George Orwell on Penny Dreadfuls

Via a blog post by Brian Niemeier I found this essay by George Orwell. It’s mostly about the penny dreadfuls which are popular in England at the time of writing, which appears to be 1939. It’s a curious read for the snapshot of history it gives, but the whole thing is tinged with a bit of disapproval, which finally comes out in the end. It turns out that this essay was written during Orwell’s socialist phase, before he became disillusioned with socialism (I heard in the wake of the Spanish civil war). And his point in writing the whole thing was to note how conservative penny dreadfuls were, and since they were read primarily by children in the range of 10-16 years old, that his was probably very influential. So, he concluded, there should be penny dreadfuls written by socialists to promote socialism.

But there was a problem, which he noted and proposed a solution. First, the problem:

This raises the question, why is there no such thing as a left-wing boys’ paper? At first glance such an idea merely makes one slightly sick. It is so horribly easy to imagine what a left-wing boys’ paper would be like, if it existed. I remember in 1920 or 1921 some optimistic person handing round Communist tracts among a crowd of public-school boys. The tract I received was of the question-and-answer kind:

Q,. ‘Can a Boy Communist be a Boy Scout, Comrade?’

A. ‘No, Comrade.’

Q,. ‘Why, Comrade?’

A. ‘Because, Comrade, a Boy Scout must salute the Union Jack, which is the symbol of tyranny and oppression.’ Etc., etc.

Now suppose that at this moment somebody started a left-wing paper deliberately aimed at boys of twelve or fourteen. I do not suggest that the whole of its contents would be exactly like the tract I have quoted above, but does anyone doubt that they would be something like it? Inevitably such a paper would either consist of dreary up-lift or it would be under Communist influence and given over to adulation of Soviet Russia; in either case no normal boy would ever look at it.

I think that this is a fairly good description of the problem with socialists writing, well, anything. Their philosophy is so inhuman that it can’t be made appealing. But Mr. Orwell has a solution:

But it does not follow that it is impossible. There is no clear reason why every adventure story should necessarily be mixed up with snobbishness and gutter patriotism. For, after all, the stories in the Hotspur and the Modern Boy are not Conservative tracts; they are merely adventure stories with a Conservative bias. It is fairly easy to imagine the process being reversed. It is possible, for instance, to imagine a paper as thrilling and lively as the Hotspur, but with subject-matter and ‘ideology’ a little more up to date… If, for instance, a story described police pursuing anarchists through the mountains, it would be from the point of view of the anarchist and not of the police. An example nearer to hand is the Soviet film Chapaiev, which has been shown a number of times in London. Technically, by the standards of the time when it was made, Chapaiev is a first-rate film, but mentally, in spite of the unfamiliar Russian background, it is not so very remote from Hollywood… All the usual paraphernalia is there — heroic fight against odds, escape at the last moment, shots of galloping horses, love interest, comic relief. The film is in fact a fairly ordinary one, except that its tendency is ‘left’. 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.

To put his solution more bluntly, he proposes lying. Since the philosophy of socialism is too inhuman to communicate to ordinary people, he suggests trying to make it more palatable by showing you the people who have been duped by it, who are still at least mostly human, and not the inhuman philosophy to which they have been duped. And moreover he’s talking about showing the dupes at the moment when they are least typical of the philosophy of their side. Anarchists being chased through the mountains by police are romantic because a group of people working together to avoid death in a harsh environment is romantic. But anarchy is not a group of people working together, it is at its most typical the strong preying upon the weak. (Until such time as a strong man starts protecting the weak in exchange for their supporting him, and government starts once again. To paraphrase Chesterton talking about paganism, if society ever dissolves into anarchy, it will end as all anarchy does. I do not mean it will end in death. I mean that it will end in society.)

And in fact Orwell does have some intuition of this, I think. Because the next sentence after the quote above is this:

That is also a lie, but, taking the long view, it is a less pernicious lie than the other.

This sort of lying in fiction is a phenomenon we are all familiar with, I think. I suspect most people are familiar with the leftist version of it, but I’ve seen quite a lot of it from atheists, as well, where they depict atheists doing all of the bold and daring things that men who believe in something greater than themselves do, except without the believing in anything greater. (I’m speaking of western materialist atheists, here.) Unlike Orwell, whose purpose was recruiting people into a cause, I suspect that atheists tell these lies primarily to themselves, as a form of comfort.  They like to think about what they’ve given up, as if they haven’t given it up.