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2 January 2012updated 27 Sep 2015 2:57am

Notes in the Margin: Short, sharp shock

By Jonathan Derbyshire

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague left a pile of slightly dog-eared pamphlets on my desk. They included Why Nationalise Steel? and Is This Socialism? by G D H Cole, both published by the New Statesman, one in the late 1940s and the other in the early 1950s.

A few years earlier, George Orwell had written an article for the NS about what ought to have been a golden age for pamphleteering. “We live in a time,” he wrote, “when . . . organised lying exists on a scale never before known. For plugging the holes in history the pamphlet is the ideal form.” Though pamphlets were published in great profusion during the Second World War and immediately afterwards, few were of any literary or political merit, Orwell thought. The typical pamphleteer was a crank, or a loner or a party hack of the worst kind.

Cole was neither a hack nor a crank. His pamphlets, which attacked the Attlee government’s failure to tackle inequality “at its roots”, had all the urgency and furious precision that Orwell regarded as the essence of the form (“to have something you want to say now, to as many people
as possible”). And, crucially, though they addressed the supporters of a political party, they were not published by one – a necessary condition, Orwell had argued, of independence of mind.

We live in times nearly as tumultuous as those that Orwell lived through. And there are as many writers as there were then who have something that they “passionately want to say” – now. Orwell worried that there were few means, outside political parties, through which to publish pamphlets. Today, publishers are using the ebook to “bring the pamphlet back to the attention of its proper public”, as he put it.

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Last summer, Random House published, in ebook form, Brain Shots: Summer of Unrest, a series of six pieces of “long-form journalism” – pamphlets in all but name – that deal with the global economic and political crises. Penguin has just launched its Penguin Shorts ebook list. As Orwell put it, considering “how badly some of the events of our time need documenting, this is a thing to be desired”.