Orwell reconsidered

I’ve been reading a collection of George Orwell’s essays and it’s been a slightly disturbing experience. If you’re accustomed to thinking of Orwell as a remarkably prescient and perceptive writer with a knack for penetrating to the heart of the matter it can even be a shocking experience.

The truth is that Orwell did not have quite the brilliant mind that w’ve been led to believe. He was quite good at pointing out the fallacies in other people’s thinking but he was prone to making exactly the same mistakes himself. He points out that most people believe atrocity stories when the atrocities are allegedly carried out by people of whom they disapprove, and tend to disbelieve atrocity stories when those atrocities are alleged to have been committed by people of whom they approve. This is true and it’s very important. And then in the same essay he assures us that we should believe all the stories of Fascist atrocities in the Spanish Civil War because, after all, the Fascists are bad people. They’re people of whom Orwell disapproves.

Orwell had a knack for being wrong, or at least for being partly right but mostly wrong. He believed that the first year of the war had conclusively demonstrated the failure of capitalism. Britain could not hope to survive unless it adopted full-scale socialism. Without socialism Orwell was convinced that defeat was inevitable. He was of course partly correct. Britain (and the United States) did adopt a form of War Socialism, and it is quite likely that victory would have been impossible otherwise. What Orwell failed to anticipate was that once the war was won the ruling class would reinstate capitalism. He also failed to anticipate the way in which the working class would be bought off with the expansion of the welfare state which eliminated any desire on the part of the working class for the kind of full-scale socialism that Orwell craved.

Let’s be quite clear about this. For all his opposition to national socialism and Soviet communism Orwell was most certainly not a moderate leftist. He was a hardcore socialist. Orwell’s vision of the ideal future was pretty much full-on communism. On the other hand Orwell seemed to disapprove of all the established leftist groupings. He despised the Labour Party. He despised the English communists. He particularly loathed what he called the pansy left. He talks about a kind of democratic socialism which really is pure fantasy. The kind of socialism that Orwell wanted was never going to be brought about by the ballot box. Orwell’s beliefs were doubtless since but hopelessly unrealistic.

Orwell also suffered from a crippling case of colonial guilt. He had been, briefly, a colonial policeman in Burma. It was a career for which he was ludicrously unsuited and it turned him into a rabid but somewhat irrational anti-imperialist. He was convinced that Britain’s prosperity was based entirely on the exploitation of the huddled masses of India and Britain’s other colonial outposts.

All of this of course just shows that Orwell was human and was as much a prey to intellectual prejudices and emotional misjudgments as anyone else. His belief in socialism doesn’t bother me but it does seem to me that his ideas as to how it could be implemented were hopelessly naïve. His dislike of imperialism also doesn’t bother me although he does take it to an unrealistic extreme. The European colonial empires may have been a disastrous mistake but to see them as having not even the slightest positive element is I think going too far.

Orwell had a somewhat unique perspective. Intellectual circles in Britain in the 30s and 40s were fairly overwhelmingly dominated by leftism but Orwell was a kind of contrarian communist who managed to remain entirely independent of all the established leftist groupings. For this reason alone his essays are worth reading.

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Hilaire Belloc on Oliver Cromwell

Hilaire Belloc’s brief biography of Oliver Cromwell appeared in 1927. It would be more accurate to describe his Oliver Cromwell as a biographical sketch, or a biographical impression.

Belloc stresses Cromwell’s position as a member of the wealthy classes who had enriched themselves at the expense of the Church in the wake of the Reformation. That class certainly had a very powerful reason for fearing a restoration of Catholicism – they wished to hold on to their ill-gotten gains. Which may be a partial explanation for Cromwell’s fanatical and rabid hatred for Catholicism. Belloc makes the important point that a Catholic restoration was by no means an impossibility in mid-17th century England so the anti-Catholic paranoia of men like Cromwell was not entirely ridiculous.

The Cromwell that emerges in Belloc’s sketch was a man who stumbled into absolute power and proved to be entirely unfitted for it, having no coherent plan or vision. He gradually accumulated power and his own interests and his own survival meant that he could never relinquish such power. He was a kind of prisoner of his own success in the art of political intrigue.

Belloc notes that Cromwell had been regarded as a great villain for many years after the Civil War and in the 19th century was seen as a great hero but in reality he was neither, lacking the stature to be either a true villain or a true hero. He was on the whole a mediocrity who happened to be an outstanding cavalry commander and to be a remarkably adept intriguer and manipulator. His narrowness was the crucial factor. He may have been the greatest cavalry commander of all time but in the military sphere that’s all he was – he was too limited to be a genuinely great general. As a politician he was cunning and extraordinarily skilful but he was no more than an opportunist. His political career was ultimately an exercise in futility.

