ago.

4. We read your interesting article in a recent Tribune on the Home Guards. Could you tell us something of the present status of the movement? Is Wintringham the moving force behind it still? Is it mostly a middle-class or a working-class army? How democratic is it today?

The Home Guard is the most anti-Fascist body existing in England at this moment, and at the same time is an astonishing phenomenon, a sort of People’s Army officered by Blimps. The rank and file are predominantly working class, with a strong middle-class seasoning, but practically all the commands are held by wealthy elderly men, a lot of whom are utterly incompetent. The Home Guard is a part-time force, practically unpaid, and at the beginning it was organized, I think consciously and intentionally, in such a way that a working-class person would never have enough spare time to hold any post above that of sergeant. Just recently the higher positions have been stuffed with retired generals, admirals and titled dugouts of all kinds. Principal age-groups of the rank and file are between thirty-five and fifty or under twenty. Officers from Company Commander (Captain) upwards are much older on average, sometimes as old as seventy.

Given this set-up you can imagine the struggle that has gone on between the blimpocracy, wanting a parade-ground army of pre-1914 type, and the rank and file wanting, though less articulately, a more democratic type of force specializing in guerilla methods and weapons. The controversy has never been overtly political but has turned upon technical points of organization, discipline and tactics, all of which, of course, have political implications which are half-consciously grasped on both sides. The War Office has been fairly open-minded and helpful, but I think it is true to say that the higher ranks within the Home Guard have fought steadily against a realistic view of war and that all experimentation and attempts at serious training have been due to proddings from below. Wintringham and some of his associates are still at the Home Guard training school (started unofficially by the weekly Picture Post and afterwards taken over by the War Office), but the Wintringham (“People’s Army”) school of thought has lost ground during the past six months. It or something like it will probably gain ground again during the coming months, and Wintringham has had very great influence, as thousands of men from all parts of the country have passed through his hands in three-day training courses. Although the Home Guard is now more similar to the regular army, or rather to the pre-war Territorials, than it was when it began, it is much more democratic and consciously anti-Fascist than some of its commanders would wish. It has several times been rumoured that the Government was growing nervous about it and contemplated disbanding it, but no move has been made to do this. A very important point, technically necessary to a force of this kind but only obtained after a struggle, is that the men keep their rifles and usually some ammunition in their own homes. The officers wear practically the same uniform as the men and there is no saluting off parade. Although the class nature of the command is widely grasped there has not been much friction. Within the lower ranks the spirit is extremely democratic and comradely, with an absence of snobbishness and class-uneasiness that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. I speak from experience here as I serve in a mixed residential area where factory-workers and quite rich men march in the ranks together. In general the political outlook of the men is old-fashioned patriotism mixed up with ill-defined but genuine hatred of the Nazis. Jews are numerous in the London units. In general, I think the danger of the Home Guard being turned into a reactionary middle-class militia still exists, but that this is not now likely to happen.

5. How aggressive and articulate is big-business reaction today (not Mosley’s Blackshirts, but the more solid and serious forces of big capital)? You mention a political swing to the right in the Churchill Government of late months. Does this mean the forces of organized business are climbing back into the saddle?

I don’t know what is going on behind the scenes and can only answer this question very generally, thus: laissez-faire capitalism is dead in England and can’t revive unless the war ends within the next few months. Centralized ownership and planned production are bound to come. The whole question is who is to be in control. The recent rightward swing means that we are being regimented by wealthy men and aristocrats rather than by representatives of the common people. They will use their power to keep the structure of government on a class basis, manipulate taxation and rationing in their own favour, and avoid a revolutionary war strategy; but not to return to capitalism of the old chaotic kind. The swing of the past six months hasn’t meant more economic freedom or profits for the individual businessman — quite the contrary; but it has meant that you are less likely to get an important job unless you have been to one of the right schools. I have given elsewhere my reasons for thinking that this tendency will change, but that has been the tendency since last autumn.

6. Would you say that Bevin and Morrison still command the support of the British working class? Are there any other Labour Party politicians who have taken on new dimensions in the course of the war — assuming those two have? Is the shop-steward movement still growing?

I know very little of industrial matters. I should say that Bevin does command working-class support and Morrison probably not. There is a widespread feeling that the Labour Party as a whole has simply abdicated. The only other Labour man whose reputation has grown is Cripps. If Churchill should go, Cripps and Bevin are tipped as the likeliest men for the premiership, with Bevin evidently favourite.

7. How do you explain what, over here, seems to be the remarkable amount of democracy and civil liberties preserved during the war? Labour pressure? British tradition? Weakness of the upper classes?

