The British Crisis – London Letter to Partisan Review (July-August 1942)

Partisan Review, July-August 1942. Completed by Orwell on 8 May 1942.

Dear Editors,

Stafford Cripps and Gandhi in Delhi (1942)

Stafford Cripps meeting with Mahatma Gandhi in Delhi (1942)

When I last wrote to you things had begun to go wrong in the Far East but nothing was happening politically. Now, I am fairly certain, we are on the edge of the political crisis which I have been expecting for the better part of two years. The situation is very complicated and I dare say that even before this reaches you much will have happened to falsify my predictions, but I will make the best analysis I can.

The basic fact is that people are now as fed up and as ready for a radical policy as they were at the time of Dunkirk, with the difference that they now have, or are inclined to think they have, a potential leader in Stafford Cripps. I don’t mean that people in significant numbers are crying out for the introduction of Socialism, merely that the mass of the nation wants certain things that aren’t obtainable under a capitalist economy and is willing to pay almost any price to get them. Few people, for instance, seem to me to feel urgently the need for nationalization of industry, but all except the interested minority would accept nationalization without a blink if they were told authoritatively that you can’t have efficient war-production otherwise. The fact is that “Socialism”, called by that name, isn’t by itself an effective rallying cry. To the mass of the people “Socialism” just means the discredited Parliamentary Labour Party, and one feature of the time is the widespread disgust with all the old political parties. But what then do people want? I should say that what they articulately want is more social equality, a complete clean-out of the political leadership, an aggressive war strategy and a tighter alliance with the U.S.S.R. But one has to consider the background of these desires before trying to predict what political development is now possible.

SOCIAL EQUALITY

The war has brought the class nature of their society very sharply home to English people, in two ways. First of all there is the unmistakable fact that all real power depends on class privilege. You can only get certain jobs if you have been to one of the right schools, and if you fail and have to be sacked, then somebody else from one of the right schools takes over, and so it continues. This may go unnoticed when things are prospering, but becomes obvious in moments of disaster. Secondly, there are the hardships of war which are, to put it mildly, tempered for anyone with over £2,000 a year. I don’t want to bore you with a detailed account of the way in which the food rationing is evaded, but you can take it that whereas ordinary people have to live on an uninteresting diet and do without many luxuries they are accustomed to, the rich go short of absolutely nothing except, perhaps, wines, fruit and sugar. You can be almost unaffected by food rationing without even breaking the law, though there is also a lively Black Market. Then there is bootleg petrol and, quite obviously, widespread evasion of Income Tax. This does not go unnoticed, but nothing happens because the will to crack down on it is not there while money and political power more or less coincide. To give just one example. At long last, and against much opposition in high places, the Ministry of Food is about to cut down “luxury feeding” by limiting the sum of money that can be spent on a meal in a hotel or restaurant. Already, before the law is even passed, ways of evading it have been thought out, and these are discussed almost undisguisedly in the newspapers.

There are other tensions which the war has brought out but which are somewhat less obvious than the jealousy caused by the Black Market or the discontent of soldiers blancoing their gasmasks under the orders of twerps of officers. One is the growing resentment felt by the underpaid armed forces (at any rate the army) against the high wage of the munition workers. If this were dealt with by raising the soldier’s pay to the munition-worker’s level the result would be either inflation or the diversion of labour from war production to consumption goods. The only real remedy is to cut down the civilian workers’ wages as well, which could only be made acceptable by the most drastic income cuts all round — briefly, “war-Communism”. And apart from the class struggle in its ordinary sense there are deeper jealousies within the bourgeoisie than foreigners sometimes realize. If you talk with a B.B.C. accent you can get jobs that a proletarian couldn’t get, but it is almost impossible to get beyond a certain point unless you belong socially to the Upper Crust. Everywhere able men feel themselves bottled down by incompetent idiots from the county families. Bound up with this is the crushing feeling we have all had in England these last twenty years that if you have brains “they” (the Upper Crust) will see to it that you are kept out of any really important job. During the years of investment capital we produced like a belt of fat the huge blimpocracy which monopolizes official and military power and has an instinctive hatred of intelligence.

