Revisiting “Catalonia” again
To the editors,
George Orwell was a great writer and a good man but he was not perfect. Anthony Daniels's re-reading of Homage to Catalonia [ The New Criterion, February 2007] performs a public service by showing that, although he was one of the first English socialists to denounce the tyranny of the Soviet Union, Orwell's romanticism about the Spanish working class nonetheless harbored a reverence for totalitarianism of its own. There are other aspects of Orwell's political writings that also deserve to be better known.
When I taught journalism in the late 1970s, I used to cite Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier as classic examples of the participant-observer genre. I thought they were strictly autobiographical accounts of events Orwell had witnessed and experiences he had lived through. I also thought that, being authored by Orwell, their facts would be scrupulous.
So I was most surprised to find in Michael Sheldon's 1991 biography that, while some of Orwell's accounts were first-hand, quite a few others were not. They were fictions that the author either invented or twisted to make his stories more dramatic and thus more politically incisive.
For instance, in Down and Out, Orwell wanted his readers to see how precarious a working man's existence was under laissez-faire capitalism. So after someone broke into his cheap Paris hotel room and stole his money and clothes, he found himself destitute, unemployable and quickly reduced to starvation. “Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition”, he wrote. “It is as though one had been turned into a jellyfish.”
He declined to tell his readers, however, that nearby lived his middle-class, bohemian aunt and her husband. They often gave him small gifts of cash and could have fed him had he asked. This information, of course, would have reminded readers that most people have little networks that perform similar services and that real starvation is very rare in urban capitalist society.
His book also massaged the truth about how he was burgled. The thief, he confessed years later, was not the mysterious Italian man he wrote about but “a little trollop” he picked up in a Paris café and took back to his room.
Moreover, for those who might have found difficulty recognizing his gloomy Paris of the late 1920s, he wrote a preface to the French edition apologizing for any distress he caused the inhabitants of a city which, he assured them, had given him “very happy memories”.
Before he went to Wigan, Orwell had already decided to write a critique of the conditions people endured in the Yorkshire coal mining districts. He wanted to live among them and so asked a local trade unionist to arrange his lodgings at a miner's home in the town. However, he was not satisfied with the first choice and a few days later moved to the filthy rooms above the tripe shop that he described in the opening chapter of his book.
According to the unionist who booked his original lodgings, he moved because “he wanted to see things at their worst”. So British socialist academic Harold Laski's description of Wigan Pier as “admirable propaganda for our ideas” was quite accurate.
Despite the sordid setting Orwell described, Wigan housed a good public library that allowed him to do detailed research into the coal industry. His book compared the accident rates suffered by coal miners to the military casualties at Gallipoli in 1915. The miners came off worse.
Sheldon points out, however, that this was a statistical ruse. Many of the miners' non-fatal injuries were insignificant compared to battlefield wounds. While it is true that underground coal mining has always been one of the most dangerous of occupations, that did not excuse Orwell from dramatizing his data that way.
Hence, one of the reasons Orwell could eventually become such an effective critic of the propaganda of the leftist intelligentsia is that he had already been there and done some of that work himself. He knew why and how it was done. In 1946 he wrote one of his century's greatest essays, “Politics and the English Language”, that told us all how to identify many of these techniques and why they are so corrupting.
Unfortunately, very few members of the left today seem either willing or able to absorb his hard-earned lessons.