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takes a fresh look at the Orwell-Comfort quarrel and the lessons it holds for our very different world—in which war has been replaced by undeclared “conflicts,” civilian bombing is even more enthusiastically practiced, and moral choices between two sides are rarely straightforward.
What People Are Saying
"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
"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
About the Author
Eric Laursen is an independent journalist, activist, and commentator. He is the author of The People's Pension: The Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan (AK Press, 2012), a BookList Editor's Choice selection; and co-author of Understanding the Crash (Soft Skull Press, Spring 2010), which tells the story of the 2008 economic meltdown in text-and-graphics format. His work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including The Nation, The Village Voice, In These Times, Z Magazine, The Indypendent, HuffingtonPost.com, and The Arkansas Review. He is currently writing a biography of Alex Comfort. A graduate of Columbia University, he lives in Buckland, Massachusetts.