Pacifism and the War – A Controversy (September-October 1942)

Written by D. S. Savage, George Woodcock, Alex Comfort and George Orwell. Published in Partisan Review, September-October 1942.

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Partisan Review (September-October 1942)

Partisan Review (September-October 1942)


A few brief comments on George Orwell’s March-April London Letter.

It is fashionable nowadays to equate Fascism with Germany. We must fight Fascism, therefore we must fight Germany. Thus Mr Orwell: “the greater part of the very young intelligentsia . . . don’t feel the horror of Fascism that we who are somewhat older feel,” also: “there is no real answer to the charge that pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist.”

Answer: 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 values and substitution of State life and public values (patriotism); external imposition of discipline (militarism); prevalence of mass-values and mass-mentality; falsification of intellectual activity under State pressure. These are all tendencies 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 totalitarian organization of society. Germany organized herself on that basis prior to embarking on war. Britain now finds herself compelled to take the same measures after involvement in war. Germans call it National Socialism. We call it democracy. The result is the same.

Let us assume that Mr Orwell means “objectively pro-German”. (If so, his loose terminology is surely indicative of very loose thinking.) Who is “objective”? — Mr Orwell, a partisan of one particular side in the struggle? According to this type of reasoning, a German or Japanese pacifist would be “objectively pro-British”. This is puerile. Mr Orwell is assuming that the pacifist shares his chauvinistic predilections. On the contrary, we regard the war as a disaster to humanity. Who is to say that a British victory will be less disastrous than a German one? The last British victory was pretty meaningless.

Mr Orwell, in all his recent writings on the subject, shows a total inability to grasp the real nature of pacifism. Let me try, in a few words, to enlighten him.

Mr Orwell is himself a “politician”, with a politician’s outlook on things. He consequently sees pacifism primarily as a political phenomenon. That is just what it isn’t. Primarily it is a moral phenomenon. Political movements are based on programme and organization. With pacifism, programme and organization are quite subsidiary. Pacifism springs from conscience — i.e. from within the individual human being. “Peace News,” says Orwell, “follows its old tradition of opposing war for different incompatible reasons.” There are certainly innumerable reasons why war should be opposed, but the chief reason is the diabolical nature of modern warfare, with its diabolical repercussions upon human personality and values. I am not referring only to the act of warfare itself, but the whole complex of events which is war. 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 won’t fight in a war to extend that corruption and hollowness.

Perhaps I ought to try and give expression to what many of us pacifists feel about Germany in relation to ourselves, since Mr Orwell brings up this point. Needless to say, we have no love for Fascism, and our entire attitude is one of personal resistance to all forms of Fascism, 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 course, 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 the war. Certainly I would never fight and kill for such a phantasm. I do not greatly admire the part “my country” has played in world events. I consider that spiritually Britain has lost all meaning; she once stood for something, perhaps, but who can pretend that the idea of “Britain” now counts for anything in the world? This is not cynicism. 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 won’t help this forward an inch. The pretence exists in some quarters that, although Britain has been a sick nation, now, engaged in war, she has “found her soul”, and by this one gathers that the sickness was exemplified by Chamberlain and the soul-finding by Churchill. Unfortunately, deep changes do not occur so easily as that. 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. Personally 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 dummies, waxwork figures, living in unreality. We do not desire a German “victory”; we would not lift a finger to help either Britain or Germany to “win”; but there would be a profound justice, I feel, however terrible, in a German victory. (In actuality, any ruler would find us rather awkward customers, one no less than another.)

Now, how about Mr Orwell’s own position, and the position of people like him? I would ask him to consider, first, the company he keeps. Who are his leaders? What is the actual social system which he is fighting to defend? What hopes has he of diverting the stream of history the way he wants it to go? Brave words and muddled thinking cannot disguise the fact that Mr Orwell, like all the other supporters of the war, shipping magnates, coal owners, proletarians, university professors, Sunday journalists, trade-union leaders, Church dignitaries, scoundrels and honest men, is being swept along by history, not directing it. Like them, he will be deposited, along with other detritus, where history decides, not where he thinks. Mr Orwell is, I believe, a man of integrity, an honest man. But that does not make up for his superficiality. And can we afford superficiality, at any time, still less times like these?

11 May 1942
Dry Drayton, England


I hope you will allow me to comment in your columns on certain references in George Orwell’s London Letter to the review Now, of which I am editor.

