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The Duty to Stand Aside tells the story of one of the most intriguing yet little-known literary-political feuds—and friendships—in 20th-century English literature. It examines the arguments that divided George Orwell, future author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Alex Comfort, poet, biologist, anarchist-pacifist, and future author of the international bestsell The Duty to Stand Aside tells the story of one of the most intriguing yet little-known literary-political feuds—and friendships—in 20th-century English literature. It examines the arguments that divided George Orwell, future author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Alex Comfort, poet, biologist, anarchist-pacifist, and future author of the international bestseller The Joy of Sex—during WWII. Orwell maintained that standing aside, or opposing Britain’s war against fascism, was “objectively pro-fascist." Comfort argued that intellectuals who did not stand aside and denounce their own government’s atrocities—in Britain’s case, saturation bombing of civilian population centers—had “sacrificed their responsible attitude to humanity.” Later, Comfort and Orwell developed a friendship based on appreciation of each other’s work and a common concern about the growing power and penetration of the State—a concern that deeply influenced the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Shortly before his death in 1950, however, Orwell would accuse Comfort of being “anti-British” and “temperamentally pro-totalitarian” in a memo he prepared secretly for the Foreign Office—a fact that Comfort, who died in 2000, never knew. Laursen’s book takes a fresh look at the Orwell-Comfort quarrel and the lessons it holds for our very different world—in which war has been replaced by undeclared “conflicts,” civilian bombing is even more enthusiastically practiced, and moral choices between two sides are rarely straightforward. A fascinating study of two remarkable twentieth century figures confronting perennial questions about war and the state. With great insight, Laursen examines the complex interactions of Alex Comfort and George Orwell, their milieus, the agonizing issues that consumed their generation and that cast a grim shadow over what has ensued.” —Noam Chomsky "In this revealing, well-written study, Eric Laursen demonstrates convincingly that two of Britain's most prominent intellectuals of the 20th century, George Orwell and Alex Comfort, despite their political differences, shared the fear that even democratic nations could degenerate into totalitarian barbarism." —Lawrence S. Wittner, author of The Struggle against the Bomb


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The Duty to Stand Aside tells the story of one of the most intriguing yet little-known literary-political feuds—and friendships—in 20th-century English literature. It examines the arguments that divided George Orwell, future author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Alex Comfort, poet, biologist, anarchist-pacifist, and future author of the international bestsell The Duty to Stand Aside tells the story of one of the most intriguing yet little-known literary-political feuds—and friendships—in 20th-century English literature. It examines the arguments that divided George Orwell, future author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Alex Comfort, poet, biologist, anarchist-pacifist, and future author of the international bestseller The Joy of Sex—during WWII. Orwell maintained that standing aside, or opposing Britain’s war against fascism, was “objectively pro-fascist." Comfort argued that intellectuals who did not stand aside and denounce their own government’s atrocities—in Britain’s case, saturation bombing of civilian population centers—had “sacrificed their responsible attitude to humanity.” Later, Comfort and Orwell developed a friendship based on appreciation of each other’s work and a common concern about the growing power and penetration of the State—a concern that deeply influenced the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Shortly before his death in 1950, however, Orwell would accuse Comfort of being “anti-British” and “temperamentally pro-totalitarian” in a memo he prepared secretly for the Foreign Office—a fact that Comfort, who died in 2000, never knew. Laursen’s book takes a fresh look at the Orwell-Comfort quarrel and the lessons it holds for our very different world—in which war has been replaced by undeclared “conflicts,” civilian bombing is even more enthusiastically practiced, and moral choices between two sides are rarely straightforward. A fascinating study of two remarkable twentieth century figures confronting perennial questions about war and the state. With great insight, Laursen examines the complex interactions of Alex Comfort and George Orwell, their milieus, the agonizing issues that consumed their generation and that cast a grim shadow over what has ensued.” —Noam Chomsky "In this revealing, well-written study, Eric Laursen demonstrates convincingly that two of Britain's most prominent intellectuals of the 20th century, George Orwell and Alex Comfort, despite their political differences, shared the fear that even democratic nations could degenerate into totalitarian barbarism." —Lawrence S. Wittner, author of The Struggle against the Bomb

