Orwell and MacDonald: Like-Minded Traitors to Their Class
The long-lasting relationship between George Orwell and Dwight Macdonald is at once intriguing and illuminating. On a personal level, one can see the strong personal affinity and similarities of temperament between them, but on the political level their political disagreements on an issue so fundamental as the Second World War were equally apparent, especially in the early wartime years. While both benefited intellectually from the exchange it was clear that Macdonald’s position shifted closer to that of Orwell’s but with sufficient detachment to make him a more convincing exponent of his British colleague’s ideas to American audiences.
Partisan Review seems to have been Orwell’s first contact with the American Left and Macdonald. Cyril Connelly’s estranged wife, Jean Bakewell, had left London for New York and was having an affair with PR editor Clement Greenberg. She recommended Orwell, whom she had known in London as a London Correspondent for the magazine. It is possible that she inadvertently misrepresented his views, which had changed rapidly from opposition to war as it loomed in 1939, to support for the war after the Hitler-Stalin pact in August of that year. Others have credited Macdonald with the initiative and Greenberg did indeed seem to walk in his shadow.
In any case, Greenberg, whose anti-war views marched in step with Macdonald’s, invited Orwell’s London Letter at the end of 1940 and the first one appeared in the Spring of 1941, but afterwards it seems to be Philip Rahv who carried the organizational burden of corresponding with Orwell.
Ironically, in view of the close relationship that he and Orwell later maintained, it was Macdonald’s uncompromising anti-war position and his attempts to secure ripostes to Orwell’s pro-war letters in Partisan Review that finally led to Macdonald’s break from the other editors, William Philips and Philip Rahv and his launch of Politics. However, his equally uncompromising idiosyncrasy immediately led him to invite Orwell to write for his new publication and indeed to hold him up as a model for the new publication.
Despite the growing personal empathy between Orwell and Macdonald, it was clear that on the question of the war that Orwell was much closer to the outlook of other Partisan Review editors. The duality of their relationship is perhaps summarized in Orwell’s letter to Rahv in which he promises to keep sending political items to the Partisan Review, but would confine his contributions to politics to cultural subjects. (CW III p 71).
But despite the paucity of direct Orwell contributions to politics, it is clear that his influence on Macdonald grew, especially in the post-war years when the British writer’s anti-totalitarian books and essays resonated strongly with the American’s increasingly anarchist tendencies. Macdonald almost became Orwell’s amanuensis in the USA, and teased from him in his correspondence some of the more definitive statements of Orwell’s continuing socialist ideals.
Partisan Review was originally the magazine of the John Reed Clubs, which gathered writers and workers in what could certainly be called a front organization for the Communist Party. In 1935, the clubs were wound up as a new line issued from Moscow and the magazine faltered and folded.
In December 1937, Rahv and Philips relaunched it, joined by Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, and his old friends, Frederick W. Dupee and George Morris. The board were making their break from the Communist Party, in both politics and cultural outlook.
The political genealogy of the people who made Partisan Review a powerhouse for left and liberal intellectual life in America was somewhat complex. It, and the New York intellectuals who surrounded it, drew on several streams. One was the older “Menshevik” tradition of social-democracy which was especially strong among Jews. However, it suffered from an image problem compared with the Communists and their Trotskyist offspring. The October revolution was romantic and stirring, and pulled at the heartstrings in a way that various forms of Fabianism or Menshevism could not. In the words of 1066 And All That, the Bolsheviks were like the Cavaliers in the English Civil War, “Wrong but Wromantic.”
Many of them joined the Communist Party, but throughout the thirties, members left in disillusion with the news from the Soviet Union, and many of them thought Trotsky could best explain and express their doubts about how to square the circle: how to reconcile the promise of October with the real horrors that were developing in the Socialist Motherland.
Some Trotskyists had joined, or rather infiltrated, the Socialist Party of the USA, which had in times past had some modest electoral success with its Social Democratic platform and its labor connections. By the time the Socialist Party had succeeded in shaking the infiltrators off, they had ruined its political future by driving away many of the labor activists and officials whose presence distinguished the party from the Leninist organizations. However, the expellees succeeded, in their own terms, since they took more people in the party than they went in with, and if the host died in this process of reproduction by fission, from their point of view it was a blow for the revolution.
The expellees formed the Socialist Workers Party, which was tied directly to Trotsky. But it seems to be inherent in such groups that, like amoebae, they split once they reach a certain size. The comrades who left to found the Workers Party took their anti-Stalinism a stage further than their mentor, Trotsky. He defended the Soviet Union, which after all he had done so much to create and shape, It was, he said, still a workers’ state, albeit degenerated. Max Shachtman, Irving Howe, Macdonald, and others thought this was being too kind. They retained their fierce revolutionary belief, but decided that the Soviet Union was past redemption and indefensible.
