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George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 26. London Letter to Partisan Review

George Orwell

George Orwell



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George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters

26. London Letter to Partisan Review


17 August 1941

Dear Editors,

You asked me to send you another London letter, and though you left me free to choose what I should write about you added that your readers might be interested to hear some more about the Home Guard. I will give you some notes on the Home Guard, as much as I have space for, but I think my main subject this time ought to be the U.S.S.R.’s entry into the war. It has overshadowed everything in the last seven weeks, and I think it is now possible to make some sort of rough analysis of the state of British opinion.


The most striking thing about the Anglo-Soviet alliance has been its failure to cause any split in the country or any serious political repercussion whatever. It is true that Hitler’s invasion of the U.S.S.R. took everyone here very much by surprise. If the alliance had come about in 1938 or 1939, as it might have done, after long and bitter controversies, with the Popular Fronters shouting on one side and the Tory press playing Red Russia for all it was worth on the other, there would have been a first-rate political crisis, probably a General Election and certainly the growth of an openly pro-Nazi party in Parliament, the army, etc. But by June 1941 Stalin had come to appear as a very small bogey compared with Hitler, the pro-Fascists had mostly discredited themselves, and the attack happened so suddenly that the advantages and disadvantages of a Russian alliance had not even had time to be discussed.

One fact that this new turn of the war has brought out is that there are now great numbers of English people who have no special reaction towards the U.S.S.R. Russia, like China or Mexico, is simply a mysterious country a long way away, which once had a revolution, the nature of which has been forgotten. All the hideous controversies about the purges, the Five Year Plans, the Ukraine famine, etc. have simply passed over the average newspaper-reader’s head. But as for the rest, the people who have some definite pro-Russian or anti-Russian slant, they are split up into several sharply defined blocks, of which the following are the ones that matter:

The rich. The real bourgeoisie are subjectively anti-Russian, and cannot possibly become otherwise. The existence of large numbers of wealthy parlour Bolsheviks does not alter this fact, because these people invariably belong to the decadent third-generation rentier class. Those who are of the capitalist class would regard the destruction of the Soviet Union by Hitler with, at best, mixed feelings. But it is an error to suppose that they are plotting direct treachery or that the handful capable of doing so are likely to gain control of the State. Churchill’s continuance in office is a guarantee against that.

The working class. All the more thoughtful members of the British working class are mildly and vaguely pro-Russian. The shock caused by the Russian war against Finland was real enough, but it depended on the fact that nothing was happening at that time in the major war, and it has been completely forgotten. But it would probably be a mistake to imagine that the fact of Russia being in the war will in itself stimulate the British working class to greater efforts and greater sacrifices. In so far as strikes and wage disputes during the past two years have been due to deliberate trouble-making by the Communists, they will of course cease, but it is doubtful whether the Communists have ever been able to do more than magnify legitimate grievances. The grievances will still be there, and fraternal messages from Pravda will not make much difference to the feelings of the dock-worker unloading during an air-raid or the tired munition-worker who has missed the last tram home. At one point or another the question of working-class loyalty to Russia is likely to come up in some such form as this: if the Government show signs of letting the Russians down, will the working class take steps to force a more active policy upon them? In that moment I believe it will be found that though a sort of loyalty to the Soviet Union still exists — must exist, so long as Russia is the only country even pretending to be a workers’ state — it is no longer a positive force. The very fact that Hitler dares to make war on Russia is proof of this. Fifteen years ago such a war would have been impossible for any country except perhaps Japan, because the common soldiers could not have been trusted to use their weapons against the Socialist Fatherland. But that kind of loyalty has been gradually wasted by the nationalistic selfishness of Russian policy. Old-fashioned patriotism is now a far stronger force than any kind of internationalism, or any ideas about the Socialist Fatherland, and this fact also will be reflected in the strategy of the war.

