ISBN 978-0-141-18529-3. “The Road to Wigan Pier” by George Orwell was first published by Victor Gollancz in 1937. This edition by Penguin in 2001 includes an introduction by Richard Hoggart (Professor of English and Director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University) and text notes by Peter Davison (Research Professor of English at De Montford University). George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903. The Road to Wigan Pier was commissioned by the original publisher to portray the realities of extreme poverty & unemployment in the North of England in the 1930s. It was intended to show conditions that would later be included in a collection for upper class socialists. Unfortunately for Gollancz, Orwell went slightly off-message with the second half of the book which the publisher then tried (unsuccessfully) to remove. It is for this contentious and provocative second half that The Road to Wigan Pier is best known for today. It remains a thorough deconstruction of the class basis for Britain’s pre-war path to Fascism.
One of Orwell’s most famous quotes derives from the closing paragraphs of this book and we wrote about it in “When Fascism comes” (January 2015):
“Fascism is coming; probably a slimy Anglicized form of Fascism, with cultured policemen instead of Nazi Gorillas and the lion and the unicorn instead of the swastika.”
It is hard to reconcile the nature of such a quote from the initial travelogue nature of The Road to Wigan Pier (surprisingly this quote was not lifted from his 1941 work “The Lion and the Unicorn“). It indicates the highly personal nature of Orwell’s work in the second part of the book. Richard Hoggart gives no indication of how this work was received publically at the time – not surprising as it had a low circulation. He describes the book as being one about class and socialism whilst ignoring the more obvious context. Orwell was describing the road to fascism – the self-same ideology he himself would be fighting in Spain only a year after this book was complete. Gollancz tried to publish only Part 1 but was forced to publish both parts – even then it was not widely known of. The book waited until the late-1950s/early-1960s, for a full publishing run. No doubt this was influenced by the growing popularity of Orwell’s better known works such as “Nineteen-Eighty-Four” and “Animal Farm“.
The Road to Wigan Pier was intended to be a documentary but Orwell saw in it an opportunity to describe the political context of the times from his peculiar point of view. Orwell was highly direct in his language and choice of topics. Polite society at the time would not really have entertained protracted descriptions of why the working classes might smell. Gollancz felt at the time the need to downplay Orwell’s essay by writing a foreword to the original publication as a way of sweetening the pill. If Gollancz had intended the book to be read by upper class socialists who belonged to the “Left Book Club”. We must remember that in these pre-war and pre-Cold War years it was quite fashionable to be a Communist or Socialist. Orwell regarded this as a dangerous transient fad – hence he spends the second half of the book pouring derision upon the intended readership.
Gollancz had calculated that the old Etonian who wrote “Down and Out in Paris and London” would be the perfect candidate for the job. He wasn’t wrong. Orwell returned from his work in the British Colonial Police force in Burma a disillusioned man. He took about the task of re-educating himself about the manners of the poor by throwing himself amongst the underclass. Dressing in rags he took to a doss house in a poor part of London. He travelled the streets with the homeless. His experiences changed him – that was his intention. He learnt much about the manner of contemporary poverty and the people that endured it. In doing so he shook-off much of his old prejudices and learned a disdain for the very upper class Socialists the book was aimed at. In the second half of this book he lets them have it with both barrels. Putting it simply he believed that the natural empathies of the upper class for the poor would not withstand a brush either with the “real” poor working class or pure ideological Marxism. Hence the only conclusion (as he saw it) would be that the establishment elite would recoil in horror to protect themselves from this proletariat. In doing so they would embrace Fascism.
Orwell portrays the self pity and endless petty complaints of poor landlords as a product of industrialisation. The nearest modern reference point here is Owen Jones’s description of the new underclass in “Chavs“. For Orwell the underclass is the product of Capitalism and it is everyone’s duty to understand this and experience it. We should never forget that it exists and is a by-product of a system in which we all participate. The underclass did not create itself. Orwell moves between doss houses and even spends a shift down a coal mine where his description of the back-breaking work and many dangers is not to be forgotten.
“…it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally. For it is bought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior.”
