George Orwell Writer and Prophet Part Three by Tom Donelson

Orwell the Essayist


Orwell on Gandhi 

Orwell essay on Gandhi was an interesting reflection upon the Indian founder as much as Orwell own views on the nature of man and pacifism. “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent,” begins Orwell discussion of Gandhi.  For Gandhi, pacifism was a form of warfare as Orwell notes, “way of defeating the enemy without hurting him and without feeling or arousing hatred.”  Gandhi’s goal was to win India’s independence but he also understood that there were ways to do so without engineering centuries of hatred.  A nation that is born in violence and begin in revolution may sometimes find itself in perpetual violence and revolution.  The French Revolution went from the overthrow of the monarchy to the establishment of Napoleon with intervals of violence spasm that featured the guillotine.

For many pacifists, to even take sides was a violation of pacifism and Gandhi took sides.  While he was a practicing pacifist, he still was a stretcher-bearer during the Boar War and as Orwell notes that Gandhi “was honest enough to see that in war it is usually necessary to take side… He did not take the sterile and dishonest line of pretending that in every war both sides are exactly the same and it makes no difference who wins.”

Many pacifists often view life through a lie and fail to see the logic of their own position. Gandhi did see the logic of what he was proposing and the consequences of his action.  In 1938, Gandhi told a reporter that the Jews should commit collective suicide in the face of Nazi persecution.  Such an action would have aroused the world to the horror of Hitler.  And when he urged a non-violent resistance to a Japanese invasion of India, he admitted that such an action would result in the death of millions of Indians.

As for the Jews, Gandhi felt vindicated in his original opinion when the full cost of the holocaust was revealed after World War II.  In Gandhi mind, the Jews died anyway so why not do it in a spectacular fashion?  Cold? Yes, but it was also what Gandhi asked of his followers, to volunteer their life and that of their neighbors for the cause of peace.  For most pacifists, such an admission is inconceivable for many pacifists view their action through the prism of their own experience and rarely see the consequences for the nation as a whole.  They don’t see the millions who will be sacrifice for their faith nor do they really care.  Gandhi did understand what he was asking and yes, he did care about the probable result.

Where Gandhi, like most pacifist, fail to understand was the true nature of 20th century and now 21st century totalitarianism and viewed his struggle through his own experience with the British government.   When he called on the Jews to commit collective suicide to arouse the world, it only works as Orwell observed, “If the world gets a chance to hear what you are doing.”  As Orwell asked in his essay, how could such a strategy work if opponents are taken in the dead of night to be tortured and killed?  How can your strategy work in countries where the voices of the media and protest are silenced?  As Orwell writes, “The Russian masses could only practice civil disobedience if the same idea happened to occur to them simultaneously, and even then, to judge by the history of the Ukraine famine, it would not make a difference.”

Pacifism and non-violence as a strategy can work within the structure of a democratic government with an open press. It can’t work on an international stage where it ceases to be pacifism and becomes appeasement, as Orwell would note.

Gandhi believed that all could be approach on an individual basis through his philosophy and changed; he also considered close friendship dangerous.  Gandhi viewed close friendship as something that could lead to wrongdoing. Orwell writes, “If one is to love God, or to love humanity as a whole, on cannot give one’s preference to any individual person.” Of course, some would consider just an attitude as cold and callous. But then leader of mass movements, in particular religious movements, find themselves choosing between the greater good and their close friends or family. Under those circumstances, loyalties to close friends are to be abandoned.  In the Bible, Jesus warns that family would rise against family because of faith. Gandhi understood that concept and believed it.

Orwell had an “aesthetic distaste for Gandhi” and questioned Gandhi saint hood; he did consider Gandhi a success as a politician.  He freed India from British rule and after the Second World War, there were more than enough British who ready to grant India their independence.  Much of this has to be credited to Gandhi, whose peaceful resistance made it easier for the British to let go.  Gandhi may have failed in keeping South Central Asia from separating into a Muslim and Hindu sphere of influence, he was successful in freeing both Pakistan and India from British rule and did so without much bloodshed.  Unfortunately, not even Gandhi could stop the sectarian violence between Hindu and Moslems after Independence and he became a casualty of it.


Gandhi genius was that he understood the British and their system of law. He knew that he could manipulate those laws and traditions to his benefit and he succeeded.


Orwell on Charles Dickens

Orwell wrote, “Dickens is one of those writers who are well worth stealing.”  Orwell noted that Dickens criticism of society “is almost exclusively moral.”  In Dickens writing, Charles Dickens does not write a thesis of what, if any, new system of government needed to be put in place to correct the deficiency of the society that he wrote about.

Dickens view of the French Revolution is indicative of this attitude.  His book, A Tale of Two Cities, begins with the understanding that those who lost their head in the beginning had it coming.  The French aristocracy deserved their fate for their past action and they dug their own graves, so to speak.  Dickens view was that if the wicked noblemen behaved differently, then there would be no revolution.  Dickens was not, however, a revolutionary for he viewed revolution as a monster that devoured its own.  His intensity toward the guillotine portrays his own feelings that this revolution got out of control.  On this point, Orwell writes, “The one thing that everyone who has read A Tales of Two Cities remembers the Reign of Terror.  The book is dominated by the guillotine- tumbrels thundering to and fro, bloody knives, heads bounding into the basket, and sinister old women knitting as they watch.”  While these scenes are only a small part of the book, the passion that went into these incidences shows Dickens fear of revolution.