In this totally sectarian milieu, any deviation from “the line” was anathema, and so splits, expulsions and denunciations were, and have in fact remained, the currency of Trotskyist politics ever since – the precise nature of the Soviet Union being a favorite litmus test – but of course the nature of the Second World War then unfolding became another, with the orthodox Trotskyist position agreeing for once with the Communists that this was an imperialist war, to be opposed by workers everywhere. Of course, the Communist Party changed its collective opinion when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union.
That sectarian purity allowed Irving Howe, for example, after he had joined the board of Partisan Review to denounce in fairly typical polemical style the “uniformly pro-imperialist letters” from England, particularly the “preposterous statement – fit for the garbage pails,” from George Orwell, that “to be anti-war in England today, is to be pro-Hitler.”
In contrast to the archetypal New York intellectuals like Howe, who came from poor but aspiring Jewish families and who were steeped in politics almost from childhood, Dwight Macdonald came late to sectarian politics, was somewhat idiosyncratic in his exposition and practice of it while he was associated, and left earlier. In fact he was also a decade or so older than Howe’s generation.
Rather than a product of tuition-free City College in New York, Macdonald was an alumnus of Philips and Yale, and the scion of two generations of lawyers. His background as a founder writer for Fortune was almost diametrically opposed to the intensely socialist education and experience of many of his new comrades and colleagues.
Like many intellectuals, he had become associated with the Communist Party in the mid thirties until events in the Soviet Union such as the Moscow Trials led to a growing dissatisfaction with the party line and an increasing interest in Trotsky and his analysis of the events back in the socialist motherland.
So Macdonald overtly joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1939, and did so with the fervor of a new-born convert – but with the critical faculties of someone who had grown up outside the movement. He was much less inclined to agree that two and two made five just because the Party and its leaders said so, not least because he had independent life and reputation outside.
Although Partisan Review certainly had overt political leanings, its strength was that it eschewed strict party lines and orthodoxies. It tended towards Trotsky’s side in the great schism, but the exiled leader was not much more tolerant of dissent than his Communist opponents, and took Macdonald to task for allowing the magazine to stray too far from the class struggle and orthodoxy – and for having the temerity to disagree with him.
“Everyone has the right to be stupid, but Comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege,” declared Trotsky with his typical polemical flair. Indeed, one of his last works before he was assassinated in 1940 was a reply to Macdonald.(Whitfield p 20)
Certainly, Macdonald was temperamentally unsuited to the Party that he had joined. In full conspiratorial mode, members took party names and his was “James Joyce,” perhaps in deference to someone who attracts exegesis almost as complex as Trotsky. As Macdonald said of his membership, where he was penning internal polemics almost as soon as writing out the membership form, he was “either high minded, or arrogant, or naive, or just plain schitzy, maybe a bit of each.”
Indeed, Macdonald’s patrician self-confidence and gadfly independence in the face of attempts to rein him in do lead irresistibly to comparisons with P. G. Wodehouse’s Comrade Psmith (where the “P” is silent) – effective, supremely confident, but doubtless infuriating and exasperating for the comrades.
Why did they put up with each other? Macdonald’s journalistic skills, and avenues to the outside world were obviously useful even for somewhat claustrophobic and incestuous sectarian world of Trotsky’s followers. For his part, Macdonald revealed the attractions of Trotsky for many of the New York intellectuals, clearly still visible decades later in, for example, Irving Howe’s biography of the revolutionary (Leon Trotsky, 1978). Macdonald noted that Trotsky showed that that “intellectuals, too, could make history.”
Macdonald’s short sojourn with the SWP, and then the Workers Party as the Trotskyist factions split on points of theological nicety, placed him briefly in the mainstream of the “New York intellectuals” who frequently had shared such sectarian experiences.
However, few of them were as quick as he was to conclude that Trotskyism was “a variant of Stalinism” as the Old Man and his followers remained unrepentant about the inherent flaws in Bolshevik methodology. As Whitfield points out, for Macdonald, “extirpation of dissent was the most offensive aspect of Trotskyism,” especially when set in the context of how the Soviet Union developed.
Orwell and Partisan Review
Despite the generally Trotskyist ambience of Partisan Review, the people around the magazine were probably the closest group that Orwell could relate to in the United States, not least because of the literary and aesthetic tastes he shared with them.
Certainly his denunciation of the Soviet and Communist behavior in Spain gave them a common enemy in Stalin and his followers. Although Orwell, despite numerous posthumous academic attempts to co-opt him as one, was never a Trotskyist, his experiences in Catalonia had crystallized his growing anti-Soviet feelings, which he himself dated back to 1935.
