As a person, George Orwell was nothing if not fascinating. Born in India in 1903 at the height of the British Raj, educated at Eton and then subsequently serving as a police officer in the British colony of Burma. His family, however, was not wealthy. He attended Eton on a scholarship. Yet, throughout his life, he was a committed Socialist even to the extent that he fort for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War.
“The Road to Wigan Pier” was commissioned by the Left Book Club in the 1930s. The publisher probably expected Orwell to write a treatise on the condition of the working class in northern England. Indeed, this is exactly what Orwell did in Part One of the book. He detailed how ordinary workers lived including the conditions of their homes, their diets and what they literally confronted at the coal face. He achieved this end brilliantly. He has produced a top quality polemic against the iniquities of capitalism at that time.
In the second part of the book, Orwell goes on to discuss the essence of Socialism as he understood it. At the time, this was no doubt controversial. He seemed to take few prisoners. He condemned phoney intellects. He saw the victims of the system to be from a far wider group than just industrial workers. Vast sections of society should have a common interest. Orwell simply did not conform to the dullness of Marxist clichés. He was a true iconoclast.
It is unlikely that “The Road to Wigan Pier” will be widely read today. This is a shame as Part One, in particular, is a great piece of sociology. Even Part Two, though dated, shows Orwell’s uplifting disdain for meaningless clichés.
on March 20, 2014
Many of the current issues of poverty and unemployment appear to have been the norm when Orwell wrote this book. The book exposes the hypocrisy of the elites who speak for the downtrodden, without ever making contact with them.
on June 28, 2013
Definitely in three distinct parts (only the first two deserve the B+).
You can see where this sort of thing comes from: socialist Orwell is in yet another heated debate with someone about whether or not miners are underpaid, or whether unemployed people are bludgers, but rather than just leave it at a slammed door, he heads out and tours mining districts, going down the pit and interviewing hundreds of employed and unemployed miners. He doesn't kid himself that this makes him `one of them' (indeed, he laments how it's impossible to really experience a working class home because, of course, they will alter their behaviour when a guest is there), but he certainly has a better idea of what he's talking about than his opposition.
It opens in the cheapest of cheap accommodation - where he can integrate. As he recalls from his time living as a tramp (or, these days, homeless person), as long as you dress the part no-one particularly cares about your educated accent. It then moves through several case studies of housing and wages, Orwell using empirical evidence rather than ignorant argument - a surprisingly rare thing given the amount of time given over to this sort of debate. But he doesn't give himself over to pages and pages of dry statistics - he's a journalist and a novelist, and he writes well. While he does have a bias, he is still able to recognise points on either side. However while he stays with the facts he does gather, his case is well stated. Part one: there are hoards in 1930s England living in awful poverty, and the working conditions of miners are appalling.
Part two manages to do what dry textbooks don't - Orwell moves to autobiography, virtually testimony, of how he came to be so concerned about class exploitation (`testimony' turns out to be a telling word - ultimately the book is an attempt to proselytise and/or to criticise how the socialist movement is losing potential adherents through poor marketing). As with hearing a Christian testimony, this is often more interesting and involving (and convincing) than stark facts or theory, breaking it down to something personal and cutting past our guard. Orwell's story of how he moved from middle class public school boy to policeman in the Raj in India - to revolution promoting socialist deliberately living on the streets - is potent and amazing. This is less about the details, and more about how he attempted to atone for his role as exploiter.
Finally he moves to the weakest part of the book, away from bold research and honest autobiography, and onto sometimes surprisingly bigoted theory on how socialism should be best promoted. Again there are striking parallels to various attacks I've seen by Christians on the church, saying the problem is people can't see the attractive simple truth about Christ because it's attached to all this distracting cultural baggage. Or, worse, because Christians are embarrassingly dorky, it alienates cool `normal' people. Orwell applies both arguments.
