The George Orwell Edition

Steve Weiner is a member of the National Committee of the SDUSA. He is also the editor / writer of the Suspicious Humanist, a magazine that is published both on and off line. Steve has a long term interest in George Orwell and in the issues of totalitarianism, anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism in the Left. Enclosed are some recent articles from the magazine by Steve regarding these themes.

The George Orwell Issue

I wanted to reprint these pieces because of the continuing anti-Israel propaganda war that too many otherwise decent people are falling for. In the Western sector of the world, young people (in particular), appear now to be quite anti-Israel. I believe that the basis of this attitude is primarily the view that the Palestinians are indigenous non-white people brutally colonized by the white Jews. This is a great over-simplification.

In fact, about half of the Israeli Jewish population isn’t of European ancestry, but from Arab or Muslim countries. The Muslim world also bears some of the responsibility for the horrendous condition of Jews. President Obama said in his Cairo speech to the Muslim world that Jews were mistreated not only by the Nazis but much more globally. The following piece by George Orwell offers a vivid portrayal of Moroccan Jews in the old Ghetto.

Steve Weiner

Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters, Orwell, An Age Like This 1920-1940,
Volume 1

by George Orwell
Editors Sonia Orwell, Ian Angus, Nonpareil Books, Boston, 1968, p. 389-390

When you go through the Jewish quarters you gather some ideas of what the medieval ghettos were probably like. Under their Moorish rulers the Jews were only allowed to own land in certain restricted areas and after centuries of this kind of treatment they have ceased to bother about overcrowding. Many of the streets are a good deal less than six feet wide, the houses are completely windowless, and sore-eyed children cluster everywhere in unbelievable numbers, like clouds of flies. Down the center of the street there is generally running a little river of urine.

In the bazaar huge families of Jews, all dressed in the long black robe and little black skull-cap, are working in dark fly-infested booths that look like caves. A carpenter sits cross-legged at a prehistoric lathe, turning chair-legs at lightning speed. He works the lathe with a bow in his right hand and guides the chisel with his left foot, and thanks to a lifetime of sitting in this position his left leg is warped out of shape. At his side his grandson, aged six, is already starting on the simpler parts of the job.

I was just passing the coppersmiths’ booths when somebody noticed that I was lighting a cigarette. Instantly, from the dark holes all round, there was a frenzied rush of Jews, many of them old grandfathers with flowing grey beards, all clamoring for a cigarette. Even a blind man somewhere at the back of one of the booths heard a rumour of cigarettes and came crawling out, groping in the air with his hand. In about a minute I had used up the whole packet. None of these people, I suppose, works less than twelve hours a day, and every one of them looks on a cigarette as a more or less impossible luxury.

As Jews live in self-contained communities they follow the same trades as the Arabs, except for agriculture. Fruit-sellers, potters, silversmiths, blacksmiths, butchers, leather- workers, tailors, water-carriers, beggars, porters—whichever way you look you see nothing but Jews. As a matter of fact there are thirteen thousand of them, all living in the space of a few acres. A good job Hitler isn’t here. Perhaps he is on his way, however. You hear the usual dark rumours about Jews, not only from the Arabs but from the poorer Europeans.

“Yes, mon vieux, they took my job away from me and gave it to a Jew. The Jews! They’re the real rulers of this country, you know. They’ve got all the money. They control the banks, finance— everything.”

“But,” I said, “isn’t it a fact that the average Jew is a labourer working for about a penny an hour?”
Jews.” “Ah, that’s only for show! They’re all moneylenders really. They’re cunning, the
In just the same way, a couple of hundred years ago, poor old women used to be burned for witchcraft when they could not even work enough magic to get themselves a square meal.

—Written in 1939

Orwell After 1984: Why He Still Matters

By Steve Weiner, originally published in 1984

It would be a pity, particularly for those of the social democratic persuasion, if George Orwell’s radiance were to fade gradually in the years to come, each of them further away from the real year 1984 and, perhaps, further away also from the hard, unmistakable totalitarianism depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four. True, perhaps both fascism and Leninism are in retreat around the world (we can only hope!). I, however, increasingly feel that Orwell’s greatest contribution was not his anti-totalitarianism, but his refusal to sentimentalize (his word) the oppressed, unlike most left-wing intellectuals who tend to draw essentially mystical conclusions about their ability to redeem the world. I have the impression that he felt that such idealizing was itself part of the structure of totalitarianism, the apologetics reinforcing the concrete of raw power.

It’s in 1937s The Road to Wigan Pier that his anti-sentimentalism is most brilliant. His shrewd and hilarious prediction that any proletarian-worshipping left-wing intellectual would swing back into ordinary middle-class snobbishness after getting into a fight with a drunken fish-porter on Saturday night, is unequalled in the literature of political honesty. In the second section of Wigan, he analyzes the obnoxiousness of socialist dogmatism even as he reaffirms his belief that socialism is the only solution to the horrors of capitalism’s Depression. This is truly heroic because he lays out his own class prejudices for all to see. He also provides a lot of detail concerning his convoluted efforts (inevitably only partly successful), including a plunge into the near-lumpenproletariat, to overcome them. This honest approach is in vivid contrast to the orthodox mentality of most left-wing intellectuals, which demands ridiculous rituals of hypocritical self-abasement about one’s origins and privileges; Orwell nailed this with the observation that nearly all bourgeois-baiting came from people who were bourgeois themselves.

