Sunday, July 11, 2004

Orwell vs. the Proto-Chomskyites

I was reading the Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, Vol. 2: My Country Right or Left (I confess to adoring that title) when I came across an exchange of polemics between him and several pacifist intellectuals during World War II. I was immediately struck, as one so often is in reading Orwell, by the relevance of the exchange to the conflicts of the here and now. I was struck, in particular, by the letter of poet D.S. Savage, which can only be described as proto-Chomskyite. It was written in 1942 as a response to Orwell's famous statement that "pacifism is objectively pro-fascist". Here are some excerpts:
It is fashionable nowadays to equate Fascism with Germany...Fascism is not a force confined to any one nation. We can just as soon get it here as anywhere else. The characteristic markings of Fascism are: curtailment of individual and minority liberties; abolition of private life and private values and substitution of state life and public values (patriotism); external imposition of discipline (militarism); prevelance of mass-values and mass-mentality; falsification of intellectual activity under State pressure. These are all tendancies of present-day Britain. The pacifist opposes every one of these, and might therefore be called the only genuine opponent of Fascism.

Don't let us be misled by names. Fascism is quite capable of calling itself democracy or even Socialism. It's the reality under the name that matters. War demands totalitariamn organization of society...Germans call it National Socialism. We call it democracy. The result is the same...

The corruption and hollowness revealed in the prosecution of this war are too contemptible for words. Certainly I will accept my share of responsibility for them, but I wont fight in a war to extend that corruption and hollowness...

Needless to say, we have no love for Fascism, and our entire attitude is one of personal resistance to all forms of Fasicsm, as they impinge upon us in concrete form. (Whereas Orwell swallows the concrete encroachments and waves his arms at a distant bogey.) Not only will we not fight, nor lend a hand with the war, but the "intellectuals" among us would scorn to mentally compromise themselves with the Government. Orwell dislikes the French intellectuals licking up Hitler's crumbs, but what's the difference between them and our intellectuals who are licking up Churchill's? However: we "don't believe in any 'defence of democracy', are inclined to prefer Germany to Britain, and don't feel the horror of Fascism that we who are somewhat older feel". I can only speak for myself, of coruse, but surely the "defence of democracy" is best served by defending one's own concrete liberties, not by equating democracy with Britain, and allowing all democracy to be destroyed in order that we may fight better - for "Britain"; and Orwell should not need to be told what, or who, "Britain" now is.

I am not greatly taken in by Britain's "democracy", particularly as it is gradually vanishing under the pressure of war. Certainly I would never fight and kill for such a phantasm...I feel identified with my country in a deep sense, and want her to regain her meaning, her soul, if that be possible: but the unloading of a billion tons of bombs on Germany wont help this forward an inch...England does not even know what she is fighting for, only what she is fighting against. The pacifists' "championing" of Hitler referred to by Orwell is simply a recognition by us that Hitler and Germany contain a real historical dynamic, whereas we do not. Whereas the rest of the nation is content with calling down obloquy on Hitler's head, we regard this as superficial. Hitler requires, not condemnation, but understanding. This does not mean that we like, or defend him. Persoanlly, I do not care for Hitler. He is, however, "realler" than Chamberlain, Churchill, Cripps, etc, in that he is the vehicle of raw historical forces, whereas they are stuffed in unreality. We do not desire a German "victory"...but there would be a profound justice, I feel, however terrible, in a German victory.(p. 220-222)
I find this letter extraordinary because, with a few changes of names and dates, it essentially sums up the Chomskyite conceptualization of the War on Terror. It seems clearer and clearer to me the more I study his work that Chomsky and his section of the Left are as much heir to the revisionist school of anti-war intellectuals who grew up between the World Wars as they are to any of the standard schools of Leftist political thought. This also goes a long way towards explaining some of Chomsky's otherwise baffling sympathies towards the extreme Right. The following are excerpts from Orwell's reply
Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice, "he that is not with me is against me". The idea that you can somehow remain aloof from and superior to the struggle, while living on food which British sailors have to risk their lives to bring you, is a bourgeois illusion bred of money and security...In so far as it takes effect at all, pacifist propaganda can only be effective against those countries where a certain amount of freedom of speech is still permitted; in other words it is helpful to totalitarianism.

I am not interested in pacifism as a "moral phenomenon". If Mr. Savage and others imagine that one can somehow "overcome" the German army by lying on one's back, let them go on imagining it, but let them also wonder occasionally whether this is not an illusion due to security, too much money, and a simple ignorance of the way in which things actually happen...Despotic governments can stand "moral force" till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force. But though I am not interested in the "theory" of pacifism, I am interested in the psychological processes by which pacifists who have started out with an alleged horror of violence end up with a marked tendancy to be fascinated by the success and power of Nazism. Even pacifists who wouldn't own to any such fascination are beinning to claim that a Nazi victory is desireable in itself...

What I object to is the intellectual cowardice of people who are objectively and to some extent emotionally pro-Fascist, but who don't care to say so and take refuge behind the formula "I am just as anti-Fascist as anyone, but--". The result of that so-called peace propaganda is just as dishonest and intellectually disgusting as war propaganda. Like war propaganda, it concentrates on putting forward a "case", obscuring the opponent's point of view and avoiding awkward questions. The line normally followed is "Those who fight against Fascism go Fascist themselves"...

It is because I do take the function of the intellentsia seriously that I don't like the sneers, libels, parrot phrases and financially profitable back-scratching which flourish in our English literary world...(p. 226-228)
Orwell's response is, I fear, even more relevant than his critic's attack. I see little difference between his proto-Chomskyites; with their fanatical relativism, self-hatred, and fascination with violence and totalitarian power that turns quickly to collaboration with political evil; and our own, fully realized version.