Orwell/70e: Hommage à la décence commune (My country right or wrong: rediscovering with Orwell the spiritual need for truth and patriotism for which no substitute has yet been found)

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S’ils se taisent, les pierres crieront! Jésus (Luc 19 : 40)
Je te loue, Père, Seigneur du ciel et de la terre, de ce que tu as caché ces choses aux sages et aux intelligents, et de ce que tu les as révélées aux enfants. Jésus (Matthieu 11: 25)
Le plus difficile n’est pas de dire ce que l’on voit mais d’accepter de voir ce que l’on voit. Péguy
Dans des temps de tromperie généralisée, le seul fait de dire la vérité est un acte révolutionnaire. George Orwell
Il faut constamment se battre pour voir ce qui se trouve au bout de son nez. Orwell
Government cannot be conducted on “pure” pacifist lines, because any government which refused in all circumstances to use force could be overthrown by anyone, even any individual, who was willing to use force. . . . As to the conquest of England, Gandhi would certainly advise us to let Germans rule here rather than fight against them—in fact he did advocate just that. And if Hitler conquered England he would, I imagine, try to bring into being a nationwide pacifist movement, which would prevent serious resistance and therefore make it easier for him to rule. George Orwell
What would Gandhi do if he wasn’t given a shelf [of freedom by the British] to stand on?. . . The fact is that Gandhi’s political methods were almost irrelevant to the present situation, because they depended on publicity. As Mr. Fischer admits, Gandhi never had to deal with a totalitarian Power. He was dealing with an old-fashioned and rather shaky despotism which treated him in a fairly chivalrous way and allowed him to appeal to world opinion at every step. (…) It is difficult to see how his strategy of fasting and civil disobedience could be applied in a country where political opponents simply disappear and the public never hears anything that the Government does not want it to hear. Moreover, it appears that when Mr. Fischer tellsus that we should follow Gandhi’s teachings he. . . wants to prevent the expansion of Russian imperialism, nonviolently if we can, but violently if we must; whereas Gandhi’s central tenant was that you must not use violence even if the alternative is defeat. Asked to give an opinion on the German Jews, Gandhi apparently answered that they should have committed mass suicide, and thus “arouse the world”—an answer which seems to embarrass even Mr. Fischer. George Orwell
In this yogi-ridden age, it is too readily assumed that “non-attachment” is not only better than a full acceptance of earthly life, but that the ordinary man only rejects it because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings. (…) We live in a lunatic world in which opposites are constantly changing into one another, in which pacifists find themselves worshipping Hitler, Socialists become Nationalists, patriots become quislings, Buddhistspray for the success of the Japanese Army, and the Stock Market takes an upward turn when the Russians stage an offensive. The creeds [pacifism, Anarchism, Stalinism] have the advantage that they aim at the impossible and therefore in effect demand very little. If you throw in a touch of oriental mysticism and Buchmanite raptures over Gandhi, you have everything that a disaffected intellectual needs. The life of an English gentleman and the moral attitude of a saint can be enjoyed simultaneously. By merely transferring your allegiance from England to India (it used to be Russia), you can indulge to the full in allthe chauvinistic sentiments which would be totally impossible if you recognized them for what they were. In the name of pacifism you can compromise with Hitler, and in the name of spirituality you can keep your money. . . There is indeed a sort of apocalyptic truth in the statement of the German radio that the teachings of Hitler and Gandhi are the same. George Orwell
Le Parti vous disait de rejeter le témoignage de vos yeux et de vos oreilles. C’était son commandement ultime, et le plus essentiel. Le cœur de Winston défaillit quand il pensa à l’énorme puissance déployée contre lui, à la facilité avec laquelle n’importe quel intellectuel du Parti le vaincrait dans une discussion, aux arguments qu’il serait incapable de comprendre et auxquels il pourrait encore moins répondre. Et cependant, c’était lui qui avait raison ! Ils avaient tort, et il avait raison. Il fallait défendre l’évident, le bêta et le vrai. Les truismes sont vrais, cramponne-toi à cela. Le monde matériel existe, ses lois ne changent pas. Les pierres sont dures, l’eau est humide, et les objets qu’on lâche tombent vers le centre de la terre. Avec le sentiment […] qu’il posait un axiome important, il écrivit : “La liberté, c’est la liberté de dire que deux et deux font quatre. Si cela est accordé, tout le reste suit. George Orwell (1984)
Ce qui me tracasse en ce moment, c’est qu’on ne sait pas très bien si dans des pays comme l’Angleterre les gens ordinaires font suffisamment la différence entre démocratie et despotisme pour avoir envie de défendre leurs libertés. […] Les intellectuels qui affirment aujourd’hui que démocratie et fascisme, c’est blanc bonnet et bonnet blanc, etc., me dépriment au plus haut point. Mais il se peut qu’au moment de l’épreuve de vérité les gens ordinaires s’avèrent être plus intelligents que les intellectuels. George Orwell
Quand vous rentrez en Angleterre après un voyage à l’étranger, vous avez immédiatement la sensation de respirer un air différent […]. La bière est plus amère, les pièces de monnaie sont plus lourdes, l’herbe est plus verte, les publicités sont plus criardes. […] Alors l’immensité de l’Angleterre vous engloutit et vous perdez pour un instant de vue que la nation dans son ensemble possède un seul caractère identifiable. George Orwell
La nuit qui a précédé le Pacte germano-soviétique, j’ai rêvé que la guerre avait commencé. Ce rêve m’a appris que j’étais de tout cœur patriote, que je soutiendrais la guerre et que je combattrais si possible. Tout cela est enfantin, bien sûr, mais je préfère avoir reçu ce type d’éducation que de ressembler aux intellectuels de gauche qui sont tellement ‘ éclairés ’ qu’ils ne peuvent comprendre les émotions les plus ordinaires. George Orwell
Une part de nous veut être un héros ou un saint, mais l’autre moitié c’est ce petit homme gras qui voit très clairement l’avantage qu’il y a à rester en vie. C’est notre moi privé, la voix de notre ventre qui proteste contre notre âme. George Orwell
This insignificant and self-effacing hero who had nothing to recommend him but a little goodness in his heart and apparently a ridiculous ideal. This would be to give the truth its due, to give the sum of two and two as four. (…) It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency. Albert Camus
But again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. The schoolteacher is well aware of this. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is one of knowing whether two and two do make four. Camus
Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows. George Orwell
A nihilist is not one who believes in nothing, but one who does not believe in what exists. Camus
Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth. (…) So long as physical reality cannot be altogether ignored, so long as two and two have to make four. Orwell
ONE DAY in February 1945, in Paris, George Orwell waited at the café Deux Magots, where he was to meet Albert Camus for the first time. But Camus, suffering from tuberculosis and exhaustion — because of which he was currently on leave from his editorship of the resistance newspaper Combat — didn’t show up. They would never again have the chance to meet each other. Five years later, Orwell died, in England — from an illness related to his own tuberculosis. This may very well be one of the great missed opportunities in 20th-century European letters. But although Orwell and Camus were two of the most intriguing political and literary figures of their time, they are rarely considered in relation to each other, and when they are, it is usually not to any great depth. There are superficial similarities between them that tend to distract from looking for deeper affinities, albeit buried beneath significant antimonies. Although, politically and intellectually, they drew many of the same conclusions, these were, more often than not, arrived at from very different starting points, or via different routes. And that is, ultimately, why Orwell and Camus are so interesting to consider together. In a sense, the life and work of each man acts as an independent variable to confirm the truths and the doubts revealed by the life and work of the other. Part of the reason for these different attitudes and approaches to writing may be due to their different social backgrounds. For Orwell, that background was middle-class, old Etonian — even when he rebelled against it he was still inculcated by the attitudes that came with it. He had seen several of his classmates — such as Cyril Connolly — go on to become writers and editors of literary journals and newspapers, and so he was never in any doubt that a literary career was not something he could pursue. His five years in the Burmese Police were, he later said, partly an attempt to actively avoid becoming a writer — as if it was always inevitable. Camus, on the other hand, came from very poor, largely illiterate, working-class French Algeria. There was hardly anything inevitable in Camus’s becoming a writer. Growing up, there were no books in the house, and no privacy. During the school holidays, he worked with his uncles and older brother in a wine-barrel factory. His older brother didn’t go to high school, but went instead to work full-time with their uncles. Camus was supposed to follow suit, but an intervention from a schoolteacher, Louis Germain — and later the encouragement of a high school teacher and then university lecturer, Jean Grenier — made Camus see new possibilities. But even here, these possibilities extended mainly to the goal of becoming a high school teacher, and the need for a steady, honest job. Writing was certainly a possibility, but it was always something besides, something you did after work hours. For a working-class family in 1930s Algeria, writing was not considered legitimate work. (…) Although Camus was already famous in France for his work from the early 1940s, it was his post-war work — beginning with the publication of The Plague — that brought him international renown. Orwell became internationally famous at about the same time. It is from the 1950s onward that the reputations of both figures were truly established. But such reputations — often disproportionate to the work in question — are almost always based on misunderstandings and oversimplifications. For Orwell, this process largely occurred after his death (January 21, 1950). Camus struggled against his own growing reputation, often in vain, throughout the 1950s, until his own death on January 4, 1960. Even here, in these misunderstandings and oversimplifications, a comparison between Orwell and Camus is worth pursuing. Their reputations have been secured, largely through the imposition of a false binary over each of their work, with one half being brought narrowly into relief against the attempted suppression of the other half. The dividing line is between their fiction and their nonfiction, their art and their politics: Camus is seen as a great literary figure, but a poor political thinker, while Orwell as a great political writer, but a poor literary figure. What is ultimately compelling about these men, however, is that they are both consummate literary and political writers. The two aspects of their work — the literary and the political — cannot be pitted against each other. It is the balance between the two that is responsible for the creative force behind each man’s work. By reconsidering Orwell and Camus in relation to each other, the prominent aspect of each can be used to rehabilitate the suppressed aspect of the other. Both rehearsed their literary and political thinking throughout the 1930s. Orwell’s thinking evolved more publicly in various book reviews, as well as articles and books. Camus rehearsed his ideas more privately, in his notebooks and unpublished essays, but also in the occasional published book review (in Algeria). It was not until The Myth of Sisyphus was published (1942) that his mature ideas on aesthetics would become known, albeit largely ignored. What is essential to note is that, for both men, these ideas, both literary and political, were developed in unison, and were forged in the act of writing, and in response to the same climate of political and social unease. Although Orwell became famous for his final two novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, their reputation is built on the political message they carry. And to get at that message, the literary and artistic aspects of these works have been pushed to the side. The retrospective appraisal of his pre-war books holds up his nonfiction works (The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia) and downplays his novels (A Clergyman’s Daughter, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Coming Up for Air), except when (as with Down and Out in Paris and London and Burmese Days) they can be mined for autobiographical and social or political import. His political journalism and essays are seen as the core of his thinking, and Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four as popular illustrations of these ideas. But Orwell himself, very early in his career, argued against this style of reading literature. In one of his first book reviews, in 1930, for example — on Lewis Mumford’s book Herman Melville — he argues that such interpretation (an “unpleasant but necessary word”) is a “dangerous method of approaching a work of art. Done with absolute thoroughness, it would cause art itself to vanish.” Reducing a work of art to an allegorical message, he said, “is like eating an apple for the pips.” In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus also argued against reducing novels to what he called a “thesis-novel, the work that proves, the most hateful of all, […] the one that most often is inspired by a smug thought.” For both men, a novel is not supposed to tell the reader what to think, but rather to create the conditions through which the reader can experience thinking for themselves. This idea became the creative spark that fired also their political imaginations, especially their opposition to totalitarianism. Throughout the 1930s, both Camus and Orwell saw the problem of the contemporary novel in terms of the tendencies toward either formalism or realism. On the one hand, empty formalism focused on technique, on art for art’s sake; on the other, social realism or naturalism revealed the world, but without any structure, or by attaching a simplistic morality to the work. Both men recognized the merits of each, but also the absurdity of allowing each aspect to dominate a work of art. For Orwell, the two most influential books throughout the 1930s were James Joyce’s Ulysses and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. He argued, both publicly (in reviews) and privately (in letters), that Ulysses perfectly used various formal techniques to examine, for the first time, both the outside and the inside of the ordinary man, and to bridge the gap between the “intellectual” and the “man-in-the-street.” Tropic of Cancer focused the reader’s attention on the brutal and often ugly facts of everyday life. But Orwell also felt that both books went too far in each direction — the formalism of the former, and the brutal naturalism of the latter. He strove to develop his own style that joined the best of both, while jettisoning the worst. Incorporating the political into his writing — thinking about the political in literary terms — is what allowed him to strike a balance. This is one of the often missed points of his otherwise well-known essay “Politics and the English Language.” Although he explicitly states that he is not examining the “literary use of language,” he is still looking at the use of literary language in political writing. The whole focus of the essay is to examine the use of imagery and metaphor, and the misuse of cliché and abstract language — the way that politics uses language to corrupt or prevent thought, and the way we can rejuvenate our language in order to allow and clarify our thinking. Moreover, the reason Orwell wasn’t looking at the “literary use of language” in that essay is that he had already done so in a previous one, “The Prevention of Literature” — which, in many respects, provides the context and the conditions for understanding more clearly the argument in “Politics and the English Language.” (The two essays were written almost in conjunction with one another in late 1945, soon after Orwell and Camus were supposed to meet). In this earlier essay, Orwell makes the explicit link between literature and totalitarianism, and shows how a politics that tends toward totalitarianism not only reduces the capacity of literature to be created and read, but also that totalitarianism achieves its own goals, in part, through the very process of preventing literature from being created and read. The reason for this, Orwell argues, is that literature is concerned with increasing consciousness, free thought, the imagination, all of which are anathema to totalitarianism. For him, literary thinking is inextricably linked to intellectual honesty. “At some time in the future, if the human mind becomes something totally different from what it is, we may learn to separate literary creation from intellectual honesty. At present we know only that the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity.” For Orwell, reading a novel for its allegorical message, while ignoring its literary context, is a form of intellectual dishonesty. For Camus, such a reading is inspired by a “smug thought”: “You demonstrate the truth you feel sure of possessing.” This unity of the literary and the political in Orwell’s work is central also to his other well-known essay “Why I Write,” where he explicitly states: “What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.” The essay includes an often cited passage, used to supposedly highlight his political writing at the expense of his literary writing: “looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” But this ignores a previous, qualifying statement from the same essay: “But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant.” The context for these passages is created by the main argument of his essay. Here Orwell examines four motivations for why writers, in general — and himself in particular — write: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. “I am a person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth [the political],” he adds. It is worth noting that one aspect for which Orwell is renowned — his focus on “things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity” — is, for him, the definition of the historical impulse, and not, as may be assumed, his political purpose. It was, indeed, the historical context that Orwell found himself in that forced him, albeit against his nature, to become political. But it was his literary thinking — from which his intellectual honesty evolved — that forced him to consider his historical context so clearly, so as to become political. It is for this reason that Orwell, on occasion, referred to himself as a “literary intellectual.” This self-description, and the argument behind it, aptly applies also to Camus. In a 1951 interview, for example, he said: What, in fact, is the aim of every creative artist? To depict the passions of his day. In the seventeenth century, the passions of love were at the forefront of people’s minds. But today, the passions of our century are collective passions, because society is in disorder. Artistic creation, instead of removing us from the drama of our time, is one of the means we are given of bringing it closer. Totalitarian regimes are well aware of this, since they consider us their first enemies. Isn’t it obvious that everything which destroys art aims to strengthen ideologies that make men unhappy? And yet, where Orwell is praised for his political judgment, albeit based upon a denigration of his literary imagination, Camus is praised for his literary works (he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, after all), but, in the process, he is denigrated for his political thinking — often dismissed as a noble but vague humanism; admirable, but not worth taking seriously. However, by the time most of the French intelligentsia embraced Communism in the late 1940s and ’50s, Camus had already joined and been expelled from the Communist Party (the Algerian branch). At a time when many others — such as Merleau-Ponty and Sartre — were being seduced by Communism, Camus was already aware of its theoretical contradictions and practical impossibilities. His experiences during the purges of the mid-1940s showed him that today’s victims can easily become tomorrow’s executioners. His own political thinking — which, like Orwell’s, was grounded in intellectual honesty and concrete experience — developed early, through his growing up in poverty in working-class Algeria. What Orwell learned only slowly, and from the outside, about poverty and working-class culture, Camus knew firsthand, from the root source. Camus sharpened his political sensibilities through his journalism, which forced upon him the practice of keeping an open mind, of collecting the facts for himself, and then thinking through their significance and implications. Take, for example, his 1939 series of articles on the drought and famine of the Kabylia region of Algeria. The lyricism of Camus’s prose is often cited, but what is ignored are the dozens of pages full of painstaking detail, facts and figures, and reported conversations with those affected, the attempt to examine the environmental, the social, the cultural, the colonial, the economic, and the political aspects of the situation. Nearly two decades later, these pieces were collected together with Camus’s other writings about Algeria. Covering more than eighty printed pages, his preface notes, however, that “pieces were too long and detailed to reproduce here in their entirety, and I have cut overly general observations and sections on housing, welfare, crafts, and usury.” These articles are the equivalent of Orwell’s investigation into working-class life, published as The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). When they were first published in June 1939, the political and media uproar led to Camus’s blacklisting in Algeria and his self-exile to Paris. Needless to say, he was not blacklisted for his lyricism. (…) In his journalism, Camus was also focused on domestic French, European, and international politics. A constant refrain in his Combat editorials and articles — written in the course of facing day-to-day political and social struggles — is the criticism that what is lacking in contemporary politics is a sense of “imagination.” Like Orwell, Camus saw the imagination as essential to forcing an individual to see the concrete reality beyond the words and ideologies of his day. Here is but one example, from an editorial on August 30, 1944: “Thirty-four Frenchmen tortured and then murdered at Vincennes: without help from our imagination these words say nothing. And what does the imagination reveal? Two men, face-to-face, one of whom is preparing to tear out the fingernails of the other, who looks him in the eye.” There are numerous other examples in Camus’s journalism. They are the equivalent of Orwell’s famous line: “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me” — of which he, too, has numerous other, lesser-known examples in his own writing. But each of these tiny moments of detail is the outcome of a more fully developed imagination. Such imagination is the lynchpin between the political and the literary aspects of the work of both Orwell and Camus. For Orwell, this political imagination is associated with “decency.” Camus also spoke of “decency” in his journalism, but, for him, it was associated mainly with an attitude of “modesty.” Much of the development of Camus’s political thinking, culminating in The Rebel, is based around his opposition to all forms of modern nihilism, whether they came from the right or the left. But even here Camus has a unique perspective on what nihilism is: “A nihilist is not one who believes in nothing, but one who does not believe in what exists.” It is precisely the same criticism that Orwell leveled against totalitarianism: “Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.” Most commentators focus on the first part of this statement, and ignore the implications of the second part. This is from the same essay in which Orwell rehearses an image used so powerfully in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “So long as physical reality cannot be altogether ignored, so long as two and two have to make four […].” And the essay in which this appears? “The Prevention of Literature.” Camus’s equivalent to this essay appeared as a later chapter in his political work The Rebel. There he described how the roots of rebellion — and its inextricable belief in limits, predicated upon what exists, and its preservation — were the same as the roots of art. For Camus, as for Orwell, the separation of the two aspects of human experience, the political and the literary, is the first sign of the decadence of each. Camus writes: The trial of art has been opened definitively and is continuing today with the embarrassed complicity of artists and intellectuals dedicated to calumniating both their art and their intelligence. We notice, in fact, that in the contest between Shakespeare and the shoemaker, it is not the shoemaker who maligns Shakespeare or beauty but, on the contrary, the man who continues to read Shakespeare and who does not choose to make shoes — which he could never make, if it comes to that. (…) Orwell had arranged the meeting with Camus, ostensibly on the basis of the latter having been the editor of Combat during the final months of the war. In an article Orwell was researching at the time — published in the Manchester Evening News on 28 February, 1945 — about the French newspaper scene, Orwell cited Combat as one of the leading “Left-wing Socialist” newspapers that was still able to retain some of its critical power amidst the rising status quo and censorship of post-war Paris. Orwell was probably thinking of the likes of Camus when he wrote: “But the experience of the occupation has produced in large numbers a new type of journalist — very young, idealistic and yet hardened by illegality, and completely non-commercial in outlook — and these men are bound to make their influence felt in the post-war Press.” So they would have probably spoken about the occupation and the liberation, and about the press, about censorship and paper shortages. Had the conversation gone off topic, had they spoken about other than immediate things, it is likely that they would have spoken about Spain. Orwell’s 1938 book Homage to Catalonia, about his experience of the Spanish Civil War, was soon to be published in a French translation. Camus had an abiding affiliation with Spain. His mother was Spanish. He was also currently having a love affair with María Casares — a Spanish actress, the daughter of Santiago Casares y Quiroga, the prime minister of Spain during the military uprising in 1936, which started the civil war. Camus would have been interested to hear about Orwell’s time in Spain, and especially about his being shot through the throat. Orwell would have been interested to hear, via Camus’s close contacts, current news of Spain. Matthew Lamb
George Orwell n’imaginait probablement pas que ce qu’il écrivait finirait par être la réalité de la Chine. Etudiant pékinois (décembre 2010)
I want to yell at that liberatory young woman with her sledgehammer: « Don’t do it! » Apple is not different. That industry is going to give rise to innumerable forms of triviality and misogyny, to the concentration of wealth and the dispersal of mental concentration. To suicidal, underpaid Chinese factory workers whose reality must be like that of the shuffling workers in the commercial. If you think a crowd of people staring at one screen is bad, wait until you have created a world in which billions of people stare at their own screens even while walking, driving, eating in the company of friends—all of them eternally elsewhere. Rebecca Solnit
La barbarie commence dans les discours de haine, elle commence dans l’encouragement au discours qui théorise sur ce fameux grand remplacement qui est en réalité un mythe raciste et xénophobe. Nous sommes de ce fait face à une grande responsabilité. Je ne peux pas ne pas le dire sur ce plateau. Quand des médias salarisent des personnes comme Eric Zemmour, on est complice de ce climat. Benjamin Lucas (Génération.S)
On met tous les flics dans des quartiers des minorités. Oui, c’est vrai. Pourquoi on fait ça? Parce que c’est là où il y a toute la criminalité. Comment on les désarme ? Eh bien, on les jette contre le mur et on les fouille. Michael Bloomberg (2015)
Eh bien, pendant longtemps, les gens ont dit que vous ne pouviez rien y faire, mais les Noirs et les Latinos obtiennent de très mauvais résultats aux tests scolaires par rapport aux Blancs et aux Asiatiques. Si vous regardez nos prisons, ce sont principalement des minorités. Si vous regardez là où se trouve la criminalité, c’est dans les quartiers des minorités. Si vous regardez qui sont les victimes et les criminels, c’est pratiquement tous des minorités. C’est quelque chose qui dure depuis longtemps. Je suppose que c’est répandu ailleurs mais c’est certainement vrai à New York. Et pendant de nombreuses années, les gens ont dit que vous ne pouviez rien y faire. Néanmoins, il y a cette énorme cohorte d’hommes noirs et latinos, disons, de 16 à 25 ans qui n’ont pas d’emploi, de perspectives, ne savent pas comment trouver un emploi, ne savent pas quelles sont leurs compétences, ne savent pas comment se comporter sur le lieu de travail où ils doivent travailler en collaboration et collectivement. Il y aura des emplois, si nous pouvons les obtenir pour ces enfants – ou leurs familles – même si leurs pères ne vivent pas avec leur mère, ou n’ont jamais été mariés, ou même s’ils sont en prison, engager les pères. Beaucoup de statistiques montrent que si le père est impliqué, cela donne à l’enfant une certaine compréhension qu’il se dirige sur le mauvais chemin – et leur assigne des mentors. Beaucoup de ces enfants – ce n’est pas qu’ils soient de mauvais enfants – c’est qu’une fois qu’ils ont fait une erreur, il leur est très difficile de s’en sortir. Mais nous avons une obligation envers eux – sinon pour des raisons de compassion, juste pour des raisons égoïstes. Les trois quarts de tous les enfants de New York qui vont en prison purgent une période et en sortent, retournent immédiatement en prison. Les trois quarts d’entre eux. … Nous devons juste rompre ce cycle. Michael Bloomberg (2011)
Avec le temps, j’ai fini par comprendre quelque chose que j’ai longtemps eu du mal à admettre : j’ai eu tort sur un point important. Notre objectif central était de sauver des vies. Mais les faits sont là : beaucoup trop d’innocents ont été arrêtés et une immense majorité d’entre eux étaient noirs ou latinos. Cela a pu inclure, je suis désolé de le dire, certains d’entre vous qui sont ici aujourd’hui, ou vos enfants, vos petits-enfants, vos voisins, vos proches. Michael Bloomberg
Si votre conversation lors d’une élection présidentielle concerne un gars vêtu d’une robe et s’il peut aller au vestiaire avec leur fille, ce n’est pas une formule gagnante pour la plupart des gens. La plupart des gens se soucient des soins de santé, ils se soucient de l’éducation, de la sécurité et de tout ce genre de choses. Nous nous concentrons sur beaucoup de choses qui ont peu de pertinence pour les gens qui essaient de vivre dans un monde qui change à cause de la technologie et des communications et des choses comme ça, et donc vous pouvez comprendre d’où vient quelqu’un comme le président Trump. Aujourd’hui, pratiquement tous les candidats à la présidence du Parti démocrate ont été si progressistes – je ne sais pas ce que signifie progressiste – mais ils sont dans un endroit où se trouve une partie du public américain et il reste à voir si une majorité de l’électorat l’est. Michael Bloomberg
J’aimerais parler de qui nous combattons. Un milliardaire qui traite les femmes de “grosses vaches” et de “lesbiennes au visage chevalin”. Et non, je ne parle pas de Donald Trump, a repris la sénatrice du Massachusetts. Je parle de Michael Bloomberg. Les démocrates prennent un grand risque si nous remplaçons un milliardaire arrogant par un autre. Elizabeth Warren
Qui peut battre Donald Trump ? Et qui peut faire le travail s’il arrive à la Maison Blanche ? Je dirais que je suis le candidat qui peut faire ces deux choses. Bloomberg
Bloomberg says things that can’t be said in polite company. Maybe voters don’t mind as much as elites do. It’s amusing to learn that Mike Bloomberg, just last year, was filmed speaking with his customary bluntness about transgender individuals: “If your conversation during a presidential election is about some guy wearing a dress and whether he, she, or it can go to the locker room with their daughter, that’s not a winning formula for most people,” he said at a business development forum. You can’t talk that way anymore in the upper levels of the Democratic party, the media, the arts, or even corporate America. If Bloomberg had said this as the CEO of a publicly traded company, instead of as the owner of a private one, intense pressure would have been put on the board to fire him. And this was hardly the first time he said something that was guaranteed to offend. “We put all the cops in minority neighborhoods. Yes, that’s true. Why do we do it? Because that’s where all the crime is,” Bloomberg said in 2015 at the Aspen Institute, adding, “The way you get the guns out of the kids’ hands is to throw them up against the wall and frisk them.” Bloomberg hasn’t had to report to anyone for many years, and being as frank as he likes, no matter how rude he sounds, is part of his brand. “A List of Things Bloomberg Actually Said About Fat People, Rape, George W. Bush, and J.Lo” ran one of the more entertaining headlines of this campaign season. My personal favorite is one of many one-liners contained in the now-infamous booklet, The Portable Bloomberg: The Wit and Wisdom of Michael Bloomberg. It was published as a sort of party favor back in 1990 by his employees, and no one quite seems to be able to tell if it is a spoof or an actual compendium of Bloomberg remarks. If the former, it sounds a lot like the latter to a lot of people. A highlight is Bloomberg’s summing-up of the British royals: “What a bunch of misfits — a gay, an architect, that horsey-faced lesbian, and a kid who gave up Koo Stark for some fat broad.”  (…) Yet Bloomberg’s sharp rise in polling has coincided with a concerted effort by the media to score him for all of these grave offenses against political correctness. We’re about to learn whether anyone outside the elite stratum of the country actually considers these sorts of barbed comments to be disqualifying. True, nobody is allowed to talk like this anymore. But then again, the only other politician who dares to is the current occupant of the White House. Which raises the question: Does a history of extreme political incorrectness actually boost Bloomberg’s chances? (…) American elites hear the way Bloomberg talks and think: Shocking! Disqualifying! Outrageous! Median voters might hear something very different: This guy is a match for Trump! (…) The sort of people who get the vapors at offensive comments are going to vote for the Democrat this fall no matter who it is. Bloomberg’s political incorrectness won’t matter any more than Hillary Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War mattered in 2016. Yet the prospect of riding into battle with someone who is as arrogant, aggressive, politically incorrect, and corrosively funny as Trump has to be a tempting proposition to a lot of Democrats. Even if it’s a fellow New York billionaire. Kyle Smith
The French Revolution hit “peak” coerced egalitarianism with the Jacobin takeover and so-called Reign of Terror. After all, when you begin guillotining fellow travelers on charges they are counterrevolutionaries and begin worshiping a new atheist secular power “Reason,” institutionalized as Robespierre’s “Cult of the Supreme Being,” you have mostly reached the limits of political radicalism and are into the territory of the nihilistic, if not the maniacal and absurd—with a rendezvous with Napoleon on the horizon. From 2009 through 2016, Barack Obama recalibrated the Democratic Party’s liberalism into progressive radicalism. He opened the border and all but dismantled existing immigration law. Sanctuary cities sprang up with impunity. Executive orders bypassed the Congress. The Iran Deal ignored the Senate’s treaty-making responsibilities. Obama sought to nationalize healthcare. The concept of “diversity” replaced affirmative action, by redefining racial oppression as distinct from historical grievance and economic disparity and instead lumping together 30 percent of the population as nonwhite, and thus antithetical to the new buzz construct of “white privilege.” Fast and Furious, the surveillance of the Associated Press reporters, Benghazi, the weaponization of the IRS, and the use of CIA, FBI, and DOJ to seed the spurious Steele dossier were all written off as proof of the “most scandal free” administration in memory. But today Obamaism has been figuratively guillotined by the New Jacobins. It is found guilty of crimes of insufficient revolutionary zeal, as well as compromises with the U.S. Constitution and capitalism. Once considered a crank socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is now leads in many Democratic primary polls. Arriving with him at this moment in our politics is peak progressivism. First-term socialists—House representatives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and her fellow “squad” members, inspired by Sanders—now set the new Democratic agenda. And it is one that is more radical than anything seen in modern American history and largely unsustainable: calls to level a wealth tax and new top income-tax rates of 70-90 percent, to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service, all student debt, an enforceable southern border, the internal combustion engine, and most Second Amendment rights, and to enact multi-trillion dollar new entitlements as outlined in the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, free college, free healthcare for illegal aliens, and reparations. Identity politics so rules the rhetoric of the new progressive party that all of its—exclusively white—primary finalists vie to be most vocal in the ritual damning of their own country (that has ironically ensured their own influence, power, success and wealth) as inherently “racist.” (…) Peak progressivism calls for the abolition of the constitutionally mandated Electoral College. Radicals now fault past failed schemes to pack the federal and Supreme Court with left-wing justices only because they failed, and thus advance ways to make court-packing work in the present. The bolder among them wants to reconfigure the U.S. Senate into a proportionally representational house or abolish it altogether. All that would be left after that would be the formal abolition of the U.S. Constitution itself. Primary candidates compete with one another to water down voting laws, variously demanding that 16-year-olds, felons, and illegal aliens should be given the franchise. Gay marriage, which Obama opposed in 2008 and later promoted after reelection, is now passé. The new civil rights cause celebre is transgenderism, an ancient syndrome known in the past under a variety of clinical definitions that affects less than half of one percent of the population. Who, after these peak progressive ideas, would be left as ineligible to vote—12-year-olds, those on death row, the rest of the earth’s population? All moderate Democratic presidential candidates long ago dropped out. Those who have not, such as Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg, are in virtual reeducation camps, as they promise to progressive rivals and the media to renounce most of their past positions, effusively apologizing for prior incorrect thinking and failure to become sufficiently “woke.” (…) Peak progressivism eventually either recedes, or, to remain viable, entails violence, as in the Russian, Chinese, or Cuban revolutions. The odd thing is not that Sanders supporter James Hodkinson tried to mow down some of the Republican House leadership, or a recent left-wing activist sought to run over Trump supporters with his van, or that Hollywood stars still compete with each other in imagining the most fitting rhetorical torture or killing of the president of the United States—bombing, incineration, beheading, stabbing, shooting, beating—but that progressive voices rarely complain about such extremist rhetoric or actions. Impeachment 1.0 in January 2017 looks tame in comparison to 2.0 in February 2020, which in turn will seem a sell-out compared to 3.0 in 2021. George McGovern ensured a Nixon landslide, Jimmy Carter hastened the Reagan Revolution—and the eventual return of the old Democrats under Bill Clinton. The frightening visions of the new peak progressives will ensure the reelection of Donald Trump, as well as either the likely end of themselves—or else a collective dystopian nightmare. Victor Davis Hanson
The Chinese Communist government increasingly poses an existential threat not just to its own 1.4 billion citizens but to the world at large. China is currently in a dangerously chaotic state. And why not, when a premodern authoritarian society leaps wildly into the brave new world of high-tech science in a single generation? The Chinese technological revolution is overseen by an Orwellian dictatorship. Predictably, the Chinese Communist Party has not developed the social, political, or cultural infrastructure to ensure that its sophisticated industrial and biological research does not go rogue and become destructive to itself and to the billions of people who are on the importing end of Chinese products and protocols. Central Party officials run the government, military, media, and universities collectively in a manner reminiscent of the science-fiction Borg organism of Star Trek, which was a horde of robot-like entities all under the control of a central mind. Thirty years ago, American pundits began gushing over China’s sudden leap from horse-drawn power to solar, wind, and nuclear energy. The Chinese Communist government wowed Westerners. It created from nothing high-speed rail, solar farms, shiny new airports, and gleaming new high-density apartment buildings. Western-trained Chinese scientists soon were conducting sophisticated medical and scientific research. And they often did so rapidly, without the prying regulators, nosy elected officials, and bothersome citizen lawsuits that often burden American and European scientists. To make China instantly rich and modern, the Communist hierarchy — the same government that once caused the deaths of some 60 million innocents under Mao Zedong — ignored property rights. It crushed individual freedom. It embraced secrecy and bulldozed over any who stood in its way. In much the same manner that silly American pundits once praised Benito Mussolini’s fascist efforts to modernize Depression-era Italy, many naifs in the West praised China only because they wished that their own countries could recalibrate so quickly and efficiently — especially in service to green agendas. But the world is learning that China does not just move mountains for new dams or bulldoze ancient neighborhoods that stand in the path of high-speed rail. It also hid the outbreak and the mysterious origins of the deadly coronavirus from its own people and the rest of the planet as well — a more dangerous replay of its earlier effort to mask the spread of the SARS virus. The result was that thousands of unknowing carriers spread the viral plague while the government covered up its epidemic proportions. China, of course, does not wish to have either its products or citizens quarantined from other countries. But the Chinese government will not allow foreign scientists to enter its country to collaborate on containing the coronavirus and developing a vaccine. No wonder Internet conspiracies speculate that the virus was either a rogue product of the Chinese military’s bioengineering weapons lab or originated from bats, snakes, or pangolins and the open-air markets where they are sold as food. It is hard to believe that in 2020, the world’s largest and second-wealthiest country, which boasts of high-tech consumer products and gleaming cities, has imprisoned in “re-education camps” more than 1 million Uighur Muslims in the manner that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao once relocated “undesirable” populations. China seems confident that it will soon rule the world, given its huge population, massive trade surpluses, vast cash reserves, and industries that produce so many of the world’s electronic devices, pharmaceuticals, and consumer goods. For a year, the Chinese government has battled massive street demonstrations for democracy in Hong Kong. Beijing cynically assumes that Western nations don’t care. They are expected to drop their characteristic human-rights advocacy because of how profitable their investments inside China have proven. Beijing was right. Few Western companies complain that Chinese society is surveilled, regulated, and controlled in a nightmarish fashion that George Orwell once predicted in his dystopian novel, 1984. All of these recent scandals should remind the world that China got rich by warping trade and stealing technology in much the same way that it deals with epidemics and dissidents. That is, by simply ignoring legitimate criticism and crushing anyone in its way. If the Chinese Communist Borg is willing to put millions of its own citizens at risk of infection and death, why would it care about foreigners’ complaints that China is getting rich and powerful by breaking international trade rules? The truth about President Trump’s decision to call China to account over its systematic abuse of international trade norms is not that Trump’s policy is reckless or ill-considered. It’s that at this late date, the reckoning might prove too little, too late. Victor Davis Hanson
Une enquête de Bloomberg révèle qu’Amazon emploie des milliers de salariés dans le monde pour écouter les conversations des utilisateurs avec Alexa, l’assistant vocal qui alimente les enceintes Echo du géant et plus de 100 millions d’objets connectés dans le monde. Ces employés travaillent neuf heures par jour dans des bureaux à Boston, au Costa Rica, en Inde ou encore en Roumanie. Il analyse jusqu’à 1000 clips audio par jour pour transcrire et annoter leur contenu. Le but est d’améliorer l’outil de reconnaissance vocale en éliminant les lacunes dans la compréhension de la parole humaine par Alexa et en l’aidant à mieux répondre aux demandes des utilisateurs. Un employé explique ainsi à Bloomberg avoir aidé Alexa à mieux comprendre le nom «Taylor Swift» en lui indiquant que l’utilisateur parlait d’une artiste musicale. Parmi le type de clips auxquels les salariés accèdent, des requêtes mais aussi des sons enregistrés comme une femme qui chante mal sous la douche. Problème: ces fichiers peuvent être partagés sur une messagerie interne pour aider un collègue à mieux interpréter une phrase ou pour se moquer d’un enregistrement amusant. D’autres extraits sont parfois plus problématiques. Deux personnes qui travaillaient pour Amazon ont ainsi raconté avoir entendu ce qui ressemblait à une agression sexuelle. Après l’avoir mentionné à leur hiérarchie, ils ont été informés qu’Amazon ne souhaitait pas réagir à la situation.  (…) Amazon mentionne dans ses conditions d’utilisation que les conversations des utilisateurs avec Alexa sont enregistrées pour améliorer son assistant virtuel. Cependant, le géant n’y précise explicitement pas que ces conversations peuvent être écoutées par des humains. Et si l’utilisateur peut limiter via les paramètres de confidentialité d’Alexa l’utilisation qui est faite de ces enregistrements, il ne peut jamais empêcher cette transmission. (…) Amazon n’est pas la seule entreprise à faire écouter une partie de ces conversations à des humains pour améliorer son outil de reconnaissance vocale. C’est aussi le cas chez Google et Apple avec leurs propres assistants vocaux Google Assistant et Siri. Pour Siri d’Apple, les enregistrements passés en revue ne contiennent pas d’informations personnelles. Durant les six mois où ils sont stockés, ils sont liés à un identifiant aléatoire selon un livre blanc sur la sécurité d’Apple. Après ces six mois, les données sont dépourvues de leur identifiant aléatoire, mais elles peuvent être stockées plus longtemps pour améliorer la reconnaissance vocale de Siri. Chez Google, certains réviseurs peuvent accéder à des extraits audio de Google Assistant, mais ces derniers ne sont associés à aucune information personnelle et le son est déformé, selon l’entreprise. Dans la nuit du 2 au 3 août, Amazon a mis à jour son application Alexa pour expliquer plus clairement la manière dont les enregistrements sont utilisés. Ainsi, on peut dorénavant lire que «les fichiers audios peuvent être […] manuellement révisés pour aider à améliorer les services [d’Amazon]». Alors qu’avant, la firme indiquait seulement que les enregistrements pouvaient «être utilisés pour développer de nouvelles fonctionnalités». Via l’application, il est aussi possible de désactiver l’envoi et l’écoute des fichiers audios avec Alexa. L’annonce d’Amazon fait suite à la procédure administrative ouverte par l’autorité de protection des données de Hambourg à l’encontre de Google. Depuis le 1er août et pendant trois mois, la firme n’est plus autorisée à laisser ses employés ou sous-traitants écouter les conversations enregistrées par son assistant intelligent. L’interdiction s’étend à toute l’Union Européenne. Apple a également emboîté le pas à Google et Amazon. La firme a annoncé au média TechCrunch qu’elle suspendait la manière dont les enregistrements sont utilisés pour améliorer son assistant vocal, «le temps de le réexaminer en profondeur». Cette décision s’applique au monde entier. Figaro
Au moment où j’écris, des êtres humains hautement civilisés veulent au-dessus de moi et essaient de me tuer. George Orwell
En 1930, il n’y avait aucune activité, sauf peut-être la recherche scientifique, les arts et l’engagement politique de gauche à laquelle puisse croire un individu conscient. La civilisation occidentale était au plus bas de son prestige et le “désenchantement” était partout. Qui pouvait encore envisager de réussir sa vie dans les carrières traditionnelles de la classe moyenne – en devenant officier, clergyman, agent de change, fonctionnaire aux Indes ou que sais-je encore ? Et que restait-il des valeurs de nos grands-parents ? Le patriotisme, la religion, l’Empire, la famille, le caractère sacré du mariage, la cravate aux couleurs du collège, la naissance, l’éducation, la discipline – tout individu moyennement éduqué pouvait en trois minutes vous démontrer l’inanité de tout cela. Mais qu’obtient-on, en fin de compte, en se débarrassant de choses aussi élémentaires que le patriotisme ou la religion ? On n’est pas pour autant débarrassé du besoin de croire à quelque chose. […] Je ne crois pas qu’il faille aller chercher plus loin les raisons pour lesquelles les jeunes écrivains des années 1930 se sont rassemblés sous le houlette du parti communiste. Il y avait là une Église, une armée, une orthodoxie, une discipline. Il y avait là une Patrie et – en tout cas depuis 1935 ou à peu près – un Führer. Tous les attachements profonds et toutes les superstitions dont l’esprit avait apparemment fait litière pouvaient revenir en force sous le plus mince des déguisements. Le patriotisme, l’Empire, la religion, la gloire militaire – tout cela était contenu dans un seul mot : “Russie”. […] Dans ces conditions, le “communisme de l’intellectuel anglais apparaît comme un phénomène assez aisément explicable : c’est le patriotisme des déracinés. » George Orwell
L’auteur de 1984, l’un des romans politiques les plus sombres du XXème siècle, était un grand optimiste, amoureux de son pays, à l’aise dans son époque, même si, dans ses fantasmes, il aurait préféré vivre au XVIIIème siècle en « joyeux pasteur ». Il conçut son existence comme une œuvre, et son œuvre, d’abord comme la quête d’une écriture (…) Son inclinaison profonde en tant que personnage public ne fut pas la politique mais la morale. Lorsqu’on étudie l’un des aspects de sa pensée, il faut constamment avoir à l’esprit ces paramètres. Nous sommes en présence d’un homme heureux, d’un écrivain poursuivant, à sa manière, un objectif de modernité, d’un citoyen qui attribuait au peuple anglais des vertus cardinales : gentillesse, loyauté, amour de la tradition, decency (décence, politesse, bonne mœurs), et ce don, pour lui apanage de ses compatriotes, de ne pas se laisser impressionner par les grands hommes, comme Napoléon, Churchill ou Staline. Raymond Williams a dit d’Orwell qu’il était un auteur bien anglais, éminemment insulaire et cocardier (Orwell, Londres, 1971). On verra que son attitude vis-à-vis de sa patrie a évolué au gré des circonstances personnelles et historiques. Ce qui ne changera jamais, c’est la prééminence du ressenti, de l’esthétique et de la morale, alliée à une conscience aiguë de la rhétorique, elle-même vécue comme une modalité politique du discours et de l’écriture. Ainsi, à l’automne 1940, au début de la guerre, les alliances se nouent et se dénouent. Orwell se demande si le conflit sera purement impérialiste et s’il faudra faire front commun avec la bourgeoisie. Tout en se posant ces questions d’importance, il ne peut s’empêcher d’écouter ses voix et de moraliser : « La nuit qui a précédé le Pacte germano-soviétique, j’ai rêvé que la guerre avait commencé. Ce rêve m’a appris que j’étais de tout cœur patriote, que je soutiendrais la guerre et que je combattrais si possible. Tout cela est enfantin, bien sûr, mais je préfère avoir reçu ce type d’éducation que de ressembler aux intellectuels de gauche qui sont tellement ‘ éclairés ’ qu’ils ne peuvent comprendre les émotions les plus ordinaires. » L’enfance d’Orwell fut marquée, pour ce qui nous concerne ici, par la catastrophe du Titanic. Dans un texte de résistance consensuel, très “ union nationale ” de 1940 (“My Country Right and Left ”, “ Mon pays, “ de droite et de gauche ” ou “ qu’il ait raison ou tort ”), Orwell évoque ce traumatisme. Il laisse entendre que l’attachement à une nation découle plus d’un ressenti charnel à des événements isolés mais marquants qu’à de grandes causes ou à une Histoire qui se fait mais qui n’est pas toujours lisible. En primaire, Orwell eut beau détester la discipline sadique des écoles primaires privées, les preparatory schools, il n’en admit pas moins, par la suite, que les grandes victoires anglaises (au diable les régiments écossais ou gallois !) furent préparées sur les terrains de cricket des écoles privées, la guerre n’étant qu’une forme suprême du sport où il est impossible de tricher (Orwell fut cependant l’un des premiers à dénoncer la concomitance entre sport et nationalisme dans un article visionnaire de 1945, “ The Sporting Spirit ”). Á Eton, il reçut sa part d’enseignement, de culture militariste. Il sut prendre du recul par rapport à cette vision du monde, ce qui ne l’empêcha pas de s’enrôler au sortir de l’enseignement secondaire, alors que rien ni personne ne l’y contraignait, dans la police impériale en Birmanie. Or c’est bel et bien durant sa plus tendre enfance que le futur écrivain avait été imprégné d’idéologie belliciste, d’une philosophie portant au plus haut niveau les valeurs de défense sacrée de la patrie, avec comme corollaire une dépréciation de l’ennemi. Orwell va se forger une conscience politique dans les années trente, non sans hésitations et revirements. Contre sa classe d’origine, la bourgeoisie impérialiste, et contre lui-même, en tirant parti de la névrose de culpabilité qui le taraude depuis l’enfance. Pour ce faire, il lui faudra passer par la France et l’immersion dans des franges défavorisées de la classe ouvrière, le Kent des travailleurs agricoles exploités et le Londres des clochards (voir son premier ouvrage, une biofiction : Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933. En français, Dans la dèche à Paris et à Londres). C’est qu’Orwell est de ces écrivains qui sont allés au-delà de leur monde et qui, de retour, ont adopté le regard du Persan : « Quand vous rentrez en Angleterre après un voyage à l’étranger, vous avez immédiatement la sensation de respirer un air différent […]. La bière est plus amère, les pièces de monnaie sont plus lourdes, l’herbe est plus verte, les publicités sont plus criardes. […] Alors l’immensité de l’Angleterre vous engloutit et vous perdez pour un instant de vue que la nation dans son ensemble possède un seul caractère identifiable. » Toute la complexité du patriotisme d’Orwell tient dans ces phrases. Il est capable d’observer son univers familier de l’extérieur, mais il est aussi terriblement anglo-centré. Cela dit, par delà des évidences assénées de manière aussi désarmante, il faut retenir qu’avant de s’émerveiller devant les « visages doux et noueux » de ses compatriotes, leurs « mauvaises dents » et leurs « bonnes manières », le « clic-clac des sabots dans les villes du Lancashire », Orwell avait su observer l’Angleterre à partir de la connaissance qu’il avait de son empire : c’est parce qu’il avait vécu au contact des masses exploitées d’Extrême-Orient qu’il pourrait sympathiser avec le lumpen-proletariat anglais puis avec la classe ouvrière proprement dite, « les victimes symboliques de l’injustice qui jouaient le même rôle en Angleterre que les Birmans en Birmanie » (1936). Après la découverte de la condition prolétarienne dans son pays, Orwell part se battre en Espagne, tout simplement parce qu’il faut se dresser contre le fascisme pour laisser une chance au socialisme. (…) Traumatisé par la défaite des Républicains, par la trahison des staliniens, Orwell va alors traverser une phase de doutes personnels durant laquelle les sentiments pacifistes et internationalistes vont prendre le dessus. D’avoir versé son sang, d’avoir été ainsi “ baptisé ”, autorise un Orwell dégoûté par la guerre à envisager, de 1937 à 1939, un certain cynisme dans la démission face à la menace hitlérienne.  (…) Ainsi, après les années 1936-37 où, choqué par la brutalité de la classe dirigeante, par l’irréalisme des élites de la gauche libérale, il a adopté des comportements extrêmes (vivre dans la crasse chez des logeurs exploiteurs du Lancashire, descendre au fond de la mine, partager le lot des combattants de base en Catalogne), il pressent, vers 1938-1939, que le conflit qui s’annonce sera terrible et il recherche des valeurs modérées. Dans les très nombreuses pages qu’il consacre à l’Angleterre et à son peuple, il offre des images et des concepts de paix (dans son roman de 1938 Coming Up for Air – en français Un peu d’air frais, il fait dire à son narrateur : «Pêcher, c’est le contraire de faire la guerre »), de raison, de stabilité, de juste milieu. Mais pas de médiocrité. Orwell n’aimait pas les comportements petits. Il raille Napoléon se rendant aux Anglais par peur des Prussiens, Ludendorff se cachant derrière des lunettes de soleil ou encore cet empereur romain qui s’était barricadé dans des toilettes (Orwell mourut des années avant que le roi du Maroc Hassan II fasse de même). L’idéal d’Orwell à l’époque, c’est un Sancho Pança qui n’aurait pas peur des bombes mais qui ne se planterait pas poitrail nu face à la mitraille : « Une part de nous veut être un héro ou un saint, mais l’autre moitié c’est ce petit homme gras qui voit très clairement l’avantage qu’il y a à rester en vie. C’est notre moi privé, la voix de notre ventre qui proteste contre notre âme. » Aux sentiments anti-guerre qui transparaissaient çà et là dans le discours de Homage to Catalonia succède un comportement franchement pacifiste, en particulier durant l’hiver 1938-39, époque où, souffrant gravement des poumons, il réside pour quelques mois à Marrakech. Il pose qu’être pacifiste ce n’est pas forcément vouloir bloquer les réformes sociales. Il s’est forgé un socialisme dont le marxisme n’est pas totalement exclu (dans The Road to Wigan Pier, en particulier. En français, Le Quai de Wigan). Mais progressivement, et cela le mènera jusqu’à la Deuxième Guerre mondiale, il rejette ce qui, au niveau socio-politique, n’est pas, à ses yeux, anglais : le stalinisme, l’internationalisme prolétarien, le fascisme évidemment, mais aussi l’Église Catholique Romaine et tout ce qui s’apparente aux intellectuels de gauche européens. Il moque avec férocité l’îlot de pensée dissidente de ceux qui « vont chercher leurs recettes de cuisine à Paris et leurs idées à Moscou. »  Face aux dangers – Hitler, la guerre, le capitalisme sauvage, l’industrialisation débridée – Orwell va donc partir dans une quête de l’anglicisé  Sa patrie ne trouvera le salut que dans la réaffirmation de ses valeurs fondamentales. Une transformation de la société anglaise – qu’il appelle de ses vœux – ne se fera que dans le respect des traditions. De 1937 à 1940, le projet d’Orwell est d’établir une continuité entre l’Angleterre du présent et celle du passé. Bernard Gensane
L’essence, la force du patriotisme d’Orwell lui permirent durant deux décennies de tous les dangers de retrouver des valeurs stables, une morale en politique, et d’alimenter son instinct de conservation à la source de son amour pour son pays. Ce patriotisme n’était pas aveugle. L’honnêteté intellectuelle d’Orwell (certes relative), son pessimisme lucide, son humour froid au second degré le faisaient souvent passer pour un prophète de malheur. Ce n’est pas parce qu’il était fondamentalement patriote qu’il aimait et défendait l’Angleterre, mais c’est parce que l’amour de son pays était quintessencié qu’il était patriote. Parce qu’il souhaitait, vers 1940, un consensus politique national et que ce que l’Europe proposait (des régimes forts ou des démocraties en déliquescence) ne lui convenait pas, il soutiendrait son pays de droite comme de gauche (« My country Right and Left »), l’Angleterre de Chamberlain pouvant évoluer à court terme vers un changement radical de société. Orwell établissait par ailleurs une nette distinction entre patriotisme et nationalisme. Être patriote revenait à aimer un endroit, un mode de vie que l’on considérait comme les meilleurs au monde, mais sans pour autant vouloir les imposer aux autres. Pour Orwell, le patriotisme était par nature défensif, militairement et culturellement parlant. Il impliquait par ailleurs une adhésion volontaire à un espace, à une communauté et à des valeurs. Inversement, il concevait le nationalisme comme l’idéologie belliqueuse d’individus en quête de prestige, non pour eux-mêmes mais pour des ensembles dans lesquels ils choisissent d’enfouir leur propre personnalité. Un communiste ne pouvait donc pas, selon lui, être patriote, mais seulement nationaliste, puisqu’il était capable, en l’espace de quelques jours, de transférer ses allégeances selon les nécessités de l’actualité, son rapport à sa terre, à sa patrie étant extrêmement ténu. Il avait établi une typologie de différentes formes de nationalismes : la forme “ positive ”, incarnée par le nationalisme celtique, le sionisme, et ceux qui n’admettaient pas le recul de l’influence anglaise dans le monde ; un nationalisme de “ transfert ” (il faisait se côtoyer le communisme, le pacifisme, le catholicisme militant, la conscience de classe)  (…) La pensée d’Orwell, dans la dernière partie de sa vie, préfigure l’idéologie travailliste des années cinquante, celle qui a rompu, dans les faits, avec le marxisme. Pour Orwell qui, de 1945 à sa mort en 1950, est un sympathisant du Labour, le socialisme se résume à davantage d’égalité et le remplacement des élites obsolètes par ce qu’on n’appelle pas encore la méritocratie. (…) De plus sa pensée, surtout quand elle est novatrice, est constamment bridée par des interférences personnelles. Qu’il écrive des pages anti-impérialistes, socialistes, révolutionnaires ou réformistes, l’image de l’homme vaincu, isolé pour qui un changement profond de société impulsé par le “ peuple ” est une chimère, domine. On peut supposer que le pessimisme d’Orwell a été alimenté par l’échec de soulèvements populaires, comme ceux de Kronstadt ou de Varsovie, sans parler de la prise de Barcelone par les Franquistes. Les patriotes sont ceux qui, pour nous résumer, sont prêts à prendre les armes pour mener une guerre populaire. Les ennemis de la patrie sont les pro-fascistes. L’idée d’une victoire d’Hitler plait aux très riches, aux communistes, aux Chemises noires d’Oswald Mosley (parti fasciste qui, étrangement, fut le premier parti anglais à adopter un programme économique keynésien !), aux pacifistes et à certaines factions catholiques. Et puis, si les choses tournaient mal sur le front intérieur, la totalité des plus pauvres des ouvriers pourrait adopter une position défaitiste mais pas pro-hitlérienne dans les faits. Il restait donc les trois-quarts de la classe ouvrière et la petite bourgeoisie moins les intellectuels de gauche car ces derniers s’étaient, rappelons-le, déconsidérés depuis une dizaine d’années au moins. Le combat étant national et même nationaliste, il faudrait se méfier de cette « intelligentsia européanisée ». De 1945 à 1950, le mot “ patriotisme ” n’apparaît jamais plus sous la plume d’Orwell. Visionnaire comme Churchill – dont il partage certaines conceptions en matière de géopolitique, Orwell a compris que la division du monde est un état de fait durable. Contre ceux qui envisagent une fusion pure et simple des États-Unis et de la Grande Bretagne, contre une petite minorité d’Anglais qui rêve d’une intégration au système soviétique, il envisage des « États-Unis socialistes d’Europe». L’essayiste qui, en 1947, publie dans la revue d’extrême-gauche étasunienne Partisan Review l’article “ Toward European Unity ” rédige les premières moutures d’un univers fictionnel d’où sont absentes les valeurs de la civilisation occidentale, le patriotisme y compris. Bernard Gensane
Qu’est-ce qu’Orwell-Bouwling perçoit d’insupportable et même de terrifiant chez le professionnel de l’antifascisme ? Le fonctionnement mécanique de son langage. Son discours et ses mots ont perdu tout contact avec le monde ordinaire. Ils ont même vampirisé son esprit et s’y sont installés à demeure en se substituant à son expérience. Dès lors, leur contenu importe moins que le pouvoir qu’ils lui donnent sur ceux à qui il s’adresse. Ses mots sont devenus les instruments d’une violence qu’il exerce à l’égard des autres. Mais elle opère aussi sur lui-même puisqu’il n’éprouve plus qu’une seule émotion : la haine. Bien qu’il se réclame de la démocratie, le propagandiste antifasciste a déjà quelque chose de l’intellectuel totalitaire. L’opposé du l’homme ordinaire en effet est l’homme totalitaire, c’est-à-dire l’individu qui est dépossédé de sa capacité d’exercer son jugement de manière indépendante, et du même coup de sa capacité d’éprouver tout l’éventail des sentiments ordinaires. C’est ce qu’annonce au héros de 1984 l’intellectuel dirigeant qui le torture : « Jamais plus tu ne seras capable d’un sentiment humain ordinaire (ordinary human feeling). Tout sera mort en toi. Tu ne seras plus jamais capable d’amour, d’amitié, de joie de vivre, de rire, de curiosité, de courage ou d’intégrité. Tu seras creux. Nous allons te presser jusqu’à ce que tu sois vide, puis nous te remplirons de nous-mêmes.» Il importe de bien comprendre ici que l’adjectif « totalitaire » ne s’applique pas seulement pour Orwell à des régimes et à des mouvements politiques mais à des idées et mécanismes intellectuels qui sont partout à l’œuvre dans le monde moderne. Comme l’explique bien James Conant, « tel qu’[Orwell] l’emploie, le terme “totalitarisme” désigne des stratégies (à la fois pratiques et intellectuelles) qui […] sont appelées ainsi parce qu’elles ont pour but de parvenir à un contrôle total de la pensée, de l’action et des sentiments humains». On observera que cet usage du terme « totalitaire » est conforme à celui de son inventeur probable, le libéral antifasciste italien Giovanni Amendola, qui écrivait en avril 1923 : « Le fascisme ne vise pas tant à gouverner l’Italie qu’à monopoliser le contrôle des consciences italiennes. Il ne lui suffit pas de posséder le pouvoir : il veut posséder la conscience privée de tous les citoyens, il veut la “conversion” des Italiens.» L’usage orwellien du terme « totalitaire », poursuit Conant, « ne recouvre pas seulement des formes de régimes politiques mais aussi des types de pratiques et d’institutions plus envahissantes et plus spécifiques (diverses pratiques journalistiques comptent parmi ses exemples favoris). Mais par-dessus tout, Orwell applique ce terme aux idées des intellectuels – et pas seulement à celles qui ont cours dans […] les “pays totalitaires” mais à des idées qui circulent dans tout le monde industriel moderne». La réponse d’Orwell est claire : les idées qui sont capables de briser notre relation au monde ordinaire. Ce qui rend une idée totalitaire, ce n’est pas son contenu particulier (rien n’est plus opposé quant à leurs contenus respectifs que les idées fascistes et les idées communistes) mais son fonctionnement, ou, plus exactement, sa capacité à fonctionner comme une arme pour détruire l’homme ordinaire. Aucun régime ou mouvement totalitaire n’a jamais proclamé que deux et deux font cinq. Ce serait une croyance aussi absurde que peu efficace. Mais si Orwell en fait le paradigme de l’idée totalitaire, c’est que l’absurdité même de son contenu fait mieux ressortir sa fonction première : priver les individus de tout usage de leur propre entendement (pour parler comme Kant) ou de tout usage de leurs propres concepts (pour parler comme Wittgenstein et Cavell). Si « deux et deux font quatre » n’est pas vrai, ou s’il n’est pas vrai que les pierres sont dures, alors je ne sais plus ce que veut dire le mot « vrai », et je ne peux plus l’utiliser. Il convient de remarquer ici que, pour Orwell, la possibilité d’implanter des dogmes totalitaires irrationnels dans un esprit dépend de la perméabilité de celui-ci aux arguments du scepticisme philosophique. Il y a ainsi dans 1984 un moment sceptique où Winston se dit à lui-même : « Le Parti finirait par annoncer que deux et deux font cinq et il faudrait le croire. Il était inéluctable que, tôt ou tard, il fasse cette déclaration. La logique de sa position l’exigeait. Ce n’était pas seulement la validité de l’expérience mais l’existence même d’une réalité extérieure qui était tacitement niée par sa philosophie. L’hérésie des hérésies était le sens commun. Et ce qui était terrifiant, ce n’était pas qu’ils vous tuent si vous pensiez autrement, mais que peut-être ils avaient raison. Car, après tout, comment pouvons-nous savoir que deux et deux font quatre ? Ou qu’il y a une force de gravitation ? Ou que le passé est immuable ? Si le passé et le monde extérieur n’existent que dans l’esprit et si l’esprit lui-même peut être contrôlé – alors quoi ? » De manière remarquable, Winston ne va échapper à cette menace sceptique, qui le rend vulnérable aux arguments des intellectuels du Parti, que par un raffermissement soudain de sa confiance en lui-même. « Mais non ! Son courage lui sembla soudain suffisant pour s’affermir de lui-même (to stiffen of its own accord).» Cette confiance en lui ne le quittera plus, jusqu’au moment où la torture en brisant son corps laissera son esprit définitivement sans défense face à la dialectique destructrice d’O’Brien. Comme l’a clairement vu le philosophe américain Stanley Cavell, la résistance au scepticisme (et donc au dogmatisme) n’est pas affaire de connaissance théorique ou d’argument philosophique mais de reconnaissance ou d’acceptation du monde ordinaire. « Ce que laisse entendre le scepticisme, c’est que, comme nous n’avons aucun moyen de nous assurer que le monde existe, sa présence à nous-même ne relève pas du connaître. Le monde doit être accepté.» Ce qu’Orwell décrit comme la passivité de l’homme ordinaire n’est ainsi rien d’autre que son acceptation du monde ordinaire. À l’inverse, les intellectuels ont une forte tendance à ne pas se reconnaître comme des hommes ordinaires, c’est-à-dire à ne pas reconnaître la part écrasante de l’ordinaire dans leurs existences. Dans sa recension, en 1936, de Printemps noir d’Henry Miller, Orwell se demande pourquoi « la fiction anglaise de haut niveau est écrite la plupart du temps par des lettrés sur des lettrés pour des lettrés. […] Dickens a su exprimer sous une forme comique, schématique et par là même mémorable, l’honnêteté native de l’homme ordinaire (the native decency of the common man). Et il est important que, sous ce rapport, des gens de toutes sortes puissent être décrits comme “ordinaires” (“common”). Dans un pays tel que l’Angleterre, il existe, par-delà la division des classes, une certaine unité de culture. Tout au long de l’ère chrétienne, et plus nettement encore après la Révolution française, le monde occidental a été hanté par les idées de liberté et d’égalité. Ce ne sont que des idées, mais elles ont pénétré toutes les couches de la société. On voit partout subsister les plus atroces injustices, cruautés, mensonges, snobismes, mais il est peu de gens qui puissent contempler tout cela aussi froidement qu’un propriétaire d’esclaves romains, par exemple». Cet éloge de la common decency, de l’honnêteté commune, appelle quelques remarques. Bien qu’Orwell la dise « native », au sens où elle ne découle pas d’un code moral explicite ni de prescriptions enseignées comme telles, l’honnêteté commune est un héritage historique. Elle était inconnue du propriétaire d’esclaves romain et Orwell l’associe au christianisme et à la Révolution française. Mais si elle est apparue dans l’histoire, elle peut également en disparaître. Le totalitarisme n’est rien d’autre que la tendance à la liquidation de l’honnêteté commune – tendance méthodiquement et systématiquement mise en œuvre par certains courants et régimes politiques, mais tendance inscrite comme une possibilité dans la structure même des sociétés contemporaines. La common decency a pénétré toutes les classes de la société. Elle n’a pas aboli celles-ci, bien évidemment, pas plus qu’elle n’a aboli la lutte des classes. Mais elle constitue un ensemble de dispositions et d’exigences à partir desquelles des hommes appartenant à des classes différentes, voire antagonistes, peuvent, pourvu qu’ils le veuillent vraiment, partager quelque chose de leurs existences. On peut aller plus loin : c’est cette honnêteté commune qui est au principe du projet socialiste d’abolition de la domination de classe et des différences de classe. Orwell ne dit pas comme Engels : faisons d’abord la révolution ; alors, dans les nouvelles conditions économiques et sociales émergera une humanité nouvelle et par conséquent une morale nouvelle que nous sommes incapables aujourd’hui d’anticiper. Orwell dit plutôt : nous savons tous parfaitement ce qu’est l’honnêteté commune ; faisons la révolution pour abolir les barrières de classe qui l’offensent en permanence et qui empêchent qu’elle soit la base effective de la vie sociale. Aucune révolution démocratique ne saurait nous dispenser de l’honnêteté commune. Celle-ci est même la condition sans laquelle la révolution ne saurait être démocratique et aboutira au remplacement d’une classe dirigeante par une autre. « Ce qui me fait peur avec l’intelligentsia moderne, c’est son incapacité à se rendre compte que la société humaine doit avoir pour base l’honnêteté commune (common decency), quelles que puissent être ses formes politiques et économiques. » En effet, l’intelligentsia moderne s’est coupée de ce socle à la fois historique et humain qu’est l’honnêteté commune. Fascinée par la politique de la force, elle est devenue antidémocratique en politique et « réaliste », c’est-à-dire cynique, en morale. Orwell appelle « réalisme » « la doctrine qui veut que la force prime le droit », et il voit dans « la montée du “réalisme” […] le grand événement de l’histoire intellectuelle de notre époque ». (…) On peut juger cette explication un peu courte. Elle a toutefois l’immense mérite de soulever une question importante et difficile : si le monde ordinaire est le monde de mon expérience, il ne peut pas être un monde abstrait où hommes, choses, lieux et coutumes sont interchangeables ; c’est nécessairement un monde concret et particulier : un pays ou une région, une langue, une culture, des institutions, une histoire, etc. Si dans Le Lion et la licorne, un petit livre qu’il publie en 1941 et qui porte comme sous-titre Socialisme et génie anglais, Orwell exalte le mode de vie anglais (de la « bonne tasse de thé »jusqu’aux emblèmes de la royauté) et s’il y conjugue socialisme et patriotisme (qu’il distingue très fermement du nationalisme), ce n’est pas pour concilier artificiellement ses convictions politiques profondes avec l’urgence immédiate de la défense de l’Angleterre. Il l’a proclamé à plusieurs reprises, non sans un brin de provocation : « Aucun révolutionnaire authentique n’a jamais été un internationaliste.» En tout cas, il ne s’est jamais reconnu dans l’internationalisme abstrait du communisme qu’il n’a cessé de dénoncer comme un instrument à peine masqué de la politique de puissance soviétique. Et quand, en décembre 1936, il part combattre en Espagne, il ne le fait pas en activiste de la révolution mondiale mais comme un Anglais socialiste, solidaire des Espagnols antifascistes ; et c’est dans cet esprit qu’il écrira Hommage à la Catalogne. Le patriotisme assumé d’Orwell n’est sûrement pas sans rapport avec l’imperméabilité de la classe populaire anglaise au fascisme comme au stalinisme, aussi avec l’imperméabilité de la classe dirigeante anglaise au fascisme. Dans sa « Lettre de Londres » à la Partisan Review de juillet-août 1941, il écrit : « Ce type de climat où vous n’osez pas parler politique de peur que la Gestapo ne surprenne vos paroles, ce climat est tout bonnement impensable en Angleterre. Toute tentative de l’instaurer sera brisée dans l’œuf, non pas tant par une résistance consciente que par l’incapacité des gens ordinaires (ordinary people) à comprendre ce qu’on attendrait d’eux. Une fois encore, Orwell table moins sur la lucidité de George Bowling que sur sa passivité. Quant à la classe dirigeante, dont il craignait avant guerre qu’elle ne profite du déclenchement des hostilités pour faire basculer le pays dans un anglo-fascisme comparable à l’austro-fascisme d’un Dollfuss, il doit reconnaître qu’elle reste fondamentalement attachée au libéralisme. « La classe dirigeante britannique croit à la démocratie et à la liberté individuelle en un sens étroit et quelque peu hypocrite. Mais du moins, elle croit à la lettre de la loi et s’y tiendra parfois même quand elle n’est pas à son avantage. Rien n’indique qu’elle évolue vers une mentalité véritablement fasciste. La Grande-Bretagne peut être fascisée de l’extérieur ou au terme d’une révolution intérieure, mais la vieille classe dirigeante ne peut, à mon sens, être elle-même l’agent d’un totalitarisme véritable.» Les seuls, encore une fois, qui en Angleterre aient été gagné au totalitarisme sont des intellectuels. Dans l’après-guerre, Orwell verra en eux quelque chose comme un parti de l’étranger. Comme on le voit, le modèle de l’intellectuel ordinaire – de l’intellectuel qui se reconnaît comme un homme ordinaire – se distingue très clairement de celui de l’intellectuel engagé. Celui-ci se vit d’abord comme séparé, puis va rejoindre le combat des autres hommes au nom des valeurs intellectuelles et universelles qui sont les siennes : il court ainsi le risque permanent de se poser comme une autorité dictant aux autres ce qu’ils doivent faire ou assignant à leurs actes un sens qu’il prétend mieux connaître qu’eux-mêmes. L’intellectuel ordinaire, lui, vit les événements et y réagit en homme ordinaire qu’il est et qu’il reconnaît être. Orwell a vécu l’approche de la guerre et la montée des totalitarismes avec les mêmes sentiments et les mêmes réactions que son vendeur d’assurances George Bowling. Certes, parce qu’il était un intellectuel, et plus particulièrement un écrivain, il avait la capacité de mettre ses réactions en mots et en idées. Mais il ne prétendait pas pour autant être un porte-parole. On peut se demander si ce modèle ne constitue pas pour un intellectuel la seule manière d’essayer d’être et de rester un démocrate. Jean-Jacques Rosat