On a political level, the Moscow Trials of alleged traitors, the stifling or outright suppression of dissident artists, many of whom did not even know they were dissident until the Secret Police knocked on their doors, had left erstwhile admirers of the Soviet experiment the choices of repudiation, or rationalization.
Both Orwell and the Partisan Review editors went for repudiation of the developments in the Soviet Union, and its effect on socialism abroad, notably in Spain. Additionally, as intellectuals, they also broke with new Soviet cultural policy and its renunciation of the modernist movements of the previous decades.
It is perhaps significant that Clement Greenberg, who was to first invite Orwell as a contributor, was more interested in the literary and cultural aspects of the magazine. Typically, Orwell, Macdonald and others around Partisan Review, shared an appreciation for T.S. Eliot, by no means a leftist.
Indeed Eliot was denounced as “Anti-people, and fascist-minded,” by more orthodox Communist Party critics. (Wald 94). But the Partisan Review circle had all escaped the tyranny of Socialist Realism which tried to judge aesthetic creation by its political orthodoxy, and Orwell, for example, met Eliot in a professional capacity, not least by having him as a frequent guest on his BBC Indian Service program. On the other side of the Atlantic, Partisan Review published two of the Four Quartets– a strange venue indeed for an Episcopalian monarchist who has posthumously had to contend with accusations of anti-Semitism!
Despite this affinity, there were at the beginning strong disagreements on the war, with Macdonald and Greenberg taking particularly strongly orthodox Marxist antiwar positions – and as suggested earlier, it is possible that their initial invitation to Orwell may have been based on outdated news of his previous positions.
Although before the war, Orwell had taken a similar “plague on all their houses,” attitude as the American revolutionaries, he rapidly moved to a position of trying to combine a social revolution and defeating Hitler, and eventually to an even more sanguine position, that winning the war, with or without a revolution, and almost certainly without, was the most important thing.
Newsinger (op Cit 99) makes the point that the somewhat idiosyncratic response of Partisan Review to their disagreements about the War – namely not to mention it themselves – allowed Orwell’s view in his London Letters to become the default position for the magazine, which certainly brought it closer to reality, and the views of the mainstream society.
Indeed, Orwell’s political development in the early forties was in part spurred by the experiences that he shared with so many compatriots during a total war that left little or no social experience untouched. It was not just bombs, and the Home Guard, but the taxation, the rationing, the military and labor conscription, which at least blurred and on occasion transcended existing class differences and suggested that socialism and the nation state were compatible without descending to national socialism or communism.
In fact, the war was also a life and death issue personally for Orwell, who from his experiences in Spain knew that at least two possible outcomes: either a Nazi victory or a Communist takeover, would have him standing against a wall, with the ever present possibility that any wall he stood near in the meantime may be brought down by German bombers.
Understandably, living in a country faced with annihilation, it was difficult for Orwell to treat the war as if it were some Marxist version of the Athanasian creed, simply a marker for true belief. “The issue was between having a war and letting Germany dominate Europe up to the Urals,” he reprimanded Macdonald.
Indeed Macdonald’s purist attitude to the war, hoping that the fascists would be defeated but denying the moral validity of British or American capitalist attempts to do so, is a part of a long lasting idealistic tradition in the American left, seen most recently in attitudes to possible intervention in the Balkans or Rwanda. Macdonald eventually grew out of this habit of magnanimously bearing the suffering of others until a champion with the correct politics could be identified. Much of the American left didn’t.
Even though Partisan Review was certainly an ecumenical operation, it is interesting to see how the epistolary relationship between Macdonald and Orwell developed despite such profound political disagreements. There were clearly other factors than a theoretical convergence that kept them corresponding although that is almost certainly one of the results of their exchanges.
The intimacy of the surviving correspondence implies a much more extensive now missing communication, whether from the letters about mundane details such as loans, shoes and book purchases, or the developing literary and political affinities. In the days before readily available transatlantic phone calls, and in the absence of a physical meeting, the degree of rapport between the two, even allowing for Macdonald’s clubbable personality, suggests that there were many other letters now lost.
Macdonald’s predication of the need for his new magazine politics, in which he sought to emulate Orwell, while justifying it by Partisan Review’s failure to tackle Orwell’s politics was the dialectic stretched beyond rational synthesis.
However, it is clear that Macdonald agreed with Orwell’s overall world view, while disagreeing with its particular manifestation in support for the “imperialist war.” One has to have experienced the cultish world of unforgiving far-left politics to appreciate how rare such subtleties were.
