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The Road to Wigan Pier Paperback – October 18, 1972
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Orwell went to mining country to report on conditions for the Left Book Club. What he turned in displeased the publisher, Victor Gollancz so much that he wrote a foreword disavowing Orwell's strictures on socialism (which we'll get to).
The reportage is basically the first half of the book, and it is good writing, very vivid.
The whole book is not like this, but I have to quote this paragraph:
I remember a winter afternoon in the dreadful environs of Wigan. All round was the lunar landscape of slag-heaps, and to the north, through the passes, as it were, between the mountains of slag, you could see the factory chimneys sending out their plumes of smoke. The canal path was a mixture of cinders and frozen mud, criss-crossed by the imprints of innumerable clogs, and all round, as far as the slag-heaps in the distance, stretched the “flashes”—pools of stagnant water that has seeped into the hollows caused by the subsidence of ancient pits. It was horribly cold. The “flashes” were covered with ice the colour of raw umber, the bargemen were muffled to the eyes in sacks, the lock gates wore beards of ice. It seemed a world from which vegetation had been banished; nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes and foul water. But even Wigan is beautiful compared with Sheffield.
More typical is an observation like this:
As for pubs, they are banished from the housing estates almost completely, and the few that remain are dismal sham-Tudor places fitted out by the big brewery companies and very expensive. For a middle-class population this would be a nuisance—it might mean walking a mile to get a glass of beer; for a working-class population, which uses the pub as a kind of club, it is a serious blow at communal life. It is a great achievement to get slum-dwellers into decent houses, but it is unfortunate that, owing to the peculiar temper of our time, it is also considered necessary to rob them of the last vestiges of their liberty. The people themselves feel this, and it is this feeling that they are rationalising when they complain that their new houses—so much better, as houses, than those they have come out of—are cold and uncomfortable and “unhomelike.”
We haven't got to the socialists yet, because Orwell then makes some observations on class, particularly his class, which was 'educated,' but not wealthy. Some of this section reminded me of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a novel Orwell wrote on the same theme. His conclusion is this:
The fact that has got to be faced is that to abolish class-distinctions means abolishing a part of yourself. Here am I, a typical member of the middle class. It is easy for me to say that I want to get rid of class-distinctions, but nearly everything I think and do is a result of class-distinctions. All my notions—notions of good and evil, of pleasant and unpleasant, of funny and serious, of ugly and beautiful—are essentially middle-class notions; my taste in books and food and clothes, my sense of honour, my table manners, my turns of speech, my accent, even the characteristic movements of my body, are the products of a special kind of upbringing and a special niche about half-way up the social hierarchy. When I grasp this I grasp that it is no use clapping a proletarian on the back and telling him that he is as good a man as I am; if I want real contact with him, I have got to make an effort for which very likely I am unprepared. For to get outside the class-racket I have got to suppress not merely my private snobbishness, but most of my other tastes and prejudices as well.
Well into the book now, the quote I was looking for. It may ring some bells:
One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words “Socialism” and “Communism” draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist and feminist in England. One day this summer I was riding through Letchworth when the bus stopped and two dreadful-looking old men got on to it. They were both about sixty, both very short, pink and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in the Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple. Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on top of the bus. The man next to me, a commercial traveller I should say, glanced at me, at them, and back again at me, and murmured, “Socialists,” as who should say, “Red Indians.” He was probably right—the I.L.P. were holding their summer school at Letchworth. But the point is that to him, as an ordinary man, a crank meant a Socialist and a Socialist meant a crank.
And a bonus quote:
The truth is that to many people, calling themselves Socialists, revolution does not mean a movement of the masses with which they hope to associate themselves; it means a set of reforms which “we,” the clever ones, are going to impose upon “them,” the Lower Orders. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to regard the book-trained Socialist as a bloodless creature entirely incapable of emotion. Though seldom giving much evidence of affection for the exploited, he is perfectly capable of displaying hatred—a sort of queer, theoretical, in vacuo hatred—against the exploiters. Hence the grand old Socialist sport of denouncing the bourgeoisie. It is strange how easily almost any Socialist writer can lash himself into frenzies of rage against the class to which, by birth or by adoption, he himself invariably belongs.
The reason I am lengthening this review with so many quotes is that I actually finished the book over a year ago, but reading my highlights has reminded me how rich it is. Well worth reading, especially for anyone who has enjoyed other books by George Orwell.
Orwell writes as a member of the “sinking middle class,” whose pretensions linger despite a three pound a week income (~$300 today) and occasional hunger. He captures the animus of a much larger group of teachers, clerks and petty civil servants who have proletarian incomes but cling to a Tory identity. Orwell’s conclusion that social identity must be subordinated to common economic interests anticipates the most bitter debates between progressives today.