C’est la décence commune, imbécile !

En ces temps de politiquement correct et de novlangue généralisés …

Comme de mensonge entériné par la loi même, entre « mariage pour tous », « enfants pour tous » et sportives transgenres qui gagnent toutes les courses, sur l’origine de la vie ….

Où les débats politiques se transforment en procès staliniens …

Sommant leurs victimes publiquement de faire leur propre autocritique …

Et où face à un camp démocrate

Complètement déconnecté de la réalité …

L’ancien maire de New York et multimilliardaire Michael Bloomberg …

Se voit contraint de renier son franc-parler proprement trumpien …

Jusqu’à s’excuser d’avoir réduit de moitié le nombre de meurtres de sa ville …

Et où avec la technologie occidentale et les conséquences internationales que l’on sait, la Chine ressemble de plus en plus à 1984

Alors que par la voie plus « douce » de la servitude volontaire, l’Occident que nous sommes se livre de plus en plus allègrement au Big brother des GAFAM …

Pendant qu’en Europe, les mêmes dirigeants qui ont imposé à leur population des millions de clandestins musulmans …

Dont nombre d’auteurs d’actes dits « de déséquilibrés » …

N’hésitent pas à dénoncer comme « poison raciste »

Les réactions de rejet qu’ils ont eux-mêmes provoquées …

Comment ne pas repenser …

Contre la réduction au populisme et au fascisme …

De toute parole libre ou d’amour de son pays …

Aux avertissements désormais prophétiques d’un George Orwell …

Dont on fêtait le 70e anniversaire de la mort il y a tout juste un mois…

Contre cette singulière propension, béatification de Gandhi comprise, à l’aveuglement de nos intellectuels …

Qui « vont chercher leurs recettes de cuisine à Paris et leurs idées à Moscou » …

Et ne pas se remémorer …

A l’instar de son contemporain français Camus qu’il faillit d’ailleurs rencontrer

Sa dévotion à la vérité et à sa défense de « l’homme ordinaire » …

Autrement dit à sa fameuse « décence commune » …

Sans laquelle « le reste ne peut suivre » ?

 

Quand les intellectuels s’emparent du fouet

Orwell & la défense de l’homme ordinaire

Jean-Jacques Rosat

p. 89-109

revue Agone

Numéro 34 | 2005

Notes de la rédaction

Ce texte a pour origine une communication présentée au colloque « Le politique et l’ordinaire » organisé à l’université de Picardie (Amiens) les 5 et 6 avril 2004 par Sandra Laugier, Laurent Bove et Claude Gauthier.

La collection « Banc d’essais », que dirige Jean-Jacques Rosat aux éditions Agone, fera paraître en 2006 un essai de John Newsinger, traduit de l’anglais par Bernard Gensane et consacré à La Politique selon Orwell ; également en projet dans cette collection, préfacé et traduit par Jean-Jacques Rosat, un essai de James Conant, Orwell ou le Pouvoir de la vérité.

La question décisive en politique n’est pas de savoir si l’on dispose de la théorie vraie : comme toutes les théories, les théories politiques sont faillibles et partielles ; et, parce qu’elles sont politiques, elles peuvent facilement devenir des instruments de pouvoir et de domination. La question politique décisive est de savoir comment, dans le monde moderne, chacun, même s’il est un intellectuel, peut rester un homme ordinaire, comment il peut conserver sa capacité de se fier à son expérience et à son jugement, comment il peut préserver son sens du réel et son sens moral.

Cette idée est clairement formulée dans une page célèbre de 1984 : « Le Parti vous disait de rejeter le témoignage de vos yeux et de vos oreilles. C’était son commandement ultime, et le plus essentiel. Le cœur de Winston défaillit quand il pensa à l’énorme puissance déployée contre lui, à la facilité avec laquelle n’importe quel intellectuel du Parti le vaincrait dans une discussion, aux arguments qu’il serait incapable de comprendre et auxquels il pourrait encore moins répondre. Et cependant, c’était lui qui avait raison ! Ils avaient tort, et il avait raison. Il fallait défendre l’évident, le bêta et le vrai. Les truismes sont vrais, cramponne-toi à cela. Le monde matériel existe, ses lois ne changent pas. Les pierres sont dures, l’eau est humide, et les objets qu’on lâche tombent vers le centre de la terre. Avec le sentiment […] qu’il posait un axiome important, il écrivit : “La liberté, c’est la liberté de dire que deux et deux font quatre. Si cela est accordé, tout le reste suit.”1 »

Il y a donc un monde ordinaire. Les pierres y sont dures, et deux plus deux y font quatre.

Cette caractérisation du monde ordinaire à partir des jugements de perception et des jugements arithmétiques remonte, dans la pensée d’Orwell, à l’année 1936 au moins, soit treize ans avant la publication de 1984. Dans une lettre à l’écrivain américain Henry Miller, l’auteur de Tropique du Cancer, il déclare : « J’ai en moi une sorte d’attitude terre à terre solidement ancrée qui fait que je me sens mal à l’aise dès que je quitte ce monde ordinaire où l’herbe est verte, la pierre dure, etc.2 » Et dans une recension strictement contemporaine de Printemps noir, un roman du même Miller, Orwell explique que « le mot écrit perd son pouvoir s’il s’éloigne trop ou, plus exactement, s’il demeure trop longtemps éloigné du monde ordinaire où deux et deux font quatre3 ». Comme le fait observer le philosophe américain James Conant, les jugements de perception et les jugements arithmétiques élémentaires ont un point commun : « Une fois qu’un membre de notre communauté linguistique est devenu compétent dans l’application des concepts appropriés (perceptuels ou arithmétiques), ce sont deux types de jugements dont il peut facilement établir, individuellement et par lui-même, la vérité ou la fausseté. Une fois qu’il a acquis les concepts appropriés et qu’il les a complètement maîtrisés, ce sont des domaines où il est capable de prononcer un verdict sans s’occuper de ce que devient, au sein de sa communauté, le consensus les concernant. […] Quand le verdict concerne, par exemple, quelque chose que vous êtes le seul à avoir vu, vous avez d’excellentes raisons a priori de vous fier davantage à votre propre vision de l’événement qu’à une version contradictoire, parue, disons, dans le journal.4 »

L’existence du monde ordinaire repose donc sur la capacité de chacun de nous à établir la vérité d’un certain nombre d’affirmations par lui-même, indépendamment de ce que peuvent affirmer les autres et, plus encore, indépendamment de tout pouvoir. Cette capacité est la caractéristique première de l’homme ordinaire. En se cramponnant à ces affirmations, Winston, le personnage central de 1984, lutte pour rester un homme ordinaire, pour penser et agir en sorte que le monde ordinaire continue d’exister.

Car le monde ordinaire peut disparaître.

C’est la découverte terrifiante qu’a faite Orwell en 1937 – un choc qui va déterminer pour le reste de sa vie aussi bien son activité politique que son travail d’écrivain. De retour d’Espagne après avoir combattu le fascisme dans la milice du POUM et après avoir dû s’enfuir pour échapper d’extrême justesse à son arrestation par les communistes, il est abasourdi par la manière dont la presse de gauche anglaise rend compte des événements espagnols et par le degré auquel les intellectuels de gauche ne veulent rien savoir de la liquidation systématique des anarchistes et des militants du POUM par les staliniens. Voici comment, dans ses « Réflexions sur la guerre d’Espagne », écrites cinq ans plus tard, en 1942, à Londres et sous les bombes allemandes, il évoque sa prise de conscience de ce qui est pour lui le trait essentiel, totalement neuf et totalement terrifiant, du totalitarisme : « Tôt dans ma vie, je m’étais aperçu qu’un journal ne rapporte jamais correctement aucun événement, mais en Espagne, pour la première fois, j’ai vu rapporter dans les journaux des choses qui n’avaient plus rien à voir avec les faits, pas même le genre de relation que suppose un mensonge ordinaire. J’ai vu rapporter de grandes batailles là où aucun combat n’avait eu lieu et un complet silence là où des centaines d’hommes avaient été tués. […] J’ai vu les journaux de Londres débiter ces mensonges et des intellectuels zélés bâtir des constructions émotionnelles sur des événements qui n’avaient jamais eu lieu. J’ai vu, en fait, l’histoire s’écrire non pas en fonction de ce qui s’était passé, mais en fonction de ce qui aurait dû se passer selon les diverses “lignes de parti”. […] Ce genre de chose m’effraie, car il me donne souvent le sentiment que le concept même de vérité objective est en voie de disparaître du monde. […] Je suis prêt à croire que l’histoire est la plupart du temps inexacte et déformée, mais, ce qui est propre à notre époque, c’est l’abandon de l’idée que l’histoire pourrait être écrite de façon véridique. Dans le passé, les gens mentaient délibérément, coloraient inconsciemment ce qu’ils écrivaient, ou cherchaient la vérité à grand-peine, tout en sachant bien qu’ils commettraient inévitablement un certain nombre d’erreurs. Mais, dans tous les cas, ils croyaient que les “faits” existent, et qu’on peut plus ou moins les découvrir. Et, dans la pratique, il y avait toujours tout un ensemble de faits sur lesquels à peu près tout le monde pouvait s’accorder. Si vous regardez l’histoire de la dernière guerre [la Première Guerre mondiale], dans l’Encyclopedia Britannica par exemple, vous vous apercevrez qu’une bonne partie des données sont empruntées à des sources allemandes. Un historien allemand et un historien anglais seront en profond désaccord sur bien des points, et même sur des points fondamentaux, mais il y aura toujours cet ensemble de faits neutres, pourrait-on dire, à propos desquels aucun des deux ne contestera sérieusement ce que dit l’autre. C’est précisément cette base d’accord […] que détruit le totalitarisme. […] L’objectif qu’implique cette ligne de pensée est un monde de cauchemar où le Chef, ou une clique dirigeante, ne contrôle pas seulement l’avenir, mais aussi le passé. Si le Chef dit de tel ou tel événement “cela n’a jamais eu lieu” – eh bien, cela n’a jamais eu lieu. S’il dit que deux et deux font cinq – eh bien, deux et deux font cinq. Cette perspective me terrifie beaucoup plus que les bombes – et après ce que ce que nous avons vécu ces dernières années, ce ne sont pas là des propos en l’air.5 »

I —

Qui donc est l’homme ordinaire, ce « dernier homme en Europe » (c’était le titre initial de 1984) dont dépend rien de moins que l’avenir de la liberté et de la civilisation ?

L’homme ordinaire n’est ni le militant ni le citoyen. L’horizon de ses jugements n’est ni l’histoire de l’humanité ni la nation, mais le monde concret et particulier de son expérience, celui sur lequel il a prise et où ses actes ont un sens pour lui. Dans son essai intitulé Dans le ventre de la baleine, Orwell crédite Henry Miller d’avoir donné dans un roman comme Tropique du Cancer une image plus juste de l’homme ordinaire que bien des romanciers engagés : « Parce qu’il est passif par rapport à l’expérience, Miller peut s’approcher davantage de l’homme ordinaire que des auteurs plus soucieux d’engagement. L’homme ordinaire est passif. À l’intérieur d’un cercle étroit (sa vie familiale, et peut-être le syndicat ou la politique locale), il se sent maître de son destin ; mais face aux grands événements majeurs, il est tout aussi démuni que face aux éléments. Bien loin de tenter d’agir sur l’avenir, il file doux et attend que les choses se passent.6 » On le rencontre par exemple dans « les livres écrits sur la Grande Guerre [qui] sont l’œuvre de simples soldats ou d’officiers subalternes, qui ne prétendaient même pas comprendre de quoi il retournait – des livres comme À l’ouest rien de nouveau, Le Feu [ou] L’Adieu aux armes […], écrits non par des propagandistes, mais par des victimes7 ».

L’homme ordinaire, ajoute Orwell, est « apolitique et amoral », non pas au sens où il ignorerait tout code moral et ne voterait jamais aux élections, mais au sens où ni les doctrines morales ni les idéologies politiques ne sont les véritables ressorts de sa conduite. Cette passivité rend l’homme ordinaire plus sensible et plus réceptif aux événements qui bouleversent notre monde et à leur véritable signification que celui qui les appréhende essentiellement à travers les doctrines et les mots.

Dans Un peu d’air frais – le roman qu’Orwell écrit dans l’ambiance de l’avant-Deuxième Guerre mondiale –, le héros et narrateur, George Bowling, ancien combattant de 1914-1918 et vendeur d’assurances dans le civil, est le prototype de l’homme ordinaire. Mieux qu’un intellectuel ou un militant, il voit littéralement non seulement la nouvelle guerre qui vient mais surtout l’après-guerre : « Je ne suis pas un imbécile, mais je ne suis pas non plus un intellectuel (a highbrow). En temps normal, mon horizon ne dépasse pas celui du type moyen de mon âge, qui gagne sept livres par semaines et qui a deux gosses à élever. Et pourtant, j’ai assez de bon sens pour voir que l’ancienne vie à laquelle nous sommes accoutumés est en voie d’être détruite jusque dans ses racines. Je sens que ça vient. Je vois la guerre qui approche et l’après-guerre, les queues devant les magasins d’alimentation, la police secrète et les hauts-parleurs qui vous disent ce qu’il faut penser. Et je ne suis pas le seul dans ce cas. Il y en a des millions comme moi. Les types ordinaires (ordinary chaps) que je croise partout, les types que je rencontre dans les pubs, les conducteurs d’autobus, les représentants en quincaillerie – tous se rendent compte que le monde va mal.8 »

Bowling pense que l’instauration d’un régime fasciste en Angleterre ne changerait pas grand-chose à sa vie quotidienne, puisqu’il n’est pas politiquement engagé. Et pourtant, cette perspective lui est insupportable. « Qu’adviendra-t-il de gens comme moi si nous devons avoir le fascisme en Angleterre ? La vérité est que ça ne fera probablement pas la moindre différence. […] Le type ordinaire comme moi, celui qui passe inaperçu, suivra son train-train habituel. Et pourtant, ça me terrifie – je vous dis que ça me terrifie.9 » En janvier 1940, pendant la « drôle de guerre », Orwell écrit à son éditeur, Victor Gollancz : « Ce qui me tracasse en ce moment, c’est qu’on ne sait pas très bien si dans des pays comme l’Angleterre les gens ordinaires (the ordinary people) font suffisamment la différence entre démocratie et despotisme pour avoir envie de défendre leurs libertés. […] Les intellectuels qui affirment aujourd’hui que démocratie et fascisme c’est blanc bonnet et bonnet blanc, etc., me dépriment au plus haut point. Mais il se peut qu’au moment de l’épreuve de vérité les gens ordinaires (the common people) s’avèrent être plus intelligents que les gens intelligents (more intelligent than the clever ones).10 »

En somme, George Orwell a plutôt confiance dans les réactions de George Bowling.

Un des épisodes les plus remarquables d’Un peu d’air frais est celui où Bowling se rend à une réunion du Club du Livre de Gauche. Ce Club a réellement existé : créé en mai 1936 par l’éditeur Victor Gollancz, c’était un club de diffusion de livres militants (le premier titre proposé à ses membres fut un livre de Maurice Thorez, La France d’aujourd’hui et le Front populaire) et, en même temps, un réseau de cercles qui organisaient des conférences et qui compta jusqu’à 1 200 groupes et 57 000 membres à travers toute l’Angleterre. C’est d’ailleurs par le Club du Livre de Gauche que fut publié et diffusé en 1937 le premier livre d’Orwell à connaître le succès, Le Quai de Wigan (44 000 exemplaires), un reportage sur la vie des ouvriers dans le nord de l’Angleterre11. Cela n’empêcha pas Orwell de combattre vigoureusement la ligne « Front populaire » défendue à cette époque par Gollancz et par le Club du Livre de Gauche. Orwell y voyait une stratégie visant à placer le mouvement ouvrier européen sous la coupe des partis communistes, donc à le subordonner aux exigences de la politique extérieure de l’Union soviétique, et, par conséquent, à stériliser toutes ses potentialités révolutionnaires.

Bowling, l’homme ordinaire, assiste donc à une conférence de dénonciation du fascisme et de Hitler prononcée par un propagandiste et activiste officiel du Front populaire, « un type venu de Londres ». Mais il n’y entend que des mots vides et de la haine. L’orateur lui-même est creux, hormis sa haine. « Vous connaissez le refrain. Ces types-là peuvent vous le moudre pendant des heures, comme un gramophone. Tournez la manivelle, pressez le bouton, et ça y est. Démocratie, fascisme, démocratie. Je trouvais quand même un certain intérêt à l’observer. Un petit homme assez minable, chauve et blanc comme un linge, debout sur l’estrade, à lâcher des slogans. Qu’est-ce qu’il fait là ? Ouvertement, de façon délibérée, il attise la haine. Il se démène pour vous faire haïr certains étrangers qu’il appelle fascistes. Drôle de chose, je me disais, être “M. Untel, l’antifasciste bien connu”. Drôle d’affaire, l’antifascisme. Ce type, je suppose qu’il gagne sa croûte en écrivant des livres contre Hitler. Qu’est-ce qu’il faisait avant Hitler ? Et qu’est-ce qu’il fera si Hitler disparaît ? […] Il essaie d’attiser la haine chez ceux qui l’écoutent, mais ce n’est rien à côté de la haine qu’il éprouve personnellement. […] Si vous le fendiez en deux pour l’ouvrir, tout ce que vous y trouveriez ce serait démocratie-fascisme-démocratie. Ce serait intéressant de connaître la vie privée d’un type pareil. Mais a-t-il seulement une vie privée ? Ou se répand-il d’estrade en estrade, en attisant la haine ? Peut-être même rêve-t-il en slogans ? […] Je vis la vision qui était la sienne. […] Ce qu’il voit […], c’est une image de lui-même frappant des visages avec une clé anglaise, des visages fascistes, bien entendu. […] Frappe ! Au beau milieu ! Les os se brisent comme une coquille d’œuf, et le visage de tout à l’heure n’est plus qu’un gros pâté de confiture de fraise. […] C’est ce qu’il a en tête, qu’il dorme ou qu’il veille, et plus il y pense, plus il aime ça. Et tout est très bien du moment que les visages écrabouillés sont des visages fascistes. C’est ce que vous pouviez entendre au son même de sa voix.12 »

On ne saurait soupçonner Orwell de faiblesse à l’égard du fascisme : dès décembre 1936, il partit le combattre en Espagne les armes à la main, et la balle qui, en mai 1937, lui traversa la gorge et faillit lui coûter la vie venait d’une tranchée fasciste. Orwell-Bowling déteste donc le fascisme au moins autant que le propagandiste à la tribune. Mais il ne le déteste pas de la même manière. Et la manière ici est essentielle. Il le déteste comme un homme ordinaire, pas comme un intellectuel activiste. Qu’est-ce qu’Orwell-Bouwling perçoit d’insupportable et même de terrifiant chez le professionnel de l’antifascisme ? Le fonctionnement mécanique de son langage. Son discours et ses mots ont perdu tout contact avec le monde ordinaire. Ils ont même vampirisé son esprit et s’y sont installés à demeure en se substituant à son expérience. Dès lors, leur contenu importe moins que le pouvoir qu’ils lui donnent sur ceux à qui il s’adresse. Ses mots sont devenus les instruments d’une violence qu’il exerce à l’égard des autres. Mais elle opère aussi sur lui-même puisqu’il n’éprouve plus qu’une seule émotion : la haine. Bien qu’il se réclame de la démocratie, le propagandiste antifasciste a déjà quelque chose de l’intellectuel totalitaire.