The Communists. I do not need to tell you anything about the shifts of official Communist policy during the past two years, but I am not certain whether the mentality of the Communist intelligentsia is quite the same in the U.S.A. as here. In England the Communists whom it is possible to respect are factory workers, but they are not very numerous, and precisely because they are usually skilled workmen and loyal comrades they cannot always be rigidly faithful to the “line”. Between September 1939 and June 1941 they do not seem to have attempted any definite sabotage of arms production, although the logic of Communist policy demanded this. The middle-class Communists, however, are a different proposition. They include most of the official and unofficial leaders of the party, and with them must be lumped the greater part of the younger literary intelligentsia, especially in the universities. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the “Communism” of these people amounts simply to nationalism and leader-worship in their most vulgar forms, transferred to the U.S.S.R. Their importance at this moment is that with the entry of Russia into the war they may regain the influence in the press which they had between 1935 and 1939 and lost during the last two years. The News Chronicle, after the Daily Herald the leading left-wing daily (circulation about 1,400,000), is already busy whitewashing the men whom it was denouncing as traitors a little while back. The so-called People’s Convention, led by D. N. Pritt (Pritt is a Labour M.P. but is always claimed by Communists as an “underground” member of their party, evidently with truth) is still in existence but has abruptly reversed its policy. If the Communists are allowed the kind of publicity that they were getting in 1938, they will both consciously and unconsciously sow discord between Britain and the U.S.S.R. What they wish for is not the destruction of Hitler and the resettlement of Europe, but a vulgar military triumph for their adopted Fatherland, and they will do their best to insult public opinion here by transferring as much as possible of the prestige of the war to Russia, and by constantly casting doubts on Britain’s good faith. The danger of this kind of thing ought not to be underrated. The Russians themselves, however, probably grasp how the land lies and will act accordingly. If we have a long war ahead of us it is not to their advantage that there should be disaffection in this country. But in so far as they can get a hearing, the British Communists must be regarded as one of the forces acting against Anglo-Russian unity.

The Catholics. There are supposed to be some two million Catholics in this country, the bulk of them very poor Irish labourers. They vote Labour and act as a sort of silent drag on Labour Party policy, but are not sufficiently under the thumb of their priests to be Fascist in sympathy. The importance of the middle- and upper-class Catholics is that they are extremely numerous in the Foreign Office and the Consular Service, and also have a good deal of influence in the press, though less than formerly. The “born” Catholics of the old Catholic families are less ultramontane and more ordinarily patriotic than the converted intellectuals (Ronald Knox, Arnold Lunn, etc. etc.), who have very much the same mentality, mutatis mutandis, as the British Communists. I suppose I need not repeat the history of their pro-Fascist activities in the past. Since the outbreak of war they have not dared to be openly pro-Hitler, but have done their propaganda indirectly by fulsome praises of Pétain and Franco. Cardinal Hinsley, founder of the Sword of the Spirit Movement (Catholic democracy), seems to be sincerely anti-Nazi according to his lights, but represents only one section of Catholic opinion. As soon as Hitler invaded the U.S.S.R., the Catholic press announced that we must take advantage of the respite that this gave us, but “no alliance with godless Russia”. Significantly, the Catholic papers became much more anti-Russian when it became apparent that the Russians were resisting successfully. No one who has studied Catholic literature during the past ten years can doubt that the bulk of the hierarchy and the intelligentsia would side with Germany as against Russia if they had a quarter of a chance. Their hatred of Russia is really venomous, enough even to disgust an anti-Stalinist like myself, though their propaganda is necessarily old-fashioned (Bolshevik atrocities, nationalization of women, etc.) and does not make much impression on working-class people. When the Russian campaign is settled one way or the other, i.e. when Hitler is in Moscow or the Russians show signs of invading Europe, they will come out openly on Hitler’s side, and they will certainly be to the fore if any plausible terms are suggested for a compromise peace. If anything corresponding to a Pétain government were established here, it would have to lean largely on the Catholics. They are the only really conscious, logical, intelligent enemies that democracy has got in England, and it is a mistake to despise them.

So much for the various currents of opinion. I began this letter some days ago, and since then the feeling that we are not doing enough to help the Russians has noticeably intensified. The favourite quip now is that what we are giving Russia is “all aid short of war”. Even the Beaverbrook press repeats this. Also, since Russia entered the war there has been a cooling-off in people’s feelings towards the U.S.A. The Churchill-Roosevelt declaration caused, I believe, a good deal of disappointment. Where Churchill had gone was an official secret but seems to have been widely known, and most people expected the outcome to be America’s entry into the war, or at least the occupation of some more strategic points on the Atlantic. People are saying now that the Russians are fighting and the Americans are talking, and the saying that was current last year, “sympathy to China, oil to Japan”, begins to be repeated.


This force, then known as the Local Defence Volunteers, was raised last spring in response to a radio appeal by Anthony Eden, following on the success of the German parachute troops in Holland. It got a quarter of a million recruits in the first twenty-four hours. The numbers are now somewhere between a million and a half and two millions; they have fluctuated during the past year, but with a tendency to increase. Except for a small nucleus of administrative officers and N.C.O. instructors attached from the regular army, it is entirely part-time and unpaid. Apart from training, the Home Guard relieves the army of some of its routine patrols, pickets on buildings, etc. and does a certain amount of A.R.P.19 work. The amount of time given up to the Home Guard by ordinary members would vary between five and twenty-five hours a week. Since the whole thing is voluntary there is no way of enforcing attendance, but the habitual absentees are usually asked to resign, and the inactive membership at any one time would not be more than ten per cent. In the case of invasion the Home Guard will be put on the same disciplinary basis as the regular army and members will be paid for their services, all ranks receiving the same rate of payment. In the beginning the Home Guard was a heterogeneous force and structurally rather similar to the early Spanish militias, but it has been gradually brigaded on the lines of the regular army, and all the ordinary contingents are affiliated to the regiments belonging to the locality. But factories, railways and government offices have their own separate units, which are responsible only for the defence of their own premises.

