Monday, October 09, 2006

Orwell and anti-imperialism.

There is a little book by Scott Lucas (The Betrayal of Dissent: Beyond Orwell, Hitchens and the New American Century) which aims to deflate the Orwell legend, the sort of preposterous deification and mortification of the man initiated by Lionel Trilling and completed by the CIA. If there was an Orwell Mausoleum, it would be in Langley. At any rate, the book is a sometimes useful and interesting critique of some of Orwell's putative followers, but ultimately very shallow in dealing with the man himself and his politics. John Newsinger, in Orwell's Politics, makes the point that Lucas would have made if he hadn't been blinded by his hostility to Orwell. And that is that Orwell was a determined anti-imperialist at a time when this was not a common position on the left. This is something that his pro-imperialist admirers ought to be embarrassed by. They are not, of course: there is always the excuse that even if American imperialism really is imperialism, it's a new kind, one bearing the politics of Thomas Paine. Now, encountering essays such as Shooting an Elephant, A Hanging and this unfortunately titled essay with a modern sensibility, I had entirely missed the novelty in this.

Orwell, despite the list-making of his later years, despite his petty bigotries, despite his increasing pessimism, never abandoned anti-imperialism, any more than he abandoned his hatred of capitalism and his commitment to working class self-organisation. In 1939, he wrote of the struggle against fascism, and how it must not be a pro-imperialist fight, but a struggle for socialist revolution, and one that would destroy the old empires.

The British and French empires, with their six hundred million disenfranchised human beings, would simply be receiving fresh police forces; the huge strength of the USA would be behind the robbery of India and Africa. Mr Streit is letting cats out of bags, but all phrases like ‘Peace Bloc’, ‘Peace Front’, etc contain some such implication; all imply a tightening-up of the existing structure. The unspoken clause is always ‘not counting niggers’. For how can we make a ‘firm stand’ against Hitler if we are simultaneously weakening ourselves at home? In other words, how can we ‘fight Fascism’ except by bolstering up a far vaster injustice?

For of course it is vaster. What we always forget is that the over­whelming bulk of the British proletariat does not live in Britain, but in Asia and Africa. It is not in Hitler's power, for instance, to make a penny an hour a normal industrial wage; it is perfectly normal in India, and we are at great pains to keep it so. One gets some idea of the real relationship of England and India when one reflects that the per capita annual income in England is something over £80, and in India about £7. It is quite common for an Indian coolie's leg to be thinner than the average Englishman's arm. And there is nothing racial in this, for well-fed members of the same races are of normal physique; it is due to simple starvation. This is the system which we all live on and which we denounce when there seems to be no danger of its being altered. Of late, however, it has become the first duty of a ‘good anti-Fascist’ to lie about it and help to keep it in being.

Orwell would later upbraid himself for much that he wrote during that war, especially for having overestimated the prospects for socialism and democracy as an outcome of the war. He would regret his chastisement of those whom he had said were objectively pro-fascist. He did not abandon his hostility to imperialism. However, with the stubbornness of his class, he insisted to the end on adulterating this particular socialist passion with the empiricist persuasion. As he put it in The Road to Wigan Pier: "In order to hate imperialism, you have got to be part of it". Oh no you don't.