by Douglas Kerr, University of Hong Kong
Textual Practice, Volume 16, No. 3 (Dec. 2002)
This essay analyses the rhetoric of colonial discourse in a special, and especially conflicted, case, that of the weekly news commentaries which George Orwell wrote for broadcast by the BBC to British India in those years of the Second World War when the subcontinent was threatened by Japanese invasion.
From August 1941 to November 1943 Orwell worked as a Talks Assistant, later Talks Producer, in the Indian Section of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Eastern Service, based in London.1 The Indian Section broadcast to its subcontinental listeners a mixture of news, news commentary, features and arts programmes. Orwell worked very hard during his time at the BBC, though without much enthusiasm. The army had rejected him when he tried to enlist in 1939, not surprisingly on the grounds of health, and he had been frustrated in his efforts to find more rewarding war work. Reviewing a revival of Chu Chin Chow at the Palace Theatre in the summer of 1940 had seemed a particularly futile and humiliating way to spend your time in a historical crisis (12:215–16).2 And so when the offer came from the BBC, Orwell accepted it faute de mieux. He laboured at it conscientiously for more than two years, in his longest stint of full-time employment since leaving the Burma Police in 1927. When he left, it was for two main reasons. First, his BBC duties left him no time for sustained work on his own writing projects (the moment he quit the BBC in November 1943, he began drafting Animal Farm).3 Second, the BBC’s own research in India had revealed, rather late in the day, that there were few radio sets in the subcontinent that were able to receive the broadcasts from London, and that the number of Indians listening (or ‘listening in’) to the English-language programmes of the Indian Section was in all likelihood pitifully small.4 ‘What caused Orwell to leave was his realization that he was wasting his time and, as he had a puritanical belief that time was given us to be productively employed, he found that at first galling and then intolerable.’5
There was another reason for Orwell to feel unhappy about his BBC work, and this was a matter of principle. Although the BBC was a corporation and not a department of government, there was never a possibility of its being independent in wartime, and long before 1939 it had been widely understood that radio would have an important role to play in information and propaganda once the war came. The BBC, like the print media, came under the supervision of the Ministry of Information, housed in the University of London Senate House and later to serve as a model for the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Scripts were vetted twice in advance, for policy and security, and a switch censor monitored all broadcasts, ready (at least in theory) to interrupt transmission if there was any deviation from the authorized script. The policy to which broadcasts had to conform, with regard to India, was that it was imperative for Indians to remain loyal to the King-Emperor in this time of crisis, and especially after the entry of Japan into the war with the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, which placed all Britain’s eastern possessions under threat. In 1942 as the victorious Japanese army swept across southeast Asia and up through Burma, there was serious concern in London that the loss of India might mean the loss of the war. Orwell seems to have shared that view, and assented to its consequence, which was that the chief function of BBC broadcasting to India at this time was to keep Indians loyal to the Raj. His dilemma was that this imperative went directly against his own conviction, born of his own service in the forces of the Empire in Burma and developed over a decade of increasingly radical political thinking, of what he called ‘the inherent evil of imperialism’ (10: 508). A condemnation of Empire was the first principle of a political identity formed not on the road to Wigan Pier but on the road to Mandalay. ‘If I thought that a victory in the present war would mean nothing beyond a new lease of life for British imperialism,’ he had written early in 1940 during the Phony War, ‘I should be inclined to side with Russia and Germany’ (12:122–3). Now, in his office in the Eastern Service of the BBC, Orwell found himself a functionary of an ideological state apparatus dedicated to the survival of the British empire in the East which he had been excoriating for more than a decade. ‘It was the commitment to anti-fascism that sustained Orwell through the compromises of principle that he was obliged to make as a propagandist.’6 The BBC Eastern Service in wartime was an organ of colonial discourse, propagating the word, and the worldview, of the metropolitan centre to its peripheral subject people. Orwell’s news commentaries are texts of that discourse which particularly repay attention for their complicated modality, as the voice of the Empire at war (‘London calling!’), the state, the institution of the BBC, and the compromised yet determined author himself.
Much of Orwell’s work in the Indian Section was in the making of features and arts programmes, and for this he was able to assemble a very impressive team of contributors, many of them his personal friends from the worlds of literature, politics and journalism. The orientation of the Indian Section to the arts and ideas was not only a reflection of Orwell’s own tastes and professional contacts, and those of his superiors, but also a sign of the decision, by those who made the Indian broadcasts, to ‘attempt to catch the young Indian intellectual’, as Brander’s report puts it frankly (15:346).7 The most vocal opposition to British rule in India over the previous twenty years had come from well-educated middle-class Indians, and it was these people whom the Indian broadcasts were determined to attract, through offering a ‘highbrow’ programme content, in the hope of strengthening their ties and therefore loyalties to Britain. Orwell’s arts and features programmes for the BBC are certainly worth a separate study. This essay however is more concerned with the news commentaries (also referred to as ‘newsletters’) he wrote for weekly broadcast, some in English and some for translation into Indian vernaculars. These texts are especially rich in ideological content because their nature is both historiographical and hegemonic. They are interpretations of the world events unfolding week by week in the most critical months of the war, and offer their Indian listeners a view of those events as seen from the imperial centre, a view that aims to convince Indians that their own interest as a nation, as well as the cause of freedom around the world, lies in their continued loyalty to the British in this time of peril. It was certainly a strange contortion, whereby the anti-imperialist Orwell found himself directing propaganda for the Raj at the most disaffected and anti-British section of the Indian population. But it was a matter of priorities. Late in 1942, when it was suggested that the hitherto anonymous and ‘editorial’ news commentaries should be broadcast over his own name, he noted that his literary reputation in India probably arose ‘chiefly from books of an anti-imperialist tendency’ (14:100),8 and that in the broadcasts he had generally taken an anti-fascist rather than an imperialist standpoint. ‘These commentaries have always followed what is by implication a “left” line, and in fact have contained very little that I would not sign with my own name’ (14:101).