II —

L’opposé du l’homme ordinaire en effet est l’homme totalitaire, c’est-à-dire l’individu qui est dépossédé de sa capacité d’exercer son jugement de manière indépendante, et du même coup de sa capacité d’éprouver tout l’éventail des sentiments ordinaires. C’est ce qu’annonce au héros de 1984 l’intellectuel dirigeant qui le torture : « Jamais plus tu ne seras capable d’un sentiment humain ordinaire (ordinary human feeling). Tout sera mort en toi. Tu ne seras plus jamais capable d’amour, d’amitié, de joie de vivre, de rire, de curiosité, de courage ou d’intégrité. Tu seras creux. Nous allons te presser jusqu’à ce que tu sois vide, puis nous te remplirons de nous-mêmes.13 »

Il importe de bien comprendre ici que l’adjectif « totalitaire » ne s’applique pas seulement pour Orwell à des régimes et à des mouvements politiques mais à des idées et mécanismes intellectuels qui sont partout à l’œuvre dans le monde moderne. Comme l’explique bien James Conant, « tel qu’[Orwell] l’emploie, le terme “totalitarisme” désigne des stratégies (à la fois pratiques et intellectuelles) qui […] sont appelées ainsi parce qu’elles ont pour but de parvenir à un contrôle total de la pensée, de l’action et des sentiments humains14 ». On observera que cet usage du terme « totalitaire » est conforme à celui de son inventeur probable, le libéral antifasciste italien Giovanni Amendola, qui écrivait en avril 1923 : « Le fascisme ne vise pas tant à gouverner l’Italie qu’à monopoliser le contrôle des consciences italiennes. Il ne lui suffit pas de posséder le pouvoir : il veut posséder la conscience privée de tous les citoyens, il veut la “conversion” des Italiens.15 » L’usage orwellien du terme « totalitaire », poursuit Conant, « ne recouvre pas seulement des formes de régimes politiques mais aussi des types de pratiques et d’institutions plus envahissantes et plus spécifiques (diverses pratiques journalistiques comptent parmi ses exemples favoris). Mais par-dessus tout, Orwell applique ce terme aux idées des intellectuels – et pas seulement à celles qui ont cours dans […] les “pays totalitaires” mais à des idées qui circulent dans tout le monde industriel moderne16 ».

Quelles idées ?

La réponse d’Orwell est claire : les idées qui sont capables de briser notre relation au monde ordinaire. Ce qui rend une idée totalitaire, ce n’est pas son contenu particulier (rien n’est plus opposé quant à leurs contenus respectifs que les idées fascistes et les idées communistes) mais son fonctionnement, ou, plus exactement, sa capacité à fonctionner comme une arme pour détruire l’homme ordinaire. Aucun régime ou mouvement totalitaire n’a jamais proclamé que deux et deux font cinq. Ce serait une croyance aussi absurde que peu efficace. Mais si Orwell en fait le paradigme de l’idée totalitaire, c’est que l’absurdité même de son contenu fait mieux ressortir sa fonction première : priver les individus de tout usage de leur propre entendement (pour parler comme Kant) ou de tout usage de leurs propres concepts (pour parler comme Wittgenstein et Cavell). Si « deux et deux font quatre » n’est pas vrai, ou s’il n’est pas vrai que les pierres sont dures, alors je ne sais plus ce que veut dire le mot « vrai », et je ne peux plus l’utiliser.

Il convient de remarquer ici que, pour Orwell, la possibilité d’implanter des dogmes totalitaires irrationnels dans un esprit dépend de la perméabilité de celui-ci aux arguments du scepticisme philosophique. Il y a ainsi dans 1984 un moment sceptique où Winston se dit à lui-même : « Le Parti finirait par annoncer que deux et deux font cinq et il faudrait le croire. Il était inéluctable que, tôt ou tard, il fasse cette déclaration. La logique de sa position l’exigeait. Ce n’était pas seulement la validité de l’expérience mais l’existence même d’une réalité extérieure qui était tacitement niée par sa philosophie. L’hérésie des hérésies était le sens commun. Et ce qui était terrifiant, ce n’était pas qu’ils vous tuent si vous pensiez autrement, mais que peut-être ils avaient raison. Car, après tout, comment pouvons-nous savoir que deux et deux font quatre ? Ou qu’il y a une force de gravitation ? Ou que le passé est immuable ? Si le passé et le monde extérieur n’existent que dans l’esprit et si l’esprit lui-même peut être contrôlé – alors quoi ?17 » De manière remarquable, Winston ne va échapper à cette menace sceptique, qui le rend vulnérable aux arguments des intellectuels du Parti, que par un raffermissement soudain de sa confiance en lui-même. « Mais non ! Son courage lui sembla soudain suffisant pour s’affermir de lui-même (to stiffen of its own accord).18 » Cette confiance en lui ne le quittera plus, jusqu’au moment où la torture en brisant son corps laissera son esprit définitivement sans défense face à la dialectique destructrice d’O’Brien. Comme l’a clairement vu le philosophe américain Stanley Cavell, la résistance au scepticisme (et donc au dogmatisme) n’est pas affaire de connaissance théorique ou d’argument philosophique mais de reconnaissance ou d’acceptation du monde ordinaire. « Ce que laisse entendre le scepticisme, c’est que, comme nous n’avons aucun moyen de nous assurer que le monde existe, sa présence à nous-même ne relève pas du connaître. Le monde doit être accepté.19 » Ce qu’Orwell décrit comme la passivité de l’homme ordinaire n’est ainsi rien d’autre que son acceptation du monde ordinaire.

À l’inverse, les intellectuels ont une forte tendance à ne pas se reconnaître comme des hommes ordinaires, c’est-à-dire à ne pas reconnaître la part écrasante de l’ordinaire dans leurs existences.

Dans sa recension, en 1936, de Printemps noir d’Henry Miller, Orwell se demande pourquoi « la fiction anglaise de haut niveau est écrite la plupart du temps par des lettrés sur des lettrés pour des lettrés. […] Les livres sur des gens ordinaires qui se comportent d’une manière ordinaire sont rarissimes parce qu’il faut pour les écrire quelqu’un qui soit capable de se placer à l’intérieur et à l’extérieur de l’homme ordinaire (ordinary man) – tel Joyce simultanément à l’intérieur et à l’extérieur de Bloom. Mais cela revient à admettre qu’on est soi-même, les neuf dixièmes du temps, une personne ordinaire (an ordinary person), chose qu’aucun intellectuel ne veut justement s’avouer.20 » C’est le problème qu’il pose dans son roman Et vive l’aspidistra ! où un jeune poète fauché met toute son énergie à rater sa vie par refus de l’ordinaire21.

Bien qu’Orwell ne le dise pas expressément, cette difficulté des intellectuels à s’assumer comme des gens ordinaires est évidemment liée à leur rapport au langage. L’intellectuel est, par définition, l’homme des mots, l’homme qui vit par les mots, dans les mots, et dont le rapport au monde passe davantage par les mots que par le regard, l’action ou plus généralement l’expérience. Si le scepticisme, au sens où l’entend Cavell, « est la faculté, que possède et désire quiconque possède le langage, de s’exiler, de s’excommunier de la communauté qui, par consensus ou consentement mutuel, fonde l’existence du langage22 », les intellectuels sont plus vulnérables au scepticisme que les gens ordinaires. Ils peuvent alors, à la manière de Descartes, s’enfermer dans leur « poêle » pour douter de l’existence du monde extérieur et même de celle de leur propre corps, en utilisant les mots, coupés de leur usage ordinaire, dans des méditations métaphysiques. Mais ils peuvent aussi les faire fonctionner, tout aussi coupés du monde ordinaire, comme des instruments de déformation de la réalité (dans la propagande, par exemple) et comme des instruments d’exercice du pouvoir sur les esprits. Une des leçons de 1984 est que ces deux usages ne sont pas sans rapport l’un avec l’autre, et que des arguments produits dans les jeux apparemment inoffensifs de la spéculation peuvent, quand ils sont maniés par des intellectuels de pouvoir, devenir de puissants moyens de destruction de la liberté de penser. Par exemple, pour convaincre Winston que le Parti peut se rendre maître du passé, O’Brien utilise l’arsenal des arguments classiques de l’idéalisme qui tendent à prouver que le passé n’existe pas en tant que tel, mais seulement dans les archives et dans l’esprit des hommes.

Il vaut mieux ne pas oublier que le pouvoir sur les esprits est un pouvoir intellectuel et qu’il est exercé par des intellectuels. C’est pourquoi il est essentiel dans l’économie de 1984 qu’O’Brien, l’adversaire de Winston, celui qui finira par le briser intellectuellement, affectivement et moralement, soit lui-même un intellectuel, et que les séances de torture de la troisième partie du roman soient entrecoupées de discussions philosophiques où il l’emporte à tout coup. O’Brien n’est pas un intellectuel au service d’une classe dominante. La caste dominante, c’est lui.

III —

Selon Orwell, en effet, le totalitarisme est le rêve secret de l’intelligentsia.

Dans un essai intitulé « James Burnham et l’ère des organisateurs » qui date de mai 1946, c’est-à-dire de l’époque où il entreprend d’écrire 1984, Orwell met en lumière le lien qui existe entre les prédictions de Burnham – selon lesquelles le pouvoir dans les sociétés modernes va passer des propriétaires capitalistes aux organisateurs (aux managers) – et l’attirance d’une fraction non négligeable des intellectuels anglais pour la Russie de Staline (attirance d’autant plus étrange à première vue que le communisme et le stalinisme n’en ont exercé que très peu sur la classe ouvrière anglaise). « La théorie de Burnham n’est qu’une variante […] du culte de la puissance qui exerce une telle emprise sur les intellectuels. Le communisme en est une variante plus courante, du moins en Angleterre. Si l’on étudie le cas des personnes qui, tout en ayant une idée de la véritable nature du régime soviétique, sont fermement russophiles, on constate que, dans l’ensemble, elles appartiennent à cette classe des “organisateurs” à laquelle Burnham consacre ses écrits. En fait, ce ne sont pas des “organisateurs” au sens étroit, mais des scientifiques, des techniciens, des enseignants, des bureaucrates, des politiciens de métier : de manière générale, des représentants des couches moyennes qui se sentent brimés par un système qui est encore partiellement aristocratique, et qui ont soif de pouvoir et de prestige. Ils se tournent vers l’URSS et y voient – ou croient y voir – un système qui élimine la classe supérieure, maintient la classe ouvrière à sa place et confère un pouvoir illimité à des gens qui leur sont très semblables. C’est seulement après que le régime soviétique est devenu manifestement totalitaire que les intellectuels anglais ont commencé à s’y intéresser en grand nombre. L’intelligentsia britannique russophile désavouerait Burnham, et pourtant il formule en réalité son vœu secret : la destruction de la vieille version égalitaire du socialisme et l’avènement d’une société hiérarchisée où l’intellectuel puisse enfin s’emparer du fouet.23 »

On trouve sans doute ici l’explication d’une caractéristique importante et souvent négligée du type de totalitarisme décrit dans 1984 : le contrôle des esprits et l’endoctrinement permanents n’y concernent que les membres du Parti, les organisateurs au sens large. Tous les autres, les prolétaires, soit 85 % de la population, sont considérés comme « des inférieurs naturels, qui doivent être tenus en état de dépendance, comme les animaux, par l’application de quelques règles simples. Laissés à eux-mêmes comme le bétail dans les plaines de l’Argentine, ils étaient revenus à un style de vie qui leur paraissait naturel selon une sorte de canon ancestral24 ». La société que décrit 1984 n’est ainsi pas tant une parodie du stalinisme – ou d’un mixte de stalinisme et de fascisme comme on le dit souvent – qu’une satire du rêve secret de l’intelligentsia de gauche britannique. Comme l’écrit Judith Shklar, « l’intellectuel qui ne peut pas supporter les intellectuels n’est pas une espèce rare ; mais ce qui singularise Orwell, c’est qu’il a traduit son mépris dans la vision d’une société gouvernée par les objets de son dédain. L’état totalitaire qu’il a imaginé n’est pas tout à fait celui de Staline, non plus que celui d’Hitler. Le Parti Intérieur, qui dispense l’Angsoc et dirige l’aire numéro 1 dans 1984, est composé d’intellectuels radicaux anglo-américains25 ».

Si Orwell concentre ainsi l’essentiel de ses critiques sur « les intelligentsias politique et technique, [sur] les maîtres de la vérité idéologique et [sur] ceux du savoir scientifique », c’est parce que, comme le souligne Michael Walzer, il craint qu’« une fois les capitalistes vaincus, ces deux groupes sociaux ne fassent obstacle à une révolution démocratique ou ne l’usurpent »26. La critique d’Orwell, rappelle Walzer, est « une critique interne au socialisme27 », et l’affrontement entre l’intellectuel et l’homme ordinaire passe ainsi à l’intérieur du mouvement socialiste. Rendant compte, en 1938, d’un recueil d’essais du romancier socialiste et d’origine ouvrière Jack Common, Orwell avertit le lecteur qu’il y apprendra « beaucoup moins de choses sur le socialisme en tant que théorie économique que dans le banal manuel de propagande, mais infiniment plus sur le socialisme en tant qu’article de foi et, pourrait-on presque dire, comme mode de vie. […] On entend ici la voix authentique de l’homme ordinaire (the authentic voice of the ordinary man), de cet homme qui introduirait une nouvelle honnêteté (a new decency) dans la gestion des affaires, si seulement il y accédait, au lieu de ne jamais sortir des tranchées, de l’esclavage salarié et de la prison28 ». Il loue l’auteur d’avoir « mis le doigt sur l’une des principales difficultés auxquelles se heurte le mouvement socialiste – à savoir que le mot “socialisme” a pour un travailleur une signification toute différente de celle qu’il revêt aux yeux d’un marxiste originaire de la classe moyenne. Pour ceux qui tiennent effectivement entre leurs mains les destinées du mouvement socialiste, la quasi-totalité de ce qu’un travailleur manuel entend par “socialisme” est soit absurde soit hérétique. […] Les travailleurs manuels acquièrent dans une civilisation machiniste, de par les conditions mêmes dans lesquels ils vivent, un certain nombre de traits de caractère : droiture, imprévoyance, générosité, haine des privilèges. C’est à partir de ces dispositions précises qu’ils forgent leur conception de la société future, au point que l’idée d’égalité fonde la mystique du socialisme prolétarien. C’est là une conception très différente de celle du socialiste de la classe moyenne, qui vénère en Marx un prophète29 ». Ainsi, c’est la mainmise des intellectuels sur le mouvement ouvrier qui explique pourquoi « ce à quoi on assiste chaque fois, c’est à un soulèvement prolétarien très vite canalisé et trahi par les malins qui se trouvent au sommet, et donc à la naissance d’une nouvelle classe dirigeante. Ce qui ne se réalise jamais, c’est l’égalité30 ».

IV —

Orwell n’est pas ouvriériste. D’abord, l’idée d’attribuer à la classe ouvrière, parce qu’elle est la classe exploitée, un rôle dirigeant ou messianique est totalement étrangère à Orwell. Et surtout, les dispositions morales qu’il reconnaît aux ouvriers ordinaires – droiture, générosité, haine des privilèges, soif d’égalité – ne sont pas spécifiquement ouvrières : elles relèvent de l’honnêteté commune, de ce qu’il appelle lui-même la common decency : cette morale déclarée “bourgeoise” par les intellectuels de gauche et, à ce titre, décriée par eux – morale qui est simplement celle des gens ordinaires.

Dans son essai sur Dickens, qui est un de ses chefs-d’œuvre, Orwell exalte ce qu’il tient pour « un des traits caractéristiques de la culture populaire occidentale. Il est présent dans les contes et les chansons humoristiques, dans des figures mythiques comme Mickey Mouse ou Popeye (deux avatars de Jack le Tueur de Géants), dans l’histoire du socialisme ouvrier. […] C’est le sentiment qu’il faut toujours être du côté de l’opprimé, prendre le parti du faible contre le fort. [… L]’homme ordinaire (the common man) vit toujours dans l’univers psychologique de Dickens, [alors que] la plupart des intellectuels, pour ne pas dire tous, se sont ralliés à une forme de totalitarisme ou à une autre. D’un point de vue marxiste ou fasciste, la quasi-totalité des valeurs défendues par Dickens peuvent être assimilées à la “morale bourgeoise” et honnies à ce titre. Mais pour ce qui est des conceptions morales, il n’y a rien de plus “bourgeois” que la classe ouvrière anglaise. Les gens ordinaires (the ordinary people), dans les pays occidentaux, n’ont pas encore accepté l’univers mental du “réalisme” et de la politique de la Force. […] Dickens a su exprimer sous une forme comique, schématique et par là même mémorable, l’honnêteté native de l’homme ordinaire (the native decency of the common man). Et il est important que, sous ce rapport, des gens de toutes sortes puissent être décrits comme “ordinaires” (“common”). Dans un pays tel que l’Angleterre, il existe, par-delà la division des classes, une certaine unité de culture. Tout au long de l’ère chrétienne, et plus nettement encore après la Révolution française, le monde occidental a été hanté par les idées de liberté et d’égalité. Ce ne sont que des idées, mais elles ont pénétré toutes les couches de la société. On voit partout subsister les plus atroces injustices, cruautés, mensonges, snobismes, mais il est peu de gens qui puissent contempler tout cela aussi froidement qu’un propriétaire d’esclaves romains, par exemple31 ».

Cet éloge de la common decency, de l’honnêteté commune, appelle quelques remarques.

Bien qu’Orwell la dise « native », au sens où elle ne découle pas d’un code moral explicite ni de prescriptions enseignées comme telles, l’honnêteté commune est un héritage historique. Elle était inconnue du propriétaire d’esclaves romain et Orwell l’associe au christianisme et à la Révolution française. Mais si elle est apparue dans l’histoire, elle peut également en disparaître. Le totalitarisme n’est rien d’autre que la tendance à la liquidation de l’honnêteté commune – tendance méthodiquement et systématiquement mise en œuvre par certains courants et régimes politiques, mais tendance inscrite comme une possibilité dans la structure même des sociétés contemporaines.

32 Ibid., p. 663.

La common decency a pénétré toutes les classes de la société. Elle n’a pas aboli celles-ci, bien évidemment, pas plus qu’elle n’a aboli la lutte des classes. Mais elle constitue un ensemble de dispositions et d’exigences à partir desquelles des hommes appartenant à des classes différentes, voire antagonistes, peuvent, pourvu qu’ils le veuillent vraiment, partager quelque chose de leurs existences.

On peut aller plus loin : c’est cette honnêteté commune qui est au principe du projet socialiste d’abolition de la domination de classe et des différences de classe. Orwell ne dit pas comme Engels : faisons d’abord la révolution ; alors, dans les nouvelles conditions économiques et sociales émergera une humanité nouvelle et par conséquent une morale nouvelle que nous sommes incapables aujourd’hui d’anticiper. Orwell dit plutôt : nous savons tous parfaitement ce qu’est l’honnêteté commune ; faisons la révolution pour abolir les barrières de classe qui l’offensent en permanence et qui empêchent qu’elle soit la base effective de la vie sociale. Aucune révolution démocratique ne saurait nous dispenser de l’honnêteté commune. Celle-ci est même la condition sans laquelle la révolution ne saurait être démocratique et aboutira au remplacement d’une classe dirigeante par une autre. « Ce qui me fait peur avec l’intelligentsia moderne, c’est son incapacité à se rendre compte que la société humaine doit avoir pour base l’honnêteté commune (common decency), quelles que puissent être ses formes politiques et économiques.32 »

33 Ibid., tome III, p. 284.

En effet, l’intelligentsia moderne s’est coupée de ce socle à la fois historique et humain qu’est l’honnêteté commune. Fascinée par la politique de la force, elle est devenue antidémocratique en politique et « réaliste », c’est-à-dire cynique, en morale. Orwell appelle « réalisme » « la doctrine qui veut que la force prime le droit », et il voit dans « la montée du “réalisme” […] le grand événement de l’histoire intellectuelle de notre époque »33.

33Les effets moralement corrupteur de ce réalisme, Orwell ne les discerne pas seulement dans la presse ou les écrits politiques mais dans la littérature et jusque dans la poésie. À propos d’un poème d’Auden intitulé Spain, il dit que c’est à son avis « une des seules choses à peu près convenables inspirées par la guerre d’Espagne ».

Demain, pour la jeunesse, les poètes explosant comme des bombes,

Les promenades autour du lac, les semaines d’étroite communion ;

Demain les courses de vélo

À travers les banlieues par les soirs d’été : mais aujourd’hui la lutte.

Aujourd’hui l’inévitable montée des chances de mourir,

Le nécessaire assassinat et sa culpabilité assumée

Aujourd’hui le gaspillage de ses forces

Dans des tracts éphémères et des meetings rasants.

Mais il en donne le commentaire ironique suivant : « La deuxième strophe représente une sorte de croquis sur le vif de la journée d’un “bon militant”. Le matin, un ou deux assassinats politiques, dix minutes d’interlude pour “étouffer le remords bourgeois”, puis un déjeuner rapide et un après-midi plus une soirée occupés à écrire des slogans sur les murs et à distribuer des tracts. Tout cela est très édifiant. Mais remarquez l’expression “le nécessaire assassinat (necessary murder)” : elle ne peut avoir été employée que par quelqu’un pour qui l’assassinat est tout au plus un mot. En ce qui me concerne, je ne parlerais pas aussi légèrement de l’assassinat. Il se trouve que j’ai vu quantité de corps d’hommes assassinés – je ne dis pas tués au combat, mais bien assassinés. J’ai donc quelque idée de ce qu’est un assassinat – la terreur, la haine, les gémissements des parents, les autopsies, le sang, les odeurs. Pour moi, l’assassinat doit être évité. C’est aussi l’opinion des gens ordinaires. […] Le type d’amoralisme de M. Auden est celui des gens qui s’arrangent toujours pour n’être pas là quand on appuie sur la détente.34 »

L’importance de cette page tient à la relation étroite qu’elle établit entre la fascination des intellectuels pour la puissance et la corruption du langage : l’une et l’autre découlent de la perte de l’ordinaire.

V —

Comment un poète de l’envergure d’Auden – mais on pourrait poser la même question pour Aragon – a-t-il pu être attiré vers le « réalisme » et trahir ainsi les valeurs libérales qui sont la condition d’existence d’une littérature authentique ? « Comment des écrivains ont-ils pu être attirés par une forme de socialisme qui rend impossible toute honnêteté intellectuelle ?35 »

C’est la question que pose Orwell dans un long essai publié en 1940 et intitulé « Dans le ventre de la baleine », où il analyse la littérature anglaise de l’entre-deux-guerres et, plus particulièrement, la différence quant à leur rapport à la société et à la politique entre les écrivains des années 1920 (Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, entre autres) et ceux des années 1930 (Auden et Spender notamment). Sa réponse est qu’en 1930 la crise morale et spirituelle de la société anglaise (et de la civilisation occidentale) était telle que les fonctions et les engagements habituels des intellectuels, ceux par lesquels ils étaient traditionnellement reliés à la communauté nationale, avaient perdu toute signification. Orwell lui-même a vécu cette crise. Né en 1903 et ancien élève d’Eton, il a démissionné en 1927 des fonctions d’officier de police qu’il exerçait depuis cinq ans en Birmanie parce qu’il a pris conscience que l’Empire britannique exalté par Kipling n’était en réalité qu’un sordide système d’exploitation économique, totalement inhumain où, comme le dit un personnage de son roman Une histoire birmane, « les fonctionnaires maintiennent les Birmans à terre pendant que les hommes d’affaires leur font les poches ». Mais il est resté malgré tout profondément attaché à l’Angleterre, alors que beaucoup d’intellectuels de sa génération se sont cherché une autre patrie qu’ils ont cru trouver dans la Russie soviétique.

« En 1930, il n’y avait aucune activité, sauf peut-être la recherche scientifique, les arts et l’engagement politique de gauche à laquelle puisse croire un individu conscient. La civilisation occidentale était au plus bas de son prestige et le “désenchantement” était partout. Qui pouvait encore envisager de réussir sa vie dans les carrières traditionnelles de la classe moyenne – en devenant officier, clergyman, agent de change, fonctionnaire aux Indes ou que sais-je encore ? Et que restait-il des valeurs de nos grands-parents ? Le patriotisme, la religion, l’Empire, la famille, le caractère sacré du mariage, la cravate aux couleurs du collège, la naissance, l’éducation, la discipline – tout individu moyennement éduqué pouvait en trois minutes vous démontrer l’inanité de tout cela. Mais qu’obtient-on, en fin de compte, en se débarrassant de choses aussi élémentaires que le patriotisme ou la religion ? On n’est pas pour autant débarrassé du besoin de croire à quelque chose. […] Je ne crois pas qu’il faille aller chercher plus loin les raisons pour lesquelles les jeunes écrivains des années 1930 se sont rassemblés sous le houlette du parti communiste. Il y avait là une Église, une armée, une orthodoxie, une discipline. Il y avait là une Patrie et – en tout cas depuis 1935 ou à peu près – un Führer. Tous les attachements profonds et toutes les superstitions dont l’esprit avait apparemment fait litière pouvaient revenir en force sous le plus mince des déguisements. Le patriotisme, l’Empire, la religion, la gloire militaire – tout cela était contenu dans un seul mot : “Russie”. […] Dans ces conditions, le “communisme de l’intellectuel anglais apparaît comme un phénomène assez aisément explicable : c’est le patriotisme des déracinés.36 » On peut juger cette explication un peu courte. Elle a toutefois l’immense mérite de soulever une question importante et difficile : si le monde ordinaire est le monde de mon expérience, il ne peut pas être un monde abstrait où hommes, choses, lieux et coutumes sont interchangeables ; c’est nécessairement un monde concret et particulier : un pays ou une région, une langue, une culture, des institutions, une histoire, etc.

Si dans Le Lion et la licorne, un petit livre qu’il publie en 1941 et qui porte comme sous-titre Socialisme et génie anglais, Orwell exalte le mode de vie anglais (de la « bonne tasse de thé »jusqu’aux emblèmes de la royauté) et s’il y conjugue socialisme et patriotisme (qu’il distingue très fermement du nationalisme), ce n’est pas pour concilier artificiellement ses convictions politiques profondes avec l’urgence immédiate de la défense de l’Angleterre. Il l’a proclamé à plusieurs reprises, non sans un brin de provocation : « Aucun révolutionnaire authentique n’a jamais été un internationaliste.37 » En tout cas, il ne s’est jamais reconnu dans l’internationalisme abstrait du communisme qu’il n’a cessé de dénoncer comme un instrument à peine masqué de la politique de puissance soviétique. Et quand, en décembre 1936, il part combattre en Espagne, il ne le fait pas en activiste de la révolution mondiale mais comme un Anglais socialiste, solidaire des Espagnols antifascistes ; et c’est dans cet esprit qu’il écrira Hommage à la Catalogne.

Le patriotisme assumé d’Orwell n’est sûrement pas sans rapport avec l’imperméabilité de la classe populaire anglaise au fascisme comme au stalinisme, aussi avec l’imperméabilité de la classe dirigeante anglaise au fascisme. Dans sa « Lettre de Londres » à la Partisan Review de juillet-août 1941, il écrit : « Ce type de climat où vous n’osez pas parler politique de peur que la Gestapo ne surprenne vos paroles, ce climat est tout bonnement impensable en Angleterre. Toute tentative de l’instaurer sera brisée dans l’œuf, non pas tant par une résistance consciente que par l’incapacité des gens ordinaires (ordinary people)à comprendre ce qu’on attendrait d’eux.38 » Une fois encore, Orwell table moins sur la lucidité de George Bowling que sur sa passivité. Quant à la classe dirigeante, dont il craignait avant guerre qu’elle ne profite du déclenchement des hostilités pour faire basculer le pays dans un anglo-fascisme comparable à l’austro-fascisme d’un Dollfuss, il doit reconnaître qu’elle reste fondamentalement attachée au libéralisme. « La classe dirigeante britannique croit à la démocratie et à la liberté individuelle en un sens étroit et quelque peu hypocrite. Mais du moins, elle croit à la lettre de la loi et s’y tiendra parfois même quand elle n’est pas à son avantage. Rien n’indique qu’elle évolue vers une mentalité véritablement fasciste. La Grande-Bretagne peut être fascisée de l’extérieur ou au terme d’une révolution intérieure, mais la vieille classe dirigeante ne peut, à mon sens, être elle-même l’agent d’un totalitarisme véritable.39 »

Les seuls, encore une fois, qui en Angleterre aient été gagné au totalitarisme sont des intellectuels. Dans l’après-guerre, Orwell verra en eux quelque chose comme un parti de l’étranger.

Comme on le voit, le modèle de l’intellectuel ordinaire – de l’intellectuel qui se reconnaît comme un homme ordinaire – se distingue très clairement de celui de l’intellectuel engagé. Celui-ci se vit d’abord comme séparé, puis va rejoindre le combat des autres hommes au nom des valeurs intellectuelles et universelles qui sont les siennes : il court ainsi le risque permanent de se poser comme une autorité dictant aux autres ce qu’ils doivent faire ou assignant à leurs actes un sens qu’il prétend mieux connaître qu’eux-mêmes. L’intellectuel ordinaire, lui, vit les événements et y réagit en homme ordinaire qu’il est et qu’il reconnaît être. Orwell a vécu l’approche de la guerre et la montée des totalitarismes avec les mêmes sentiments et les mêmes réactions que son vendeur d’assurances Georges Bowling. Certes, parce qu’il était un intellectuel, et plus particulièrement un écrivain, il avait la capacité de mettre ses réactions en mots et en idées. Mais il ne prétendait pas pour autant être un porte-parole.

On peut se demander si ce modèle ne constitue pas pour un intellectuel la seule manière d’essayer d’être et de rester un démocrate.

Notes

1 George Orwell, 1984, traduit de l’anglais par Amélie Audiberti, Gallimard “folio”, p. 119. (Cette traduction a été modifiée chaque fois que cela a paru nécessaire.)

2 George Orwell, Essais, articles et lettres, traduit de l’anglais par Anne Krief, Michel Pétris et Jaime Semprun, Ivrea-Encyclopédie des nuissances, tome I, p. 292.

3 Ibid., p. 296.

4 James Conant, « Freedom, Cruelty and Truth : Rorty versus Orwell », in Robert Brandom (dir.), Rorty and his Critics, Blackwell, 2000, p. 299.

5 George Orwell, Essais, articles et lettres, op. cit., tome II, p. 322-325.

6 Ibid., tome I, p. 624.

7 Ibid.

8 George Orwell, Un peu d’air frais (1939), traduit de l’anglais par Richard Prêtre, Ivrea, 1983, p. 210.

9 Ibid., p. 199-200.

10 George Orwell, Essais, articles et lettres, op. cit., tome I, p. 511.

11 Lire John Newsinger, Orwell’s Politics, Palgrave, 1999, p. 32-33 (La Politique selon Orwell, traduit par Bernard Gensane, Agone, à paraître).

12 George Orwell, Un peu d’air frais, op. cit., p. 194-198.

13 George Orwell, 1984, op. cit., p. 362.

14 James Conant, « Freedom, Cruelty and Truth… », art. cit., p. 293.

15 Giovanni Amendola, Il Mondo, 1er avril 1923, cité in Emilio Gentile, Qu’est-ce que le fascisme ? Histoire et interprétation, Gallimard, 2004, p. 112.

16 James Conant, « Freedom, Cruelty and Truth… », art. cit., p. 293.

17 George Orwell, 1984, op. cit., p. 118.

18 Ibid.

19 Stanley Cavell, Le Déni de savoir, traduit de l’anglais par Jean-Pierre Maquerlot, Seuil, p. 152. Sur la philosophie politique de Cavell, on peut lire Sandra Laugier, Recommencer la philosophie. La philosophie américaine aujourd’hui, PUF, 1999, chap. IV et V.

20 George Orwell, Essais, articles et lettres, op. cit., tome I, p. 294.

21 George Orwell, Et vive l’aspidistra ! (1936), traduit de l’anglais par Yvonne Davet, Ivrea, 1982.

22 Stanley Cavell, Le Déni de savoir, op. cit., p. 54.

23 George Orwell, Essais, articles et lettres, op. cit., tome IV, p. 218-219.

24 George Orwell, 1984, op. cit., p. 105

25 Judith Shklar, « Nineteen Eigthy-Four : Should Political Theory Care ? » in Stanley Hoffmann (dir.), Political Thought and Political Thinkers, University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 342-343, cité in James Conant, « Freedom, Cruelty and Truth… », art. cit., p. 329, n. 116.

26 Michael Walzer, « George Orwell’s England », inThe Company of Critics : Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century, Halban, Londres, 1989 ; repris in Graham Holderness, Bryan Loughrey and Nahem Yousaf (dir.), George Orwell, Macmillan, 1998, p. 195.

27 Ibid., p. 196.

28 George Orwell, Essais, articles et lettres, op. cit., tome I, p. 424.

29 Ibid., p. 423.

30 Ibid., p. 424.

31 George Orwell, Essais, articles et lettres, op. cit., tome I, p. 573-574.

32 Ibid., p. 663.

33 Ibid., tome III, p. 284.

34 Ibid., tome I, p. 643-644.

35 Ibid., p. 641.

36 Ibid., p. 642.

37 Ibid., tome II, p. 133.

38 Ibid., p. 152-153.

39 Ibid.

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Jean-Jacques Rosat, « Quand les intellectuels s’emparent du fouet », revue Agone, 34 | 2005, [En ligne], mis en ligne le 23 octobre 2008. URL : http://revueagone.revues.org/106. Consulté le 08 avril 2012.

Auteur

Jean-Jacques Rosat

Voir aussi:

George Orwell patriote (I)

Bernard Gensane

8 oct. 2017

L’auteur de 1984, l’un des romans politiques les plus sombres du XXème siècle, était un grand optimiste, amoureux de son pays, à l’aise dans son époque, même si, dans ses fantasmes, il aurait préféré vivre au XVIIIème siècle en « joyeux pasteur ». Il conçut son existence comme une œuvre, et son œuvre, d’abord comme la quête d’une écriture (raison pour laquelle j’ai sous-titré mon livre sur Orwell “ vie et écriture ” : (George Orwell, vie et écriture), Nancy, Presses Universitaires de Nancy, 1994). Son inclinaison profonde en tant que personnage public ne fut pas la politique mais la morale. Lorsqu’on étudie l’un des aspects de sa pensée, il faut constamment avoir à l’esprit ces paramètres. Nous sommes en présence d’un homme heureux, d’un écrivain poursuivant, à sa manière, un objectif de modernité, d’un citoyen qui attribuait au peuple anglais des vertus cardinales : gentillesse, loyauté, amour de la tradition, decency (décence, politesse, bonne mœurs), et ce don, pour lui apanage de ses compatriotes, de ne pas se laisser impressionner par les grands hommes, comme Napoléon, Churchill ou Staline.

Raymond Williams a dit d’Orwell qu’il était un auteur bien anglais, éminemment insulaire et cocardier (Orwell, Londres, 1971). On verra que son attitude vis-à-vis de sa patrie a évolué au gré des circonstances personnelles et historiques. Ce qui ne changera jamais, c’est la prééminence du ressenti, de l’esthétique et de la morale, alliée à une conscience aiguë de la rhétorique, elle-même vécue comme une modalité politique du discours et de l’écriture. Ainsi, à l’automne 1940, au début de la guerre, les alliances se nouent et se dénouent. Orwell se demande si le conflit sera purement impérialiste et s’il faudra faire front commun avec la bourgeoisie. Tout en se posant ces questions d’importance, il ne peut s’empêcher d’écouter ses voix et de moraliser : « La nuit qui a précédé le Pacte germano-soviétique, j’ai rêvé que la guerre avait commencé. Ce rêve m’a appris que j’étais de tout cœur patriote, que je soutiendrais la guerre et que je combattrais si possible. Tout cela est enfantin, bien sûr, mais je préfère avoir reçu ce type d’éducation que de ressembler aux intellectuels de gauche qui sont tellement ‘ éclairés ’ qu’ils ne peuvent comprendre les émotions les plus ordinaires. »

L’enfance d’Orwell fut marquée, pour ce qui nous concerne ici, par la catastrophe du Titanic. Dans un texte de résistance consensuel, très “ union nationale ” de 1940 (“My Country Right and Left ”, “ Mon pays, “ de droite et de gauche ” ou “ qu’il ait raison ou tord ”), Orwell évoque ce traumatisme. Il laisse entendre que l’attachement à une nation découle plus d’un ressenti charnel à des événements isolés mais marquants qu’à de grandes causes ou à une Histoire qui se fait mais qui n’est pas toujours lisible.

En primaire, Orwell eut beau détester la discipline sadique des écoles primaires privées, les preparatory schools, il n’en admit pas moins, par la suite, que les grandes victoires anglaises (au diable les régiments écossais ou gallois !) furent préparées sur les terrains de cricket des écoles privées, la guerre n’étant qu’une forme suprême du sport où il est impossible de tricher (Orwell fut cependant l’un des premiers à dénoncer la concomitance entre sport et nationalisme dans un article visionnaire de 1945, “ The Sporting Spirit ”). Á Eton, il reçut sa part d’enseignement, de culture militariste. Il sut prendre du recul par rapport à cette vision du monde, ce qui ne l’empêcha pas de s’enrôler au sortir de l’enseignement secondaire, alors que rien ni personne ne l’y contraignait, dans la police impériale en Birmanie. Or c’est bel et bien durant sa plus tendre enfance que le futur écrivain avait été imprégné d’idéologie belliciste, d’une philosophie portant au plus haut niveau les valeurs de défense sacrée de la patrie, avec comme corollaire une dépréciation de l’ennemi.

Orwell va se forger une conscience politique dans les années trente, non sans hésitations et revirements. Contre sa classe d’origine, la bourgeoisie impérialiste, et contre lui-même, en tirant parti de la névrose de culpabilité qui le taraude depuis l’enfance. Pour ce faire, il lui faudra passer par la France et l’immersion dans des franges défavorisées de la classe ouvrière, le Kent des travailleurs agricoles exploités et le Londres des clochards (voir son premier ouvrage, une biofiction : Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933. En français, Dans la dèche à Paris et à Londres). C’est qu’Orwell est de ces écrivains qui sont allés au-delà de leur monde et qui, de retour, ont adopté le regard du Persan : « Quand vous rentrez en Angleterre après un voyage à l’étranger, vous avez immédiatement la sensation de respirer un air différent […]. La bière est plus amère, les pièces de monnaie sont plus lourdes, l’herbe est plus verte, les publicités sont plus criardes. […] Alors l’immensité de l’Angleterre vous engloutit et vous perdez pour un instant de vue que la nation dans son ensemble possède un seul caractère identifiable. » Toute la complexité du patriotisme d’Orwell tient dans ces phrases. Il est capable d’observer son univers familier de l’extérieur, mais il est aussi terriblement anglo-centré. Cela dit, par delà des évidences assénées de manière aussi désarmante, il faut retenir qu’avant de s’émerveiller devant les « visages doux et noueux » de ses compatriotes, leurs « mauvaises dents » et leurs « bonnes manières », le « clic-clac des sabots dans les villes du Lancashire », Orwell avait su observer l’Angleterre à partir de la connaissance qu’il avait de son empire : c’est parce qu’il avait vécu au contact des masses exploitées d’Extrême-Orient qu’il pourrait sympathiser avec le lumpen-proletariat anglais puis avec la classe ouvrière proprement dite, « les victimes symboliques de l’injustice qui jouaient le même rôle en Angleterre que les Birmans en Birmanie » (1936).

Après la découverte de la condition prolétarienne dans son pays, Orwell part se battre en Espagne, tout simplement parce qu’il faut se dresser contre le fascisme pour laisser une chance au socialisme. Il combat avec courage au sein de la milice internationale du P.O.U.M. (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista), d’inspiration trotskiste, et rencontrera des hommes et femmes conscients, fraternels, tendus ver un objectif, bref l’image inversée des futurs proles de 1984. Il perçoit ces citoyens en armes comme un maillon dans l’immense chaîne fraternelle du genre humain, succédant aux soldats de Verdun, de Waterloo, des Thermopyles, souffrant de la même vermine, vivant et mourant sur des champs de bataille où l’on n’entend jamais chanter les oiseaux (Homage to catalonia, 1938. Version française : La Catalogne libre).

Traumatisé par la défaite des Républicains, par la trahison des staliniens, Orwell va alors traverser une phase de doutes personnels durant laquelle les sentiments pacifistes et internationalistes vont prendre le dessus. D’avoir versé son sang, d’avoir été ainsi “ baptisé ”, autorise un Orwell dégoûté par la guerre à envisager, de 1937 à 1939, un certain cynisme dans la démission face à la menace hitlérienne. Dans sa thèse (“ Orwell : l’engagement ”), Gilbert Bonifias posera que : « Il ne fait […] aucun doute que les événements d’Espagne contribuèrent puissamment à pousser [Orwell]  dans cette direction qui se voulait à la fois révolutionnaire et pacifique », et qu’« il n’est donc pas étonnant de l’entendre proclamer dans ses écrits son opposition à toute guerre avec l’Allemagne et à la formation d’un Front populaire en Angleterre ».

Ainsi, après les années 1936-37 où, choqué par la brutalité de la classe dirigeante, par l’irréalisme des élites de la gauche libérale, il a adopté des comportements extrêmes (vivre dans la crasse chez des logeurs exploiteurs du Lancashire, descendre au fond de la mine, partager le lot des combattants de base en Catalogne), il pressent, vers 1938-1939, que le conflit qui s’annonce sera terrible et il recherche des valeurs modérées. Dans les très nombreuses pages qu’il consacre à l’Angleterre et à son peuple, il offre des images et des concepts de paix (dans son roman de 1938 Coming Up for Air – en français Un peu d’air frais, il fait dire à son narrateur : «Pêcher, c’est le contraire de faire la guerre »), de raison, de stabilité, de juste milieu. Mais pas de médiocrité. Orwell n’aimait pas les comportements petits. Il raille Napoléon se rendant aux Anglais par peur des Prussiens, Ludendorff se cachant derrière des lunettes de soleil ou encore cet empereur romain qui s’était barricadé dans des toilettes (Orwell mourut des années avant que le roi du Maroc Hassan II fasse de même). L’idéal d’Orwell à l’époque, c’est un Sancho Pança qui n’aurait pas peur des bombes mais qui ne se planterait pas poitrail nu face à la mitraille : « Une part de nous veut être un héro ou un saint, mais l’autre moitié c’est ce petit homme gras qui voit très clairement l’avantage qu’il y a à rester en vie. C’est notre moi privé, la voix de notre ventre qui proteste contre notre âme. »

Aux sentiments anti-guerre qui transparaissaient çà et là dans le discours de Homage to Catalonia succède un comportement franchement pacifiste, en particulier durant l’hiver 1938-39, époque où, souffrant gravement des poumons, il réside pour quelques mois à Marrakech. Il pose qu’être pacifiste ce n’est pas forcément vouloir bloquer les réformes sociales. Il s’est forgé un socialisme dont le marxisme n’est pas totalement exclu (dans The Road to Wigan Pier, en particulier. En français, Le Quai de Wigan). Mais progressivement, et cela le mènera jusqu’à la Deuxième Guerre mondiale, il rejette ce qui, au niveau socio-politique, n’est pas, à ses yeux, anglais : le stalinisme, l’internationalisme prolétarien, le fascisme évidemment, mais aussi l’Église Catholique Romaine et tout ce qui s’apparente aux intellectuels de gauche européens. Il moque avec férocité l’îlot de pensée dissidente de ceux qui « vont chercher leurs recettes de cuisine à Paris et leurs idées à Moscou. »  Face aux dangers – Hitler, la guerre, le capitalisme sauvage, l’industrialisation débridée – Orwell va donc partir dans une quête de l’anglicisé  Sa patrie ne trouvera le salut que dans la réaffirmation de ses valeurs fondamentales. Une transformation de la société anglaise – qu’il appelle de ses vœux – ne se fera que dans le respect des traditions. De 1937 à 1940, le projet d’Orwell est d’établir une continuité entre l’Angleterre du présent et celle du passé.

Tout cela n’ira pas sans contradictions ni difficultés.

Plus tard, on verra que le seul moment de vrai bonheur que connaît Winston Smith dans 1984 sont les heures passées avec Julia dans le magasin d’antiquités – lieu ô combien symbolique – qui lui rappelle l’Angleterre d’avant la dictature (2ème partie, chapitre 4). Mais en 1938-9, George Bowling éprouve bien des désillusions. En simplifiant, on pourrait résumer Coming up for Air en disant que cette œuvre est l’image d’une apocalypse qui anéantirait une vision rêvée de l’enfance. Bowling n’idéalise cependant pas la tradition. Le regard qu’il porte vers le passé, le voyage qu’il entreprend vers les lieux de son enfance, lui permettent de se repérer dans le présent, d’essayer de respirer, de se régénérer. Lucide, le personnage expose comment la bourgeoisie anglaise est prisonnière de sa propre idéologie, à quel point la manière de pensée de la middle-class est appauvrissante. Il raille la nostalgie qu’éprouvent les colons revenus des Indes : comme son créateur, mais à l’inverse d’un Kipling, il sait l’illusion de vivre au centre de l’Empire avec les valeurs de la périphérie. Il ne croit pas en l’aptitude des militants – ceux de gauche en particulier qu’il caricature à l’envi – à se mobiliser dans le cadre d’une riposte nationale face à l’ennemi. Il ressent jusque dans ses fibres la possibilité d’une disparition de son pays, avec ses valeurs, sa culture.

