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The Orwell wars

Between October 1931 and August 1943, George Orwell wrote a string of reviews and essays for the NS. So why did he aim such vitriol at Kingsley Martin and why did they fall out over the Spanish civil war? D J Taylor and Adrian Smith present two different views.

George Orwell. Illustration by Ralph Steadman

“Corrupt face” of censorship

By D J Taylor

“The best place in which to study the English left-wing mind is the weekly paper the New Statesman,” George Orwell instructed a Fabian Society audience in November 1941. If this sounds vaguely complimentary, what followed – part of a ten-page excursus, filed under the general heading of “Culture and Democracy” – was anything but. As a magazine, Orwell declared, the NS seemed to have only a “symptomatic” value. He had, he continued, been a regular reader of it for many years, and yet: “Never once have I found in it any coherent policy or any constructive suggestion – anything, in fact, except a general gloom and an automatic discontent with whatever happens to be in progress at the moment.”

Between October 1931 and August 1943, Orwell contributed 23 essays and reviews to a publication that, according to the Fabian lecture, expressed “nothing except the fact that English left-wing intellectuals of all shades do not like the society they are living in but at the same time do not care to face the effort or the responsibility of changing it”. They range from early pieces of reportage such as “Hop-picking” and “Common lodging houses” (both signed with his baptismal name, Eric Blair) to melancholic round-ups of popular fiction and rather more considered reflections on Charles Reade and John Galsworthy. Altogether overshadowing them, on the other hand, is the titanic feud with the magazine’s then editor, Kingsley Martin, that Orwell embarked upon in 1937, and which he regarded as conclusive evidence of the English left’s habit of burying disagreeable facts beneath a topsoil of ideological solidarity.

The issue at stake was the Spanish civil war and in particular the suppression of the Marxist Poum militia. Orwell had fought for the Poum and had taken a bullet through the throat from the communist and republican civil guard. Having escaped across the French border from a Barcelona seething with Stalinist hit squads in the summer of 1937, he stopped at the first post office available to fire off a telegram to the NS, asking if it would like a first-hand account. He chose Martin as the repository of these confidences because he believed that, in its reporting of the first year of the conflict, the NS had offered the only reliable account of conditions on the ground.

A letter to his friend Cyril Connolly, an NS regular, sent from Barcelona in early June, notes: “It is a credit to the New Statesman that it is the only paper, apart from a few obscure ones such as the New Leader, where any but the communist viewpoint has ever got through.”

Martin accepted the offer but took great exception to the article (“Eyewitness in Barcelona”) that followed a few days later, on the grounds that it would “cause trouble”. The precise wording of the rejection, probably made over the telephone, is unknown but the underlying principle was confirmed by letter. Whether as a way of appeasing a disgruntled contributor or acknowledging his new-found status as an expert on Spain, the NS then offered Orwell the chance to review Franz Borkenau’s book The Spanish Cockpit. This, too, was turned down – again by Martin, rather than the magazine’s uncomprehending literary editor, Raymond Mortimer – with the explanation that it controverted editorial policy. Or, as Martin put it: “It is very uncompromisingly said and implies that our Spanish correspondents are all wrong.”

Both articles eventually appeared elsewhere but the damage was done and neither party forgave the other or forgot the principle that had driven them apart. To the end of his life, Orwell regarded Martin as a communist stooge and once asked a lunch guest in a crowded restaurant into which his bête noire had strayed to change places with him so that he could be spared the sight of that “corrupt face”.

Martin’s starring role in Orwell’s dem­onology is confirmed by the entry next to his name in the celebrated list of “crypto-communists and fellow-travellers” sent to the Information Research Department of the Foreign Office in May 1949: “too dishonest to be outright ‘crypto’ or fellow-traveller but reliably pro-Russian on all major issues”.

Hindsight, inevitably, sides with Orwell, as Adrian Smith does here. Yet even the most rabid Orwell-fancier would probably concede that what, on the surface, looks like a classic case of the trampling of free speech by ideological necessity is considerably less clear-cut once you dig a little further down into the ooze of pre-war, left-wing politics.

