My Country Right or Left (1940–1943)

by George Orwell

Cover image

Series: Collected Writing #2
Editor: Sonia Orwell
Editor: Ian Angus
Publisher: Nonpareil
Copyright: 1968
Printing: 2004
ISBN: 1-56792-134-5
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 453

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This is the second volume of Orwell's collected short non-fiction writing, covering the first part of World War II. Orwell had returned from the Spanish Civil War, recovered from his injuries and illness, and was living in London during the Blitz. He volunteered repeatedly for the armed services but they wouldn't take him for medical reasons, so he served in the Home Guard and wrote broadcasts for the BBC in India. Some of the essays here were written for those broadcasts. Others are his ongoing book reviews, sometimes of political writing and often of other things, and his occasional letters to the Partisan Review in the United States.

The main body of this collection feels less personal and more political and academic than the previous volume, and I found it somewhat less engaging. This may be partly because, as Orwell says repeatedly, he had great difficulty concentrating on writing with the war ongoing and didn't put as much care into his reviews and essays. I'm inclined to blame most of it, though, on the narrowing of subject matter. The bulk of the material here is focused on the politics of the war: the complex dance between fascists, pacifists, aristocrats, capitalists, Communists, and socialists in the government of Britain; and the ever-pressing uncertainty about the direction of the war and the government's decisions in prosecuting it. Some of it is fascinating or amusing, but much of it is also depressing and the rehashing of the same topics can be a bit wearing.

Still, some points stand out. Orwell is a vicious critic of the British Communists through the early period of the war, the Russian non-aggression pact with Hitler, and then Hitler's invasion of Russia. As discussed in other works, Communism had become completely tied to the foreign policy of Russia as a country, which meant sudden reversals between pushing for a compromise peace and pushing for a second front as Russia's foreign policy changed. Orwell mentions an apocryphal but entertaining story of a Communist who left a group discussing the war to use the toilet when the news came of Hitler's invasion of Russia and returned to find that his expected political beliefs had reversed. Orwell remained a committed socialist, hoping that the war effort would bring about a socialist revolution in Britain, but has little but contempt for the Russian-supporting Communists.

More broadly, Orwell had no sympathy for pacifists or for anyone who advocated a compromise peace. Included here, among the letters to Partisan Review is a debate in writing between Orwell and three other representatives of different political factions, including some who argued for pacifism and claimed the British government was already sufficiently fascist that conquest by Hitler wouldn't be much different. Orwell's attack on that argument is thought-provoking for any "lesser of two evils" discussions, particularly where he points out the intellectual distortion and exaggeration required to equate the British government, however bad, with the Nazi government. One of Orwell's strengths as a political commentator is his consistent refusal to fall into simple ideologies in any direction and his ability to maintain a steadfast reasoned opposition to the British government while continuing to oppose Nazi fascism even more.

Intriguingly, Orwell also has no use for Gandhi and mentions that in several letters and book reviews, most notably in a review of Beggar My Neighbor by Lionel Fielding.

And does not this bear a sort of resemblance to the career of Gandhi, who has alienated the British public by his extremism and aided the British Government by his moderation? Impossibilism and reaction are usually in alliance, though not, of course, conscious alliance.

Orwell's view of Gandhi is of a well-meaning idealist who, in advocating techniques that were largely ineffective, served inadvertantly as a useful tool for the British Empire to blunt and distract Indians away from any effective resistence. He says that Gandhi was discussed quite explicitly in that light within the British Imperial Police. Orwell's view was that the independence of India was inevitable by that point for other reasons, and that Gandhi, if he had any effect at all, postponed more than hastened it. He was particularly critical of the spiritual aspect of Gandhi's movement:

Now, one of the finest weapons that the rich have ever evolved for use against the poor is "spirituality". If you can induce the working man to believe that his desire for a decent standard of living is "materialism", you have got him where you want him. Also, if you can induce the Indian to remain "spiritual" instead of taking up with vulgar things like trade unions, you can ensure that he will always remain a coolie.

I have no idea to what extent this criticism is valid, but it was eye-opening to read. Gandhi is one of those figures who has been canonized by history, cited as a source of inspiration and example by countless later civil rights organizers and leaders, and put effectively beyond criticism. To read such a sharp attack from a contemporary who was arguing for many of the same things Gandhi was arguing for (Orwell strongly favored Indian independence as quickly as possible, short of handing India to Japan on a platter, and hated the British Imperial system) provokes a pause for worthwhile reflection. I suspect that Orwell is too harsh and misses, here, some of Gandhi's strengths, but I doubt his critique is entirely wrong.

Another shock of perspective Orwell provides is his discussion of anti-Americanism early in World War II, including shortly after the US entered the war. This is probably familiar material to Europeans, but US history ladles national mythology over the US involvement in both world wars. In one of his discussions of war strategies, countering an argument that if one commits forces earlier one has more say in the peace, Orwell points out that the best strategy for the peace is to wait as long as possible before committing forces. The side that's hurt the least is in the best position to dictate the terms of the peace, which of course is exactly the approach of the US (intentionally or not) in World War I. Orwell doesn't talk about this much directly, but in his passing mentions one gets the sense of a national sentiment in Britain that was all too aware of that, and a perception that the US was doing the same thing again in World War II.

The best part of this book are the two war diaries at the end. This is about 120 pages of material that offers insight into Orwell's day-to-day life, a vivid perspective on the Blitz, and the sort of observational reporting that is Orwell's strength. The only problem is that the chronology is unfortunately but probably necessarily confused in order to present the diaries cohesively, but after material written later. The diaries therefore rehash things read earlier, and there's some minor repetition of material. But that's minor and easy to ignore. Orwell the political essayist can be thought-provoking, but Orwell the observer and reporter is more compelling; I enjoy the politics more when woven into a personal narrative.

This is not as strong of a volume as An Age Like This, but it's still worth reading, if a little mono-focused. Hopefully as the war loosens its hold, later volumes will diverge into a wider variety of topics.

Followed by As I Please.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-09-22

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21