The broadcasts, then, participate in colonial discourse in being part of that body of statements that shapes the relation between the colonial power and its colonized subjects. Their author is George Orwell, journalist and novelist, the writing subject of Eric Blair, a man whose provenance, experience and views are present in all his writing. But the broadcasts are also subject to a particularly complex set of determinations, inhabiting a sort of magnetic field where a number of sometimes contending forces help to give it shape. To the question of who speaks in ideologically charged text of this kind, the answer will always be in the plural. Any utterance beyond the elementary is multi-authored, determined by a number of authorities – linguistic, ideological, discursive, psychological– of varying force. To examine the broadcasts as colonial discourse it will be useful to see what these are.
One determination is the authority of the state, dispensed through the Ministry of Information in the form of directives sent periodically to BBC producers, monitoring of broadcasts, and the mechanism of censorship whereby every broadcast was vetted in advance for conformity to government policy, and for security. If there is a hierarchy of such operative authorities, this one must rank among the highest; it is hard to imagine the need to preserve essential military secrets, for example, being overridden by any other consideration. Broadcasters might be advised how the government wanted particular news items handled, and a dialogue of a sort might ensue. For example, when Sir Stafford Cripps was sent to India to discuss proposals for Indian independence with Congress leaders and others, Orwell was instructed to give Cripps a build-up in his newsletters; but having proposed to ‘build him up as a political extremist’, he was warned not to go too far in that direction (13:229). The Cripps mission failed, relations with Congress deteriorated, and when India was plunged into rioting after the imprisonment of Nehru, Gandhi and others, Orwell recorded in his war diary on 12 August 1942 that BBC staff had been sent an ‘appalling’ policy handout from the Ministry about affairs in India, which declared the riots were of no significance, young Indians were taking part in them in the spirit of a students’ rag, the situation was well in hand, and so on. The following day, a reference to Nehru was cut out of an announcement, ‘N. being in prison and therefore having become Bad’ (13:475). Orwell’s next newsletter contained no mention of Indian affairs, the state’s participation in the discourse being felt in this instance as silence. As far as the broadcasts were concerned, Nehru had gone down the memory hole.
In Newsletter 10 (to give a different sort of example) broadcast on 14 February 1942 during the disastrous battle of Singapore, the authority of the state is registered as the arbiter of what can and cannot be said. The state never speaks directly, but expresses itself through the stylistic choice of a kind of sober strategic realism, a command of the facts and a willingness to face and share them fearlessly, which gives credibility to expressions of confidence, none the less, in the final outcome of the war. There is no direct appeal for loyalty, for example, but the steadfastness of the common people of Britain, subject as they are to rationing and austerity, is an example which speaks for itself.
The sinister (or can it be comical?) construction of what ordinary people ‘are heard to say’ bleaches out the agent of this eavesdropping while giving this exemplary pluck a sort of empirical status. Here at the same time is an educative example for Indians, for the populace of the metropolis are strategically conscious and have a clear understanding of the issue, and so recognize that their own interests depend ultimately on the outcome of the global conflict. The state is not pursuing a narrow national interest. Its rationing policy is undertaken, and stoically accepted by its citizens, in the interests of the world.
The ordinary people who have to put up with these restrictions do not
grumble, and are even heard to say that they would welcome greater
sacrifices, if these would set free more shipping for the war effort, since
they have a clear understanding of the issue, and set much more store
by their liberty than by the comfort they have been accustomed to in
If the state, through the Ministry, was one institutional participant in Orwell’s broadcasts, the BBC itself was another. As a national though not a government broadcaster, the BBC’s interest coincided with or deferred to that of the state on political matters; it may be properly described as an ideological state apparatus. The expansion of the Empire Service into the Overseas Service in November 1939 had been prompted partly by the need to counter Axis propaganda, and to enable the BBC ‘with enhanced power to convey to all parts of the world truthful news and a prompt, clear and insistent exposition of British policy’.9 But neither the corporation nor the state wanted the BBC to be thought of as a government mouthpiece, and so the BBC’s participation in discourse such as Orwell’s newsletters is felt mostly in rhetorical habits of judiciousness, restraint and a gentlemanly tone, a commitment to verifiable facts, and an unwillingness to exhort or browbeat the listener. Newsletter 10, mentioned above, written at one of the lowest moments of the war from the Allied point of view, notes as a fact that the main manufacturing centres of America, Britain and Russia are out of reach of German and Japanese attack.