“British tradition” is a vague phrase, but I think it is the nearest answer. I suppose I shall seem to be giving myself a free advert, but may I draw attention to a recent book of mine, The Lion and the Unicorn (I believe copies have reached the U.S.A.)? In it I pointed out that there is in England a certain feeling of family loyalty which cuts across the class system (also makes it easier for the class system to survive, I am afraid) and checks the growth of political hatred. There could, I suppose, be a civil war in England, but I have never met any English person able to imagine one. At the same time one ought not to overrate the amount of freedom of the intellect existing here. The position is that in England there is a great respect for freedom of speech but very little for freedom of the press. During the past twenty years there has been much tampering, direct and indirect, with the freedom of the press, and this has never raised a flicker of popular protest. This is a lowbrow country and it is felt that the printed word doesn’t matter greatly and that writers and such people don’t deserve much sympathy. On the other hand the sort of atmosphere in which you daren’t talk politics for fear that the Gestapo may be listening isn’t thinkable in England. Any attempt to produce it would be broken not so much by conscious resistance as by the inability of ordinary people to grasp what was wanted of them. With the working classes, in particular, grumbling is so habitual that they don’t know when they are grumbling. Where unemployment can be used as a screw, men are often afraid of expressing “red” opinions which might get round to the overseer or the boss, but hardly anyone would bother, for instance, about being overheard by a policeman. I believe that an organization now exists for political espionage in factories, pubs, etc. and of course in the army, but I doubt whether it can do more than report on the state of public opinion and occasionally victimize some individual held to be dangerous. A foolish law was passed some time back making it a punishable offence to say anything “likely to cause alarm and despondency” (or words to that effect). There have been prosecutions under it, a few score I should say, but it is practically a dead letter and probably the majority of people don’t know of its existence. You can hardly go into a pub or railway carriage without hearing it technically infringed, for obviously one can’t discuss the war seriously without making statements which might cause alarm. Possibly at some time a law will be passed forbidding people to listen in to foreign radio stations, but it will never be enforceable.

The British ruling class believe in democracy and civil liberty in a narrow and partly hypocritical way. At any rate they believe in the letter of the law and will sometimes keep to it when it is not to their advantage. They show no sign of developing a genuinely Fascist mentality. Liberty of every kind must obviously decline as a result of war, but given the present structure of society and social atmosphere there is a point beyond which the decline cannot go. Britain may be fascized from without or as a result of some internal revolution, but the old ruling class can’t, in my opinion, produce a genuine totalitarianism of their own. Not to put it on any other grounds, they are too stupid. It is largely because they have been unable to grasp the first thing about the nature of Fascism that we are in this mess at all.

8. From over here, it looks as though there had been a very rapid advance towards a totalitarian war economy in the last few months — rationing spreading wider, Bevin’s conscription of certain classes of workers, extension of government controls over business. Is this impression correct? Is the tempo growing more or less rapid? How does the man in the street feel about the efficiency of the war effort? How much does he feel in his daily life the effect of these measures?

Yes, the thing is already happening at great speed and will accelerate enormously in the coming months. In a very little while we shall all be in uniform or doing some kind of compulsory labour, and probably eating communally. I don’t believe it will meet with much opposition so long as it hits all classes equally. The rich will squeal, of course — at present they are manifestly evading taxation, and the rationing hardly affects them — but they will be brought to heel if the predicament is really desperate. I don’t believe that the ordinary man cares a damn about the totalitarianization of our economy, as such. People like small manufacturers, farmers and shopkeepers seem to accept their transition from small capitalists to State employees without much protest, provided that their livelihood is safeguarded. People in England hate the idea of a Gestapo, and there has been a lot of opposition, some of it successful, to official snooping and persecution of political dissidents, but I don’t believe economic liberty has much appeal any longer. The changeover to a centralized economy doesn’t seem to be altering people’s way of life nearly so much as the shift of population, and mingling of classes, consequent on conscription and the bombing. But this may be less true in the industrial North, where on the whole people are working much harder in more trying conditions, and unemployment has practically ceased. What the reaction will be when we begin to experience hunger, as we may within the next few months, I don’t prophesy. Apart from the bombing, and the overworking of certain categories of workers, one cannot honestly say that this war has caused much hardship as yet. The people still have more to eat than most European peoples would have in peacetime.

9. What war aims does the left-and-labour movement now agree on? How sanguine are you about these aims being carried out? How much pressure is there now on the Government to proclaim Socialist war aims? On the question of war aims, of policy towards Europe and Germany in the event of victory, does there seem to be any radical difference between the Labour and Tory members of the Churchill Government? How definite are the plans for the “social rebuilding” of England after the war?