Orwell suggests that this paper has a Fascist tendency, and names two of its contributors, Hugh Ross Williamson and the Duke of Bedford, to prove his case. In fact, Now was established early in the war as a review for publishing literary matter and also as a forum for controversial writing which could not readily find publication under wartime conditions. Not all the writers were opposed to the war, and of the fifty odd contributors to the seven numbers, only two, those named by Orwell, were even reputed to have Fascist tendencies. Neither of these men contributed more than one article to the review. The remaining writers included Anarchists, Stalinists, Trotskyists, pacifists and New Statesman moderates. Julian Huxley and Herbert Read, two of its best known contributors, can hardly be accused of Fascism!

The reference to the article by Julian Symons is, in my opinion, unjust. Orwell gives no idea of its subject, and does not quote a single sentence to prove his assertion that it is “vaguely Fascist”! No one in England, except Orwell and possibly the Stalinists, would think of suggesting that Julian Symons has any Fascist tendencies. On the contrary, he has been consistently anti-Fascist, and the article mentioned, which attacks Now’s former lack of a definite political line, is Marxist in tendency.

I do not propose to defend Hugh Ross Williamson or the Duke of Bedford — although I would mention that neither of them belonged to the B.U.F. and that the People’s Party, although it may have contained former Fascists, was not a Fascist party and contained many honest pacifists and Socialists, like Ben Greene, whose wrongful imprisonment and maltreatment in gaol caused a major scandal. I would also point out that if we are to expose antecedents, Orwell himself does not come off very well. Comrade Orwell, the former police official of British imperialism (from which the Fascists learnt all they know) in those regions of the Far East where the sun at last sets for ever on the bedraggled Union Jack! Comrade Orwell, former fellow-traveller of the pacifists and regular contributor to the pacifist Adelphi — which he now attacks! Comrade Orwell, former extreme left-winger, I.L.P. partisan and defender of Anarchists (see Homage to Catalonia)! And now Comrade Orwell who returns to his old imperialist allegiances and works at the B.B.C. conducting British propaganda to fox the Indian masses! It would seem that Orwell himself shows to a surprising degree the overlapping of left-wing, pacifist and reactionary tendencies of which he accuses others!

Adverting to Now, I would mention that this review has abandoned its position as an independent forum, and has now become the cultural review of the British Anarchist movement. Perhaps Mr Orwell will regard this as another proof of his mystic and blimpish trinity.

Finally, I would point out two inaccuracies in Orwell’s letter. The Anarchist pamphlet to which he refers is entitled The Russian Myth, and the editor of the Adelphi during the earlier part of the war was not John Middleton Murry, but the late Max Plowman.

19 May 1942
Richmond, England


I see that Mr Orwell is intellectual-hunting again, in your pages this time, and that he has made the discovery that almost every writer under thirty in this country has his feet already on the slippery slope to Fascism, or at least to compromise. It seems I am a “pure pacifist of the other-cheek” variety, a piece of horticultural eulogy I’m glad I did not miss, and that I deserve a spanking for associating with such disreputables as the Duke of Bedford and the — perfectly harmless — Ross Williamson. The trouble is that some of your American readers may not realize Mr Orwell’s status in this country and take his commentary seriously. We all like him here, though the standard of his pamphleteering is going down of late, and we know him as the preacher of a doctrine of Physical Courage as an Asset to the Left-wing Intellectual, and so forth. I think we all agree that he is pretty thoroughly out of touch with any writing under thirty years of age, and his last two public performances — a reproof in sorrow to my book No Such Liberty, and this “London Letter” of his — suggest that he still has not grasped why most of the post-thirties poets are pacifists, or what their pacifism would entail if Hitler arrived here.

Mr Orwell calls us “objectively pro-Fascist”. I suppose he means that we are letting anti-Fascism go by default. If we suggest to him that we, who have the single intention of salvaging English artistic culture when the crash comes, are the only people likely to continue to hold genuinely anti-Fascist values, he will not be convinced. But perhaps he will grant that Hitler’s greatest and irretrievable victory over here was when he persuaded the English people that the only way to lick Fascism was to imitate it. He puts us in a dilemma which cannot be practically rebutted, only broken away from — “If I win, you have political Fascism victorious: if you want to beat me, you must assimilate as much of its philosophy as you can, so that I am bound to win either way.” Accordingly we began feverishly jamming into our national life all the minor pieces of Fascist practice which did not include Socialist methods, sitting on the press “because this is Total War”, making our soldiers jab blood bladders while loud-speakers howl propaganda at them, because the German army consisted of efficient yahoos. The only people who said that to defeat Fascism one must (a) try to understand it and (b) refuse to accept its tenets oneself were the pacifists. It looks as if Mr Orwell and his warlike friends were being not objectively but constructively supporters of the entire philosophical apparatus which they quite genuinely detest.

