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on 20 December 2011
Published in 1937, George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier documents the grinding poverty of northern England, namely Lancashire and Yorkshire. As with Orwell's better-known and somewhat similar Down and Out in Paris and London, the author sets out to investigate the conditions of the poor by living among them and writing about his experiences. There is a chapter on coal miners and mines, and Orwell elucidates on the culture and mechanics of the industry; he goes down a mine to report, taking the reader with him. Orwell discusses unemployment (how it's misunderstood, etc.) and touches on how the upper classes view the lower ones.
That, more or less, makes for Part One, which I found engaging from a historical perspective as much as anything. It's meant to be a socioeconomic investigation (a description, a testimony), but because it's 75 years old, it's become a historical document. Part One isn't as lively or vivid as sections of Down and Out, perhaps because there's little dialogue and it lacks that diary-of-life-in-the-gutter quality. The conditions Orwell describes are awful, but, comparatively, there is a sense of detachment in the way he communicates them.
In Part Two, Orwell gears down, going from documentary to dissertation, and though historical, this part is timeless. "The English class system has outlived its usefulness," is the message he wants us to take from Part One, so what's the solution? The most obvious answer is socialism, but is socialism really the medicine society needs to take?
The section about machine-worship notwithstanding (time has proven Orwell, and probably many others, wrong about the future of machines and technology), Part Two makes for provocative, passionate, and insightful analysis. Anyone who's ever given thought to class distinction, class conflict, exploitation, the plight of the working poor, or been drawn, if only momentarily, to socialism or its various forms (Marxism, communism, democratic socialism, etc.) ought to read this book, and carefully. Anybody who reads tracts like Terry Eagleton's Why Marx was Right ought to read The Road to Wigan Pier immediately afterward. They should buy them together.
In socialism, Orwell finds a few good, if loose, ideas, a lot of stupidity, and even more pretension. He lambasts its advocates, arguing they are out of touch with the proletarians they claim to venerate. Socialists are striking a blow at the bourgeoisie, yet they are the bourgeoisie. If a coal miner walked in on one of their meetings, they would feel, at the least, uncomfortable. Socialists hold that "poverty, and what is more, the habits of mind created by poverty, are something to be abolished from above, by violence if necessary; perhaps even preferably by violence."
Socialism is dogma, Orwell illustrates (without saying as much), arguing that it is not a mirror image of fascism, but a perverse form of it (a "travesty" is the word he uses). Though seemingly antipodean, the ideologies have much in common. If you travel far enough toward either end of the political spectrum, you end up as a blip on the opposite side.
The attacks are scathing, and come in bunches. "We have got to admit that if Fascism is everywhere and advancing, this is largely the fault of Socialists themselves. Partly it is due to the mistaken Communist tactic of sabotaging democracy, i.e. sawing off the branch you are sitting on...." Moreover, Orwell says, Socialists "have never made it sufficiently clear that their essential aims are justice and liberty. With their eyes glued to economic facts, they have proceeded on the assumption that man has no soul, and explicitly or implicitly they have set up the goal of a materialistic Utopia." The greatest excoriation, though it's hard to choose, might be: "Socialism calls up, on the one hand, a picture of aeroplanes, tractors, and huge glittering factories of glass and concrete; on the other, a picture of vegetarians with wilting beards, of Bolshevik commissars (half gangster, half gramophone), of earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers. Socialism, at least in this island, does not smell any longer of revolution and the overthrow of tyrants; it smells of crankishness, machine-worship and the stupid cult of Russia. Unless you can remove that smell, and very rapidly, Fascism may win."
And it very nearly did win. The prophetic nature of Orwell's ideas is part of his perennial appeal.
`But hey,' interjects the modern-day far-leftie. `Orwell is talking about a brand of socialism that no longer exists. Socialism has changed.'
It has in some regards, but elements of the variety Orwell was talking about are still apparent. Democratic socialism is still championed by people from the middle class, it's still dogmatic, and it still reveres "great" men who believe change must come from above. Socialism is often the final destination of the alienated. It is a mind-numbing religion for the non-religious, intellectual, middle class.
They say a good book tells you what you already know (or suspect), and it's probably for that reason I enjoyed this one so much. I live in one of Canada's poorest cities, thoroughly blue collar. It's hard not to look at the poor and start conjuring up ideas about social engineering. Give them an education, you think. Give them purpose. Break the cycle of generational poverty. I recently reread Marx and even voted for and joined Canada's democratic socialist party, though I quickly wished I hadn't. The rally I attended was dominated by "vegetarians with wilting beards" (or at least many of the local university's bearded faculty), sixties' activists, and "earnest ladies in sandals." I was, quite frankly, put off by this, and by discussions in the crowd about the bright spots of the Soviet Union and a few of communism's "great" men, the handing out of hammer-and-sickle adorned propaganda rags, etc. As Orwell writes, "the thinking person, by intellect usually left-wing but by temperament often right-wing, hovers at the gate of the Socialist fold. He is no doubt aware that he ought to be a Socialist. But he observes first the dullness of individual Socialists, then the apparent flabbiness of Socialist ideals, and veers away."
And none too soon.
There is an intriguing aside to The Road to Wigan Pier. The book was commissioned by a publisher named Victor Gollancz, who wasn't at all happy with Part Two and worried about the reactions of members of the Left Book Club, the organization that issued the book. Gollancz wrote a flaying, impassioned foreword, included in the modern Harcourt edition, where he attempts, lest the reader get the wrong impression, to take the edge off Orwell's words. Gollancz apologizes to vegetarians, half-gangster commissars, and cranks, and says Orwell is "astray" and a "frightful snob." Orwell doesn't even define socialism, Gollancz whines; nor does he explain what he means by "liberty" and "justice." The spirited "pretort," if you will, ends with a figurative, if not literal, call to mobilize against the capitalistic enemy.
The observant reader sees Gollancz's foreword for what it is: a wretched attempt at censorship and damage control, and the very sort of empty rhetoric, hare-brained we-know-best thinking, and militant jingoism Orwell so skilfully obliterates.
Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World