Martin, a luminous and practically sacerdotal figure, did not take his orders from Moscow. His defence was that the press was dominated by anti-republican propaganda and that each side had behaved with appalling cruelty, “But I had to make my decision on general public grounds, to the end that one side might win rather than the other side.” Additionally, the Borkenau review, according to Martin’s reading of it, was merely a restatement of Orwell’s political opinions. Martin agonised about this stand-off for the remaining 30 years of his life. Not one to forget a grudge, Orwell spent the next five years inserting pointed little references to the NS into his journalism. Most of these had to do with what he supposed to be the paper’s equivocal attitude to the Second World War. Shortly after the outbreak of war, he could be heard complaining about the “conditions” that would have to be fulfilled to persuade the NS to support the conflict – “as if war were a bloody cricket match”. In September 1940, he criticised the defeatist leader writers of the News Chronicle for being “noisemakers like the New Statesman . . . All those people can be counted on to collapse when the conditions of war become intolerable.”

There were other wounding remarks about the NS being “under direct communist influence” and the readership being “worshippers of Stalin”, not to mention a Tribune assault on fellow-travellers so uncompromising (“Once a whore, always a whore”) that it brought Martin – though unmentioned in the piece – to the telephone threatening a libel writ. It is worth asking why Orwell, despite this decade-long odyssey of bad faith and mutual suspicion, kept on writing for a publication whose editorial titan he so much despised and why it occupied such a substantial compartment in his intellectual life. His letters are full of references to its literary pages; he had copies of the NS sent out to him in Morocco, where he spent the winter of 1938-39; and a gift of book tokens had him combing through the reviews in search of suitable Christmas presents.

One of the answers, as Orwell’s first biographer, Bernard Crick, once pointed out, is the NS’s sempiternal division into a front half unashamedly devoted to leftist politics and a back half that assumed that a book could have a life of its own, irrespective of the ideological anvil on which it had been forged. Orwell bore no ill-will to Mortimer, who wrote to apologise once the facts of the case had come his way and reassured him, “There is no premium here on Stalinist orthodoxy.”

Another lies in the much more prosaic need to earn a living. It is difficult to think of any other explanation for the round-up of novels by John Llewellyn Rhys, Nina Fedorova, Dan Wickenden and Bruce Marshall that Orwell contributed to the issue dated 22 February 1941, which ends with this sobering judgement: “I must record my opinion that the novels coming out at present are at a terribly low level, the lowest, probably, within living memory.” It was poor consolation, Orwell concluded, to reflect: “The ones coming out in Germany are probably worse.”

D J Taylor is the author of the biography “Orwell: the Life” (Vintage, £10.99)

Unwelcome guerrilla

By Adrian Smith

To be frank, the New Statesman and George Orwell were never a natural fit. Orwell’s first loyalties as a journalist were to the periodical Partisan Review and the Tribune newspaper: throughout the Second World War, the voice of east coast revolutionary socialism published his London Letter and in 1943 Nye Bevan’s mouthpiece for the Labour left appointed him literary editor.

When, in 1984 (note the year), the NS published a slim volume of articles by and about Orwell, the then editor, Hugh Ste­phenson, to his credit, offered an honest assessment of what was always a prickly relationship. The anthology was entitled Unwelcome Guerrilla – Orwell’s view of himself and an apt description of his uncomfortable presence in the columns of Kingsley Martin’s NS.

The magazine’s generous obituary memorably labelled him “the wintry conscience of a generation”, a generation that looked to the NS for uninhibited comment and honest reporting and that, to Orwell’s mind, had too often been disappointed.

The launch of the newly merged New Statesman and Nation in April 1931 proved timely. A dual crisis of capitalism and liberal democracy demanded a fresh, authentically progressive perspective on the continuing failure of fiscal and monetary orthodoxy to combat acute poverty and social deprivation. Readership rose quickly and the then Eric Blair saw Martin’s re-energised weekly as an obvious outlet for material later incorporated into Down and Out in Paris and London. However, only two articles ever appeared and, by the mid-1930s, “George Orwell” was unknown to Martin and his literary editor, Raymond Mortimer, other than as a minor writer whose four books had been briefly but favourably reviewed. On May Day 1937, all that changed.