The Allied Powers, therefore, are able immensely to outbuild the Axis
Powers, and in a year or two years bring together a force which will be
all but irresistible. But they have undoubtedly a difficult time ahead,
and they may have a period when they are almost in conditions of
siege, and when resolution, calmness and faith in final victory, will be
at least as important as physical weapons of war. (13:179–80)
This is a classic BBC statement in its apparently neutral commitment to factuality, the absconding modality of the third-person pronoun (‘they have undoubtedly a difficult time ahead’) and the loose disguise of its call for action in the form of agentless nominalizations (resolution and the rest) leading a proleptic narrative statement. The propaganda is to conceal the propaganda.
In 1943 when Orwell edited Talking to India, a selection of broadcast scripts from the Eastern Service which was distributed in India, he instructively juxtaposed some examples of his own newsletters (frankly described as ‘Five Specimens of Propaganda’) with the transcript of a ‘Talk in English’ by Subhas Chandra Bose.10 Bose is stirring, oratorical. The rhetorical contrast makes Orwell’s language seem impressively cool and assured – in fact, hardly like ‘propaganda’ at all. The constitution and reputation of the BBC dictated that its war propaganda was soft, its institutional interest self-effacing, its ideological positions as naturalized as possible. Meanwhile the BBC provided the technology and the medium, and the institutional matrix, of the broadcasts, which had to conform to constraints of timing, usage and genre (though producers were allowed some freedom to develop the latter).
No other formal institutions made a significant claim on the discourse of Orwell’s broadcasts. He was subject to no orthodoxies. After his brief membership of the Independent Labour Party lapsed, he owed loyalty to no political party, nor had he ever been a member of a church. He thought of himself as anti-fascist, anti-imperialist, a socialist and a democrat. He was also a patriot, though not a nationalist, and had written The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius in 1940 to explain what he thought this meant.11 These positions were not institutionalized in a particular party but were principles, idiosyncratically interpreted in some cases, in which Orwell felt a personal and emotional stake. These convictions, sometimes at odds with official policy and sometimes not, are factors in the broadcasts. Without a doubt, what Orwell found to say would also have been influenced by the views and styles of those with whom he had frequent conversation, notably including broadcasters who were also his friends, such as William Empson who was his counterpart in the Chinese Section of the Eastern Service, and Mulk Raj Anand who wrote scripts and broadcasts for the BBC throughout the war. Orwell made a point of telling listeners that he was ‘the only European in the Indian section of the BBC’ (13:163), and when he produced discussion programmes he took care to ensure that at least one Indian speaker was always involved.12 This is the place to mention Zulfaqar Ali Bokhari, the Indian Programme Organizer and Orwell’s immediate boss at the BBC, not least because it was he who actually read out most of Orwell’s early newsletters on air.13 All these news commentaries, until a change of policy in November 1942, were written in an impersonal style, anonymous, and broadcast in an Indian voice, an accentuation that has a bearing on the discourse and probably the reception of the texts. For example, we may consider the modality of Orwell’s words in Newsletter 10 – ‘This is not an encouraging picture, and we have deliberately put it at its worst, in order to get a realistic and unvarnished view of the situation’ (13:179) – when spoken by an Indian voice.
It seemed appropriate (though this policy was changed later) to make the newsletters sound like a conversation, an Indian speaking to Indians.14 The producers in the Indian Section were uncomfortably aware that their Indian audience, such as it was, was potentially hostile (14:214, for example). It was reckoned that listeners to English-language broadcasts in India would be mostly students, and it was among students that anti-British feeling was strongest. ‘Many, perhaps most, Indian intellectuals are emotionally pro-Japanese,’ Orwell wrote in July 1942, but he thought they were also ‘reliably anti-Fascist in proportion as they are Westernized’ (he was no doubt thinking of his friend Mulk Raj Anand) (13:381). The English language, he concluded, was a weapon that could be used to nurture and articulate a sort of cultural united front, which could help to defeat Japan in Asia and perhaps in due course deliver a socialist postcolonial India. In fact, he spent much more time at the BBC writing and producing cultural and educational programmes than he devoted to propaganda, and incidentally brought to the microphone an impressive array of speakers that included, as well as Empson and Anand, Stephen Spender, E.M. Forster, Herbert Reed, T.S. Eliot, John Lehmann, V.S. Pritchett, Sean O’Casey and many other writers, not to mention budding media stars like J.B.S. Haldane and C.E.M. Joad.
The newsletters, however, were a constant. In his two years at the BBC he wrote 104 or 105 for broadcast in English, and 115 or 116 for translation into various Asian vernaculars (only a quarter of these survive). These were not news bulletins, but a commentary on the week’s events, usually in the form of an attempt to find their significance in the broader context of the war.15 They may be thought of as standing in relation to news bulletins as the weekly to the daily press. Orwell of course had made his living as a commentator, and he brings to this radio genre many of the habits that characterized his print journalism. His writing about the course of the war in the newsletters – this is their main topic – was perhaps helped less by his actual experience as a soldier in Spain in 1937 than by the fact that he had monitored the newspaper reporting, and reviewed most of the vast number of books published in recent years, which purported to narrate and explain what happened in the Spanish Civil War.16 He adapted comfortably to the genre, though when he began to read his own newsletters on air from November 1942, there were changes of style and rhetoric which accompanied the entry of personality into the discourse, but this had the effect of making the broadcasts even closer to the kind of journalistic writing he had developed in print media before joining the BBC.