What Orwell was describing was the industrial dominance of coal in the economy. Today we could consider these words to concern all fossil fuels. Coal may no longer be king but the suffering that is undergone in their extraction just shifts around. In the 1930s we could see it close to home in the coal mines of Yorkshire or Lancashire. Nowadays we see the suffering in the eyes of the Ogoni people of the Niger Delta. We learn of it as the suffering of the people in the Central Asian petro-states or the in the poisoning of tracts of South American jungle. As the fossil fuel empire waxes and wanes the thirst for its product sweeps through regions like a savage dog returning for carrion. Where now we shut down old coal mines in the North of England the British Government considers the economic benefits of new technologies to release coal seam gas.
Where once the horror of the mines were hidden down isolated coal shafts and spoil heaps nowadays nice people contemplate the effects upon their health of having a fracking well head every few kilometres. Where fossil fuels used to kill men directly through their lungs today we can kill people with its poisons by allowing the fracking fluids to seep into the ground water. Fossil Fuels maybe undergoing a slow death but its death throes are ugly and we seem willing to allow it to drag-down as many of us as it can – just as long as WE benefit and it costs somebody else their scenery and clean water. We should consider this as a universal truth that has not changed through time: “it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior” – it is only because others suffer that we enjoy the economics benefits of fossil fuels. Then, sometimes, it is our turn.
Much of the first part of the book describes the lives of poor miners and the unemployed. Orwell examines how and where they live in great detail. He mulls over their diet and contemporary attitudes of the other classes. This too is timeless:
“The middle classes were still talking about ‘lazy idle loafers on the dole’ and saying that ‘these men could all find work if they wanted to’..”
These description could so easily be taken from Jones’s “Chavs” for the demonization of the working & workless classes has never gone away. Every generation kids itself that class has gone away yet every generation learns anew how to diminish the humanity of their fellow man. It finds new language and new targets; but it is always there. Being workless in an environment were this is no work (and nobody works) is an experience of utter hopelessness that Orwell dwells upon. It angers him that the middle classes so easily fail to understand what this must be like. He is also realistic about this culture of hopelessness:
“When people live on the dole for years at a time they grow used to it, and drawing the dole, though it remains unpleasant, ceases to be shameful. [..] The people have at any rate grasped that unemployment is a thing they cannot help. [..] It makes a great deal of difference when things are the same for everybody.”
The work houses are gone and hire-purchase has eased some of the pain – Orwell describes how there was less of what he called “conscious misery” as the dole had eased the life of the workless. He actually admires the people for simply not going to pieces. They keep their dignity and sanity where Orwell suspects the middle-classes would suffer more. Losing your job does not make you less of a human being. Orwell also describes much of this culture has been engineered by long term industrial poverty. It was cheaper to buy sweets than a square meal. cheaper to buy fish and chips than meat, aspirins are cheaper than milk. Tea and gambling become the backbone of poor living in a manner that the upper and middle-classes would find hard to understand:
“…with the result that a luxury is nowadays almost always cheaper than a necessity…”
Impoverishment has an effect upon people that is easy to belittle. Orwell was concerned about the spread of Fascism yet he describes how when Hitler re-rook the Rhineland that there was not a flicker of interest in Yorkshire despite the impending threat of war. Yet when the FA made moves to quell gambling on the Football Pools there was a “storm of fury”:
“Even people on the verge of starvation can buy a few days’ hope (‘Something to live for’, as they call it) by having a penny on the sweepstake.”
It is easy to judge people upon class lines but Orwell asks his readership:
“Do you consider all this desirable? No, I don’t. But it may be the psychological adjustment which the working class are visibly making is the best they could make in the circumstances. They have neither turned revolutionary nor lost their self-respect; merely they have kept their tempers and settled down to make the best of things on a fish-and-chips standard. The alternative would be God knows what continued agonies of despair; or it might be insurrections which, in a strongly governed country like England, could only lead to futile massacres and a regime of savage repression.”
An astonishing observation and judgement. Better the bread and circuses than the alternative of revolution. Even in pre-war Britain Orwell argued that consumerism bolstered by cheap imports (of such things as chocolate, movies and tea) had averted revolution. As it was then, it is now. Hence, like Chomsky some fifty years later Orwell concludes that such “bread and circuses” need no conspiracy by the “governing class” (whom he describes as un-intelligent) – it was the product of an “unconscious process“. It was a:
“..a natural interaction between the manufacturer’s need for a market and the need of half-starved people for cheap palliatives.”
