Thursday, October 05, 2006

(What's so funny 'bout) peace, love and understanding?

One of the things I had the pleasure of doing during my recent vacation was spending rather a lot of time with a volume of George Orwell's essays and journalism. Orwell, like some other authors (e.g. Jack London and William Shakespeare), was nearly ruined for me in high school by being reduced to a caricature of what I later learned to be his true complexity.

Orwell, for instance, was presented as merely the anti-communist author of 1984 and Animal Farm. It was never even mentioned, for example, that he was a socialist or even that he had (to great injury to himself) fought against fascism; both of these facts are - putting it mildly - fairly fundamental bits of knowledge in making sense of what he wrote.

In subsequent years, I overcame this obstacle and discovered the joy of Orwell's other writing, the best of which, I think, is not so much found in his fiction (which, though, I have enjoyed, particularly Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up For Air) but in his essays. It was great to discover (or re-discover, as I'd read some of them before) some real gems among the texts collected in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, volume 2: My Country Right or Left 1940-43. Orwell has a variety of things to say in these pieces, about war, literature, fascism, socialism and the responsibility of art in a time of crisis. (His wartime diaries, contained therein, are a great insight into the complexities of an often over-simplified period.)

Among other things, there's a review of a novel by Alex Comfort (yes, that Alex Comfort) called No Such Liberty, which was, in essence, a pacifist tract critical of British participation in the Second World War.

Orwell was, to put it kindly, not fond of the book, but he used it for a thought-provoking examination of the philosophy of pacifism in a time of emerging fascist dominance. Orwell was, quite rightly, a determined critic of pacifism in its more absolutist forms. His reasoning is the subject of the following excerpts from his essay 'No, Not One' which appeared in Adelphi in October 1941 (pages 195-201 in the above mentioned volume) after the country he was living in (about which he was quite critical) had been at war for more than two years.

1. Civilisation rests ultimately on coercion. What holds society together is not the policeman but the goodwill of common men, and yet that goodwill is powerless unless the policeman is there to back it up. Any government which refused to use violence in its own defence would cease almost immediately to exist, because it could be overthrown by any body of men, or even any individual, that was less scrupulous. Objectively, whoever is not on the side of the policeman is on the side of the criminal, and vice versa. In so far as it hampers the British war effort, British pacifism is on the side of the Nazis, and German pacifism, if it exists, is on the side of Britain and the U.S.S.R.


2. Since coercion can never be altogether dispensed with, the only difference is between degrees of violence. During the last twenty years there has been less violence and less militarism inside the English-speaking world than outside it, because there has been more money and more security. The hatred of war which undoubtedly characterizes the English-speaking peoples is a reflection of their favoured position. Pacifism is only a considerable force in places where people feel themselves very safe, chiefly maritime states. [...] To abjure violence, it is necessary to have no experience of it.


The notion that you can somehow defeat violence by submitting to it is simply a flight from fact. As I have said, it is only possible to people who have money and guns between themselves and reality. But why should they want to make this flight, in any case? Because, rightly hating violence, they do not wish to recognize that it is integral to modern society and that their own fine feelings and noble attitudes are all the fruit of injustice backed up by force. They do not want to learn where their incomes come from. Underneath this lies the hard fact, so difficult for many people to face, that individual salvation is not possible, that the choice before human beings is not, as a rule, between good and evil but between two evils. You can let the Nazis rule the world; that is evil: or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil. There is no other choice before you, and whichever you choose you will not come out with clean hands. It seems to me that the text for our times is not 'Woe to him through whom the evil cometh' but the one from which I took the title of this article, 'There is not one that is righteous, no, not one.' We have all touched pitch, we are all perishing by the sword. We do not have the chance, in a time like this, to say 'Tomorrow we can all start being good'. That is moonshine. We only have the chance of choosing the lesser evil and of working for the establishment of a new kind of society in which common decency will again be possible.

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