On the former he's not so far off the mark. He pushes that the basic premise is simple: an overwhelming majority of poor people continue to support a relative fraction who have inherited vast wealth at their expense. But the poor won't unify as long as they are hung up on the trappings of differing background, so, for example, a lowly clerk will see himself, and be seen by others, as being of the same class (and on the side of) millionaire Lords, and against any blue collar workers who are on the same income, or often earning twice or three times as much. The answer isn't to act as if family background and education don't exist and think it means anything to go and hang out with people whose tastes and social habits are mutually repellant. But it is to back off on stupid pejorative stereotyping on both sides, and to recognise the far greater economic perspective and deal with that far more important injustice.
On the latter he perhaps has some points, but betrays some absurd prejudices of his own. He feels a major problem is that all sorts of `inferior' people are attracted to the socialist cause, so `normal decent people' (a phrase he uses repeatedly seemingly unaware of its embarrassingly overt assumptions) keep away from these freaks - freaks, like feminists, people with beards, and, worst of all, vegetarians! Now and then Orwell, so often an incisive commentator who stepped outside his culture, lets fly some real `man of his time' clangers. A `normal decent person', you would gather, is someone, ahem, who closely resembles Orwell's view of himself. That is, someone who is a man of the world, who enjoys a hearty meal, a smoke, a drink, and a woman or two (prostitutes not excluded), and has no time for any sort of nonsense about anything `spiritual'.
Much like this review, the third part of the book is quite undisciplined and gets a bit windy at times - no more so than when he goes off on a tangent about the evils of technological advances. It's a side point he gives far too much time (he's making the point that people who oppose the growth in machines in industry erroneously see it as central to socialism), revealing (particularly in hindsight) some bizarre and laughable fears. His largest one is that workers will have too much leisure time, and he can't conceive of anything worth doing apart from work.
So ... as someone who's been an Orwell fan, particularly of his essays, the first two parts of this fuelled my respect for his integrity, insight, and writing ability. Unfortunately the final third revealed more of some feet of clay than I expected to see. Orwell had the rare courage to overcome centuries of class prejudice to live among, respect and even champion the cause of people his peers could blithely dismiss. Ironic that he could still as blithely dismiss anyone from his own class who wasn't an atheist with similar (fairly narrowly defined) social and moral values.
on June 4, 2013
In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell pens a very astute, informative and readable account of Life in a Northern Town in mid-30s Britain, proving that he could have been a fantastic investigative journalist had he wanted to pursue that career alone. But what makes Wigan Pier even more interesting to readers in the early 21st century is Orwell's appended dissection of what's wrong with the socialist movement of his day, an unasked-for addition to the submitted manuscript that prompted his publisher to add a "The views expressed are definitely not that of the publisher" introduction to the first edition to calm his leftist readership.
Like many eggheads of the 1930s, Orwell couldn't conceive that anyone of any intelligence could not see socialism as the only possible solution to the Depression. Obviously, he wasn't reading people like Ludwig von Mises and Albert Jay Nock, who had both by that point published incisive criticisms of political and economic centralization (though von Mises I believe was only available in German at the time).
Orwell saw the problem mainly as one of messaging (sounds familiar...) and messengers, and there is great hilarity in reading his fulminations against the sloppy, sandal-wearing, vegetarian, long-haired pre-hippies of his day who he believed gave socialism a bad name. Ditto the Marx-spouting ideologues who seemed more bent on rooting out heretics and debating doctrinal arcana than on converting nonbelievers. More seriously, he fingers the class hostility between the limousine liberals who led the movement and the working class who was supposed to be the beneficiary.
This seems to be a perennial problem for the Left--that those who profess to care most for the plight of the poor don't really like the poor very much, at least not close up. Orwell was an exception who voluntarily lived with the downtrodden and learned to respect them (and wrote about it in this work as well as earlier in Down and Out in Paris and London and in his article "The Spike"). He was at this point very naive about socialism but he was totally honest and you have to respect a man of such integrity even if you disagree with him.
Wigan Pier was written just before Orwell's journey to Spain to witness the Spanish Civil War, which later produced the article "Spilling the Spanish Beans" and the autobiographical book Homage to Catalonia. It also marks the end of his early period, which had resulted in three fairly impressive novels (Burmese Days, The Clergyman's Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying) as well as Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were still a decade or so in the future but the climb up the learning curve about the true nature of totalitarian ideologies and how they exploit the worst in human nature had begun.
on May 8, 2013
Orwell wanted to understand how the working class in England thought, and to do this he lived in different working class households and spent days at mines seeing miners work. These experiences gave him a much deeper understanding of the way working class people thought than just knowing their incomes or the official number of hours they worked. Orwell tries to show us the daily routines that he observes, to show us unpleasant parts of the miners' lives we might not have thought of, like having to walk up to 200 yards to get to a toilet.