A related shrewd observation: radical ideological extremism is often undergirded by the secret conviction that the status quo is in fact immovable. I must say, I’ve had a vague feeling for years that this is the case as I’ve observed the stridency of the hard Left. I could never quite put my finger on it, and I still don’t think anyone can definitively prove it, but I believe this phenomenon is real and explains some of the psychological collapse of the New Left. It can probably be accounted for by the explanation provided by John Fowles in The Aristos— namely, that absolute ideologies, and the ideologues energized by them, need their seeming opposites, and in fact don’t really wish their disappearance. It takes a moderate radical to see this.

No one will ever fully or easily account for Eric Blair’s transformation from offspring of a conventional Anglo-Indian imperial family to George Orwell, the person who probably did more than any other to undermine permanently the worst smugness of left-wing intellectuals. There were of course stops along the way, doing the dirty work of the Empire in Burma, and tramping (or, as we would say, homelessness). Orwell’s friend T.R. “Tosco” Fyvell in his 1982 biography doesn’t pretend to understand all the mysteries either, but he does strongly make the point that young Eric arrived at his first snobbish boarding school as an already guilt-stricken small boy who was father to the relentlessly honest man.

Was Orwell a saint? No, of course not, and his attitude toward the Jews is a case in point. He came from an undeniably anti-Jewish background and, before Hitler came to power, permitted himself nasty comments. Orwell took the position that the anti-Jewish slurs had completely different meanings before and after 1933, and to his credit they completely disappeared from his writing then. But he apparently didn’t subject his anti-Jewish prejudices to the same kind of scrutiny and correction as his class prejudices. Perhaps, as Fyvel suggests, Orwell’s imagination simply didn’t extend to the Jewish plight; perhaps his anti-Zionism precluded this expansion of sympathy.

I find the complexities of his position fascinating. To his credit, he was able to see the Arab case at a time when many decent progressive people, horrified by the Holocaust, couldn’t. Fair enough, up to a point. But his motivations were not pure; he was capable of sneering at British Zionists, in classic bigoted fashion, as a bunch of film industry Jews who controlled the press. He was ahead of many of his contemporaries on the Left in seeing that the Arabs could be viewed as colonial victims, but he was behind many decent people, then and now, in not seeing that the Jewish tragedy was unique and Zionism was not unprovoked imperialism. Interestingly, he wrote a short account of Moroccan Jews in his sketch of Marrakesh; the sketch shows that Orwell was capable of instantly comprehending the oppression of the ghettoized Jews by the Muslim Arabs, a fact nearly always unfairly denied by anti-Israel propagandists.

It all confirms for me the basic insight, expressed by too few on the Left, that historical victimhood does not confer automatic moral superiority. The only way out of these frequent dilemmas is to be guided firmly by Orwell’s principle of not sentimentalizing the victim and keeping one’s head to perform very cool (yes, some would say cold) analysis. Too bad Orwell sometimes failed his own method. He was human, all-too-human. Like me and you.

3 thoughts on “The George Orwell Edition

  1. It’s refreshing seeing an honest critique of left-wing anti-Zionism and antisemitism in a socialist setting. I gave up my Nation subscription because it felt like I was being pilloried for being a Zionist and a Jew, without the first concern for the tremendous pressures on Jews throughout history to convert or die (from Christians) or be permanently impoverished (from Muslims).

  2. Thank you for focusing on George Orwell and his asides on left-wing intellectualism and the Jews in Arab lands.

    It might be interesting if you also thought about and analysized the right-wing hyjacking of George Orwell’s works, especially among educated Republicans, rightwing think tanks, and the sloppy treatment he receives in American education. From what I’ve experienced, talking with my friends and acquantances, Orwell is cast as a Right-winger, amico of Winston Churchill, cheerleader for the Conservative cause. Heaven help us if the “Socialist” in Orwell sees the light of day in schools and universities.

    Social Democrats have been very appreciative of George Orwell’s works for many years. In the mid-1960s, for example, Mr. Tom Kahn, then executive director of the League for Industrial Democracy, was advertising and selling the three volumn collected letters and essays of Orwell. Being a young student at the time, I was suprised to see a moderately leftish LID promote George Orwell. I, along with everyone else I knew, had been instructed to believe that Orwell was the mouthpiece of Barry Goldwater conservatism. I became deeply indebted to Mr. Kahn for advertising and selling Orwell’s works.

    After many years of reading Orwell’s novels, essays and letters, I’m reasonably certain, George Orwell is our comrade, notwithstanding his hyjacking by the Right and the intellegence services (50,000 copies of 1984, printed and distributed clandestinely by the CIA in Central and Eastern Europe, during the early years of the Cold War.).

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