When it is moral to be in conflict with police, and why, depends on when you are writing

by zunguzungu

I think there’s something interesting about the way this line from George Orwell, from Homage to Catalonia:

I have no particular love for the idealised “worker” as he appears in the bourgeois Communist’s mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.

Becomes this quote, as paraphrased by Jesse Kornbluth:

Many of us have knee-jerk reactions to cops beating citizens. Mine comes from George Orwell, the subject of my honors thesis. He wrote something like this: When I see a policeman with a club beating a man on the ground, I don’t have to ask whose side I’m on.

This is, in fact, quite different from what Orwell said; Orwell was talking about a class struggle, a natural enmity between worker and state, whose implicit violence need not explode into tangible body-and-blood force to be real, a conflict that was always ongoing, even when it didn’t seem to be. Whether or not it is true — I tend to think it is — it’s fair to say that we have generally forgotten that this is a thinkable thought — that the general mind has forgotten what the words “natural enemy” implied here — and that it is precisely this thing we’ve forgotten that has disappeared when that quote becomes a condemnation of power misused (but still legitimately held). The first knows the conflict to be occurring even before it sees it; the second requires the spectacle before choosing sides. And without accusing Kornbluth of anything intentional, it is worth noting that claiming the revised version to be “something like” what Orwell actually said — while making substantive changes — is to make a claim for the essential truth of the original, and in the act of making that claim, to rewrite it.