Voir de plus:

George Orwell patriote (2)

Bernard Gensane

10 octobre 2017

En 1936, lors de son enquête du côté du Quai de Wigan, Orwell s’était assuré qu’il y avait bien deux Angleterre et il avait fait son choix. Il serait toujours aux côtés de la classe ouvrière contre la bourgeoisie. Vis-à-vis de la working class et des indigents en général, il prendrait donc l’exact contre-pied de Baden Powell, fondateur du mouvement scout, qui les décrivait comme anti-patriotiques et anti-sociaux. En 1940, face au danger totalitaire et à la guerre, Orwell croit de moins en moins en l’urgence, voire en la nécessité, de la révolution nationale ou internationale par la violence, et il souhaite que sa patrie soit une dans la lutte. Alors qu’en 1936 la bourgeoisie, impériale ou non, était responsable de tous les maux, elle est dédouanée en 1940, et Orwell en brosse un portrait bizarrement touchant. Depuis soixante-quinze ans, écrit-il dans Coming Up for Air, la classe dirigeante a perdu de son aptitude à gouverner. Autrefois, dans les colonies, il faisait bon vivre dans le perpétuel été d’avant la guerre des Boers, mais depuis 1920 les fonctionnaires de Whitehall surveillent « chaque pouce de l’Empire » et brident l’initiative. L’horizon impérialiste se rétrécissant, cette bourgeoisie de l’outremer n’a pu se réadapter en métropole. Étant intrinsèquement « moraux », les hommes d’affaires anglais n’ont pu, comme leurs confrères américains (« de vrais bandits ») devenir millionnaires. Et ces malheureux bourgeois, par manque de compétence intellectuelle, n’ont pas sérieusement lutté contre le nazisme dans les années trente car ils n’avaient pas «compris » ce phénomène. Orwell croit d’ailleurs inférer qu’ils n’auraient pas non plus compris le communisme s’il avait frappé à leur porte. Les grands responsables du déclin de l’Empire et de l’essoufflement de la bourgeoisie ne sont pas des gestionnaires surannés à la tête d’un outil de production inefficace se débattant dans un nouveau rapport de forces international défavorable mais, tout simplement, les intellectuels de gauche. Ils ont sapé « le moral des britanniques », ils se sont répandus en attitudes « négatives et récriminatrices » sans faire de « suggestions concrètes ». Et, surtout, ils se sont contentés d’évoluer (ô, surprise, pour des intellectuels !) dans un « monde d’idées ». Mais, Dieu merci, l’Angleterre est désormais, n’en déplaise au Dr Goebbels, une grande famille victorienne, un peu «collet monté », mais unie avec bien peu de « brebis galeuses » en son sein.

Tout en admettant après 1940 que la Home Guard (dont il fit partie) était organisée de telle manière que seuls les riches commandaient, il persiste à croire que la guerre a des vertus égalitaires car elle atténue les antagonismes de classe : « La guerre est le plus formidable facteur de changements. Elle accélère tous les mécanismes, elle efface les différences de surface. Par dessus tout, elle fait comprendre à l’individu qu’il n’est pas tout à fait un individu. »

Qu’auront les Anglais à opposer aux divisions blindées allemandes et à la Luftwaffe? Hormis un potentiel militaire non négligeable et une aide américaine qui viendra forcément, Orwell fait confiance aux qualités du peuple anglais. Tout d’abord, la bonne humeur et la sérénité. Comme Bertrand Russel qui, pour Orwell, incarnait moins l’archétype de l’intellectuel anglais que celui de l’Anglais intelligent, ses compatriotes sauront faire preuve de décence et d’esprit chevaleresque (le mot “intellectual ” est quasiment une insulte outre-Manche ; Orwell utilisait “intelligentsia ”, un mot russe d’origine polonaise, donc un peu barbare). Et puis la solidarité, l’honnêteté, le respect de la légalité feront le reste.

Mais il faut dire que la douceur de vivre que connaissait la classe moyenne avant-guerre avait débouché sur une certaine indolence. Désormais, Orwell est persuadé de la victoire car elle sera celle des gens ordinaires qui auront su se dépasser tout en restant eux-mêmes. Il apprécie que, malgré les circonstances exceptionnelles, les Anglais sont restés civiques, légalistes, respectueux des droits de l’individu, et il aimera que Churchill perde les élections de 1945, preuve que ses compatriotes, gens ordinaires, se méfient des hommes forts trop doués … et trop réactionnaires.

Dans les premiers chapitres de Homage to Catalonia, Orwell avait magnifiquement saisi une lutte révolutionnaire, pensant que l’enthousiasme populaire devait suffire à faire vaincre la révolution. Avec “ The Lion and the Unicorn ” (Le Lion et la licorne), son grand texte théorique sur l’Angleterre en guerre, Orwell propose une synthèse enthousiaste du patriotisme et du socialisme. Ces pages sont contemporaines de la Bataille d’Angleterre : l’heure est au drame et à l’espoir en une victoire à court terme. Bien que nous soyons ici dans un essai franchement politique, le narrateur s’affiche dès la première phrase : Orwell écrit ce texte au moment précis et parce que des avions ennemis lui passent au-dessus de la tête : « Au moment où j’écris, des êtres humains hautement civilisés veulent au-dessus de moi et essaient de me tuer. »

Ce qui est en jeu désormais, ce n’est plus le statu quo social ou la révolution, mais la civilisation ou la barbarie. Mieux vaut Chamberlain que Hitler. Le narrateur de Down and Out in Paris and London avait découvert certains de ses compatriotes dans leur étrangeté. Burmese Days (Tragédie birmane) fleurait bon son exotisme. Dans The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell était allé à la rencontre des ouvrières du textile et des mineurs dans leur différence. Désormais, il va à la recherche des autres dans leur ressemblance avec lui-même et ceux de sa classe d’origine, la frange inférieure de la bonne bourgeoisie (the lower-upper-middle class). Ce qui unit les Anglais, postule-t-il, est plus important que ce qui les sépare. Et il pose également que ce qu’il raillait à la fin de Homage to Catalonia, ces caractéristiques d’une Albion aveugle et assoupie (« les pâtures bien grasses, les hommes coiffés de leur chapeau melon, les bus rouges, les policiers en uniforme bleu ») c’est justement ce qui fait la beauté, mais aussi la force de l’Angleterre éternelle. Il existe un caractère national anglais, comme il existe un patrimoine et une « culture commune » que, bizarrement, comme s’il en avait un peu honte, il délimite par la négative : «Les Anglais sont très différents des autres. Il y a une sorte d’acceptation ambiguë de ce fait dans l’aversion éprouvée par presque tous les étrangers pour notre mode de vie national. Peu d’Européens supportent de vivre en Angleterre, et même les Américains se sentent davantage chez eux en Europe. »

Dans “ The Lion and the Unicorn ”, Orwell avance que l’affaiblissement de l’impérialisme dans les années trente a été provoqué en grande partie par l’intelligentsia de gauche, ce groupe s’étant lui-même renforcée grâce à la stagnation de l’Empire. Il pense qu’une alliance objective s’est nouée entre les colonels en retraite (les “ Blimps ”) pour qui un individu trop intelligent ne pouvait être patriote, et les intellectuels pour qui un patriote ne pouvait décidément pas être intelligent. Ce paradoxe déroutant ne peut surprendre dans la mesure où il venait en bout de chaîne après d’autres considérations tout aussi étonnantes sur les intellectuels. Orwell pose tout d’abord que du pessimisme à une vision réactionnaire des choses il n’y a qu’un pas vite franchi par une fraction importante de la classe dominante. Il estime également qu’il eût été possible de susciter un mouvement pacifiste authentiquement populaire en Angleterre, loin de la « gauche de salon ». Mais, dans les années trente, l’intelligentsia s’est déconsidérée dans des activités indignes, dans le domaine de l’esprit comme dans la politique. Elle s’est coupée du reste de la société en dénigrant systématiquement la civilisation occidentale et en cultivant un sentiment négatif de « désillusion ». La « vraie question », se demande Orwell, n’est pas de savoir pourquoi des bourgeois sont devenus staliniens, mais pourquoi ils ont viré à gauche. A première vue, c’est parce que les puissances de l’Axe menaçaient l’Empire britannique, l’antifascisme et l’impérialisme se rejoignant dans un même combat (dans une correspondance de décembre 1938, il explicitait ce postulat. Il estimait que si un « grand mouvement pro-Arabe » voyait le jour, il serait « fatalement pro-fasciste ».)

C’est à cette époque qu’Orwell va définir petit à petit ce qu’est pour lui l’Anglais idéal. George Bowling, son narrateur de Coming Up For Air, en était une esquisse aux traits assurément appuyés, permettant à l’auteur de considérer avec plus de commisération que jamais tous ceux qui ne correspondaient pas au moule. « Un type comme moi est incapable de ressembler à un gentleman », reconnaissait Bowling sans vraiment le regretter. « Les vêtements que je porte », poursuivait-il, sont «l’uniforme de la tribu ». En peignant cet homme ordinaire, Orwell s’adressait à ceux qui, comme son personnage, cultivaient la nostalgie de leur passé et aspiraient à un socialisme non dogmatique, un peu proudhonien. Petit-bourgeois, Bowling ne prône pas l’émancipation de la femme, il n’a pas de l’amour une approche très romantique, il s’indigne des inégalités sociales et déplore que le salarié se voit privé du produit de son travail par le système capitaliste. Il se méfie de la bureaucratie qui empiète sur la liberté individuelle, tout comme le capitalisme qui, par le système de crédit, empêche le salarié d’être jamais propriétaire. Le monde de Bowling converge avec celui de “ The Lion and the Unicorn ” : « C’est votre civilisation. C’est vous. » Ce monde que je décris, dit Orwell, c’est toujours le vôtre. Que vous l’aimiez ou non, il vous manque dès que vous le quittez. Comme vous, il est moyen, ni le joyau chanté par Shakespeare, ni l’enfer décrit par Goebbels. Vous êtes, nous sommes, les membres d’une famille victorienne empesée, avec son lot inévitable de squelettes dans le placard. Chez nous, les jeunes n’ont pas la parole, ce sont les vieux oncles irresponsables qui monopolisent le pouvoir, mais nous sommes une famille unie, avec sa langue, sa culture, ses souvenirs, son esprit de solidarité. Vous et moi sommes peut-être des médiocres, mais au moins saurons-nous, en vrais patriotes, nous unir face à l’adversité extérieure et débusquer l’ennemi intérieur. Nous pourrons toujours nous arc-bouter sur un impérialisme qui n’est pas à dénigrer en bloc : seule sa dimension morale est à redouter quand il détruit la conscience de l’oppresseur et de l’opprimé.

“ The Lion and the Unicorn ” donne donc une idée assez précise de l’image que se fait alors Orwell de son pays. Ces pages sont un mélange d’observations pénétrantes, de gentilles banalités et de généralisations désarmantes : « Les Anglais ne sont pas doués en matière artistique. Ils ne sont pas aussi musiciens que les Italiens ou les Allemands ; la peinture et la sculpture ne se sont pas développés chez nous comme en Fance. Les Anglais ont en horreur la pensée abstraite. Bien que constituant un peuple somnambule, ils sont capables, au paroxysme d’une crise, de dégainer et d’agir par une espèce d’instinct, à dire vrai un code de conduite compris pratiquement de tous quoique jamais formulé. »

Ce qu’Orwell apprécie alors au premier chef chez ses compatriotes, c’est leur réserve, leur politesse : ils font la queue patiemment dans l’ordre, sans se bousculer. Si les ouvriers ne sont pas toujours très gracieux, du moins font-ils toujours preuve de beaucoup d’attentions. La modération de ses compatriotes invite Orwell à penser que le fascisme ne prendra jamais dans son pays : « les purges hitlériennes n’auraient pu exister en Angleterre », affirme-t-il, sans s’interroger le moins du monde sur les conditions historiques qui ont permis à la barbarie de se déchaîner au pays de Goethe. Les Anglais sont trop raisonnables, ils croient trop en la justice pour se laisser entraîner dans le vertige de la terreur et des abus de pouvoir. L’Angleterre est protégée par ses traditions et son histoire, par son essence. La vision d’Orwell est donc très déterministe. La société peut changer, mais jusqu’à un certain point : « on n’obtient pas un panais avec une graine de navet ». Orwell pouvait bien, à l’orée de la guerre, énoncer de telles banalités, le fait est là : le pays n’a pas plié et les traîtres ne furent qu’une poignée. Un solide pragmatisme, une volonté exceptionnelle de croire en soi et de vaincre ont permis de tenir. L’Angleterre a gagné la guerre parce que les vertus typiques chères à Orwell n’étaient pas l’apanage de la classe dirigeante. En était dépositaire le peuple, constitué à ses yeux par la classe ouvrière consciente et la frange inférieure de la bourgeoisie. Et, à long terme, seul cet ensemble social saurait, selon lui, résister à l’envahissement de la culture populaire par le modernisme réducteur et nivelant.

L’essence, la force du patriotisme d’Orwell lui permirent durant deux décennies de tous les dangers de retrouver des valeurs stables, une morale en politique, et d’alimenter son instinct de conservation à la source de son amour pour son pays. Ce patriotisme n’était pas aveugle. L’honnêteté intellectuelle d’Orwell (certes relative), son pessimisme lucide, son humour froid au second degré le faisaient souvent passer pour un prophète de malheur. Ce n’est pas parce qu’il était fondamentalement patriote qu’il aimait et défendait l’Angleterre, mais c’est parce que l’amour de son pays était quintessencié qu’il était patriote. Parce qu’il souhaitait, vers 1940, un consensus politique national et que ce que l’Europe proposait (des régimes forts ou des démocraties en déliquescence) ne lui convenait pas, il soutiendrait son pays de droite comme de gauche (« My country Right and Left »), l’Angleterre de Chamberlain pouvant évoluer à court terme vers un changement radical de société. Orwell établissait par ailleurs une nette distinction entre patriotisme et nationalisme. Être patriote revenait à aimer un endroit, un mode de vie que l’on considérait comme les meilleurs au monde, mais sans pour autant vouloir les imposer aux autres. Pour Orwell, le patriotisme était par nature défensif, militairement et culturellement parlant. Il impliquait par ailleurs une adhésion volontaire à un espace, à une communauté et à des valeurs. Inversement, il concevait le nationalisme comme l’idéologie belliqueuse d’individus en quête de prestige, non pour eux-mêmes mais pour des ensembles dans lesquels ils choisissent d’enfouir leur propre personnalité. Un communiste ne pouvait donc pas, selon lui, être patriote, mais seulement nationaliste, puisqu’il était capable, en l’espace de quelques jours, de transférer ses allégeances selon les nécessités de l’actualité, son rapport à sa terre, à sa patrie étant extrêmement ténu. Il avait établi une typologie de différentes formes de nationalismes : la forme “ positive ”, incarnée par le nationalisme celtique, le sionisme, et ceux qui n’admettaient pas le recul de l’influence anglaise dans le monde ; un nationalisme de “ tranfert ” (il faisait se côtoyer le communisme, le pacifisme, le catholicisme militant, la conscience de classe) ; une variante négative qui incluait pour lui l’anglophobie, l’antisémitisme, le trotskisme.

Orwell a longtemps cru, au moins jusqu’à la rédaction de 1984, que toute guerre pouvait avoir des vertus salutaires, au niveau humain et politique. A l’inverse de ceux qui estimaient que la guerre est la continuation d’un état de chose par d’autres moyens, il voyait en elle une brisure, un moment paroxystique où les individus et les communautés vivent dans un état supérieur, sont révélés par l’épreuve et où, en d’autres termes, Dieu peut reconnaître les siens. Et c’est en Espagne qu’il a commencé à réfléchir au rapport entre la guerre et la révolution. Il pensait alors, contrairement, par exemple, à de nombreux trotskistes anglais, qu’il fallait d’abord se débarrasser du fascisme avant de faire la révolution dans les démocraties bourgeoises. Il semble moins dogmatique sur ce point en 1940. Une révolution et la guerre peuvent être concomitantes. Et il estime alors qu’une révolution (anti-bourgeoise évidemment) pourrait surgir de la guerre grâce aux qualités intrinsèques du peuple anglais. La guerre et la révolution pourront remettre les choses en place. Les inutiles, les inefficaces, les privilégiés disparaîtront. Les compétences populaires pourront s’exprimer. Le peuple en sortira humainement enrichi : « Nous avons avancé aussi lentement que des glaciers et nous n’avons appris que dans les désastres. »

Dans la lutte, il n’y a pas la droite et la gauche, la bourgeoisie et la classe ouvrière, mais les combattants et les partisans de la démission. Le peuple victorieux saura être magnanime. Pas de procès pour les criminels de guerre demande, dès 1943, Orwell lucide et visionnaire : « Les tyrans doivent être mis à mort uniquement par leurs propres sujets ; ceux qui sont punis par une autorité étrangère, par exemple Napoléon, deviennent des martyrs et des légendes. »

La pensée d’Orwell, dans la dernière partie de sa vie, préfigure l’idéologie travailliste des années cinquante, celle qui a rompu, dans les faits, avec le marxisme. Pour Orwell qui, de 1945 à sa mort en 1950, est un sympathisant du Labour, le socialisme se résume à davantage d’égalité et le remplacement des élites obsolètes par ce qu’on n’appelle pas encore la méritocratie. L’Angleterre ne devrait plus être « une famille avec les médiocres aux commandes ». Mais il reproche, cela dit, au gouvernement de Clement Attlee de ne pas avoir suffisamment nationalisé.

Orwell pose donc presque tous les problèmes en termes moraux, en termes d’individualités. De plus sa pensée, surtout quand elle est novatrice, est constamment bridée par des interférences personnelles. Qu’il écrive des pages anti-impérialistes, socialistes, révolutionnaires ou réformistes, l’image de l’homme vaincu, isolé pour qui un changement profond de société impulsé par le “ peuple ” est une chimère, domine. On peut supposer que le pessimisme d’Orwell a été alimenté par l’échec de soulèvements populaires, comme ceux de Kronstadt ou de Varsovie, sans parler de la prise de Barcelone par les Franquistes.

Les patriotes sont ceux qui, pour nous résumer, sont prêts à prendre les armes pour mener une guerre populaire. Les ennemis de la patrie sont les pro-fascistes. L’idée d’une victoire d’Hitler plait aux très riches, aux communistes, aux Chemises noires d’Oswald Mosley (parti fasciste qui, étrangement, fut le premier parti anglais à adopter un programme économique keynésien !), aux pacifistes et à certaines factions catholiques. Et puis, si les choses tournaient mal sur le front intérieur, la totalité des plus pauvres des ouvriers pourrait adopter une position défaitiste mais pas pro-hitlérienne dans les faits. Il restait donc les trois-quarts de la classe ouvrière et la petite bourgeoisie moins les intellectuels de gauche car ces derniers s’étaient, rappelons-le, déconsidérés depuis une dizaine d’années au moins. Le combat étant national et même nationaliste, il faudrait se méfier de cette « intelligentsia européanisée ».

De 1945 à 1950, le mot “ patriotisme ” n’apparaît jamais plus sous la plume d’Orwell. Visionnaire comme Churchill – dont il partage certaines conceptions en matière de géopolitique, Orwell a compris que la division du monde est un état de fait durable. Contre ceux qui envisagent une fusion pure et simple des États-Unis et de la Grande Bretagne, contre une petite minorité d’Anglais qui rêve d’une intégration au système soviétique, il envisage des « États-Unis socialistes d’Europe». L’essayiste qui, en 1947, publie dans la revue d’extrême-gauche étasunienne Partisan Review l’article “ Toward European Unity ” rédige les premières moutures d’un univers fictionnel d’où sont absentes les valeurs de la civilisation occidentale, le patriotisme y compris.

Bref retour sur Orwell (III)

Bernard GENSANE
21 mars 2016

Ce qui distingue les grands créateurs des autres, c’est que, à partir de la réalité, ils élaborent des modèles plus prégnants que celle-ci en nous la faisant comprendre et ressentir comme jamais auparavant. Essayez d’imaginer un gamin de Paris des années 1830 sans penser à Gavroche. Essayez de vous représenter Mozart sans vous remémorer celui d’Amadeus et son rire jamais envisagé jusque là. Le “ Guernica ” de Picasso occulte la vraie ville dont on ne sait, en fait, pas grand chose. Quant à Emma Bovary, elle écrase votre cousine rêveuse.

Dans 1984, Orwell invente un monde et sa langue officielle, la Novlangue (Newspeak). Elle a ceci de particulier qu’elle est conçue pour mourir, Orwell partant du principe que, plus on élimine des mots (on garde “ chaise ” et on supprime “ fauteuil ” “ tabouret ”), plus on réduit leur champ sémantique (“ liberté ” n’est utilisé que dans des phrases comme « j’ai la liberté de choisir entre des pommes de terre et du chou »), plus on réduit une pensée qui devient sans cesse davantage binaire, manichéenne.

Cette invention n’est pas arrivée comme un cheveu sur la soupe dans la vie d’Orwell et sa carrière d’écrivain et de journaliste. Il connaissait sept langues étrangères : le latin et le grec, qu’il avait très bien maîtrisés dans son école privée, le français, qu’il pratiquait avec aisance (il lisait Villon dans le texte, et lorsqu’il enseigna le français dans une école secondaire pendant quelques mois, ses cours se déroulaient entièrement dans la langue), l’hindustani, l’ourdou (deux versions d’une même langue) et le birman, appris lors de son séjour de cinq ans dans la police impériale, le castillan et le catalan, assimilés au contact des Républicains durant la guerre civile. Avant de créer la Novlangue, il s’intéressa, de 1942 à 1944, au Basic English du linguiste Charles Kay Ogden avant d’écarter l’utilisation d’une langue artificielle : il trouvait contre-culturelle une langue fabriquée – simplifiée ou pas – à vocation universelle. Mais il est clair que ce Basic English fut une source d’inspiration pour la Novlangue. Enfin, il avait des notions d’esperanto, que parlait couramment une de ses tantes, mais il s’en méfiait en tant que langue factice (« Les langues ne se peuvent se développer que lentement, comme des fleurs », disait-il).

Bien avant 1984, les premiers livres d’Orwell avaient révélé son grand intérêt pour les questions de langue. Dans la dèche à Paris et à Londres, une autofiction de 1933, montre qu’Orwell s’engoue pour les lois sociales de construction du langage. Tragédie birmane (1934) présente la Birmanie comme une société multilingue, les colons empêchant les autochtones d’apprendre l’anglais dans toutes ses finesses et les contraignant à l’utilisation d’un pidgin. Dans Une fille de pasteur (1935), Orwell reproduit, en s’inspirant de Joyce, un dialogue de théâtre entre les miséreux et la fille du pasteur. Dans Le quai de Wigan (1937), ce magistral essai devenu classique sur le monde des mineurs de charbon dans les années trente, Orwell offre quelques exemples d’anglais du Lancashire et du Yorkshire. Dans La Catalogne libre (1938), il utilise sa connaissance du catalan et du castillan. Dans Un peu d’air frais (1939), il présente les variétés de l’anglais selon les classes et commence à dénoncer ce qu’il appelle le “ jargon ” des hommes politiques. Etrangement, peut-être, la dictature de La ferme des animaux ne connaît pas de problèmes langagiers.

Toute la réflexion d’Orwell sur la langue repose sur une idée-force, que la linguistique récusait déjà à son époque, selon laquelle les mots sont autonomes par rapport à la pensée. Et il lui a échappé, comme le proposait fortement Roman Jakobson, que « de même qu’en peinture la géométrie se superpose à la couleur, la puissance d’abstraction de la pensée humaine surimpose des figures grammaticales au mot. » Il affirme pour sa part que la pensée est tellement dépendante des mots que ceux-ci peuvent régir celle-là. Il croit que parler c’est choisir des mots en toute souveraineté, ignorant qu’on ne saurait conceptualiser sans l’appui du langage. Comment dire “ la glace ” en bambara, langue de contrées où il fait trente degrés toute l’année ? En contradiction totale avec le concept d’arbitrarité du signe (voir comment le coq chante en anglais, en espagnol, en allemand, en français et en chinois), il suppose une corrélation entre le sens d’un mot et sa configuration sonore. Dans le monde de 1984, des fonctionnaires de la langue suppriment des mots du dictionnaire et confèrent aux vocables épargnés un sens unique, ce qui n’est pas soutenable dans la mesure où la pensée et les mots n’existent pas dans des sphères distinctes, Orwell pensant peut-être qu’à un mot pourrait correspondre automatiquement une seule pensée.

Dans ses essais majeurs sur la langue comme “ La politique et la langue anglaise ”, il estime que la langue dégénère quand elle sert le discours politique. Il s’inscrit dès lors dans la tradition idéaliste : « Bien écrire ou bien parler est un art. » Ecrire en anglais, c’est « se battre contre le flou, l’obscurité, les pièges tendus par les adjectifs décoratifs et les empiètements du latin et du grec ». Revendiquant son anglicité, Orwell préférait les mots d’origine saxonne aux mots d’origine franco-latine : freedom à liberty, brotherhood à fraternity, tout en sachant que plus de la moitié des mots de l’anglais venaient du français et de latin. A de nombreuses reprises, il décrit sa langue comme « défigurée », « violentée ».

Mais, à sa manière, Orwell a repris l’idéal de Boileau selon lequel ce qui se conçoit bien s’énonce clairement : « Une prose de qualité est transparente comme une vitre ». Ce cristal lui était nécessaire pour mieux faire passer la réalité confuse, violente et terrorisante. Stylistiquement parlant, sa plus grande réussite aura été de faire croire qu’il écrivait “ naturellement ” dans la langue parlée d’un anglais éduqué. D’où son obsession de ne pas pouvoir glisser « la lame d’un couteau métaphorique » entre les mots et le sens. Sa règle – pas toujours applicable – était que le sens décide du mot. Il s’efforça toujours, cela dit, de faire coïncider la forme et le fond.

Pour Orwell, les différences langagières étaient régies par les antagonismes de classe. Les classes éduquées ayant perdu le contact avec le monde ouvrier, il urgeait que les prolétaires redonnent du souffle à la langue anémiée de la classe dirigeante. Son idéalisme l’amena à proposer, pour que les accents régionaux ne disparaissent pas (ils sont toujours bien présents aujourd’hui), un accent « national » (pas le sien, lui l’ancien élève d’Eton), un « cockney modifié » ou alors un des accents du Nord. Mais dans 1984, non seulement les Proles ne régénèrent pas la langue du Parti intérieur, mais il n’existe aucun phénomène de contact entre leur langue et celle des maîtres.

Bien que polyglotte, Orwell n’affectionnait pas les emprunts entre langues. Il n’admit jamais que, si le vocabulaire anglais était très riche, c’est justement parce que la langue anglaise avait deux racines principales. De plus, alors que dans 1984 chaque continent possède une seule langue officielle, Orwell n’a rien écrit sur un fait déjà bien présent à son époque : le nouveau statut de l’anglais en tant que première langue véhiculaire mondiale. Conscient de la fin de la suprématie de l’Angleterre en tant que puissance planétaire, il redoutait le contact avec la culture d’outre-Atlantique. Plutôt conservateur en matière langagière, il n’en a pas moins créé de nombreux néologismes. Par exemple la “ nancytude ” (tapettitude), la “ scotchification ” (de l’Angleterre) (écossification), “ sub-faecal ” (sous-fécal), la “ blimpocracy ” (culotte de peaucratie). Bien que jungien, Orwell n’avait pas perçu que l’inconscient était structuré comme un langage. Il voyait dans les mots une substance pâteuse, fuyant indéfiniment devant les réalités de la pensée (« Quelqu’un a-t-il jamais écrit une lettre d’amour dans laquelle il a exprimé exactement ce qu’il voulait dire ? »). D’où cette proposition d’inventer des nouveaux mots (ou des mots neufs), aussi tranquillement que s’il s’agissait de « pièces pour moteur d’auto ». Mais il n’a pas pu (ou n’a pas eu le temps) de réfléchir à ses propres maniérismes. Il abusait d’adverbes de fréquences (“ rarement ”, “ toujours ”) parce qu’il avait tendance à généraliser. Il utilisait souvent la préposition “ comme ”, des adjectifs comme “ différent ”, “ identique ”, des verbes comme “ comparer ” parce qu’il pensait très souvent de manière analogique. Il s’efforça, cela dit, de s’imposer une hygiène d’écriture consistant, par exemple, à éviter les métaphores rebattues (pas une seule dans La ferme des animaux). Et il proposa cinq règles de bonne écriture et une sixième dirimante, dont il n’est pas stupide de s’inspirer, même si elles trahissent son souci névrotique de propreté :

Ne jamais utiliser une métaphore déjà vue sous la plume d’un autre.
Ne jamais utiliser un mot long quand un court fait l’affaire.
Supprimer un mot lorsqu’il est possible de le supprimer.
Ne pas utiliser la voix passive [beaucoup plus fréquente en anglais qu’en français] quand l’actif convient.
Ne jamais utiliser une expression étrangère, un mot scientifique ou du jargon s’il existe un équivalent en anglais de tous les jours.
Ne pas appliquer ces règles dès lors que le résultat est franchement malsonnant.

Dans 1984, le statut de la langue n’est pas toujours très cohérent. Un seul personnage (membre du Parti Extérieur) parle naturellement en Novlangue. Les enfants de Mrs Parson, pourtant militant zélés de la Ligue de la Jeunesse, s’expriment en anglais ordinaire. Orwell a toujours pensé que le manque de démocratie ou la dictature du prolétariat aggraveraient les antagonismes de classe. Aux trois classes d’Océania correspond une organisation linguistique gouvernée par le chiffre trois. Dans le Parti Intérieur, la Novlangue est censée être la norme ; dans le Parti Extérieur, elle se diffuse progressivement ; elle est inconnue des Proles qui parlent cockney, un idiome qui est d’avantage une recréation orwellienne que du cockney authentique. La Novlangue n’est pas généralisée dans le roman parce que le livre n’est pas une prophétie mais une satire dystopique. Elle ne peut être parlée par des personnages qui ressemblent aux gens qu’Orwell a côtoyés sa vie durant. A la fin du roman, Orwell estime que la Novlangue ne sera pas utilisé par tous avant 2050, malgré les moyens de coercition considérables dont dispose le système. Ce qui semble peut-être le plus pertinent dans la création de la Novlangue, c’est cette idée, aujourd’hui banale, qu’un discours officiel peut fort bien parler pour ne rien dire. Nous sommes en effet dans la destruction du sens. Le personnel politique étasunien a atteint cet idéal : souvenons-nous de Reagan se contenant de murmurer devant ses supporters « Read my lips » ou Hillary Clinton proposant un petit jappement chaque fois que Donald Trump proférerait un ânerie. Orwell postule par ailleurs que la langue fait naître la faute, le sentiment de culpabilité, notion que reprendra plus tard Roland Barthes expliquant que le fascisme n’empêche pas de dire mais oblige à dire.

L’écrivain au style translucide qu’était Orwell avait senti dans les années trente que la langue ne serait plus jamais un moyen de communication innocent. Winston finissait par “ aimer ” Big Brother parce que le mot “ amour ”, tout en ayant perdu sa signification d’origine, existait toujours bel et bien sous son horrible travestissement. Cratyle, dans le dialogue de Platon, avait décidé de se taire (« si des noms sont mal établis, ils ne sont plus que des éclats de voix »). Orwell choisit de travailler la simplicité de son expression (pour ceux dont l’anglais n’est pas la langue maternelle, il est l’un des auteurs les plus faciles à lire) et de renforcer le pouvoir de ses propres mots.

Voir par ailleurs:

How Being Politically Incorrect Could Help Bloomberg

Bloomberg says things that can’t be said in polite company. Maybe voters don’t mind as much as elites do.It’s amusing to learn that Mike Bloomberg, just last year, was filmed speaking with his customary bluntness about transgender individuals: “If your conversation during a presidential election is about some guy wearing a dress and whether he, she, or it can go to the locker room with their daughter, that’s not a winning formula for most people,” he said at a business development forum.

You can’t talk that way anymore in the upper levels of the Democratic party, the media, the arts, or even corporate America. If Bloomberg had said this as the CEO of a publicly traded company, instead of as the owner of a private one, intense pressure would have been put on the board to fire him. And this was hardly the first time he said something that was guaranteed to offend. “We put all the cops in minority neighborhoods. Yes, that’s true. Why do we do it? Because that’s where all the crime is,” Bloomberg said in 2015 at the Aspen Institute, adding, “The way you get the guns out of the kids’ hands is to throw them up against the wall and frisk them.”

Bloomberg hasn’t had to report to anyone for many years, and being as frank as he likes, no matter how rude he sounds, is part of his brand. “A List of Things Bloomberg Actually Said About Fat People, Rape, George W. Bush, and J.Lo” ran one of the more entertaining headlines of this campaign season. My personal favorite is one of many one-liners contained in the now-infamous booklet, The Portable Bloomberg: The Wit and Wisdom of Michael Bloomberg. It was published as a sort of party favor back in 1990 by his employees, and no one quite seems to be able to tell if it is a spoof or an actual compendium of Bloomberg remarks. If the former, it sounds a lot like the latter to a lot of people. A highlight is Bloomberg’s summing-up of the British royals: “What a bunch of misfits — a gay, an architect, that horsey-faced lesbian, and a kid who gave up Koo Stark for some fat broad.” (Fact check: Prince Charles is not an architect, merely an architectural enthusiast.)

Yet Bloomberg’s sharp rise in polling has coincided with a concerted effort by the media to score him for all of these grave offenses against political correctness. We’re about to learn whether anyone outside the elite stratum of the country actually considers these sorts of barbed comments to be disqualifying. True, nobody is allowed to talk like this anymore. But then again, the only other politician who dares to is the current occupant of the White House. Which raises the question: Does a history of extreme political incorrectness actually boost Bloomberg’s chances?

Reading about what Democratic voters have to say, it’s evident that all principles and policies are negotiable. The only thing that matters to them is defeating Donald Trump. Medicare for All, Medicare for All Who Want It, continue the status quo? Whatever. As long as someone other than Trump is in charge. Democratic voters have discarded Elizabeth Warren because they don’t think she can defeat Trump, and they are having severe misgivings about Joe Biden because they’re not sure he’s still vigorous enough for battle, or indeed vigorous enough to make it through a sentence without taking a break for a nap. Bernie Sanders, too, has to be making Democratic voters nervous: Hey, we just want Trump gone, we don’t want to be annexed by Denmark. Most Democrats are aware that Sanders is extreme, and more important, most Democrats are aware that swing voters in Michigan and Wisconsin are aware of this.

American elites hear the way Bloomberg talks and think: Shocking! Disqualifying! Outrageous! Median voters might hear something very different: This guy is a match for Trump! Instead of choosing a parody of an earnest loser in a rumpled sweater who has a garage full of Eugene V. Debs filmstrips, the Dems could go with a swashbuckling, trash-talking, don’t-give-a-fig capitalist buccaneer who is prepared to rain insults on Trump, not just gently shake his head and say, “That’s not who we are.” Instead of having a pathetic old schmuck in a subcompact who seems like he should be teaching bored high schoolers, they could have a fiercely combative alpha male who could buy and sell Trump 20 times over. Why not dump Walter White and go with Heisenberg?

The sort of people who get the vapors at offensive comments are going to vote for the Democrat this fall no matter who it is. Bloomberg’s political incorrectness won’t matter any more than Hillary Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War mattered in 2016. Yet the prospect of riding into battle with someone who is as arrogant, aggressive, politically incorrect, and corrosively funny as Trump has to be a tempting proposition to a lot of Democrats. Even if it’s a fellow New York billionaire.

Voir de même:

Reaching Peak Progressivism
« The frightening visions of the new peak progressives will ensure the reelection of Donald Trump, as well as either the likely end of themselves—or else a collective dystopian nightmare. »>The frightening visions of the new peak progressives will ensure the reelection of Donald Trump, as well as either the likely end of themselves—or else a collective dystopian nightmare.
Victor Davis Hanson
American greatness
February 16th, 2020

In 2020 we have finally hit peak progressivism. The adjective “peak”—apex or summit— is often used to describe something that has reached its maximum extent but thereafter will insidiously decline—like supposed U.S. domestic oil production in 2000 when more oil was purportedly taken out of, rather than still in the ground. While the idea of peak oil in the days before fracking and horizontal drilling proved vastly premature, we likely are witnessing something like “peak progressivism” today.

By that I mean the hard-left takeover of the Democratic Party and the accompanying progressive agenda now have reached an extreme—beyond which will only result in the steady erosion of radical ideology altogether.

The French Revolution hit “peak” coerced egalitarianism with the Jacobin takeover and so-called Reign of Terror. After all, when you begin guillotining fellow travelers on charges they are counterrevolutionaries and begin worshiping a new atheist secular power “Reason,” institutionalized as Robespierre’s “Cult of the Supreme Being,” you have mostly reached the limits of political radicalism and are into the territory of the nihilistic, if not the maniacal and absurd—with a rendezvous with Napoleon on the horizon.

From 2009 through 2016, Barack Obama recalibrated the Democratic Party’s liberalism into progressive radicalism. He opened the border and all but dismantled existing immigration law. Sanctuary cities sprang up with impunity. Executive orders bypassed the Congress. The Iran Deal ignored the Senate’s treaty-making responsibilities. Obama sought to nationalize healthcare. The concept of “diversity” replaced affirmative action, by redefining racial oppression as distinct from historical grievance and economic disparity and instead lumping together 30 percent of the population as nonwhite, and thus antithetical to the new buzz construct of “white privilege.” Fast and Furious, the surveillance of the Associated Press reporters, Benghazi, the weaponization of the IRS, and the use of CIA, FBI, and DOJ to seed the spurious Steele dossier were all written off as proof of the “most scandal free” administration in memory.

But today Obamaism has been figuratively guillotined by the New Jacobins. It is found guilty of crimes of insufficient revolutionary zeal, as well as compromises with the U.S. Constitution and capitalism.

Once considered a crank socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is now leads in many Democratic primary polls. Arriving with him at this moment in our politics is peak progressivism.

First-term socialists—House representatives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and her fellow “squad” members, inspired by Sanders—now set the new Democratic agenda. And it is one that is more radical than anything seen in modern American history and largely unsustainable: calls to level a wealth tax and new top income-tax rates of 70-90 percent, to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service, all student debt, an enforceable southern border, the internal combustion engine, and most Second Amendment rights, and to enact multi-trillion dollar new entitlements as outlined in the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, free college, free healthcare for illegal aliens, and reparations.

Identity politics so rules the rhetoric of the new progressive party that all of its—exclusively white—primary finalists vie to be most vocal in the ritual damning of their own country (that has ironically ensured their own influence, power, success and wealth) as inherently “racist.”

Universities Lead the Way In the Revolution Eating Itself

Outside of the political sphere, peak progressivism had reinvented the university, rejecting Martin Luther King, Jr’s vision of racial integration and assimilation, by demanding racially obsessed dorms, safe spaces, and applications.

There is hardly a First Amendment on campuses anymore. Speakers with unpopular views are shouted down with impunity by student activists. “Trigger warnings” seek to censor required texts. The mere accusation of sexual harassment on campus is synonymous with the suspension of the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendments. Skepticism over abortion, “climate change,” or identity politics can cancel out a faculty career.

It is hard to imagine where universities go after peak progressivism, since it would be the pure nihilism of abolishing grades, admissions standards, and student fees.

Peak progressivism calls for the abolition of the constitutionally mandated Electoral College. Radicals now fault past failed schemes to pack the federal and Supreme Court with left-wing justices only because they failed, and thus advance ways to make court-packing work in the present. The bolder among them wants to reconfigure the U.S. Senate into a proportionally representational house or abolish it altogether. All that would be left after that would be the formal abolition of the U.S. Constitution itself.

Primary candidates compete with one another to water down voting laws, variously demanding that 16-year-olds, felons, and illegal aliens should be given the franchise. Gay marriage, which Obama opposed in 2008 and later promoted after reelection, is now passé. The new civil rights cause celebre is transgenderism, an ancient syndrome known in the past under a variety of clinical definitions that affects less than half of one percent of the population. Who, after these peak progressive ideas, would be left as

ineligible to vote—12-year-olds, those on death row, the rest of the earth’s population?

All moderate Democratic presidential candidates long ago dropped out. Those who have not, such as Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg, are in virtual reeducation camps, as they promise to progressive rivals and the media to renounce most of their past positions, effusively apologizing for prior incorrect thinking and failure to become sufficiently “woke.”

The Cycles of Cultish Extremism

There are certain historical characteristics of the current peak progressivism that are typical of past cycles of cultish extremism.

Iconoclasm—the destruction of statues and icons deemed reactionary—is typical.

So is Trotskyization, the renaming of buildings, streets, and institutions on the theory that current correct ideology makes past iconic figures no longer deserving of recognition and thus erased from history.

Puritanism is also typical, as correct speech extends to thoughts and behavior. Peak progressivism now includes Victorian prudery. Flattery, traditional flirting, and praise of physical beauty are proof of counter-revolutionary barbarism and toxic masculinity. The Internet allows instant cancel culture searches of one’s entire past thoughts, conduct, and expression in efforts to erase impure personas.

Tribal factionalism is a final symptom that peak ideology is already degenerating into chaos. In the Democratic primary, candidates could agree that white privilege and whiteness were toxic but no one quite could define whether black, Latino, Asian, gay, female upper-middle class, or wealthy candidates were the most victimized by America and thus the most deserving of reparatory considerations.

The much-discussed “intersectionality” is a construct, a myth. The history of ideological extremism is instead a war of all factions against one another.

We see just that in the peak progressive primaries. Michael Bloomberg is deemed a racist and sexist. But then so is Joe Biden. Bernie Sanders supposedly hires racists and sexists and won’t honor minimum wage laws. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) thinks Bernie is condescending to women and minorities. Pete Buttigieg thinks he is the victim of Joe Biden’s subtle anti-gay political adds, and feels, but does not articulate, that the black community is inherent anti-homosexual. The race to tag others as victimizers and selves as victimized is endless.

Radicals also vie to make rivals look counter-revolutionary, as they advance ever more incoherent and unhinged schemes without a clue that they are losing not just moderate support but even liberal followers. The more Warren feels she must become the purest peak progressive on the debate stage and the most radical in the U.S. Senate, the more her former supporters feel she is either a conniving opportunist or nuts or both.

Impossible Demands, Even of Their Own

Peak progressives cannot possibly live up to their rhetoric fantasies and so suffer from rank hypocrisies. Redistributionists like Warren and Sanders either fly on private jets or choose non-egalitarian first-class commercial. Hollywood stars who mouth crazy Oscar and Grammy ceremony platitudes vie with each other to wear multi-thousand-dollar clothes, live in mansions, and own yachts—as they drive down ratings to historic lows.

Not long ago, progressive pundits on CNN and MSNBC declared the current indicted lawyer Michael Avenatti presidential material for his fabrications and lies that were used to smear Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Where does a network go after that?

Racial quota advocates demand proportional representations and cry out about disparate impact but soon discover that they have no plans or desire to appoint candidates of color to be included on the Democrat debate stage (or to reserve slots for Asian-American basketball forwards, or to ensure blacks make up only 12 percent of the coveted billets of the U.S. Postal Service.) Peak progressives never imagine that they, too, can become prisoners of their ridiculous ideologies.

Peak progressives also live in cocoons. They have no inkling how their ever more radical talk alienates the public. How odd to see Mike Bloomberg repudiate many of his mayoral policies that once were popular with even liberal New Yorkers. (Or is Bloomberg’s Machiavellian team leaking past politically incorrect statements about crime and the housing collapse to show that in comparison with his current rivals’ professed lunacies that he once sounded pragmatic and sane?)

To prove he is not a racist, Joe Biden sounds like an incendiary radical, only further turning off his once-sizable moderate block of supporters. As Democratic candidates careen ever farther to the left, their crowds shrink, and Donald Trump’s rallies expand.

Peak progressivism even scares the diehard NeverTrump right, which fears imploding by voting for a whacked-out Bernie Sanders as the only alternative to the hated Trump.

Peak progressivism eventually either recedes, or, to remain viable, entails violence, as in the Russian, Chinese, or Cuban revolutions. The odd thing is not that Sanders supporter James Hodkinson tried to mow down some of the Republican House leadership, or a recent left-wing activist sought to run over Trump supporters with his van, or that Hollywood stars still compete with each other in imagining the most fitting rhetorical torture or killing of the president of the United States—bombing, incineration, beheading, stabbing, shooting, beating—but that progressive voices rarely complain about such extremist rhetoric or actions. Impeachment 1.0 in January 2017 looks tame in comparison to 2.0 in February 2020, which in turn will seem a sell-out compared to 3.0 in 2021.

George McGovern ensured a Nixon landslide, Jimmy Carter hastened the Reagan Revolution—and the eventual return of the old Democrats under Bill Clinton.

The frightening visions of the new peak progressives will ensure the reelection of Donald Trump, as well as either the likely end of themselves—or else a collective dystopian nightmare.

Voir de plus:

China’s Government Is Like Something out of 1984

The Chinese technological revolution is overseen by an Orwellian dictatorship.The Chinese Communist government increasingly poses an existential threat not just to its own 1.4 billion citizens but to the world at large.

China is currently in a dangerously chaotic state. And why not, when a premodern authoritarian society leaps wildly into the brave new world of high-tech science in a single generation?

The Chinese technological revolution is overseen by an Orwellian dictatorship. Predictably, the Chinese Communist Party has not developed the social, political, or cultural infrastructure to ensure that its sophisticated industrial and biological research does not go rogue and become destructive to itself and to the billions of people who are on the importing end of Chinese products and protocols.

Central Party officials run the government, military, media, and universities collectively in a manner reminiscent of the science-fiction Borg organism of Star Trek, which was a horde of robot-like entities all under the control of a central mind.

Thirty years ago, American pundits began gushing over China’s sudden leap from horse-drawn power to solar, wind, and nuclear energy. The Chinese Communist government wowed Westerners. It created from nothing high-speed rail, solar farms, shiny new airports, and gleaming new high-density apartment buildings.

