Evan Helmuth

What Orwell can tell us about Syria

The author of 1984 and Animal Farm probably would not have stayed silent on Assad's Syria

George Orwell

There is always a danger in attributing opinions about modern events to the dead. We cannot say with absolute certainty that George Orwell would not have backed the Assad regime as the “secular” and “anti-imperialist” lesser of two evils, simply because we have not yet devised a way of rousing the deceased and asking him. But Orwell’s record of opposing all three of the pernicious “isms” of his lifetime (imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism) means that we can make an educated guess as to what view he would have taken of the Syrian war.


Conveniently enough, a situation very nearly analogous to that of Syria took place in Spain during Orwell’s lifetime. A group of fascist army officers attempted to depose the leftist government of Manuel Azaña. The officers were supported heavily by Mussolini’s Italy and by Hitler, while the leftist Republican forces who supported the government had the help of only Mexico and Stalin’s Soviet Union. The Western democracies, with fresh memories of the blood-soaked morasses of Flanders and France, remained carefully neutral throughout the war. The only breach of this neutrality was a disastrous decision by Britain and France to enforce an arms embargo. This had the twin perverse effects of strengthening the fascist side (whose arms did not come overseas and so were not affected) and guaranteeing that the Republicans had to rely exclusively on the USSR for weapons. (The European powers have made a squalid habit of similarly deplorable arms embargos, inflicting them on the Bosnians 60 years later and the Syrians until June of this year, with similarly disastrous consequences in both cases.)


Orwell considered the struggle against fascism so important that he abandoned the relative comfort of his life as a writer in England, as well as his wife of just six months, and traveled to Spain to fight on the Republican side. He spent several months at the front, seeing considerable combat and even taking a sniper’s bullet through the neck, which was very nearly fatal. After he was wounded by the fascists, the Trotskyist militia Orwell had joined was suppressed on the orders of Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD. Being its sole supplier of weapons, the NKVD more or less called the shots on the Republican side. Orwell had to flee to France to narrowly avoid imprisonment and thus had the distinction in Spain of making himself an enemy of both Stalinism and Franco’s run-of-the-mill fascism. It was this first-hand experience of Stalinism in Spain that allowed Orwell to portray totalitarian regimes so vividly in both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.


Keen readers who are familiar with Syria will have already spotted at least three parallels between that conflict and the Spanish war. First, in both cases, the Western democracies not only refused to intervene on behalf of the side fighting the fascists: they positively hindered it by limiting its supplies of weapons. This forced the Spanish anti-fascists to rely on Stalinists and the Syrians on jihadis for their guns, their gas, and even their food. Secondly, and as a result, the anti-fascist side was hijacked by Stalinists in Spain and by theocratic nutjobs in Syria. Finally, in both Spain and Syria, the fight against fascism drew large numbers of foreign fighters of various and often less-than-reputable ideological stripes.


The Spanish Civil War, of course, turned out to be only the opening salvo in the decade-long worldwide struggle against fascism. In the run-up to the subsequent World War, Orwell was initially skeptical as to whether war to maintain the French and British Empires, with their systematic exploitation of subjugated races, was defensible. Indeed, he even went so far as to call the British Empire a “far vaster” evil than Hitler’s Germany. In his defense, Orwell wrote this in the summer of 1939, long before anyone could have foreseen the holocaust.


Hitler’s rapid conquest of Europe though, quickly caused Orwell to change his mind completely, so that by the summer of 1942, he was deriding opposition to the war. In Pacifism and the War he described British pacifists as “objectively pro-fascist” and called their ideology “a bourgeois illusion bred of money and security.” From 1941 to 1943, Orwell worked for the BBC eastern service, creating programming designed to counter Nazi propaganda in India, despite his staunch opposition to colonial exploitation.


Apart from this record of anti-totalitarianism, Orwell also made a lifelong habit of frequent, fratricidal sniping at leftist dogma and leftist intellectuals who propagated anything like a party line. In his 1948 essay “The Writer and the Leviathan,” he contends that a writer must be willing to engage in politics “as a human being, but not as a writer.” Orwell goes on to argue that to engage in propaganda or to “yield subjectively, not merely to a party machine, but even to a group ideology, is to destroy yourself as a writer.”


Throughout his career, Orwell practiced what he preached, expending a great deal more ink attacking fellow leftists (or reactionaries posing as leftists) than he ever did on fascism. One gets the impression Orwell considered the latter to be pretty close to self-refuting. In all of his most important works, from Homage to Catalonia to Animal Farm to his magnum opus, Nineteen-Eighty-Four, the principal target is Stalinism, rather than fascism.


Given his willingness to take shots at fellow leftists, his fanatical anti-totalitarianism, and his consistency in correctly identifying the lesser of two evils, one finds it difficult to imagine without laughter Orwell joining the sordid collection of Stalinists and “anti-imperialists” who make up the “Stop the War Coalition.” (While millions of Syrians are bombed, starving, tortured, imprisoned, and displaced, this “anti-imperialist” rabble is busy dislocating its collective shoulder to pat itself on the back for having “stopped the war.”) It somehow seems unlikely that the man who could have been describing Syria under the Assads in Nineteen-Eighty-Four would support the continued existence of such a psychopathic crime family simply because they give lip-service to anti-Zionism.


