The Duty to Stand Aside: Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Wartime Quarrel of George Orwell and Alex Comfort, by Eric Laursen, AK Press, 176 pages, $16
In 1972 Dr. Alex Comfort had a colossal hit with The Joy of Sex, making him suddenly rich and famous. Less famously, in World War II Britain, a much younger Alex Comfort had a heated dispute in print with George Orwell.
Orwell was an enthusiastic supporter of the war against Hitler, while Comfort was opposed to the war. Outside narrow literary and political circles, neither man was very well-known. Orwell had published several books and dozens of articles, but he had yet to write Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four. Comfort, 17 years Orwell's junior, had produced a couple of novels, several poems, and some works of anarchist theory. His most enduring work came a few years later: Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State, which makes a good case that politics is an artificial game preserve for the kinds of anti-social predators whom it is a function of normal social life to curb and discourage.
Later, Comfort was to make his name as a medical researcher and a gerontologist—a scientific theorist of aging. He could little have dreamt, in 1942, that his novels, his poems, and political writings would never attract a wide readership, that his medical studies would be known only to specialists, and that he would yet become, at least for a few years, the most famous man in the world—"Dr. Sex." He could also scarcely have imagined that, despite outliving Orwell by 50 years (Orwell died in 1950, Comfort in 2000), and despite becoming briefly a household name, even his extraordinary fame would ultimately be far surpassed by Orwell's.
We don't know how Orwell would have changed his views had he lived longer. He was susceptible to changes of political allegiance, some sudden and some gradual. We do know what happened to Comfort: Less intellectually volatile than Orwell, he maintained essentially the same anarcho-pacifist outlook for the rest of his life.
The Orwell-Comfort debate occurred in 1942, most importantly in the pages of the Partisan Review, an American journal run at that time by former Trotskyists and open to various kinds of anti-Communist left-wing thinking. There was a brief continuation of the debate (in verse!) the following year, in a British socialist weekly, Tribune. The editors of Partisan Review were themselves split on whether to support America's war against the Axis powers. The leading figure, Dwight Macdonald, was firmly antiwar and never regretted it.
A striking fact about debates over "pacifism," especially when they occur during a war or during preparations for a war, is that discussion of the most fundamental, abstract principles tends to become disconnected from the practical choices facing decision makers. In the early 1940s there was only one major policy choice for Britain: Either pursue the war against Germany, or accept Hitler's repeated offers of a peace deal. There were strong arguments on both sides. But in his new book, The Duty to Stand Aside, Eric Laursen gives the impression that there was some third alternative.
Suppose the impossible, that "pacifism" were to have steadily increased in popular appeal in the 1940s. Then there would have come a point (20 percent pacifist support? 25 percent? 30 percent?) where the government would have felt obliged to fire Churchill and bring back Halifax to start talks with Ribbentrop. What third option could there be? Yet the anarchists did not campaign for a peace settlement. They would have nothing, on principle, to do with the evil British government, not even to stop the slaughter.
Orwell and the anarchists mostly talked past each other. Orwell argued that if you were a pacifist, you were objectively "pro-fascist." He threw in the additional claim that pacifists had a psychological tendency to become sympathetic to fascism. Orwell therefore called pacifists "fascifists," a term he liked to pretend he was quoting as a phrase already in currency, though it appears to have been a piece of terminology he had personally coined. In common with the left in general, Orwell used the word "fascist" primarily to refer to National Socialist Germany.
There is certainly something in the suggestion that if you oppose your own government when it is in conflict with x, then you must be to some extent objectively helping x. But to put that fact into perspective, this was a war of choice for Britain. Britain declared war on Germany and continued the war after France capitulated. Britain rejected all of Hitler's offers to negotiate a peace. A negotiated peace would have saved millions of lives. Orwell, like other supporters of the war, spoke of the danger of being invaded by Germany, without mentioning the fact that Germany had no interest in invading Britain except to stop the war Britain was pursuing.
The anarcho-pacifists appeared less concerned than Orwell with the practical results of their arguments, more concerned with doing what was morally right. Under the cover of fighting fascism, Britain and the U.S. were sometimes equaling or even outdoing fascist atrocities, especially with their campaign of "area bombing"—the extermination bombing of working-class communities. Orwell responded (in his exchange with the pacifist Vera Brittain) by cheerfully declaring that it was a good thing war deaths were now more randomly distributed among the population.
Anarchists and other antiwar leftists often said that in the event of a German invasion they would support armed resistance against the Nazis but they would not support the Churchill government's war against Germany. The Independent Labour Party leader and member of Parliament, James Maxton, continued to maintain this position throughout the war. It was inherently unpersuasive, because getting a German army across the channel and into Britain was something like 80 percent of the task of occupying Britain. It made more sense to stop them coming than to wait till they arrived to fight them. (We now know that for Germany to try to invade and occupy Britain would have had virtually zero chance of success. But at the time, it was widely believed to be both feasible and likely.)
Laursen gives a fair account of the Orwell-Comfort confrontation and the surrounding circumstances. There are one or two small inaccuracies. For example, Laursen follows numerous other writers in stating that Orwell switched from antiwar to pro-war following Hitler's invasion of Poland. But we have no reason to reject Orwell's own account that he abruptly underwent this conversion upon awakening from a dream about the coming war, on the morning of August 22, 1939, 10 days before the invasion of Poland and a few minutes before he read the press reports of Ribbentrop's flight to Moscow.
Comfort at the time, and various anarchists since, tend to overrate the extent to which Orwell and Comfort were thinking along the same lines and therefore might have come closer to agreement. Orwell got on well with individual anarchists, with whom he shared a lot of leftist assumptions along with a detestation for the Communist Party. But it was no surprise to anyone that the anarchist Freedom Press declined to publish Animal Farm because of its author's statist ideology. After 1935, Orwell had absolutely no truck, and virtually no patience, with any kind of anarchism or pacifism. His thinking is more closely aligned with Arthur Koestler's and even James Burnham's: He thought that social order always rests on coercion and the future inescapably lies with large-scale, centrally directed organization.
Laursen attempts to restate and defend Comfort's conception of anarchist society. But the variety of anarchism envisioned by Comfort cannot exist. British anarchists of the 1940s were socialists. They saw anarchist society as being controlled by small autonomous groups not mediated by commercial transactions. The possibility of (for example) an investor receiving an interest return on the production made possible by his savings is excluded from their system. Yet they assumed that their anarchism would permit modern industry and high living standards.
These two features of their imagined anarcho-socialism cannot co-exist in reality. Modern industry depends on the transmission of information through market prices. Without that, their society could only be one of primitive technology and low living standards. (Orwell in fact said this in his 1945 review of a book by the British anarchist Herbert Read, though he gave the wrong reason: He supposed that machine production was ineluctably leading to a centrally directed economy.)
In Orwell's view, neither capitalism nor anarchy had any conceivable future. His pressing intellectual problem was how to prevent what he saw as the inescapable collectivist system of the future from extinguishing democracy and all personal freedom, as in Nineteen Eighty-Four. This problem simply did not arise in the minds of anarcho-pacifists like Comfort, because unlike Orwell they saw no inevitability in a centrally planned economy. And on this point they were right.