The “Playing Into the Hands Of” Argument
Tribune, 9 June 1944
[“As I Please” was a regular column in Tribune from December 1943 to February 1945 and again from November 1946 to April 1947. This article is the second part of Orwell’s 9 June 1944 “As I Please” column. The present title was not Orwell’s, but was rather applied to the article by Alexander S. Peak.]
A PHRASE much used in political circles in this country is “playing into the hands of”. It is a sort of charm or incantation to silence uncomfortable truths. When you are told that by saying this, that or the other you are “playing into the hands of” some sinister enemy, you know that it is your duty to shut up immediately.
For example, if you say anything damaging about British imperialism, you are playing into the hands of Dr Goebbels. If you criticize Stalin you are playing into the hands of the Tablet and the Daily Telegraph. If you criticize Chiang Kai-Shek you are playing into the hands of Wang Ching-Wei—and so on, indeﬁnitely.
Objectively this charge is often true. It is always difﬁcult to attack one party to a dispute without temporarily helping the other. Some of Gandhi’s remarks have been very useful to the Japanese. The extreme Tories will seize on anything anti-Russian, and don’t necessarily mind if it comes from Trotskyist instead of right-wing sources. The American imperialists, advancing to the attack behind a smoke-screen of novelists, are always on the look-out for any disreputable detail about the British Empire. And if you write anything truthful about the London slums, you are liable to hear it repeated on the Nazi radio a week later. But what, then, are you expected to do? Pretend there are no slums?
Everyone who has ever had anything to do with publicity or propaganda can think of occasions when he was urged to tell lies about some vitally important matter, because to tell the truth would give ammunition to the enemy. During the Spanish Civil War, for instance, the dissensions on the Government side were never properly thrashed out in the left-wing press, although they involved fundamental points of principle. To discuss the struggle between the Communists and the Anarchists, you were told, would simply give the Daily Mail the chance to say that the Reds were all murdering one another. The only result was that the left-wing cause as a whole was weakened. The Daily Mail may have missed a few horror stories because people held their tongues, but some all-important lessons were not learned, and we are suffering from the fact to this day.
Copyright © The Estate of Eric Blair