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What I've been reading

January 29th, 2006

Orwell, Collected Essays. I bought a set of these years ago, but lost Volume 3, which I’ve just replaced. It still stands up very well after all these years, and has lots of fascinating stuff to dip into, such as a defence of English cooking.

Orwell is one of those writers, like Shakespeare, who lots of people have tried to claim, particularly during the Cold War. I was particularly interested therefore, to read his very level-headed assessment of the British Communist Party and his observation that its fluctuating membership was inversely proportional to the extent to which it embraced revolutionary politics and to which Russian and British foreign policy was in conflict. However sharp his phraseology at times, Orwell always stood against heresy-hunters, and he would certainly have recognised the kinship between McCarthyism and Stalinism.

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  1. Paul Kelly from News Ltd
    January 29th, 2006 at 18:01 | #1

    He continues to be claimed by people such as Michael Duffy and Andrew Bolt, because he ‘hated communism’, but you get the impression they only read Animal Farm and/or 1984.

  2. Dogz
    January 29th, 2006 at 18:14 | #2

    Yeah, McCarthy and Stalin were like two peasinapod. Stalin responsible for the death of around 20 million of his own people, while the number of American deaths attributed to McCarthy is…..

    [hang on, I'm sure I can find it somewhere. While we're waiting, how does that Stalin-McCarthy analogy run again?]

  3. Don Wigan
    January 29th, 2006 at 18:47 | #3

    The difference, Dogz, might be more attributable to the relative power that each wielded and the checks and balances. Being Secretary of the Communist Party in the USSR and in charge of the secret police allowed you to do and get away with a great deal more than if you are a US Senator from Wisconsin. An independent judiciary, various other independent levels of government power, not to mention courageous independent journalists such as Ed Murrow also helped save many Americans from any excesses of American Joe.

    Nevertheless, both used fear, intimidation and unpredicability to wrongfoot rivals and innocent bystanders alike. Directly to McCarthy is hard, but he, along with HUAC, Hoover and the FBI certainly helped create the atmosphere for the deaths of the Rosenbergs.

  4. Dogz
    January 29th, 2006 at 20:07 | #4

    I know the left likes to excuse the crimes of their erstwhile idols (Stalin, Mao) by convoluted comparisons with historical figures from the right, but equating McCarthy’s tangential involvement in the deaths of two convicted spies with Stalin’s murder of 20 million innocent Soviets is drawing an awfully long bow.

    In the absence of evidence to the contrary, I tend to go for the simplest explanation. Stalin was a ruthless murderer. There’s no evidence McCarthy was.

  5. SJ
    January 29th, 2006 at 20:37 | #5

    I know the right likes to excuse the crimes of their erstwhile idols (Hitler. Mussolini, Pinochet, G W Bush) by, well just ignoring it.

    In the absence of evidence to the contrary, I tend to go for the simplest explanation. Stalin was a ruthless murderer. G W Bush is, too.

    Fascism, totalitarianism, etc, are the new black. You just aren’t cool if you don’t have the sticker on your forehead saying “Nuke the middle east. Torture the survivors”.

  6. Andrew Reynolds
    January 29th, 2006 at 21:40 | #6

    SJ,
    For that matter there was very little difference between Hitler and Stalin – Mussolini was a bit behind due to a relative competence level. Pinochet was probably less bad, at least in terms of number of deaths. Of that crew, Mao was truly out on his own in front. Joined, possibly, by Pol Pot and the North Korean Kims.
    Each of them used an ideological cover for what was a simple brutal dictatorship. If the justification supposedly came from the left or the right it does not make one bit of difference.
    G. W. Bush? Well, lets see what judgement history can pass in a few decades. Guantanamo, inexcusable as it is, is (IMHO) not quite in the same league as the gulag.

  7. Andrew Reynolds
    January 29th, 2006 at 21:41 | #7

    Back on topic – what I enjoyed about Orwell was that he was able to see past the ideological blinkers and see the true nature of any totalitarian system and then write well about it. For that he deserves great praise.

  8. SJ
    January 29th, 2006 at 21:51 | #8

    Way to go, Andrew.

    Well, lets see what judgement history can pass in a few decades.

    Some of us have enough integrity to say: no, this has to stop now.

  9. SJ
    January 29th, 2006 at 21:59 | #9

    Back on topic – what I enjoyed about Orwell was that he was able to see past the ideological blinkers and see the true nature of any totalitarian system and then write well about it. For that he deserves great praise.

    Just a guess, but you haven’t read The Road to Wigan Pier or Down and Out in Paris and London.