Western-trained Chinese scientists soon were conducting sophisticated medical and scientific research. And they often did so rapidly, without the prying regulators, nosy elected officials, and bothersome citizen lawsuits that often burden American and European scientists.

To make China instantly rich and modern, the Communist hierarchy — the same government that once caused the deaths of some 60 million innocents under Mao Zedong — ignored property rights. It crushed individual freedom. It embraced secrecy and bulldozed over any who stood in its way.

In much the same manner that silly American pundits once praised Benito Mussolini’s fascist efforts to modernize Depression-era Italy, many naifs in the West praised China only because they wished that their own countries could recalibrate so quickly and efficiently — especially in service to green agendas.

But the world is learning that China does not just move mountains for new dams or bulldoze ancient neighborhoods that stand in the path of high-speed rail. It also hid the outbreak and the mysterious origins of the deadly coronavirus from its own people and the rest of the planet as well — a more dangerous replay of its earlier effort to mask the spread of the SARS virus. The result was that thousands of unknowing carriers spread the viral plague while the government covered up its epidemic proportions.

China, of course, does not wish to have either its products or citizens quarantined from other countries. But the Chinese government will not allow foreign scientists to enter its country to collaborate on containing the coronavirus and developing a vaccine.

No wonder Internet conspiracies speculate that the virus was either a rogue product of the Chinese military’s bioengineering weapons lab or originated from bats, snakes, or pangolins and the open-air markets where they are sold as food.

It is hard to believe that in 2020, the world’s largest and second-wealthiest county, which boasts of high-tech consumer products and gleaming cities, has imprisoned in “re-education camps” more than 1 million Uighur Muslims in the manner that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao once relocated “undesirable” populations.

China seems confident that it will soon rule the world, given its huge population, massive trade surpluses, vast cash reserves, and industries that produce so many of the world’s electronic devices, pharmaceuticals, and consumer goods.

For a year, the Chinese government has battled massive street demonstrations for democracy in Hong Kong. Beijing cynically assumes that Western nations don’t care. They are expected to drop their characteristic human-rights advocacy because of how profitable their investments inside China have proven.

Beijing was right. Few Western companies complain that Chinese society is surveilled, regulated, and controlled in a nightmarish fashion that George Orwell once predicted in his dystopian novel, 1984.

All of these recent scandals should remind the world that China got rich by warping trade and stealing technology in much the same way that it deals with epidemics and dissidents. That is, by simply ignoring legitimate criticism and crushing anyone in its way.

If the Chinese Communist Borg is willing to put millions of its own citizens at risk of infection and death, why would it care about foreigners’ complaints that China is getting rich and powerful by breaking international trade rules?

The truth about President Trump’s decision to call China to account over its systematic abuse of international trade norms is not that Trump’s policy is reckless or ill-considered. It’s that at this late date, the reckoning might prove too little, too late.

Voir encore:

Des employés d’Amazon écoutent les conversations des utilisateurs avec Alexa

Pour améliorer les performances de reconnaissance vocale de son assistant intelligent Alexa, des milliers de salariés d’Amazon écoutent des extraits de conversations réelles. Il n’est pas mentionné explicitement dans ses conditions d’utilisation que des humains peuvent y accéder.

Kesso Diallo

Plusieurs personnes hésitent à introduire des enceintes connectées chez eux par crainte d’être écoutés. D’une certaine façon, c’est bien le cas. Une enquête de Bloomberg révèle qu’Amazon emploie des milliers de salariés dans le monde pour écouter les conversations des utilisateurs avec Alexa, l’assistant vocal qui alimente les enceintes Echo du géant et plus de 100 millions d’objets connectés dans le monde. Ces employés travaillent neuf heures par jour dans des bureaux à Boston, au Costa Rica, en Inde ou encore en Roumanie. Il analyse jusqu’à 1000 clips audio par jour pour transcrire et annoter leur contenu. Le but est d’améliorer l’outil de reconnaissance vocale en éliminant les lacunes dans la compréhension de la parole humaine par Alexa et en l’aidant à mieux répondre aux demandes des utilisateurs. Un employé explique ainsi à Bloomberg avoir aidé Alexa à mieux comprendre le nom «Taylor Swift» en lui indiquant que l’utilisateur parlait d’une artiste musicale.

La vie privée des utilisateurs chez Amazon

Parmi le type de clips auxquels les salariés accèdent, des requêtes mais aussi des sons enregistrés comme une femme qui chante mal sous la douche. Problème: ces fichiers peuvent être partagés sur une messagerie interne pour aider un collègue à mieux interpréter une phrase ou pour se moquer d’un enregistrement amusant. D’autres extraits sont parfois plus problématiques. Deux personnes qui travaillaient pour Amazon ont ainsi raconté avoir entendu ce qui ressemblait à une agression sexuelle. Après l’avoir mentionné à leur hiérarchie, ils ont été informés qu’Amazon ne souhaitait pas réagir à la situation. Pourtant le géant affirme que «des procédures ont été mises en place» pour ce genre de situation. Enfin, lorsque les employés entendent des données personnelles telles que les coordonnées bancaires, ils cochent simplement une boîte de dialogue indiquant «données critiques» avant de passer au fichier audio suivant.

Selon un porte-parole d’Amazon, seul «un très faible échantillon des enregistrements» est utilisé pour améliorer l’expérience de l’utilisateur. Il précise également que les employés ne peuvent pas accéder directement aux informations d’identification des personnes ou des comptes associés aux enregistrements. «Toutes les informations sont traitées avec la plus grande confidentialité et nous utilisons l’authentification multifacteurs pour restreindre l’accès, le chiffrement des services et des audits de notre environnement de contrôle pour le protéger». Pourtant, les captures d’écran fournies par les employés à Bloomberg montrent qu’à défaut d’indiquer le nom complet et l’adresse d’un utilisateur, les enregistrements sont tout de même associés à un numéro de compte, ainsi qu’au prénom de l’utilisateur et le numéro de série de l’appareil.

Paramètres de confidentialité

Amazon mentionne dans ses conditions d’utilisation que les conversations des utilisateurs avec Alexa sont enregistrées pour améliorer son assistant virtuel. Cependant, le géant n’y précise explicitement pas que ces conversations peuvent être écoutées par des humains. Et si l’utilisateur peut limiter via les paramètres de confidentialité d’Alexa l’utilisation qui est faite de ces enregistrements, il ne peut jamais empêcher cette transmission.

Alexa est conçue pour enregistrer en continu des extraits audio dès qu’elle entend le mot d’activation, soit «Alexa» par défaut. Ce mot peut être modifié. Une fois qu’il est détecté, l’anneau de lumière situé au-dessus de l’enceinte devient bleu, indiquant que le périphérique enregistre et transmet une commande aux serveurs d’Amazon. Le site du géant affirme qu’aucun son n’est stocké à moins que l’enceinte connectée Echo ne détecte le mot d’activation ou ne soit allumée en appuyant sur un bouton. Mais, il arrive qu’Alexa commence un enregistrement sans aucune demande de la part de l’utilisateur ou par accident. L’assistant vocal peut en effet se tromper, notamment avec d’autres langues que l’anglais. En français, il peut confondre «sa» avec «Alexa», soit son mot d’activation. Chaque auditeur transcrit ainsi jusqu’à 100 enregistrements par jour dans ces situations selon une source de Bloomberg.

Améliorer les assistants vocaux

Amazon n’est pas la seule entreprise à faire écouter une partie de ces conversations à des humains pour améliorer son outil de reconnaissance vocale. C’est aussi le cas chez Google et Apple avec leurs propres assistants vocaux Google Assistant et Siri. Pour Siri d’Apple, les enregistrements passés en revue ne contiennent pas d’informations personnelles. Durant les six mois où ils sont stockés, ils sont liés à un identifiant aléatoire selon un livre blanc sur la sécurité d’Apple. Après ces six mois, les données sont dépourvues de leur identifiant aléatoire, mais elles peuvent être stockées plus longtemps pour améliorer la reconnaissance vocale de Siri. Chez Google, certains réviseurs peuvent accéder à des extraits audio de Google Assistant, mais ces derniers ne sont associés à aucune information personnelle et le son est déformé, selon l’entreprise.

Dans la nuit du 2 au 3 août, Amazon a mis à jour son application Alexa pour expliquer plus clairement la manière dont les enregistrements sont utilisés. Ainsi, on peut dorénavant lire que «les fichiers audios peuvent être […] manuellement révisés pour aider à améliorer les services [d’Amazon]». Alors qu’avant, la firme indiquait seulement que les enregistrements pouvaient «être utilisés pour développer de nouvelles fonctionnalités». Via l’application, il est aussi possible de désactiver l’envoi et l’écoute des fichiers audios avec Alexa. L’annonce d’Amazon fait suite à la procédure administrative ouverte par l’autorité de protection des données de Hambourg à l’encontre de Google. Depuis le 1er août et pendant trois mois, la firme n’est plus autorisée à laisser ses employés ou sous-traitants écouter les conversations enregistrées par son assistant intelligent. L’interdiction s’étend à toute l’Union Européenne. Apple a également emboîté le pas à Google et Amazon. La firme a annoncé au média TechCrunch qu’elle suspendait la manière dont les enregistrements sont utilisés pour améliorer son assistant vocal, «le temps de le réexaminer en profondeur». Cette décision s’applique au monde entier.

Voir enfin:

Primaires américaines : à Las Vegas, le milliardaire Michael Bloomberg aiguise les rivalités démocrates
L’ancien maire de New York a participé à son premier débat des primaires et fait l’unanimité contre lui parmi les autres candidats.

Corine Lesnes

Le Monde

20 février 2020

Michael Bloomberg avait beaucoup d’explications à fournir. Sur ses déclarations méprisantes à l’égard des femmes, son passé républicain, et surtout sa politique de « stop and frisk » ou contrôle au faciès quand il était maire de New York de 2002 à 2013. Dès la deuxième minute du débat des primaires démocrates de Las Vegas, mercredi 19 février, Bernie Sanders a attaqué frontalement le nouveau venu dans la campagne, expliquant qu’il n’avait aucune chance de battre Donald Trump, en raison de son soutien passé à cette pratique raciste.

Le milliardaire a encaissé le coup. « Euh », a-t-il balbutié. Elizabeth Warren s’est précipitée pour le tailler en pièces : « J’aimerais parler de qui nous combattons, a-t-elle lancé. Un milliardaire qui traite les femmes de “grosses vaches” et de “lesbiennes au visage chevalin”. Et non, je ne parle pas de Donald Trump, a repris la sénatrice du Massachusetts. Je parle de Michael Bloomberg. Les démocrates prennent un grand risque si nous remplaçons un milliardaire arrogant par un autre. »

Dans l’assistance, il y a eu un moment d’effroi puis des applaudissements. La candidate, en perte de vitesse depuis des semaines dans les sondages, faisait référence à une compilation satirique concoctée en 1990 par un cadre de la société Bloomberg et offerte au PDG pour son 48e anniversaire : la recension de quelques « maximes » d’un homme réputé pour ses jugements corrosifs. Bloomberg a préféré ne pas relever. « Je suis New-Yorkais, a-t-il répondu d’une voix atone. Je sais comment m’y prendre avec un imposteur new-yorkais de l’arrogance de Donald Trump. »

Effet Bloomberg ? Sursaut de combativité parmi les concurrents distancés dans les sondages ? Le neuvième débat démocrate, mercredi 19 février, le premier pour l’ancien maire de New York, a été le plus brutal depuis le début de la compétition pour la succession de Donald Trump. Pendant la première heure, le casino Paris Las Vegas s’est transformé en arène où les six candidats-gladiateurs ont déversé attaques et insultes – des plus conséquentes aux plus mesquines. NBC News a totalisé 75 tirs dans les 60 premières minutes. Et dans toutes les directions.

Ascension fulgurante

Amy Klobuchar, l’accrocheuse sénatrice du Minnesota, s’est vu longuement reprocher d’avoir été incapable de citer le nom du président mexicain dans une interview, alors qu’elle a multiplié les excuses et pris soin de mentionner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (après un coup d’œil à ses notes). Avec son air de premier de la classe, le polyglotte Pete Buttigieg, qui court sur les mêmes terres centristes du Midwest, l’a énervée plusieurs fois : « J’aimerais que tout le monde soit aussi parfait que toi, Pete. »

Rien n’a été épargné aux spectateurs. Pas même la crise cardiaque subie, en octobre 2019 dans cette même ville de Las Vegas, par Bernie Sanders. Pete Buttigieg, le premier, mais pas le seul, lui a reproché de ne pas publier davantage d’informations sur son dossier médical. Bernie Sanders, la figure rouge depuis son premier emportement contre Michael Bloomberg, a répondu qu’il avait donné toutes les garanties. Avant de botter en direction de Bloomberg : « Je crois qu’on partage le fait d’avoir deux stents », a-t-il glissé. « C’était il y a 25 ans », a soupiré l’ancien maire de New York.

L’ascension fulgurante de ce dernier a fait l’effet d’un électrochoc dans le camp démocrate. Plusieurs sondages l’ont maintenant placé dans le trio de tête, voire en deuxième position. Dans le dernier calcul de la moyenne des sondages établie par le site Realclearpolitics, Bernie Sanders arrive en première position avec 29 %, Joe Biden est deuxième avec 18 %, talonné par Michael Bloomberg à 16 %. Le sondage NBC News-Wall Street Journal, publié à la veille du débat, a lui aussi placé le socialiste-démocrate en tête avec 27 %, devant Joe Biden, en recul de 11 points. L’ancien vice-président, qui joue gros lors des caucus du Nevada samedi, a tenu son rang dans le débat, mais sans éclat.

Neuvième fortune mondiale

Depuis qu’il s’est lancé en novembre 2019, Michael Bloomberg, 55 milliards de dollars (50 milliards d’euros), la 9e fortune mondiale selon le classement du magazine Forbes en 2019, a déployé des moyens sans précédent. Il a déjà dépensé 409 millions de dollars, dont un million par jour sur Facebook selon NBC News, soit plus que les candidats encore en lice pendant toute l’année 2019.

Lui qui a fait sa fortune dans l’information financière a mis en place un dispositif sophistiqué sur les réseaux sociaux, allant jusqu’à payer des influenceurs pour publier des mèmes. Il a recruté des auteurs d’émissions satiriques pour calibrer des Tweet susceptibles de déclencher la rage de Donald Trump – lequel mord régulièrement à l’hameçon. Sans avoir participé aux caucus de l’Iowa ou aux primaires du New Hampshire, sans se présenter aux caucus du Nevada samedi 22 ou aux primaires de Caroline du Sud le 29 février, Michael Bloomberg s‘est hissé devant des candidats qui battent la campagne depuis plus d’un an.

Ceux-ci ont-ils réussi à enrayer la dynamique ? Bloomberg, qui n’avait pas participé à un débat politique depuis plus de dix ans, n’a pas manifesté de talent oratoire particulier, hésitant dans sa défense. Sur les contrôles au faciès, il s’est de nouveau excusé, plaidant l’ignorance de l’impact sur les minorités, tout en répétant que, de 650, le nombre de meurtres à New York avait été réduit de 50 %. Il ne s’est animé que dans la partie consacrée au climat, l’une de ses causes de prédilection.

Quoi qu’il en soit, sa présence a entraîné un débat supplémentaire chez les démocrates. Tous les candidats se sont déclarés scandalisés qu’il « achète » l’élection à coups de publicités (une telle fortune, équivalente à ce que possèdent 125 millions d’Américains, est « immorale », a jugé Bernie Sanders). Mais Bloomberg, un self-made-man, ingénieur de formation qui a inventé une plate-forme de trading, n’est pas vu comme un épouvantail par toute la gauche, où sévit ce qu’un éditorialiste a appelé « la tentation de Bloomberg », l’anti-Bernie Sanders.

Le milliardaire a reçu le soutien de dizaines de maires et d’élus afro-américains, dont il aide les projets sociaux depuis des années. Il a investi 500 millions de dollars dans la campagne de l’organisation écologiste Sierra Club « Beyond coal », qui a contribué à fermer la moitié des centrales au charbon du pays. Pas une cause progressiste – du planning familial à l’Emily’s List, qui aide les femmes en politique – qui n’ait bénéficié de subventions de sa fondation. « J’ai eu beaucoup de chance, j’ai gagné beaucoup d’argent et je suis en train de le dépenser pour débarrasser le pays de Donald Trump. Et d’ailleurs, une bonne partie de cet argent va au Parti démocrate », a-t-il rappelé.

Voir enfin:

Poison Apples
Rebecca Solnit
Harper’s
Dec. 2014

Thirty years ago, Apple Computer launched a new product with a messianic commercial in which legions of blank-faced, coverall-clad workers march, as if in a trance, through a strange industrial world. They arrive at a bright screen, which they sit in front of in homogeneous rows to watch a Big Brother–like figure announce the triumph of a mind-controlling monoculture. An athlete speeds toward the massive hall. Her sprinting power, her golden skin and bright red shorts, and even her gender stand in contrast to the zombie shuffle of the male figures.

The ad cuts back and forth between this vivid, supercharged woman in color and the bald ghost-workers in black and white. Pursued by faceless police in riot helmets intent on stopping her, she nevertheless finds time to spin her sledgehammer round and round before hurling it at the screen, where it smashes the image of Big Brother. The screen explodes in brightness, like an atomic blast, before the video cuts to a shot of the audience’s illuminated faces, their mouths open in shock. Then comes the famous tagline: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’ ” It’s perhaps Silicon Valley’s first announcement that they don’t just make tools; they make culture. But what kind of culture?

This minute-long movie was made in an era of considerable anxiety about the future. Alien (1979) postulated the usual hostile invaders, with better effects; Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) showed a chaotic world of post-peak-oil car mania; Blade Runner (1982) was set in a Los Angeles that was a weird mix of post-human and post-white, two qualities that were regarded with what seemed like equal dismay; and The Terminator (1984) worried about smart machines. This little Apple film was made to pep you up about the future, not to scare you, back in the days when the power of computers was puny compared with now, and nuclear threats were huge.

I want to yell at that liberatory young woman with her sledgehammer: « Don’t do it! » Apple is not different. That industry is going to give rise to innumerable forms of triviality and misogyny, to the concentration of wealth and the dispersal of mental concentration. To suicidal, underpaid Chinese factory workers whose reality must be like that of the shuffling workers in the commercial. If you think a crowd of people staring at one screen is bad, wait until you have created a world in which billions of people stare at their own screens even while walking, driving, eating in the company of friends—all of them eternally elsewhere. »

Voir par ailleurs:

Inside the Whale

When Henry Miller’s novel, Tropic of Cancer, appeared in 1935, it was greeted with rather cautious praise, obviously conditioned in some cases by a fear of seeming to enjoy pornography. Among the people who praised it were T. S. Eliot, Herbert Read, Aldous Huxley, John dos Passos, Ezra Pound — on the whole, not the writers who are in fashion at this moment. And in fact the subject matter of the book, and to a certain extent its mental atmosphere, belong to the twenties rather than to the thirties.Tropic of Cancer is a novel in the first person, or autobiography in the form of a novel, whichever way you like to look at it. Miller himself insists that it is straight autobiography, but the tempo and method of telling the story are those of a novel. It is a story of the American Paris, but not along quite the usual lines, because the Americans who figure in it happen to be people without money. During the boom years, when dollars were plentiful and the exchange-value of the franc was low, Paris was invaded by such a swarm of artists, writers, students, dilettanti, sight-seers, debauchees, and plain idlers as the world has probably never seen. In some quarters of the town the so-called artists must actually have outnumbered the working population — indeed, it has been reckoned that in the late ‘twenties there were as many as 30,000 painters in Paris, most of them impostors. The populace had grown so hardened to artists that gruff-voiced lesbians in corduroy breeches and young men in Grecian or medieval costume could walk the streets without attracting a glance, and along the Seine banks by Notre Dame it was almost impossible to pick one’s way between the sketching-stools. It was the age of dark horses and neglected genii; the phrase on everybody’s lips was ‘quand je serai lancé’. As it turned out, nobody was ‘lancé’, the slump descended like another Ice Age, the cosmopolitan mob of artists vanished, and the huge Montparnasse cafés which only ten years ago were filled till the small hours by hordes of shrieking poseurs have turned into darkened tombs in which there are not even any ghosts. It is this world — described in, among other novels, Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr — that Miller is writing about, but he is dealing only with the under side of it, the lumpen-proletarian fringe which has been able to survive the slump because it is composed partly of genuine artists and partly of genuine scoundrels. The neglected genii, the paranoiacs who are always ‘going to’ write the novel that will knock Proust into a cocked hat, are there, but they are only genii in the rather rare moments when they are not scouting about for the next meal. For the most part it is a story of bug-ridden rooms in workingmen’s hotels, of fights, drinking bouts, cheap brothels, Russian refugees, cadging, swindling, and temporary jobs. And the whole atmosphere of the poor quarters of Paris as a foreigner sees them — the cobbled alleys, the sour reek of refuse, the bistros with their greasy zinc counters and worn brick floors, the green waters of the Seine, the blue cloaks of the Republican Guard, the crumbling iron urinals, the peculiar sweetish smell of the Metro stations, the cigarettes that come to pieces, the pigeons in the Luxembourg Gardens — it is all there, or at any rate the feeling of it is there.On the face of it no material could be less promising. When Tropic of Cancer was published the Italians were marching into Abyssinia and Hitler’s concentration camps were already bulging. The intellectual foci of the world were Rome, Moscow, and Berlin. It did not seem to be a moment at which a novel of outstanding value was likely to be written about American dead-beats cadging drinks in the Latin Quarter. Of course a novelist is not obliged to write directly about contemporary history, but a novelist who simply disregards the major public events of the moment is generally either a footler or a plain idiot. From a mere account of the subject matter of Tropic of Cancer most people would probably assume it to be no more than a bit of naughty-naughty left over from the ‘twenties. Actually, nearly everyone who read it saw at once that it was nothing of the kind, but a very remarkable book. How or why remarkable? That question is never easy to answer. It is better to begin by describing the impression that Tropic of Cancer has left on my own mind.

When I first opened Tropic of Cancer and saw that it was full of unprintable words, my immediate reaction was a refusal to be impressed. Most people’s would be the same, I believe. Nevertheless, after a lapse of time the atmosphere of the book, besides innumerable details, seemed to linger in my memory in a peculiar way. A year later Miller’s second book, Black Spring, was published. By this time Tropic of Cancer was much more vividly present in my mind than it had been when I first read it. My first feeling about Black Spring was that it showed a falling-off, and it is a fact that it has not the same unity as the other book. Yet after another year there were many passages in Black Spring that had also rooted themselves in my memory. Evidently these books are of the sort to leave a flavour behind them — books that ‘create a world of their own’, as the saying goes. The books that do this are not necessarily good books, they may be good bad books like Raffles or the Sherlock Holmes stories, or perverse and morbid books like Wuthering Heights or The House with the Green Shutters. But now and again there appears a novel which opens up a new world not by revealing what is strange, but by revealing what is familiar. The truly remarkable thing about Ulysses, for instance, is the commonplaceness of its material. Of course there is much more in Ulysses than this, because Joyce is a kind of poet and also an elephantine pedant, but his real achievement has been to get the familiar on to paper. He dared — for it is a matter of daring just as much as of technique — to expose the imbecilities of the inner mind, and in doing so he discovered an America which was under everybody’s nose. Here is a whole world of stuff which you supposed to be of its nature incommunicable, and somebody has managed to communicate it. The effect is to break down, at any rate momentarily, the solitude in which the human being lives. When you read certain passages in Ulysses you feel that Joyce’s mind and your mind are one, that he knows all about you though he has never heard your name, that there exists some world outside time and space in which you and he are together. And though he does not resemble Joyce in other ways, there is a touch of this quality in Henry Miller. Not everywhere, because his work is very uneven, and sometimes, especially in Black Spring, tends to slide away into mere verbiage or into the squashy universe of the surrealists. But read him for five pages, ten pages, and you feel the peculiar relief that comes not so much from understanding as from being understood. ‘He knows all about me,’ you feel; ‘he wrote this specially for me’. It is as though you could hear a voice speaking to you, a friendly American voice, with no humbug in it, no moral purpose, merely an implicit assumption that we are all alike. For the moment you have got away from the lies and simplifications, the stylized, marionette-like quality of ordinary fiction, even quite good fiction, and are dealing with the recognizable experiences of human beings.

But what kind of experience? What kind of human beings? Miller is writing about the man in the street, and it is incidentally rather a pity that it should be a street full of brothels. That is the penalty of leaving your native land. It means transferring your roots into shallower soil. Exile is probably more damaging to a novelist than to a painter or even a poet, because its effect is to take him out of contact with working life and narrow down his range to the street, the café, the church, the brothel and the studio. On the whole, in Miller’s books you are reading about people living the expatriate life, people drinking, talking, meditating, and fornicating, not about people working, marrying, and bringing up children; a pity, because he would have described the one set of activities as well as the other. In Black Spring there is a wonderful flashback of New York, the swarming Irish-infested New York of the O. Henry period, but the Paris scenes are the best, and, granted their utter worthlessness as social types, the drunks and dead-beats of the cafés are handled with a feeling for character and a mastery of technique that are unapproached in any at all recent novel. All of them are not only credible but completely familiar; you have the feeling that all their adventures have happened to yourself. Not that they are anything very startling in the way of adventures. Henry gets a job with a melancholy Indian student, gets another job at a dreadful French school during a cold snap when the lavatories are frozen solid, goes on drinking bouts in Le Havre with his friend Collins, the sea captain, goes to brothels where there are wonderful Negresses, talks with his friend Van Norden, the novelist, who has got the great novel of the world in his head but can never bring himself to begin writing it. His friend Karl, on the verge of starvation, is picked up by a wealthy widow who wishes to marry him. There are interminable Hamlet-like conversations in which Karl tries to decide which is worse, being hungry or sleeping with an old woman. In great detail he describes his visits to the widow, how he went to the hotel dressed in his best, how before going in he neglected to urinate, so that the whole evening was one long crescendo of torment etc., etc. And after all, none of it is true, the widow doesn’t even exist — Karl has simply invented her in order to make himself seem important. The whole book is in this vein, more or less. Why is it that these monstrous trivialities are so engrossing? Simply because the whole atmosphere is deeply familiar, because you have all the while the feeling that these things are happening to you. And you have this feeling because somebody has chosen to drop the Geneva language of the ordinary novel and drag the real-politik of the inner mind into the open. In Miller’s case it is not so much a question of exploring the mechanisms of the mind as of owning up to everyday facts and everyday emotions. For the truth is that many ordinary people, perhaps an actual majority, do speak and behave in just the way that is recorded here. The callous coarseness with which the characters in Tropic of Cancer talk is very rare in fiction, but it is extremely common in real life; again and again I have heard just such conversations from people who were not even aware that they were talking coarsely. It is worth noticing that Tropic of Cancer is not a young man’s book. Miller was in his forties when it was published, and though since then he has produced three or four others, it is obvious that this first book had been lived with for years. It is one of those books that are slowly matured in poverty and obscurity, by people who know what they have got to do and therefore are able to wait. The prose is astonishing, and in parts of Black Spring it is even better. Unfortunately I cannot quote; unprintable words occur almost everywhere. But get hold of Tropic of Cancer, get hold of Black Spring and read especially the first hundred pages. They give you an idea of what can still be done, even at this late date, with English prose. In them, English is treated as a spoken language, but spoken without fear, i.e. without fear of rhetoric or of the unusual or poetical word. The adjective has come back, after its ten years’ exile. It is a flowing, swelling prose, a prose with rhythms in it, something quite different from the flat cautious statements and snack-bar dialects that are now in fashion.

When a book like Tropic of Cancer appears, it is only natural that the first thing people notice should be its obscenity. Given our current notions of literary decency, it is not at all easy to approach an unprintable book with detachment. Either one is shocked and disgusted, or one is morbidly thrilled, or one is determined above all else not to be impressed. The last is probably the commonest reaction, with the result that unprintable books often get less attention than they deserve. It is rather the fashion to say that nothing is easier than to write an obscene book, that people only do it in order to get themselves talked about and make money, etc., etc. What makes it obvious that this is not the case is that books which are obscene in the police-court sense are distinctly uncommon. If there were easy money to be made out of dirty words, a lot more people would be making it. But, because ‘obscene’ books do not appear very frequently, there is a tendency to lump them together, as a rule quite unjustifiably. Tropic of Cancer has been vaguely associated with two other books, Ulysses and Voyage au Bout de la Nuit, but in neither case is there much resemblance. What Miller has in common with Joyce is a willingness to mention the inane, squalid facts of everyday life. Putting aside differences of technique, the funeral scene in Ulysses, for instance, would fit into Tropic of Cancer; the whole chapter is a sort of confession, an exposé of the frightful inner callousness of the human being. But there the resemblance ends. As a novel, Tropic of Cancer is far inferior to Ulysses. Joyce is an artist, in a sense in which Miller is not and probably would not wish to be, and in any case he is attempting much more. He is exploring different states of consciousness, dream, reverie (the ‘bronze-by-gold’ chapter), drunkenness, etc., and dovetailing them all into a huge complex pattern, almost like a Victorian ‘plot’. Miller is simply a hard-boiled person talking about life, an ordinary American businessman with intellectual courage and a gift for words. It is perhaps significant that he looks exactly like everyone’s idea of an American businessman. As for the comparison with Voyage au Bout de la Nuit, it is even further from the point. Both books use unprintable words, both are in some sense autobiographical, but that is all. Voyage au Bout de la Nuit is a book-with-a-purpose, and its purpose is to protest against the horror and meaninglessness of modern life — actually, indeed, of life. It is a cry of unbearable disgust, a voice from the cesspool. Tropic of Cancer is almost exactly the opposite. The thing has become so unusual as to seem almost anomalous, but it is the book of a man who is happy. So is Black Spring, though slightly less so, because tinged in places with nostalgia. With years of lumpen-proletarian life behind him, hunger, vagabondage, dirt, failure, nights in the open, battles with immigration officers, endless struggles for a bit of cash, Miller finds that he is enjoying himself. Exactly the aspects of life that fill Céline with horror are the ones that appeal to him. So far from protesting, he is accepting. And the very word ‘acceptance’ calls up his real affinity, another American, Walt Whitman.

But there is something rather curious in being Whitman in the nineteen-thirties. It is not certain that if Whitman himself were alive at the moment he would write anything in the least degree resembling Leaves of Grass. For what he is saying, after all, is ‘I accept’, and there is a radical difference between acceptance now and acceptance then. Whitman was writing in a time of unexampled prosperity, but more than that, he was writing in a country where freedom was something more than a word. The democracy, equality, and comradeship that he is always talking about are not remote ideals, but something that existed in front of his eyes. In mid-nineteenth-century America men felt themselves free and equal, were free and equal, so far as that is possible outside a society of pure communism. There was poverty and there were even class-distinctions, but except for the Negroes there was no permanently submerged class. Everyone had inside him, like a kind of core, the, knowledge that he could earn a decent living, and earn it without bootlicking. When you read about Mark Twain’s Mississippi raftsmen and pilots, or Bret Harte’s Western gold-miners, they seem more remote than the cannibals of the Stone Age. The reason is simply that they are free human beings. But it is the same even with the peaceful domesticated America of the Eastern states, the America of Little Women, Helen’s Babies, and Riding Down from Bangor. Life has a buoyant, carefree quality that you can feel as you read, like a physical sensation in your belly. It is this that Whitman is celebrating, though actually he does it very badly, because he is one of those writers who tell you what you ought to feel instead of making you feel it. Luckilly for his beliefs, perhaps, he died too early to see the deterioration in American life that came with the rise of large-scale industry and the exploiting of cheap immigrant labour.

Miller’s outlook is deeply akin to that of Whitman, and neaarly everyone who has read him has remarked on this. Tropic of Cancer ends with an especially Whitmanesque passage, in which, after the lecheries, the swindles, the fights, the drinking bouts, and the imbecilities, he simply sits down and watches the Seine flowing past, in a sort of mystical acceptance of the thing-as-it-is. Only, what is he accepting? In the first place, not America, but the ancient boneheap of Europe, where every grain of soil has passed through innumerable human bodies. Secondly, not an epoch of expansion and liberty, but an epoch of fear, tyranny, and regimentation. To say ‘I accept’ in an age like our own is to say that you accept concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs, aeroplanes, tinned food, machine guns, putsches, purges, slogans, Bedaux belts, gas masks, submarines, spies, provocateurs, press-censorship, secret prisons, aspirins, Hollywood films, and political murders. Not only those things, of course, but, those things among others. And on the whole this is Henry Miller’s attitude. Not quite always, because at moments he shows signs of a fairly ordinary kind of literary nostalgia. There is a long passage in the earlier part of Black Spring, in praise of the Middle Ages, which as prose must be one of the most remarkable pieces of writing in recent years, but which displays an attitude not very different from that of Chesterton. In Max and the White Phagocytes there is an attack on modern American civilization (breakfast cereals, cellophane, etc.) from the usual angle of the literary man who hates industrialism. But in general the attitude is ‘Let’s swallow it whole’. And hence the seeming preocupation with indecency and with the dirty-handkerchief side of life. It is only seeming, for the truth is that ordinary everyday life consists far more largely of horrors than writers of fiction usually care to admit. Whitman himself ‘accepted’ a great deal that his contemporaries found unmentionable. For he is not only writing of the prairie, he also wanders through the city and notes the shattered skull of the suicide, the ‘grey sick faces of onanists’, etc, etc. But unquestionably our own age, at any rate in Western Europe, is less healthy and less hopeful than the age in which Whitman was writing. Unlike Whitman, we live in a shrinking world. The ‘democratic vistas’ have ended in barbed wire. There is less feeling of creation and growth, less and less emphasis on the cradle, endlessly rocking, more and more emphasis on the teapot, endlessly stewing. To accept civilization as it is practically means accepting decay. It has ceased to be a strenuous attitude and become a passive attitude — even ‘decadent’, if that word means anything.

But precisely because, in one sense, he is passive to experience, Miller is able to get nearer to the ordinary man than is possible to more purposive writers. For the ordinary man is also passive. Within a narrow circle (home life, and perhaps the trade union or local politics) he feels himself master of his fate, but against major events he is as helpless as against the elements. So far from endeavouring to influence the future, he simply lies down and lets things happen to him. During the past ten years literature has involved itself more and more deeply in politics, with the result that there is now less room in it for the ordinary man than at any time during the past two centuries. One can see the change in the prevailing literary attitude by comparing the books written about the Spanish Civil War with those written about the war of 1914-18. The immediately striking thing about the Spanish war books, at any rate those written in English, is their shocking dullness and badness. But what is more significant is that almost all of them, right-wing or left-wing, are written from a political angle, by cocksure partisans telling you what to think, whereas the books about the Great War were written by common soldiers or junior officers who did not even pretend to understand what the whole thing was about. Books like All Quiet on the Western Front, Le Feu, A FArewell to Arms, Death of  a Hero, Good-bye to All That, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and A Subaltern on the Somme were written not by propagandists but by victims. They are saying in effect, ‘What the hell is all this about? God knows. All we can do is to endure.’ And though he is not writing about war, nor, on the whole, about unhappiness, this is nearer to Miller’s attitude than the omniscience which is now fashionable. The Booster, a short-lived periodical of which he was part-editor, used to describe itself in its advertisements as ‘non-political, non-educational, non-progressive, non-cooperative, non-ethical, non-literary, non-consistent, non-contemporary’, and Miller’s own work could be described in nearly the same terms. It is a voice from the crowd, from the underling, from the third-class carriage, from the ordinary, non-political, non-moral, passive man.

I have been using the phrase ‘ordinary man’ rather loosely, and I have taken it for granted that the ‘ordinary man’ exists, a thing now denied by some people. I do not mean that the people Miller is writing about constitute a majority, still less that he is writing about proletarians. No English or American novelist has as yet seriously attempted that. And again, the people in Tropic of Cancer fall short of being ordinary to the extent that they are idle, disreputable, and more or less ‘artistic’. As I have said already, this is a pity, but it is the necessary result of expatriation. Miller’s ‘ordinary man’ is neither the manual worker nor the suburban householder, but the derelict, the declassé, the adventurer, the American intellectual without roots and without money. Still, the experiences even of this type overlap fairly widely with those of more normal people. Miller has been able to get the most out of his rather limited material because he has had the courage to identify with it. The ordinary man, the ‘average sensual man’, has been given the power of speech, like Balaam’s ass.

It will be seen that this is something out of date, or at any rate out of fashion. The average sensual man is out of fashion. The passive, non-political attitude is out of fashion. Preoccupation with sex and truthfulness about the inner life are out of fashion. American Paris is out of fashion. A book like Tropic of Cancer, published at such a time, must be either a tedious preciosity or something unusual, and I think a majority of the people who have read it would agree that it is not the first. It is worth trying to discover just what this escape from the current literary fashion means. But to do that one has got to see it against its background — that is, against the general development of English literature in the twenty years since the Great War.

2

When one says that a writer is fashionable one practically always means that he is admired by people under thirty. At the beginning of the period I am speaking of, the years during and immediately after the war, the writer who had the deepest hold upon the thinking young was almost certainly Housman. Among people who were adolescent in the years 1910-25, Housman had an influence which was enormous and is now not at all easy to understand. In 1920, when I was about seventeen, I probably knew the whole of A Shropshire Lad by heart. I wonder how much impression A Shropshire Lad makes at this moment on a boy of the same age and more or less the same cast of mind? No doubt he has heard of it and even glanced into it; it might strike him as cheaply clever — probably that would be about all. Yet these are the poems that I and my contemporaries used to recite to ourselves, over and over, in a kind of ecstasy, just as earlier generations had recited Meredith’s ‘Love in a Valley’, Swinburne’s ‘Garden of Proserpine’ etc., etc.

With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.

By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.

It just tinkles. But it did not seem to tinkle in 1920. Why does the bubble always burst? To answer that question one has to take account of the external conditions that make certain writers popular at certain times. Housman’s poems had not attracted much notice when they were first published. What was there in them that appealed so deeply to a single generation, the generation born round about 1900?

In the first place, Housman is a ‘country’ poet. His poems are full of the charm of buried villages, the nostalgia of place-names, Clunton and Clunbury, Knighton, Ludlow, ‘on Wenlock Edge’, ‘in summer time on Bredon’, thatched roofs and the jingle of smithies, the wild jonquils in the pastures, the ‘blue, remembered hills’. War poems apart, English verse of the 1910-25 period is mostly ‘country’. The reason no doubt was that the rentier-professional class was ceasing once and for all to have any real relationship with the soil; but at any rate there prevailed then, far more than now, a kind of snobbism of belonging to the country and despising the town. England at that time was hardly more an agricultural country than it is now, but before the light industries began to spread themselves it was easier to think of it as one. Most middle-class boys grew up within sight of a farm, and naturally it was the picturesque side of farm life that appealed to them — the ploughing, harvesting, stack-thrashing and so forth. Unless he has to do it himself a boy is not likely to notice the horrible drudgery of hoeing turnips, milking cows with chapped teats at four o’clock in the morning, etc., etc. Just before, just after, and for that matter, during the war was the great age of the ‘Nature poet’, the heyday of Richard Jefferies and W. H. Hudson. Rupert Brooke’s ‘Grantchester’, the star poem of 1913, is nothing but an enormous gush of ‘country’ sentiment, a sort of accumulated vomit from a stomach stuffed with place-names. Considered as a poem ‘Grantchester’ is something worse than worthless, but as an illustration of what the thinking middle-class young of that period felt it is a valuable document.

Housman, however, did not enthuse over the rambler roses in the week-ending spirit of Brooke and the others. The ‘country’ motif is there all the time, but mainly as a background. Most of the poems have a quasi-human subject, a kind of idealized rustic, in reality Strephon or Corydon brought up to date. This in itself had a deep appeal. Experience shows that overcivilized people enjoy reading about rustics (key-phrase, ‘close to the soil’) because they imagine them to be more primitive and passionate than themselves. Hence the ‘dark earth’ novels of Sheila Kaye-Smith, etc. And at that time a middle-class boy, with his ‘country’ bias, would identify with an agricultural worker as he would never have done with a town worker. Most boys had in their minds a vision of an idealized ploughman, gypsy, poacher, or gamekeeper, always pictured as a wild, free, roving blade, living a life of rabbit-snaring, cockfighting, horses, beer, and women. Masefield’s Everlasting Mercy, another valuable period-piece, immensely popular with boys round about the war years, gives you this vision in a very crude form. But Housman’s Maurices and Terences could be taken seriously where Masefield’s Saul Kane could not; on this side of him, Housman was Masefield with a dash of Theocritus. Moreover all his themes are adolescent — murder, suicide, unhappy love, early death. They deal with the simple, intelligible disasters that give you the feeling of being up against the ‘bedrock facts’of life:

The sun burns on the half-mown hill,
By now the blood has dried;
And Maurice amongst the hay lies still
And my knife is in his side.

And again:

They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
And whistles blow forlorn,
And trains all night groan on the rail
To men that die at morn.

It is all more or less in the same tune. Everything comes unstuck. ‘Dick lies long in the churchyard and Ned lies long in jail’. And notice also the exquisite self-pity — the ‘nobody loves me’ feeling:

The diamond drops adorning
The low mound on the lea,
Those are the tears of morning,
That weeps, but not for thee.

Hard cheese, old chap! Such poems might have been written expressly for adolescents. And the unvarying sexual pessimism (the girl always dies or marries somebody else) seemed like wisdom to boys who were herded together in public schools and were half-inclined to think of women as something unattainable. Whether Housman ever had the same appeal for girls I doubt. In his poems the woman’s point of view is not considered, she is merely the nymph, the siren, the treacherous half-human creature who leads you a little distance and then gives you the slip.

But Housman would not have appealed so deeply to the people who were young in 1920 if it had not been for another strain in him, and that was his blasphemous, antinomian, ‘cynical’ strain. The fight that always occurs between the generations was exceptionally bitter at the end of the Great War; this was partly due to the war itself, and partly it was an indirect result of the Russian Revolution, but an intellectual struggle was in any case due at about that date. Owing probably to the ease and security of life in England, which even the war hardly disturbed, many people whose ideas were formed in the ‘eighties or earlier had carried them quite unmodified into the nineteen-twenties. Meanwhile, so far as the younger generation was concerned, the official beliefs were dissolving like sand-castles. The slump in religious belief, for instance, was spectacular. For several years the old-young antagonism took on a quality of real hatred. What was left of the war generation had crept out of the massacre to find their elders still bellowing the slogans of 1914, and a slightly younger generation of boys were writhing under dirty-minded celibate schoolmasters. It was to these that Housman appealed, with his implied sexual revolt and his personal grievance against God. He was patriotic, it was true, but in a harmless old-fashioned way, to the tune of red coats and ‘God save the Queen’ rather than steel helmets and ‘Hang the Kaiser’. And he was satisfyingly anti-Christian — he stood for a kind of bitter, defiant paganism, the conviction that life is short and the gods are against you, which exactly fitted the prevailing mood of the young; and all in charming fragile verse that was composed almost entirely of words of one syllable.

It will be seen that I have discussed Housman as though he were merely a propagandist, an utterer of maxims and quotable ‘bits’. Obviously he was more than that. There is no need to under-rate him now because he was over-rated a few years ago. Although one gets into trouble nowadays for saying so, there are a number of his poems (‘Into my heart an air that kills’, for instance, and ‘Is my team ploughing?’) that are not likely to remain long out of favour. But at bottom it is always a writer’s tendency, his ‘purpose’, his ‘message’, that makes him liked or disliked. The proof of this is the extreme difficulty of seeing any literary merit in a book that seriously damages your deepest beliefs. And no book is ever truly neutral. Some or other tendency is always discernible, in verse as much as in prose, even if it does no more than determine the form and the choice of imagery. But poets who attain wide popularity, like Housman, are as a rule definitely gnomic writers.

After the war, after Housman and the Nature-poets, there appears a group of writers of completely different tendency — Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Lytton Strachey. So far as the middle and late ‘twenties go, these are ‘the movement’, as surely as the Auden-Spender group have been ‘the movement’ during the past few years. It is true that not all of the gifted writers of the period can be fitted into the pattern. E. M. Forster, for instance, though he wrote his best book in 1923 or thereabouts, was essentially pre-war, and Yeats does not seem in either of his phases to belong to the ‘twenties. Others who were still living, Moore, Conrad, Bennett, Wells, Norman Douglas, had shot their bolt before the war ever happened. On the other hand, a writer who should be added to the group, though in the narrowly literary sense he hardly ‘belongs’, is Somerset Maugham. Of course the dates do not fit exactly; most of these writers had already published books before the war, but they can be classified as post-war in the same sense that the younger men now writing are post-slump. Equally, of course, you could read through most of the literary papers of the time without grasping that these people are ‘the movement’. Even more then than at most times the big shots of literary journalism were busy pretending that the age-before-last had not come to an end. Squire ruled the London Mercury, Gibbs and Walpole were the gods of the lending libraries, there was a cult of cheeriness and manliness, beer and cricket, briar pipes and monogamy, and it was at all times possible to earn a few guineas by writing an article denouncing ‘highbrows’. But all the same it was the despised highbrows who had captured the young. The wind was blowing from Europe, and long before 1930 it had blown the beer-and-cricket school naked, except for their knighthoods.

