George Orwell on Pacifism: Nothing Changes!

George Orwell, from “Notes on Nationalism”:

The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to the taking of life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States. Moreover they do not as a rule condemn violence as such, but only violence used in defense of western countries… Pacifist literature abounds with equivocal remarks which, if they mean anything, appear to mean that statesmen of the type of Hitler are preferable to those of the type of Churchill, and that violence is perhaps excusable if it is violent enough… All in all it is difficult not to feel that pacifism, as it appears among a section of the intelligentsia, is secretly inspired by an admiration for power and successful cruelty.


Clue please?

Are we debating the hypocrisy of post-WWII British intelligentsia, the meaning of pacifism post 9/11 or George Orwell’s rhetorical abilities?

May I return the uncontextualised Orwell citation in kind? Revenge is Sour (1945).

You are correct. Orwell is dead-on as usual. What is there to debate?

Funny how you bring Orwell up. I’ve been thinking of him lately - parts of Orwell’s 1984 apply to this this whole attack on Afghanistan. Remember, in 1984, war was never-ending, a way to distract the public, and burn off excess resources. His satire on postwar England still applies today - Bush has promised a long, drawn out war, and made it clear that even if the populace tires of the war, the war will go on. Surveillance technology keeps the upper-middle class citizens in line in 1984, while today increased computer surveillance (affecting primarily the upper-middle class) is being viewed as key to “winning” the long drawn-out war. There are some interesting parallels, although just a few.

For Orwell fans, a totally fancinating book is Orwell’s Revenge the 1984 Palimpsest by Peter William Huber

Orwell is pretty much paranoid bullshit. It seems to me that with Anthrax in the mail and the WTC attacks, Americans have enough legitimate enemies without inventing paranoid Big Brother fantasies.

There’s quite a bit more to Orwell than 1984 and Animal Farm. You might try reading some of his nonfiction.

Quite, Pochacco. The article I linked to (do read it, it’s stunning and apposite) comes from this site. The full essay on nationalism can also be found there. The keeper of that page says

Read Orwell. Every skerrick you can get your hands on. Even his propaganda broadcasts. You won’t always agree, but it will force you to be honest with yourself.

Sorry…that doesn’t sound like a single pacifist that I know.

hawthorne, hate to bust your bubble, but that cite is neither (stunning nor apposite).
Al Qaeda and the Taliban are not defeated like Hitler & Mussolini were at the time of that essay: they are very much alive, dangerous, and in fighting trim. That alone makes that essay irrelevant to the current situation.

I wasn’t suggesting the situations are the same pantom. Just that the piece has something worthwhile to say about atrocities and revenge. Just like 1984 has useful things to say about the power of language - it doesn’t become irrelevant because we aren’t living in a totalitarian society.

Like Einstein and Gandhi?

Like Einstein and Gandhi?

Like Einstein and Gandhi?

Like Einstein and Gandhi?

Like Einstein’s, eh, George? And Gandhi? And MLK?

I don’t consider myself strong or moral enough to be a genuine pacifist, but I admire those who are.

That vitriolic rant just proves that even respected authors like George Orwell can resort to childish straw man arguments and recklessly anti-intellectual tantrums.


The Road to Wigan Peer
Keep the Aspidistra Flying

I think there are two currently relevant bits from Orwell regarding the activities and perceptions of supposed pacifists’ stance on the US response to 11/9: (i) the tendency amongst certain people to regard US policy as wrong almost by definition; and (ii) the very dangerous tendency to hint at fifth columnist status in those who disagree with you.

First, Orwell’s (grudging) caveat. He does not explicitly say that if you add Quakers, naive humanitarians and closeted admirers of totalitarians you get the set of pacifists. Indeed, later he says

It’s a polemical piece. He’s attacking Stalin’s apologists. Maybe there are other categories of pacifist. Perhaps the terms of his argument do not apply wholus bolus to the current situation.

Now, Orwell’s accusation (and an anticipation of a big theme in 1984)

I think you can level this accusation at some opponents of current US action. To some, the mere fact that something is US policy makes it wrong. There are groups out there - International Socialist Organisation posters where I work, for example - who were as recently as a couple of months ago decrying US inaction over the Taliban as testimony to the US’s selfishness and it’s hatred of the non-Western world and who are now decrying US action against the Tabilan on exactly the same grounds. These people have no opinion as such. They are so sure that the US is bad that a U-turn by the US reverses their own view and erases the memory of the previous position. Orwell’s negative nationalism seems to apply here. I doubt that there is any policy which could not be characterised as imperialist by such folk.

But it is dangerous and foolish - an abdication of both reason and decency - to jump to such a conclusion about people without looking at their arguments, and this is why I was irritated by astorian’s OP. This is why Orwell’s caveat is important and why you have to bloody careful about selectively quoting him. Astorian is accusing pacifists generally of being fifth columnists (or simple-minded fools). This is itself a totalitarian technique, and Orwell himself was on the wrong end of it in the Spanish Civil War. A fascist general declared that a “fifth column” was awaiting the fascists in Barcelona, having hidden themselves amongst the Republicans. The Soviets used this to purge the government of non orthodox communists. Orwell - who was amongst the non-communist POUM largely by fluke - was a victim of this and it features as a theme in pretty much everything he wrote from Homage to Catalonia onward.