Orwell gives a good description of hopelessness when he is talking about the unemployed. Talking about unemployed writers, Orwell says, "They have all the leisure in the world; why don't they sit down and write books? Because to write books you need not only comfort and solitude- and solitude is never easy to attain in a working-class home- you also need peace of mind. You can't settle to anything, you can't command that spirit of hope in which anything has got to be created, with that dull evil cloud of unemployed hanging over you." Starting and continuing with a difficult project require the confidence that you will be able to finish the project, rather than give up when you see how much work is left to be done and how little progress you have made. It is hard not to give up if you feel like a failure. Related to one's lack of energy when one feels like a failure, Orwell writes later about how the poor eat worse than the wealthier, even if the bad food is more expensive. You get such little pleasure from life that you would rather eat something sweet than something nutritious. "The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food."
The experiences Orwell writes about here helped him give a vivid depiction of dreariness in 1984. When Orwell is leaving an industrial town by train he writes hopefully about the empty spaces between towns: "The earth is so vast and still so empty that even in the filthy heart of civilization you find fields where the grass is green instead of grey". Now in North America, while we might have green grass all over the place, it is kept as short as astroturf, so that it doesn't feels nice to sit on and isn't as visually interesting as long grass, and instead of fields we have small patches of this grass around office parks.
on July 13, 1998
When I was in high school in the 'sixties, I had to make a joint book report on Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984 for an American History class. I was so annoyed with this assignment that I wrote a vehemently nasty review. The teacher was vastly amused. He suggested that I read Road to Wigan Pier. I couldn't see anyway to niggle out of reading it, so I settled down to read it as perfunctorily as possible and still be able to convince the teacher that I had given it due thought. Instead, as I read, I became enthralled by Orwell's descriptions of life in a bleak industrial town in the north of England. I gained new respect for Eric Blair; I still didn't like 1984, but I understood better where he was coming from and why he wrote it.
I've thought about Road to Wigan Pier many times in the intervening years, and I just recently re-read it. It is still just as powerful and despairing. The non-fiction beats the fiction any day. I have an insig! ! htful teacher to thank for recommending this book.
on June 26, 2014
Very interesting. Learn about economic classes in the UK prior to WWII through Orwell's eyes. Gain some insights into the man himself. He would be pretty horrified by our isolated, phone and iPad-staring ways but happy and surprised to see all the jobs that technology creates.
on March 17, 2013
This book was masterly. The first half took me back to the poverty stricken mining communities of Northern England and the second half was a warm account of how Orwell came to his political philosophy
on November 11, 2010
`The Road To Wigan Pier' is in many ways two separate books. The first half covers Orwell's experiences living in the mining towns of Northern England, describing the poverty and unemployment there, while the second offers a stinging critique of Socialism. What ties the book together is Orwell's distinction between "socialism" the ideal and "Socialism" as a political movement. By the late 1930's, Orwell's political views were beginning to crystallise; although a passionate Socialist (as demonstrated in Part One), he was increasingly dismayed by the direction Socialism was taking (as he famously highlighted in Part Two). `The Road To Wigan Pier' is a book that highlights the severe social problems Britain was facing in the 1930's, while also expressing concern over whether the current version of "Socialism" was really capable of addressing them.
In Part One, Orwell outlines the appalling conditions of the miners in Northern England. He covers the conditions down in the mines themselves, plus aspects of home life such as food, unemployment benefits, and quality of housing. Some of his observations almost defy belief, such as a miner having to walk a mile or more bent double before reaching the coalface, or having up to ten people sharing a tiny house. Above all, Orwell seems determined to shatter the myths many Southerners had about miners; that they worked reasonable hours for good pay, and received generous benefits. He notes that while on paper the weekly pay and hours may look reasonable, the reality is very different. He highlights how many workers employed only part-time, have to travel for hours to work each day, and have their benefits vigorously policed and ruthlessly docked at the slightest pretence.