This is probably a more important factor in England than in a “new” country like the U.S.A. It means that our military weakness goes beyond the inherent weakness of a capitalist state. When in England you find a gifted man in a really commanding position it is usually because he happens to have been born into an aristocratic family (examples are Churchill, Cripps, Mountbatten), and even so he only gets there in moments of disaster when others don’t want to take responsibility. Aristocrats apart, those who are branded as “clever” can’t get their hands on the real levers of power, and they know it. Of course ‘clever’ individuals do occur in the upper strata, but basically it is a class issue, middle class against upper class.

THE POLITICAL LEADERSHIP

The statement in the March-April P.R. that “the reins of power are still firmly in the hands of Churchill” is an error. Churchill’s position is very shaky. Up to the fall of Singapore it would have been true to say that the mass of the people liked Churchill while disliking the rest of his Government, but in recent months his popularity has slumped heavily. In addition he has the right-wing Tories against him (the Tories on the whole have always hated Churchill, though they had to pipe down for a long period), and Beaverbrook is up to some game which I do not fully understand but which must have the object of bringing himself into power. I wouldn’t give Churchill many more months of power, but whether he will be replaced by Cripps, Beaverbrook or somebody like Sir John Anderson is still uncertain.

The reason why nearly everyone who was anti-Nazi supported Churchill from the collapse of France onwards was that there was nobody else — i.e. nobody who was already well enough known to be able to step into power and who at the same time could be trusted not to surrender. It is idle to say that in 1940 we ought to have set up a Socialist government; the mass basis for such a thing probably existed, but not the leadership. The Labour Party had no guts, the pinks were defeatist, the Communists effectively pro-Nazi, and in any case there did not exist on the Left one single man of really nationwide reputation. In the months that followed what was wanted was chiefly obstinacy, of which Churchill had plenty. Now, however, the situation has altered. The strategic situation is probably far better than it was in 1940, but the mass of the people don’t think so, they are disgusted by defeats some of which they realize were unnecessary, and they have been gradually disillusioned by perceiving that in spite of Churchill’s speeches the old gang stays in power and nothing really alters. For the first time since Churchill came to power the Government has begun losing by-elections. Of the five most recent it has lost three, and in the two which it didn’t lose one opposition candidate was anti-war (I.L.P.) and the other was regarded as a defeatist. In all these elections the polls were extremely low, in one case reaching the depth-record of 24 per cent of the electorate. (Most wartime polls have been low, but one has to write off something for the considerable shift of population.) There is a most obvious loss of the faith in the old parties, and there is a new factor in the presence of Cripps, who enjoys at any rate for the moment a considerable personal reputation. Just at the moment when things were going very badly he came back from Russia in a blaze of undeserved glory. People had by this time forgotten the circumstances in which the Russo-German war broke out and credited Cripps with having “got Russia in on our side”. He was, however, cashing in on his earlier political history and on having never sold out his political opinions. There is good reason to think that at that moment, with no party machine under his control, he did not realize how commanding his personal position was. Had he appealed directly to the public, through the channels open to him, he could probably then and there have forced a more radical policy on the Government, particularly in the direction of a generous settlement with India. Instead he made the mistake of entering the Government and the almost equally bad one of going to India with an offer which was certain to be turned down. I can’t put in print the little I know about the inner history of the Cripps-Nehru negotiations, and in any case the story is too complex to be written about in a letter of this length. The important thing is to what extent this failure has discredited Cripps. The people most interested in ditching the negotiations were the pro-Japanese faction in the Indian Congress Party, and the British right-wing Tories. Halifax’s speech made in New York at the time was interpreted here as an effort to tread on as many Indian toes as possible and thus make a get-together between Cripps and Nehru more difficult. Similar efforts are being made from the opposite end at this moment. The upshot is that Cripps’s reputation is damaged in India but not in this country — or, if damaged, then by his entry into the Government rather than by the failure in Delhi.

I can’t yet give you a worth-while opinion as to whether Cripps is the man the big public think him, or are half-inclined to think him. He is an enigmatic man who has been politically unstable, and those who know him only agree upon the fact that he is personally honest. His position rests purely upon the popular belief in him, for he has the Labour Party machine more or less against him, and the Tories are only temporarily supporting him because they want to use him against Churchill and Beaverbrook and imagine that they can make him into another tame cat like Attlee. Some of the factory workers are inclined to be suspicious of him (one comment reported to me was “Too like Mosley” — meaning too much the man of family who “goes to the people”) and the Communists hate him because he is suspected of being anti-Stalin. Beaverbrook already appears to be instituting an attack on Cripps and his newspapers are making use of anti-Stalinist remarks dropped by Cripps in the past. I note that the Germans, to judge from their wireless, would be willing to see Cripps in power if at that price they could get rid of Churchill. They probably calculate that since Cripps has no party machine to rely on he would soon be levered out by the right-wing Tories and make way for Sir John Anderson, Lord Londonderry or someone of that kind. I can’t yet say with certainty that Cripps is not merely a second-rate figure to whom the public have tied their hopes, a sort of bubble blown by popular disconcent. But at any rate, the way people talked about him when he came back from Moscow was symptomatically important.

