Orwell’s Review of Foot’s Work
George Orwell did a review of Foot’s work. And as usual, he was more interested in sneering at the left:
“Now, the book is a fanciful one, but this conclusion is realistic. It is immensely unlikely that the British Tories will ever put Mussolini on trial. There is nothing that they could accuse him of except his declaration of war in 1940. If the ‘trial of war criminals’ that some people enjoy dreaming about ever happens, it can only happen after revolutions in the Allied countries. But the whole notion of finding scapegoats, of blaming individuals, or parties, or nations for the calamities that have happened to us, raises other trains of thought, some of them rather disconcerting.” (Two Wasted Years: The Complete Works of George Orwell, Volume XV. Page 294)
He accepts Tory guilt, but then downplays it:
“All this ‘Cassius’ brings out, but he does shirk its corollary. Throughout his book it is implied that only Tories are immoral. ‘Yet there was still another England, he says. This other England detested Fascism from the day of its birth.. This was the England of the Left, the England of Labour. True, but only part of the truth. The actual behaviour of the Left has been more honourable than its theories. It has fought against Fascism, but its representative thinkers have entered just as deeply as their opponents into the evil world of ‘realism’ and power politics.”
Foot was a working journalist and had published under the pseudonym ‘Cassius’. Orwell probably knew just who this was, but kept to the rules by not saying. But his impulse, as usual, was to aim mostly at those with politics similar to his own.
“‘Realism’ (it used to be called dishonesty) is part of the general political atmosphere of our time. It is a sign of the weakness of ‘Cassius’s’ position that one could compile a quite similar book entitled The Trial of Winston Churchill, or The Trial of Chiang Kai-Shek, or even The Trial of Ramsay MacDonald. In each case you would find the leaders of the Left contradicting themselves almost as grossly as the Tory leaders quoted by ‘Cassius.’ For the Left has also been willing to shut its eyes to a great deal and to accept some very doubtful allies. We laugh now to hear the Tories abusing Mussolini when they were flattering him five years ago, but who would have foretold in 1927 that the Left would one day take Chiang Kai-Shek to its bosom? Who would have foretold just after the General Strike that ten years later Winston Churchill would be the darling of the Daily Worker? In the years 1935-39, when almost any ally against Fascism seemed acceptable, Left-wingers found themselves praising Mustapha Kemal and then developing a tenderness for Carol of Rumania.
“Although it was in every way more pardonable, the attitude of the Left towards the Russian regime has been distinctly similar to the attitude of the Tories towards Fascism. There has been the same tendency to excuse almost anything ‘because they’re on our side.’ It is all very well to talk about Lady Chamberlain photographed shaking hands with Mussolini; the photograph of Stalin shaking hands with Ribbentrop is much more recent. On the whole, the intellectuals of the Left defended the Russo-German pact. It was ‘realistic,’ like Chamberlain’s appeasement policy, and with similar consequences.” (Page 295)
This overlooks the circumstances. Left-wingers accepted right-wing allies at a time when Nazism looked very likely to win the war. And Churchill accepted Soviet Russia as an ally for just the same reason.
Successive British governments had supported Mussolini, when there were plenty of other options.
The Tories let the elected government of Spain be denied weapons. Note that the government was of Left Radicals and did not include Spain’s Socialists or Communists until the actual Civil War started. The Spanish Communists were initially a very small party. Moreover they rejected the idea of going beyond what was acceptable to the non-socialist Radicals.
As for the Soviet Union, Stalin had been denied an agreement that would stop Hitler from attacking the Soviet Union. He then did his best to set Hitler and Britain at war with each other. Or at least too bitter to gang up against him.
The abrupt collapse of Poland was a shock to everyone. But it seems likely that if Stalin had not managed to end the long-standing British support for fascism, fascism would have won.
As far as individual guilt goes, Orwell suggests that Churchill, Chiang Kai-Shek and Ramsay MacDonald could have had a trial like Mussolini’s.
Absurd for Ramsay MacDonald. He tolerated bad Tory policies, but must have sincerely thought he was doing the right thing. And he didn’t initiate any repression.
Churchill had been part of the tolerance of fascism. But he also chose to stick to Toryism and Parliamentary Democracy in the 1930s, when other options were open. And was decisive in Britain’s refusal to abandon the war after the Fall of France. And likewise refused to
Chiang Kai-Shek was guilty of numerous murders of political opponents, and not just Communists. But he hadn’t started any wars, and was essential to keep China fighting at a time when a capitulation to Japan might have happened.
But so keen was George Orwell to snipe at those close to his own politics, that he was ready to let off the real criminals of the Far Right:
“‘Cassius’ ends his book with the judge’s summing-up, and leaves the verdict open, seeming to invite a decision from his readers. Well, if it were left to me, my verdict on both Hitler and Mussolini would be: not death, unless it is inflicted in some hurried unspectacular way. If the Germans and Italians feel like giving them a summary court-martial and then a firing-squad, let them do it. Or better still, let the pair of them escape with a suitcase-full of bearer securities and settle down as the accredited bores of some Swiss pension. But no martyrising, no St. Helena business. And, above all, no solemn hypocritical ‘trial of war criminals,’ with all the slow cruel pageantry of the law, which after a lapse of time has so strange a way of focusing a romantic light on the accused and turning a scoundrel into a hero.” (Page 297)
Taking Orwell as your model for left-wing politics seems to me to guarantee the triumph of the Centre-Right.
And that, indeed, has normally been the outcome.
Problems Magazine, Issue 42, 2nd Quarter 2020. July 1920.
See https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/problems-magazine-past-issues/ for other issues.