Hence the free market saved Britain from revolution. Orwell goes on to describe the “mentality of the English governing class“:
“First you condemn a family to live on thirty shillings a week, and then you have the damned impertinence to tell them how they are to spend the money.”
It calls to mind a contemporary (2015) Conservative Government suggesting sanctions against poor people who were over-weight. Nothing changes. Orwell does reflect that it is a “pity” that the poor and ill-educated do not have better judgement about how to spend their money to improve their diets – he tactfully describe this as “the lack of a proper tradition” yet he does not elaborate on quite how such a tradition may have been acquired in the first place. In this there is a certain tortured logic of what Orwell is saying. On the one hand he tries to explain why the poor behave the way they do yet he is still torn by his Etonian background to observe that they could do better if they had been better cultured. He argues that – indeed – the very poor do waste their dole money.
“Our unemployment allowances, miserable though they are, are framed to suit a population with very high standards and not much notion of economy.”
Orwell compares the Burmese Coolie diet of rice and onions to that of the unemployed Englishman. Maybe it is such observation that our modern Government is adhering too in its social policy – maybe the poor should be re-educated to live off rice and onions too? As I wrote in our review of Naomi Klein’s “No Logo” – we are witnessing a global levelling of the playing field. Sooner or later the worker in Liverpool will have the standard of living of the worker in Beijing. They will endure the same working conditions, the same dangers, the same poisons. Likewise we should not judge the industrialised North of England by its appearance writes Orwell:
“The industrial towns of the North are ugly because they happen to have been built at a time when modern methods of steel-construction and smoke-abatement were unknown, and when everyone was too busy making money to think about anything else.”
In the week I wrote these words a massive explosion tore apart the north-eastern Chinese port of Tianjin. Wrote the BBC “The explosions, in a warehouse containing hazardous chemicals, were so powerful that few of the recovered bodies have been identified.” No doubt the modern Chinese who are “too busy making money” but have access to “modern methods” should reflect upon Orwell’s words. The ugliness of appearance is irrelevant in the long term, the smoke-abatement is not. Yet his words are written in a time when the modern environmental movement did not exist. Had Orwell been writing today no doubt he would have had much to say about modern pollution.
Orwell’s vision of “modern methods” intrudes upon the text at length. He has read Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and has his own vision of the future:
“Skip forward two hundred years into the Utopian future, and the scene is totally different. [..] In that age when there is no manual labour and everyone is ‘educated’ [..] there won’t be a coal fire in the grate, on some kind of invisible heater. The furniture will be made of rubber, glass and steel…”
He goes onto describe this Utopia as one where there is no poverty, no gambling and no dogs (due to hygiene). Such things are intriguing and he returns to this vision several times in the book. Here we see the seeds of a dystopian legend that he was to write just ten years later in his classic work “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. Part 1 of the book ends on this note.
Part 2 opens with a scrutiny of English Class. Snobbish, middle-class, parents could not afford to have their children hanging around the working classes lest they pick up their common “vulgar” accent. Orwell tells tale of his early upbringing where he had rubbed shoulders with many working class people until his parent forbade him from playing with children of the lower classes:
“..the working class ceased to be a race of friendly and wonderful beings and became a race of enemies. We realised that they hated us, but we could never understand why, and naturally we set it down to pure, vicious malignity. To me in my early boyhood, to nearly all children of families like mine, ‘common’ people seemed almost sub-human. They had coarse faces, hideous accents and gross manners.”
Orwell is brutally frank about how such “false” yet “understandable” attitudes were passed from parents to children. Before the first World War class hatred was more overt. Although less so by the 1930s Orwell returns to describe then-commonly-held attitudes that sound so familiar even eighty years later:
“The notion that the working class had been absurdly pampered, hopelessly demoralised by doles, old-age pensions, free education, etc., is still widely held.”