Cromwell was a disaster but you don’t need to be actively evil to be a political disaster, and Belloc does not see Cromwell as evil.

The book is what you expect from Belloc – eccentric, opinionated, provocative and fascinating.

From Bauhaus to Our House

Tom Wolfe’s delightfully savage 1981 account of the rise of modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House, remains as relevant today as ever. Most of all it provides a fascinating insight into the bizarre and disturbing ways in which cultural elites work.

The roots of the horror that is modernist architecture go back to the early years of the 20th century, a time when the worlds of art, literature and music were all beginning to embrace the cult of modernism. In architecture things really got going when Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus. 
Of course no-one actually wanted the bleak, depressing and ugly architecture promoted by the Bauhaus. The only clients these architects got were socialist governments wanting to build housing for the workers. The workers, naturally, were not asked how they felt about having to live in these architectural horrors.
Modernist architecture got its big break when suddenly these European architects, people like Gropius and Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, arrived in the United States as refugees in the 30s. As Wolfe puts out, they were welcomed like great white gods who had consented to come down to earth and dwell among mortals. American architectural schools were falling over themselves to employ these godlike beings and young American architects eagerly abandoned any thought of trying to create distinctively American architecture in favour of a slavish colonial devotion to whatever the Europeans told them was the latest thing.
The result of all this was the abomination that became known as the International Style. Boxes. Boxes of glass, steel and concrete. 
The Bauhaus had been a kind of arty compound, cut off from the real world. The emphasis, as with modernist painting, was on theory. It was not necessary for the Bauhaus architects to have the buildings they designed actually built. Buildings that only ever existed on paper were just as good as real buildings. This emphasis on theory was something they brought to America with them. Getting academic posts was what counted. Once the modernists dominated the schools they could ensure that the International Style became the only approved style. It was the new orthodoxy and it was to be enforced.
An exclusive focus on theory was of course the hallmark of modernism in every field.
The horrors of modernism are of course mostly avoidable but architecture is kind of hard to avoid. People could not be forced to enjoy modernist paintings or modernist music but they could be forced to live and work in the soul-destroying boxes of modernist architecture.
Having done a brilliantly effective hatchet job on the modernists Wolfe then turns his attention to the post-modernists and proceeds to savage them as well, and rightly so.
In politics there is no weapon quite so devastating as ridicule and Wolfe is the master when it comes to wielding that particular sword. He’s in top form here. From Bauhaus to Our House is a very very funny book. Not just amusing but laugh-out-loud funny. But it’s not just funny, it offers extremely perceptive and important insights into the ways in which political and cultural elites operate. Wolfe understood right from the start just how vital cultural and artistic battles are.

the trouble with paganism

I’ve been reading Dan McCoy’s The Love of Destiny: The Sacred and the Profane in Germanic Polytheism which I guess could be described as an exercise in neo-pagan apologetics.

The problem of religion is one that has been exercising my mind for quite some time. I’m fairly clear about the natures of the problem. I don’t think atheism is healthy for society and I don’t think it’s healthy for the individual. What I’m not clear about is the solution to the problem.
It’s a problem that many (possibly even most) people in the dissident right, alt-right or whatever you want to use as an umbrella term for such groups are aware of. The two most popular solutions are a revived Christianity or some form of neo-paganism. It’s the neo-pagan solution I’m concerned with at the moment.
I understand the attraction of the neo-pagan solution. Christianity hasn’t done much of a job of defending our civilisation in the past century or so and neo-paganism has the advantage of offering a distinctively European alternative. Blood and soil and all that.
I have however always had reservations about neo-paganism. This is a short summary of my reservations (and as you’ll see they’re all pretty much related). 
Firstly, any kind of polytheistic religion by its very nature will tend towards fragmentation. There was a time when the whole of Europe was pagan but it was certainly not a golden age of religious unity. At the time that wasn’t a major problem but what we need today is unity.
Secondly, neo-paganism has always been short on doctrine. Certainly very short on anything approaching a unified doctrine. Within incredibly broad limits you can more or less choose your own beliefs. Every man can in effect have his own private religion. The difficulty with that is that it must inevitably lead to the kind of atomisation and sense of alienation which are the very things that make liberalism so deadly. One of the functions of religion is to bring people together, not to divide them.
Thirdly, there’s no standardised neo-pagan morality. Each cult can adopt its own morality and in practice every individual can adopt his or her own moral standards. Obviously that’s a recipe for social chaos.
Fourthly, neo-paganism can very easily become just a vague woolly New Age spirituality. Even worse, it can become a sort of glorified pantheism. And pantheism is itself a sort of glorified atheism.
Fifthly, not only is neo-paganism not conducive to social discipline it’s also not conducive to self-discipline. It’s an open door to every kind of self-indulgence – moral, intellectual, emotional and spiritual.
McCoy is aware of these weaknesses but unfortunately he considers them to be features, not bugs. This is one of the many disturbing things about this book.
McCoy starts out in his introduction by assuring us that he has no animus against the monotheistic religions. We then move on to the first half of the book which is a sustained, hysterical, intellectually incoherent attack on what he considers to be the many evils of the three great monotheistic religions. Interestingly enough for McCoy the three great monotheistic religions are Judaism, Christianity and Science. His main beef with these religions seems to be that they’re anti-Nature and moralistic. For McCoy Nature is all good and morality is all bad. Because we’re all part of Nature, man, and it’s all good because, well, it’s just all good because it is. Morality of course is bad ’cause it’s oppressive, man. This is pretty much the hippie worldview.
The second half of this brief volume is marginally more interesting, giving us a brief rundown on Norse mythology and the Northern European pagan worldview. The problem here is that, to me at least, that worldview sounds impossibly bleak, fatalistic and depressing. Submitting to fate seems to be the essence of it. 
Of course it would be unfair to dismiss neo-paganism out of hand based on this one book. Nonetheless this book does confirm every one of my worst fears on the weaknesses of neo-paganism and the unlikelihood that it is going to be of much use in saving our civilisation. Mind you I suspect that the author would not be bothered by this, since civilisation is oppressive, man.

