The summer of 1943 found George Orwell, English socialist man of letters, reaching the end of his patience with his job at the BBC. The cultural programs and commentary he had been producing for the Indian and East Asian outposts of the British Empire were designed to counter German wartime radio transmissions. These broadcasts were not quite propaganda: he was allowed “reasonable freedom of speech” despite being (in his words) “an independent and more or less ‘agin the government’ commentator,” and he could contribute to outside publications as well. But the job was boring. After two years at the network, Orwell, who had just turned 40, longed to go back to his own writing and journalism.
Privately, too, he complained about the cumbersome process of getting his scripts cleared and occasionally being compelled to say things on air that he had a strong feeling were not true. “I am regularly alleging in all my newsletters that the Japanese are plotting to attack Russia,” he confided in his diary, “although I don’t believe this to be so.”
One of the poets whose work Orwell featured occasionally on his cultural programs was Alex Comfort, a talented 22-year-old who was taking medical training at the Royal London Hospital and who would achieve bestsellerdom many years later with his illustrated manual for couples, The Joy of Sex. Neither Orwell nor Comfort was spending World War II in the military. Orwell, who had been badly wounded while fighting in the Spanish Civil War and was showing signs of the tuberculosis that would ultimately kill him, was declared unfit for military service. Wishing passionately to contribute to this new war against fascism, he had applied repeatedly to enlist but had to settle for a volunteer slot in Britain’s civil defense force, the ragtag, ill-equipped Home Guard.
There was never any question of Comfort serving in any capacity except as a medic or firewatcher during air raids: he was missing three and a half fingers of his left hand, the result of a botched attempt to make gunpowder for fireworks at age 14. But he would not have enlisted even if he could. Comfort was a dedicated, outspoken pacifist and, by the end of the war, an anarchist who charged at every possible opportunity that Britain’s wartime leaders were ordering atrocities as bad as some of Hitler’s and that intellectuals who did not denounce their own government had “sacrificed their responsible attitude to humanity.” He made it his business in particular to expose as war crimes the British and American air raids against German and occupied cities, a campaign the Allies’ political leaders regarded as the key to victory and that was popular with much of the public but that killed some 600,000 European civilians, seriously injured over a million, and left 7.5 million homeless.
World War II is often called the “Good War” because of the hugely repellent and murderous regimes on one side of the conflict. But many people at the time, remembering the enormous human waste of World War I, were not convinced. Some of Britain’s leading writers, including W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, left the country rather than be drawn in; other prominent critics of the Churchill Government’s conduct included Benjamin Brittan, writer Denton Welch, and the poet and art critic Herbert Read. Orwell himself was opposed to war until shortly before the bombs started dropping on London. Even in March 1941, at the height of the German Blitz, Britain’s largest pacifist group, the Peace Pledge Union, counted 135,134 members. “Conchies”—conscientious objectors—including architect Edmund Albarn, grandfather of Blur and Gorillaz leader Damon Albarn, were reviled in the mainstream press and lost jobs and livelihoods. But many of them continued to speak their minds.
The literary quarrel that broke out between Orwell and Comfort is an especially fascinating episode in this story, partly because both were remarkable writers and thinkers, partly because their arguments anticipated the debates over war and state power we’re having today, partly because their arguments help trace the evolution of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and partly due to the strange course their relationship later took.
Orwell initiated the exchange with a review of Comfort’s first novel. Their dialogue continued principally in the American journal Partisan Review and the British social democratic newspaper Tribune, the latter in the form of an exchange of verse during the summer of 1943 that Philip Larkin later included in his 1973 Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse, and in private conversation and correspondence. By then, Orwell was denouncing war resisters like Comfort as “pinks” and “intellectual Quislings” while Comfort declared that intellectuals who did not denounce their own government had “sacrificed their responsible attitude to humanity.”
Over this same period, they developed a cautious friendship based on Orwell’s admiration for Comfort’s poetry, and Comfort’s respect for Orwell’s incisive political commentary as well as his conduct as a Loyalist volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. This grew into an active collaboration when the government began prosecuting anarchists and antiwar activists toward the end of the war. It cooled when the Cold War again highlighted their ideological differences, but it endured, at least so far as Comfort knew, until Orwell’s death in 1950.
By then, however, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four had been published, and Orwell was on his way to becoming one of the most admired writers and moral voices of the postwar era, to readers from a wide range of political perspectives. Comfort would become a well-known and controversial figure in Britain in 1961, when he and 31 other antinuclear activists were sentenced to a month in prison for organizing a mass sit-down demonstration in Trafalgar Square. In 1972 The Joy of Sex made him an internationally known figure. Comfort, who died a half-century after Orwell, deeply admired his onetime adversary and, although they only met in person once, always regarded him as a friend.
Writing 30 years after Orwell’s passing, Comfort regretted the tone they had taken in their wartime quarrel. “We had publicly misrepresented one another,” he wrote. “I probably mistook him for a hard-line Marxist, while he mistook me for another of [John] Middleton Murry’s equivocal disciples,” alluding to the poet and critic who had notoriously written that Hitler was “doing the dirty work of the Lord” and whose literary journal, the Adelphi, had helped launch the writing careers of both Orwell and Comfort.