  10. Andrew Reynolds
    January 29th, 2006 at 22:11 | #10

    SJ,
    Guessed wrong. As you know, his early work was plainly communist in intent – it is that which, in my opinion, makes him remarkable. He is one of the few who went out on that limb and then realised his mistake and came back to write a devastating critique or two of the system he previously assisted – including going to Spain to fight for it (at least for the POUM – a Trot group if I remember correctly).
    I know he was a democratic socialist, but we can’t hold that against everyone, can we?

  11. SJ
    January 29th, 2006 at 22:43 | #11

    He is one of the few who went out on that limb and then realised his mistake and came back to write a devastating critique or two of the system he previously assisted – including going to Spain to fight for it

    I’m not sure that I understand what you mean. He fought against Franco’s dictatorship in 1936, then learned his lesson, and wrote books supporting dictatorship in 1944 (Animal Farm), and 1949 (1984) or something like that?

  12. Andrew Reynolds
    January 29th, 2006 at 23:06 | #12

    Hmm, What word was it that got into moderation – was it Trots?

  13. James Farrell
    January 30th, 2006 at 00:05 | #13

    What are you talking about, Andrew? Orwell consistently advocated socialism and denounced totalitarianism, as he says in ‘Why I Write’ (1947). In Homage to Catalonia (1937) he defends the workers’ revolution and attacks the Spanish communist parties, backed by Stalin, who wanted to suppress it. In ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ (1941) he argues for socialism in Britain, and not in any watered-down form. What beliefs exactly do you suggest he repudiated?

  14. avaroo
    January 30th, 2006 at 06:34 | #14

    “Yeah, McCarthy and Stalin were like two peasinapod. Stalin responsible for the death of around 20 million of his own people, while the number of American deaths attributed to McCarthy is…..”

    Good point. It’s hard to see how anyone could miss this.

  15. avaroo
    January 30th, 2006 at 06:42 | #15

    Neither Animal Farm, nor 1984, are on required high school reading lists anymore. A fact tfor which American high school students can be eternally grateful. Both were actually completely loathesome to wade through.

  16. avaroo
    January 30th, 2006 at 06:44 | #16

    I would read Orwell’s spirited defense of English cooking though. The English get a bad rap on the cooking. For what it is, it’s not bad, and it’s much improved over the decades.

  17. Katz
    January 30th, 2006 at 08:55 | #17

    The comparison between Joseph McCarthy and Joseph Stalin is ridiculous.

    Joseph Stalin was one of the greatest mass murderers in history. Joe McCarthy was, briefly, the junior senator for Wisconsin. “Wisconsin” is an Indian name.

    Here are some better known Wisconsin tribes with their fates, according to Wikipedia:

    Chippewa: “they were never removed as so many other tribes have been, but by successive treaty sales they are now restricted to reservations within this territory”

    Kickapoo: “Under pressure from American colonists, the tribe splintered into three major factions. Some moved west, resisting by retreating rather than assimilating or fighting. Other stayed in the Wabash region and joined Indian resistance movements, such as those led by Tecumseh and Black Hawk; these resisters were forcefully removed to Missouri in 1820 and 1834.”

    Winnebago: “Through a series of moves imposed by the U.S. government in the 19th century, the tribe was moved to reservations in Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and finally in Nebraska. Through these moves, many tribe members returned to previous homes, especially to Wisconsin despite repeated roundups and removals…”

    There are many other lesser known Wisconsin tribes. Their fates are similar to one or another of the above. Check for yourself:

    http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/wisconsin/

    So what?

    The destruction of Indian polity and culture happened in Wisconsin during the lifetime of Joseph McCarthy’s grandparents. Joseph McCarthy represented a state called Wisconsin only because these acts of violent dispossession had happened.

    Wisconsin had its own mini-Stalins, as did most other US states, who harried and starved and massacred Native Americans.

    The destruction of Wiconsin’s Indians wasn’t Joseph McCarthy’s fault. Those people have never been condemned in the popular memory in the way that Stalin has been. Stalin’s crimes resulted in the creation of the war machine that destroyed Hitler’s invading armies. The destruction of Wisconsin’s Indians rendered the state safe for cheese production.

    But McCarthy is to blame for betraying the civil society that his grandparents did establish in Wisconsin and elsewhere over the graves of Native Americans: the rule of law and common decency.

  18. Don Wigan
    January 30th, 2006 at 09:00 | #18

    “I know the left likes to excuse the crimes of their erstwhile idols (Stalin, Mao) by convoluted comparisons with historical figures from the right,…”

    If you had any basic comprehension, Dogz, you would understand that in no way have I attempted to excuse the crimes of Stalin. What I said was that there were not enough checks and balances to prevent him terrorising and purging an entire country.