Nor does it seem particularly plausible that Orwell would have joined those “leftists” who today embrace the medieval theocracy in Iran, of which the Assad regime is a wholly-owned subsidiary. Given Orwell’s support of the Western democracies against analogous forms of fascism, it strains credulity to imagine that he might line up with contemporary “leftists” who are so eager to tell us that anything, even mass-murdering, overtly-fascistic regimes are preferable to Western imperialism and its interest in taking Syria out of the Iranian orbit. Nor can anyone help but snort with derisive laughter at the thought of Orwell ever supporting the Party of God (Hezbollah) in any conflict whatsoever.


Even less plausible is the idea of Orwell joining those on the center-left whose only real wish is that the Syrian mess would simply go away so that President Obama might return to his domestic agenda and not have to come up with a coherent strategy, or waste his second term on yet another entanglement in the Middle East. Orwell’s commitment to internationalism and to avoiding the temptation of the ever-present isolationist impulse was demonstrated best by his willingness to fight in Spain. Moreover, his above-mentioned unwillingness to conform to any party line or dogma makes it easily believable that he would not prioritize Obama’s poll numbers or Democratic Party unity over a sound Syria policy, as many have done.


On the contrary, one feels pretty confident in the assumption that Orwell would have heartily embraced the peaceful protest movement that erupted in Daraa on March 15, 2011. No one who has read Pacifism and the War can doubt that he would have likewise embraced the armed struggle that the regime had successfully provoked by later that year, just as he embraced the anti-fascist fights in Spain and the Second World War. It is a safer bet still, that he would have favored a revolution within the revolution against the bearded barbarians currently seeking (with alarming success) to hijack the Syrian opposition and carve out a Taliban-style regime in northern Syria. Nor can one imagine that Orwell would have pulled any punches regarding the fecklessness and fractiousness of the Syrian opposition in exile. In the final analysis, the only position that seems likely for Orwell to have taken on Syria if he were alive is one of solidarity, internationalism, and principled anti-totalitarianism of the kind he demonstrated throughout his life. Tragically for the Syrian people, far too many on the “anti-imperialist” left have instead elected to lend their solidarity to a mass-murdering but supposedly anti-western regime. 

George Orwell in the Spanish Civil War. (Image via Tumblr)

"Orwell would have heartily embraced the peaceful protest movement that erupted in Daraa on March 15, 2011."

  • donnacha

    Statements like "The opposition is almost entirely made up of Islamists whose differences are tactical rather than ideological." are exactly why people who know nothing about the situation in Syria should stop making comments about it. It's simply not true. The original uprising - of which tattered remnants remain - was secular and often radical (including socialists and anarchists). The core FSA is made up largely of soldiers who refused to shoot at civilians and deserted. Amongst the opposition are all shades of political opinion including some domestic Islamists, but also liberals, revolutionaries and people with no particular ideological point of view other than fighting a government that's determined to massacre them.

    January 21, 2014

  • RJ

    This entire article is predicated on an "appeal to authority" logical fallacy. I mean, seriously. Why should we care what Orwell would have (hypothetically) done? Simply because we love Animal Farm and 1984? Because he fought in Spain? This doesn't therefore make his theoretical response to Syria the de facto *right* one. This article fails to examine the merits of Orwell's hypothetical position. It instead asks us to trust that Orwell (or at least, the author's version of Orwell) would be right.

    December 18, 2013

  • tony.seta.50

    And all of that being being written by the author, it is still safer and more logical for western powers to stay out of Syria. Politically, it is a high risk/no gain to enter into this arena. The Brits were smart to reject intervention. US Congress was likely to follow suit, if not for the deal to destroy Chem weapons via Russian intervention. I have to disagree with the author's assessment. It is obvious that he has read most if not all of Orwell's published works, but I'm confident that Orwell would have opted to stay out of Syria, as this internecine conflict between Shiites and Sunnis does not form a nice and clean parallel with the 1930s/1940s fight against fascism/nazism. Orwell was a bright man and my favorite author among many. I owe much to the man's books and numerous essays for the formation of the way that I view the world and politics. Yet as I stated, I don't believe that GO would have rushed from the comforts of London to huddle in the trenches with jihadis for the goal of 'freedom' or 'anti-totalitarianism' in this particular conflict. The policy by the west to not intervene is the better option in Syria. Public opinion in our democracies is now focused on the greater picture of short-term and long-term goals, who are we supporting and why, what do we want the post-Assad Syria to look like, will the Syrian state partition into ethnic enclaves of the dominant belligerents, etc... etc... These are tough questions that none of our leaders can answer. Not for lack of wanting to tell the truth, but due to inability to foresee what is going to happen and to accurately predict and control events. This is a post-Gulf War II (2003) era world we now live in. Western leaders can no longer wave a flag and utter damning slogans against 'tyranny' and expect their populations to fall in line. The author is a bright person and I appreciate the analysis. I disagree with the assessment though.

    December 16, 2013

  • MonkFish

    Fair comment. I would add that another problem with the parallel the writer draws with the Spanish Civil War is that there is no equivalent of the anarcho-syndicalists and Trotskyist "international brigades" in Syria. The opposition is almost entirely made up of Islamists whose differences are tactical rather than ideological. The closest thing in the 21st century West to the brave men and women who went to fight Franco's fascists are the European and American Muslims signing up by the thousands for jihad against the Alawite and Christian "kuffar." Much of the confusion among supporters of the left and centre-left outside Syria stems from the weakness and disarray of the credible revolutionary secular parties or armed rebels from the region.

    December 16, 2013

  • rockwall

    A wonderful analysis

    December 15, 2013

  • politik

    Great article Evan.

    December 15, 2013