I haven’t space to answer this question properly, but I think you can take it that the Labour Party, as such, has now no policy genuinely independent of the Government. Some people even think that the Left Conservatives (Eden, and possibly Churchill) are more likely to adopt a Socialist policy than the Labour men. There are constant appeals to the Government to declare its war aims, but these come from individuals and are not the official act of the Labour Party. There is no sign that the Government has any detailed or even general post-war plan. Nevertheless the feeling that after the war “things will be different” is so widespread that though, of course, the future England may be worse than that of the past, a return to Chamberlain’s England is not thinkable even if it is technically possible.

10. Would you say that the masses, working-class and middle-class, are more or less enthusiastically behind the present Government than in May 1940? Are they more or less behind the war effort in general?

So far as the Government goes, less enthusiastically, but not very greatly so. This Government came in with a degree of popular support which is quite unusual. In its home policy it has disappointed expectations, but not so grossly as governments usually do. Churchill’s personal popularity will have waned somewhat, but he still has a bigger following than any premier of the last twenty years. As to the war, I don’t believe there is much variation. People are fed up, but nothing to what one might expect. But one can’t speak with certainty of this till after the coming crisis, which will be of a different nature, less intelligible, perhaps harder to bear, than that of a year ago.

I hope that answers your questions. It is a bit over the length you allowed me, I am afraid. All well here, or fairly well. We had hell’s own bombing last night, huge fires raging all over the place and a racket of guns that kept one awake half the night. But it doesn’t matter, the hits were chiefly on theatres and fashionable shops, and this morning it is a beautiful spring day, the almond trees are in blossom, postmen and milk carts wandering to and fro as usual, and down at the corner the inevitable pair of fat women gossiping beside the pillar-box. The best of luck to you all.

 

Postscript (15 May 1941)

 

The chief events since I wrote on 15 April have been the British defeats in Libya and Greece, and the general worsening of the situation in the Middle East, with Iraq in revolt, Stalin evidently preparing to go into closer partnership with Hitler, and Darlan getting ready to let German troops into Syria. There has also, within the last two days, been the mysterious arrival of Hess, which has caused much amusement and speculation but which it is too early to comment on.

The question that matters is whether the disastrous turn the war has taken will lead to a further growth of democractic sentiment, as happened last year. I am afraid one must say that the chances are against this. The reason why the Dunkirk campaign and the collapse of France impressed public opinion, and did a great deal of good, was that these things were happening close at hand. There was the immediate threat of invasion, and there were the soldiers coming home in hundreds of thousands to tell their families how they had been let down. This time the thing is happening far away, in countries that the average person neither knows nor cares anything about — the ordinary British working man hasn’t the faintest notion that the Suez Canal has anything to do with his own standard of living — and if the troops who got away from Greece have tales to tell they are telling them in Egypt and Palestine. Also, no one expected the Greek campaign to be anything but a disaster. Long before any official announcement was made it was known that we had troops in Greece, and I could find no one of whatever kind who believed that the expedition would be successful; on the other hand, nearly everyone felt that it was our duty to intervene. It is generally recognized that as yet, i.e. until we have an up-to-date army, we can’t fight the Germans on the continent of Europe, but at the same time “we couldn’t let the Greeks down”. The English people have never been infected with power-worship and don’t feel the futility of this sort of gesture as a continental people probably would. I can see no sign anywhere of any big swing of opinion. In the parliamentary debate on the Greek campaign the attack on the Government was led by envious throw-outs like Lloyd George, and instead of being a proper discussion the debate was easily twisted into a demand for a vote of confidence, which on the whole the Government deserves — at any rate it deserves it in the sense that no alternative government is at present possible. The repercussions which are probably happening in Australia, however, may do something towards democratizing the conduct of the war. People here are beginning to say that the next leftward push must come from America. It is suggested, for instance, that Roosevelt might make it a condition of further help that the British Government do something about India. You are better able than I am to judge whether this is likely.

The air raids continue. To the ordinary people this is the part of the war that matters, in fact it is the war, but their stolidity is surprising. There was a sidelight on the popular mind which probably did not get into the American press, and which may interest you, in a recent by-election in Birmingham. A dissident Conservative who called himself a “reprisals candidate” ran against the Government’s nominee. His claim was that we should concentrate on bombing German civilians to avenge what has been done here. Canon Stuart Morris, one of the leading lights in the Peace Pledge Union, also ran on a pacifist ticket. The respective slogans of the three candidates were “Bomb Berlin”, “Stop the War” and “Back Churchill”. The government man got about 15,000 votes and the other two about 1,500 each. The whole poll was probably low, but considering the times we live in I think these figures are encouraging.

George Orwell

Partisan Review, July-August 1941

 

 

 

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