In London that Saturday, the NS carried a generally sympathetic review of The Road to Wigan Pier, the writer deducing from the second, more polemical half of the book that Orwell regarded the weekly “as a pink rag to his bull-wrath” – and he was right. Any claims that Martin may have made that his paper constituted Labour’s socialist conscience struck Orwell as sanctimonious and self-centred, signalling the remoteness of a radical English intelligentsia from the harsh realities and the material priorities of working-class life.

Ernest Bevin, the trade union power broker and a towering figure in the Churchill and Attlee administrations, had similar views, speculating in July 1945 on how long it would be before Martin would “stab the Labour government in the back”. Bevin, of course, presumed blind loyalty, unlike Orwell, who was always a proud member of the awkward squad. Natural dissenters have to take criticism as well as give it out, yet Orwell was sensitive to the left’s unease over The Road to Wigan Pier, a hostile review in the Daily Worker fuelling an antipathy to the Communist Party forged by his six months fighting to defend the Spanish republic.

On 1 May 1937, Orwell was in no position to read book reviews, favourable or otherwise. On returning from the Aragon front to Barcelona, he found himself vulnerable to the Soviet-backed government assault on the non-Stalinist Marxists of the Poum (the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista). The Catalan militias had thwarted the military coup of July 1936, helped defend Madrid the following autumn and aggressively promoted the collectivisation of farm­ing and industry across the north-east of republican Spain.

For the Poum as much as for its anarchist allies, the defeat of fascism was synonymous with social revolution and the smashing of the bourgeois state – promise of the latter would mobilise the masses to facilitate the former. For the government in Madrid, determined to merge the militias within a conventional popular army, all means were justified to reassure the re­public’s middle classes that its sole priority was winning the war. Ministers shared their Russian ally’s strategy of cultivating the western liberal democracies and promoting the Popular Front as a broad, progressive alliance.

Soviet advisers and munitions were so vital to the republic’s survival that the Spanish Communists’ influence was wholly disproportionate to the size of their party. Between May and August 1937, the debate over war or revolution, so cleverly illuminated by Ken Loach in the central scene of Land and Freedom, ended abruptly with the ruthless suppression of the Poum.

Orwell, having experienced the militia’s military indiscipline, was sympathetic to those republicans, not least members of the International Brigade, who argued that inertia on the Aragon front was allowing the Nationalists to intensify their offensive further south. This criticism of the Poum only emerged in 1942, but five years earlier he had been appalled by the violence inflicted on party activists. Militia members, even overseas volunteers, were guilty by association – hence, Orwell and his wife found themselves forced to flee Barcelona.

By early July they were back in Britain, enraged at the extent to which almost everyone on the left accepted without ques­tion a distorted and wholly inaccurate version of events; the notion that a revolutionary party such as the Poum had been manipulated by both fascists and Trotskyists to destroy the republic from within was patently absurd and yet it was commonly believed. Orwell blamed communists and fellow-travellers for fostering the myth, refusing to exempt Martin from a too-easy tolerance of “totalitarian” methods – in other words, peddling “the big lie”. In later years, though Orwell might acknowledge the Poum’s failings as a fighting force, he never forgave those who denied him a platform on which to set the story straight about his adopted party’s brutal destruction; not least the editor of the NS.

