Orwell on Censorship

[“As I Please” was a regular column in Tribune from December 1943 to February 1945 and again from November 1946 to April 1947.  These articles and article excerpts are all lifted from various of the articles published under the header, “As I Please.”  The present titles were not Orwell’s, but were rather applied to the articles by Alexander S. Peak.]



George Orwell

Tribune, 6 December 1946

Early this year I met an American publisher who told me that his firm had just had a nine-months lawsuit from which it had emerged partially victorious, though out of pocket.  It concerned the printing of a four-letter word which most of us use every day, generally in the present participle.  The United States is usually a few years ahead of Britain in these matters.  You could print ‘b—’ in full in American books at a time when it had to appear in English ones as B dash.  Recently it has become possible in England to print the word in full in a book, but in periodicals it still has to be B dash.  Only five or six years ago it was printed in a well-known monthly magazine, but the last-minute panic was so great that a weary staff had to black the word out by hand.

As to the other word, the four-letter one, it is still unprintable in periodicals in this country, but in books it can be represented by its first letter and a dash.  In the United States this point was reached at least a dozen years ago.  Last year the publishing firm in question tried the experiment of printing the word in full.  The book was suppressed, and after nine months of litigation the suppression was upheld.  But in the process an important step forward was made.  It was ruled that you may now print the first and last letters of the word with two asterisks in between, clearly indicating that it had four letters.  This makes it reasonably sure that within a few years the word will be printable in full.  So does progress continue—and it is genuine progress, in my opinion, for if only our half-dozen ‘bad’ words could be got off the lavatory wall and on the printed page, they would soon lose their magical quality, and the habit of swearing, degrading to our thoughts and weakening to our language, might become less common.

Excerpt from The Danger of Government Financing of the Arts

George Orwell

Tribune, 13 October 1944

[Some] correspondents pointed out that in a genuinely Socialist society the distinction between the artist and the ordinary man would vanish.  Very likely, but then no such society yet exists.  Others rightly claimed that State patronage [for artists and authors] is a better guarantee against starvation than private patronage, but seemed to me too ready to disregard the censorship that this implies.  The usual line was that it is better for the artist to be a responsible member of a community than an anarchic individualist.  The issue, however, is not between irresponsible “self-expression” and discipline; it is between truth and lies.

Artists don’t so much object to aesthetic discipline.  Architects will design theatres or churches equally readily, writers will switch from the three-volume novel to the one-volume, or from the play to the film, according to the demand.  But the point is that this is a political age.  A writer inevitably writes—and less directly this applies to all the arts—about contemporary events, and his impulse is to tell what he believes to be the truth.  But no government, no big organization, will pay for the truth.  To take a crude example: can you imagine the British Government commissioning E. M. Forster to write A Passage to India?  He could only write it because he was not dependent on State aid.

The “Murder” of a Book

George Orwell

Tribune, 1 December 1944

Shortly before his assassination, Trotsky had completed a Life of Stalin.  One may assume that it was not an altogether unbiased book, but obviously a biography of Stalin by Trotsky—or, for that matter, a biography of Trotsky by Stalin—would be a winner from a selling point of view.  A very well-known American firm of publishers were to issue it.  The book had been printed and—this is the point that I have been waiting to verify before mentioning this matter in my notes—the review copies had been sent out when the U.S.A. entered the war.  The book was immediately withdrawn, and the reviewers were asked to cooperate in ‘avoiding any comment whatever regarding the biography and its postponement’.

They have cooperated remarkably well.  The affair has gone almost unmentioned in the American press and, as far as I know, entirely unmentioned in the British press, although the facts were well known and obviously worth a paragraph or two.

Since the American entry into the war made the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. allies, I think that to withdraw the book was an understandable if not particularly admirable deed.  What is disgusting is the general willingness to suppress all mention of it.  A little while back I attended a meeting of the PEN Club, which was held to celebrate the tercentenary of Areopagitica, Milton’s famous tract on the freedom of the press.  There were countless speeches emphasizing the importance of preserving intellectual liberty, even in war-time.  If I remember rightly, Milton’s phrase about the special sin of ‘murdering’ a book was printed on the PEN leaflet for the occasion.  But I heard no reference to this particular murder, the facts of which were no doubt known to plenty of people there.