But the first thing one would notice about the group of writers I have named above is that they do not look like a group. Moreover several of them would strongly object to being coupled with several of the others. Lawrence and Eliot were in reality antipathetic, Huxley worshipped Lawrence but was repelled by Joyce, most of the others would have looked down on Huxley, Strachey, and Maugham, and Lewis attacked everyone in turn; indeed, his reputation as a writer rests largely on these attacks. And yet there is a certain temperamental similarity, evident enough now, though it would not have been so a dozen years ago. What it amounts to is pessimism of outlook. But it is necessary to make clear what is meant by pessimism.

If the keynote of the Georgian poets was ‘beauty of Nature’, the keynote of the post-war writers would be ‘tragic sense of life’. The spirit behind Housman’s poems for instance, is not tragic, merely querulous; it is hedonism disappointed. The same is true of Hardy, though one ought to make an exception of The Dynasts. But the Joyce-Eliot group come later in time, puritanism is not their main adversary, they are able from the start to ‘see through’ most of the things that their predecessors had fought for. All of them are temperamentally hostile to the notion of ‘progress’; it is felt that progress not only doesn’t happen, but ought not to happen. Given this general similarity, there are, of course, differences of approach between the writers I have named as well as different degrees of talent. Eliot’s pessimism is partly the Christian pessimism, which implies a certain indifference to human misery, partly a lament over the decadence of Western civilization (‘We are the hollow men, we are the stuffed men,’ etc., etc.), a sort of twilight-of-the-gods feeling, which finally leads him, in ‘Sweeney Agonistes’ for instance, to achieve the difficult feat of making modern life out to be worse than it is. With Strachey it is merely a polite eighteenth-century scepticism mixed up with a taste for debunking. With Maugham it is a kind of stoical resignation, the stiff upper lip of the pukka sahib somewhere East of Suez, carrying on with his job without believing in it, like an Antonine Emperor. Lawrence at first sight does not seem to be a pessimistic writer, because, like Dickens, he is a ‘change-of-heart’ man and constantly insisting that life here and now would be all right if only you looked at it a little differently. But what he is demanding is a movement away from our mechanized civilization, which is not going to happen. Therefore his exasperation with the present turns once more into idealization of the past, this time a safely mythical past, the Bronze Age. When Lawrence prefers the Etruscans (his Etruscans) to ourselves it is difficult not to agree with him, and yet, after all, it is a species of defeatism, because that is not the direction in which the world is moving. The kind of life that he is always pointing to, a life centring round the simple mysteries — sex, earth, fire, water, blood — is merely a lost cause. All he has been able to produce, therefore, is a wish that things would happen in a way in which they are manifestly not going to happen. ‘A wave of generosity or a wave of death’, he says, but it is obvious that there are no waves of generosity this side of the horizon. So he flees to Mexico, and then dies at forty-five, a few years before the wave of death gets going. It will be seen that once again I am speaking of these people as though they were not artists, as though they were merely propagandists putting a ‘message’ across. And once again it is obvious that all of them are more than that. It would be absurd, for instance, to look on Ulysses as merely a show-up of the horror of modern life, the ‘dirty Daily Mail era’, as Pound put it. Joyce actually is more of a ‘pure artist’ than most writers. But Ulysses could not have been written by someone who was merely dabbling with word-patterns; it is the product of a special vision of life, the vision of a Catholic who has lost his faith. What Joyce is saying is ‘Here is life without God. Just look at it!’ and his technical innovations, important though they are, are primarily to serve this purpose.

But what is noticeable about all these writers is that what ‘purpose’ they have is very much up in the air. There is no attention to the urgent problems of the moment, above all no politics in the narrower sense. Our eyes are directed to Rome, to Byzantium, to Montparnasse, to Mexico, to the Etruscans, to the Subconscious, to the solar plexus — to everywhere except the places where things are actually happening. When one looks back at the ‘twenties, nothing is queerer than the way in which every important event in Europe escaped the notice of the English intelligentsia. The Russian Revolution, for instance, all but vanishes from the English consciousness between the death of Lenin and the Ukraine famine — about ten years. Throughout those years Russia means Tolstoy, Dostoievski, and exiled counts driving taxi-cabs. Italy means picture-galleries, ruins, churches, and museums — but not Blackshirts. Germany means films, nudism, and psychoanalysis — but not Hitler, of whom hardly anyone had heard till 1931. In ‘cultured’ circles art-for-art’s-saking extended practically to a worship of the meaningless. Literature was supposed to consist solely in the manipulation of words. To judge a book by its subject matter was the unforgivable sin, and even to be aware of its subject matter was looked on as a lapse of a taste. About 1928, in one of the three genuinely funny jokes that Punch has produced since the Great War, an intolerable youth is pictured informing his aunt that he intends to ‘write’. ‘And what are you going to write about, dear?’ asks the aunt. ‘My dear aunt,’ says the youth crushingly, ‘one doesn’t write about anything, one just writes.’ The best writers of the ‘twenties did not subscribe to this doctrine, their ‘purpose’ is in most cases fairly overt, but it is usually ‘purpose’ along moral-religious-cultural lines. Also, when translatable into political terms, it is in no case ‘left’. In one way or another the tendency of all the writers in this group is conservative. Lewis, for instance, spent years in frenzied witch-smellings after ‘Bolshevism’, which he was able to detect in very unlikely places. Recently he has changed some of his views, perhaps influenced by Hitler’s treatment of artists, but it is safe to bet that he will not go very far leftward. Pound seems to have plumped definitely for Fascism, at any rate the Italian variety. Eliot has remained aloof, but if forced at the pistol’s point to choose between Fascism and some more democratic form of socialism, would probably choose Fascism. Huxley starts off with the usual despair-of-life, then, under the influence of Lawrence’s ‘dark abdomen’, tries something called Life-Worship, and finally arrives at pacifism — a tenable position, and at this moment an honourable one, but probably in the long run involving rejection of socialism. It is also noticeable that most of the writers in this group have a certain tenderness for the Catholic Church, though not usually of a kind that an orthodox Catholic would accept.

The mental connexion between pessimism and a reactionary outlook is no doubt obvious enough. What is perhaps less obvious is just why the leading writers of the ‘twenties were predominantly pessimistic. Why always the sense of decadence, the skulls and cactuses, the yearning after lost faith and impossible civilizations? Was it not, after all, because these people were writing in an exceptionally comfortable epoch? It is just in such times that ‘cosmic despair’ can flourish. People with empty bellies never despair of the universe, nor even think about the universe, for that matter. The whole period 1910-30 was a prosperous one, and even the war years were physically tolerable if one happened to be a non-combatant in one of the Allied countries. As for the ‘twenties, they were the golden age of the rentier-intellectual, a period of irresponsibility such as the world had never before seen. The war was over, the new totalitarian states had not arisen, moral and religious tabus of all descriptions had vanished, and the cash was rolling in. ‘Disillusionment’ was all the fashion. Everyone with a safe £500 a year turned highbrow and began training himself in taedium vitae. It was an age of eagles and of crumpets, facile despairs, backyard Hamlets, cheap return tickets to the end of the night. In some of the minor characteristic novels of the period, books like Told by an Idiot, the despair-of-life reaches a Turkish-bath atmosphere of self-pity. And even the best writers of the time can be convicted of a too Olympian attitude, a too great readiness to wash their hands of the immediate practical problem. They see life very comprehensively, much more so than those who come immediately before or after them, but they see it through the wrong end of the telescope. Not that that invalidates their books, as books. The first test of any work of art is survival, and it is a fact that a great deal that was written in the period 1910-30 has survived and looks like continuing to survive. One has only to think of Ulysses, Of Human Bondage, most of Lawrence’s early work, especially his short stories, and virtually the whole of Eliot’s poems up to about 1930, to wonder what is now being written that will wear so well.

But quite Suddenly, in the years 1930-5, something happens. The literary climate changes. A new group of writers, Auden and Spender and the rest of them, has made its appearance, and although technically these writers owe something to their predecessors, their ‘tendency’ is entirely different. Suddenly we have got out of the twilight of the gods into a sort of Boy Scout atmosphere of bare knees and community singing. The typical literary man ceases to be a cultured expatriate with a leaning towards the Church, and becomes an eager-minded schoolboy with a leaning towards Communism. If the keynote of the writers of the ‘twenties is ‘tragic sense of life’, the keynote of the new writers is ‘serious purpose’.

The differences between the two schools are discussed at some length in Mr Louis MacNeice’s book Modern Poetry. This book is, of course, written entirely from the angle of the younger group and takes the superiority of their standards for granted. According to Mr MacNeice:

The poets of New Signatures,* unlike Yeats and Eliot, are emotionally partisan. Yeats proposed to turn his back on desire and hatred; Eliot sat back and watched other people’s emotions with ennui and an ironical self-pity…  The whole poetry, on the other hand, of Auden, Spender, and Day-Lewis implies that they have desires and hatreds of their own and, further, that they think some things ought to be desired and others hated.

And again:

The poets of New Signatures have swung back. . . to the Greek preference for information or statement. The first requirement is to have something to say, and after that you must say it as well as you can.

In other words, ‘purpose’ has come back, the younger writers have ‘gone into politics’. As I have pointed out already, Eliot & Co. are not really so non-partisan as Mr MacNeice seems to suggest. Still, it is broadly true that in the ‘twenties the literary emphasis was more on technique and less on subject-matter than it is now.

The leading figures in this group are Auden, Spender, Day-Lewis, MacNeice, and there is a long string of writers of more or less the same tendency, Isherwood, John Lehmann, Arthur Calder-Marshall, Edward Upward, Alec Brown, Philip Henderson, and many others. As before, I am lumping them together simply according to tendency. Obviously there are very great variations in talent. But when one compares these writers with the Joyce-Eliot generation, the immediately striking thing is how much easier it is to form them into a group. Technically they are closer together, politically they are almost indistinguishable, and their criticisms of one another’s work have always been (to put it mildly) good-natured. The outstanding writers of the ‘twenties were of very varied origins, few of them had passed through the ordinary English educational mill (incidentally, the best of them, barring Lawrence, were not Englishmen), and most of them had had at some time to struggle against poverty, neglect, and even downright persecution. On the other hand, nearly all the younger writers fit easily into the public-school-university-Bloomsbury pattern. The few who are of proletarian origin are of the kind that is declassed early in life, first by means of scholarships and then by the bleaching-tub of London ‘culture’. It is significant that several of the writers in this group have been not only boys but, subsequently, masters at public schools. Some years ago I described Auden as ‘a sort of gutless Kipling’. As criticism this was quite unworthy, indeed it was merely a spiteful remark, but it is a fact that in Auden’s work, especially his earlier work, an atmosphere of uplift — something rather like Kipling’s ‘If’ or Newbolt’s ‘Play up, Play up, and Play the Game!’— never seems to be very far away. Take, for instance, a poem like ‘You’re leaving now, and it’s up to you boys’. It is pure scoutmaster, the exact note of the ten-minutes’ straight talk on the dangers of self-abuse. No doubt there is an element of parody that he intends, but there is also a deeper resemblance that he does not intend. And of course the rather priggish note that is common to most of these writers is a symptom of release. By throwing ‘pure art’ overboard they have freed themselves from the fear of being laughed at and vastly enlarged their scope. The prophetic side of Marxism, for example, is new material for poetry and has great possibilities:

We are nothing.
We have fallen
Into the dark and shall be destroyed.
Think though, that in this darkness
We hold the secret hub of an idea
Whose living sunlit wheel revolves in future years outside.

(Spender, Trial of a Judge.)

But at the same time, by being Marxised literature has moved no nearer to the masses. Even allowing for the time-lag, Auden and Spender are somewhat farther from being popular writers than Joyce and Eliot, let alone Lawrence. As before, there are many contemporary writers who are outside the current, but there is not much doubt about what is the current. For the middle and late ‘thirties, Auden, Spender & Co. are ‘the movement’, just as Joyce, Eliot & Co. were for the ‘twenties. And the movement is in the direction of some rather ill-defined thing called Communism. As early as 1934 or 1935 it was considered eccentric in literary circles not to be more or less ‘left’, and in another year or two there had grown up a left-wing orthodoxy that made a certain set of opinions absolutely de rigueur on certain subjects, The idea had begun to gain ground (vide Edward Upward and others) that a writer must either be actively ‘left’ or write badly. Between 1935 and 1939 the Communist Party had an almost irresistible fascination for any writer under forty. It became as normal to hear that so-and-so had ‘joined’ as it had been a few years earlier, when Roman Catholicism was fashionable, to hear that so-and-so had ‘been received’. For about three years, in fact, the central stream of English literature was more or less directly under Communist control. How was it possible for such a thing to happen? And at the same time, what is meant by ‘Communism’? It is better to answer the second question first.

The Communist movement in Western Europe began, as a movement for the violent overthrow of capitalism, and degenerated within a few years into an instrument of Russian foreign policy. This was probably inevitable when the revolutionary ferment that followed the Great War had died down. So far as I know, the only comprehensive history of this subject in English is Franz Borkenau’s book, The Communist International. What Borkenau’s facts even more than his deductions make clear is that Communism could never have developed along its present lines if any revolutionary feeling had existed in the industrialised countries. In England, for instance, it is obvious that no such feeling has existed for years past. The pathetic membership-figures of all extremist parties show this clearly. It is, only natural, therefore, that the English Communist movement should be controlled by people who are mentally subservient to Russia and have no real aim except to manipulate British foreign policy in the Russian interest. Of course such an aim cannot be openly admitted, and it is this fact that gives the Communist Party its very peculiar character. The more vocal kind of Communist is in effect a Russian publicity agent posing as an international socialist. It is a pose that is easily kept up at normal times, but becomes difficult in moments of crisis, because of the fact that the U.S.S.R. is no more scrupulous in its foreign policy than the rest of the Great Powers. Alliances, changes of front etc., which only make sense as part of the game of power politics have to be explained and justified in terms of international socialism. Every time Stalin swaps partners, ‘Marxism’ has to be hammered into a new shape. This entails sudden and violent changes of ‘line’, purges, denunciations, systematic destruction of party literature, etc., etc. Every Communist is in fact liable at any moment to have to alter his most fundamental convictions, or leave the party. The unquestionable dogma of Monday may become the damnable heresy of Tuesday, and so on. This has happened at least three times during the past ten years. It follows that in any Western country a Communist Party is always unstable and usually very small. Its long-term membership really consists of an inner ring of intellectuals who have identified with the Russian bureaucracy, and a slightly larger body of working-class people who feel a loyalty towards Soviet Russia without necessarily understanding its policies. Otherwise there is only a shifting membership, one lot coming and another going with each change of ‘line’.

In 1930 the English Communist Party was a tiny, barely legal organization whose main activity was libelling the Labour Party. But by 1935 the face of Europe had changed, and left-wing politics changed with it. Hitler had risen to power and begun to rearm, the Russian five-year plans had succeeded, Russia had reappeared as a great military power. As Hitler’s three targets of attack were, to all appearances, Great Britain, France, and the U.S.S.R., the three countries were forced into a sort of uneasy rapprochement. This meant that the English or French Communist was obliged to become a good patriot and imperialist — that is, to defend the very things he had been attacking for the past fifteen years. The Comintern slogans suddenly faded from red to pink. ‘World revolution’ and ‘Social-Fascism’ gave way to ‘Defence of democracy’ and ‘Stop Hitler’. The years 1935-9 were the period of anti-Fascism and the Popular Front, the heyday of the Left Book Club, when red Duchesses and ‘broad-minded’ deans toured the battlefields of the Spanish war and Winston Churchill was the blue-eyed boy of the Daily Worker. Since then, of course, there has been yet another change of ‘line’. But what is important for my purpose is that it was during the ‘anti-Fascist’ phase that the younger English writers gravitated towards Communism.

The Fascism-democracy dogfight was no doubt an attraction in itself, but in any case their conversion was due at about that date. It was obvious that laissez-faire capitalism was finished and that there had got to be some kind of reconstruction; in the world of 1935 it was hardly possible to remain politically indifferent. But why did these young men turn towards anything so alien as Russian Communism? Why should writers be attracted by a form of socialism that makes mental honesty impossible? The explanation really lies in something that had already made itself felt before the slump and before Hitler: middle-class unemployment.

Unemployment is not merely a matter of not having a job. Most people can get a job of sorts, even at the worst of times. The trouble was that by about 1930 there was no activity, except perhaps scientific research, the arts, and left-wing politics, that a thinking person could believe in. The debunking of Western civilization had reached its climax and ‘disillusionment’ was immensely widespread. Who now could take it for granted to go through life in the ordinary middle-class way, as a soldier, a clergyman, a stockbroker, an Indian Civil Servant, or what-not? And how many of the values by which our grandfathers lived could not be taken seriously? Patriotism, religion, the Empire, the family, the sanctity of marriage, the Old School Tie, birth, breeding, honour, discipline — anyone of ordinary education could turn the whole lot of them inside out in three minutes. But what do you achieve, after all, by getting rid of such primal things as patriotism and religion? You have not necessarily got rid of the need for something to believe in. There had been a sort of false dawn a few years earlier when numbers of young intellectuals, including several quite gifted writers (Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Hollis, and others), had fled into the Catholic Church. It is significant that these people went almost invariably to the Roman Church and not, for instance, to the C. of E., the Greek Church, or the Protestants sects. They went, that is, to the Church with a world-wide organization, the one with a rigid discipline, the one with power and prestige behind it. Perhaps it is even worth noticing that the only latter-day convert of really first-rate gifts, Eliot, has embraced not Romanism but Anglo-Catholicism, the ecclesiastical equivalent of Trotskyism. But I do not think one need look farther than this for the reason why the young writers of the ‘thirties flocked into or towards the Communist Party. It was simply something to believe in. Here was a Church, an army, an orthodoxy, a discipline. Here was a Fatherland and — at any rate since 1935 or thereabouts — a Führer. All the loyalties and superstitions that the intellect had seemingly banished could come rushing back under the thinnest of disguises. Patriotism, religion, empire, military glory — all in one word, Russia. Father, king, leader, hero, saviour — all in one word, Stalin. God — Stalin. The devil — Hitler. Heaven — Moscow. Hell — Berlin. All the gaps were filled up. So, after all, the ‘Communism’ of the English intellectual is something explicable enough. It is the patriotism of the deracinated.

But there is one other thing that undoubtedly contributed to the cult of Russia among the English intelligentsia during these years, and that is the softness and security of life in England itself. With all its injustices, England is still the land of habeas corpus, and the over-whelming majority of English people have no experience of violence or illegality. If you have grown up in that sort of atmosphere it is not at all easy to imagine what a despotic régime is like. Nearly all the dominant writers of the thirties belonged to the soft-boiled emancipated middle class and were too young to have effective memories of the Great War. To people of that kind such things as purges, secret police, summary executions, imprisonment without trial etc., etc., are too remote to be terrifying. They can swallow totalitarianism because they have no experience of anything except liberalism. Look, for instance, at this extract from Mr Auden’s poem Spain (incidentally this poem is one of the few decent things that have been written about the Spanish war):

To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But to-day the struggle.

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
To-day the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

The second stanza is intended as a sort of tabloid picture of a day in the life of a ‘good party man’. In the morning a couple of political murders, a ten-minutes’ interlude to stifle ‘bourgeois’ remorse, and then a hurried luncheon and a busy afternoon and evening chalking walls and distributing leaflets. All very edifying. But notice the phrase ‘necessary murder’. It could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word. Personally I would not speak so lightly of murder. It so happens that I have seen the bodies of numbers of murdered men — I don’t mean killed in battle, I mean murdered. Therefore I have some conception of what murder means — the terror, the hatred, the howling relatives, the post-mortems, the blood, the smells. To me, murder is something to be avoided. So it is to any ordinary person. The Hitlers and Stalins find murder necessary, but they don’t advertise their callousness, and they don’t speak of it as murder; it is ‘liquidation’, ‘elimination’, or some other soothing phrase. Mr Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible, if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled. So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot. The warmongering to which the English intelligentsia gave themselves up in the period 1935-9 was largely based on a sense of personal immunity. The attitude was very different in France, where the military service is hard to dodge and even literary men know the weight of a pack.

Towards the end of Mr Cyril Connolly’s recent book, Enemies of Promise, there occurs an interesting and revealing passage. The first part of the book, is, more or less, an evaluation of present-day literature. Mr Connolly belongs exactly to the generation of the writers of ‘the movement’, and with not many reservations their values are his values. It is interesting to notice that among prose-writers he admires chiefly those specialising in violence — the would-be tough American school, Hemingway, etc. The latter part of the book, however, is autobiographical and consists of an account, fascinatingly accurate, of life at a preparatory school and Eton in the years 1910-20. Mr Connolly ends by remarking:

Were I to deduce anything from my feelings on leaving Eton, it might be called The Theory of Permanent Adolescence. It is the theory that the experiences undergone by boys at the great public schools are so intense as to dominate their lives and to arrest their development.

When you read the second sentence in this passage, your natural impulse is to look for the misprint. Presumably there is a ‘not’ left out, or something. But no, not a bit of it! He means it! And what is more, he is merely speaking the truth, in an inverted fashion. ‘Cultured’ middle-class life has reached a depth of softness at which a public-school education — five years in a lukewarm bath of snobbery — can actually be looked back upon as an eventful period. To nearly all the writers who have counted during the ‘thirties, what more has ever happened than Mr Connolly records in Enemies of Promise? It is the same pattern all the time; public school, university, a few trips abroad, then London. Hunger, hardship, solitude, exile, war, prison, persecution, manual labour — hardly even words. No wonder that the huge tribe known as ‘the right left people’ found it so easy to condone the purge-and-Ogpu side of the Russian régime and the horrors of the first Five-Year Plan. They were so gloriously incapable of understanding what it all meant.

By 1937 the whole of the intelligentsia was mentally at war. Left-wing thought had narrowed down to ‘anti-Fascism’, i.e. to a negative, and a torrent of hate-literature directed against Germany and the politicians supposedly friendly to Germany was pouring from the Press. The thing that, to me, was truly frightening about the war in Spain was not such violence as I witnessed, nor even the party feuds behind the lines, but the immediate reappearance in left-wing circles of the mental atmosphere of the Great War. The very people who for twenty years had sniggered over their own superiority to war hysteria were the ones who rushed straight back into the mental slum of 1915. All the familiar wartime idiocies, spy-hunting, orthodoxy-sniffing (Sniff, sniff. Are you a good anti-Fascist?), the retailing of atrocity stories, came back into vogue as though the intervening years had never happened. Before the end of the Spanish war, and even before Munich, some of the better of the left-wing writers were beginning to squirm. Neither Auden nor, on the whole, Spender wrote about the Spanish war in quite the vein that was expected of them. Since then there has been a change of feeling and much dismay and confusion, because the actual course of events has made nonsense of the left-wing orthodoxy of the last few years. But then it did not need very great acuteness to see that much of it was nonsense from the start. There is no certainty, therefore, that the next orthodoxy to emerge will be any better than the last.

On the whole the literary history of the ‘thirties seems to justify the opinion that a writer does well to keep out of politics. For any writer who accepts or partially accepts the discipline of a political party is sooner or later faced with the alternative: toe the line, or shut up. It is, of course, possible to toe the line and go on writing — after a fashion. Any Marxist can demonstrate with the greatest of ease that ‘bourgeois’ liberty of thought is an illusion. But when he has finished his demonstration there remains the psychological fact that without this ‘bourgeois’ liberty the creative powers wither away. In the future a totalitarian literature may arise, but it will be quite different from anything we can now imagine. Literature as we know it is an individual thing, demanding mental honesty and a minimum of censorship. And this is even truer of prose than of verse. It is probably not a coincidence that the best writers of the ‘thirties have been poets. The atmosphere of orthodoxy is always damaging to prose, and above all it is completely ruinous to the novel, the most anarchical of all forms of literature. How many Roman Catholics have been good novelists? Even the handful one could name have usually been bad Catholics. The novel is practically a Protestant form of art; it is a product of the free mind, of the autonomous individual. No decade in the past hundred and fifty years has been so barren of imaginative prose as the nineteen-thirties. There have been good poems, good sociological works, brilliant pamphlets, but practically no fiction of any value at all. From 1933 onwards the mental climate was increasingly against it. Anyone sensitive enough to be touched by the zeitgeist was also involved in politics. Not everyone, of course, was definitely in the political racket, but practically everyone was on its periphery and more or less mixed up in propaganda campaigns and squalid controversies. Communists and near-Communists had a disproportionately large influence in the literary reviews. It was a time of labels, slogans, and evasions. At the worst moments you were expected to lock yourself up in a constipating little cage of lies; at the best a sort of voluntary censorship (‘Ought I to say this? Is it pro-Fascist?’) was at work in nearly everyone’s mind. It is almost inconceivable that good novels should be written in such an atmosphere. Good novels are not written by by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own unorthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened. This brings me back to Henry Miller.

3

If this were a likely moment for the launching of ‘schools’ literature, Henry Miller might be the starting-point of a new ‘school’. He does at any rate mark an unexpected swing of the pendulum. In his books one gets right away from the ‘political animal’ and back to a viewpoint not only individualistic but completely passive — the view-point of a man who believes the world-process to be outside his control and who in any case hardly wishes to control it.

I first met Miller at the end of 1936, when I was passing through Paris on my way to Spain. What most intrigued me about him was to find that he felt no interest in the Spanish war whatever. He merely told me in forcible terms that to go to Spain at that moment was the act of an idiot. He could understand anyone going there from purely selfish motives, out of curiosity, for instance, but to mix oneself up in such things from a sense of obligation was sheer stupidity. In any case my ideas about combating Fascism, defending democracy, etc., etc., were all boloney. Our civilization was destined to be swept away and replaced by something so different that we should scarcely regard it as human — a prospect that did not bother him, he said. And some such outlook is implicit throughout his work. Everywhere there is the sense of the approaching cataclysm, and almost everywhere the implied belief that it doesn’t matter. The only political declaration which, so far as I know, he has ever made in print is a purely negative one. A year or so ago an American magazine, the Marxist Quarterly, sent out a questionnaire to various American writers asking them to define their attitude on the subject of war. Miller replied in terms of extreme pacifism, an individual refusal to fight, with no apparent wish to convert others to the same opinion — practically, in fact, a declaration of irresponsibility.

However, there is more than one kind of irresponsibility. As a rule, writers who do not wish to identify themselves with the historical process at the moment either ignore it or fight against if. If they can ignore it, they are probably fools. If they can understand it well enough to want to fight against it, they probably have enough vision to realize that they cannot win. Look, for instance, at a poem like ‘The Scholar Gypsy’, with its railing against the ‘strange disease of modern life’ and its magnificent defeatist simile in the final stanza. It expresses one of the normal literary attitudes, perhaps actually the prevailing attitude during the last hundred years. And on the other hand there are the ‘progressives’, the yea-sayers, the Shaw-Wells type, always leaping forward to embrace the ego-projections which they mistake for the future. On the whole the writers of the ‘twenties took the first line and the writers of the ‘thirties the second. And at any given moment, of course, there is a huge tribe of Barries and Deepings and Dells who simply don’t notice what is happening. Where Miller’s work is symptomatically important is in its avoidance of any of these attitudes. He is neither pushing the world-process forward nor trying to drag it back, but on the other hand he is by no means ignoring it. I should say that he believes in the impending ruin of Western Civilization much more firmly than the majority of ‘revolutionary’ writers; only he does not feel called upon to do anything about it. He is fiddling while Rome is burning, and, unlike the enormous majority of people who do this, fiddling with his face towards the flames.

In Max and the White Phagocytes there is one of those revealing passages in which a writer tells you a great deal about himself while talking about somebody else. The book includes a long essay on the diaries of Anais Nin, which I have never read, except for a few fragments, and which I believe have not been published. Miller claims that they are the only true feminine writing that has ever appeared, whatever that may mean. But the interesting passage is one in which he compares Anais Nin — evidently a completely subjective, introverted writer — to Jonah in the whale’s belly. In passing he refers to an essay that Aldous Huxley wrote some years ago about El Greco’s picture, ‘The Dream of Philip the Second’. Huxley remarks that the people in El Greco’s pictures always look as though they were in the bellies of whales, and professes to find something peculiarly horrible in the idea of being in a ‘visceral prison’. Miller retorts that, on the contrary, there are many worse things than being swallowed by whales, and the passage makes it dear that he himself finds the idea rather attractive. Here he is touching upon what is probably a very widespread fantasy. It is perhaps worth noticing that everyone, at least every English-speaking person, invariably speaks of Jonah and the whale. Of course the creature that swallowed Jonah was a fish, and was so described in the Bible (Jonah i. 17), but children naturally confuse it with a whale, and this fragment of baby-talk is habitually carried into later life — a sign, perhaps, of the hold that the Jonah myth has upon our imaginations. For the fact is that being inside a whale is a very comfortable, cosy, homelike thought. The historical Jonah, if he can be so called, was glad enough to escape, but in imagination, in day-dream, countless people have envied him. It is, of course, quite obvious why. The whale’s belly is simply a womb big enough for an adult. There you are, in the dark, cushioned space that exactly fits you, with yards of blubber between yourself and reality, able to keep up an attitude of the completest indifference, no matter what happens. A storm that would sink all the battleships in the world would hardly reach you as an echo. Even the whale’s own movements would probably be imperceptible to you. He might be wallowing among the surface waves or shooting down into the blackness of the middle seas (a mile deep, according to Herman Melville), but you would never notice the difference. Short of being dead, it is the final, unsurpassable stage of irresponsibility. And however it may be with Anais Nin, there is no question that Miller himself is inside the whale. All his best and most characteristic passages are written from the angle of Jonah, a willing Jonah. Not that he is especially introverted — quite the contrary. In his case the whale happens to be transparent. Only he feels no impulse to alter or control the process that he is undergoing. He has performed the essential Jonah act of allowing himself to be swallowed, remaining passive, accepting.

It will be seen what this amounts to. It is a species of quietism, implying either complete unbelief or else a degree of belief amounting to mysticism. The attitude is ‘Je m’en fous’ or ‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him’, whichever way you like to look at it; for practical purposes both are identical, the moral in either case being ‘Sit on your bum’. But in a time like ours, is this a defensible attitude? Notice that it is almost impossible to refrain from asking this question. At the moment of writing, we are still in a period in which it is taken for granted that books ought always to be positive, serious, and ‘constructive’. A dozen years ago this idea would have been greeted with titters. (‘My dear aunt, one doesn’t write about anything, one just writes.’) Then the pendulum swung away from the frivolous notion that art is merely technique, but it swung a very long distance, to the point of asserting that a book can only be ‘good’ if it is founded on a ‘true’ vision of life. Naturally the people who believe this also believe that they are in posssion of the truth themselves. Catholic critics, for instance, tend to claim that books arc only ‘good’ when they are of Catholic tendency. Marxist critics make the same claim more boldy for Marxist books. For instance, Mr Edward Upward (‘A Marxist Interpretation of Literature,’ in The Mind in Chains):

Literary criticism which aims at being Marxist must. . . proclaim that no book written at the present time can be ‘good’ unless it is written from a Marxist or near-Marxist viewpoint.

Various other writers have made similar or comparable statements. Mr Upward italicises ‘at the present time’ because, he realizes that you cannot, for instance, dismiss Hamlet on the ground that Shakespeare was not a Marxist. Nevertheless his interesting essay only glances very shortly at this difficulty. Much of the literature that comes to us out of the past is permeated by and in fact founded on beliefs (the belief in the immortality of the soul, for example) which now seem to us false and in some cases contemptibly silly. Yet it is ‘good’ literature, if survival is any test. Mr Upward would no doubt answer that a belief which was appropriate several centuries ago might be inappropriate and therefore stultifying now. But this does not get one much farther, because it assumes that in any age there will be one body of belief which is the current approximation to truth, and that the best literature of the time will be more or less in harmony with it. Actually no such uniformity has ever existed. In seventeenth-century England, for instance, there was a religious and political cleavage which distinctly resembled the left-right antagonism of to-day. Looking back, most modern people would feel that the bourgeois-Puritan viewpoint was a better approximation to truth than the Catholic-feudal one. But it is certainly not the case that all or even a majority of the best writers of the time were Puritans. And more than this, there exist ‘good’ writers whose world-view would in any age be recognized false and silly. Edgar Allan Poe is an example. Poe’s outlook is at best a wild romanticism and at worst is not far from being insane in the literal clinical sense. Why is it, then that stories like ‘The Black Cat’, ‘The Tell-tale Heart’, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and so forth, which might very nearly have been written by a lunatic, do not convey a feeling of falsity? Because they are true within a certain framework, they keep the rules of their own peculiar world, like a Japanese picture. But it appears that to write successfully about such a world you have got to believe in it. One sees the difference immediately if one compares Poe’s Tales with what is, in my opinion, an insincere attempt to work up a similar atmosphere, Julian Green’s Minuit. The thing that immediately strikes one about Minuit is that there is no reason why any of the events in it should happen. Everything is completely arbitrary; there is no emotional sequence. But this is exactly what one does not feel with Poe’s stories. Their maniacal logic, in its own setting, is quite convincing. When, for instance, the drunkard seizes the black cat and cuts its eye out with his penknife, one knows exactly why he did it, even to the point of feeling that one would have done the same oneself. It seems therefore that for a creative writer possession of the ‘truth’ is less important than emotional sincerity. Even Mr Upward would not claim that a writer needs nothing beyond a Marxist training. He also needs a talent. But talent, apparently, is a matter of being able to care, of really believing in your beliefs, whether they are true or false. The difference between, for instance, Céline and Evelyn Waugh is a difference of emotional intensity. It is the difference between genuine despair and a despair that is at least partly a pretence. And with this there goes another consideration which is perhaps less obvious: that there are occasions when an ‘untrue’ belief is more likely to be sincerely held than a ‘true’ one.

If one looks at the books of personal reminiscence written about the war of 1914-18, one notices that nearly all that have remained readable after a lapse of time are written from a passive, negative angle. They are the records of something completely meaningless, a nightmare happening in a void. That was not actually the truth about the war, but it was the truth about the individual reaction. The soldier advancing into a machine-gun barrage or standing waist-deep in a flooded trench knew only that here was an appalling experience in which he was all but helpless. He was likelier to make a good book out of his helplessness and his ignorance than out of a pretended power to see the whole thing in perspective. As for the books that were written during the war itself, the best of them were nearly all the work of people who simply turned their backs and tried not to notice that the war was happening. Mr E. M. Forster has described how in 1917 he read Prufrock and other of Eliot’s early poems, and how it heartened him at such a time to get hold of poems that were ‘innocent of public-spiritedness’:

They sang of private disgust and diffidence, and of people who seemed genuine because they were unattractive or weak…  Here was a protest, and a feeble one, and the more congenial for being feeble… He who could turn aside to complain of ladies and drawing-rooms preserved a tiny drop of our self-respect, he carried on the human heritage.

That is very well said. Mr MacNeice, in the book I have referred to already, quotes this passage and somewhat smugly adds:

Ten years later less feeble protests were to be made by poets and the human heritage carried on rather differently… The contemplation of a world of fragments becomes boring and Eliot’s successors are more interested in tidying it up.

Similar remarks are scattered throughout Mr MacNeice’s book. What he wishes us to believe is that Eliot’s ‘successors’ (meaning Mr MacNeice and his friends) have in some way ‘protested’ more effectively than Eliot did by publishing ‘Prufrock’ at the moment when the Allied armies were assaulting the Hindenburg Line. Just where these ‘protests’ are to be found I do not know. But in the contrast between Mr Forster’s comment and Mr MacNeice’s lies all the difference between a man who knows what the 1914-18 war was like and a man who barely remembers it. The truth is that in 1917 there was nothing that a thinking and a sensitive person could do, except to remain human, if possible. And a gesture of helplessness, even of frivolity, might be the best way of doing that. If I had been a soldier fighting in the Great War, I would sooner have got hold of ‘Prufrock’ than The First Hundred Thousand or Horatio Bottomley’s Letters to the Boys in the Trenches. I should have felt, like Mr Forster, that by simply standing aloof and keeping touch with pre-war emotions, Eliot was carrying on the human heritage. What a relief it would have been at such a time, to read about the hesitations of a middle-aged highbrow with a bald spot! So different from bayonet-drill! After the bombs and the food-queues and the recruiting-posters, a human voice! What a relief!

But, after all, the war of 1914-18 was only a heightened moment in an almost continuous crisis. At this date it hardly even needs a war to bring home to us the disintegration of our society and the increasing helplessness of all decent people. It is for this reason that I think that the passive, non-cooperative attitude implied in Henry Miller’s work is justified. Whether or not it is an expression of what people ought to feel, it probably comes somewhere near to expressing what they do feel. Once again it is the human voice among the bomb-explosions, a friendly American voice, ‘innocent of public-spiritedness’. No sermons, merely the subjective truth. And along those lines, apparently, it is still possible for a good novel to be written. Not necessarily an edifying novel, but a novel worth reading and likely to be remembered after it is read.

While I have been writing this essay another European war has broken out. It will either last several years and tear Western civilization to pieces, or it will end inconclusively and prepare the way for yet another war which will do the job once and for all. But war is only ‘peace intensified’. What is quite obviously happening, war or no war, is the break-up of laissez-faire capitalism and of the liberal-Christian culture. Until recently the full implications of this were not foreseen, because it was generally imagined that socialism could preserve and even enlarge the atmosphere of liberalism. It is now beginning to be realized how false this idea was. Almost certainly we are moving into an age of totalitarian dictatorships — an age in which freedom of thought will be at first a deadly sin and later on a meaningless abstraction. The autonomous individual is going to be stamped out of existence. But this means that literature, in the form in which we know it, must suffer at least a temporary death. The literature of liberalism is coming to an end and the literature of totalitarianism has not yet appeared and is barely imaginable. As for the writer, he is sitting on a melting iceberg; he is merely an anachronism, a hangover from the bourgeois age, as surely doomed as the hippopotamus. Miller seems to me a man out of the common because he saw and proclaimed this fact a long while before most of his contemporaries — at a time, indeed, when many of them were actually burbling about a renaissance of literature. Wyndham Lewis had said years earlier that the major history of the English language was finished, but he was basing this on different and rather trivial reasons. But from now onwards the all-important fact for the creative writer is going to be that this is not a writer’s world. That does not mean that he cannot help to bring the new society into being, but he can take no part in the process as a writer. For as a writer he is a liberal, and what is happening is the destruction of liberalism. It seems likely, therefore, that in the remaining years of free speech any novel worth reading will follow more or less along the lines that Miller has followed — I do not mean in technique or subject matter, but in implied outlook. The passive attitude will come back, and it will be more consciously passive than before. Progress and reaction have both turned out to be swindles. Seemingly there is nothing left but quietism — robbing reality of its terrors by simply submitting to it. Get inside the whale — or rather, admit you are inside the whale (for you are, of course). Give yourself over to the world-process, stop fighting against it or pretending that you control it; simply accept it, endure it, record it. That seems to be the formula, that any sensitive novelist is now likely to adopt. A novel on more positive, ‘constructive’ lines, and not emotionally spurious, is at present very difficult to imagine.

But do I mean by this that Miller is a ‘great author’, a new hope for English prose? Nothing of the kind. Miller himself would be the last to claim or want any such thing. No doubt he will go on writing — anybody who has once started always goes on writing — and associated with him there are a number of writers of approximately the same tendency, Lawrence Durrell, Michael Fraenkel and others, almost amounting to a ‘school’. But he himself seems to me essentially a man of one book. Sooner or later I should expect him to descend into unintelligibility, or into charlatanism: there are signs of both in his later work. His last book, Tropic of Capricorn, I have not even read. This was not because I did not want to read it, but because the police and Customs authorities have so far managed to prevent me from getting hold of it. But it would surprise me if it came anywhere near Tropic of Cancer or the opening chapters of Black Spring. Like certain other autobiographical novelists, he had it in him to do just one thing perfectly, and he did it. Considering what the fiction of the nineteen-thirties has been like, that is something.

Miller’s books are published by the Obelisk Press in Paris. What will happen to the Obelisk Press, now that war has broken out and Jack Kahane, the publisher, is dead, I do not know, but at any rate the books are still procurable. I earnestly counsel anyone who has not done so to read at least Tropic of Cancer. With a little ingenuity, or by paying a little over the published price, you can get hold of it, and even if parts of it disgust you, it will stick in your memory. It is also an ‘important’ book, in a sense different from the sense in which that word is generally used. As a rule novels are spoken of as ‘important’ when they are either a ‘terrible indictment’ of something or other or when they introduce some technical innovation. Neither of these applies to Tropic of Cancer. Its importance is merely symptomatic. Here in my opinion is the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past. Even if that is objected to as an overstatement, it will probably be admitted that Miller is a writer out of the ordinary, worth more than a single glance; and after all, he is a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive accepter of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses. Symptomatically, that is more significant than the mere fact that five thousand novels are published in England every year and four thousand nine hundred of them are tripe. It is a demonstration of the impossibility of any major literature until the world has shaken itself into its new shape.

* Published in 1932.

From the Complete Works, XXII, 600. First published 11 March 1940 as part of Inside the Whale, a selection of essays also containing ‘Charles Dickens’ and ‘Boys’ Weeklies’.

Voir enfin:

Part I: England Your EnglandIAs I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are “only doing their duty”, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.

One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognizes the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilization it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it. Christianity and international Socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it. Hitler and Mussolini rose to power in their own countries very largely because they could grasp this fact and their opponents could not.

Also, one must admit that the divisions between nation and nation are founded on real differences of outlook. Till recently it was thought proper to pretend that all human beings are very much alike, but in fact anyone able to use his eyes knows that the average of human behaviour differs enormously from country to country. Things that could happen in one country could not happen in another. Hitler’s June Purge, for instance, could not have happened in England. And, as western peoples go, the English are very highly differentiated. There is a sort of backhanded admission of this in the dislike which nearly all foreigners feel for our national way of life. Few Europeans can endure living in England, and even Americans often feel more at home in Europe.

When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air. Even in the first few minutes dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling. The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant. The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd. Then the vastness of England swallows you up, and you lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single identifiable character. Are there really such things as nations? Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle?

But talk to foreigners, read foreign books or newspapers, and you are brought back to the same thought. Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.

And above all, it is your civilization, it is you. However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time. The suet puddings and the red pillar-boxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you.

Meanwhile England, together with the rest of the world, is changing. And like everything else it can change only in certain directions, which up to a point can be foreseen. That is not to say that the future is fixed, merely that certain alternatives are possible and others not. A seed may grow or not grow, but at any rate a turnip seed never grows into a parsnip. It is therefore of the deepest importance to try and determine what England is, before guessing what part England can play in the huge events that are happening.

II

National characteristics are not easy to pin down, and when pinned down they often turn out to be trivialities or seem to have no connection with one another. Spaniards are cruel to animals, Italians can do nothing without making a deafening noise, the Chinese are addicted to gambling. Obviously such things don’t matter in themselves. Nevertheless, nothing is causeless, and even the fact that Englishmen have bad teeth can tell something about the realities of English life.

Here are a couple of generalizations about England that would be accepted by almost all observers. One is that the English are not gifted artistically. They are not as musical as the Germans or Italians, painting and sculpture have never flourished in England as they have in France. Another is that, as Europeans go, the English are not intellectual. They have a horror of abstract thought, they feel no need for any philosophy or systematic “world-view”. Nor is this because they are “practical”, as they are so fond of claiming for themselves. One has only to look at their methods of town-planning and water-supply, their obstinate clinging to everything that is out of date and a nuisance, a spelling system that defies analysis, and a system of weights and measures that is intelligible only to the compilers of arithmetic books, to see how little they care about mere efficiency. But they have a certain power of acting without taking thought. Their world-famed hypocrisy – their double-faced attitude towards the Empire, for instance – is bound up with this. Also, in moments of supreme crisis the whole nation can suddenly draw together and act upon a species of instinct, really a code of conduct which is understood by almost everyone, though never formulated. The phrase that Hitler coined for the Germans, “a sleep-walking people”, would have been better applied to the English. Not that there is anything to be proud of in being called a sleep-walker.

But here it is worth noticing a minor English trait which is extremely well marked though not often commented on, and that is a love of flowers. This is one of the first things that one notices when one reaches England from abroad, especially if one is coming from southern Europe. Does it not contradict the English indifference to the arts? Not really, because it is found in people who have no aesthetic feelings whatever. What it does link up with, however, is another English characteristic which is so much a part of us that we barely notice it, and that is the addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations, the privateness of English life. We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official – the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the “nice cup of tea”. The liberty of the individual is still believed in, almost as in the nineteenth century. But this has nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit. It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above. The most hateful of all names in an English ear is Nosey Parker. It is obvious, of course, that even this purely private liberty is a lost cause. Like all other modern peoples, the English are in process of being numbered, labelled, conscripted, “co-ordinated”. But the pull of their impulses is in the other direction, and the kind of regimentation that can be imposed on them will be modified in consequence. No party rallies, no Youth Movements, no coloured shirts, no Jew-baiting or “spontaneous” demonstrations. No Gestapo either, in all probability.