Their relationship was also explicable in terms of shared temperament. Michael Wreszin probably had it right when he concluded that “Dwight loved Orwell… for the enemies he had made.” (108 A Rebel in Defense of Tradition) They shared an idiosyncratic intellectual viewpoint, in each case based upon a formidable intellect, and similar class origins.
As Sumner says, Macdonald saw in Orwell, “A fellow exile from the cloister of class privilege and private schools, a writer whose work combined empathy for the suffering of the dispossessed (which he witnessed at close range, on the streets of Paris and London and among the POUMist forces in Spain) with a plain writing style purged of ideological cant and hyperbole.” (21 Sumner)
In fact, despite his criticisms, it was precisely Orwell’s empiricism, his contact with reality that attracted Macdonald, and maybe even made him somewhat envious, albeit not to the extent of say, paralleling the Road to Wigan Pier with a similar expedition to the Appalachian mines!
Orwell and Macdonald both came from elite positions in their related Anglo-Saxon societies that assumed their members had authority by birth, background and education. Their easy self-assurance even when the vicissitudes of family life and business cycles had eroded the economic basis for their self-assurance suggests that this was a caste as much as a class position. That assurance allowed them the idiosyncrasy to adopt positions that increasingly paralleled each other’s despite the pressure from others to hew to rigid lines.
Orwell’s seemingly consciously adopted persona of a crusty Tory, nostalgically assuming that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, certainly became more attractive than it already was to Macdonald, who was an overt Anglophile, who commented to a British editor in 1958 “I prefer your country morally and culturally to my own.” (Discrimination 387)
From Jonathan Swift to William Cobbett and right up to the present, British radicals have often used a fictional former golden age to make odious comparisons with the benighted present. Some modern critics fail to see how this aspect of Orwell could in reality be quite radical. Indeed, even the Levellers of the English Revolutionary period saw their demands as a restoration of ancient liberties rather than as innovation.
It is not surprising that Macdonald imagined (149 Wreszin) that Orwell shares his “private enthusiasm” for Doctor Johnson, and it would have been a fitting presumption since the Good Doctor was the epitome of the curmudgeonly Tory critic of his own age. Yale Alumnus Macdonald certainly fitted the bill from an American standpoint.
Perhaps equally indicative was Macdonald’s comment about the British on Lord Melbourne’s insouciant acceptance of the prime ministership, almost on a dare, “only a race as much at home in politics as a fish is in water could be so offhand about it.”
His anarchist comrade George Woodcock in his 1946 essay for Politics, described Orwell as a “rare survivor in the atomic age” referring to his “old fashioned pragmatism,” “his radical honesty and frankness, his respect for such excellent bourgeois mottoes as ‘fair play” and “don’t kick a man when he’s down.” In fact, he has pinpointed exactly the persona of the crusty Tory radical that Orwell was happy to present.
It is instructive that for some left critics of Orwell, notably Scott Lucas, his “decency” is the occasion for a sneer and an insult. In contrast, for most British workers, it is a sine qua non political principle As Orwell knew, Woodcock’s description is of precisely the virtues that the British working class considers its own, and why they have reacted so well when they are displayed, as they often have been by a whole British political spectrum.
James Maxton, Michael Foot, former editor of Tribune and later leader of the Labour Party, all had these qualities. This is what put them and their left politics in the mainstream of the British political tradition, because unlike the purer American ideologues, these virtues appealed to the British working class and won their votes, along with those of many of the middle classes as well.
In 1943, when their disagreements about the war were at their sharpest, Macdonald’s draft prospectus for his new magazine, politics, designed to remedy the failings that he saw in Partisan Review, pledged “to try to do for (the) USA scene what Orwell does for London.” At a time when Orwell was not the eminence he later gained in Britain itself, Macdonald had already recognized his special skills and indeed made a sterling effort towards his goal of emulation.
In fact, the clear influence that Orwell had on Macdonald’s politics belies his relatively minute direct contributions to politics itself. Macdonald later told an Anarchist journal that Orwell was “a liblab (tho’ of the finest quality in my opinion), I’m a radical; he supported the late war, I didn’t; he has hopes for the Labor Party. I haven’t.”(Sumner 23) Even the term liblab, a Macdonald neologism in its American sense, was a British term referring to the period at the turn of the 19th Century when Labor candidates for parliament stood on a Liberal Party ticket.
On the other hand, although he later recommended Macdonald’s magazine, Orwell could not agree with the “policy of this paper, which is antiwar, not from a pacifist angle, but I admire its combination of highbrow political analysis with intelligent literary criticism.” (CW III 202) Interestingly he likens it to the British New Leader – which was the journal of the Independent Labour Party – an organization that, as we shall see later, had figured largely in Orwell’s own political development.
In fact the politics of politics moved closer to Orwell than any of the parties at its inception concerned could really imagine.