53 review for The Duty to Stand Aside: Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Wartime Quarrel of George Orwell and Alex Comfort

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jen

    ** I received an advance reader copy of this book for free through a Goodreads giveaway. ** I didn't realize how much I didn't know about George Orwell until I read this book. I also didn't realize how much more than just "The Joy of Sex" could be attributed to Alex Comfort until reading this book. This is a fascinating look at the wartime lives of two authors who were both close friends and political enemies (at times). It was interesting to see how rigid Orwell's thinking could be, given his wr ** I received an advance reader copy of this book for free through a Goodreads giveaway. ** I didn't realize how much I didn't know about George Orwell until I read this book. I also didn't realize how much more than just "The Joy of Sex" could be attributed to Alex Comfort until reading this book. This is a fascinating look at the wartime lives of two authors who were both close friends and political enemies (at times). It was interesting to see how rigid Orwell's thinking could be, given his writing. I truly enjoyed reading this novel(ella) and would recommend it to anybody interested in the political history of WWII or in the background and history of George Orwell. While the book is focused on one brief moment in the lives of the two authors, it brings to light some aspects of their lives that are generally not given attention.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Kathleen

    It's a thorough look at the views of Orwell regarding war (not the opinion I expected) contrasted with pacifist Alex Comfort's ideas and all of the background that goes with it. This well researched book digs deep into their interactions (through the press mostly) and ends up speculating what they would think of the world today. Laursen gives great specifics of what today's world (especially in the aftermath of war) is like. It was an interesting read. (I received this book in a goodreads giveawa It's a thorough look at the views of Orwell regarding war (not the opinion I expected) contrasted with pacifist Alex Comfort's ideas and all of the background that goes with it. This well researched book digs deep into their interactions (through the press mostly) and ends up speculating what they would think of the world today. Laursen gives great specifics of what today's world (especially in the aftermath of war) is like. It was an interesting read. (I received this book in a goodreads giveaway.)

