the Disillusioned kid: Orwellian Multiplicity
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Sunday, November 06, 2005

Orwellian Multiplicity

"The history of a given thing is, in general, a succession of the forces that take hold of it, and the coexistence of the forces that strive to take hold of it. A single object, a single phenomenon changes meaning according to the force that is appropriating it."
- Gille Deleuze, Nietzsche et la philosophie (1962)
The fact that it is possible to have multiple interpretations of the same thing should hardly be controversial. If it were not the case there would seem to be little need for politics or academia or in fact any activity predicated on debate.

Nietzsche, as the Deleuze quotation above portends, is a classic example of the potential diversity which can result from differing interpretations. In the eyes of many, Nietzsche has come to be associated with the Nazis, who sought to co-opt many of his ideas, such as the "will to power," in pursuit of their own ends. This ignores, however, Nietzsche's vitriolic denunciations of anti-semitism (after he went mad, he even claimed to have ordered "all anti-Semites shot") and his rejection of nationalism. In fact alternative very different, interpretations of the German philosopher's writings are popular.

I have recently read I Am Not A Man, I Am Dynamite, a fascinating collection of essays which examines the conjunction of Nietzsche's ideas and anarchism. This emphasises the parallels and commonalities and suggests some strategic possibilities which arise from such an analysis (on this point, Saul Newman's contribution is particulalrly recommended). What emerges is an interpretation (or more accurately interpretations) diametrically opposed to that of Adolf Hitler, yet both are derived from essentially the same texts.

We can see similar contrasting interpretations of almost any historical figure you care to name. Consider the way Che Guevara has become a icon for selling anything from t-shirts to watches or the way capitalists have come to appreciate Marx's prophecies about globalisation and the tearing down of all walls. Mike Wood has noticed a particularly egregious example:
I was at a protest against the BNP [on Wednesday] at Leeds Crown Court. Highly enjoyable. Quite a few anti-fascist protestors turned up (1000+) and only a hundred or so BNP members themselves. Most of the BNP were late as well. When I first arrived there was only about 30-40 of them, which cheered me up no end. They had the usual bizarre selection of banners and Daily Mail headlines, plus a large amount of George Cross flags. what really shocked me was that they also had a large banner with a quote from George Orwell on. It proclaimed: "In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act". Bastards.
Mike suggests that this is particularly shocking because "George Orwell is probably politically most well known for havig the guts to jet off the Spain and physically attack fascism. He did not just oppose fascists politically, but through actually trying to kill them." I'm not sure, however, that this is in fact what Orwell is best known for. In the public imagination my impression is that Orwell, most famous for 1984 and Animal Farm, is seen simply (and innaccurately) as an anti-communist.

Orwell, in fact, has long been fought over. While the revolutionary socialists have held him up for his criticisms of capitalism, the pro-war left have emphasised his opposition to Stalinism and Fascism and implied that on this basis he would have supported the invasion of Iraq and the Stalinists denounced him for being a counter-revolutionary. Meanwhile Orwell's arguments in support of patriotism have been cited by the right in an attempt to lay claim to him, while the CIA used Animal Farm as anti-Soviet propaganda. It is true, of course, that whatever one's take on Orwell it is probably possible to find something to back it up. In his own life Orwell went through a number of phases: there's Orwell the colonial policeman; Orwell the revolutionary; Orwell the anti-fascist; Orwell the anti-war activist in the run up to World War II; and Orwell the pro-war propagandist once it began. There really ought to be something for everybody in there. Given the foregoing is it really so surprising that the Fascists should attempt to claim his legacy for themselves?

None of this is to suggest that we should accept the BNP's attempt to "appropriate" Orwell for their own ends. The best response, in my opinion, is for the left to try and reclaim Orwell's legacy in the hopes of making the BNP much less comfortable about citing him in support of their position. In my own small way I have attempted to "appropriate" Orwell, utilising his image in my profile. A concerted effort along similar lines by the anti-capitalist left might have some success. If nothing else it ought to encourage people to read what he wrote, which can only be a good thing.

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