It is not surprising that he thought of his radio work in terms of the more familiar medium of print. When he devised ‘Voice’, a regular feature devoted to reading and discussing poetry, he called it a ‘magazine programme’, and in the first number he asked his listeners to imagine the publication in front of them (‘One advantage of a magazine of this kind is that you can choose your own cover design’), and to move through its twenty-seven and a half minutes’ time as if it were printed space (‘Now please turn to page four’) (13:459–69). But there are important differences between airtime and the printed page. Radio speech is both more ephemeral and more demanding than writing. It leaves no iterable record, it dictates the speed and rhythm of its reception. Writing can be possessed, set aside, taken up, reread, skimmed. But radio speech interpellates on its own terms, if it engages at all, through an oral medium in which the speaker – let alone the writer – is always absent. It is invisible language, news from nowhere, embodied in neither script nor speaker. This spectral quality of words ‘on air’ (at that stage in the technology of broadcasting) has implications for modality and discourse. The anonymous commentaries spoke in a voice that was not that of a person, though it had an accent, which was Indian. Being disembodied and apparently context-free, but also globally knowledgeable and authoritative, it was both thoroughly naturalized and uncannily oracular.
Having considered questions of authority, rhetoric, genre and medium, I turn now to intertextuality. Newsletter 10, like Orwell’s other broadcasts, stands in relation to other texts which play a part in shaping it. News commentaries depend on news (most news itself is created out of earlier news) and it is clear from his diaries that Orwell was a voracious consumer of the news media, which flourished in wartime though hampered by the paper shortage.17 The BBC was an information-gathering as well as a broadcasting organization, and staff had access to the reports of its Monitoring Service which translated and transcribed radio broadcasts all around the world. It is this invaluable journalistic resource that underwrites the authority with which the strategic gaze of the newsletters sweeps the globe, for the ears if not the eyes of the BBC were everywhere. But in practice the Monitoring Service was probably less useful as a source of facts than as a record of the propaganda of both friends and enemies. It meant, for example, that Orwell was one of the few writers in England to have actually followed the pro-fascist broadcasts Ezra Pound made in Italy (16:81). After Hitler’s invasion of Russia, which turned the USSR overnight from an enemy into an ally of Britain, Orwell relayed Soviet reports of their military successes in his newsletters to his Indian audience, although privately he was sceptical. ‘From studying the German and Russian wireless I have long come to the conclusion that the reports of Russian victories are largely phony’, he confessed in his diary (13:229). Some fruits of the BBC’s global vantage were not for export.
The most important body of discourse to which Orwell’s broadcasts relate may be described as contratextual. This contratextual material comprises enemy propaganda which might be reaching India, and many of Orwell’s newsletters engage with this discourse antagonist directly.18 As we have seen, counter-propaganda was an important part of the brief of the BBC’s overseas services, particularly urgent in the case of India where loyalties could certainly not be taken for granted.
The strategy of the newsletters is to engage in dialogue with the countertext by analysis and refutation. Orwell gives his Indian listeners a counsel of vigilance. India’s borders are secure, so that this may seem like somebody else’s war, but they have already been invaded by words.
The Germans and Japanese, ‘adepts at propaganda’ (and it seems it is only in their hands that propaganda is ‘an actual weapon’), work to divide and confuse their enemies by lies, misleading rumours, threats, bribes and false promises. Orwell reassured his listeners that they could remain untouched by Axis propaganda if they only followed a simple and unfailing rule. ‘This is, to compare what the Axis powers say they will do with what they are actually doing’ (ibid.). It was this critical service that the newsletters were careful to provide, and they did so on the basis of that unparalleled access to the real events of the world, for which the BBC was famous. The main issue here, and certainly the most sensitive one, was the Japanese claim to be setting the East free from Western domination and economic exploitation. Japanese propaganda was selling ‘the picture of a war of Asia against Europe’ (ibid.). One of Orwell’s strongest themes, regularly revisited, is this claim and its incompatibility with the facts – most glaringly, with the years of Japanese aggression against China.
Meanwhile, even when there is a lull in the actual fighting, there is one kind of war that never stops for an instant, night or day, and that is the propaganda war. To the Axis powers, propaganda is an actual weapon, like guns or bombs, and to learn how to discount it is as important as taking cover during an air raid. (13:126)
As a shield against Japanese blandishments, the Indians are offered information. The opposite of Japanese propaganda is not British propaganda, but the verifiable facts. This enables Orwell to engage with the countertext in a rhetoric which is not pro-imperial (exhorting loyalty to the Raj) but anti-imperial (warning of Japanese designs on India). The Japanese propaganda offensive gives Orwell both the content and strategy for his broadcast, appealing to India for solidarity in resisting imperialism without ever mentioning British imperial rule in India. Here is a coincidence between the interest of the state (keeping India on side) and Orwell’s loathing of imperialism (of the kind Japan was undoubtedly inflicting on much of East Asia) bizarrely coming together to make a case for the continuation of the present relationship between Britain and India – without actually making that case, since British rule of India is not mentioned here. The choice is not between two forms of persuasion, or even two forms of political authority, but between Japanese words and the actual facts of the matter. Facts clinch the British case to India and, being themselves indisputable, they naturalize it. It is a good example of the non-propaganda propaganda practised in the BBC and supported by its reputation for truth-telling.19 Orwell did prefer truth to propaganda and he did believe that India was better off under British rule than it would be under the Japanese. But the consequence is an implicit endorsement of a picture of the British Empire in India in a traditional paternalistic light, with the helpless people of the subcontinent sheltering under the bountiful shadow of Britain’s superior power and dependable knowledge – a classically ‘Orientalist’ picture.
Even in the present war, they are fighting far more against Asiatics than against Europeans. In the Philippine islands the resistance to Japanese attack is kept up mainly by Filipinos, in Malaya by Indians as much as by the British, in the Dutch East Indies by Javanese and Sumatrans. One of the opening acts of the war was the wanton bombing of Rangoon by the Japanese, in which hundreds of innocent Burmese were killed. Moreover, in those Asiatic territories which the Japanese have ruled over for a long time, we can see what their behaviour actually is towards subject peoples. (13:127)
While the broadcasts engage directly with their countertext, they are in often covert relation with another body of statements, which I will call paratexts. These are the writings Orwell was doing in other outlets and for other audiences while he worked for the BBC broadcasting to India, writings to which for the most part the Indian broadcasts are blind. The wartime diary is an example which can cast a different light on some of the topics of the newsletters. Told to ‘build up’ Cripps when his mission to India was announced, Orwell obliged in the newsletter of 14 March 1942. Sir Stafford Cripps, he said, ‘has long been recognized as the ablest man in the British Socialist movement, and he is respected for his absolute integrity even by those who are at the opposite pole from him politically’ (13:224). He went on to praise Cripps’ record of vigorous anti-fascism in the 1930s, allowing himself a dig at ‘the too cautious policy of the Labour Party’ and, by implication, of the National Government, and ended with a flourish. ‘Everyone in Britain is delighted to see such an important mission as the one which Cripps is now undertaking, conferred upon a man whom even his critics admit to be gifted, trustworthy and self-sacrificing’ (13:225). Orwell did, as a matter of fact, have a high opinion of Cripps, but the optimism of the broadcast newsletter is not shared by the entry in his diary the same day.
The diary is constrained by no institutional authority, and its cynicism about the mission’s outcome is likely to be closer to Orwell’s own feelings at the time than the semi-official optimism of the newsletter. Still, the diary is no romantic self-communing, since Orwell did have a vague plan to publish it at some later date, so it does have an embryonic orientation to some British reading public: it is more in the nature of a dramatic aside than a soliloquy. A later comment in the diary reads the eventual failure of the Cripps mission as demonstrating ‘the fact that the Indian intelligentsia don’t want independence, ie. responsibility’, and expresses some satisfaction that the breakdown of negotiations is to the discredit of both the British ruling class and the Indian nationalists (13:276). Such sentiments are kept out of the Indian broadcasts, naturally, but the publication of Orwell’s Collected Works allows them to be read in paratextual complementarity – and with some irony too, in the light of Orwell’s advice to his Indian listeners to be alert to the inconsistency of Axis propaganda, saying different and contradictory things at different times, or to different audiences.
The actual date of Cripps’s departure for India was not given out, but presumably he has gone by this time. Ordinary public opinion here seems gloomy about his departure. A frequent comment – ‘They’ve done it to get him out of the way’ (which is also one of the reasons alleged on the German wireless). This is very silly and reflects the provincialism of English people who can’t grasp that India is of any importance. Better-informed people are pessimistic because the non-publication of the government’s terms to India indicates almost certainly that they are not good terms. (13:228–9)
The BBC itself was far from monolithically super-efficient in this respect, even within the Eastern Service, as an example will show. Orwell regularly alleged in his newsletters in early 1942 that the Japanese were plotting to attack the USSR (which was at war with Germany but not with Japan). He did not actually believe this, but his reasoning was as follows. If Japan attacked Russia, he would be proved right. If Russia attacked Japan, he could say this was under provocation, and that the Japanese started it. And if nobody attacked anyone, this would prove that the Japanese were too frightened of Russia to try to attack it (13:229). This seemed flawless, until he discovered that the Chinese Section of the BBC, down the corridor, was following a different line.
Empson tells me that there is a strict ban by the Foreign Office on any suggestion that Japan is going to attack the USSR. So this subject is being studiously avoided in the Far Eastern broadcasts while being pushed all the time in the Indian broadcasts. They haven’t yet got onto the fact that we are saying this, we haven’t been warned and don’t officially know about the ban, and are making the best of our opportunity while it lasts. The same chaos everywhere on the propaganda front. (13:239)
They order these matters better in Oceania (in Nineteen Eighty-Four), where Winston Smith’s job is to erase inconsistencies of fact and policy day by day, to ensure the totalitarian ideal of a frictionless monological discourse. The propagandists in London in wartime were still some way from that utopia of discourse. Orwell, for example, was talking to America in terms that were sometimes at odds with what he was saying to India. His regular London letters for Partisan Review in the USA, like his writing for Tribune, could count on a well-informed and quite intimate readership hospitable to left-wing views. 20 He could confide his belief to this audience that Stafford Cripps had ‘made the mistake of entering the government and the almost equally bad one of going to India with an offer which was certain to be turned down’ (13:305). But now, in May 1942, with the war going badly, Orwell believed that a ‘revolutionary situation’ existed at home, and that there was a chance that Cripps would emerge as a popular leader, quitting the government and proclaiming a revolutionary policy – in which case he might yet play a crucial role in the end of Empire. This produces a strategic reading of the state of the world and the war for the American readers of Partisan Review startlingly different from the analyses expounded for the listeners of the Indian newsletters.
To some small extent things have happened as I foresaw. One can after all discern the outlines of a revolutionary world war. Britain has been forced into alliance with Russia and China and into restoring Abyssinia and making fairly generous treaties with the Middle Eastern countries, and because of, among other things, the need to raise a huge air force a serious breach has been made in the class system. The defeats in the Far East have gone a long way towards killing the old conception of imperialism. But there was a sort of gap in the ladder which we never got over and which it was perhaps impossible to get over while no revolutionary party and no able leftwing leadership existed. This may or may not have been altered by the emergence of Cripps. I think it is certain that a new political party will have to arise if anything is to be changed, and the obvious bankruptcy of the old parties may hasten this. Maybe Cripps will lose his lustre quite quickly if he does not get out of the government. But at present, in his peculiar isolated position, he is the likeliest man for any new movement to crystallise round. If he fails, God save us from the other probable alternatives to Churchill. (13:308)
This exciting prognosis seems not to have bothered the censor who monitored mail sent to the USA, but it may be imagined that it would not have been well received if offered as part of a BBC broadcast to India. Orwell kept his hopes for a ‘revolutionary world war’ from his Indian audience; but they were not incompatible with the promotion of an antifascist alliance between Indians and the people of a Britain mobilized against tyranny.
The paratexts raise a difficult question about the consistency of Orwell’s political disposition towards India and the Empire. The broadcasts, as we have seen, took place in an institutional matrix that determined their agenda in advance. This was, in brief, the use of the instruments of colonial technology, knowledge and authority, to inform and entertain an Indian audience while trying to secure their loyalty in wartime. Orwell was quite ready to assent to this hegemonic agenda for the time being, since in his view the defeat of the Axis powers took precedence over everything else. Besides victory, but in his view impossible without it, was a list of other political desiderata, including an end to European rule in the East as soon as this could be safely accomplished, a domestic socialist revolution of the sort imagined in The Lion and the Unicorn in 1940, and some kind of international federation to supersede the destructive nationalisms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.21 This other agenda is almost entirely unheard in the broadcasts, though its components are often at issue in the paratextual writing Orwell was engaged in during his time at the BBC. He was probably telling the truth when he claimed that his newsletters for India in fact contained very little that he would not sign with his own name (14:101). The problem lay in what they were not able to say, and this accounts for the sense of liberation he described when he did finally leave the BBC, late in 1943, to become literary editor of Tribune where his regular column was called ‘As I Please’. None of these other political desires is quite incompatible with the main agenda of the broadcasts, though each is placed further down the order of precedence. Their presence in the paratextual writings, of which the broadcast texts are discursively unaware since they exist in a separate and watertight segment of the public sphere, does not make Orwell a hypocrite. Everyone says different things appropriate to different contexts. But it put him uncomfortably close to the position he remembered occupying in his earlier incarnation as a servant of colonial discourse, as a young man in the Imperial Police in Burma. Burmese Days declares that ‘it is a corrupting thing to live one’s real life in secret’.22 Orwell was not keeping his views secret, but he was keeping them separate.
One alarming paratext, from the diary, needs to be mentioned and has to be quoted fully. It sits very uncomfortably with the broadcasts’ cultivation of a relationship of respect and solidarity between Indians and English.
This passage is in the manuscript diary but was omitted from the typed version; it was never intended for publication. How are we to take this statement about the ‘inferiority’ of most Indians? In his published writings throughout his career Orwell was quite consistent in repudiating the biological determinism of racism.24 Indeed, as the war progressed he returns frequently to this theme, under the pressure of events ranging from the news of Nazi genocide to the presence of black American servicemen in London. On the other hand, he certainly believed in cultural determinism, in the way that the social configurations of class, money and prestige could condition reflexes in the individual that might never be unlearned. The ‘inferiority’ of most Indians to a European in a colonial context – British or, as it might be, Russian India – was then a registration of the fact that in such a context, relations would inevitably be in most cases asymmetrical, the Indian having less power, money, prestige and so on, and one result of this being the foreigner falling into the overbearing habit of treating the other as a ‘native’ – bullying or patronizing. Seen in this way, it is a repetition of an idea present in Orwell’s earlier writings about colonialism, in ‘A Hanging’, Burmese Days, ‘Shooting an Elephant’, ‘Marrakech’, ‘Not Counting Niggers’ and elsewhere, where he analyses the pernicious effect of Empire on both participants in the transaction. That this ‘inferiority’ would dissolve with the end of Empire is one of Orwell’s most powerful anti-imperial arguments. The possession of an empire had made it difficult for the British to regard people of other races as fully human beings. With the end of Empire this terrible handicap might be removed. Orwell found it hard to envisage a postcolonial world in detail but the one people he was sure would benefit from it was his own.