The crucial thing here I think is the tendency to require orthodoxy and to hint that any departure from it - in the end, any independent thought at all - is tantamount to treachery. This is why I found the passage quoted at the start of the thread so objectionable: there was no engagement of the views of those labelled pacifists, there was just an implication that “you are either with us or against us” and that anyone who dared question or disagree was a fifth columnist. But “four legs good, two legs bad” is a slogan for sheep.

*[sub]In case you hadn’t noticed, “decent” means admirable, reasonable - even heroic - in Orwell.[/sub]

Ambushed- your repeated cites of Gandhi suggest that you know little of Gandhi beyond what you saw in the sanitized Ben Kingsley movie. Gandhi was a dangerous ignoramus, not the plaster saint Richard Attenborough showed you.

Gandhi’s techniques work just fine when your enemy is a flawed but fundamentally decent person who’s failing to live up to his own highest ideals. They work not at all if your enemy is bent on your destruction.

Do you know what Gandhi said when asked how Hitler could have been stopped non-violently? The supposedly saintly Mahatma said that the Jews of Europe should have committed suicide, to protest anti-semitism. If that sounds like a swell strategy to you, there’s probably not much I can do to convince you otherwise.

I found Orwell’s post both on the mark and prescient, because it’s been my experience that people who call themselves pacifists are rarely unequivocally opposed to all violence, but only (as Orwell put it) to violence committed by nations they disapprove of… usually the U.S.A.

Peace groups are currently condemning U.S. action in Afghanistan in no uncertain terms. No ifs, ands or buts! No nuances, or shades of gray. Pacifists oppose any and all U.S. military action.

But when it comes to the terrorist attack that spawned the current U.S. military actions… all you get are shades of gray, nuances, and weasel words. When I hear anti-military rhetoric, I’m reminded of Chris Rock’s monolgue about O.J. SImpson (“I’d never kill my wife, of course… but I UNDERSTAND!”). Peacenik pronouncements on the WTC bombing invariably follow the format of
“Nobody condones what happened, but…”

“What happened at the WTC was a tragedy, but…”

“We all want Osama bin Laden brought to justice, but…”

ALWAYS, there’s a “but.” And usually, the “but” implies that, well, the terrorists DID have a good point. NOT that peaceniks (fully) condone blowing up innocent people, you understand, but they still think that maybe if this tragedy leads to a change in U.S. policy (the abandonment of Israel, the rebuilding of Saddam Hussein’s economy), some good may yet come of the terrorist attack.

I’ll re-evaluate my stance if someone can point to a pacifist who ever issued an unconditional condemnation of the Sandinistas, the PLO, or the Mau-Mau for taking up arms against their enemies (and no, if words like “regrettable” or “counterprouctive” appear in a statement, that statement does NOT count as a condemnation).

Until then, I remain convinced that Orwell was right- that the chief motivation of most self-proclaimed pacifists is not humanitarianism, a desire for peace, or an abhorrence of violence, but rather an unrelenting hatred of the United STates.

*Originally posted by ambushed *Like Einstein and Gandhi?

If Einstein was really a pacifist, why did he write the famous letter to FDR suggesting that the US establish a project to build an atomic bomb?


For a good rebuttal of your entire post, read the one right above it.

I wonder how many people on Earth, being forced to choose between Gandhi and astorian, would find the term “dangerous ignoramus” applies more fittingly to Gandhi…

I think we can all agree that Gandhi’s comment about what he saw as the ultimate Jewish resistance act was nothing but a passing error in judgement. Haven’t you ever made a mistake or exercised poor judgement, astorian? Such as starting a thread with a poorly selected quotation that makes Orwell sound like a madman working up a crowd into a frenzy of blood lust to kill pacifists? What a brave thing to do.

Gandhi considered non-cooperation with evil to be a sacred duty. Does that make him a “dangerous ignoramus”?

And why is it, astorian, that you evaded the issue of Einstein? Was it because you found it difficult to slander him as a “dangerous ignoramus”? Einstein felt that Gandhi’s political views were enlightened and that his non-violent methods of revolution would be the only way of bringing peace to the world on a supranational basis.

Even on his own terms, Einstein’s noble pacifism lays waste to your quotation of Orwell that clearly casts his own words in a very ugly and ignorant light. You did no service to Orwell by portraying him in that light, and by reflection, you made even the most disingenuous pacifist look like a hero in comparison.

Your screed against pacifism, astorian, tells me that nothing could ever change your mind, which must have been cast in granite.

From Manhattan Project History:

Einstein was pressured to sign the letter (see Rhodes). Hardly an act of war, especially since Szilard and others only targeted him for his prestige. Yet, that one act tore at his conscience for the rest of his life.

Since when, december, are people expected to be perfect? Didn’t even Jesus lose it with the fig tree?

Your “rebuttal” hardly meets any realistic standard of evidence to show that Einstein wasn’t a pacifist.