The Road To Wigan Pier by George Orwell (1937) 232 p.

After returning from Burma in 1927, George Orwell found that his beliefs and prejudices had been completely upturned after witnessing the evil brutality of the British imperial system. He decided he wanted “to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man. I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against the tyrants.”

He ended up spending much time amongst the working class, and the result of that was his excellent book Down And Out In Paris And London, which I read last year and greatly enjoyed. The Road To Wigan Pier continues in this vein, but was written several years later after Orwell had established himself as a writer and distilled his outrage into a coherent socialist philosophy. He was commisioned by an organisation called the Left Book Club to carry out a report on the living conditions of the unemployed in England’s industrial North. This investigation comprises the first half of the book; the second comprises Orwell’s reflections upon that situation, and what must be done about it.

I preferred the first half of the book to the second, as Orwell throws himself into the atrocious hovels and slums of Wigan and Sheffield, making his usual wry and witty observations. (“There are also houses of what is called the ‘blind back’ type, which are single houses, but in which the builder has omitted to put in a back door – from pure spite, apparently.”) Orwell’s famous dedication to clear, concise writing makes him endlessly entertaining and readable, and he comes up with some marvellous similes.

The second half of the book was less entertaining; it is largely a political essay, which I don’t mind, but like many essays in Shooting An Elephant it is quite dated. Orwell wrote this book in the late 30s when socialism was still considered a feasible possibility in many parts of society, and while fascism was running rampant across Europe. He very clearly thought the next major struggle in the world would be between Fascism and Socialism, not Capitalism and Communism. Reading through it, I was mostly struck by how wrong Orwell turned out to be. He spends much of his time arguing why socialism had failed to gain many adherents, and one of his points is that many people disliked industrialism and mentally associated it with socialism. Orwell himself, while believing it to be “here to stay,” is also quite critical of what he calls “the machine-society.” He then later says:

There is no chance of righting the conditions I described in the earlier chapters of this book, or of saving England from Fascism, unless we can bring an effective Socialist party into existence. It will have to be a party with genuinely revolutionary intentions, and it will have to be numerically strong enough to act. We can only get it if we offer an objective which fairly ordinary people will recognise as desirable. Beyond all else, therefore, we need intelligent propaganda. Less about ‘class consciousness,’ ‘expropriation of the expropriators,’ bourgeois ideology,’ and ‘proletarian solidarity,’ not to mention the sacred sisters, thesis, antithesis and synthesis; and more about justice, liberty and the plight of the unemployed. And less about mechanical progress, tractors, the Dneiper dam and the latest salmon-canning factory in Moscow; that kind of thing is not an integral part of Socialist doctrine, and it drives away many people whom the Socialist cause needs, including most of those who can hold a pen.

No such Socialist party came about, yet England was not consumed by Fascism. And how were the conditions in northern England righted? Through technological advances and the progress of the machine-society which Orwell so disapproved of. There is clearly still an imbalance of wealth in England today, but to compare the houses of the working class now with the houses of the working class of eighty years ago is to compare modern luxury with medieval squalor. Television, broadband Internet, mass-produced clothing, central heating, affordable white goods, hot water, subsidised medical care and unfailing electricity combine to create what the miners and labourers of Orwell’s day would regard as paradise.

Curiously enough, Orwell actually touched upon in the first half of the book:

And then there is the queer spectacle of modern electrical science showering miracles upon people with empty bellies. You may shiver all night for lack of bedclothes, but in the morning you can go to the public library and read the news that has been telegraphed for your benefit from San Francisco and Singapore. Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio. What we have lost in food we have gained in electricity. Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life.

The difference, of course, is that the modern British welfare state (which I am not particularly familiar with the history of, but which appears to exist in a limited form in The Road To Wigan Pier) ensures that nobody is actually starving, even if they have been unemployed their entire lives. Whether or not the “cheap luxuries” of today seem superior to those of Orwell’s time because of my own modern vantage point, or because they actually are, is hard to say. Perhaps eighty years from now we will all have robot butlers and want for nothing, and consider having to work forty hours a week to have been a cruel and terrible fate.

Then, however, there’s the fact that our own cheap luxuries are not a result of the industrial process having been perfected, but rather because the Western world simply bucked its “working” class status onto East Asia. Now the same thing is happening in China, as hundreds of millions are lifted out of poverty and expect higher living standards, and manufacturers look to Vietnam or Indonesia or somewhere else where people are still poor and will work for a dollar a day. What happens when everybody on Earth is rich and prosperous? I can’t find the exact quote, but somewhere in The Road To Wigan Pier Orwell mentions that the whole world is a raft flying through space, which contains more than enough for everybody to live comfortably. This may have been true at the time, but it certainly isn’t today; the one or two billion OECD citizens are living well beyond their means, let alone the five billion in the developing world. Either we will exhaust the planet’s resources and collapse into a prolonged Dark Age of death, misery and poverty, or we will expand space travel and harvest the resources of other planets to provide for the billions of new TV-watching, Coke-drinking people who will be created once the developing world finishes developing, which will certainly happen within the next fifty years. And, ironically enough, the most likely push for that more optimistic outcome will be capitalist thirst for raw materials.

As you can see, Orwell gets me thinking. I didn’t enjoy The Road To Wigan Pier quite as much as Down And Out In Paris And London, but it’s still an excellent book and a valuable historical document.