Three Excerpts from History is Written By the Winners

George Orwell

Tribune, 4 February 1944

[1]  During the Spanish civil war I found myself feeling very strongly that a true history of this war never would or could be written.  Accurate figures, objective accounts of what was happening, simply did not exist.  And if I felt that even in 1937, when the Spanish Government was still in being, and the lies which the various Republican factions were telling about each other and about the enemy were relatively small ones, how does the case stand now?  Even if Franco is overthrown, what kind of records will the future historian have to go upon?  And if Franco or anyone at all resembling him remains in power, the history of the war will consist quite largely of “facts” which millions of people now living know to be lies.  One of these “facts”, for instance, is that there was a considerable Russian army in Spain.  There exists the most abundant evidence that there was no such army.  Yet if Franco remains in power, and if Fascism in general survives, that Russian army will go into the history books and future school children will believe in it.  So for practical purposes the lie will have become truth.

[2]  In no case do you get one answer which is universally accepted because it is true: in each case you get a number of totally incompatible answers, one of which is finally adopted as the result of a physical struggle.  History is written by the winners.

[3]  The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits ‘atrocities’ but that it attacks the concept of objective truth; it claims to control the past as well as the future.

Literary Purges in the U. S. S. R.

George Orwell

Tribune, 3 January 1947

A news item to the effect that Jugoslavia is now engaged on a purge of writers and artists led me to look once again at the reports of the recent literary purge in the U.S.S.R., when Zoschenko, Akhmatova and others were expelled from the Writers’ Union.

In England this kind of thing is not happening to us as yet, so that we can view it with a certain detachment, and, curiously enough, as I look again at the accounts of what happened, I feel somewhat more sorry for the persecutors than for their victims.  Chief among the persecutors is Andrei Zhdanov, considered by some to be Stalin’s probable successor.  Zhdanov, though he has conducted literary purges before, is a full-time politician with—to judge from his speeches—about as much knowledge of literature as I have of aerodynamics.  He does not give the impression of being, according to his own lights, a wicked or dishonest man.  He is truly shocked by the defection of certain Soviet writers, which appears to him as an incomprehensible piece of treachery, like a military mutiny in the middle of a battle.  The purpose of literature is to glorify the Soviet Union; surely that must be obvious to everyone?  But instead of carrying out their plain duty, these misguided writers keep straying away from the paths of propaganda, producing non-political works, and even in the case of Zoschenko, allowing a satirical note to creep into their writings.  It is all very painful and bewildering.  It is as though you set a man to work in an excellent, up-to-date, air-conditioned factory, gave him high wages, short hours, good canteens and playing-grounds, a comfortable flat, a nursery-school for his children, all-round social insurance and music while you work—only to find the ungrateful fellow throwing spanners into the machinery on his very first day.

Не Болтай! (1941) by Nina Vatolina
An example of Soviet propaganda

What makes the whole thing somewhat pathetic is the general admission—an honest admission, seeing that Soviet publicists are not in the habit of decrying their own country—that Russian literature as a whole is not what it ought to be.  Since the U.S.S.R. represents the highest existing form of civilization, it is obvious that it ought to lead the world in literature as in everything else.  ‘Surely,’ says Zhdanov, ‘our new Socialist system, embodying all that is best in the history of human civilization and culture, is capable of creating the most advanced literature, which will leave far behind the best creations of olden times.’  Izvestia (as quoted by the New York paper, Politics) goes further:  ‘Our culture stands on an immeasurably higher level than bourgeois culture.  …  Is it not clear that our culture has the right not to act as pupil and imitator but, on the contrary, to teach others the general human morals?’  And yet somehow the expected thing never happens.  Directives are issued, resolutions are passed unanimously, recalcitrant writers are silenced: and yet for some reason a vigorous and original literature, unmistakably superior to that of capitalist countries, fails to emerge.

All this has happened before, and more than once.  Freedom of expression has had its ups and downs in the U.S.S.R., but the general tendency has been towards tighter censorship.  The thing that politicians are seemingly unable to understand is that you cannot produce a vigorous literature by terrorizing everyone into conformity.  A writer’s inventive faculties will not work unless he is allowed to say approximately what he feels.  You can destroy spontaneity and produce a literature which is orthodox but feeble, or you can let people say what they choose and take the risk that some of them will utter heresies.  There is no way out of that dilemma so long as books have to be written by individuals.

That is why, in a way, I feel sorrier for the persecutors than for the victims.  It is probably that Zoschenko and the others at least have the satisfaction of understanding what is happening to them: the politicians who harry them are merely attempting the impossible.  For Zhdanov and his kind to say, ‘The Soviet Union can exist without literature’ would be reasonable.  But that is just what they can’t say.^nbsp; They don’t know what literature is, but they know that it is important, that it has prestige value, and that it is necessary for propaganda purposes, and they would like to encourage it, if only they knew how.  So they continue with their purges and directives, like a fish bashing its nose against the wall of an aquarium again and again, too dim-witted to realize that glass and water are not the same thing.

Copyright © The Estate of Eric Blair