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Socialism Today 137 - April 2010

Revisiting the Road to Wigan Pier

It was 75 years ago that the publisher Victor Gollancz commissioned George Orwell to write a book about the effects of mass unemployment in the depression-era north of England. PETER TAAFFE revisits one of Orwell’s less familiar, but now again very relevant, signature works.

GEORGE ORWELL was perhaps the best known of the English socialist writers of the 1930s and 1940s. He is justifiably famous for books like Homage to Catalonia and Animal Farm, as well as 1984. Less familiar, however, particularly to the new generation, is The Road to Wigan Pier. But it deserves to be better known, not only because of his analysis and searing indictment of British capitalism in the 1930s. The book powerfully resonates with us today because of the obvious comparison with the current economic crisis of Britain and the world, and its effects on the lives and conditions of working-class people. Orwell also elucidates some significant insights on class, poverty and the socialist ‘project’.

There was no ‘Wigan Pier’ when he wrote the book because it had disappeared. It was a metaphor for the decay of British society on the backs of the collapse of capitalism. What would he have said – what images would he have conjured up – to describe the even greater massive de-industrialisation than the 1930s which took place under Thatcher’s reign and continues apace today? One manifestation is the ‘mothballing’ of the Corus steelworks in Teesside. In the former ‘workshop of the world’, manufacturing now accounts for only 12% of gross domestic product.

In simple prose – Orwell was an advocate and brilliant practitioner of ‘plain English’ – he paints powerful literary frescos to describe the abject conditions of the working class in places like Wigan and the north-west of England. His description of the consequences of unemployment sears the mind, particularly against the current background of the seemingly inexorable rise of those ‘on the dole’ today. 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 millions". This was because of the number of ‘dependents’ of the unemployed.

But there is also the ‘working poor’, who Orwell described, and allowing "for these and their dependents, throw in as before the old age pensioners, the destitute and other nondescripts, and you get an underfed population of well over ten millions. Sir John Orr [a nutrition expert of the time] puts it at twenty millions".

Some things have obviously changed since the 1930s; there are fewer families depending on one income, with more women working, etc. But the real unemployment figure in Britain is not the ‘official’ 2.5 million or so but is probably at least a third more than this. Taking into account the number of families affected, it is possible to arrive at a figure, not as high perhaps but relatively similar, to that of George Orwell.

Moreover, poverty has mushroomed as all the recent statistics have shown. The desperation of working-class people, brutally charted by Orwell, is present today. Witness the case of a young woman from Hackney who, late last year, threw herself off a tower block killing herself and her five-month old child, because she had no job, no home and no income.

The description of the lives of sections of the working class such as the miners – now largely disappeared as a force because of de-industrialisation and the defeats of the 1980s and 1990s – is unforgettable. He confesses: "I am not a manual labourer and please God I never shall be one, but there are some kinds of manual work that I could do if I had to… but by no conceivable amount of effort or training could I become a coal-miner; the work would kill me in a few weeks".

Orwell describes the three-feet wide seams in which a miner is sometimes compelled to work, the three-mile agonising walk to the coalface to start work, the amount of effort required to extract coal and earn even a meagre wage. This would convince most people never to even seek to go down a mine, let alone perform the herculean efforts of the miners and the working class generally. Yet the colossal wealth of the possessing classes and British society as a whole has been built on this.

Orwell explains: "If I live to be sixty I shall probably have produced thirty novels, or enough to fill two medium-sized library shelves. In the same period the average miner produces 8,400 tons of coal; enough coal to pave Trafalgar Square nearly two feet deep or to supply seven large families with fuel for over a hundred years".

The miners may have gone but the working class still labours – sometimes as intensively, as with their modern counterparts in China, for instance, in the new sweatshops of world capitalism. Moreover, when Orwell describes poverty, he does it in an unalloyed fashion; not for him the ‘dignity of labour’ but exactly the opposite, the arduous spirit-crushing lot of working-class people.

We read about the overcrowding from a miner; when he was a child "his family had slept eleven in a room and thought nothing of it". As an adult, "he and his wife had lived in one of the old-style back-to-back houses, in which you not only had to walk a couple of hundred yards to the lavatory but often had to wait in a queue when you got there, the lavatory being shared by 36 people". These conditions may no longer be common – with the widespread introduction of inside toilets, baths, etc – but are in the living memory of many of the older generation of working-class people.