Orwell was from Britain, Macdonald was from America
When we compare Orwell’s place in British politics and society with that of Macdonald and the New York intellectuals in the United States, we can perhaps see why so many more of the latter dropped any pretensions to socialism – and perhaps why, despite inauspicious beginnings, Macdonald and Orwell grew closer.
Sadly, in the U.S. with the demise of the Socialist Party, there really was no practical alternative role for socialists in effective daily political life, although many carried on trying. Those, like Irving Howe, who kept the faith did so in their role as intellectuals, which is why almost the last strongholds of any kind of socialist belief in the USA are now in academia. In Britain, there clearly was an alternative, and editors and writers of left wing magazines naturally made the transition into parliament and the cabinet, as did union leaders and activists.
In contrast, many of the New York intellectuals were isolated within their own American society, although Macdonald’s WASP upbringing, and his previous journalistic career probably connected him more closely to the wider society than was likely for his comrades.
Macdonald eventually realized that Orwell was rooted in a more homogeneous political and literary society, and that his views were shared by much broader sections of his society. Certainly, Orwell did not need Trotsky’s inspiration to think that a different form of socialism from Stalin’s was possible. In Britain, the Trotskyists were always a marginal growth in an already large and successful working class socialist movement with strong social roots in the unions and churches.
In particular, overlooked by many commentators on Orwell’s politics is the important role of the Independent Labour Party, which had left the Labour Party, but still had a relatively widespread base, and indeed still had many close connections and sympathizers inside the Labour Party itself.
It held what it called a “Third Way” position between Leninism and Labour Party right’s reformism, which is, of course, not to be confused with Tony Blair’s and Bill Clinton’s later appropriation of the title.
As an example, Newsinger, (p 89 Newsinger) says that “the claim that he (Orwell) became a Tribune socialist, as supporter of the Labour left is too simplistic. It neglects the extent to which Orwell conducted a dialogue with the revolutionary left.”
However, this in its turn imposes a retrospective and anachronistic conflation of “revolutionary” with Leninist. The ILP believed that an elected Labour Party, could “suppress (counter-revolution) by ordinary legal power backed by a Labour organization,” (Brown 182) and could effect the revolutionary change to socialism.
Indeed their claim to a distinctively “British Road to Socialism,” backed by mass organizations, was later usurped by the Communist Party of Great Britain itself, even down to the name.
Reinforced by the shared experience of war, this is clearly the same political wellspring that Orwell was drawing on, when he declared, “England is the only European country where internal politics are conducted in a more or less humane and decent manner.” He claimed, along with the ILP, that it “would be possible to abolish poverty without destroying liberty,” and its people were “more capable than most people of making revolutionary changes without bloodshed.” (See The English People, CW III) The emphasis of the ILP was just this, the abolition of poverty in the course of a massive makeover of society.
As if to prove their point, in the course of the Second World War, the British government had seized control of the economy and directed it towards the war effort to an extent far beyond anything that even Nazi Germany had managed. Draconian rationing and taxation had, unchallenged by the rich, brought about a serious leveling, indicating what was possible in peacetime.
Newsinger refers to Orwell’s comments to the convergence of the parties as if it proves Orwell’s dissatisfaction with Labour. In fact, to put it in context, he celebrated such convergence as an example of a distinctive and implicitly better way of doing things. Orwell goes on to explain, “Thus, no Conservative government will ever revert to what would have been called conservatism in the nineteenth century. No Socialist government will massacre the propertied class, nor even expropriate them without compensation.” (Op cit 29)
Proper appreciation of the ILP connection erodes Newsinger’s concept of Orwell as a “literary Trotskyist,” It was the ILP that made the connections for him to go to Spain and join the militia of the POUM, which may indeed have leaned more to Trotsky – but was certainly roundly denounced by him.
Indeed, it was ILP leaders like Fenner Brockway who introduced him to Secker and Warburg for publication of Homage to Catalonia, and later Animal Farm when the more communist-inclined Victor Gollancz demurred at Orwell’s political direction.
Showing the same humanistic approach that Orwell certainly shared, and in a way anticipating the theme of 1984, the ILP’s leader, James Maxton MP, in his last major speech in 1945, repudiated statist versions of socialism, declaring, “We must not allow ourselves to become ants in an anthill.” (Maxton, Gordon Brown, Mainstream Publishing p 302)
Their positions on the war were, also initially, reflected by Orwell and many ILP leaders, such as Maxton, continued to oppose the “imperialist” war with Germany without, however, ever subscribing to the Soviet embrace of their new Nazi ally. However, after several years of war, the ILP remnants had mostly either joined the Communist Party, or more often returned to the Labour Party, where many of its ex-members were in the first post-war Labour cabinet, and for years afterwards formed part of the left Caucus of the Party. There, they usually organized around Tribune, the independent paper for which Orwell wrote so much.
