“It hardly needs pointing out that at this moment we are in a very serious mess—so serious that even the dullest witted people find it difficult to remain unaware of it.”
These words were written in the midst of a previous global economic crisis. George Orwell was describing working class life in the north of England in his 1937 classic The Road To Wigan Pier.
Orwell makes clear his opposition to “every form of man’s dominion over man”. He says he wanted “to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against the tyrants”.
This determination to side with the oppressed set Orwell on the road to socialism. After a period as a police officer in Burma, he emerged as a man who “hated the imperialism I was serving with a bitterness which I probably cannot make clear”.
The Road To Wigan Pier exhibits a rough and ready materialism. “A human being is primarily a bag for putting food into,” Orwell writes. “The other functions and faculties may be more godlike, but in point of time they come afterwards.
“A man dies and is buried, and all his words and actions are forgotten, but the food he has eaten lives after him in the sound or rotten bones of his children.
“I think it could be plausibly argued that changes of diet are more important than changes of dynasty or even of religion.”
His sympathy for the people flows out of this insight. “It is curious how seldom the all-importance of food is recognised. You see statues everywhere to politicians, poets, bishops, but none to cooks or bacon curers or market gardeners.”
But Orwell’s examination of the misery of unemployment wasn’t just a matter of sympathy. Many of his insights into the nature of mass unemployment could apply equally well today.
At one point he writes, “A Labour Exchange officer told me to get at the real number of people living on (not drawing) the dole, you have got to multiply the official figures by something over three. This alone brings the number of unemployed to round about six million.”
Running throughout his politics is an ethical condemnation of capitalism combined with a deep pessimism about the potential for workers to change the world.
Orwell adopted the role of self-conscious outsider. He believed he could investigate the conditions of the poor while retaining a detached independence.
That is one reason why the second section of the book was—and still is—more controversial. Orwell asks why everyone isn’t a socialist, since socialism is so obviously true.
He lays part of the blame at the feet of the left. “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,” he writes.
Among the prejudices on display here is a view of “honest” workers versus “dishonest” middle class socialists. The class that Orwell was so piercing in his criticism of was also his own class—and he carried much of its baggage.
Orwell notes, “To me in early boyhood, to nearly all children of families like mine ‘common people’ seemed almost subhuman. When I was 14 or 15 I was an odious little snob.”
So Orwell rejected his upbringing—but developed a shallow and patronising view of the dignity of labour in its place.
Yet remarkably the rest of the left attacked Orwell’s book not for patronising workers but for showing them in a negative light.
Jack Hilton, the socialist who provided Orwell with introductions to workers, hated the book. He wrote, “So George went to Wigan and he might have stayed at home. He wasted money, energy and wrote piffle.”
Victor Gollancz published The Road To Wigan Pier as part of the Left Book Club series.
But he included a foreword in which he attacked Orwell’s views. In a later edition he deleted the second section altogether to appease the Communist Party.
The book doesn’t expect the working class to rise up. Orwell believes it should—but when he wrote the book in 1936 he did not believe that it would.
This all changed when he went to Spain. Much of the strength of Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s description of the Spanish Revolution, lies in his surprise at the working class getting into the “saddle”.
At that point Orwell moved towards seeing working class revolution as the solution to the horrors of fascism and capitalism.
The Road To Wigan Pier was a fascinating but flawed stopping point on the road to that conclusion.