Hilaire Belloc’s Elizabethan Commentary

I spoke in a recent post about foundational myths. Intriguingly the foundational myth of Protestant England is centred not on Henry VIII but on his daughter. Elizabeth I, or Gloriana or Good Queen Bess, is Protestant England’s Joan of Arc.

Hilaire Belloc’s Elizabethan Commentary, published in 1942 (and issued in the US as Elizabeth, Creature of Circumstance), is an entertaining hatchet job on this myth. Belloc believed, absolutely correctly, that the Reformation was the key event in European history and he retuned to it again and again. As a result some of the ground covered in this book is also covered in his other books on the subject.
Belloc approaches his task with his usual combative zeal and it follows his usual idiosyncratic approach to history. He has no interest in a connected narrative, or in any narrative at all. That does not mean this is social history in the generally understood sense of the term although there are elements of this. When writing about the past Belloc’s main aim is to capture the spirit of the age with which he is dealing and he does so far more successfully than most modern historians.
As in his other books he stresses the importance of the rising power of the moneyed class and the greed of that class. The Reformation saw the seizure of the abbey lands in England and this despoiling of the Church was on a breath-taking scale. As much as a third of the wealth of the country was involved. Had this wealth remained in the hands of the Crown the English Crown could have been the richest in Europe and subsequent disasters like the Civil War would have been averted. England might have remained a monarchy until the present day. Unfortunately the hapless Tudors allowed all of this wealth to slip through their fingers to enrich the already wealthy. More importantly this represented a fatal shift of power from the Crown to the moneyed class.
In some ways the highlights of the book are Belloc’s many digressions. He has some interesting things to say on the nature of monarchy. 
There’s also a fascinating chapter on torture. This was a fairly uncommon practice prior to the 16th century, became extremely common during that century and then fairly quickly disappeared from the English scene. Belloc stresses that the purpose of torture was not punishment but to extract information. It was widely used in the 16th century because there were so many plots and the government therefore had a very strong incentive to extract information from suspects possibly involved in such plots. In other words governments are inclined to use torture when their own power is threatened. The history of the past hundred years would appear to confirm this, with governments being very willing to use extreme methods to protect their own power.
He makes the further point, often overlooked, that to the 16th century mind it was almost unthinkable to execute a man unless he confessed. Without modern forensic science, and (another very intriguing point) without modern legal cross-examination procedures, it was difficult to establish guilt. The most effective way was to torture a man until he confessed. Torture was considered to be morally preferable to running the risk of executing an innocent man. It’s another example of Belloc’s thesis that you can’t hope to understand history unless you accept that the past really is a foreign country and they really do do things differently there.
Belloc makes no apologies for presenting a Catholic view of English history, as a counter-balance to hundreds of years of anti-Catholic propaganda. In this instance there’s also the need to present some kind of alternative to the myth of Elizabeth I as the great queen, a myth that remained unchallenged in England for centuries. It’s a task that he approaches with relish.

Evola’s Revolt Against the Modern World.