Like many others, Orwell left the ILP during the war, and although we are unsure whether or not he actually joined the Labour Party, he certainly canvassed for it in the May 1945 election that returned it, self declared socialist party, to power with a massive majority. Right up to his death, as we know in his attempts to correct American misapprehensions about the purpose of 1984, he described himself a supporter of the Party and the government.
So Orwell was part of broad and generally relatively non-sectarian left, with strong social roots. He retained his old school and class connections and their contacts with decision-makers, and indeed through his Labour party connections added more as people connected with Tribune or the ILP joined both the wartime coalition cabinet and the post-war Labour government.
Macdonald himself recognized this social homogeneity when he eventually went to Britain after the war. “When I lived in London last winter, I noticed that I actually met trade union leaders and members of Parliament at parties and that intellectuals were part of the political life.” In contrast, he says, “A New York intellectual even in the politicalized thirties and forties had no contact with Congressmen or government officials or businessmen or labor leaders.” (386 Discrimination).
Macdonald certainly had no such broad-based non-sectarian left with access to power that Orwell could fall back on and it is hardly surprising that for a long period he was regarded as “apolitical”– since in the American context, his choice was between sectarian irrelevance or reconciliation with reaction.
A Writer’s Life
Having eschewed the organizational forms of sectarianism, Macdonald reverted to what he did best – thought-provoking journalism. It has been suggested that Orwell was more politically pure, in that, unlike Macdonald, he did not, until much later write for the mainstream press.
However, this may be more a symptom of artistic than political purity. Orwell self-consciously wanted to be a writer, not a reporter (a fairly plebeian occupation, certainly in Britain). Even though, as Macdonald said, he had a flair for sociological reporting, this was in terms of collecting material for larger projects.
For Orwell, writing reviews for literary journals was both a means of turning a crust and getting his name out. He never did a Comstock as far as we know, preferring the dubious alternatives of small holdings and country shop keeping to writing for the tabloids and commercial press. In fact, Macdonald obliged Orwell by finding him copies of George Gissing novels in New York. New Grub Street’s depiction of the struggling writer resonated strongly with Orwell.
However, the life of a Grub Street hack was not one of luxury or stability and one reason for Orwell’s extensive contacts with American intellectuals was of course the famous rationale for robbing banks – that is where the money was! Those dollar checks, as well as doing sterling patriotic duty by bringing in foreign exchange for the war efforts, kept Orwell solvent in the years before Animal Farm began to rescue him from shabby gentility. Indeed, it was its American publication that launched him from genteel poverty to such affluence that he had to form a company to avoid punitive double taxation of the royalties.
In Britain throughout the war, there was rationing, of clothes, food and even paper. There was the blitz, and absolute mobilization to a degree that was unprecedented for a capitalist society. Production was completely geared to the war effort, which is presumably why Orwell had to ask Macdonald to get him a pair of size twelve shoes in the US – and to send them separately since shoes were valuable commodities that could be pilfered in transit.
Macdonald seems to have kept Orwell supplied with literature from the US, including, of course, his own worlds such as the one on Wallace. “One cannot buy magazines from abroad nowadays,” Orwell recorded baldly in 1944, even as he recommended Politics to Tribune readers. (III 202)
But what about the politics?
By the post-war period, Macdonald’s flirtation with Anarchism and Gandhi also converged towards, but never quite touched, Orwell’s growing fears about the powers of the state and his revulsion against tyranny. As always, Orwell was more empirical in his approach than Macdonald’s typically root and branch approach.
Despite the unpromisingly uncompromising start, Macdonald shed Marxist dogma faster than most of his comrades of the era, and reverted to what one may consider the native Anglo-American empiricism that, with more than a flavor of Psmithian idiosyncrasy and eccentricity, he shared with Orwell. At the end of the war, Macdonald was admitting that Orwell was right about it. Their shared attitudes lent themselves to a consistency that was difficult to match by some of their more expedient contemporaries. Both opposed the vindictiveness of post-war witch-hunts against alleged Nazis and Communists.
Orwell’s defense of P. G. Wodehouse and his distaste at the attacks on alleged collaborators in France, marched in harmony with Macdonald’s editorial in support of the first Bollingen Prize for poetry going Ezra Pound, which annoyed many Jewish intellectuals, for obvious reasons, but amusingly also irritated Pound himself who Macdonald playfully recorded, “Scrawled a note so vituperative and hot-tempered that I took a great personal liking to him.”(Wreszin 169)
Indeed that comment inadvertently reveals one of the differences between Macdonald and Orwell despite so many similarities: it is difficult to think of Orwell, despite the wry smile in many of his portraits, being quite so whimsical as Macdonald so often was, allowing his characteristic lightness of touch to detract sometimes from the seriousness of his message.