A weeks before I wrote these words I saw the following anecdote on Twitter: A rich man, a politician, a working man and an immigrant sit at a table decked with a plate holding ten biscuits. The rich man takes nine of the biscuits and gives two to the politician who then tells the working man that the immigrant is after his biscuit. In the 1930s this is Orwell’s version of the same anecdote from colonial times:
“Thus in England we tamely admit to being robbed in order to keep half a million idlers in luxury, but we would fight to the last man sooner than be ruled by a Chinaman.”
The “half a million idlers” are the “people who live on unearned dividends“, ie the wealthy elite.
Orwell turns to a lengthy section of introspection about his time in Burma (told in full in his “Burmese Days“) where he learnt to hate colonial power. In retrospect he realises his views have become wiser but recognises that, at the time, he burned with outrage against the system:
“I had reduced everything to the simple theory that the oppressed are always right and the oppressors are always wrong: a mistaken theory, but the natural result of being one of the oppressors yourself.”
Hence the burning desire to change his life when he returned to England:
“I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them, and on their side against tyrants.”
Thus began the episode of his life that we alluded to earlier and retold in “Down and Out in Paris and London“. He went on to describe how he “had at that time no interest in Socialism or any other economic theory“:
“It seemed to be then – it sometimes seems to be now, for that matter – that economic injustice will stop the moment we want it to stop, and no sooner, and if we genuinely want it to stop the method adopted hardly matters.”
I have sympathy for this. Although Orwell became a Socialist later on, he clearly felt that it was for want of any better plan. Nowadays we have a plethora of ideas across the political spectrum and those that fit nowhere in particular. Yet we still feel a strong desire to split everything up into “left” and “right” as if everything must fit into some ideology and not common sense. Orwell’s anti-colonialism was a product of his times and his personal experience. Yet it all has great resonance today. Living in a post-colonial world it often seems if we swapped the direct power of military occupation with the rules of the World Trade Organisation:
“Under the capitalist system, in order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation – an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream.”
This is exactly the point made in my earlier review of Naomi Klein’s “No Logo“. There is nothing more self-delusional than believing that your opulence-amongst-poverty is deserved because you are special and the poor have themselves to blame. The context of what Orwell was writing about was not an attack upon the Right but a criticism of the Left. Orwell was disgusted at the Left’s acceptance of the British Empire. Hence his ambivalence about the labels of “left” and “right”. He embraced Socialism but for him it only mattered that it worked.
Hence Orwell opens his attack upon the intellectual Left in Britain in the 1930s. No wonder he made Gollancz nervous. Orwell’s reasoning relied upon the idea that the upper classes would never really accept the lower classes. He trawls through the English class system in amazing detail yet much of the detail is meaningless today. Orwell argues that the proletariat wishes for nothing more than the destruction of the upper classes. Hence when the upper classes learn of this they will recoil in horror:
“When the bourgeois sees it in that form he takes flight, and if his flight is rapid enough it may carry him to Fascism.”
As we learnt from Paxton’s “The Anatomy of Fascism” (written some nearly seventy years later) this was not far from the truth. Likewise a similar view can be found in “The Third Reich – A New History” by Michael Burleigh. Socialism can scare many into Fascism. For Orwell it is because people do not understand Socialism. And he blames Socialists for creating this antipathy:
“The average thinking person nowadays is not merely not a Socialist, he is actively hostile to Socialism.”
What is true then is true now. Why is this? Orwell plays devils advocate. He writes that “it is no use writing off the current distaste for Socialism as the product of stupidity or corrupt motives.” The problem, as he saw it, was that the progressives in the ranks of Socialism were alienating the masses:
“..there is the horrible – the really disquieting – prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together.”
This strikes a chord with us as we wrote about exactly the same problem with the Transition movement locally in 2010 in “No cranks please“. We became tired of having every weirdo and conspiracy theorist turning up to our public meetings and dominating the conversation with their nut-case jabberings. Members of the public who turned up confused this fruit-cakery with the business of the Transition movement and few were seen of ever again. Thus Orwell blames the cranks and the extremists with their “vague threat of future violence” for undermining the public credibility of Socialism. He rails against the use of the word “Comrade” at public meetings! He argues that the working man has no time for Marxist theory. He writes that the “young social-literary climbers who are Communists now” will be Fascists in five years time as they will be repelled by the
“..dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat.”