By 1937, the magazine’s readership had more than doubled in six years and it was well on the way to becoming required reading for Britain’s educated, left-leaning middle classes. No wonder Orwell looked first to the NS when seeking to publish “Spilling the Spanish Beans”, his prelude to Homage to Catalonia. He assumed that Martin would welcome a counterblast to the propagandist line emanating from Madrid, the Comintern headquarters in Paris and the CPGB offices in King Street. The harsh reality was that he received a polite refusal and, eventually, the piece appeared in the little-read New English Weekly. Here was a signal of what Orwell could expect upon completion of his book and indeed the Left Book Club’s publisher, Victor Gollancz, rejected his manuscript unseen. Eventually, Fredric Warburg published Homage to Catalonia, securing initial sales of fewer than 1,000 copies; what today is the best-known book about the Spanish civil war was all but forgotten when Orwell died in January 1950.

The rejection of “Spilling the Spanish Beans” was met with surprisingly little fuss, perhaps because the piece had not been commissioned. In any case, as D J Taylor notes, to soften the blow, the NS asked Orwell to review The Spanish Cockpit by Franz Borkenau. Here was a veteran ex-Communist whose personal impressions of the war’s early stages confirmed Orwell’s belief that an honourable cause had been betrayed by a power-hungry ideology that mirrored fascism in its methods and apparatus.

In his review, Orwell echoed the charges made in “Spilling the Spanish Beans” and again the NS chose not to publish. Mortimer deemed the review opinionated and uninformative, while Martin insisted: “It too far controverts the political policy of the paper.” According to its editor, the NS had allowed commentators on the war to voice concerns over events in Catalonia but Orwell’s opinions “too directly contradict conclusions that have been very carefully reached in the front half”.

In Editor, his second volume of memoirs, published not long before he died in 1969, Martin defended his decision on the grounds of “realism”, arguing that a brutal seizure of power in Barcelona had been the unfortunate but acceptable price of securing Soviet aid for an otherwise friendless republic. Like Henri Perron, the leftist editor handed evidence of Stalinist abuses in Simone de Beauvoir’s novel Les mandarins, Martin feared that the publication of “communist atrocities” would provide ammunition for conservative critics close to home. Unlike Perron, Martin chose expediency over principle, a decision he defended until the day he died: “To me, this was THE war . . . I was very much alone, fighting the republicans’ battle in a very lonely way; and I didn’t see it as my function to play the other side’s game.” Orwell never forgave him, and henceforth dealt only with Mortimer’s successor in the back half of the paper, V S Pritchett.

As a research student in the late 1970s, I viewed the clash between Martin and Orwell in simple, black-and-white terms. Over tea at Charing Cross, with all the arrogance of youth, I pompously lectured C H Rolph – Martin’s official biographer and in his day an NS assistant editor and an inspector with the Met – on why Martin was so demonstrably in the wrong. Never condescending, Rolph gently pointed out that I was not around in the late 1930s and could scarcely conceive how hard it was to generate interest in Spain: the republic faced criticism from numerous hostile newspapers, not least the Daily Mail, and few questioned the National Government’s claim that non-intervention prevented a wider war in Europe. Rolph’s defence of his old friend was persuasive and I became more muted in my criticism of Martin. Yet, in the final analysis, I still consider his action misguided.

In Editor, Martin confirmed his awareness of communist excesses, excusing his silence on the grounds that he had had no idea how bad the situation was and that to under­estimate was understandable, given the un­precedented level of Nationalist violence. Glossing over the abuse of human rights behind republican lines may not, in Orwell’s words, reveal “the mentality of a whore”; but it does suggest a belief that the ends justify the means wholly at odds with the fundamental values of decency, openness and intellectual honesty that the republic was ostensibly seeking to uphold.

The “unwelcome guerrilla” retained a reluctant regard for the NS but that didn’t stop him bearing a grudge. In later years, his mind clouded by illness, Orwell’s judgement regarding the paper and its editorial staff became gravely flawed – witness his ill-founded accusations of cold war sub­version in 1945. There is no excuse for bad behaviour but the combination of Gollancz’s rejection of Animal Farm and Martin’s sneering review when the novel finally appeared constituted a sharp reminder of events eight years earlier. Orwell’s anger still burned, and justifiably so.

Adrian Smith is a professor of history at the University of Southampton. He is the author of “The New Statesman: Portrait of a Political Weekly (1913-31)”

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon