Through a Glass Rosily

by George Orwell, Tribune, 23 November 1945

The recent article by Tribune’s Vienna correspondent[1] provoked a spate of angry letters which, besides calling him a fool and a liar and making other charges of what one might call a routine nature, also carried the very serious implication that he ought to have kept silent even if he knew that he was speaking the truth. He himself made a brief answer in Tribune, but the question involved is so important that it is worth discussing it at greater length.

Whenever A and B are in opposition to one another, anyone who attacks or criticises A is accused of aiding and abetting B. And it is often true, objectively and on a short-term analysis, that he is making things easier for B. Therefore, say the supporters of A, shut up and don’t criticise: or at least criticise “constructively”, which in practice always means favourably. And from this it is only a short step to arguing that the suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty of a journalist.

Now, if one divides the world into A and B and assumes that A represents progress and B reaction, it is just arguable that no fact detrimental to A ought ever to be revealed. But before making this claim one ought to realise where it leads. What do we mean by reaction? I suppose it would be agreed that Nazi Germany represented reaction in its worst form or one of its worst. Well, the people in this country who gave most ammunition to the Nazi propagandists during the war are exactly the ones who tell us that it is “objectively” pro-Fascist to criticise the USSR. I am not referring to the Communists during their anti-war phase: I am referring to the Left as a whole. By and large, the Nazi radio got more material from the British left-wing press than from that of the Right. And it could hardly be otherwise, for it is chiefly in the left-wing press that serious criticism of British institutions is to be found. Every revelation about slums or social inequality, every attack on the leaders of the Tory Party, every denunciation of British imperialism, was a gift for Goebbels. And not necessarily a worthless gift, for German propaganda about “British plutocracy” had considerable effect in neutral countries, especially in the earlier part of the war.

Here are two examples of the kind of source from which the Axis propagandists were liable to take their material. The Japanese, in one of their English-speaking magazines in China, serialised Briffault’s Decline and Fall of the British Empire. Briffault, if not actually a Communist, was vehemently pro-Soviet, and the book incidentally contained some cracks at the Japanese themselves; but from the Japanese point of view this didn’t matter, since the main tendency of the book was anti-British. About the same time the German radio broadcast shortened versions of books which they considered damaging to British prestige. Among others they broadcast E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. And so far as I know they didn’t even have to resort to dishonest quotation. Just because the book was essentially truthful, it could be made to serve the purposes of Fascist propaganda. According to Blake,

A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent,

and anyone who has seen his own statements coming back at him on the Axis radio will feel the force of this. Indeed, anyone who has ever written in defence of unpopular causes or been the witness of events which are likely to cause controversy, knows the fearful temptation to distort or suppress the facts, simply because any honest statement will contain revelations which can be made use of by unscrupulous opponents. But what one has to consider are the long-term effects. In the long run, can the cause of progress be served by lies, or can it not? The readers who attacked Tribune’s Vienna correspondent so violently accused him of untruthfulness, but they also seemed to imply that the facts he brought forward ought not to be published even if true. 100, 000 rape cases in Vienna are not a good advertisement for the Soviet regime: therefore, even if they have happened, don’t mention them. Anglo-Russian relations are more likely to prosper if inconvenient facts are kept dark.

The trouble is that if you lie to people, their reaction is all the more violent when the truth leaks out, as it is apt to do in the end. Here is an example of untruthful propaganda coming home to roost. Many English people of goodwill draw from the left-wing press an unduly favourable picture of the Indian Congress Party. They not only believe it to be in the right (as it is), but are also apt to imagine that it is a sort of left-wing organisation with democratic and internationalist aims. Such people, if they are suddenly confronted with an actual, flesh-and-blood Indian Nationalist, are liable to recoil into the attitudes of a Blimp. I have seen this happen a number of times. And it is the same with pro-Soviet propaganda. Those who have swallowed it whole are always in danger of a sudden revulsion in which they may reject the whole idea of Socialism. In this and other ways I should say that the net effect of Communist and near-Communist propaganda has been simply to retard the cause of Socialism, though it may have temporarily aided Russian foreign policy.

There are always the most excellent, high-minded reasons for concealing the truth, and these reasons are brought forward in almost the same words by supporters of the most diverse causes. I have had writings of my own kept out of print because it was feared that the Russians would not like them, and I have had others kept out of print because they attacked British imperialism and might be quoted by anti-British Americans. We are told now that any frank criticism of the Stalin regime will “increase Russian suspicions”, but it is only seven years since we were being told (in some cases by the same newspapers) that frank criticism of the Nazi regime would increase Hitler’s suspicions. As late as 1941, some of the Catholic papers declared that the presence of Labour Ministers in the British Government increased Franco’s suspicions and made him incline more towards the Axis. Looking back, it is possible to see that if only the British and American peoples had grasped in 1933 or thereabouts what Hitler stood for, war might have been averted. Similarly, the first step towards decent Anglo-Russian relations is the dropping of illusions. In principle most people would agree to this: but the dropping of illusions means the publication of facts, and facts are apt to be unpleasant.

The whole argument that one mustn’t speak plainly because it “plays into the hands of” this or that sinister influence is dishonest, in the sense that people only use it when it suits them. As I have pointed out, those who are most concerned about playing into the hands of the Tories were least concerned about playing into the hands of the Nazis. The Catholics who said “Don’t offend Franco because it helps Hitler” had been more or less consciously helping Hitler for years beforehand. Beneath this argument there always lies the intention to do propaganda for some single sectional interest, and to browbeat critics into silence by telling them that they are “objectively” reactionary. It is a tempting manœuvre, and I have used it myself more than once, but it is dishonest. I think one is less likely to use it if one remembers that the advantages of a lie are always short-lived. So often it seems a positive duty to suppress or colour the facts! And yet genuine progress can only happen through increasing enlightenment, which means the continuous destruction of myths.

Meanwhile, there is a curious backhanded tribute to the values of liberalism in the fact that the opponents of free speech write letters to Tribune at all. “Don’t criticise,” such people are in effect saying: “don’t reveal inconvenient facts. Don’t play into the hands of the enemy!” Yet they themselves are attacking Tribune’s policy with all the violence at their command. Does it not occur to them that if the principles they advocate were put into practice, their letters would never get printed?

[footnote 1]: When Tribune's Vienna correspondent had reported the appalling conditions in the city and, quite truthfully, described the monstrous behaviour of some of the Russian occupying troops, several readers protested against what they called “this slander” on the Red army.