What, again, does Mr Orwell imagine the role of the artist should be in occupied territory? He should protest with all his force, where and when he can, against such evils as he sees — but can he do this more usefully by temporarily accepting the status quo, or by skirmishing in Epping Forest with a pocket full of hand-grenades? I think that English writers honour, and will follow when the opportunity comes, the example of integrity which Gide has set. We are going to be entrusted with the job of saving what remains of the structure of civilized values from Hitler or alternatively from Churchill and his bladder-prickers. The men who, like Orwell, could have helped, are calling us Fascists and presumably dancing round the ruins of Munster Cathedral. We prefer not to join them, and if, in the pursuit of our task we find ourselves obliged to publish in the same paper as the Devil himself, the others having politely refused us as unorthodox, we shall have very few qualms.

Brentwood, England
18 May 1942


Since I don’t suppose you want to fill an entire number of P.R. with squalid controversies imported from across the Atlantic, I will lump together the various letters you have sent on to me (from Messrs Savage, Woodcock and Comfort), as the central issue in all of them is the same. But I must afterwards deal separately with some points of fact raised in various of the letters.

Pacifism. 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. Mr Savage remarks that “according to this type of reasoning, a German or Japanese pacifist would be ‘objectively pro-British’.” But of course he would be! That is why pacifist activities are not permitted in those countries (in both of them the penalty is, or can be, beheading) while both the Germans and the Japanese do all they can to encourage the spread of pacifism in British and American territories. The Germans even run a spurious “freedom” station which serves out pacifist propaganda indistinguishable from that of the P.P.U. They would stimulate pacifism in Russia as well if they could, but in that case they have tougher babies to deal with. 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. As an ex-Indian civil servant, it always makes me shout with laughter to hear, for instance, Gandhi named as an example of the success of non-violence. As long as twenty years ago it was cynically admitted in Anglo-Indian circles that Gandhi was very useful to the British Government. So he will be to the Japanese if they get there. Despotic governments can stand “moral force” till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force. But though not much 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 tendency to be fascinated by the success and power of Nazism. Even pacifists who wouldn’t own to any such fascination are beginning to claim that a Nazi victory is desirable in itself. In the letter you sent on to me, Mr Comfort considers that an artist in occupied territory ought to “protest against such evils as he sees”, but considers that this is best done by “temporarily accepting the status quo” (like Déat or Bergery, for instance?). A few weeks back he was hoping for a Nazi victory because of the stimulating effect it would have upon the arts:

As far as I can see, no therapy short of complete military defeat has any chance of re-establishing the common stability of literature and of the man in the street. One can imagine the greater the adversity the greater the sudden realization of a stream of imaginative work, and the greater the sudden katharsis of poetry, from the isolated interpretation of war as calamity to the realization of the imaginative and actual tragedy of Man. When we have access again to the literature of the war years in France, Poland and Czechoslovakia, I am confident that that is what we shall find. (From a letter to Horizon.)

I pass over the money-sheltered ignorance capable of believing that literary life is still going on in, for instance, Poland, and remark merely that statements like this justify me in saying that our English pacifists are tending towards active pro-Fascism. But I don’t particularly object to that. 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 this is 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.” In order to evade the quite obvious objections that can be raised to this, the following propaganda-tricks are used:

  1. The Fascizing processes occurring in Britain as a result of war are systematically exaggerated.
  2. The actual record of Fascism, especially its pre-war history, is ignored or pooh-poohed as “propaganda”. Discussion of what the world would actually be like if the Axis dominated it is evaded.
  3. Those who want to struggle against Fascism are accused of being wholehearted defenders of capitalist “democracy”. The fact that the rich everywhere tend to be pro-Fascist and the working class are nearly always anti-Fascist is hushed up.
  4. It is tacitly pretended that the war is only between Britain and Germany. Mention of Russia and China, and their fate if Fascism is permitted to win, is avoided. (You won’t find one word about Russia or China in the three letters you sent to me.)