WAR STRATEGY

There is endless talk about a Second Front, those who are for and those who are against being divided roughly along political lines. Much that is said is extremely ignorant, but even people with little military knowledge are able to see that in the last few months we have lost by useless defensive actions a force which, if grouped in one place and used offensively, might have achieved something. Public opinion often seems to be ahead of the so-called experts in matters of grand strategy, sometimes even tactics and weapons. I don’t myself know whether the opening of a second front is feasible, because I don’t know the real facts about the shipping situation; the only clue I have to the latter is that the food situation hasn’t altered during the past year. Official policy seems to be to discountenance the idea of a Second Front, but just possibly that is only military deception. The right-wing papers make much play with our bombing raids on Germany and suggest that we can tie down a million troops along the coast of Europe by continuous commando raids. The latter is nonsense, as the commandos can’t do much when the nights get short, and after our own experiences few people here believe that bombing can settle anything. In general the big public is offensive-minded and is always pleased when the government shows by violating international law (e.g. Oran, Syria, Madagascar) that it is taking the war seriously. Nevertheless the idea of attacking Spain or Spanish Morocco (much the most hopeful area for a Second Front in my opinion) is seldom raised. It is agreed by all observers that the army, i.e. rank and file and a lot of the junior officers, is exceedingly browned off, but this does not seem to be the case with the navy and R.A.F., and it is easy to get recruits for the dangerous corps such as the commandos and parachute troops. An anonymous pamphlet attacking the blimpocracy, button-polishing, etc. recently sold enormously, and this line is also run by the Daily Mirror, the soldiers’ favourite paper, which was nearly suppressed a few weeks back for its criticism of the higher command. On the other hand the pamphlets which used to appear earlier in the war, complaining about the hardships of army life, seem to have faded out. Perhaps symptomatically important is the story now widely circulated, that the real reason why the higher-ups have stuck out against adopting dive-bombers is that these are cheap to manufacture and don’t represent much profit. I know nothing as to the truth of this story, but I record the fact that many people believe it. Churchill’s speech a few days back in which he referred to possible use of poison gas by the Germans was interpreted as a warning that gas warfare will begin soon. Usual comment: “I hope we start using it first.” People seem to me to have got tougher in their attitude, in spite of general discontent and the lack of positive war aims. It is hard to assess how much the man in the street cared about the Singapore disaster. Working-class people seemed to me to be more impressed by the escape of the German warships from Brest. The opinion seems general that Germany is the real enemy, and newspaper efforts to work up a hate over Japanese atrocities failed. My impression is that people will go on fighting so long as Germany is in the field, but that if Germany should be knocked out they would not continue the war against Japan unless a real and intelligible war aim were produced.