    In America in the 50s it may not have been the most pleasant place to live if you attracted the attention of HUAC or had fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, but there were plenty of checks and balances through the independent judiciary and press.

    If you can find anything I’ve said or written that defends or excuses Stalin, Mao, Lenin, Hitler, Ne Win, Pinochet or any other totalitarians then you’ve a much greater creative imagination than I give you credit for.

    In case you missed the point again, it’s accountability and resistance to abuses of power that prevents the rise of totalitarianism.

    And while I don’t suggest Bush and Cheney are in that league, I do suggest there are danger signs in the executive breaking the law, in the media virtually being controlled by corporate interests beholding to the government, and in most politicians being owned by corporate and lobbyist donors.

    Nor am I anti-American. Jefferson, Franklin and other framers of the Constitution had the healthiest respect for the need to restrain the powers of the state. Apity more people, especially those in power, don’t spend more time studying what they had to stay.

  19. derrida derider
    January 30th, 2006 at 10:17 | #19

    Before saying Orwell always stood against heresy-hunters you should read the exchange of letters to Tribune between him and Connie Zilliacus, a Labour MP. Despite the fact that Orwell was a far better writer and that Zilliacus was pro-Russian at a time when Stalin was in charge, comrade Zilliacus had far the better of the exchange on the facts – Orwell ended up having to resort to transparent bluster when he was (rightly) called out on his careless accusations of treason.

    Just goes to show we’re all fallible.

  20. jquiggin
    January 30th, 2006 at 13:11 | #20

    DD, you’re right about this and I have read the exchange you mention. Similarly, Orwell used (but later repudiated) the construction “objectively pro-Fascist”, later taken up by warbloggers like Glenn Reynolds.

    But I think his occasional fallibility made him a more acute critic than someone who had never strayed from the path of right.

  21. Steve Edwards
    January 30th, 2006 at 23:32 | #21

    “while the number of American deaths attributed to McCarthy…”

    One less than Ted Kennedy!

  22. Andrew Reynolds
    January 31st, 2006 at 00:09 | #22

    James – my comment is in moderation. As I do not know which word was objected to, I will have to wait for it to be released.

  23. January 31st, 2006 at 11:03 | #23

    Orwell always stood against heresy-hunters, and he would certainly have recognised the kinship between McCarthyism and Stalinism.

    Although neither Stalin and McCarthy were very nice to critics and dissidents it is ridiculous to treat them as moral equivalences.

    Stalin was a major figure who did enormous evil (killed 20 million people to consolidate his control of USSR’s party, state and society) and enormous good (led the Red Army to defeat Hitler and the Wermacht).

    McCarthy, by contrast, was a minor figure who did a little bit of good (prosecuted pro-communist conspirators) and a little bit of bad (persecuted anti-progressive heretics).

    I, like many wishy-washy left leaning persons who were educated in the seventies, had always assumed that McCarthy was the personification of evil in every way. But the release of the Venona transcripts, showing lists of US citizens engaged in providing aid and comfort to the Soviet government, has provided evidence to substantiate some of his concerns about treason in high places. Contrary to Pr Q’s assumption, Orwell, in his characteristicly lone commando way, did something similar to McCarthy when he dobbed in UK commie symps by providing a list of them to HM Government.

  24. Sean
    January 31st, 2006 at 11:05 | #24

    My gratitude to Orwell is for showing me my intelleckshool limitations.

    After grad, not one but 2 of my English lecturers congratulated me on my marks but stated it was a pity I hadn’t worked harder. Ha! Little did they know that I was not lazy but just thick. From high school onwards, I laboured under the mistaken impression that 1984 was a DIStopian novel!!!

    As my fellow citizens rapturously embrace the surveillance society, I must accept the CW and admit my error.

  25. January 31st, 2006 at 11:42 | #25

    correction

    persecuted anti- [sic] progressive heretics

    should read

    persecuted progressive heretics

  26. Hal9000
    January 31st, 2006 at 16:09 | #26

    Did anyone notice the egregious Hendo in today’s SMH engaging in his favourite sport of spinning history? Big Brother would have been proud.

    According to Hendo, the New Guard were some sort of grown-up boy scouts, unlike Laurie Aarons and his fellow commos who were itching to follow in the blood-soaked footsteps of Feliks Dzherzhinsky and Lavrenti Beria. Yes, the fact that the Australian comrades engaged in non-violent industrial organising rather than mass murder merely shows how cunning and dangerous they truly were.