Dickens view that the new revolutionary produced new oppressors and Dickens saw the 20th century with prescience and clarity.   Dickens own view of humanity was that education and morality taught at a young age would cure much of society problems.  He was not interested in uprooting English society but merely to change its heart.

In a Christmas Carol, Scrooge is presented as a man whose own present was created by his past as oppose to a man responsible for his action.  And Dickens believes in redemption.  Just as Gandhi believed that non-violence could change people, so too does Dickens believe in the power of second chances.  The book centers on Scrooge own salvation.  Interesting enough, within Scrooge salvation comes life. Instead of dying within a year as predicted if he did not change his way, Scrooge goes on to live and become like a second father to Tiny Tim, whose life is also extended through Scrooge salvation.  Human nature is changeable and all can be saved, even the worse of us.

Dickens feared tyranny and in many ways, saw life through his middle-class settings.  He hated aristocrats, big landowners, nationalists and even peasants but why?  Orwell answered, “A first sight, a list beginning with kings and ending with peasants looks like a mere omnium gatherum, but in reality all these people have a common factor.  All of them are archaic types, people who governed by tradition and whose eyes are turned towards the past- the opposite of the rising bourgeois who has put his money on the future and sees the past as a dead hand.”

So what can we gather? Orwell writes of Gandhi as a man who understood his opponent, the British.  Maybe Gandhi viewed England as a nation of Charles Dickens, men who believed that with education and little spiritual change, all could be made right with the world.   The Dickens of the world feared revolution and believed in evolutionary change within the hearts of men and Gandhi counted on that to free the Indians from the British.  Sentimentality can be a curse or a blessing and in the case of Gandhi, he used the sentimentality of the British to advance his cause.  Of course, he was lucky to pick an opponent who actually had some sentimentality.  There are many in this world that sentimentality is weakness to be avoided. Thus we see nations whose leaders snatch their political opponents away in the middle of the night.  For such nations, sentimentality is a vice not a virtue.

Orwell on Kipling 

George Orwell was the classic anti-imperialist.  Rudyard Kipling was the classic defender of British imperialism.  Dickens believed in redeeming England through education and moral teaching at home, Kipling believed in changing the world in the image of Great Britain.  Kipling viewed imperialism as a sort of forcible evangelizing as Orwell noted, “You turn a Gatling gun on a mob of unarmed ‘natives’ and then you establish the Law,” which includes roads, railways and a court-house.”

In contrasting Russian writer Leo Tolstoy with Kipling, Orwell writes, “Tolstoy lived in a great military empire in which it seemed natural for almost any young man of family to spend a few years in the army, whereas the British Empire was demilitarized to a degree that continental observers found almost incredible. Civilized men do not readily move away from the centers of civilization.” Throughout the 19the century, at most 1 percent of the British actually served in the military and this within an empire that spanned the globe. The British government sphere of the national GDP was less than 10 percent which is one third of the United States government share is today.  Maritime powers, in particular, tended to be less militaristic then their land based opponents.   Kipling writes of Empire and war, even though he never served but as Orwell noted, he did understand the barbarity of war.  Orwell quipped that Kipling was “half-civilized” and thus was able to transport himself from the boundary of London and write of the untamed world beyond the English isles.  For Kipling, British imperialism spread civilization – bearing the “White man’s burden.”

While Orwell does not care for Kipling views, he writes of his 19th century opponent, “One reason for Kipling’s power as a good bad poet I have already suggested- his sense of responsibility, which made it possible to have a world-view, even though it happened to be a false one.”  As Kipling writes, “East is East and West is West.  The white man’ s burden.”  Kipling believed in the superiority of the English culture and way. He did not see the Imperialism as a sin but a necessity, a view that Orwell rejected.

Of course, today we live in a world in which cultures appears to be colliding.  While it is political incorrect to state that certain cultures are indeed inferior, Kipling would disagree, for some culture are superior to others.  Does anyone really believe that a totalitarian Islamic fundamentalist regime is equivalent to a capitalistic Democratic state?   Kipling believed that the British offer many colonies a new way of viewing the world. India today exists as a parliamentary democracy in part because of its British upbringing.  Ditto, the United States.  One does not need to accept Kipling 19th century colonial attitudes and racism to believe in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon culture when contrasted to its totalitarian opponents.

Gandhi used Anglo-Saxon thoughts and ideas to oppose the British. How could the British truly believe in liberty and freedom if they deny this to the hundred of millions of Indians under their control?  Kipling and Gandhi, in some respect, are the same side of the coin.  Both understood the strength of English culture but Gandhi understood its weakness more; which is why his view eventually triumphed over Kipling imperialism.  Still, there is irony that both men understood that there were aspects of British culture that could be transplanted into Indian society.



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