Now as to one or two points of fact which I must deal with if your correspondents’ letters are to be printed in full.

My past and present. Mr Woodcock tries to discredit me by saying that (a) I once served in the Indian Imperial Police, (b) I have written articles for the Adelphi and was mixed up with the Trotskyists in Spain, and (c) that I am at the B.B.C. “conducting British propaganda to fox the Indian masses”. With regard to (a), it is quite true that I served five years in the Indian Police. It is also true that I gave up that job, partly because it didn’t suit me but mainly because I would not any longer be a servant of imperialism. I am against imperialism because I know something about it from the inside. The whole history of this is to be found in my writings, including a novel* which I think I can claim was a kind of prophecy of what happened this year in Burma, (b) Of course I have written for the Adelphi. Why not? I once wrote an article for a vegetarian paper. Does that make me a vegetarian? I was associated with the Trotskyists in Spain. It was chance that I was serving in the P.O.U.M. militia and not another, and I largely disagreed with the P.O.U.M. “line” and told its leaders so freely, but when they were afterwards accused of pro-Fascist activities I defended them as best I could. How does this contradict my present anti-Hitler attitude? It is news to me that Trotskyists are either pacifists or pro-Fascists, (c) Does Mr Woodcock really know what kind of stuff I put out in the Indian broadcasts? He does not — though I would be quite glad to tell him about it. He is careful not to mention what other people are associated with these Indian broadcasts. One for instance is Herbert Read, whom he mentions with approval. Others are T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, Reginald Reynolds, Stephen Spender, J. B. S. Haldane, Tom Wintringham. Most of our broadcasters are Indian left-wing intellectuals, from Liberals to Trotskyists, some of them bitterly anti-British. They don’t do it to “fox the Indian masses” but because they know what a Fascist victory would mean to the chances of India’s independence. Why not try to find out what I am doing before accusing my good faith?

* Burmese Days.

“Mr Orwell is intellectual-hunting again” (Mr Comfort). I have never attacked “the intellectuals” or “the intelligentsia” en bloc. I have used a lot of ink and done myself a lot of harm by attacking the successive literary cliques which have infested this country, not because they were intellectuals but precisely because they were not what I mean by true intellectuals. The life of a clique is about five years and I have been writing long enough to see three of them come and two go — the Catholic gang, the Stalinist gang, and the present pacifist or, as they are sometimes nicknamed, Fascifist gang. My case against all of them is that they write mentally dishonest propaganda and degrade literary criticism to mutual arse-licking. But even with these various schools I would differentiate between individuals. I would never think of coupling Christopher Dawson with Arnold Lunn, or Malraux with Palme Dutt, or Max Plowman with the Duke of Bedford. And even the work of one individual can exist at very different levels. For instance Mr Comfort himself wrote one poem I value greatly (‘The Atoll in the Mind’), and I wish he would write more of them instead of lifeless propaganda tracts dressed up as novels. But this letter he has chosen to send you is a different matter. Instead of answering what I have said he tries to prejudice an audience to whom I am little known by a misrepresentation of my general line and sneers about my “status” in England. (A writer isn’t judged by his “status”, he is judged by his work.) That is on a par with “peace” propaganda which has to avoid mention of Hitler’s invasion of Russia, and it is not what I mean by intellectual honesty. It is just because I do take the function of the intelligentsia seriously that I don’t like the sneers, libels, parrot phrases and financially profitable back-scratching which flourish in our English literary world, and perhaps in yours also.

12 July 1942
London, England

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  • Derek Stanley Savage (1917-2007), pacifist poet and critic, usually published as “D. S. Savage”. He was General Secretary of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship.
  • George Woodcock (1912-1995) was a Canadian writer of political biography and history, an anarchist thinker, an essayist and literary critic. After this controversy he and Orwell corresponded and remained friends until Orwell’s death in 1950.
  • Alexander Comfort (1920-2000) was a medical professional, anarchist, pacifist, conscientious objector and writer.

Source: CEJL2-34

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One Response to Pacifism and the War – A Controversy (September-October 1942)

  1. Joshua Blair on June 22, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    I’d say he shot the elephant dead there.

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