I’ve been reading George Orwell again. It’s hard to stop: Orwell has to be one of the most winsome and charming writers in the English language, and writing, as he did, in the crucial years of the early 20th century, his writing seems to have permanent relevance, even 75 years later. And he provides a wonderful window into the mindset of the British during WWII, when the outcome was unknown and the stakes seemed enormous. It seems obvious to us now that of course the Germans were going to be defeated and of course the Americans would eventually get into the war, but none of those things were obvious at the time. There’s an atmosphere of sincere alarm in many of the parts from the late 30’s and early 40’s, and it’s quite bracing to read.

But he has his foibles, his socialism which is quite sincere and quite disastrously mistaken. He makes this statement, as part of a long essay about penny dreadfuls:

In a Hollywood film of the Russian Civil War the Whites would probably be angels and the Reds demons. In the Russian version the Reds are angels and the Whites demons. That is also a lie, but, taking the long view, it is a less pernicious lie than the other.

“Taking the long view”? Somehow, I don’t think that the long view of history is judging the Reds Bolsheviks very kindly.

But who care about that? Here’s Orwell on a much more important subject, tea:

Lastly, tea–unless one is drinking it in the Russian style–should be drunk WITHOUT SUGAR. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.

Some people would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.

And finally, about the habits of a book reviewer:

At about nine p.m. his mind will grow relatively clear, and until the small hours he will sit in a room which grows colder and colder, while the cigarette smoke grows thicker and thicker, skipping expertly through one book after another and laying each down with the final comment, “God, what tripe!” In the morning, blear-eyed, surly and unshaven, he will gaze for an hour or two at a blank sheet of paper until the menacing finger of the clock frightens him into action. Then suddenly he will snap into it. All the stale old phrases–”a book that no one should miss”, “something memorable on every page”, “of special value are the chapters dealing with, etc etc”–will jump into their places like iron filings obeying the magnet, and the review will end up at exactly the right length and with just about three minutes to go. Meanwhile another wad of ill-assorted, unappetising books will have arrived by post. So it goes on. And yet with what high hopes this down-trodden, nerve-racked creature started his career, only a few years ago.

Orwell comments that this description could be generalized, with little modification, to anyone in a literary profession. I’ll make no comment on that.

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.