WASHINGTON, March 26 (UPI) -- George Orwell really got the British pacifists' goat during World War II when he cast his argument against them in Marxist terms. Their lie-down attitude toward Hitler made them, he said, "objectively pro-Fascist."
Britain's anti-war writers and poets were incensed at this, judging from the responses they sent in to Partisan Review (where Orwell's salvo had appeared in 1942). The whole exchange is collected in Orwell's writings. Read it, mentally substitute all the proper nouns, and it will sound distinctly familiar. Many of the pacifist thoughts expressed then could have come from a MoveOn.org communiqué from last week. Churchill's government, as it prosecuted a war against the Germans, was strangling freedoms at home, said the partisans of peace. As an imperialist power, Britain was too morally tainted to deserve support, they said.
Orwell's "objectively pro-Fascist" charge had stirred pacifists to a spirited self-defense. They did not appreciate, any more than do American doves today, the implication that they were unpatriotic. The English poet D. S. Savage wrote: "I feel identified with my country in a deep sense, and want her to regain her meaning, her soul, if that be possible: but the unloading of a billion tons of bombs on Germany won't help this forward an inch."
Savage defined a fascist government as one that engaged in the heavy use of propaganda, curtailed "individual and minor liberties," and launched mass campaigns to enlist ordinary citizens in the war effort. He concluded: "These are all tendencies of present-day Britain. The pacifist opposes every one of these, and might therefore be called the ONLY GENUINE OPPONENT of Fascism" (emphasis in original).
Alex Comfort, a poet and novelist, proudly put in his two cents (tuppence I should say), writing that he and his fellow pacifists were "the only people likely to continue to hold genuinely anti-Fascist values" in the event Germany won the war and conquered the United Kingdom.
If Orwell was taken aback by the audacity of this suggestion -- that not even soldiers in uniform, confronting the Wermacht, and bleeding and dying, could be considered as anti-Hitler as these men who disdained to fight -- he didn't let on. He gave no quarter. If anything, he grew feistier in responding to "the present pacifist or, as they are sometimes nicknamed, Fascifist gang."
In simple language, Orwell drove home his original point: "If you hamper the war effort of one side, you automatically help that of the other." He called that "elementary common sense."
And so it was, and is. For, as we now understand, the unloading of Allied bombs on Germany did move democracy forward. Britain today is a free country. So is Germany. We can scarcely imagine the scale of the destruction of that war, but who can deny that defeating the Axis powers made possible a world in which Herr Joschka Fischer can sit at the big table at the United Nations and inveigh against the warmongers in Washington?
Similarities between today's and the last century's anti-war left are not much of a surprise. What's interesting is, rather, a difference between the two: The doves of today often preface their arguments with, "I'm no pacifist, but." It's a prudent attempt to buy some credibility. Orwell's clash with Savage, Comfort, and the others is responsible in no small measure for the respectable left's unwillingness, ever after, to be associated with pacifism. It is seen as morally obtuse by commentators like Eric Alterman, William Raspberry, and Michael Kinsley, who voiced opposition to the U.S. going to war in Iraq.
"There would be a profound justice, however terrible, in a German victory." That sentence by Savage makes embarrassing reading 61 years later. Roger Adamson, a poet, contributes: "President Bush (dubya) has defined terrorist, and that definition describes the USA as well as it does the Taliban, Iraq, or anyone else." These lines will be embarrassing to read in 2064.
If they haven't been forgotten, that is. D.S. Savage and Alex Comfort most assuredly would have been forgotten if they hadn't tangled with a man distinguished among the writers of the 20th century for his moral clarity.
(Lauren Weiner is an editor on the staff of Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.)