In 1942, in the midst of World War II, George Orwell (who was himself incredibly problematic, but that is the subject of a different article altogether) wrote an essay titled “Pacifism and the War.” I have included an excerpt below, in which Orwell argues that pacifism is a ridiculous ideology, one limited almost exclusively to the privileged.
Although this particular discussion is situated within the context of a specific war, Orwell’s points are just as valid today as they were then (particularly considering the U.S. is at perpetual war).
When it comes to the subject of violence — especially in light of the presence of non-stop structural violence — it is most constructive to keep in mind Howard Zinn’s canonical quote: “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
Here are some highlights:
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 [a pacifist who had sent Orwell a letter] 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…
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:
- The Fascizing processes occurring in Britain as a result of war are systematically exaggerated.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 article 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 (Burmese Days) 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 it could. How does this contradict my present anti-Hitler attitude? It is news to me that Trotskyists are either pacifists or pro-Fascists. …
‘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. … (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 phrased and financially profitable back-scratching which flourish in our English literary world, and perhaps in yours also.
“Fascifist.” Word of the day.
Anti-Pacifism Is Not Pro-War
Now, let me be clear: I am not justifying war. Not one bit. I am wholeheartedly anti-war. Being anti-pacifist doesn’t mean you are pro-war. You can support the idea of using violence to fight violence without supporting the forced deployment of a nation’s impoverished denizens to fight — on the behalf of and for the benefit of the bourgeois elite — to maintain imperialist control over a region’s natural resources.
In fact, I would posit that any rational person should be both anti-pacifist and anti-war. Neither makes much sense.
As the adage goes: “War: Good for few, bad for most.”
Alternatively, as Chomsky puts it:
There’s a very heavy burden of proof to be borne by anyone who calls for violence. Maybe it can be sometimes justified. Personally, I’m not a committed pacifist, so I think that, yes, it can sometimes be justified. So I thought, in fact, in that article I wrote in fourth grade, I thought the West should be using force to try to stop fascism, and I still think so. But now I know a lot more about it. I know that the West was actually supporting fascism, supporting Franco, supporting Mussolini, and so on, and even Hitler. I didn’t know that at the time. But I thought then and I think now that the use of force to stop that plague would have been legitimate, and finally was legitimate. But an argument has to be given for it.
Moreover, let me be clear: I do not think pacifist strategies are necessarily bad. My problem is with pacifism as an absolutist approach — with the absurd notion that employing violence, even in cases of self-defense, is never justified as a liberatory tactic. Non-violent civil disobedience certainly has a place, and has sometimes certainly been successful in the past.
History shows however, again and again, that strictly pacifist movements are rarely, if ever, successful. Movements for liberation need to employ a diversity of tactics.
[N]on-violence, and particularly, Gandhian non-violence in some ways needs an audience. It’s a theatre that needs an audience. … How are the hungry to go on a hunger strike? How are the people with no money to boycott taxes or foreign goods or do consumer boycotts?”
“Because I think it suits the status-quo to have everybody saying… this is terrible and all. So just let’s just keep on without taking it into account the terrible structural violence. … [A]ny responsible person has to say that the violence will stop when you stop pushing those people.”
“It’s a terrible thing to do to any society. I don’t think that there is any romance in it. However, I’m not against romance. I do feel it’s incredible that these poor people are standing up against this mighty state.