But in all societies the common people must live to some extent against the existing order. The genuinely popular culture of England is something that goes on beneath the surface, unofficially and more or less frowned on by the authorities. One thing one notices if one looks directly at the common people, especially in the big towns, is that they are not puritanical. They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world. They have to satisfy these tastes in the face of astonishing, hypocritical laws (licensing laws, lottery acts, etc., etc.) which are designed to interfere with everybody but in practice allow everything to happen. Also, the common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries. The Anglican Church never had a real hold on them, it was simply a preserve of the landed gentry, and the Nonconformist sects only influenced minorities. And yet they have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ. The power-worship which is the new religion of Europe, and which has infected the English intelligentsia, has never touched the common people. They have never caught up with power politics. The “realism” which is preached in Japanese and Italian newspapers would horrify them. One can learn a good deal about the spirit of England from the comic coloured postcards that you see in the windows of cheap stationers’ shops. These things are a sort of diary upon which the English people have unconsciously recorded themselves. Their old-fashioned outlook, their graded snobberies, their mixture of bawdiness and hypocrisy, their extreme gentleness, their deeply moral attitude to life, are all mirrored there.

The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic. You notice it the instant you set foot on English soil. It is a land where the bus conductors are good-tempered and the policemen carry no revolvers. In no country inhabited by white men is it easier to shove people off the pavement. And with this goes something that is always written off by European observers as “decadence” or hypocrisy, the English hatred of war and militarism. It is rooted deep in history, and it is strong in the lower-middle class as well as the working class. Successive wars have shaken it but not destroyed it. Well within living memory it was common for “the redcoats” to be booed at in the streets and for the landlords of respectable public-houses to refuse to allow soldiers on the premises. In peace-time, even when there are two million unemployed, it is difficult to fill the ranks of the tiny standing army, which is officered by the country gentry and a specialized stratum of the middle class, and manned by farm labourers and slum proletarians. The mass of the people are without military knowledge or tradition, and their attitude towards war is invariably defensive. No politician could rise to power by promising them conquests or military “glory”, no Hymn of Hate has ever made any appeal to them. In the last war the songs which the soldiers made up and sang of their own accord were not vengeful but humorous and mock-defeatist.[1] The only enemy they ever named was the sergeant-major.

In England all the boasting and flag-wagging, the “Rule Britannia” stuff, is done by small minorities. The patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious. They do not retain among their historical memories the name of a single military victory. English literature, like other literatures, is full of battle-poems, but it is worth noticing that the ones that have won for themselves a kind of popularity are always a tale of disasters and retreats. There is no popular poem about Trafalgar or Waterloo, for instance. Sir John Moore’s army at Corunna, fighting a desperate rear-guard action before escaping overseas (just like Dunkirk!) has more appeal than a brilliant victory. The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction. And of the last war, the four names which have really engraved themselves on the popular memory are Mons, Ypres, Gallipoli and Passchendaele, every time a disaster. The names of the great battles that finally broke the German armies are simply unknown to the general public.

The reason why the English anti-militarism disgusts foreign observers is that it ignores the existence of the British Empire. It looks like sheer hypocrisy. After all, the English have absorbed a quarter of the earth and held on to it by means of a huge navy. How dare they then turn round and say that war is wicked?

It is quite true that the English are hypocritical about their Empire. In the working class this hypocrisy takes the form of not knowing that the Empire exists. But their dislike of standing armies is a perfectly sound instinct. A navy employs comparatively few people, and it is an external weapon which cannot affect home politics directly. Military dictatorships exist everywhere, but there is no such thing as a naval dictatorship. What English people of nearly all classes loathe from the bottom of their hearts is the swaggering officer type, the jingle of spurs and the crash of boots. Decades before Hitler was ever heard of, the word “Prussian” had much the same significance in England as “Nazi” has to-day. So deep does this feeling go that for a hundred years past the officers of the British Army, in peace-time, have always worn civilian clothes when off duty.

One rapid but fairly sure guide to the social atmosphere of a country is the parade-step of its army. A military parade is really a kind of ritual dance, something like a ballet, expressing a certain philosophy of life. The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face. Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is “Yes, I am ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me”, like the bully who makes faces at his victim. Why is the goose-step not used in England? There are, heaven knows, plenty of army officers who would be only too glad to introduce some such thing. It is not used because the people in the street would laugh. Beyond a certain point, military display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army. The Italians adopted the goose-step at about the time when Italy passed definitely under German control, and, as one would expect, they do it less well than the Germans. The Vichy government, if it survives, is bound to introduce a stiffer parade-ground discipline into what is left of the French army. In the British army the drill is rigid and complicated, full of memories of the eighteenth century, but without definite swagger; the march is merely a formalized walk. It belongs to a society which is ruled by the sword, no doubt, but a sword which must never be taken out of the scabbard.

And yet the gentleness of English civilization is mixed up with barbarities and anachronisms. Our criminal law is as out-of-date as the muskets in the Tower. Over against the Nazi Storm Trooper you have got to set that typically English figure, the hanging judge, some gouty old bully with his mind rooted in the nineteenth century, handing out savage sentences. In England people are still hanged by the neck and flogged with the cat o’ nine tails. Both of these punishments are obscene as well as cruel, but there has never been any genuinely popular outcry against them. People accept them (and Dartmoor, and Borstal) almost as they accept the weather. They are part of “the law”, which is assumed to be unalterable.

Here one comes upon an all-important English trait: the respect for constitutionalism and legality, the belief in “the law” as something above the State and above the individual, something which is cruel and stupid, of course, but at any rate incorruptible.

It is not that anyone imagines the law to be just. Everyone knows that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. But no one accepts the implications of this, everyone takes it for granted that the law, such as it is, will be respected, and feels a sense of outrage when it is not. Remarks like “They can’t run me in; I haven’t done anything wrong”, or “They can’t do that; it’s against the law”, are part of the atmosphere of England. The professed enemies of society have this feeling as strongly as anyone else. One sees it in prison-books like Wilfred Macartney’s Walls Have Mouths or Jim Phelan’s Jail Journey, in the solemn idiocies that take place at the trials of Conscientious Objectors, in letters to the papers from eminent Marxist professors, pointing out that this or that is a “miscarriage of British justice”. Everyone believes in his heart that the law can be, ought to be, and, on the whole, will be impartially administered. The totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as law, there is only power, has never taken root. Even the intelligentsia have only accepted it in theory.

An illusion can become a half-truth, a mask can alter the expression of a face. The familiar arguments to the effect that democracy is “just the same as” or “just as bad as” totalitarianism never take account of this fact. All such arguments boil down to saying that half a loaf is the same as no bread. In England such concepts as justice, liberty and objective truth are still believed in. They may be illusions, but they are very powerful illusions. The belief in them influences conduct, national life is different because of them. In proof of which, look about you. Where are the rubber truncheons, where is the castor oil? The sword is still in the scabbard, and while it stays there corruption cannot go beyond a certain point. The English electoral system, for instance, is an all-but open fraud. In a dozen obvious ways it is gerrymandered in the interest of the moneyed class. But until some deep change has occurred in the public mind, it cannot become completely corrupt. You do not arrive at the polling booth to find men with revolvers telling you which way to vote, nor are the votes miscounted, nor is there any direct bribery. Even hypocrisy is a powerful safeguard. The hanging judge, that evil old man in scarlet robe and horsehair wig, whom nothing short of dynamite will ever teach what century he is living in, but who will at any rate interpret the law according to the books and will in no circumstances take a money bribe, is one of the symbolic figures of England. He is a symbol of the strange mixture of reality and illusion, democracy and privilege, humbug and decency, the subtle network of compromises, by which the nation keeps itself in its familiar shape.

III

I have spoken all the while of “the nation”, “England”, “Britain’”, as though 45 million souls could somehow be treated as a unit. But is not England notoriously two nations, the rich and the poor? Dare one pretend that there is anything in common between people with £100,000 a year and people with £1 a week? And even Welsh and Scottish readers are likely to have been offended because I have used the word “England” oftener than “Britain”, as though the whole population dwelt in London and the Home Counties and neither north nor west possessed a culture of its own.

One gets a better view of this question if one considers the minor point first. It is quite true that the so-called races of Britain feel themselves to be very different from one another. A Scotsman, for instance, does not thank you if you call him an Englishman. You can see the hesitation we feel on this point by the fact that we call our islands by no less than six different names, England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles, the United Kingdom and, in very exalted moments, Albion. Even the differences between north and south England loom large in our own eyes. But somehow these differences fade away the moment that any two Britons are confronted by a European. It is very rare to meet a foreigner, other than an American, who can distinguish between English and Scots or even English and Irish. To a Frenchman, the Breton and the Auvergnat seem very different beings, and the accent of Marseilles is a stock joke in Paris. Yet we speak of “France” and “the French”, recognizing France as an entity, a single civilization, which in fact it is. So also with ourselves. Looked at from the outside, even the cockney and the Yorkshireman have a strong family resemblance.

And even the distinction between rich and poor dwindles somewhat when one regards the nation from the outside. There is no question about the inequality of wealth in England. It is grosser than in any European country, and you have only to look down the nearest street to see it. Economically, England is certainly two nations, if not three or four. But at the same time the vast majority of the people feel themselves to be a single nation and are conscious of resembling one another more than they resemble foreigners. Patriotism is usually stronger than class-hatred, and always stronger than any kind of internationalism. Except for a brief moment in 1920 (the “Hands off Russia” movement) the British working class have never thought or acted internationally. For two and a half years they watched their comrades in Spain slowly strangled, and never aided them by even a single strike.[2] But when their own country (the country of Lord Nuffield and Mr Montagu Norman) was in danger, their attitude was very different. At the moment when it seemed likely that England might be invaded, Anthony Eden appealed over the radio for Local Defence Volunteers. He got a quarter of a million men in the first twenty-four hours, and another million in the subsequent month. One has only to compare these figures with, for instance, the number of Conscientious Objectors to see how vast is the strength of traditional loyalties compared with new ones.

In England patriotism takes different forms in different classes, but it runs like a connecting thread through nearly all of them. Only the Europeanized intelligentsia are really immune to it. As a positive emotion it is stronger in the middle class than in the upper class – the cheap public schools, for instance, are more given to patriotic demonstrations than the expensive ones – but the number of definitely treacherous rich men, the Laval-Quisling type, is probably very small. In the working class patriotism is profound, but it is unconscious. The working man’s heart does not leap when he sees a Union Jack. But the famous “insularity” and “xenophobia” of the English is far stronger in the working class than in the bourgeoisie. In all countries the poor are more national than the rich, but the English working class are outstanding in their abhorrence of foreign habits. Even when they are obliged to live abroad for years they refuse either to accustom themselves to foreign food or to learn foreign languages. Nearly every Englishman of working-class origin considers it effeminate to pronounce a foreign word correctly. During the war of 1914-18 the English working class were in contact with foreigners to an extent that is rarely possible. The sole result was that they brought back a hatred of all Europeans, except the Germans, whose courage they admired. In four years on French soil they did not even acquire a liking for wine. The insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time. But it plays its part in the English mystique, and the intellectuals who have tried to break it down have generally done more harm than good. At bottom it is the same quality in the English character that repels the tourist and keeps out the invader.

Here one comes back to two English characteristics that I pointed out, seemingly rather at random, at the beginning of the last chapter. One is the lack of artistic ability. This is perhaps another way of saying that the English are outside the European culture. For there is one art in which they have shown plenty of talent, namely literature. But this is also the only art that cannot cross frontiers. Literature, especially poetry, and lyric poetry most of all, is a kind of family joke, with little or no value outside its own language-group. Except for Shakespeare, the best English poets are barely known in Europe, even as names. The only poets who are widely read are Byron, who is admired for the wrong reasons, and Oscar Wilde, who is pitied as a victim of English hypocrisy. And linked up with this, though not very obviously, is the lack of philosophical faculty, the absence in nearly all Englishmen of any need for an ordered system of thought or even for the use of logic.

Up to a point, the sense of national unity is a substitute for a “world-view”. Just because patriotism is all but universal and not even the rich are uninfluenced by it, there can come moments when the whole nation suddenly swings together and does the same thing, like a herd of cattle facing a wolf. There was such a moment, unmistakably, at the time of the disaster in France. After eight months of vaguely wondering what the war was about, the people suddenly knew what they had got to do: first, to get the army away from Dunkirk, and secondly to prevent invasion. It was like the awakening of a giant. Quick! Danger! The Philistines be upon thee, Samson! And then the swift unanimous action – and then, alas, the prompt relapse into sleep. In a divided nation that would have been exactly the moment for a big peace movement to arise. But does this mean that the instinct of the English will always tell them to do the right thing? Not at all, merely that it will tell them to do the same thing. In the 1931 General Election, for instance, we all did the wrong thing in perfect unison. We were as single-minded as the Gadarene swine. But I honestly doubt whether we can say that we were shoved down the slope against our will.

It follows that British democracy is less of a fraud than it sometimes appears. A foreign observer sees only the huge inequality of wealth, the unfair electoral system, the governing-class control over the Press, the radio and education, and concludes that democracy is simply a polite name for dictatorship. But this ignores the considerable agreement that does unfortunately exist between the leaders and the led. However much one may hate to admit it, it is almost certain that between 1931 and 1940 the National Government represented the will of the mass of the people. It tolerated slums, unemployment and a cowardly foreign policy. Yes, but so did public opinion. It was a stagnant period, and its natural leaders were mediocrities.

In spite of the campaigns of a few thousand left-wingers, it is fairly certain that the bulk of the English people were behind Chamberlain’s foreign policy. More, it is fairly certain that the same struggle was going on in Chamberlain’s mind as in the minds of ordinary people. His opponents professed to see in him a dark and wily schemer, plotting to sell England to Hitler, but it is far likelier that he was merely a stupid old man doing his best according to his very dim lights. It is difficult otherwise to explain the contradictions of his policy, his failure to grasp any of the courses that were open to him. Like the mass of the people, he did not want to pay the price either of peace or of war. And public opinion was behind him all the while, in policies that were completely incompatible with one another. It was behind him when he went to Munich, when he tried to come to an understanding with Russia, when he gave the guarantee to Poland, when he honoured it, and when he prosecuted the war half-heartedly. Only when the results of his policy became apparent did it turn against him; which is to say that it turned against its own lethargy of the past seven years. Thereupon the people picked a leader nearer to their mood, Churchill, who was at any rate able to grasp that wars are not won without fighting. Later, perhaps, they will pick another leader who can grasp that only Socialist nations can fight effectively.

Do I mean by all this that England is a genuine democracy? No, not even a reader of the Daily Telegraph could quite swallow that.

England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly. But in any calculation about it one has got to take into account its emotional unity, the tendency of nearly all its inhabitants to feel alike and act together in moments of supreme crisis. It is the only great country in Europe that is not obliged to drive hundreds of thousands of its nationals into exile or the concentration camp. At this moment, after a year of war, newspapers and pamphlets abusing the Government, praising the enemy and clamouring for surrender are being sold on the streets, almost without interference. And this is less from a respect for freedom of speech than from a simple perception that these things don’t matter. It is safe to let a paper like Peace News be sold, because it is certain that ninety-five per cent of the population will never want to read it. The nation is bound together by an invisible chain. At any normal time the ruling class will rob, mismanage, sabotage, lead us into the muck; but let popular opinion really make itself heard, let them get a tug from below that they cannot avoid feeling, and it is difficult for them not to respond. The left-wing writers who denounce the whole of the ruling class as “pro-Fascist” are grossly over-simplifying. Even among the inner clique of politicians who brought us to our present pass, it is doubtful whether there were any conscious traitors. The corruption that happens in England is seldom of that kind. Nearly always it is more in the nature of self-deception, of the right hand not knowing what the left hand doeth. And being unconscious, it is limited. One sees this at its most obvious in the English Press. Is the English press honest or dishonest? At normal times it is deeply dishonest. All the papers that matter live off their advertisements, and the advertisers exercise an indirect censorship over news. Yet I do not suppose there is one paper in England that can be straightforwardly bribed with hard cash. In the France of the Third Republic all but a very few of the newspapers could notoriously be bought over the counter like so many pounds of cheese. Public life in England has never been openly scandalous. It has not reached the pitch of disintegration at which humbug can be dropped.

England is not the jewelled isle of Shakespeare’s much-quoted passage, nor is it the inferno depicted by Dr Goebbels. More than either it resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. It is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks. A family with the wrong members in control – that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.

IV

Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there. One of the dominant facts in English life during the past three quarters of a century has been the decay of ability in the ruling class.

In the years between 1920 and 1940 it was happening with the speed of a chemical reaction. Yet at the moment of writing it is still possible to speak of a ruling class. Like the knife which has had two new blades and three new handles, the upper fringe of English society is still almost what it was in the mid-nineteenth century. After 1832 the old landowning aristocracy steadily lost power, but instead of disappearing or becoming a fossil they simply intermarried with the merchants, manufacturers and financiers who had replaced them, and soon turned them into accurate copies of themselves. The wealthy ship-owner or cotton-miller set up for himself an alibi as a country gentleman, while his sons learned the right mannerisms at public schools which had been designed for just that purpose. England was ruled by an aristocracy constantly recruited from parvenus. And considering what energy the self-made men possessed, and considering that they were buying their way into a class which at any rate had a tradition of public service, one might have expected that able rulers could be produced in some such way.

And yet somehow the ruling class decayed, lost its ability, its daring, finally even its ruthlessness, until a time came when stuffed shirts like Eden or Halifax could stand out as men of exceptional talent. As for Baldwin, one could not even dignify him with the name of stuffed shirt. He was simply a hole in the air. The mishandling of England’s domestic problems during the nineteen-twenties had been bad enough, but British foreign policy between 1931 and 1939 is one of the wonders of the world. Why? What had happened? What was it that at every decisive moment made every British statesman do the wrong thing with so unerring an instinct?

The underlying fact was that the whole position of the monied class had long ceased to be justifiable. There they sat, at the centre of a vast empire and a world-wide financial network, drawing interest and profits and spending them – on what? It was fair to say that life within the British Empire was in many ways better than life outside it. Still, the Empire was underdeveloped, India slept in the Middle Ages, the Dominions lay empty, with foreigners jealously barred out, and even England was full of slums and unemployment. Only half a million people, the people in the country houses, definitely benefited from the existing system. Moreover, the tendency of small businesses to merge together into large ones robbed more and more of the monied class of their function and turned them into mere owners, their work being done for them by salaried managers and technicians. For long past there had been in England an entirely functionless class, living on money that was invested they hardly knew where, the “idle rich”, the people whose photographs you can look at in the Tatler and the Bystander, always supposing that you want to. The existence of these people was by any standard unjustifiable. They were simply parasites, less useful to society than his fleas are to a dog.

By 1920 there were many people who were aware of all this. By 1930 millions were aware of it. But the British ruling class obviously could not admit to themselves that their usefulness was at an end. Had they done that they would have had to abdicate. For it was not possible for them to turn themselves into mere bandits, like the American millionaires, consciously clinging to unjust privileges and beating down opposition by bribery and tear-gas bombs. After all, they belonged to a class with a certain tradition, they had been to public schools where the duty of dying for your country, if necessary, is laid down as the first and greatest of the Commandments. They had to feel themselves true patriots, even while they plundered their countrymen. Clearly there was only one escape for them – into stupidity. They could keep society in its existing shape only by being unable to grasp that any improvement was possible. Difficult though this was, they achieved it, largely by fixing their eyes on the past and refusing to notice the changes that were going on round them.

There is much in England that this explains. It explains the decay of country life, due to the keeping-up of a sham feudalism which drives the more spirited workers off the land. It explains the immobility of the public schools, which have barely altered since the ’eighties of the last century. It explains the military incompetence which has again and again startled the world. Since the ’fifties every war in which England has engaged has started off with a series of disasters, after which the situation has been saved by people comparatively low in the social scale. The higher commanders, drawn from the aristocracy, could never prepare for modern war, because in order to do so they would have had to admit to themselves that the world was changing. They have always clung to obsolete methods and weapons, because they inevitably saw each war as a repetition of the last. Before the Boer War they prepared for the Zulu War, before the 1914 for the Boer War, and before the present war for 1914. Even at this moment hundreds of thousands of men in England are being trained with the bayonet, a weapon entirely useless except for opening tins. It is worth noticing that the navy and, latterly, the Air Force, have always been more efficient than the regular army. But the navy is only partially, and the Air Force hardly at all, within the ruling-class orbit.

It must be admitted that so long as things were peaceful the methods of the British ruling class served them well enough. Their own people manifestly tolerated them. However unjustly England might be organized, it was at any rate not torn by class warfare or haunted by secret police. The Empire was peaceful as no area of comparable size has ever been. Throughout its vast extent, nearly a quarter of the earth, there were fewer armed men than would be found necessary by a minor Balkan state. As people to live under, and looking at them merely from a liberal, negative standpoint, the British ruling class had their points. They were preferable to the truly modern men, the Nazis and Fascists. But it had long been obvious that they would be helpless against any serious attack from the outside.

They could not struggle against Nazism or Fascism, because they could not understand them. Neither could they have struggled against Communism, if Communism had been a serious force in western Europe. To understand Fascism they would have had to study the theory of Socialism, which would have forced them to realize that the economic system by which they lived was unjust, inefficient and out of date. But it was exactly this fact that they had trained themselves never to face. They dealt with Fascism as the cavalry generals of 1914 dealt with the machine gun – by ignoring it. After years of aggression and massacres, they had grasped only one fact, that Hitler and Mussolini were hostile to Communism. Therefore, it was argued, they must be friendly to the British dividend-drawer. Hence the truly frightening spectacle of Conservative M.P.s wildly cheering the news that British ships, bringing food to the Spanish Republican government, had been bombed by Italian aeroplanes. Even when they had begun to grasp that Fascism was dangerous, its essentially revolutionary nature, the huge military effort it was capable of making, the sort of tactics it would use, were quite beyond their comprehension. At the time of the Spanish Civil War, anyone with as much political knowledge as can be acquired from a sixpenny pamphlet on Socialism knew that, if Franco won, the result would be strategically disastrous for England; and yet generals and admirals who had given their lives to the study of war were unable to grasp this fact. This vein of political ignorance runs right through English official life, through Cabinet ministers, ambassadors, consuls, judges, magistrates, policemen. The policeman who arrests the “Red” does not understand the theories the “Red” is preaching; if he did, his own position as bodyguard of the monied class might seem less pleasant to him. There is reason to think that even military espionage is hopelessly hampered by ignorance of the new economic doctrines and the ramifications of the underground parties.

The British ruling class were not altogether wrong in thinking that Fascism was on their side. It is a fact that any rich man, unless he is a Jew, has less to fear from Fascism than from either Communism or democratic Socialism. One ought never to forget this, for nearly the whole of German and Italian propaganda is designed to cover it up. The natural instinct of men like Simon, Hoare, Chamberlain, etc. was to come to an agreement with Hitler. But – and here the peculiar feature of English life that I have spoken of, the deep sense of national solidarity, comes in – they could only do so by breaking up the Empire and selling their own people into semi-slavery. A truly corrupt class would have done this without hesitation, as in France. But things had not gone that distance in England. Politicians who would make cringing speeches about “the duty of loyalty to our conquerors” are hardly to be found in English public life. Tossed to and fro between their incomes and their principles, it was impossible that men like Chamberlain should do anything but make the worst of both worlds.

One thing that has always shown that the English ruling class are morally fairly sound, is that in time of war they are ready enough to get themselves killed. Several dukes, earls and what-not were killed in the recent campaign in Flanders. That could not happen if these people were the cynical scoundrels that they are sometimes declared to be. It is important not to misunderstand their motives, or one cannot predict their actions. What is to be expected of them is not treachery or physical cowardice, but stupidity, unconscious sabotage, an infallible instinct for doing the wrong thing. They are not wicked, or not altogether wicked; they are merely unteachable. Only when their money and power are gone will the younger among them begin to grasp what century they are living in.

V

The stagnation of the Empire in the between-war years affected everyone in England, but it had an especially direct effect upon two important sub-sections of the middle class. One was the military and imperialist middle class, generally nicknamed the Blimps, and the other the left-wing intelligentsia. These two seemingly hostile types, symbolic opposites – the halfpay colonel with his bull neck and diminutive brain, like a dinosaur, the highbrow with his domed forehead and stalk-like neck – are mentally linked together and constantly interact upon one another; in any case they are born to a considerable extent into the same families.

Thirty years ago the Blimp class was already losing its vitality. The middle-class families celebrated by Kipling, the prolific lowbrow families whose sons officered the army and navy and swarmed over all the waste places of the earth from the Yukon to the Irrawaddy, were dwindling before 1914. The thing that had killed them was the telegraph. In a narrowing world, more and more governed from Whitehall, there was every year less room for individual initiative. Men like Clive, Nelson, Nicholson, Gordon would find no place for themselves in the modern British Empire. By 1920 nearly every inch of the colonial empire was in the grip of Whitehall. Well-meaning, over-civilized men, in dark suits and black felt hats, with neatly rolled umbrellas crooked over the left forearm, were imposing their constipated view of life on Malaya and Nigeria, Mombasa and Mandalay. The one-time empire builders were reduced to the status of clerks, buried deeper and deeper under mounds of paper and red tape. In the early ’twenties one could see, all over the Empire, the older officials, who had known more spacious days, writhing impotently under the changes that were happening. From that time onwards it has been next door to impossible to induce young men of spirit to take any part in imperial administration. And what was true of the official world was true also of the commercial. The great monopoly companies swallowed up hosts of petty traders. Instead of going out to trade adventurously in the Indies one went to an office stool in Bombay or Singapore. And life in Bombay or Singapore was actually duller and safer than life in London. Imperialist sentiment remained strong in the middle class, chiefly owing to family tradition, but the job of administering the Empire had ceased to appeal. Few able men went east of Suez if there was any way of avoiding it.

But the general weakening of imperialism, and to some extent of the whole British morale, that took place during the nineteen-thirties, was partly the work of the left-wing intelligentsia, itself a kind of growth that had sprouted from the stagnation of the Empire.

It should be noted that there is now no intelligentsia that is not in some sense “Left”. Perhaps the last right-wing intellectual was T. E. Lawrence. Since about 1930 everyone describable as an “intellectual” has lived in a state of chronic discontent with the existing order. Necessarily so, because society as it was constituted had no room for him. In an Empire that was simply stagnant, neither being developed nor falling to pieces, and in an England ruled by people whose chief asset was their stupidity, to be “clever” was to be suspect. If you had the kind of brain that could understand the poems of T. S. Eliot or the theories of Karl Marx, the higher-ups would see to it that you were kept out of any important job. The intellectuals could find a function for themselves only in the literary reviews and the left-wing political parties.

The mentality of the English left-wing intelligentsia can be studied in half a dozen weekly and monthly papers. The immediately striking thing about all these papers is their generally negative, querulous attitude, their complete lack at all times of any constructive suggestion. There is little in them except the irresponsible carping of people who have never been and never expect to be in a position of power. Another marked characteristic is the emotional shallowness of people who live in a world of ideas and have little contact with physical reality. Many intellectuals of the Left were flabbily pacifist up to 1935, shrieked for war against Germany in the years 1935-9, and then promptly cooled off when the war started. It is broadly though not precisely true that the people who were most “anti-Fascist” during the Spanish civil war are most defeatist now. And underlying this is the really important fact about so many of the English intelligentsia – their severance from the common culture of the country.

In intention, at any rate, the English intelligentsia are Europeanized. They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow. In the general patriotism of the country they form a sort of island of dissident thought. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during “God save the King” than of stealing from a poor box. All through the critical years many left-wingers were chipping away at English morale, trying to spread an outlook that was sometimes squashily pacifist, sometimes violently pro-Russian, but always anti-British. It is questionable how much effect this had, but it certainly had some. If the English people suffered for several years a real weakening of morale, so that the Fascist nations judged that they were ‘decadent’ and that it was safe to plunge into war, the intellectual sabotage from the Left was partly responsible. Both the New Statesman and the News-Chronicle cried out against the Munich settlement, but even they had done something to make it possible. Ten years of systematic Blimp-baiting affected even the Blimps themselves and made it harder than it had been before to get intelligent young men to enter the armed forces. Given the stagnation of the Empire, the military middle class must have decayed in any case, but the spread of a shallow Leftism hastened the process.

It is clear that the special position of the English intellectuals during the past ten years, as purely negative creatures, mere anti-Blimps, was a by-product of ruling-class stupidity. Society could not use them, and they had not got it in them to see that devotion to one’s country implies “for better, for worse”. Both Blimps and highbrows took for granted, as though it were a law of nature, the divorce between patriotism and intelligence. If you were a patriot you read Blackwood’s Magazine and publicly thanked God that you were “not brainy”. If you were an intellectual you sniggered at the Union Jack and regarded physical courage as barbarous. It is obvious that this preposterous convention cannot continue. The Bloomsbury highbrow, with his mechanical snigger, is as out-of-date as the cavalry colonel. A modern nation cannot afford either of them. Patriotism and intelligence will have to come together again. It is the fact that we are fighting a war, and a very peculiar kind of war, that may make this possible.

VI

One of the most important developments in England during the past twenty years has been the upward and downward extension of the middle class. It has happened on such a scale as to make the old classification of society into capitalists, proletarians and petit bourgeois (small property-owners) almost obsolete.

England is a country in which property and financial power are concentrated in very few hands. Few people in modern England own anything at all, except clothes, furniture and possibly a house. The peasantry have long since disappeared, the independent shopkeeper is being destroyed, the small business-man is diminishing in numbers. But at the same time modern industry is so complicated that it cannot get along without great numbers of managers, salesmen, engineers, chemists and technicians of all kinds, drawing fairly large salaries. And these in turn call into being a professional class of doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists, etc., etc. The tendency of advanced capitalism has therefore been to enlarge the middle class and not to wipe it out as it once seemed likely to do.

But much more important than this is the spread of middle-class ideas and habits among the working class. The British working class are now better off in almost all ways than they were thirty years ago. This is partly due to the efforts of the Trade Unions, but partly to the mere advance of physical science. It is not always realized that within rather narrow limits the standard of life of a country can rise without a corresponding rise in real-wages. Up to a point, civilization can lift itself up by its boot-tags. However unjustly society is organized, certain technical advances are bound to benefit the whole community, because certain kinds of goods are necessarily held in common. A millionaire cannot, for example, light the streets for himself while darkening them for other people. Nearly all citizens of civilized countries now enjoy the use of good roads, germ-free water, police protection, free libraries and probably free education of a kind. Public education in England has been meanly starved of money, but it has nevertheless improved, largely owing to the devoted efforts of the teachers, and the habit of reading has become enormously more widespread. To an increasing extent the rich and the poor read the same books, and they also see the same films and listen to the same radio programmes. And the differences in their way of life have been diminished by the mass-production of cheap clothes and improvements in housing. So far as outward appearance goes, the clothes of rich and poor, especially in the case of women, differ far less than they did thirty or even fifteen years ago. As to housing, England still has slums which are a blot on civilization, but much building has been done during the past ten years, largely by the local authorities. The modern council house, with its bathroom and electric light, is smaller than the stockbroker’s villa, but it is recognizably the same kind of house, which the farm labourer’s cottage is not. A person who has grown up in a council housing estate is likely to be – indeed, visibly is – more middle class in outlook than a person who has grown up in a slum.

The effect of all this is a general softening of manners. It is enhanced by the fact that modern industrial methods tend always to demand less muscular effort and therefore to leave people with more energy when their day’s work is done. Many workers in the light industries are less truly manual labourers than is a doctor or a grocer. In tastes, habits, manners and outlook the working class and the middle class are drawing together. The unjust distinctions remain, but the real differences diminish. The old-style “proletarian” – collarless, unshaven and with muscles warped by heavy labour – still exists, but he is constantly decreasing in numbers; he only predominates in the heavy-industry areas of the north of England.

After 1918 there began to appear something that had never existed in England before: people of indeterminate social class. In 1910 every human being in these islands could be “placed” in an instant by his clothes, manners and accent. That is no longer the case. Above all, it is not the case in the new townships that have developed as a result of cheap motor cars and the southward shift of industry. The place to look for the germs of the future England is in the light-industry areas and along the arterial roads. In Slough, Dagenham, Barnet, Letchworth, Hayes – everywhere, indeed, on the outskirts of great towns – the old pattern is gradually changing into something new. In those vast new wildernesses of glass and brick the sharp distinctions of the older kind of town, with its slums and mansions, or of the country, with its manor-houses and squalid cottages, no longer exist. There are wide gradations of income, but it is the same kind of life that is being lived at different levels, in labour-saving flats or council houses, along the concrete roads and in the naked democracy of the swimming-pools. It is a rather restless, cultureless life, centring round tinned food, Picture Post, the radio and the internal combustion engine. It is a civilization in which children grow up with an intimate knowledge of magnetoes and in complete ignorance of the Bible. To that civilization belong the people who are most at home in and most definitely of the modern world, the technicians and the higher-paid skilled workers, the airmen and their mechanics, the radio experts, film producers, popular journalists and industrial chemists. They are the indeterminate stratum at which the older class distinctions are beginning to break down.

This war, unless we are defeated, will wipe out most of the existing class privileges. There are every day fewer people who wish them to continue. Nor need we fear that as the pattern changes life in England will lose its peculiar flavour. The new red cities of Greater London are crude enough, but these things are only the rash that accompanies a change. In whatever shape England emerges from the war it will be deeply tinged with the characteristics that I have spoken of earlier. The intellectuals who hope to see it Russianized or Germanized will be disappointed. The gentleness, the hypocrisy, the thoughtlessness, the reverence for law and the hatred of uniforms will remain, along with the suet puddings and the misty skies. It needs some very great disaster, such as prolonged subjugation by a foreign enemy, to destroy a national culture. The Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children’s holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten, but England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.

Part II: Shopkeepers at War

I

I began this book to the tune of German bombs, and I begin this second chapter in the added racket of the barrage. The yellow gun-flashes are lighting the sky, the splinters are rattling on the house-tops, and London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down. Anyone able to read a map knows that we are in deadly danger. I do not mean that we are beaten or need be beaten. Almost certainly the outcome depends on our own will. But at this moment we are in the soup, full fathom five, and we have been brought there by follies which we are still committing and which will drown us altogether if we do not mend our ways quickly.

What this war has demonstrated is that private capitalism – that is, an economic system in which land, factories, mines and transport are owned privately and operated solely for profit – does not work. It cannot deliver the goods. This fact had been known to millions of people for years past, but nothing ever came of it, because there was no real urge from below to alter the system, and those at the top had trained themselves to be impenetrably stupid on just this point. Argument and propaganda got one nowhere. The lords of property simply sat on their bottoms and proclaimed that all was for the best. Hitler’s conquest of Europe, however, was a physical debunking of capitalism. War, for all its evil, is at any rate an unanswerable test of strength, like a try-your-grip machine. Great strength returns the penny, and there is no way of faking the result.

When the nautical screw was first invented, there was a controversy that lasted for years as to whether screw-steamers or paddle-steamers were better. The paddle-steamers, like all obsolete things, had their champions, who supported them by ingenious arguments. Finally, however, a distinguished admiral tied a screw-steamer and a paddle-steamer of equal horsepower stern to stern and set their engines running. That settled the question once and for all. And it was something similar that happened on the fields of Norway and of Flanders. Once and for all it was proved that a planned economy is stronger than a planless one. But it is necessary here to give some kind of definition to those much-abused words, Socialism and Fascism.

Socialism is usually defined as “common ownership of the means of production”. Crudely: the State, representing the whole nation, owns everything, and everyone is a State employee. This does not mean that people are stripped of private possessions such as clothes and furniture, but it does mean that all productive goods, such as land, mines, ships and machinery, are the property of the State. The State is the sole large-scale producer. It is not certain that Socialism is in all ways superior to capitalism, but it is certain that, unlike capitalism, it can solve the problems of production and consumption. At normal times a capitalist economy can never consume all that it produces, so that there is always a wasted surplus (wheat burned in furnaces, herrings dumped back into the sea, etc., etc.) and always unemployment. In time of war, on the other hand, it has difficulty in producing all that it needs, because nothing is produced unless someone sees his way to making a profit out of it. In a Socialist economy these problems do not exist. The State simply calculates what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them. Production is only limited by the amount of labour and raw materials. Money, for internal purposes, ceases to be a mysterious all-powerful thing and becomes a sort of coupon or ration-ticket, issued in sufficient quantities to buy up such consumption goods as may be available at the moment.

However, it has become clear in the last few years that “common ownership of the means of production” is not in itself a sufficient definition of Socialism. One must also add the following: approximate equality of incomes (it need be no more than approximate), political democracy, and abolition of all hereditary privilege, especially in education. These are simply the necessary safeguards against the reappearance of a class-system. Centralized ownership has very little meaning unless the mass of the people are living roughly upon an equal level, and have some kind of control over the government. “The State” may come to mean no more than a self-elected political party, and oligarchy and privilege can return, based on power rather than on money.

But what then is Fascism?

Fascism, at any rate the German version, is a form of capitalism that borrows from Socialism just such features as will make it efficient for war purposes. Internally, Germany has a good deal in common with a Socialist state. Ownership has never been abolished, there are still capitalists and workers, and – this is the important point, and the real reason why rich men all over the world tend to sympathize with Fascism – generally speaking the same people are capitalists and the same people workers as before the Nazi revolution. But at the same time the State, which is simply the Nazi Party, is in control of everything. It controls investment, raw materials, rates of interest, working hours, wages. The factory owner still owns his factory, but he is for practical purposes reduced to the status of a manager. Everyone is in effect a State employee, though the salaries vary very greatly. The mere efficiency of such a system, the elimination of waste and obstruction, is obvious. In seven years it has built up the most powerful war machine the world has ever seen.

But the idea underlying Fascism is irreconcilably different from that which underlies Socialism. Socialism aims, ultimately, at a world-state of free and equal human beings. It takes the equality of human rights for granted. Nazism assumes just the opposite. The driving force behind the Nazi movement is the belief in human inequality, the superiority of Germans to all other races, the right of Germany to rule the world. Outside the German Reich it does not recognize any obligations. Eminent Nazi professors have “proved” over and over again that only Nordic man is fully human, have even mooted the idea that non-Nordic peoples (such as ourselves) can interbreed with gorillas! Therefore, while a species of war-Socialism exists within the German state, its attitude towards conquered nations is frankly that of an exploiter. The function of the Czechs, Poles, French, etc., is simply to produce such goods as Germany may need, and get in return just as little as will keep them from open rebellion. If we are conquered, our job will probably be to manufacture weapons for Hitler’s forthcoming wars with Russia and America. The Nazis aim, in effect, at setting up a kind of caste system, with four main castes corresponding rather closely to those of the Hindu religion. At the top comes the Nazi party, second come the mass of the German people, third come the conquered European populations. Fourth and last are to come the coloured peoples, the “semi-apes” as Hitler calls them, who are to be reduced quite openly to slavery.

However horrible this system may seem to us, it works. It works because it is a planned system geared to a definite purpose, world-conquest, and not allowing any private interest, either of capitalist or worker, to stand in its way. British capitalism does not work, because it is a competitive system in which private profit is and must be the main objective. It is a system in which all the forces are pulling in opposite directions and the interests of the individual are as often as not totally opposed to those of the State.

All through the critical years British capitalism, with its immense industrial plant and its unrivalled supply of skilled labour, was unequal to the strain of preparing for war. To prepare for war on the modern scale you have got to divert the greater part of your national income to armaments, which means cutting down on consumption goods. A bombing plane, for instance, is equivalent in price to fifty small motor cars, or eighty thousand pairs of silk stockings, or a million loaves of bread. Clearly you can’t have many bombing planes without lowering the national standard of life. It is guns or butter, as Marshal Göring remarked. But in Chamberlain’s England the transition could not be made. The rich would not face the necessary taxation, and while the rich are still visibly rich it is not possible to tax the poor very heavily either. Moreover, so long as profit was the main object the manufacturer had no incentive to change over from consumption goods to armaments. A business-man’s first duty is to his share-holders. Perhaps England needs tanks, but perhaps it pays better to manufacture motor cars. To prevent war material from reaching the enemy is common sense, but to sell in the highest market is a business duty. Right at the end of August 1939 the British dealers were tumbling over one another in their eagerness to sell Germany tin, rubber, copper and shellac – and this in the clear, certain knowledge that war was going to break out in a week or two. It was about as sensible as selling somebody a razor to cut your throat with. But it was “good business”.

And now look at the results. After 1934 it was known that Germany was rearming. After 1936 everyone with eyes in his head knew that war was coming. After Munich it was merely a question of how soon the war would begin. In September 1939 war broke out. Eight months later it was discovered that, so far as equipment went, the British army was barely beyond the standard of 1918. We saw our soldiers fighting their way desperately to the coast, with one aeroplane against three, with rifles against tanks, with bayonets against tommy-guns. There were not even enough revolvers to supply all the officers. After a year of war the regular army was still short of 300,000 tin hats. There had even, previously, been a shortage of uniforms – this in one of the greatest woollen-producing countries in the world!

What had happened was that the whole monied class, unwilling to face a change in their way of life, had shut their eyes to the nature of Fascism and modern war. And false optimism was fed to the general public by the gutter press, which lives on its advertisements and is therefore interested in keeping trade conditions normal. Year after year the Beaverbrook press assured us in huge headlines that THERE WILL BE NO WAR, and as late as the beginning of 1939 Lord Rothermere was describing Hitler as “a great gentleman”. And while England in the moment of disaster proved to be short of every war material except ships, it is not recorded that there was any shortage of motor cars, fur coats, gramophones, lipstick, chocolates or silk stockings. And dare anyone pretend that the same tug-of-war between private profit and public necessity is not still continuing? England fights for her life, but business must fight for profits. You can hardly open a newspaper without seeing the two contradictory processes happening side by side. On the very same page you will find the Government urging you to save and the seller of some useless luxury urging you to spend. Lend to Defend, but Guinness is Good for You. Buy a Spitfire, but also buy Haig and Haig, Pond’s Face Cream and Black Magic Chocolates.

But one thing gives hope – the visible swing in public opinion. If we can survive this war, the defeat in Flanders will turn out to have been one of the great turning-points in English history. In that spectacular disaster the working class, the middle class and even a section of the business community could see the utter rottenness of private capitalism. Before that the case against capitalism had never been proved. Russia, the only definitely Socialist country, was backward and far away. All criticism broke itself against the rat-trap faces of bankers and the brassy laughter of stockbrokers. Socialism? Ha! ha! ha! Where’s the money to come from? Ha! ha! ha! The lords of property were firm in their seats, and they knew it. But after the French collapse there came something that could not be laughed away, something that neither cheque-books nor policemen were any use against – the bombing. Zweee – BOOM! What’s that? Oh, only a bomb on the Stock Exchange. Zweee – BOOM! Another acre of somebody’s valuable slum-property gone west. Hitler will at any rate go down in history as the man who made the City of London laugh on the wrong side of its face. For the first time in their lives the comfortable were uncomfortable, the professional optimists had to admit that there was something wrong. It was a great step forward. From that time onwards the ghastly job of trying to convince artificially stupefied people that a planned economy might be better than a free-for-all in which the worst man wins – that job will never be quite so ghastly again.

II

The difference between Socialism and capitalism is not primarily a difference of technique. One cannot simply change from one system to the other as one might install a new piece of machinery in a factory, and then carry on as before, with the same people in positions of control. Obviously there is also needed a complete shift of power. New blood, new men, new ideas – in the true sense of the word, a revolution.

I have spoken earlier of the soundness and homogeneity of England, the patriotism that runs like a connecting thread through almost all classes. After Dunkirk anyone who had eyes in his head could see this. But it is absurd to pretend that the promise of that moment has been fulfilled. Almost certainly the mass of the people are now ready for the vast changes that are necessary; but those changes have not even begun to happen.

England is a family with the wrong members in control. Almost entirely we are governed by the rich, and by people who step into positions of command by right of birth. Few if any of these people are consciously treacherous, some of them are not even fools, but as a class they are quite incapable of leading us to victory. They could not do it, even if their material interests did not constantly trip them up. As I pointed out earlier, they have been artificially stupefied. Quite apart from anything else, the rule of money sees to it that we shall be governed largely by the old – that is, by people utterly unable to grasp what age they are living in or what enemy they are fighting. Nothing was more desolating at the beginning of this war than the way in which the whole of the older generation conspired to pretend that it was the war of 1914-18 over again. All the old duds were back on the job, twenty years older, with the skull plainer in their faces. Ian Hay was cheering up the troops, Belloc was writing articles on strategy, Maurois doing broadcasts, Bairnsfather drawing cartoons. It was like a tea-party of ghosts. And that state of affairs has barely altered. The shock of disaster brought a few able men like Bevin to the front, but in general we are still commanded by people who managed to live through the years 1931-9 without even discovering that Hitler was dangerous. A generation of the unteachable is hanging upon us like a necklace of corpses.

As soon as one considers any problem of this war – and it does not matter whether it is the widest aspect of strategy or the tiniest detail of home organization – one sees that the necessary moves cannot be made while the social structure of England remains what it is. Inevitably, because of their position and upbringing, the ruling class are fighting for their own privileges, which cannot possibly be reconciled with the public interest. It is a mistake to imagine that war-aims, strategy, propaganda and industrial organization exist in watertight compartments. All are interconnected. Every strategic plan, every tactical method, even every weapon will bear the stamp of the social system that produced it. The British ruling class are fighting against Hitler, whom they have always regarded and whom some of them still regard as their protector against Bolshevism. That does not mean that they will deliberately sell out; but it does mean that at every decisive moment they are likely to falter, pull their punches, do the wrong thing.