  3. 5 out of 5

    Richard Voorhees

    On War and Civil Disobedience Eric Laursen’s latest work, The Duty to Stand Aside, focuses on two major figures of British letters—George Orwell and Alex Comfort—and their ideas about the responsibility of artists and writers in times of war. His account of the evolution of Orwell and Comfort’s thinking from World War II through the Cold War and beyond makes for fascinating history. Laursen’s research sheds light on Orwell’s beliefs and reservations about the war. The author shines an equally bri On War and Civil Disobedience Eric Laursen’s latest work, The Duty to Stand Aside, focuses on two major figures of British letters—George Orwell and Alex Comfort—and their ideas about the responsibility of artists and writers in times of war. His account of the evolution of Orwell and Comfort’s thinking from World War II through the Cold War and beyond makes for fascinating history. Laursen’s research sheds light on Orwell’s beliefs and reservations about the war. The author shines an equally bright light on Comfort’s unswerving convictions and moral resolve. The book provides background on other engaged artists of the era, as well as on the many different perspectives of those on the Left. He ably describes the friendships and antipathies; which writers wrote for which Left-leaning periodicals; and what the differences were among the anarchists, pacifists, resistance fighters, communists, and socialists. Orwell, best known for his hugely influential dystopian novels 1984 and Animal Farm, worked for the British Government during World War II, supporting the “war effort” by writing propaganda for local consumption. He felt he had no other choice as a patriot. Comfort, on the other hand, believed that artists and writers have “a duty to stand aside,” to refuse to be complicit in State-directed wars. They need to maintain their distance from the fight, so they do not lose sight of what means are being used in the conflict and whether the State is hiding or whitewashing them. Comfort’s argument is now familiar: we must not employ the same tactics as the adversaries we abhor. This idea is a precursor to the now familiar admonition that a free and democratic society should not give up its support for individual liberties and democracy in an attempt to defeat an adversary threatening these very things. Laursen provides a clear example of this dilemma from World War II—Allied bombing. In the first years of the war, the British engaged in aerial bombing campaigns, which could not help but kill and maim German non-combatants. Knowing it to be morally indefensible, the British government denied doing it. Comfort inveighed against both the slaughter and cover-up. Even in fighting the Nazis, he argued, the British themselves should not commit crimes against civilians. As a young man, Comfort was a politically engaged poet and novelist. He eventually became a physician and, notably, the author of The Joy of Sex. Some of his ideas were adopted in succeeding decades—by the anti-nuclear proliferation movement, the anti-war movement, and by Orwell himself. The Duty to Stand Aside would be a worthy companion to Studs Terkel’s oral history of World War II, The Good War, which laid bare many of the personal details of a “good” war that were anything but. Laursen’s account of the lives of Orwell and Comfort helps us confront wrenching questions we still face. Comfort sought to maintain his morality and his opposition to State-sponsored war, in spite of knowing that Britain was fighting for its life against the Nazis. He expressed his ideas in articles, poems, and novels. For his part, Orwell wrote his iconic, cautionary works. Laursen reveals Orwell’s private misgivings and distaste for his war-time work as a propagandist, writing exhortatory, and at times untrue, messages to shore up morale at home. The Duty to Stand Aside is truly a great book. Laursen offers a thoughtful, powerful exegesis on morality, humanity, and the continued relevance of civil disobedience. What is the best thing for the individual to do when the State plunges us into war? Surely, we agree that killing civilians and innocent women and children is unacceptable. Shouldn’t we do whatever we can to prevent our country and allies from engaging in such indiscriminate killing? Comfort considered himself an anarchist rather than a pacifist. Accordingly, he favored civil disobedience. He posited that individuals have tools to disobey the State, including strikes, boycotts, sabotage, and even violence. When the war was raging, Orwell thought that his younger countryman’s protest against Allied atrocities was tantamount to fighting in favor of fascism. World War II was an existential conflict with everyone forced to choose which side they were on. Laursen describes how these two writers’ ideas from that war paved the way for resistance to the Viet Nam War, nuclear proliferation, and the recent decades of unending war. The author succeeds admirably delineating Orwell and Comfort’s ideas about the responsibility of the individual in modern war-time, when nuclear powers are omnipotent and also arguably mad. In this latest effort, Laursen has performed a courageous anatomy of eternal questions on war and resistance. What is the responsibility of the individual in relation to the State’s conduct in war? Must artists and writers oppose the immoral or criminal prosecution of even a “good” war? He works mightily to tease out which of these two writers met his moral responsibilities with more success and less hypocrisy. The Duty to Stand Aside is an elegant analysis, exacting and ripe for our time. Today, as in Orwell’s 1984, military combatants and rationales for war keep changing; yet, the moral dilemmas are both timeless and immediate.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Viola

