Since the invention of the printing press, every great social upheaval in modern history has been preceded and accompanied by an explosion of political pamphleteering.
What often began with a few isolated dissident intellectuals calling for the overthrow of a particularly dictatorial tyrant became, in periods of revolution, a flood of paper – as thousands found the freedom and confidence to voice their dreams of a completely new society for the first time.
The classic example here is probably that of the Enlightenment, which in Paris before the French Revolution inspired a profusion of satirical pamphlets flowing from numerous pens.
Historian Robert Darnton describes “an illicit literature of vitriolic pamphlets” from a whole host of unknown writers who “desecrated everything sacred in the social order of the Old Regime.
“A prolific literary underworld disseminated a vast illegal literature that conveyed a seditious ideology to readers everywhere in France.”
This honourable tradition of pamphleteering was itself born out of an earlier revolution, the English Civil War in the mid-17th century.
In his 1948 introduction to “British pamphleteers” – a collection of classic pamphlets ranging from John Milton to Jonathan Swift – George Orwell noted that the pamphlet was special because it was inherently subversive.
“A pamphlet is a short piece of polemical writing aimed at a large public, it is written because there is something that one wants to say now, and because one believes there is no other way of getting a hearing.
“A pamphlet may be written either ‘for’ or ‘against’ somebody or something, but in essence it is always a protest.”
Orwell continued, “If one had not a certain faith in democracy, one would not write political pamphlets, one would try to get one’s end by intriguing among influential people.”
Accordingly, “pamphleteering will flourish when there is some great struggle”.
There are signs that today the lost revolutionary art of pamphleteering may well be making a welcome return, albeit not quite in a form Orwell ever imagined.
It strikes me that the recent explosion of political “blogging” – resulting from the development of new technology which allows anyone with internet access to freely publish their thoughts online on a weblog – may well be ushering in another great “age of pamphleteering”.
The significance of the rise of blogging is often overstated, but the rapidity of its rise in popularity remains remarkable. Technorati, a blog search engine, tracked 100,000 blogs at the start of 2003, and today, two years on, it is estimated there are over 65 million.
In another few years, who knows how many people will write blogs?
Some will argue that such a comparison of blogs with pamphlets is flawed as most blogs are not political – and many are of relevance only to those who know that individual blogger.
Yet as Orwell noted of pamphlets, “Of course, most pamphlets do not deserve attention. Most of them are rubbish. This must have been true at all times.”
Orwell remained a champion of the pamphlet nevertheless, for reasons which seem equally applicable to the modern blog:
“In a pamphlet one can do things that are possible in no other medium... Above all, the pamphlet does not have to follow any prescribed pattern.
“It can be in prose or in verse, it can consist largely of maps or statistics or quotations, it can take the form of a story, a fable, a letter, an essay, a dialogue, or a piece of ‘reportage’. All that is required of it is that is shall be topical, polemical and short.”
As Orwell concluded, “The great function of the pamphlet is to act as a sort of footnote or marginal comment on official history.
“It not only keeps unpopular viewpoints alive, but supplies documentation on events that the authorities of the day have reason to falsify. It is a job that needs doing in all ages, and surely never more than in the present one.”
“It might be argued that in England, with its free and reasonably varied press, there is not much scope for the pamphleteer. But this will not be endorsed by anyone who has ever tried to get a hearing for a genuinely unpopular cause at any given moment there is a sort of all-prevailing orthodoxy, a general tacit agreement not to discuss some large and uncomfortable fact.”
Orwell would not have been surprised by the tacit agreement among all sections of the powerful corporate media to avoid discussion of the large and rather uncomfortable fact that George Bush and Tony Blair are mass murderers, war criminals with the blood of countless numbers of dead on their hands.
I suspect Orwell would have been heartened by the way in which anti-war and anti-capitalist bloggers are beginning to challenge the dominance of ruling class ideas on the internet.
In upholding the tradition of pamphleteering and defending the truth from those in power, the best political blogs out there are truly modern footnotes on official history.