Until the Churchill Government called some sort of halt to the process, they have done the wrong thing with an unerring instinct ever since 1931. They helped Franco to overthrow the Spanish government, although anyone not an imbecile could have told them that a Fascist Spain would be hostile to England. They fed Italy with war materials all through the winter of 1939-40, although it was obvious to the whole world that the Italians were going to attack us in the spring. For the sake of a few hundred thousand dividend-drawers they are turning India from an ally into an enemy. Moreover, so long as the monied classes remain in control, we cannot develop any but a defensive strategy. Every victory means a change in the status quo. How can we drive the Italians out of Abyssinia without rousing echoes among the coloured peoples of our own Empire? How can we even smash Hitler without the risk of bringing the German Socialists and Communists into power? The left-wingers who wail that “this is a capitalist war” and that “British Imperialism” is fighting for loot have got their heads screwed on backwards. The last thing the British monied class wish for is to acquire fresh territory. It would simply be an embarrassment. Their war-aim (both unattainable and unmentionable) is simply to hang on to what they have got.

Internally, England is still the rich man’s Paradise. All talk of “equality of sacrifice” is nonsense. At the same time as factory-workers are asked to put up with longer hours, advertisements for “Butler. One in family, eight in staff” are appearing in the press. The bombed-out populations of the East End go hungry and homeless while wealthier victims simply step into their cars and flee to comfortable country houses. The Home Guard swells to a million men in a few weeks, and is deliberately organized from above in such a way that only people with private incomes can hold positions of command. Even the rationing system is so arranged that it hits the poor all the time, while people with over £2,000 a year are practically unaffected by it. Everywhere privilege is squandering good will. In such circumstances even propaganda becomes almost impossible. As attempts to stir up patriotic feeling, the red posters issued by the Chamberlain Government at the beginning of the war broke all depth-records. Yet they could not have been much other than they were, for how could Chamberlain and his followers take the risk of rousing strong popular feeling against Fascism? Anyone who was genuinely hostile to Fascism must also be opposed to Chamberlain himself, and to all the others who had helped Hitler into power. So also with external propaganda. In all Lord Halifax’s speeches there is not one concrete proposal for which a single inhabitant of Europe would risk the top joint of his little finger. For what war-aim can Halifax, or anyone like him, conceivably have, except to put the clock back to 1933?

It is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free. Revolution does not mean red flags and street fighting, it means a fundamental shift of power. Whether it happens with or without bloodshed is largely an accident of time and place. Nor does it mean the dictatorship of a single class. The people in England who grasp what changes are needed and are capable of carrying them through are not confined to any one class, though it is true that very few people with over £2,000 a year are among them. What is wanted is a conscious open revolt by ordinary people against inefficiency, class privilege and the rule of the old. It is not primarily a question of change of government. British governments do, broadly speaking, represent the will of the people, and if we alter our structure from below we shall get the government we need. Ambassadors, generals, officials and colonial administrators who are senile or pro-Fascist are more dangerous than Cabinet ministers whose follies have to be committed in public. Right through our national life we have got to fight against privilege, against the notion that a half-witted public-schoolboy is better for command than an intelligent mechanic. Although there are gifted and honest individuals among them, we have got to break the grip of the monied class as a whole. England has got to assume its real shape. The England that is only just beneath the surface, in the factories and the newspaper offices, in the aeroplanes and the submarines, has got to take charge of its own destiny.

In the short run, equality of sacrifice, “war-communism”, is even more important than radical economic changes. It is very necessary that industry should be nationalized, but it is more urgently necessary that such monstrosities as butlers and “private incomes” should disappear forthwith. Almost certainly the main reason why the Spanish Republic could keep up the fight for two and a half years against impossible odds was that there were no gross contrasts of wealth. The people suffered horribly, but they all suffered alike. When the private soldier had not a cigarette, the general had not one either. Given equality of sacrifice, the morale of a country like England would probably be unbreakable. But at present we have nothing to appeal to except traditional patriotism, which is deeper here than elsewhere, but is not necessarily bottomless. At some point or another you have got to deal with the man who says ‘I should be no worse off under Hitler’. But what answer can you give him – that is, what answer that you can expect him to listen to – while common soldiers risk their lives for two and sixpence a day, and fat women ride about in Rolls-Royce cars, nursing Pekingeses?

It is quite likely that this war will last three years. It will mean cruel overwork, cold dull winters, uninteresting food, lack of amusements, prolonged bombing. It cannot but lower the general standard of living, because the essential act of war is to manufacture armaments instead of consumable goods. The working class will have to suffer terrible things. And they will suffer them, almost indefinitely, provided that they know what they are fighting for. They are not cowards, and they are not even internationally-minded. They can stand all that the Spanish workers stood, and more. But they will want some kind of proof that a better life is ahead for themselves and their children. The one sure earnest of that is that when they are taxed and overworked they shall see that the rich are being hit even harder. And if the rich squeal audibly, so much the better.

We can bring these things about, if we really want to. It is not true that public opinion has no power in England. It never makes itself heard without achieving something; it has been responsible for most of the changes for the better during the past six months. But we have moved with glacier-like slowness, and we have learned only from disasters. It took the fall of Paris to get rid of Chamberlain and the unnecessary suffering of scores of thousands of people in the East End to get rid or partially rid of Sir John Anderson. It is not worth losing a battle in order to bury a corpse. For we are fighting against swift evil intelligences, and time presses, and

History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot alter or pardon.

III

During the last six months there has been much talk of “the Fifth Column”. From time to time obscure lunatics have been jailed for making speeches in favour of Hitler, and large numbers of German refugees have been interned, a thing which has almost certainly done us great harm in Europe. It is of course obvious that the idea of a large, organized army of Fifth Columnists suddenly appearing on the streets with weapons in their hands, as in Holland and Belgium, is ridiculous. Nevertheless a Fifth Column danger does exist. One can only consider it if one also considers in what way England might be defeated.

It does not seem probable that air bombing can settle a major war. England might well be invaded and conquered, but the invasion would be a dangerous gamble, and if it happened and failed it would probably leave us more united and less Blimp-ridden than before. Moreover, if England were overrun by foreign troops the English people would know that they had been beaten and would continue the struggle. It is doubtful whether they could be held down permanently, or whether Hitler wishes to keep an army of a million men stationed in these islands. A government of ­­–––––, ––––– and ––––– (you can fill in the names) would suit him better. The English can probably not be bullied into surrender, but they might quite easily be bored, cajoled or cheated into it, provided that, as at Munich, they did not know that they were surrendering. It could happen most easily when the war seemed to be going well rather than badly. The threatening tone of so much of the German and Italian propaganda is a psychological mistake. It only gets home on intellectuals. With the general public the proper approach would be “Let’s call it a draw”. It is when a peace-offer along those lines is made that the pro-Fascists will raise their voices.

But who are the pro-Fascists? The idea of a Hitler victory appeals to the very rich, to the Communists, to Mosley’s followers, to the pacifists, and to certain sections among the Catholics. Also, if things went badly enough on the Home Front, the whole of the poorer section of the working class might swing round to a position that was defeatist though not actively pro-Hitler.

In this motley list one can see the daring of German propaganda, its willingness to offer everything to everybody. But the various pro-Fascist forces are not consciously acting together, and they operate in different ways.

The Communists must certainly be regarded as pro-Hitler, and are bound to remain so unless Russian policy changes, but they have not very much influence. Mosley’s Blackshirts, though now lying very low, are a more serious danger, because of the footing they probably possess in the armed forces. Still, even in its palmiest days Mosley’s following can hardly have numbered 50,000. Pacifism is a psychological curiosity rather than a political movement. Some of the extremer pacifists, starting out with a complete renunciation of violence, have ended by warmly championing Hitler and even toying with anti-semitism. This is interesting, but it is not important. “Pure” pacifism, which is a by-product of naval power, can only appeal to people in very sheltered positions. Moreover, being negative and irresponsible, it does not inspire much devotion. Of the membership of the Peace Pledge Union, less than fifteen per cent even pay their annual subscriptions. None of these bodies of people, pacifists, Communists or Blackshirts, could bring a large-scale stop-the-war movement into being by their own efforts. But they might help to make things very much easier for a treacherous government negotiating surrender. Like the French Communists, they might become the half-conscious agents of millionaires.

The real danger is from above. One ought not to pay any attention to Hitler’s recent line of talk about being the friend of the poor man, the enemy of plutocracy, etc., etc. Hitler’s real self is in Mein Kampf, and in his actions. He has never persecuted the rich, except when they were Jews or when they tried actively to oppose him. He stands for a centralized economy which robs the capitalist of most of his power but leaves the structure of society much as before. The State controls industry, but there are still rich and poor, masters and men. Therefore, as against genuine Socialism, the monied class have always been on his side. This was crystal clear at the time of the Spanish civil war, and clear again at the time when France surrendered. Hitler’s puppet government are not working-men, but a gang of bankers, gaga generals and corrupt right-wing politicians.

That kind of spectacular, conscious treachery is less likely to succeed in England, indeed is far less likely even to be tried. Nevertheless, to many payers of super-tax this war is simply an insane family squabble which ought to be stopped at all costs. One need not doubt that a “peace” movement is on foot somewhere in high places; probably a shadow Cabinet has already been formed. These people will get their chance not in the moment of defeat but in some stagnant period when boredom is reinforced by discontent. They will not talk about surrender, only about peace; and doubtless they will persuade themselves, and perhaps other people, that they are acting for the best. An army of unemployed led by millionaires quoting the Sermon on the Mount – that is our danger. But it cannot arise when we have once introduced a reasonable degree of social justice. The lady in the Rolls-Royce car is more damaging to morale than a fleet of Göring’s bombing planes.

Part III: The English Revolution

I

The English revolution started several years ago, and it began to gather momentum when the troops came back from Dunkirk. Like all else in England, it happens in a sleepy, unwilling way, but it is happening. The war has speeded it up, but it has also increased, and desperately, the necessity for speed.

Progress and reaction are ceasing to have anything to do with party labels. If one wishes to name a particular moment, one can say that the old distinction between Right and Left broke down when Picture Post was first published. What are the politics of Picture Post? Or of Cavalcade, or Priestley’s broadcasts, or the leading articles in the Evening Standard? None of the old classifications will fit them. They merely point to the existence of multitudes of unlabelled people who have grasped within the last year or two that something is wrong. But since a classless, ownerless society is generally spoken of as ‘Socialism’, we can give that name to the society towards which we are now moving. The war and the revolution are inseparable. We cannot establish anything that a Western nation would regard as Socialism without defeating Hitler; on the hand we cannot defeat Hitler while we remain economically and socially in the nineteenth century. The past is fighting the future, and we have two years, a year, possibly only a few months, to see to it that the future wins.

We cannot look to this or to any similar government to put through the necessary changes of its own accord. The initiative will have to come from below. That means that there will have to arise something that has never yet existed in England, a Socialist movement that actually has the mass of the people behind it. But one must start by recognizing why it is that English Socialism has failed.

In England there is only one Socialist party that has ever seriously mattered, the Labour Party. It has never been able to achieve any major change, because except in purely domestic matters it has never possessed a genuinely independent policy. It was and is primarily a party of the Trade Unions, devoted to raising wages and improving working conditions. This meant that all through the critical years it was directly interested in the prosperity of British capitalism. In particular it was interested in the maintenance of the British Empire, for the wealth of England was drawn largely from Asia and Africa. The standard of living of the Trade Union workers, whom the Labour Party represented, depended indirectly on the sweating of Indian coolies. At the same time the Labour Party was a Socialist party, using Socialist phraseology, thinking in terms of an old-fashioned anti-imperialism and more or less pledged to make restitution to the coloured races. It had to stand for the “independence” of India, just as it had to stand for disarmament and “progress” generally. Nevertheless everyone was aware that this was nonsense. In the age of the tank and the bombing plane, backward agricultural countries like India and the African colonies can no more be independent than can a cat or a dog. Had any Labour Government come into office with a clear majority and then proceeded to grant India anything that could truly be called independence, India would simply have been absorbed by Japan, or divided between Japan and Russia.

To a Labour government in power, three imperial policies would have been open. One was to continue administering the Empire exactly as before, which meant dropping all pretensions to Socialism. Another was to set the subject peoples “free”, which meant in practice handing them over to Japan, Italy and other predatory powers, and incidentally causing a catastrophic drop in the British standard of living. The third was to develop a positive imperial policy, and aim at transforming the Empire into a federation of Socialist states, like a looser and freer version of the Union of Soviet Republics. But the Labour Party’s history and background made this impossible. It was a party of the Trade Unions, hopelessly parochial in outlook, with little interest in imperial affairs and no contacts among the men who actually held the Empire together. It would have had to hand over the administration of India and Africa and the whole job of imperial defence to men drawn from a different class and traditionally hostile to Socialism. Overshadowing everything was the doubt whether a Labour Government which meant business could make itself obeyed. For all the size of its following, the Labour Party had no footing in the navy, little or none in the army or Air Force, none whatever in the colonial services, and not even a sure footing in the Home civil service. In England its position was strong but not unchallengeable, and outside England all the points were in the hands of its enemies. Once in power, the same dilemma would always have faced it: carry out your promises, and risk revolt, or continue with the same policy as the Conservatives, and stop talking about Socialism. The Labour leaders never found a solution, and from 1935 onwards it was very doubtful whether they had any wish to take office. They had degenerated into a Permanent Opposition.

Outside the Labour Party there existed several extremist parties, of whom the Communists were the strongest. The Communists had considerable influence in the Labour Party in the years 1920-26 and 1935-9. Their chief importance, and that of the whole left wing of the Labour movement, was the part they played in alienating the middle classes from Socialism.

The history of the past seven years has made it perfectly clear that Communism has no chance in Western Europe. The appeal of Fascism is enormously greater. In one country after another the Communists have been rooted out by their more up-to-date enemies, the Nazis. In the English-speaking countries they never had a serious footing. The creed they were spreading could appeal only to a rather rare type of person, found chiefly in the middle-class intelligentsia, the type who has ceased to love his own country but still feels the need of patriotism, and therefore develops patriotic sentiments towards Russia. By 1940, after working for twenty years and spending a great deal of money, the British Communists had barely 20,000 members, actually a smaller number than they had started out with in 1920. The other Marxist parties were of even less importance. They had not the Russian money and prestige behind them, and even more than the Communists they were tied to the nineteenth-century doctrine of the class war. They continued year after year to preach this out-of-date gospel, and never drew any inference from the fact that it got them no followers.

Nor did any strong native Fascist movement grow up. Material conditions were not bad enough, and no leader who could be taken seriously was forthcoming. One would have had to look a long time to find a man more barren of ideas than Sir Oswald Mosley. He was as hollow as a jug. Even the elementary fact that Fascism must not offend national sentiment had escaped him. His entire movement was imitated slavishly from abroad, the uniform and the party programme from Italy and the salute from Germany, with the Jew-baiting tacked on as an afterthought, Mosley having actually started his movement with Jews among his most prominent followers. A man of the stamp of Bottomley or Lloyd George could perhaps have brought a real British Fascist movement into existence. But such leaders only appear when the psychological need for them exists.

After twenty years of stagnation and unemployment, the entire English Socialist movement was unable to produce a version of Socialism which the mass of the people could even find desirable. The Labour Party stood for a timid reformism, the Marxists were looking at the modern world through nineteenth-century spectacles. Both ignored agriculture and imperial problems, and both antagonized the middle classes. The suffocating stupidity of left-wing propaganda had frightened away whole classes of necessary people, factory managers, airmen, naval officers, farmers, white-collar workers, shopkeepers, policemen. All of these people had been taught to think of Socialism as something which menaced their livelihood, or as something seditious, alien, “anti-British” as they would have called it. Only the intellectuals, the least useful section of the middle class, gravitated towards the movement.

A Socialist Party which genuinely wished to achieve anything would have started by facing several facts which to this day are considered unmentionable in left-wing circles. It would have recognized that England is more united than most countries, that the British workers have a great deal to lose besides their chains, and that the differences in outlook and habits between class and class are rapidly diminishing. In general, it would have recognized that the old-fashioned “proletarian revolution” is an impossibility. But all through the between-war years no Socialist programme that was both revolutionary and workable ever appeared; basically, no doubt, because no one genuinely wanted any major change to happen. The Labour leaders wanted to go on and on, drawing their salaries and periodically swapping jobs with the Conservatives. The Communists wanted to go on and on, suffering a comfortable martyrdom, meeting with endless defeats and afterwards putting the blame on other people. The left-wing intelligentsia wanted to go on and on, sniggering at the Blimps, sapping away at middle-class morale, but still keeping their favoured position as hangers-on of the dividend-drawers. Labour Party politics had become a variant of Conservatism, “revolutionary” politics had become a game of make-believe.

Now, however, the circumstances have changed, the drowsy years have ended. Being a Socialist no longer means kicking theoretically against a system which in practice you are fairly well satisfied with. This time our predicament is real. It is “the Philistines be upon thee, Samson”. We have got to make our words take physical shape, or perish. We know very well that with its present social structure England cannot survive, and we have got to make other people see that fact and act upon it. We cannot win the war without introducing Socialism, nor establish Socialism without winning the war. At such a time it is possible, as it was not in the peaceful years, to be both revolutionary and realistic. A Socialist movement which can swing the mass of the people behind it, drive the pro-Fascists out of positions of control, wipe out the grosser injustices and let the working class see that they have something to fight for, win over the middle classes instead of antagonizing them, produce a workable imperial policy instead of a mixture of humbug and Utopianism, bring patriotism and intelligence into partnership – for the first time, a movement of such a kind becomes possible.

II

The fact that we are at war has turned Socialism from a textbook word into a realizable policy.

The inefficiency of private capitalism has been proved all over Europe. Its injustice has been proved in the East End of London. Patriotism, against which the Socialists fought so long, has become a tremendous lever in their hands. People who at any other time would cling like glue to their miserable scraps of privilege, will surrender them fast enough when their country is in danger. War is the greatest of all agents of change. It speeds up all processes, wipes out minor distinctions, brings realities to the surface. Above all, war brings it home to the individual that he is not altogether an individual. It is only because they are aware of this that men will die on the field of battle. At this moment it is not so much a question of surrendering life as of surrendering leisure, comfort, economic liberty, social prestige. There are very few people England who really want to see their country conquered by Germany. If it can be made clear that defeating Hitler means wiping out class privilege, the great mass of middling people, the £6 a week to £2,000 a year class, will probably be on our side. These people are quite indispensable, because they include most of the technical experts. Obviously the snobbishness and political ignorance of people like airmen and naval officers will be a very great difficulty. But without those airmen, destroyer commanders, etc., etc., we could not survive for a week. The only approach to them is through their patriotism. An intelligent Socialist movement will use their patriotism, instead of merely insulting it, as hitherto.

But do I mean that there will no opposition? Of course not. It would be childish to expect anything of the kind.

There will be a bitter political struggle, and there will be unconscious and half-conscious sabotage everywhere. At some point or other it may be necessary to use violence. It is easy to imagine a pro-Fascist rebellion breaking out in, for instance, India. We shall have to fight against bribery, ignorance and snobbery. The bankers and the larger business-men, the landowners and dividend-drawers, the officials with their prehensile bottoms, will obstruct for all they are worth. Even the middle class will writhe when their accustomed way of life is menaced. But just because the English sense of national unity has never disintegrated, because patriotism is finally stronger than class-hatred, the chances are that the will of the majority will prevail. It is no use imagining that one can make fundamental changes without causing a split in the nation; but the treacherous minority will be far smaller in time of war than it would be at any other time.

The swing of opinion is visibly happening, but it cannot be counted on to happen fast enough of its own accord. This war is a race between the consolidation of Hitler’s empire and the growth of democratic consciousness. Everywhere in England you can see a ding-dong battle ranging to and fro – in Parliament and in the Government, in the factories and the armed forces, in the pubs and the air-raid shelters, in the newspapers and on the radio. Every day there are tiny defeats, tiny victories. Morrison for Home Security – a few yards forward. Priestley shoved off the air – a few yards back. It is a struggle between the groping and the unteachable, between the young and the old, between the living and the dead. But it is very necessary that the discontent which undoubtedly exists should take a purposeful and not merely obstructive form. It is time for the people to define their war aims. What is wanted is a simple, concrete programme of action, which can be given all possible publicity, and round which public opinion can group itself.

I suggest that the following six-point programme is the kind of thing we need. The first three points deal with England’s internal policy, the other three with the Empire and the world:–

I. Nationalization of land, mines, railways, banks and major industries.

II. Limitation of incomes, on such a scale that the highest tax-free income in Britain does not exceed the lowest by more than ten to one.

III. Reform of the educational system along democratic lines.

IV. Immediate Dominion status for India, with power to secede when the war is over.

V. Formation of an Imperial General Council, in which the coloured peoples are to be represented.

VI. Declaration of formal alliance with China, Abyssinia and all other victims of the Fascist powers.

The general tendency of this programme is unmistakable. It aims quite frankly at turning this war into a revolutionary war and England into a Socialist democracy. I have deliberately included in it nothing that the simplest person could not understand and see the reason for. In the form in which I have put it, it could be printed on the front page of the Daily Mirror. But for the purposes of this book a certain amount of amplification is needed.

I. Nationalization. One can “nationalize” industry by the stroke of a pen, but the actual process is slow and complicated. What is needed is that the ownership of all major industry shall be formally vested in the State, representing the common people. Once that is done it becomes possible to eliminate the class of mere owners who live not by virtue of anything they produce but by the possession of title-deeds and share certificates. State-ownership implies, therefore, that nobody shall live without working. How sudden a change in the conduct of industry it implies is less certain. In a country like England we cannot rip down the whole structure and build again from the bottom, least of all in time of war. Inevitably the majority of industrial concerns will continue with much the same personnel as before, the one-time owners or managing directors carrying on with their jobs as State-employees. There is reason to think that many of the smaller capitalists would actually welcome some such arrangement. The resistance will come from the big capitalists, the bankers, the landlords and the idle rich, roughly speaking the class with over £2,000 a year – and even if one counts in all their dependants there are not more than half a million of these people in England. Nationalization of agricultural land implies cutting out the landlord and the tithe-drawer, but not necessarily interfering with the farmer. It is difficult to imagine any reorganization of English agriculture that would not retain most of the existing farms as units, at any rate at the beginning. The farmer, when he is competent, will continue as a salaried manager. He is virtually that already, with the added disadvantage of having to make a profit and being permanently in debt to the bank. With certain kinds of petty trading, and even the small-scale ownership of land, the State will probably not interfere at all. It would be a great mistake to start by victimizing the smallholder class, for instance. These people are necessary, on the whole they are competent, and the amount of work they do depends on the feeling that they are “their own masters”. But the State will certainly impose an upward limit to the ownership of land (probably fifteen acres at the very most), and will never permit any ownership of land in town areas.

From the moment that all productive goods have been declared the property of the State, the common people will feel, as they cannot feel now, that the State is themselves. They will be ready then to endure the sacrifices that are ahead of us, war or no war. And even if the face of England hardly seems to change, on the day that our main industries are formally nationalized the dominance of a single class will have been broken. From then onwards the emphasis will be shifted from ownership to management, from privilege to competence. It is quite possible that State-ownership will in itself bring about less social change than will be forced upon us by the common hardships of war. But it is the necessary first step without any real reconstruction is impossible.

II. Incomes. Limitation of incomes implies the fixing of a minimum wage, which implies a managed internal currency based simply on the amount of consumption-goods available. And this again implies a stricter rationing-scheme than is now in operation. It is no use at this stage of the world’s history to suggest that all human beings should have exactly equal incomes. It has been shown over and over again that without some kind of money reward there is no incentive to undertake certain jobs. On the other hand the money reward need not be very large. In practice it is impossible that earnings should be limited quite as rigidly as I have suggested. There will always be anomalies and evasions. But there is no reason why ten to one should not be the maximum normal variation. And within those limits some sense of equality is possible. A man with £3 a week and a man with £1,500 a year can feel themselves fellow-creatures, which the Duke of Westminster and the sleepers on the Embankment benches cannot.

III. Education. In wartime, educational reform must necessarily be promise rather than performance. At the moment we are not in a position to raise the school-leaving age or increase the teaching staffs of the Elementary Schools. But there are certain immediate steps that we could take towards a democratic educational system. We could start by abolishing the autonomy of the public schools and the older universities and flooding them with State-aided pupils chosen simply on grounds of ability. At present, public-school education is partly a training in class prejudice and partly a sort of tax that the middle classes pay to the upper class in return for the right to enter certain professions. It is true that that state of affairs is altering. The middle classes have begun to rebel against the expensiveness of education, and the war will bankrupt the majority of the public schools if it continues for another year or two. The evacuation is also producing certain minor changes. But there is a danger that some of the older schools, which will be able to weather the financial storm longest, will survive in some form or another as festering centres of snobbery. As for the 10,000 “private” schools that England possesses, the vast majority of them deserve nothing except suppression. They are simply commercial undertakings, and in many cases their educational level is actually lower than that of the Elementary Schools. They merely exist because of a widespread idea that there is something disgraceful in being educated by the public authorities. The State could quell this idea by declaring itself responsible for all education, even if at the start this were no more than a gesture. We need gestures, as well as actions. It is all too obvious that our talk of “defending democracy” is nonsense while it is a mere accident of birth that decides whether a gifted child shall or shall not get the education it deserves.

IV. India. What we must offer India is not “freedom”, which, I have said earlier, is impossible, but alliance, partnership – in a word, equality. But we must also tell the Indians that they are free to secede, if they want to. Without that there can be no equality of partnership, and our claim to be defending the coloured peoples against Fascism will never be believed. But it is a mistake to imagine that if the Indians were free to cut themselves adrift they would immediately do so. When a British government offers them unconditional independence, they will refuse it. For as soon as they have the power to secede the chief reasons for doing so will have disappeared.

A complete severance of the two countries would be a disaster for India no less than for England. Intelligent Indians know this. As things are at present, India not only cannot defend itself, it is hardly even capable of feeding itself. The whole administration of the country depends on a framework of experts (engineers, forest officers, railwaymen, soldiers, doctors) who are predominantly English and could not be replaced within five or ten years. Moreover, English is the chief lingua franca and nearly the whole of the Indian intelligentsia is deeply anglicised. Any transference to foreign rule – for if the British marched out of India the Japanese and other powers would immediately march in – would mean an immense dislocation. Neither the Japanese, the Russians, the Germans nor the Italians would be capable of administering India even at the low level of efficiency that is attained by the British. They do not possess the necessary supplies of technical experts or the knowledge of languages and local conditions, and they probably could not win the confidence of indispensable go-betweens such as the Eurasians. If India were simply “liberated”, i.e. deprived of British military protection, the first result would be a fresh foreign conquest, and the second a series of enormous famines which would kill millions of people within a few years.

What India needs is the power to work out its own constitution without British interference, but in some kind of partnership that ensures its military protection and technical advice. This is unthinkable until there is a Socialist government in England. For at least eighty years England has artificially prevented the development of India, partly from fear of trade competition if Indian industries were too highly developed, partly because backward peoples are more easily governed than civilized ones. It is a commonplace that the average Indian suffers far more from his own countrymen than from the British. The petty Indian capitalist exploits the town worker with the utmost ruthlessness, the peasant lives from birth to death in the grip of the moneylender. But all this is an indirect result of the British rule, which aims half-consciously at keeping India as backward as possible. The classes most loyal to Britain are the princes, the landowners and the business community – in general, the reactionary classes who are doing fairly well out of the status quo. The moment that England ceased to stand towards India in the relation of an exploiter, the balance of forces would be altered. No need then for the British to flatter the ridiculous Indian princes, with their gilded elephants and cardboard armies, to prevent the growth of the Indian Trade Unions, to play off Moslem against Hindu, to protect the worthless life of the moneylender, to receive the salaams of toadying minor officials, to prefer the half-barbarous Gurkha to the educated Bengali. Once check that stream of dividends that flows from the bodies of Indian coolies to the banking accounts of old ladies in Cheltenham, and the whole sahib-native nexus, with its haughty ignorance on one side and envy and servility on the other, can come to an end. Englishmen and Indians can work side by side for the development of India, and for the training of Indians in all the arts which, so far, they have been systematically prevented from learning. How many of the existing British personnel in India, commercial or official, would fall in with such an arrangement – which would mean ceasing once and for all to be “sahibs” – is a different question. But, broadly speaking, more is to be hoped from the younger men and from those officials (civil engineers, forestry and agriculture experts, doctors, educationists) who have been scientifically educated. The higher officials, the provincial governors, commissioners, judges, etc., are hopeless; but they are also the most easily replaceable.

That, roughly, is what would be meant by Dominion status if it were offered to India by a Socialist government. It is an offer of partnership on equal terms until such time as the world has ceased to be ruled by bombing planes. But we must add to it the unconditional right to secede. It is the only way of proving that we mean what we say. And what applies to India applies, mutatis mutandis, to Burma, Malaya and most of our African possessions.

V and VI explain themselves. They are the necessary preliminary to any claim that we are fighting this war for the protection of peaceful peoples against Fascist aggression.

Is it impossibly hopeful to think that such a policy as this could get a following in England? A year ago, even six months ago, it would have been, but not now. Moreover – and this is the peculiar opportunity of this moment – it could be given the necessary publicity. There is now a considerable weekly press, with a circulation of millions, which would be ready to popularize – if not exactly the programme I have sketched above, at any rate some policy along those lines. There are even three or four daily papers which would be prepared to give it a sympathetic hearing. That is the distance we have travelled in the last six months.

But is such a policy realizable? That depends entirely on ourselves.

Some of the points I have suggested are of the kind that could be carried out immediately, others would take years or decades and even then would not be perfectly achieved. No political programme is ever carried out in its entirety. But what matters is that that or something like it should be our declared policy. It is always the direction that counts. It is of course quite hopeless to expect the present government to pledge itself to any policy that implies turning this war into a revolutionary war. It is at best a government of compromise, with Churchill riding two horses like a circus acrobat. Before such measures as limitation of incomes become even thinkable, there will have to be complete shift of power away from the old ruling class. If during this winter the war settles into another stagnant period, we ought in my opinion to agitate for a General Election, a thing which the Tory Party machine will make frantic efforts to prevent. But even without an election we can get the government we want, provided that we want it urgently enough. A real shove from below will accomplish it. As to who will be in that government when it comes, I make no guess. I only know that the right men will be there when the people really want them, for it is movements that make leaders and not leaders movements.

Within a year, perhaps even within six months, if we are still unconquered, we shall see the rise of something that has never existed before, a specifically English Socialist movement. Hitherto there has been only the Labour Party, which was the creation of the working class but did not aim at any fundamental change, and Marxism, which was a German theory interpreted by Russians and unsuccessfully transplanted to England. There was nothing that really touched the heart of the English people. Throughout its entire history the English Socialist movement has never produced a song with a catchy tune – nothing like La Marseillaise or La Cucaracha, for instance. When a Socialist movement native to England appears, the Marxists, like all others with a vested interest in the past, will be its bitter enemies. Inevitably they will denounce it as ‘Fascism’. Already it is customary among the more soft-boiled intellectuals of the Left to declare that if we fight against Nazis we shall “go Nazi” ourselves. They might almost equally well say that if we fight Negroes we shall turn black. To “go Nazi” we should have to have the history of Germany behind us. Nations do not escape from their past merely by making a revolution. An English Socialist government will transform the nation from top to bottom, but it will still bear all over it the unmistakable marks of our own civilization, the peculiar civilization which I discussed earlier in this book.

It will not be doctrinaire, nor even logical. It will abolish the House of Lords, but quite probably will not abolish the Monarchy. It will leave anachronisms and loose ends everywhere, the judge in his ridiculous horsehair wig and the lion and the unicorn on the soldier’s cap-buttons. It will not set up any explicit class dictatorship. It will group itself round the old Labour Party and its mass following will be in the Trade Unions, but it will draw into it most of the middle class and many of the younger sons of the bourgeoisie. Most of its directing brains will come from the new indeterminate class of skilled workers, technical experts, airmen, scientists, architects and journalists, the people who feel at home in the radio and ferro-concrete age. But it will never lose touch with the tradition of compromise and the belief in a law that is above the State. It will shoot traitors, but it will give them a solemn trial beforehand, and occasionally it will acquit them. It will crush any open revolt promptly and cruelly, but it will interfere very little with the spoken and written word. Political parties with different names will still exist, revolutionary sects will still be publishing their newspapers and making as little impression as ever. It will disestablish the Church, but will not persecute religion. It will retain a vague reverence for the Christian moral code, and from time to time will refer to England as “a Christian country”. The Catholic Church will war against it, but the Nonconformist sects and the bulk of the Anglican Church will be able to come to terms with it. It will show a power of assimilating the past which will shock foreign observers and sometimes make them doubt whether any revolution has happened.

But all the same it will have done the essential thing. It will have nationalized industry, scaled down incomes, set up a classless educational system. Its real nature will be apparent from the hatred which the surviving rich men of the world will feel for it. It will aim not at disintegrating the Empire but at turning it into a federation of Socialist states, freed not so much from the British flag as from the moneylender, the dividend-drawer and the wooden-headed British official. Its war-strategy will be totally different from that of any property-ruled state, because it will not be afraid of the revolutionary after-effects when any existing régime is brought down. It will not have the smallest scruple about attacking hostile neutrals or stirring up native rebellion in enemy colonies. It will fight in such a way that even if it is beaten its memory will be dangerous to the victor, as the memory of the French Revolution was dangerous to Metternich’s Europe. The dictators will fear it as they could not fear the existing British régime, even if its military strength were ten times what it is.

But at this moment, when the drowsy life of England has barely altered, and the offensive contrast of wealth and poverty still exists everywhere, even amid the bombs, why do I dare to say that all these things “will” happen?

Because the time has come when one can predict the future in terms of an “either – or”. Either we turn this war into a revolutionary war (I do not say that our policy will be exactly what I have indicated above – merely that it will be along those general lines) or we lose it, and much more besides. Quite soon it will be possible to say definitely that our feet are set upon one path or the other. But at any rate it is certain that with our present social structure we cannot win. Our real forces, physical, moral or intellectual, cannot be mobilized.

III

Patriotism has nothing to do with Conservatism. It is actually the opposite of Conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same. It is the bridge between the future and the past. No real revolutionary has ever been an internationalist.

During the past twenty years the negative, fainéant outlook which has been fashionable among English left-wingers, the sniggering of the intellectuals at patriotism and physical courage, the persistent effort to chip away English morale and spread a hedonistic, what-do-I-get-out-of-it attitude to life, has done nothing but harm. It would have been harmful even if we had been living in the squashy League of Nations universe that these people imagined. In an age of Führers and bombing planes it was a disaster. However little we may like it, toughness is the price of survival. A nation trained to think hedonistically cannot survive amid peoples who work like slaves and breed like rabbits, and whose chief national industry is war. English Socialists of nearly all colours have wanted to make a stand against Fascism, but at the same time they have aimed at making their own countrymen unwarlike. They have failed, because in England traditional loyalties are stronger than new ones. But in spite of all the “anti-Fascist” heroics of the left-wing press, what chance should we have stood when the real struggle with Fascism came, if the average Englishman had been the kind of creature that the New Statesman, the Daily Worker or even the News Chronicle wished to make him?

Up to 1935 virtually all English left-wingers were vaguely pacifist. After 1935 the more vocal of them flung themselves eagerly into the Popular Front movement, which was simply an evasion of the whole problem posed by Fascism. It set out to be “anti-Fascist” in a purely negative way – “against” Fascism without being “for” any discoverable policy – and underneath it lay the flabby idea that when the time came the Russians would do our fighting for us. It is astonishing how this illusion fails to die. Every week sees its spate of letters to the press, pointing out that if we had a government with no Tories in it the Russians could hardly avoid coming round to our side. Or we are to publish high-sounding war aims (vide books like Unser Kampf, A Hundred Million Allies – If We Choose, etc.), whereupon the European populations will infallibly rise on our behalf. It is the same idea all the time – look abroad for your inspiration, get someone else to do your fighting for you. Underneath it lies the frightful inferiority complex of the English intellectual, the belief that the English are no longer a martial race, no longer capable of enduring.

In truth there is no reason to think that anyone will do our fighting for us yet awhile, except the Chinese, who have been doing it for three years already.[3] The Russians may be driven to fight on our side by the fact of a direct attack, but they have made it clear enough that they will not stand up to the German army if there is any way of avoiding it. In any case they are not likely to be attracted by the spectacle of a left-wing government in England. The present Russian régime must almost certainly be hostile to any revolution in the West. The subject peoples of Europe will rebel when Hitler begins to totter, but not earlier. Our potential allies are not the Europeans but on the one hand the Americans, who will need a year to mobilize their resources even if Big Business can be brought to heel, and on the other hand the coloured peoples, who cannot be even sentimentally on our side till our own revolution has started. For a long time, a year, two years, possibly three years, England has got to be the shock-absorber of the world. We have got to face bombing, hunger, overwork, influenza, boredom and treacherous peace offers. Manifestly it is a time to stiffen morale, not to weaken it. Instead of taking the mechanically anti-British attitude which is usual on the Left, it is better to consider what the world would really be like if the English-speaking culture perished. For it is childish to suppose that the other English-speaking countries, even the U.S.A., will be unaffected if Britain is conquered.

Lord Halifax, and all his tribe, believe that when the war is over things will be exactly as they were before. Back to the crazy pavement of Versailles, back to “democracy”, i.e. capitalism, back to dole queues and the Rolls-Royce cars, back to the grey top hats and the sponge-bag trousers, in saecula saeculorum. It is of course obvious that nothing of the kind is going to happen. A feeble imitation of it might just possibly happen in the case of a negotiated peace, but only for a short while. Laissez-faire capitalism is dead.[4] The choice lies between the kind of collective society that Hitler will set up and the kind that can arise if he is defeated.

If Hitler wins this war he will consolidate his rule over Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and if his armies have not been too greatly exhausted beforehand, he will wrench vast territories from Soviet Russia. He will set up a graded caste-society in which the German Herrenvolk (“master race” or “aristocratic race”) will rule over Slavs and other lesser peoples whose job will be to produce low-priced agricultural products. He will reduce the coloured peoples once and for all to outright slavery. The real quarrel of the Fascist powers with British imperialism is that they know that it is disintegrating. Another twenty years along the present line of development, and India will be a peasant republic linked with England only by voluntary alliance. The “semi-apes” of whom Hitler speaks with such loathing will be flying aeroplanes and manufacturing machine-guns. The Fascist dream of a slave empire will be at an end. On the other hand, if we are defeated we simply hand over our own victims to new masters who come fresh to the job and have not developed any scruples.

But more is involved than the fate of the coloured peoples. Two incompatible visions of life are fighting one another. “Between democracy and totalitarianism”, says Mussolini, “there can be no compromise”. The two creeds cannot even, for any length of time, live side by side. So long as democracy exists, even in its very imperfect English form, totalitarianism is in deadly danger. The whole English-speaking world is haunted by the idea of human equality, and though it would be simply a lie to say that either we or the Americans have ever acted up to our professions, still, the idea is there, and it is capable of one day becoming a reality. From the English-speaking culture, if it does not perish, a society of free and equal human beings will ultimately arise. But it is precisely the idea of human equality – the “Jewish” or “Judæo-Christian” idea of equality – that Hitler came into the world to destroy. He has, heaven knows, said so often enough. The thought of a world in which black men would be as good as white men and Jews treated as human beings brings him the same horror and despair as the thought of endless slavery brings to us.

It is important to keep in mind how irreconcilable these two viewpoints are. Some time within the next year a pro-Hitler reaction within the left-wing intelligentsia is likely enough. There are premonitory signs of it already. Hitler’s positive achievement appeals to the emptiness of these people, and, in the case of those with pacifist leanings, to their masochism. One knows in advance more or less what they will say. They will start by refusing to admit that British capitalism is evolving into something different, or that the defeat of Hitler can mean any more than a victory for the British and American millionaires. And from that they will proceed to argue that, after all, democracy is “just the same as” or “just as bad as” totalitarianism. There is not much freedom of speech in England; therefore there is no more than exists in Germany. To be on the dole is a horrible experience; therefore it is no worse to be in the torture-chambers of the Gestapo. In general, two blacks make a white, half a loaf is the same as no bread.

But in reality, whatever may be true about democracy and totalitarianism, it is not true that they are the same. It would not be true, even if British democracy were incapable of evolving beyond its present stage. The whole conception of the militarized continental state, with its secret police, its censored literature and its conscript labour, is utterly different from that of the loose maritime democracy, with its slums and unemployment, its strikes and party politics. It is the difference between land power and sea power, between cruelty and inefficiency, between lying and self-deception, between the S.S.-man and the rent-collector. And in choosing between them one chooses not so much on the strength of what they now are as of what they are capable of becoming. But in a sense it is irrelevant whether democracy, at its highest or at its lowest, is “better” than totalitarianism. To decide that one would have to have access to absolute standards. The only question that matters is where one’s real sympathies will lie when the pinch comes. The intellectuals who are so fond of balancing democracy against totalitarianism and “proving” that one is as bad as the other are simply frivolous people who have never been shoved up against realities. They show the same shallow misunderstanding of Fascism now, when they are beginning to flirt with it, as a year or two ago, when they were squealing against it. The question is not, “Can you make out a debating-society ‘case’ in favour of Hitler?” The question is, “Do you genuinely accept that case? Are you willing to submit to Hitler’s rule? Do you want to see England conquered, or don’t you?” It would be better to be sure on that point before frivolously siding with the enemy. For there is no such thing as neutrality in war; in practice one must help one side or the other.

When the pinch comes, no one bred in the Western tradition can accept the Fascist vision of life. It is important to realize that now, and to grasp what it entails. With all its sloth, hypocrisy and injustice, the English-speaking civilization is the only large obstacle in Hitler’s path. It is a living contradiction of all the “infallible” dogmas of Fascism. That is why all Fascist writers for years past have agreed that England’s power must be destroyed. England must be “exterminated”, must be “annihilated”, must “cease to exist”. Strategically it would be possible for this war to end with Hitler in secure possession of Europe, and with the British Empire intact and British sea-power barely affected. But ideologically it is not possible; were Hitler to make an offer along those lines, it could only be treacherously, with a view to conquering England indirectly or renewing the attack at some more favourable moment. England cannot possibly be allowed to remain as a sort of funnel through which deadly ideas from beyond the Atlantic flow into the police-states of Europe. And turning it round to our point of view, we see the vastness of the issue before us, the all-importance of preserving our democracy more or less as we have known it. But to preserve is always to extend. The choice before us is not so much between victory and defeat as between revolution and apathy. If the thing we are fighting for is altogether destroyed, it will have been destroyed partly by our own act.

It could happen that England could introduce the beginnings of Socialism, turn this war into a revolutionary war, and still be defeated. That is at any rate thinkable. But, terrible as it would be for anyone who is now adult, it would be far less deadly than the “compromise peace” which a few rich men and their hired liars are hoping for. The final ruin of England could only be accomplished by an English government acting under orders from Berlin. But that cannot happen if England has awakened beforehand. For in that case the defeat would be unmistakable, the struggle would continue, the idea would survive. The difference between going down fighting, and surrendering without a fight, is by no means a question of “honour” and schoolboy heroics. Hitler said once that to accept defeat destroys the soul of a nation. This sounds like a piece of claptrap, but it is strictly true. The defeat of 1870 did not lessen the world-influence of France. The Third Republic had more influence, intellectually, than the France of Napoleon III. But the sort of peace that Pétain, Laval & Co. have accepted can only be purchased by deliberately wiping out the national culture. The Vichy government will enjoy a spurious independence only on condition that it destroys the distinctive marks of French culture: republicanism, secularism, respect for the intellect, absence of colour prejudice. We cannot be utterly defeated if we have made our revolution beforehand. We may see German troops marching down Whitehall, but another process, ultimately deadly to the German power-dream, will have been started. The Spanish people were defeated, but the things they learned during those two and a half memorable years will one day come back upon the Spanish Fascists like a boomerang.

A piece of Shakespearean bombast was much quoted at the beginning of the war. Even Mr Chamberlain quoted it once, if my memory does not deceive me:

Come the four corners of the world in arms
And we shall shock them: Naught shall make us rue
If England to herself do rest but true.

It is right enough, if you interpret it rightly. But England has got to be true to herself. She is not being true to herself while the refugees who have sought our shores are penned up in concentration camps, and company directors work out subtle schemes to dodge their Excess Profits Tax. It is goodbye to the Tatler and the Bystander, and farewell to the lady in the Rolls-Royce car. The heirs of Nelson and of Cromwell are not in the House of Lords. They are in the fields and the streets, in the factories and the armed forces, in the four-ale bar and the suburban back garden; and at present they are still kept under by a generation of ghosts. Compared with the task of bringing the real England to the surface, even the winning of the war, necessary though it is, is secondary. By revolution we become more ourselves, not less. There is no question of stopping short, striking a compromise, salvaging “democracy”, standing still. Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward. I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward.

Orwell’s Notes

[1] For example:

I don’t want to join the bloody Army,
I don’t want to go unto the war;
I want no more to roam,
I’d rather stay at home
Living on the earnings of a whore.

But it was not in that spirit that they fought.

[2] It is true that they aided them to a certain extent with money. Still, the sums raised for the various aid-Spain funds would not equal five per cent of the turnover of the Football Pools during the same period. [3] Written before the outbreak of the war in Greece. [4] It is interesting to notice that Mr. Kennedy, U.S.A. Ambassador in London, remarked on his return to New York in October 1940 that as a result of the war, “democracy is finished”. By “democracy”, of course, he meant private capitalism.First published by Searchlight Books, 19 February 1941

 

 

 

 

 

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