    George Orwell & Alex Comfort’s World War II Debate Fighting Fascism: Is there a role for the democratic state? by Rui Preti Fifth Estate # 402, Winter 2019 a review of The Duty to Stand Aside: Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Wartime Quarrel of George Orwell and Alex Comfort by Eric Laursen. AK Press 2018 George Orwell’s fiction and non-fiction writings are among the most relevant works for understanding our current societal plight, although he died in 1950. All we need to do is turn on the TV or radio o George Orwell & Alex Comfort’s World War II Debate Fighting Fascism: Is there a role for the democratic state? by Rui Preti Fifth Estate # 402, Winter 2019 a review of The Duty to Stand Aside: Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Wartime Quarrel of George Orwell and Alex Comfort by Eric Laursen. AK Press 2018 George Orwell’s fiction and non-fiction writings are among the most relevant works for understanding our current societal plight, although he died in 1950. All we need to do is turn on the TV or radio or check the internet to be confronted with denial of truth and misinformation. And all we have to do is walk down a street or enter a store, bank or public building to be reminded of the increasing surveillance all around us. In several of his essays and books, Orwell pointedly and poignantly discusses how demagogues use language to pervert the truth in order to obtain and maintain political power over others. That concern is obviously still highly relevant today. So, it should come as no surprise that Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are among the two most widely read fictional works in the English language. Nineteen Eighty-Four has generally sold well in the U.S. since it first appeared in 1950, partly because it has become a required classroom text in many high schools and universities. After Edward Snowden’s 2013 disclosures of U.S. National Security Agency surveillance, sales increased dramatically. With the election of Trump in 2016 sales soared again. And, after his inauguration in January 2017, this novel rose to the top of Amazon’s best seller list. Orwell’s non-fiction book on his experiences in Spain during the revolution of 1936-39, Homage to Catalonia (written in 1938), has also been very popular over the years. The story it tells resonates with many because of its straightforward language relating his experiences as a person with sincere social ideals who became disillusioned with authoritarians striving for power. He skillfully describes coming to admire the egalitarian practices of the self-organized revolutionary militias. A new book by Eric Laursen explores some aspects of Orwell’s perspectives that are of particular interest to anarchists. At the same time, it introduces the reader to a 20th century anarchist they may not be familiar with, whose ideas and actions are also still relevant for today’s struggles. Alex Comfort (1920-2000) was a prolific English anarchist writer and activist seventeen years Orwell’s junior. He is not generally well known today (except as the author of The Joy of Sex, 1972), because he could not be neatly fit into the categories of militant direct action anarchist or pacifist anarchist often favored by historians of the period. Comfort was close to the group around the London-based FreedomPress and also active in anti-militarist circles during the 1940s through the 1960s. His uncompromising, aggressive anti-militarism and criticism of state power led Comfort to identify as an anarchist as he came to realize his principles rested on the historical theory and experience of anarchism. Once he reached this conclusion, he continued to identify with anarchists in his many fiction and non-fiction writings for the rest of his life. In this context, it is important to note that two terms used often in Laursen’s book, “stand aside” and “pacifism,” are not used in ways most of us would expect based on current American English usage. This is not due to inaccuracy on Laursen’s part, but rather to the way they were actually used by Comfort in mid-twentieth century England. The phrase “the duty to stand aside” is both the title of the book and discussed in depth as employed by Comfort in defining his opposition to participating in government efforts during World War II and wars in general. But the way he used the phrase did not involve advocacy of anyone withdrawing as a passive neutral observer, abstaining from taking action against fascists and Nazis, or authoritarian communists for that matter. Comfort was definitively for active resistance through mutual aid and direct action wherever one might find themselves, including in Britain or another supposedly democratic state. In 1946, he asserted, “I do not believe it is evil to fight…We have to fight obedience in this generation as the French maquisards fought for it, with the reservation that terrorism, while it is understandable, is not an effective instrument of combating tyranny.” Comfort also appreciated the active opposition to dictatorial rule of anarchists and others in Spain, Nazi Germany, and other parts of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s as exemplary models of popular resistance to authoritarianism. He emphasized the importance of individual responsibility in resistance in order to strengthen social solidarity. Unlike those who call themselves pacifists nowadays, Comfort had no objections to armed resistance, so long as it was the result of local initiative and not led by people who aspired to replace one authoritarian regime with another slightly less reprehensible. Orwell admired Comfort’s novels and poetry, and shared his deep concern about the way the politics of both the authoritarian and so-called democratic states of the 1930s and 1940s were, as Laursen succinctly notes, “degrading culture and serious political discourse, turning literature and art into propaganda.” Orwell and Comfort agreed on the importance of working for a world in which individual self-determination and social cooperation could be combined. But they differed on whether or not the institution of the state and rulers of the democratic nations might play positive roles in the struggle against authoritarianism. Laursen explains that while despising the British imperial system, which Orwell had experienced from the inside as a policeman in Burma, he was a patriot and a believer in the necessity of centralized authority for maintaining the basics of law and order. Comfort, on the other hand, felt sincere love for actual people and places he knew, but rejected patriotism as a dangerous abstraction and centralized power as dangerous to those directly under its control in the homeland as well as to ordinary people in other countries. This was based in part on his understanding that the modern state in all its manifestations attracts psychopaths to positions of authority, and also fosters corruption and brutality (what he called delinquent behavior) in power-holders. Orwell developed respect for anti-authoritarian resistance to tyranny, and during the 1930s he hoped a workers’ revolution would vanquish Nazism and fascism. But his hopes faded as the decade wore on, and anti-authoritarian groups were crushed while authoritarian forces grew stronger in many parts of the world. The massive use of military technology by states on both sides in World War II further convinced Orwell, like so many others, that it was necessary to compromise with the so-called democratic governments since only they possessed the equipment and organizations capable of defeating the Nazis, and later, authoritarian communists. Comfort, on the other hand, strongly objected to compromising with state authorities or aspirants to power, which he always considered dangerous, because it destroys vital trust relationships between ordinary people in our own society and between the world’s peoples. He also felt that it was morally reprehensible because it allowed authoritarian practices and rationales to be normalized in our own society. Even though Eric Laursen’s book deals with debates that took place more than sixty years ago, it can help us to think more deeply about many of today’s questions of how to defeat authoritarianism. ——- Rui Preti is a long-time friend of the FifthEstate.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Kenneth LeFebvre