"The ordinary man may not flinch from a dictatorship of the proletariat, if you offer it tactfully; offer him a dictatorship of the prigs, and he gets ready to fight." (Yes, I had to look up the meaning of "prig" too)
"Here you come upon the important fact that every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a secret conviction that nothing can be changed"
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The second half is an interesting, often funny account of why people are turned off the socialist cause. I had many a moment where I laughed out loud, particularly at these kind of quotes:
"It would help enormously, for instance, if the smell of crankishness which still clings to the Socialist movement could be dispelled. If only the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaller, and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly! But that, I am afraid, is not going to happen."
"The truth is that, to many people calling themselves Socialists, revolution does not mean a movement of the masses with which they hope to associate themselves; it means a set of reforms which 'we', the clever ones, are going to impose upon 'them', the Lower Orders."
Whether you agree or not, you have to admit at times Orwell had a point and that point persists today.
As I indicated, the structure of the book feels a bit clunky though. My advice is not to read the forward before reading the book but to read it afterwards. It gives away a lot of the structure and how it was received which I preferred to think about after the event. The reason for the lack of an editing eye was Orwell had left for the Spanish Civil War just before publication.
One thing I would say is you don't have to be hard left to read Orwell, in fact he's as critical of the hard left as he is of capitalism. Also Orwell is really easy to read and you feel like you've read something of note every time you read one of his books.
By modern standards the structure is probably rather shambolic, and it is stronger on personal experience than evidence, but as a writer, Orwell has the ability to just vanish and let the lives of those he is describing come fully alive before you.
The second half was not originally published, and it is easy to see why. It is part debate, part rant, about his desire for the rise of socialism. He takes swipes at all and sundry, from nouveau Catholics, to sandal wearing lefties and Quakers in their garden cities. He debates the attractiveness of the English physique and whether the working class smell. Despite this, he comes across as sincere, well intentioned, and uncannily astute on a great many things.
After this, Orwell headed off to fight in the Spanish civil war, and he is surely one of the most impressive Britons of the twentieth century.
Orwell is brutally honest and admits his prejudice towards the working class, then immerses himself in his search to find out how class divides us!
His bewilderment at Socialist "food cranks" and "sandal wearers" is often amusing from our modern perspective.
All the same this is essential reading, still thought provoking, and throws up questions and problems which we still haven't fully solved.
Overall, very highly recommended.
Glad he's not still around to see how so many governments are using his work as blueprints for running their countries!
The second part of the book consists of a call to arms in favour of socialism. This was the great depression, and capitalism looked rather beat. Europe also faced the threat of fascism. Here the interest is historical, specifically in Orwell's own path but also in the contemporary ideological context. Orwell's pamphlet shows how an intellectual of great lucidity, honesty, and intelligence could have believed in the superiority of socialism. Inevitably Orwell makes false predictions ('The Socialists are right, therefore, when they claim that the rate of mechanical progress will be much more rapid once Socialism is established.' (page 192)). But he has many interesting observations on technical progress, human psychology, and culture, amid rich private reflexions on the meaning of class. The point in the choice of Wigan pier for a title is that the pier has become derelict and been destroyed. Yet Orwell would continue on his political journey. Next in line was Homage to Catalonia, also an Orwell must-read, describing his experience in Spain and concomitant disillusionment with the communist camp. It seems Orwell was subsequently impressed with the Conservative government's stand on the right side of WWII, completing his ideological conversion. At the same time, his affections remained with the British working class. The Road to Wigan Pier makes clear why.
Despite this he is also well aware that capitalism as practised in the UK and the west is equally damnable.
A must read for anyone under the age of sixty who will find it hard to believe the poverty, disease , and hardship which were part of life for the majority of Britons in the 1930s and 1940s , not that long ago.
An interesting but rather unexpectedly cerebral read.
The Road to Wigan Pier is very different to 1984 or the Animal Farm. It has helped me to understand and appreciate more the society and means of living in the North of England through the description of community and life in the early 20th century. Orwell, having spent time and effort to learn these communities, provides a very thorough description of the situation of the North. The second part of the book is all about English socialism - comparatively heavier read to the first part of the book including plenty of autobiographic references and bitter criticism of the society of the era.
Part 2 is less so, since it's about socialism in the 1930's which is difficult to understand these days. Also, his characterisation of "Socialists" being fruit-juice drinkers, nancy-boys and so on is a bit shocking these days.