Talking to Wintringham about the possible Russian attitude towards the Cripps negotiations (of course, not being in the war against Japan, they can’t have an official attitude) I said it might make things easier if as many as possible of the military instructors etc. who will later have to be sent to India were Russians. One possible outcome is that India will ultimately be taken over by the USSR, and though I have never believed that the Russians would behave better in India than ourselves, they might behave differently, owing to the different economic set-up. Wintringham said that even in Spain some of the Russian delegates tended to treat the Spaniards as ‘natives’, and would no doubt do likewise in India. It’s very hard not to, seeing that in practice the majority of Indians are inferior to Europeans and one can’t help feeling this and, after a little while, acting accordingly. (13:276)
Even so, that sentence, even in a non-communicative context, is alarming. Although I do not believe it is a racist statement, prima facie it is a statement about the inferiority of Indians to Europeans, and I doubt it could have been made by someone whose position was completely coherent on this matter. It is to say the least a disturbing moment, and a further impediment to any attempt to read Orwell’s political and emotional attitude to India as consistent and frictionless. In truth his writing on Indian subjects in these years is more like a debating chamber of different views. British India is a capitalist ramp – the standard Leninist position (see e.g. 18:143). India, like Burma, is a weakling in a hostile world, and needs the protection of a benign imperial power – the conservative view (15:48). India must be set free, but the time is not quite right – the liberal line since the 1830s (15:211). Churchill is a reactionary fantasist (16:272). Gandhi is a reactionary fantasist (15:214). Colonized ‘natives’ are inferior (13:276). If they knew their own strength they could set themselves free in a moment (11:420). Imperialism is unjustifiable (15:34), nationalism is no panacea (15:212–13). The Indian intelligentsia do not want independence (13:276). India must be given the right to secede (13:188). Britain should immediately declare India independent (15:213). India cannot be independent (15:211). Britain clings to its Empire for the plunder it provides (13:153); economically, it cannot afford to go on doing so (17:340). We have wronged the Indians, and we have helped to awaken them (13:381). India must support its imperial master in ‘the world-wide struggle of the free peoples against aggression’ (14:95).
Orwell’s great polemics at this time, in essays like ‘Politics and the English Language’, insist eloquently upon clarity of expression and consistency of viewpoint, but it can be seen that his own positions here, if not exactly what would be called doublethinkful in Newspeak, are hardly models of coherence. This remains the case even after due acknowledgement that he was writing fast about difficult issues in turbulent times. And it is not really sufficient to say that much of his writing at this time had a primary propaganda purpose and was under pressure from official institutional discourse to filter out certain views as inappropriate, even illicit. He was not obliged to say anything he dissented from; and he worked at the BBC voluntarily. His writing in the war years certainly reflects a muddle about India. That confusion was widespread in British attitudes to India at this time, reflected in the Cabinet of a National Government that included the Tory imperialist Churchill and the socialist anti-imperialist Cripps, for example. But the confusion was also in Orwell himself. It is not just that as a writer he inhabited different and conflicting discourses, but that these discourses inhabited him. It was from his uncomfortable recognition of his own dividedness that his identity as a writer grew; indeed, he saw it as vital to that identity since an exploration of that dividedness was his subject. The second part of The Road to Wigan Pier considers the determinations of class, provenance and early history, and also the inner dynamic, forced by practical and intellectual experience, which unsettles these determinations but never obliterates them. For Orwell, as for the writer-anti-hero Gordon Comstock in the most dialogical of his novels, the struggle of discourse (language and worldview) which he observes in the outer world is also going on within, in the context of an individual history.
1 For Orwell’s BBC career see William Empson, ‘Orwell at the BBC’, in M. Gross (ed.), The World of George Orwell (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971), pp. 94–9; Bernard Crick, George Orwell: A Life, 3rd edn (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981); W.J. West, Orwell: The War Broadcasts (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985); W.J. West, Orwell: The War Commentaries (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985); Michael Shelden, Orwell: The Authorized Biography (London: Heinemann, 1991); Stephen Ingle, George Orwell: A Political Life (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993); Peter Davison, George Orwell: A Literary Life (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996); Jeffrey Meyers, Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation (New York: Norton, 2000).
2 Volume and page references to Orwell’s writing in the text refer to The Complete Works of George Orwell, ed. Peter Davison, 20 vols (London: Secker and Warburg, 1998).
3 It has been argued that increasing problems with the censor in 1943 were making it harder for Orwell to make the kind of programmes he wanted to make at the BBC. See West, Orwell: The War Broadcasts, pp. 44–55. The argument has also been made that the anti-Soviet Animal Farm is a sort of atonement for Orwell’s involvement in Allied (including pro-Soviet) propaganda while at the BBC. See C. Fleay and M.L. Sanders, ‘Looking into the abyss: George Orwell at the BBC’, Journal of Contemporary History, 24 (1989), p. 514. I do not find either argument very compelling.
