George Orwell, My country right or left (#Review)

Having recently posted on the fourth essay, “The prevention of literature“, in my book of George Orwell essays, I’ve decided to plough on and try to finish it. The next essay is the short, cleverly titled, “My country right or left”. It was first published in Autumn 1940 in Folios of new writing.

It’s a curious little essay. I’m going to introduce it by sharing the Orwell quote used by the Orwell Foundation under its banner: “What I have most wanted to do… is to make political writing into an art”. You can certainly tell from “The prevention of literature” that he sees literature as being necessarily political. That essay was written in 1946, just after World War 2 had ended. “My country right or left” was first published just one year into this war – and is politically-driven.

The essay starts with:

Contrary to popular belief, the past was not more eventful than the present. If it seems so it is because when you look backward things that happened years apart are telescoped together, and because very few of your memories come to you genuinely virgin. It is largely because of the books, films and reminiscences that have come between that the war of 1914-18 is now supposed to have had some tremendous, epic quality that the present one lacks.

I wasn’t sure at all, from this opening, where it was going. Soon, however, it’s clear that war is the driver for the essay which turns out to be about Orwell trying to rationalise, or work through, his socialist beliefs, his previously avowed pacifism, and his patriotism (and thus support for the war).

He writes about being a middle-class school boy during World War 1 and being oblivious to what was happening, particularly to “the true significance” of the big events. He writes:

The Russian Revolution, for instance, made no impression, except on the few whose parents happened to have money invested in Russia. 

I’m sure that’s not unusual! He talks about how pacifism

had set in long before the war ended. To be as slack as you dared on O.T.C. parades, and to take no interest in the war was considered a mark of enlightenment.

Interestingly, however, this pacifism, he says, gradually gave way to a certain nostalgia in those who had not experienced the war! He suggests that this was why his generation was so interested in the Spanish Civil War. He then moves onto World War 2, to the growing awareness in the mid-1930s that it was coming and – this is his main point – his realisation that he “was patriotic at heart” and “would support the war”.

Orwell’s sees this as a no-brainer. He says:

If I had to defend my reasons for supporting the war, I believe I could do so. There is no real alternative between resisting Hitler and surrendering to him, and from a Socialist point of view I should say that it is better to resist; in any case I can see no argument for surrender that does not make nonsense of the Republican resistance in Spain, the Chinese resistance to Japan, etc. etc. 

But, he admits that this support stemmed primarily from “the long drilling in patriotism which the middle classes go through”. The drilling had, he said, “done its work … once England was in a serious jam it would be impossible for me to sabotage”. This patriotism, however, in not incompatible, he argues, with his socialist view that “only revolution can save England”. That “has been obvious for years”. “To be loyal both to Chamberlain’s England and to the England of tomorrow might seem an impossibility”, he writes, but it is, in fact, a fact, because such dual loyalties were happening everyday. Revolution could not happen with Hitler in control, so, Hitler must be resisted.

His final point is to criticise the left-wing intellectuals who do not understand this, though his method is curious. He turns to the idea of “patriotism”, arguing that “patriotism” should not be equated with “conservatism”, because, unlike “conservatism”, “patriotism” can encompass change. Indeed, he proposes that “socialism” can grow out of the emotions that underpin “patriotism”, whether “the boiled rabbits of the Left” like it or not.

So, curiously argued perhaps, but I can imagine the socialist-leaning, middle-class raised, intellectually open Orwell wanting to nut out how to marry his socialist beliefs with the very real threats his imperfect Britain was facing – and coming up with something confronting, but true.

Wikipedia writes that “according to his notes to his literary executor in 1949”, this was one of three essays that he did not want reprinted after his death. I can sort of see why, and I don’t know why the executor didn’t respect this. However, I do like the insight this essay provides into how Orwell thought, and that it shows him to be an independent thinker, rather than a parroter of received truths.

Previous reviews of essays from this book: “Books v. Cigarettes“, “Bookshop memories“, “Confessions of a book reviewer“, and “The prevention of literature“.

George Orwell
“My country right or left” (orig. 1940)
in Books v. cigarettes (Great Ideas)
London: Penguin Books, 2008
pp. 21-41
ISBN: 9780141036618

Available online at the Orwell Foundation.

14 thoughts on “George Orwell, My country right or left (#Review)

  1. It’s bloody outrageous that the executor ignored his specific wish ..
    That being said, yes, one can deduce without too much brain-cudgellng why he was reluctant for this .. erhmm .. rather unusual rationale to be published. I wonder why he didn’t destroy it, though ..

    • It had already been published, M-R, do the cat was out of the bag, as it were!

      I did a bit of a google search on the Executor but kept coming up withord recent issues and decided I didn’t have the time to keep searching. Literary executors have encroached way more than this!

        • That’s a good question that I can’t answer Lisa. I haven’t read Lessing thoroughly enough, but I think her political attitudes change though her long life? I read somewhere that she saw herself more as a Trotsky-ist but I’m not an expert on what she said or didn’t say.

        • No, nor am I, and I looked her up and the info I found was so convoluted I couldn’t make sense of it. But I’m sure I recall discussion about this when she got the Nobel.

        • Yes, I tried to look it up too, and got mired too. I have read volume 1 of her autobiography, which goes to 1949 so is a bit early for this aspect of her life.

  2. I’m a big fan of Orwell and I’m pleased you’re working through his essays when I have a number of his lesser works I’m yet to read. First, I agree with his executor. As you say, this was a published work, if Orwell changed his mind he needed to do it in writing.
    Second, I agree that England needed to defend itself against Hitler. Orwell would have felt this more viscerally than most because he had fought the fascists in Spain.
    BUT. I would have expected him to argue that patriotism got us into this mess in the first place. That as he himself implies, the ruling classes manipulate us with us against them rhetoric the better to control us. That it was Britain’s starving of Germans during the 1920s that led directly to the rise of Nazism

    • Thanks Bill … and interesting point about patriotism originating the problem. I’d have to think about that a bit more. I guess you need to start by defining patriotism. I think his definition – or comprehension of the term – is a little broader than we traditionally see it. He sees it as being about loving your country not just for the status quo (ie for what the ruling classes say it is) but for what it could be (eg, for what the revolutionaries envisage it to be). In an earlier version of my post I wrote that his argument could be seen as self-justifying?

      • I believe the division of the world into armed and mutually hostile camps is ridiculous. Patriotism makes no more sense than barracking for a particular football team. Our rulers’ love war because it forces us to stand behind them. P the last refuge of the scoundrel (politician) indeed.

        • I suspect Orwell would agree with you about that sort of patriotism, though he recognised that his middle-class school education would encourage that sort of simplistic devotion to God and country. His understanding was, dare I say it, a little more nuanced but, was it twisted to suit his case? I think it depends on who you ask, but as most of us agree, Hitler had to be resisted (no matter what you called the reason you supported the cause.)

  3. You are definitely nudging me towards this Orwell collection. Heheh
    I can relate to this idea of events of significance unfolding on the world stage while lives unfold oblivious. It’s so interesting to contemplate how the present-day will be recorded historically (or herstorically!).

    • It is such a little collection, Buried. Nudge, nudge, hint, hint, says she, cheekily.

      And yes I can relate to it too. And these days with so much communication and so many events unfolding, most of us will be oblivious to some. You hear some news and then it’s overtaken by something else and you forget that the earlier situation is not over. I’m terrible at this.

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