A Reasonable Voice from the Past
As someone who already has way too many hobbies, I avoid politics like the plague. My main exposure to politics in those times when Argentina is not close to a national election (one month every couple of years where you can’t listen to the radio in the car without being bombarded) is on social media.
I watch in amusement and horror as lunatics on the left and right register their unworkable, extremist views for all to see. The arguments between left and right are always fun, but those between left and left are usually the best of all. Since history tends to argue hard against the more extreme forms of socialism, these tend togo down some spectacular theoretic rabbit holes. Anyone caught arguing for common sense, moderation or even a slightly less fantastic dogma is vilified and is subjected to one of those famous internet pile-ons.
All of this has led me to believe one of the old jokes from the right, the one that states that the preferred battle formation of the far left is the circular firing squad.
And it’s always been that way. It’s popular among the ignorant (or the unscrupulous with a political axe to grind) to speak of George Orwell‘s Animal Farm or 1984 as allegories against capitalism, but the truth is they are both direct strikes at the heart of the Soviet Communism in the 1940s written by the most famous overtly socialist writer of the 20th century.
No one would say these were measured strikes. But Orwell was capable of subtlety, too.
Which neatly brings us to this. Down and Out in Paris and London is also by George Orwell, and it is also a book which looks to further his socialist agenda. But instead of attacking his enemies within the party using bitter satire, he uses the one tool that is always effective, even with people who don’t share his views: promoting understanding.
He, the gentleman writer of impeccable breeding, credentials and education, takes us on a guided, first-person tour of life in the lowest slums of Paris, displays how to get work as a kitchen helper and then joins the tramps of the London environs. The difficult nature of these lives is brought to life in his words–it’s not a coincidence that Orwell is a celebrated novelist; regardless of subject matter, his writing brings the action to life.
There isn’t much plot to speak of, of course, as this is mainly a descriptive exercise, but it is still packed with incident. Even better, it is a mix of nostalgia in the vein of In Search of England with a reveal of a social class the book’s readers will be unfamiliar with (as will all modern readers, since the life depicted therein no longer exists).
In a world where it seems that the accepted way for politics or activism to be discussed is with anger and the utter denial that an opponent might have any good qualities, books like these (see also remind us that public discourse was once the province of people with intelligent arguments. Remember those days? Now it seems to be the place for people who only read things that agree with their point of view and let their little, inconsequential echo chambers and their confirmation bias do the rest. (and end up with conclusions like Trump wants to be dictator for life and Bernie is a communist who wants to put everyone on collective farms).
Social conditions have changed for the much better since this book was released. There is no post-war scarcity, and the world is mostly democratic today, but the book still resonates. Apparently, unlike social media controversies, good writing and clear thinking are timeless.
The edition I read was–ironically–a Folio Society book (ironically because reading socialist books in luxury editions seems somehow wrong). I can’t post a link here because it’s no longer available from Folio, but I do recommend tracking down a copy as the reading experience is certainly better than what you’d get from cramped text and yellowed paper. Besides, buying this one second hand seems perfect, considering the subject matter.
Highly recommended, even–perhaps especially–if the online screaming has turned you off politics forever.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Love and Death intertwines stories to form a novel spanning generations and crossing social barriers. You can buy it here.