THE RUSSIAN ALLIANCE

I have referred in earlier letters to the great growth of pro-Russian feeling. It is difficult, however, to be sure how deep this goes. A Trotskyist said to me recently that he thought that by their successful resistance the Russians had won back all the credit they lost by the Hitler-Stalin pact and the Finnish war. I don’t believe this is so. What has happened is that the U.S.S.R. has gained a lot of admirers it did not previously have, but many who used to be its uncritical adherents have grown cannier. One notices here a gulf between what is said publicly and privately. In public nobody says a word against the U.S.S.R., but in private, apart from the “disillusioned” Stalinists that one is always meeting, I notice a more sceptical attitude among thinking people. One sees this especially in conversations about the Second Front. The official attitude of the pinks is that if we open up a Second Front the Russians will be so grateful that they will be our comrades to the last. In reality, to open a Second Front without a clear agreement beforehand would simply give the Russians the opportunity to make a separate peace; for if we succeeded in drawing the Germans away from their territories, what reason would they have for going on fighting? Another theory favoured in left-wing papers is that the more fighting we do the more say we shall have in the postwar settlement. This again is an illusion; those who dictate the peace treaties are those who have remained strongest, which usually means those who have managed to avoid fighting (e.g. the U.S.A. in the last war). Considerations of this kind seldom find their way into print but are admitted readily enough in private. I think people have not altogether forgotten the Russo-German Pact and that fear of another double-cross partly explains their desire for a closer alliance. But there is also much sentimental boosting of Russia, based on ignorance and played up by all kinds of crooks who are utterly anti-Socialist but see that the Red Army is a popular line. I must take back some of the favourable references I made in earlier letters to the Beaverbrook press. After giving his journalists a free hand for a year or more, during which some of them did good work in enlightening the big public, Beaverbrook has again cracked the whip and is setting his team at work to attack Churchill and, more directly, Cripps. He is simultaneously yapping against fuel-rationing, petrol-rationing and other restrictions on private capitalism, and posing as more Stalinist than the Stalinists. Most of the right-wing press adopts the more cautious line of praising “the great Russian people” (historic parallels with Napoleon etc.) while keeping silent about the nature of the Russian régime. The “International” is at last being played on the wireless. Molotov’s speech on the German atrocities was issued as a White Paper, but in deference to somebody’s feelings (I don’t know whether Stalin’s or the King’s) the royal arms were omitted from the cover. People in general want to think well of Russia, though still vaguely hostile to Communism. They would welcome a joint declaration of war aims and a close co-ordination of strategy. I think many people realize that a firm alliance with Russia is difficult while the Munich crew are still more or less in power, but much fewer grasp that the comparative political backwardness of the U.S.A. presents another difficulty.

REVOLUTION OR DISASTER

Well, that is the set-up as I see it. It seems to me that we are back to the “revolutionary situation” which existed but was not utilized after Dunkirk. From that time until quite recently one’s thoughts necessarily moved in some such progression as this:

  • We can’t win the war with our present social and economic structure.
  • The structure won’t change unless there is a rapid growth in popular consciousness.
  • The only thing that promotes this growth is military disasters.
  • One more disaster and we shall lose the war.

In the circumstances all one could do was to “support” the war, which involved
supporting Churchill, and hope that in some way it would all come right on the night — i.e. that the mere necessities of war, the inevitable drift towards a centralized economy and a more equal standard of living, would force the régime gradually to the Left and allow the worst reactionaries to be levered out. No one in his senses supposed that the British ruling classes would legislate themselves out of existence, but they might be manoeuvred into a position where their continuance in power was quite obviously in the Nazi interest. In that case the mass of the nation would swing against them and it would be possible to get rid of them with little or no violence. Before writing this off as a hopelessly “reformist” strategy it is worth remembering that England is literally within gunshot of the continent. Revolutionary defeatism, or anything approaching it, is nonsense in our geographical situation. If there were even a week’s serious disorganization in the armed forces the Nazis would be here, after which one might as well stop talking about revolution.

To some small extent things have happened as I foresaw. One can after all discern the outlines of a revolutionary world war. Britain has been forced into alliance with Russia and China and into restoring Abyssinia and making fairly generous treaties with the Middle Eastern countries, and because of, among other things, the need to raise a huge air force a serious breach has been made in the class system. The defeats in the Far East have gone a long way towards killing the old conception of imperialism. But there was a sort of gap in the ladder which we never got over and which it was perhaps impossible to get over while no revolutionary party and no able left-wing leadership existed. This may or may not have been altered by the emergence of Cripps. I think it is certain that a new political party will have to arise if anything is to be changed, and the obvious bankruptcy of the old parties may hasten this. Maybe Cripps will lose his lustre quite quickly if he does not get out of the Government. But at present, in his peculiar isolated position, he is the likeliest man for any new movement to crystallize round. If he fails, God save us from the other probable alternatives to Churchill.

I suppose as usual I have written too much. There is not much change in our everyday lives here. The nation went on to brown bread a few weeks back. The basic petrol ration stops next month, which in theory means the end of private motoring. The new luxury taxes are terrific. Cigarettes now cost a shilling for ten and the cheapest beer tenpence a pint (fourpence in 1936). Everyone seems to be working longer and longer hours. Now and again at intervals of weeks one gets one’s head above water for a moment and notices with surprise that the earth is still going round the sun. One day I noticed crocuses in the parks, another day pear blossom, another day hawthorn. One seems to catch vague glimpses of these things through a mist of war news.

Yours ever
George Orwell

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Source: CEJL2-32

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