19. Air Raid Precautions.

The strategic idea of the Home Guard is static defence in complete depth, i.e. from one coast of England to the other. The tactical idea is not so much to defeat an invader as to hold him up till the regular troops can get at him. It is not intended that the Home Guard shall manoeuvre in large numbers or over large areas. In practice it probably could not be operated in any larger unit than the company, and no one contingent could advance or retreat more than a few miles. The intention is that any invader who crosses any section of the country will always, until he reaches the sea coast, have innumerable small bands of enemies both behind and in front of him. As to how the invader can best be resisted, theories have varied, chiefly as a result of observation of the different campaigns abroad. At the beginning the intention was simply to deal with parachutists, but the events in France and the Low Countries had caused an exaggerated fear of Fifth Columnists, and the authorities had evidently some notion of turning the Home Guard into a sort of auxiliary police force. This idea came to nothing because the men who had joined only wanted to fight the Germans (in June 1940 the invasion was expected to happen almost immediately), and in the chaotic conditions of the time they had to do their organizing for themselves. When enough weapons and uniforms had been distributed to make the Home Guard look something like soldiers, the tendency was to turn them into ordinary infantry of the pre-blitzkrieg type. Then the success of the Germans in getting their armoured divisions across the sea to Libya shifted the emphasis to anti-tank fighting. Somewhat later the loss of Crete showed what can be done by parachutists and airborne troops, and tactics for dealing with them were worked out. Finally the struggle of the Russian guerillas behind the German lines led to a renewed emphasis on guerilla tactics and sabotage. All of these successive tendencies are reflected in the voluminous literature, official and unofficial, which has already grown up round the Home Guard.

The Home Guard can by now be regarded as a serious force, capable of strong resistance for at any rate a short period. No invader could travel more than a few miles through open country or more than a few hundred yards in the big towns without coming upon a knot of armed men. Morale can be relied on absolutely, though willingness to commit sabotage and go on fighting in theoretically occupied territory will probably vary according to the political complexion of different units. There are great and obvious difficulties in the way of keeping a force of this kind in the field for more than a week or two at a time, and if there should be prolonged fighting in England the Home Guard would probably be merged by degrees in the regular army and lose its local and voluntary character. The other great difficulty is in the supply of officers. Although there is in theory no class discrimination, the Home Guard is in practice officered on a class basis more completely than is the case in the regular army. Nor is it easy to see how this could have been avoided, even if the wish to avoid it had been there. In any sort of army people from the upper and middle classes will tend to get the positions of command — this happened in the early Spanish militias and had also happened in the Russian Civil War — and in a spare-time force the average working man cannot possibly find enough time to do the administrative routine of a platoon-commander or company-commander. Also, the Government makes no financial contribution, except for a token payment when men are on duty all night, and the provision of weapons and uniforms. One cannot command troops without constantly incurring small expenses, and £50 a year would be the very minimum that any commissioned officer spends on his unit. What all this has meant in practice is that nearly all commands are held by retired colonels, people with “private” incomes, or, at best, wealthy businessmen. A respectable proportion of the officers are too old to have caught up with the 1914 war, let alone anything subsequent. In the case of prolonged fighting it might be necessary to get rid of as many as half the officers. The rank and file know how matters stand and would probably devise some method of electing their own officers if need be. The election of officers is sometimes discussed among the lower ranks, but it has never been practised except, I think, in some of the factory units.

