What Orwell Got Wrong

So I finally finished The Road to Wigan Pier, as I blogged previously. And did I say this wasn’t a political book? Ha ha! I guess that shows how far I had read, since the second half of the book is entirely concerned with politics, specifically Orwell’s apologia for Socialism.

This, in and of itself, is not something that I would name among Orwell’s mistakes. Orwell makes it abundantly clear that he believes the only real alternatives available to men in his age are Socialism and Fascism, and between the two of them he chooses Socialism. This is a defensible choice, as it’s the choice that the major Western powers all took, banding together to crush fascism utterly, but allowing Socialism (or at least its doppelganger Stalinism) to persist for the next sixty years.

But along the way, Orwell makes two significant errors which are indicative of his time and prejudices. The first is a simple error of fact: Orwell believed that the British were getting smaller, on average:

… [I]t is probable that the physical average has been declining all over England for a long time past, and not merely among the unemployed in the industrial areas. This cannot be proved statistically, but it is a conclusion that is forced upon you if you use your eyes, even in rural places and even in a prosperous town like London. On the day when King George V’s body passed through London on its way to Westminster, I happened to be caught for an hour or two in the crowd in Trafalgar Square. It was impossible, looking about one then, not to be struck by the physical degeneracy of modern England. The people surrounding me were not working-class people for the most part; they were the shopkeeper–commercial-traveller type, with a sprinkling of the well-to- do. But what a set they looked! Puny limbs, sickly faces, under the weeping London sky! Hardly a well-built man or a decent-looking woman, and not a fresh complexion anywhere. As the King’s coffin went by, the men took off their hats, and a friend who was in the crowd at the other side of the Strand said to me afterwards, ‘The only touch of colour anywhere was the bald heads.’ Even the Guards, it seemed to me–there was a squad of guardsmen marching beside the coffin–were not what they used to be. Where are the monstrous men with chests like barrels and moustaches like the wings of eagles who strode across my child-hood’s gaze twenty or thirty years ago? Buried, I suppose, in the Flanders mud. In their place there are these pale-faced boys who have been picked for their height and consequently look like hop-poles in overcoats–the truth being that in modern England a man over six feet high is usually skin and bone and not much else. If the English physique has declined, this is no doubt partly due to the fact that the Great War carefully selected the million best men in England and slaughtered them, largely before they had had time to breed. But the process must have begun earlier than that, and it must be due ultimately to un-healthy ways of living, i.e. to industrialism. I don’t mean the habit of living in towns–probably the town is healthier than the country, in many ways–but the modern industrial technique which provides you with cheap substitutes for everything. We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun.

As he indicates by his allusions, Orwell seems to have gotten this idea from romantic images of what pre-Edwardian people were actually like, embellished by childhood memories. But there’s an abundance of evidence showing that people in Orwell’s age were already much bigger than they were before, and WWI wasn’t give more than a blip on the overall historical trend. Orwell states that his intuition "cannot be proved statistically", which is hardly an encouraging sign when making statistical generalizations.

The second error which Orwell commits is one of economics, and it concerns the relationship between technological innovation and profit. He states the following near the end of the book:

The Socialists are right, therefore, when they claim that the rate of mechanical progress will be much more rapid once Socialism is established. Given a mechanical civilization the process of invention and improvement will always continue, but the tendency of capitalism is to slow it down, because under capitalism any invention which does not promise fairly immediate profits is neglected; some, indeed, which threaten to reduce profits are suppressed almost as ruthlessly as the flexible glass mentioned by Petronius. [For example: Some years ago someone invented a gramophone needle that would last for decades. One of the big gramophone companies bought up the patent rights, and that was the last that was ever beard of it.] Establish Socialism–remove the profit principle–and the inventor will have a free hand. The mechanization of the world, already rapid enough, would be or at any rate could be enormously accelerated.

This is almost exactly backwards. Mechanization proceeds rapidly in a capitalist society precisely because it provides the opportunity for profits, and in the absence of a profit motive mechanization and innovation slow down or cease. The actual history of the world’s socialist states bears this out: they were rather quickly able to achieve a base level of industrial mobilization, but after that time their technical progress almost always lagged that of the West. The only exceptions were in military technology (and space exploration, the step-child of the military), where innovation was spurred on both sides by state rivalry rather than market forces.

It’s easy to see how Orwell made this mistake, though: Russia had, in the space of a few decades, turned from being a feudal, agrarian economy into being a competing member of the industrial world. Never mind that this development was essentially unrepeatable, depending on the forced migration of millions of serfs to the cities, and that it was accomplished by grotesque applications of force and the evisceration of whole provinces. (Mao would later condemn a few million of his countrymen to starvation attempting to repeat the trick.) From a certain point of view, the fact that this transition had occurred was proof of the common propaganda point that industrialization and science would speed up under Socialism.

Despite these errors, the book is very good. In fact, it’s rather shocking to discover that a Socialist apologetic could be as good as this was. Let Orwell’s mistakes merely be a reminder that the best writers were still capable of simple errors of fact.

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3 Comments

  1. I think the Soviets’ advances in military technology and space are vastly overstated. One of the reasons the Americans caught and passed them so rapidly is that much of what we needed was already in place. But being a mercantile society rather than an empire meant most of our productive resources were devoted toward making cars and TV sets, not launching things into space. Not only that, but the Soviets treated human life as an expendable commodity when developing their space program, and the Americans did it with far fewer casualties. At the end of the day, their rockets were far inferior to ours, which is why we got to the moon and they didn’t.

    Soviet military technology is also quite overrated. There’s a lot of “got this from the Nazis,” “copied that from the Americans,” and “sounds good on paper, doesn’t work so good in the field,” and ultimately, “seemed cool at the time, but the Americans made something fifty times better once they realized we finally made something better than the 20-year-old crap they were using.” And that’s not the whole story. For every one T-72 or MiG-23 that was actually in service, there were probably a dozen rotting in a boneyard somewhere because they were broken right off the assembly line.

  2. The Soviets didn’t have a tech advantage in the space race or the military. What they DID have was a geological/geographical advantage of easier access to some metals necessary for production—massive deposits of platinum and titanium thanks to the Ural mountain range for the former and the despotic control over the Ukraine for the latter. And, as Josh pointed out, a more brutal and cavalier approach to the human labor needed to get access to that geographical/geological advantage.

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