The incident also showed some finer tuning on Orwell’s part, compared with Macdonald’s delight in tweaking the feathers of orthodoxy. He felt the prize awarders should have repudiated Pound’s politics even if they did give him the award for his poetry. (Partisan Review May 1949 CW IV p 551
Macdonald went to the nub of the issue. “Orwell’s code was a simple one, based on truth and ‘decency’; he was important- and original- because he insisted on applying that code to his own socialist comrades as well as the class enemy.” (Macdonald, Discrimination, p 330)
He elaborated the reasons for this later in Trotsky, Orwell and Socialism, where he made the contrast between “the British empiricist versus the Russian-Jewish ideologue.” “Trotsky applied a consistent and taken-for-granted doctrine to each new situation, showing the greatest ingenuity in each application but never modifying the basic dogma. Orwell, a trueborn Englishman, had no talent for systematic thinking, and, indeed, tended to regard over-all ideologies as either absurd or harmful, or both: he was always ready to abandon on his most cherished beliefs if he came to the conclusion that it no longer ‘worked.’”
In fact, Whitfield describes Macdonald himself in very similar terms. The founder of politics and berater of liblabs was he says, “certainly no theorist, no purveyor of overarching visions, no schematic thinker….his remarkably engaging and lucid style denied to its author the indulgence granted to clumsier writers, who are often beneficiaries of the belief that behind impenetrable prose they must be thinking.” (Whitfield 3)
Indeed the road that Macdonald had embarked on when he first criticized Trotsky’s suppression of the Kronstadt uprising was paralleled by Orwell who noted “All the seeds of the evil were there from the start, and that things would not have been substantially different if Lenin or Trotsky had remained in control.” (Catastrophic Gradualism, p35 IV)
Like Macdonald, Orwell continued to express his revulsion for the Soviet Union during the period in the Second World War when many saw it as expedient to soft-pedal their criticisms. While before the war, the Communist Party had the sympathy, if not always membership, of many intellectuals, once Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, followed as it was by a foolish declaration of war by Hitler on the United States, had made Soviet Union an ally, even non-Leftists widely regarded any criticism of the Soviet Union as unpatriotic.
Macdonald recounted for his readers Orwell’s difficulties in having a book review that was even mildly critical of the Soviet Union published in the Manchester Evening News. And of course, it was not only communists but the US and British establishments who tried to thwart publication and distribution of Animal Farm.
Orwell and later Macdonald moved to the shared faute de mieux position that when faced with a choice between the capitalist USA and the Soviet Union, they would support the USA, pending a hoped for genuine socialist alternative.
While Orwell, Macdonald, and much of the British left, kept a sense of perspective about their anti-Sovietism, the antithesis became the thesis for some of the New York Intellectuals and many of their contemporary anti-Stalinists in New York mutated into millennialism of another kind – neo-conservatism, which dropped the socialist aspirations while maintaining the rabid anti-Sovietism.
Politics shortly became, almost in spite of its prospectus, a repository for a non-sectarian, communitarian version of socialism, heavily influenced by anarchist and left-libertarian ideas. What linked Orwell and Macdonald most strongly was a refusal to temper criticism of totalitarian behavior for sectarian or partisan reasons. Reasons of state, party lines, class morality, were all exposed to the same rigorous critical standards.
It is a token of the closeness of their relationship that Orwell seems to have owed more than an intellectual debt to Macdonald, who graciously told him not to worry about a previous loan. He tells him in reply to what seems to be a missing anxious letter from Orwell promising repayment of the unspecified amount that may have been prompted by Macdonald’s discussion of the magazine’s financial position., “not to worry about the loans… all we meant to say was that, when repayment is convenient to you, it could be nice for us.. But we weren’t thinking of getting anything at all back in less than a year, and we perfectly understand that what you can do on it depends on how well things work out as to climate etc. So please don’t make any sacrifice, there’s no hurry at all.” (Wreszin p 179, 1949 July 19)
In fact, of course, there was. Orwell was hurrying to his grave. We can only conjecture that this loan was from before Animal Farm’s publication helped assure Orwell’s financial position, but as Gordon Bowker points out, by then Orwell was actually lending other people money.
Letters to Oceania?
However, perhaps more important than the financial support Orwell clearly derived from his American connection, the question is how did the ideas bubbling among American intellectuals add to Orwell’s developing worldview?