The personnel of the Home Guard is not quite the same now as it was at the beginning. The men who flocked into the ranks in the first few days were almost all of them men who had fought in the last war and were too old for this one. The weapons that were distributed, therefore, went into the hands of people who were more or less anti-Fascist but politically uneducated. The only leavening was a few class-conscious factory-workers and a handful of men who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. The Left as usual had failed to see its opportunity — the Labour Party could have made the Home Guard into its own organization if it had acted vigorously in the first few days — and in left-wing circles it was fashionable to describe the Home Guard as a Fascist organization. Later the idea that when weapons are being distributed it is as well to get hold of some of them began to sink in, and a certain number of left-wing intellectuals found their way into the ranks. It has never been possible to get a big influx from the Labour Party, however; the most willing recruits have always been the people whose political ideal would be Churchill. The chief educative force within the movement has been the training school which was started by Tom Wintringham, Hugh Slater and others, especially in the first few months, before they were taken over by the War Office. Their teaching was purely military, but with its insistence on guerilla methods it had revolutionary implications which were perfectly well grasped by many of the men who listened to it. The Communist Party from the first forbade its members to join the Home Guard and conducted a vicious campaign of libel against Wintringham and Co. During recent months the military call-up has almost stripped the Home Guard of men between twenty and forty, but at the same time there has been an influx of working-class boys of about seventeen. Most of them are quite unpolitical in outlook and when asked their reason for joining say that they want to get some military training against the time when they are called up, three years hence. This reflects the fact that many English people can now hardly imagine a time when there will be no war. There is also a fair number of foreigners in the Home Guard. In the panic period last year they were rigidly excluded. One of my own first jobs was to go round pacifying would-be members who had been rejected because they were not of British extraction on both sides. One man had been turned down because one of his parents was a foreigner and had not been naturalized till 1902. Now these ideas have been dropped and the London units contain Russians, Czechs, Poles, Indians, Negroes and Americans; no Germans or Italians, however. I will not swear that the prevailing outlook in the Home Guard is more “left” than it was a year ago. It reflects the general outlook of the country, which for a year past has turned this way and that like a door on its hinges. But the political discussions that one hears in canteens and guard rooms are much more intelligent than they were, and the social shake-up among men of all classes who have now been forced into close intimacy for a considerable time has done a lot of good.

Up to a point one can foresee the future of the Home Guard. Even should it become clear that no invasion is likely it will not be disbanded before the end of the war, and probably not then. It will play an important part if there is any attempt at a Pétain peace, or in any internal fighting after the war. It already exerts a slight political influence on the regular army, and would exert more under active service conditions. It first came into being precisely because England is a conservative country where the law-abidingness of ordinary people can be relied upon, but once in being it introduces a political factor which has never existed here before. Somewhere near a million British working men now have rifles in their bedrooms and don’t in the least wish to give them up. The possibilities contained in that fact hardly need pointing out.

I see that I have written a lot more than I intended. I began this letter on the 17th August, and I end it on the 25th. The Russians and the British have marched into Iran, and everyone is delighted. We have had a goodish summer and the people have got some sunlight in their bones to help them through the winter. London has not had a real air raid for nearly four months. Parts of the East End are simply flattened out, and the City is a mass of ruins with St Paul’s almost untouched, standing out of it like an enormous rock, but the less-bombed parts of London have been so completely cleaned up that you would hardly know they had ever been damaged. Standing on the roof of this tall block of flats I live in and looking all round, I can see no bomb damage anywhere, except for a few churches whose spires have broken off in the middle, making them look like lizards that have lost their tails. There is no real food shortage, but the lack of concentrated foods (meat, bacon, cheese and eggs) causes serious underfeeding among heavy labourers, such as miners, who have to eat their midday meal away from home. There is a chronic scarcity of cigarettes and local shortages of beer. Some tobacconists consider that the amount of tobacco smoked has increased by forty per cent since the war. Wages have not kept up with prices, but on the other hand there is no unemployment, so that though the individual wage is lower than it was the family income tends to be higher. Clothes are fairly strictly rationed, but the crowds in the streets are not noticeably shabbier as yet. I often wonder how much we are all deteriorating under the influence of war — how much of a shock one would get if one could suddenly see the London of three years ago side by side with this one. But it is a gradual process and we do not notice any change. I can hardly imagine the London skies without the barrage balloons, and should be sorry to see them go.

Arthur Koestler, whose work is probably known to you, is a private in the Pioneers. Franz Borkenau, author of The Spanish Cockpit and The Communist International, who was deported to Australia during the panic last year, is back in England. Louis MacNeice and William Empson are working for the B.B.C. Dylan Thomas is in the army. Arthur Calder-Marshall has been made an officer. Tom Wintringham is once again an instructor in the Home Guard, after resigning for a period. Meanwhile the Russians acknowledge seven hundred thousand casualties, and the armies are converging on Leningrad by the same roads as they followed twenty-two years ago. I never thought I should live to say “Good luck to Comrade Stalin”, but so I do.

Yours ever,

George Orwell

P.S. I must add a word about that appalling “message” to British writers from the Soviet novelist, Alexei Tolstoy, with the old atrocity stories dug up from 1914, which appeared in the September Horizon. That is the feature of war that frightens me, much worse than air raids. But I hope people in the U.S.A. won’t imagine that people here take that kind of stuff seriously. Everyone I know laughs when they hear that old one about the Germans being chained to their machine-guns.

Partisan Review, November-December 1941


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