What stands out about Part One is Orwell's genuine empathy for and understanding of working class people. While he notes a little self-consciously in Part Two that he was never really "one of them", his experiences living with these people did give him a unique insight into their way of life. By rooming with ordinary working class people in their own homes, he does not merely describe their plight, he lives it on a daily basis. Contrast this respect towards the working class with the attitudes of the elitist "Socialists" as described in Part Two.
In Part Two, Orwell offers a critical analysis of Socialism. He notes that Socialism, properly implemented, would greatly improve the lives of working class people described in Part One, yet many working class people are apathetic or even hostile to Socialism.
Essentially, Orwell's analysis reduces to two key points:
1) That the "class issue" is alive and well in the 1930's. Despite mouthing all the right Socialist sentiments, a middle class person cannot have a complete understanding of, and connection to, a member of the working class. Orwell draws on his own background (Chapters 8-10) to discuss class prejudice from both sides of the fence.
2) That Socialism as a political movement is a product of the middle, not the working class. As Orwell portrays it, this middle-class version of Socialism is more concerned with ideological purity and providing a haven for other middle-class concerns ("fruit juice drinkers, nudists, sandal-wearers, quacks, pacifists...") than with actually achieving anything practical for the working class. Following on from (1), the average working man views Socialism as consisting of intellectuals and academics who have no knowledge or experience of working class life, and who are more interested in philosophical squabbles than improving the lot of poor people. No wonder the average working man is reluctant to embrace such a movement.....
Part Two caused quite a stir among Orwell's fellow Socialists. If you can, try to pick up an earlier edition containing the Left Book Club's desperately defensive Introduction, to get some idea of the general reaction. But Orwell's points are perfectly valid, and he succeeds brilliantly in articulating the doubts that many ordinary people have about Socialism. Note also that many ideas Orwell would later explore, such as the use of convoluted language in political speeches, are already well thought out and defined.
As with all of Orwell's political writings, what stands out is how readable and engaging `The Road To Wigan Pier' is. Orwell has a wicked, jet-black wit, and much of the book is delivered with a very dry sense of humour. It is this, as much as its serious political observations, that makes this such an important book even today. And it's still relevant, since many of the arguments Orwell makes about Socialism in 1930 are the same ones being raised against mainstream left-wing parties today.
`The Road To Wigan Pier' is an essential political work from a dedicated but intellectually honest Socialist. Five stars.
I vividly remember travelling through what was communist East Germany (DDR) in 1996. I was always on the look out for the old socialist realism art common to the former communist countries. Do you remember the large wall murals of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution or Marx seen in western magazines? This book is far more complex than the simple world view of political art. It is one of three great documentary works that define Orwell as great journalist. "Homage to Catalona" and "Down and Out in Paris and London" are the other two noteable journalism books. The preface for this book is long and critical, written by a communist editor who had definite issues with Orwell- very unusual! The diary for this book as well a related essay on boarding houses is found in "An Age Like This."
Orwell was encouraged by his publisher, a member of the Left Book Club, to document living conditions in the north of England during the Depression. What resulted from Orwell living with the families of miners and in the seedy boarding houses of the industrial north was a detailed account of home life, personal budgets, mining technology and a decrepit social welfare system, the "Means Test," which created much havoc in the lives of the poor. Orwell's ability to describe and experience the gritty facts of poverty is compassionate realism.
The second half of the book shows the conflict with left-culture that was to characterize the rest of Orwell's life. The forward to this edition shows the conflict that book created with Orwell's publisher who insisted on the trip to the coal mining districts. Orwell was at heart always the colonial policeman and the Etonian...a cultural reactionary and yet a Socialist. It is not clear, however, how bad bath facilities for miners is a call for a planned economy.There is no analytical discussion here. We never get the details from Orwell.
Orwell's genius for description reminds me of reading "1984", so long ago,and feeling watched even though I never really did identify with Winston's struggle against Big Brother. In "Wigan", Orwell honored the struggles of England's most critical workers with this masterpiece.