Orwell and the knock-out blow

I've been reading George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier (London: Penguin, 1989), which was originally published in 1937. Not because it has anything to do with my thesis, but just to broaden my horizons, and because, well, it's Orwell, ya know? I certainly didn't expect to read about the possible effects of bombing in a book about socialism and unemployment. But then what do I read on pp. 203-4, in the context of a discussion of whether a return to a pre-industrial society is possible?

For some time past it has been fashionable to say that war is presently going to 'wreck civilisation' altogether; but, though the next full-sized war will certainly be horrible enough to make all previous ones seem a joke, it is immensely unlikely that it will put a stop to mechanical progress. It is true that a very vulnerable country like England, and perhaps the whole of western Europe, could be reduced to chaos by a few thousand well-placed bombs, but no war is at present thinkable which could wipe out industrialism in all countries simultaneously. We may take it that the return to a simpler, freer, less mechanised way of life, however desirable it may be, is not going to happen.

So at this point in time, Orwell accepted some version of the knock-out blow theory. In fact, he went pretty far, only stopping short of the idea that civilisation itself could be entirely bombed back to the Stone Age. But 'very vulnerable' Britain and perhaps western Europe could be 'reduced to chaos' by bombing, which is pretty much the standard knock-out blow scenario.

I guess this is an example of what Martin Ceadel meant when he wrote that 'literature-and-society' types should 'look for the many indicators of concern about air power, for example, to be found in the literature of the twenties and thirties which is not directly about fear of war'.Martin Ceadel, "Popular fiction and the next war, 1918-1939", in Frank Gloversmith, ed., Class, Culture and Social Change: A New View of the 1930s (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980), 162. Oddly enough, later in the paragraph Ceadel actually mentions the same Orwell book quoted above, when he says he will not here be practising what he preaches but will examine only that literature which is 'about the coming war in the same way that, for example, The Road to Wigan Pier is about unemployment'. So the lesson here is obviously that I have to read every single word written in Britain in the three decades or so before the Second World War, so that I can catch everything written about the knock-out blow!

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7 thoughts on “Orwell and the knock-out blow

  1. Chris Williams

    ISTR that Orwell ends _Keep the Aspidistra Flying_ with the main character expressing a desire for the knockout blow. Or is it _Coming up for Air_? Probably the latter, given the former's relatively upbeat ending.

  2. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Thanks, looks like I need to read more Orwell! Keep the Aspidistra Flying does seem to have such sentiments: 'the hatred of modern life, the desire to see our money-civilization blown to hell by bombs, was a thing he genuinely felt'.

  3. It's interesting that Orwell bought into the KOB despite having been a target of unsuccessful strategic bombing himself. ISTR Homage to Catalonia describes the people of Barcelona keeping their chins up, stiff upper lips etc under fascist air raids quite a bit.

    Off-topic, or at least tangentially, how important is that "well-placed"? If you think in terms of terrorist/saboteur bombs placed on key infrastructure targets he was probably considerably more right. It might pay to follow the 4th Generation Warfare debate in the blogosphere, as the whole John Robb global guerrilla thang is based on blowing up bits of networked infrastructure in order to effect a KOB.

  4. Chris Williams

    And again -

    "War is coming. 1941, they say. And there'll be plenty of broken
    crockery, and little houses ripped open like packing-cases, and the
    guts of the chartered accountant's clerk plastered over the piano
    that he's buying on the never-never. But what does that kind of
    thing matter, anyway? I'll tell you what my stay in Lower Binfield
    had taught me, and it was this. IT'S ALL GOING TO HAPPEN. All the
    things you've got at the back of your mind, the things you're
    terrified of, the things that you tell yourself are just a
    nightmare or only happen in foreign countries. The bombs the
    food-queues, the rubber truncheons, the barbed wire, the coloured
    shirts, the slogans, the enormous faces, the machine-guns squirting
    out of bedroom windows. It's all going to happen. I know it--at
    any rate, I knew it then. There's no escape. Fight against it if
    you like, or look the other way and pretend not to notice, or grab
    your spanner and rush out to do a bit of face-smashing along with
    the others. But there's no way out. It's just something that's
    got to happen. "

  5. Brett Holman

    Post author

    There was often an assumption that specific areas in a city could be accurately targeted by a formation of bombers -- I don't mean pinpoint accuracy, but something like the Houses of Parliament, or Whitehall, could be wiped out. That was one part of the knock-out blow theory -- the idea that industrial society was a delicate and complex mechanism that could not function if certain key components were destroyed. So Orwell could have been thinking of that. As for 4GW ... well, I don't know too much about it, but the basic idea has probably always been true, the problem is that societies are more resilient than they might appear, you need a truly massive strike to take out the multiple redundancies, for a true knock-out blow. IMHO!

    He wrote Wigan Pier before he went to Spain (his wife saw it through publication while he was over there), and I think Aspidistra was also before Spain. But Coming Up was after, and it seems to me (admittedly only from cherry-picking) that he gave less credence to the power of the bomber in that than in the earlier two books, in the same chapter Chris quotes above Orwell says of London, 'The bombs aren't made that could smash it out of existence'. Bombing seems to be just another hardship that will have to be endured because of fascism in that book, not necessarily a great catastrophe, but as I say I haven't read it so I could very easily be wrong.

  6. Ah well, that's the answer then - I'm just ignorant. (It's also interesting that in the interval the Spitfire had its first flight and, I think, the Bawdsey radar station was switched on. Was 1937 the peak year for the KOB?)

  7. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Well, I only knew when Wigan Pier was published because I'd just read it in the introduction to my Penguin edition :) I'm certainly no Orwell scholar, I think this is the first of his I've read, aside from maybe Animal Farm in school.

    I'm currently only up to the 1920s in my trawl through the primary sources for the knock-out blow, so I wouldn't like to get too specific ... but yes, I suspect the peak probably would be around 1937, or perhaps 1938 (ie Munich). I do get the impression that people were much more sanguine about air defence in 1939 than 1938 -- so maybe it was the reassuring effect of increasing numbers of smart new Hurricanes and Spitfires being delivered to the RAF. The RDF stations were secret until 1942 (IIRC), so they wouldn't have affected public confidence, but perhaps their existence led to more confident pronouncements on the part of officialdom?

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