4 See the Report on Indian Programmes by Laurence Brander, the BBC’s Eastern Service Intelligence Officer, 11 January 1943 (15:343–56). English-language programmes directed at an Indian audience were characterized by Brander as ‘our most damaging failure’ (15:346).
5 Davison, George Orwell: A Literary Life, p. 119.
6 Fleay and Sanders, ‘Looking into the abyss’, p. 506.
7 A similar policy was followed by the Chinese Section. ‘William Empson has worn himself out for two years trying to get them to broadcast intelligent stuff to China, and I think he has succeeded to some small extent’ (15:166).
8 Indeed, his novel Burmese Days (1934) was banned in India throughout this time.
9 Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom: Volume 3: The War of Words (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 346.
10 Bose was a nationalist and former Congress leader who threw in his lot with the Axis. Early in the war he broadcast anti-British propaganda to India from Germany, and later raised troops to fight alongside the Japanese against the British forces defending or occupying India.
11 ‘Compared with the task of bringing the real England to the surface, even the winning of the war, necessary though it is, is secondary. By revolution we become more ourselves, not less’ (12:432).
12 This was a sensitive point for obvious reasons. In the collection of broadcast scripts in Talking to India, which Orwell edited, the Table of Contents marks with an asterisk the thin majority of thirteen out of twenty-five contributions ‘written and broadcast by Indians or other Asiatics’, and also prints cheery photographs of predominantly Indian faces at the microphone.
13 Bokhari was committed to the retention of India within the Empire, and ‘defended British imperial rule’ (Fleay and Sanders, ‘Looking into the abyss’, p. 505). He was to go on to become Director General of Pakistan Radio.
14 The issue of ‘voice’ was a vital one for Orwell, as may be seen from the extraordinary importance given to questions of accent in The Road to Wigan Pier. Domestic broadcasting was dominated by the upper-class tones of ‘BBC English’, or what Orwell engagingly called ‘Stripetrouser’ (16:124). ‘What he felt to be the inadequacy and offensiveness of this official voice was of course an issue of particular concern in the years of the Second World War, when radio broadcasting was full of official voices while Orwell’s mature position on language was shaping’ (Roger Fowler, The Language of George Orwell (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995), p. 23). But Fowler has little to say about Orwell’s own broadcasting experience. One of the best studies of Orwell is Lynette Hunter’s George Orwell: The Search for a Voice (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1984).
15 ‘The primary purpose of news commentaries is propaganda’, asserts a confidential BBC memorandum written by the Assistant Controller of Overseas Programmes in February 1942 (Fleay and Sanders, ‘Looking into the abyss’, p. 508).
16 The idea developed (but also resisted) in Nineteen Eighty-Four that the past itself has no existence, other than as a story told by the powerful in their own interest, derives not from Nietszche but from Orwell’s reading of accounts of the Spanish Civil War, many of which he knew to be flagrantly dishonest. In ‘Looking back on the Spanish War’ he complained: ‘I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written’ (13:504).
17 The Daily Worker was the only newspaper to be banned in Britain in the war years. It soon reappeared under a different title and was sold on the streets without interference, but it had ceased to be a daily and lost most of its circulation (13:108). The ban lasted for twenty months and was lifted in August 1942. While at the BBC, Orwell said he read four or five morning newspapers every day and several editions of the evening papers, besides the daily monitoring report (13:240).
18 The Government of India had a Counter-propaganda Department which was kept busy containing a vigorous campaign of Japanese radio propaganda spreading rumours, threats and disaffection. Much sabotage in India, according to Brander, was ‘inspired by Saigon radio, just as it is inspired by us in Europe’ (15:343).
19 This reputation was not undisputed, and appears not to have extended to All India Radio, established in consultation with the BBC as a department of the Government of India’s Ministry of Industries and Labour. P.S. Gupta (Radio and the Raj 1921–47 (Calcutta: K. P. Bagchi for the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, 1995), p. 34) says that in the early years of the war, colonial subjects in India were more inclined to believe the propaganda of the other side than of their imperial masters.
20 For Orwell’s writing for Partisan Review, see John Newsinger, Orwell’s Politics (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999), pp. 93–100, and Peter Marks, ‘Where he wrote: periodicals and the essays of George Orwell’, Twentieth Century Literature, 41(4) (1995), pp. 266–83.
21 He defined ‘nationalism’ broadly: it could indicate an aggressive and unthinking loyalty to an institution or ideology as well as to a nation, and it always involved hostility towards some other group. See his important essay, ‘Notes on nationalism’, written at the end of the war in 1945 (17:141–57).
22 ‘So he [Flory] had learned to live inwardly, secretly, in books and secret thoughts that could not be uttered. Even his talks with the doctor [Veraswami] were a kind of talking to himself; for the doctor, good man, understood little of what was said to him. But it is a corrupting thing to live one’s real life in secret. One should live with the stream of life, not against it.’ George Orwell, Burmese Days, 1934 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1989), p. 70; also 2:70.
23 Orwell’s friend Tom Wintringham had commanded the British Battalion of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.
24 See 16:435–6 for one example.
Charles' George Orwell Links thanks Prof. Douglas Kerr (University of Hong Kong) for kind permission to reprint this essay.