My current reading is Julius Evola’s Revolt Against the Modern World. It’s heavy going, especially if you limited tolerance for the wilder shores of mysticism, esotericism, magic and the occult. If you persist with it though there are plenty of profound and important insights into the sorry state in which our civilisation has landed itself. The second half of the book in particular is filled with key insights.

Evola’s idea of a revolt against the modern world is breathtakingly radical. In his view things started to go wrong a very very long time ago, and they went wrong in very fundamental ways. And his ideas on tradition are not exactly conventional.
There’s a lot of material to plough through in this book and I remain sceptical of much of it. I really wouldn’t feel in the least bit qualified even to attempt to review this book. There are however a few things that happened to catch my interest as they connect to other things I’ve been reading recently.
The first is his spirited championing of caste systems. Given that egalitarianism has proven to be a dangerous chimaera and that hierarchies are almost certainly both inevitable and necessary in a healthy society, and given that class divisions produce endless futile conflict, a caste system does seem to have its attractions.
The second point that struck me in this book is Evola’s enthusiasm for the ideal of chivalry. This is a little surprising at first in view of Evola’s disdain for Christianity. He argues however that the medieval ideal of chivalry was not entirely Christian in inspiration and that it avoids many of what he sees as the flaws and decadent features of Christianity. Of course it could be objected that chivalry was an ideal that was in all probability seldom practised, at least in a pure form. That doesn’t really matter. The fact that the idea of chivalry existed and that it struck such a powerful chord in the medieval imagination is what’s important.
My own reservations about Christianity are centred on its passive and excessively feminised nature and its unfortunate tendency to encourage the cult of victimology. These regrettable tendencies seemed to be much less evident in medieval Christianity, and the ideal of chivalry did seem to be a way of minimising those negative factors.
Medieval Christianity was a masculine religion that respected women. Such a thing is possible.
There seems to be no question that Christianity has lost its way and that this has been a gradual process that has taken centuries. The Middle Ages was the high water mark for the Christian faith. It’s been all downhill since then.

Courtly Culture: Literature and Society in the High Middle Ages

I’ve been reading Joachim Bumke’s Courtly Culture: Literature and Society in the High Middle Ages. It was published in German in 1986 and the English translation dates from 1991. It’s an odd book. Bumke isn’t arguing that the courtly literature of the 12th and 13th centuries accurately reflected the realities of aristocratic society at that time but he does seem to be arguing that the literature does tell us something real about the period, or at the very least about the way that society viewed itself.
Like most modern historians he seems reluctant to draw actual conclusions. After he has presented masses of intriguing evidence the book just stops. 
There is some fascinating stuff here though. In the 11th century western European aristocratic society was still very much an honour-based warrior society. It was Christian, but not thoroughly Christianised. It certainly had little use for Christian notions of morality. Over the course of a couple of hundred years the Church engaged in a fierce struggle to change this. The contest ended in a fairly complete victory for the Church. 
The lords regarded marriage as a purely economic and dynastic arrangement. Marriages were arranged and if you didn’t like your prospective bride or groom it was too bad. Force could be, and was, used to compel agreement. The Church was having none of that. The Church’s position was that no marriage was valid unless both partners consented. By the later Middle Ages they had more or less won their point. A degree of coercion might still be employed but if you absolutely refused your consent you could reasonably expect the Church to back you up.
The aristocracy also had a free-and-easy attitude towards fornication and even adultery, at least as far as men were concerned. The Church’s position was that sexual misconduct was sexual misconduct regardless of the sex of the transgressor. The Church certainly didn’t win a complete victory on this issue but they did manage to change attitudes to a degree.
The Church also tried, with some success, to limit the endless feuding of the nobles.
The Church was acting as a civilising agent at a time when western European society badly needed such an influence. Of course it’s all a matter of balance. This was a society that was excessively violent and immoral so at that time the civilising and feminising influences of the Church were a good thing, shifting the balance in a healthier direction.
The other thing that really intrigues me in this book is the survival of an oral literary tradition possibly as late as the 13th century. The idea that you could be totally illiterate and be a poet seems bizarre today but in the High Middle Ages there were indeed poets, and great poets at that, who were illiterate.  What’s really interesting is that the oral literary tradition and the written literary tradition co-existed for centuries. Some of the most important literary works of the period, such as the Nibelungenlied, certainly originated within the oral tradition. Other epic poems written at precisely the same time originated as             written works. 
We don’t actually know how the audience of the time consumed (for want of a better word) their poetic works. Most were presumably sung or recited but whether there was an actual reading audience is unknown. The literacy levels at the various princely courts varied widely so we have no idea how much of the audience for literature comprised actual readers.
All interesting stuff, and it’s helping to feed my growing obsession with things mediaeval.