I wished I had that turn of phrase. The specifics are anachronisms but the description of beardy-weirdys and sandal-wearers sounds a lot like the Transition movement to me.
“The ordinary decent person, who is in sympathy with the essential aims of Socialism, is given the impression that there is no room for his kind in any Socialist party that means business. Worse, he is driven to the cynical conclusion that Socialism is a kind of doom…”
I tried in vane for three years in the Transition movement to defuse this dilemma and got nowhere. Of course it is unfair to compare Socialism to Transition but the symptoms of “unacceptability” that Orwell describes in such frank terms are very familiar. They remain an essential truism and I feel vindicated by this voice from the pre-war Britain of the 1930s. We have been here before.
Orwell supplies a unique class-perspective that still speaks volumes down through the years. Take this piece of Chomskyesque prose:
“..when you try to move them (the Proletariat) by talking about ‘class war’, you only succeed in scaring them; they forget their incomes and remember their accents, and fly to the defence of the class that is exploiting them.”
Orwell points out that British class identity over-rides other forms of identification and is more powerful than economic links between people of similar incomes. Hence the reason why so many working class people continue to vote Conservative in the British electrical system (and Republican in the USA maybe?).
At this point in the book Orwell drifts off into a sub-section about how Socialists have a modern machine-driven vision of Utopia that is not shared with the population. It seems an odd narrative – very much of its time and very much a result of the science fiction that Orwell appeared to be a fan of. It is a great insight into Orwell – but brings nothing much now into any argument about the acceptability, or otherwise, of progressive-social movements.
Once this episode is over Orwell returns to the main thrust of his argument:
“I believe that when the pinch comes there is a terrible danger that the main movement of the intelligentsia will be towards Fascism.”
It remains odd that the latter-day academics make no mention of this narrative. Maybe they feel that Orwell was imply wrong hence they ignore it. Of course World War Two came along and European Fascism threatened the old order and the British Empire. Britain and America chose the side that briefly allied them with the USSR. However this fails to recognise the strong pro-fascist voices in Britain at the time. Even if we disregard Oswald Mosley we need only read the headlines of the then Daily Mail or see pictures of a young future queen being taught a Nazi salute, to realise that Orwell had no clear-cut conclusion in 1937. He did write that “it depends, probably, upon events in Europe” with a decisive moment coming within two years. Two years later was 1939 and the start of war. In most aspects Orwell was spot on and we should not disregard this work. Likewise we cannot disregard “Nineteen Eighty-Four” simply because it didn’t come true in the year 1984! Orwell had a vision about how society would turn out and need to continually take heed of his visionary work.
We started this review relaying the famous quote about “a slimy Anglicized form of Fascism” yet several pages before those concluding words were written Orwell also wrote that Fascism would not be the one of “Mosley and his pimpled followers“. Instead he suggested an English Fascism “of a sedate and subtle kind“. Much as Paxton was to write so many years later our Fascism will not be called “Fascism”. To Orwell the Oswald Mosley Fascists were a joke to the English. Instead:
“..what I am thinking of at this moment is the Fascist attitude of mind, which beyond any doubt is gaining ground among people who ought to know better.”
These chilling words speak to us across the years and remain as true today as they did in 1937. We really ought to know better:
“Even the Fascist bully at his symbolic worst, with rubber truncheon in one hand and castor-oil bottle in the other, does not necessarily feel himself a bully; more probably he feels like Roland in the pass at Roncevaux, defending Christendom against the barbarian.”
It is frightening to think that the legend of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass has long since been romanticised as a conflict of Christian versus Muslim. In fact it was no such thing. Today we need only move the events from a pass in the Pyrenees to the Channel Tunnel in Calais and we have a long line of bully-boy wannabes who wish to convince the public that they are protecting us from the foreign hordes content to swarm over us like a plague. In his final analysis Orwell warns that unless “you can remove the smell” of Socialism then “Fascism may win“.
So there you have it. A book written 78 years ago about Britain’s slide to Fascism that can tell us just as much about class-politics in Britain today as just about anything outside the work of Chomsky or Owen Jones. Maybe not essential but this cannot be ignored for what it is. A warning from our past. Recommended.