Book Reviews: ‘George Orwell – War Broadcasts’ and ‘War Commentaries’
George Orwell: War Broadcasts and War Commentaries. Edited and with Introductions by W J West (Penguin Books, £4.95 for each volume).
On health grounds, his TB having been made worse by a wound received in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell was unfit for military service in the second world war. From 1941 to 1943 he was employed by the BBC, then under the control of the Ministry of Information, to broadcast to British troops and others in India. The War Commentaries though written by Orwell were mostly broadcast by others, as weekly news talks on the progress of the war.
Orwell had been selected to conduct the broadcasts, which were designed to counter German propaganda, although he openly opposed British government policy on India which, of course, did not mean that he had a free hand to say what he liked. When governments are at war propaganda is itself an important weapon, to be controlled and directed as military strategy requires. All broadcasting was subject to censorship and Orwell, like other broadcasters, sometimes had his choice of subject or his choice of people to participate in talks ruled out by the censor. The editor of these two volumes sees how Orwell’s experiences working for the BBC provided him with the background for his Animal Farm, published in 1945, and Nineteen Eighty Four, published in 1949.
Most of what Orwell said and wrote concerned incidents in the war and in the life of British civilians under war conditions but he was also able to deal with aspects of English literature. Among the writers he discussed with his accustomed insight were Shaw, Wells, Wilde, Jack London and Shakespeare.
Anyone hoping to find in these volumes evidence that Orwell had consistent political views will be disappointed. He seems to have shared the popular belief in the rosy future capitalism had to offer. In the broadcast English Poetry Since 1900 he criticised the earlier poets for their failure to appreciate the changes brought about by machinery and technology:
“Every educated person knows that given a reasonable amount of international co-operation, the world’s wealth could be increased, health and nutrition improved, drudgery abolished, to an extent unthinkable a few decades ago.”
To a limited extent there is some improvement but nothing will prevent capitalism running into depressions with mass unemployment and, of course, into wars.
Orwell’s occasional mentions of Marx and Marxists are interesting, including the unintentional humour of his remark (page 119) that “nowadays everybody has read Marx”. He chose Harold Laski as a representative spokesperson on Marx. Laski’s writings showed that his knowledge of Marxian economics was minimal, including a total failure to understand Marx’s Labour Theory of Value. On the other hand, Orwell, rather surprisingly, did appreciate how wrong all the alleged Marxists were who believed that capitalism would collapse of its own accord, “automatically”, and who attributed this erroneous doctrine to Marx.
While Orwell was carrying on this propaganda work for the BBC he received a letter of bitter criticism from the anarchist George Woodcock, which contained the following:
“Comrade Orwell, former fellow-traveller of the pacifists and regular contributor to the pacifist Adelphi which he now attacks! Comrade Orwell, former extreme left-winger, ILP partisan and defender of Anarchists (see Homage to Catalonia)! And now Comrade Orwell returns to his old imperialist allegiances and works at the BBC conducting British propaganda to fox the Indian masses.”
It may be that Orwell, in his own estimation, could see no inconsistency in his activities, but he does not appear to have answered Woodcock.