    For many years I have doubted my own understanding of Orwell's writings, because they seemed inconsistent with anything I would read about his actions... This wonderful exposition of the relationship between Orwell and Comfort (about whom I knew next to nothing, prior to reading this book) has made sense of my previous confusion! This is the first work of Eric Laursen's that I've read, and I'm eager to seek out more. He does a very good job of walking the fine line between academic and readable. For many years I have doubted my own understanding of Orwell's writings, because they seemed inconsistent with anything I would read about his actions... This wonderful exposition of the relationship between Orwell and Comfort (about whom I knew next to nothing, prior to reading this book) has made sense of my previous confusion! This is the first work of Eric Laursen's that I've read, and I'm eager to seek out more. He does a very good job of walking the fine line between academic and readable. By the end of this book, I felt like I had my own relationship with Orwell and Comfort.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Javier

    This is a quality volume that covers important debates about pacifism, anti-fascism, militarism, and international solidarity by examining the differing approaches of Alex Comfort (anarchist) and George Orwell (libertarian socialist, too, though more mainstream) during WWII and in the early post-war period. The debates that Laursen brings to the fore here continue to be extremely relevant, particularly as regards ongoing imperialist violence as well as the catastrophe that is Syria.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Bartb1

    I have a new hero in the late Alex Comfort. Laursen’s examination of war and the state through Comfort’s and Orwell’s eyes was riveting. I enjoyed this more than I expected to. While reading the various authors’ arguments, I was able to reflect more deeply about my own grounding in anarchism—or at least libertarian socialism. The author has also provided many parallels to today’s international tensions, right up to #45’s disastrous missteps in foreign affairs.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Tom Allman

    I Love to read the arguments between my favorite writers. As far as arguments go, this was fairly low key and boring. But, the book is well crafted and researched. As a huge Orwell fan, I would generally take his side. Comfort's opinions benefit from him having lived much longer to see how it played out. But, Orwell had the first-hand experience that Comfort sorely lacked. I Love to read the arguments between my favorite writers. As far as arguments go, this was fairly low key and boring. But, the book is well crafted and researched. As a huge Orwell fan, I would generally take his side. Comfort's opinions benefit from him having lived much longer to see how it played out. But, Orwell had the first-hand experience that Comfort sorely lacked.

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    Michelle

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  17. 5 out of 5

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    CBSD Library

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