One of the benefits of writing for these American magazines was, of course, that he could surmount the foreign exchange controls and Macdonald provided him with books and magazines–U-boats permitting. (p150 W), and his own essays, for example on Burnham, show that they provoked ideas in him. It is perhaps too simplistic to repudiate the influence of Burnham on the schema for Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is clear that ideas can be provoked by analyses that one disagrees with, and Burnham’s views were sufficiently provocative for Orwell to think hard about them.
It is to the continuing correspondence and relationship between Orwell and Macdonald that we owe some of the most convincing exegesis of, for example, Animal Farm, and the particular British context of the ILP illuminates what he was saying.
When asked by Macdonald if the book was antirevolutionary, he distinguished his ideas of revolution from “that kind” of revolution, (violent conspiratorial revolution, led by unconsciously power-hungry people) can only lead to a change of masters.” In effect he was continuing the ILP’s line, “You can’t have a revolution unless you make it for yourself; there is no such thing as a benevolent dictatorship.” (Letter Orwell to Macdonald Dec 1946 cited Sumner 22)
In addition, Macdonald and Orwell shared many interests, some of which were highly significant in the development of Orwell’s work. For example, both had an interest in Utopias, as shown by Macdonald’s anticipation of M.L. Berneri’s book on them in July 1949 (letter to Orwell, Wreszin 179). “A subject peculiarly close to my own current interests,” says Macdonald, but of course even more so for Orwell, whose work was to become the archetypal obverse of the genre, a Dystopia.
Such works were of course in a solid literary, and even left literary tradition, from Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, William Morris’s News From Nowhere on the positive side, to Jack London’s Iron Heel and Zamyatin’s We on the darker side and Orwell at various times refers to them, along with Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes and Huxley’s Brave New World, (See Orwell’s Prophesies of Fascism, p 45 CW ,).
One cannot help thinking that such interests may have seemed frivolous to the more dourly doctrinaire comrades on the harder left – but such literary explorations of alternative futures doubtless appealed the growing empiricism of Macdonald.
In one small matter, the correspondence was even more seminal for Orwell’s dystopic vision. The British censors had deleted a paragraph from one of his London Letters for the Partisan Review about possible lynchings of downed German airmen, and had done so by retyping the letter as if nothing had happened. It was almost certainly an inspiration for Winston Smith in his cubicle rewriting history for his daily bread.
Nineteen Eighty-Four shows some the syncretic results of this correspondence and transatlantic acquaintanceship. While Airstrip One is indeed quintessentially English, – not even British – in its setting and flavor, and it has a Soviet style political ethos mediated through that setting, it is clearly part of an Anglo-American polity which, perhaps if death had not been looming, he would have drawn a more intellectually satisfactory and coherent way.
On the wider New York Intellectual circle, it is a tenable hypothesis that between the two, they managed to create a vocabulary that escaped sectarian catchwords and stilted dogmatic thinking. It allowed the great issues of the day, in particular geopolitical issues, to be examined in a principled humanistic way that applied equal moral yardsticks to all the actors. We may take this for granted now (indeed, after a decade of Fox TV, we may no longer take it so much for granted!), but it was not an easy task, as indeed shown by the immediate misappropriation of Animal Farm and 1984 by many on the right.
Macdonald was not only foremost among those who looked closely at what Orwell was saying when he was alive, he was of course one of those who carried the flame for him when he was dead. The old saying de mortuis nil nisi bonum is ambivalent in the case of Orwell. There are far too many people whose views he would certainly have repudiated when he was alive, from revolutionary Trotskyists to reactionary conservatives, who have declared his work good beyond all measure, and expropriated it to their own causes.
Almost from the beginning, Orwell had been revolted by the deadness of party-line prose, and developed his distinctive idiom. Possibly, one of the reasons why he has been so susceptible to adoption by so many distinctive political strands may be his studied avoidance of partisan tropes and clichés that would otherwise have labeled his writing as leaning to particular sects or parties.
In the sometimes content-light world of left wing polemics it is the way things are said as much as what is said the identifies the protagonists. In contrast, Macdonald, in the end, had moved from being a polemical opponent, to one of the best expositors of their shared message against tyrannies of whatever hue Macdonald may have worried less about the exactness of his content, but he was equally interested in lively prose, and so it was perhaps not surprising that Macdonald discussed with Sonia Orwell the writing of his biography. Clearly, by then his political temperament, and his Anglophilic appreciation for the context of Orwell’s life and work would have made him an interesting biographer. Certainly, Trotsky, Orwell and Socialism, his 1956 New Yorker essay lays out more clearly than some more recent exegesis the reality Orwell’s relationship to the Left.
However, one cannot help but suspect that the very idiosyncrasy and sense of self-worth that Macdonald customarily displayed would have produced a work that was more illuminating about its author than its subject. The dialectic between the two would indeed give us some insights about both.