While they disagreed sharply about the morality of war, about collaboration with the State, and later about the choices the Cold War posed for artists and writers outside the Soviet bloc, Comfort believed he and Orwell were essentially on the same side: against authoritarianism and in favor of a society based on cooperation and community rather than capitalism and an overweening State.
For the most part, he was right. But in the 1990s it became known that in the last years of his life, as the Cold War was settling in, Orwell drew up a list of notable individuals he believed had pro-Soviet or insufficiently anti-Soviet tendencies. He entrusted the list to an employee in a propaganda branch of the Foreign Office. Included were writers and economists, political activists and broadcasters, and celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin and Michael Redgrave.
One of the names was that of Alex Comfort. “Is pacifist-anarchist,” Orwell noted. “Main emphasis anti-British. Subjectively pro-German during war, appears temperamentally pro-totalitarian. Not morally courageous. Has a crippled hand. Very talented.”
The picture of Comfort thus presented was objectively a great distortion. Comfort was not “anti-British,” just deeply critical of the British government. He was not “pro-German” in any sense, and as an anarchist, he was the furthest thing from “pro-totalitarian.” As a public opponent of his government during wartime, he was willing to risk a great deal for what he thought was right.
Nothing that has emerged from the Foreign Office papers in succeeding decades suggests that Comfort or anyone else on Orwell’s list saw their career suffer as a result of the list or that anyone in any other part of the government ever saw it. Some of the names were published in 1998, but the full document, including Comfort’s name, was only released by the Foreign Office in 2002, two years after Comfort’s death. Comfort suffered a massive stroke in 1991 and spent the rest of his life under nursing care; his son believes he never knew that Orwell had named him.
When the list became known, however, it created a sensation. How could the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four, who in fact had finished his dystopian novel less than six months before transmitting the list, have done something so redolent of Stalinist ideological denunciation? Did Orwell himself have an authoritarian streak? Had his hatred of the Soviet tyranny gotten the better of his personal judgment? Was his final illness or an old romantic attachment a factor?
Some people on the list were personal enemies; one individual, with whom Orwell had worked at the BBC, may have lobbied to keep Animal Farm from being published. Other than responding to Orwell’s attacks in the press, however, Comfort had done him no harm, and there is plenty of evidence besides that Orwell regarded Comfort with respect. They discussed Nineteen Eighty-Four when the novel was still in its early stages, and some of Comfort’s writings in the last years of the war and the first years following reflect many of the same concerns. Their exchanges may also have informed Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State, Comfort’s 1950 treatise on the pathology of State power that serves as a partial bookend to Orwell’s novel.
Sometimes regarded as an ethical paragon if not a kind of secular saint in the postwar literary world, a closer look at the twists and turns of his relationship with Comfort reveals Orwell as a more problematic, but also more human, figure. His views were changeable, he could be callous regarding human suffering and unfair to his ideological opponents, and he made the critical mistake of equating the Cold War against the Soviet Union with the war against fascism.
But Orwell also wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, which envisions a frightening new form of state beyond current ideological labels, adept at manufacturing a condition of permanent crisis and then perverting the individual’s search for “the only conceivable thing to do”—precisely what occurred during the Cold War and, later, the War on Terror. Comfort comes through as much more ideologically rigorous, but prone to condemn people who honestly felt that the only way to defeat Hitler was to join the war effort.
What they had in common was a deep conviction that political engagement, especially for writers and artists, was a moral responsibility, and both tended to assess political issues first and foremost through a moral lens. That is why they attacked each other so strongly and at times unfairly during the war; it is also why, once they discovered they had common concerns, they became friends. Orwell would not have included Comfort on his Foreign Office list if he hadn’t cared what Comfort thought, wrote, and advocated.
Neither was concerned only with the war against Germany and the proper way to respond to it. Both were anxious about the world the war would create: dominated by an ever more powerful state apparatus, ever more threatening weapons, and, they feared, a power elite increasingly adept at turning the masses into apathetic observers rather than engaged political participants. How to respond? Orwell feared that anarchism and pacifism were dead ends leading only to defeatism, detachment, and perhaps not-so-passive acquiescence; Comfort believed that collaboration with the State must end in acceptance of its methods and submission to the “criminals” in charge.
These were not theoretical issues for either Orwell or Comfort; they reflected events taking place literally in the writers’ own backyard, the London of the war years. And they have lost none of their urgency since, as warfare and mass killing have assumed a far more mechanized and impersonal character and as wars themselves are euphemized as police actions, counterinsurgencies, and nation-building exercises. Each time another purportedly “good war” is launched—the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the international intervention in Libya to oust Muammar el-Qaddafi, Saudi Arabia’s U.S.-backed war against Islamist Yemeni rebels—the conflict assumes a more complex and problematic form, and the questions that Comfort and Orwell raised must be argued again.
Adapted from The Duty to Stand Aside: Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Wartime Quarrel of George Orwell and Alex Comfort. Used with permission of AK Press. Copyright © 2018 by Eric Laursen.