    It seems according to Hendo that the New Guarders, while keen on uniforms, violent, armed, organised along military lines and inclined to bash strikers, bohemians or anyone deemed different, didn’t wear swastikas. To be a fascist, you apparently needed to speak Italian or German. Glad Hendo’s cleared that up for us.

    But back to Orwell – I always thought his best stuff lay in his essays and semi-fictional memoirs, polemics and reportage eg Penny Dreadfuls, Shooting an Elephant, Down and Out in Paris and London, Cheap Luxuries and the like. He had the knack of showing the humanity of the dehumanised and the inhumanity of systems that comfortably obscured the reality of suffering from its beneficiaries. His later novels were boring reads by comparison and would have vanished without trace if they hadn’t been spun into anti-utopian tracts.

  27. SJ
    January 31st, 2006 at 23:38 | #27

    Andrew Reynolds Says:
    January 29th, 2006 at 11:06 pm

    Hmm, What word was it that got into moderation – was it Trots?

    Andrew Reynolds Says:
    January 31st, 2006 at 12:09 am

    James – my comment is in moderation. As I do not know which word was objected to, I will have to wait for it to be released.

    Yeah, yeah. Dog ate my homework.

  28. Ian Gould
    February 1st, 2006 at 15:36 | #28

    Any assessment of Orwell’s attitude towards McCarthyism has to take into account his own careless denuncation late in life of various British left-wingers as Stalinist fellow-travellers.

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/16550

    I have enormous respect for Orwell both for his abiltiy as a writer and for his willingness to risk his life for his beliefs. However his denuncation of people, including friends as “crypto-communists” and “fellow-travellers” is regrettable – although it occurred during his final illness and he may not have been fully responsible for his actions.

  29. February 1st, 2006 at 16:04 | #29

    In ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ (1941) he argues for socialism in Britain, and not in any watered-down form. What beliefs exactly do you suggest he repudiated?

    Orwell was a socialist, yes, but he was also alert to the dangers. His review of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road To Surfdom was favourable, and he appeared to have no problem with Hayek’s view that socialism led to totalitarianism.

  30. jquiggin
    February 1st, 2006 at 17:19 | #30

    As a response to several commenters, kinship is not equivalence.

    I’m merely making the point that, had McCarthy, Nixon and the rest of the HUAC crew been in Russia, they would have been on the side of Stalin and the secret police.

  31. James Farrell
    February 1st, 2006 at 22:00 | #31

    TimT

    Let’s let people read the review itself, if they haven’t before, and draw their own conclusions. It’s only about eight sentences.

  32. Andrew Reynolds
    February 1st, 2006 at 22:40 | #32

    SJ,
    The dog must have coughed up my comment, which has now been released from moderation. I still do not know why it was there, though.
    .
    PrQ,
    Had most of us been there we would have been just like most of the rest of the Soviet population – accepting of our lot and doing the best to work around the more obvious problems. I do not think ‘Tailgunner Joe’ would have been amongst us – I must agree that he probably would have been assiting it, like a substantial minority were. To say that such speculation gives moral equivalent to their deeds is a bit rich, though.

  33. James Farrell
    February 1st, 2006 at 23:17 | #33

    Andrew

    I’m confused now. Are you saying that the comment that went missing is the one that starts ‘Guessed Wrong’? But that’s the one I was responding to in the first place, as was SJ, who even quoted from it. If it was missing for some interval, that must have been before I even saw this thread.

  34. Andrew Reynolds
    February 2nd, 2006 at 16:06 | #34

    Mhh, my response to that was moderated again. I am still mystified as to what it is that caused the moderation. I will try again…
    .
    James,
    My mistake – my moderated comment has got lost. Oh well – I thought it was a good one. It made the point that Orwell, in Spain, was fighting for the P.O.U.M. – an organisation of Trotskyites, not generally known for their moderation in terms of democratic socialism.

  35. Andrew Reynolds
    February 2nd, 2006 at 16:07 | #35

    Fascinating – moderated again – another try.
    .
    James,
    My mistake – my moderated comment has got lost. Oh well – I thought it was a good one. It made the point that Orwell, in Spain, was fighting for the POUM. – an organisation of Trotskyites, not generally known for their moderation in terms of democratic socia!ism.

  36. Andrew Reynolds
    February 2nd, 2006 at 16:11 | #36

    PrQ,
    Looks like the word defined in wikipedia as “an ideology of a social and economic system where the means of production are owned and controlled by all of society” (socia!ism) puts a comment into moderation. Any idea why?

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