Orwell is not, however, completely one-sided, concentrating just on poverty. He also describes the positive communal feelings and the attempt to overcome their circumstances. He writes of his "memory of working-class interiors [of houses]… that reminds me that our age has not been altogether a bad one to live in". But his sweeping condemnation of the consequences of British imperialism comes out clearly: "And this is where it all led – to labyrinthine slums and dark back kitchens with sickly, ageing people creeping round and round them like blackbeetles. It is a kind of duty to see and smell such places now and again, especially smell them, lest you should forget that they exist; though perhaps it is better not to stay there too long".

The heart of the book is a forensic, detailed analysis of the class system. Unbelievably, in the 1930s, the very existence of this class system was questioned – as it has been in the 20 years preceding the present economic crisis in Britain and today. Orwell not only describes the plight of the working class but also the deterioration of the conditions of the "sinking middle class". He mercilessly demolishes the snobbery of what is, in effect, his own class, the middle class: "In the kind of shabby-genteel family that I am talking about there is far more consciousness of poverty than in any working-class family above the level of the dole. Rent and clothes and school-bills are an unending nightmare, and every luxury, even a glass of beer, is an unwarrantable extravagance. Practically the whole family income goes in keeping up appearances".

He describes himself as being born into the "lower-upper-middle class", "or rather sub-caste". Moreover, he is painstakingly honest about his prejudices in the past, his origins, etc. He writes: "When I was fourteen or fifteen I was an odious little snob". At the same time he describes the period after the first world war: "England was nearer revolution than she has been since or had been for a century earlier". This even profoundly affected the middle class, with Orwell describing his (private) school class when, in answer to the question, "‘Whom do you consider the ten greatest men now living?’... Of sixteen boys in the class (our average age was about seventeen) fifteen included Lenin in their list". He also describes the great effect on him of Jack London’s book, The People of the Abyss, in forming his own socialist beliefs. (He drew on this in his book, Down and Out in London and Paris, which is good but not as powerful as London’s earlier great work.)

He argues for clear, simple language, preferring the word ‘robbers’ to describe the bosses; the ‘robbed’ are the working class. This is taken too far when he opposes the use of ‘comrade’ in the labour movement. This is a good term – although perhaps unfamiliar to workers first approaching socialist ideas – to describe those involved in the common struggle for socialism. He can also be a bit dismissive of socialist theory and other writers.

There are other drawbacks in the book, one of the most striking being the underestimation of the state of consciousness and preparedness to take action of the working class. He criticises the "passivity" which he has witnessed in Wigan and elsewhere. But he underestimates the cumulative effect of defeats – the 1926 general strike – as well as the effects of mass unemployment, but above all the lack of an effective leadership of the working class as a whole. Similar problems are posed before the labour movement today.

Yet he is uncompromising in his bitter denunciation of "parlour pinks", largely middle-class, uncommitted socialists, what may be described as "champagne socialists" today: "All that 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". Such sweeping language would be completely inappropriate today. After all, vegetarianism, yoga and even the wearing of sandals are not the preserve of the middle class today!

Nevertheless, the type of ‘leader’ or would-be leader that Orwell describes and is scathing about still infests the labour movement. So do the careerists. Orwell is passionate about socialism and its necessity, seeking to explain it in simple – sometimes simplistic – terms. In his essay, The Lion and the Unicorn, he writes: "England is a family with the wrong members in control".

In his literary criticism of radical writers, he is very sharp and not entirely inaccurate in describing both them and himself at a certain stage as a "snob and a revolutionary". He is also one-sided in what appears to be an attack on "industrialism". Even then, when his approach is questionable, he does bring out issues which are vital for the approach of human beings towards work. The devastating effects of unemployment is as keenly felt as in Orwell’s day; with those affected having no "stake" in society. It is particularly criminal that a million young people in Britain and millions throughout the world face the dead end of not having a job.

But his advocacy of socialism and what needs to be done is clear: "There is no chance of righting the conditions I described in the earlier chapters of this book… 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". A similar task is posed today.

Moreover, his words touch us today because there are great similarities between now and the period of his writings. He wrote: "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". Is this not the situation today in Britain and elsewhere? He goes on: "For enormous blocks of the working class the conditions of life are such as I have described in the opening chapters of this book, and there is no chance of those conditions showing any fundamental improvement… Even the middle classes, for the first time in their history, are feeling the pinch". Ditto again.

His conclusion? "And all the while everyone who uses his brain knows that Socialism, as a world-system and wholeheartedly applied, is a way out… Socialism is such elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed that it has not established itself already. The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system".

Simple but nevertheless fine words. In other comments about the difficulties of advocating socialism, he takes a swipe at Stalinism – without mentioning it by name – the right-wing parliamentary Labour Party of the time, and criticism of writers who have not fully immersed themselves in the problems and struggles of working-class people. The Road to Wigan Pier is a very good book, worthy of revisiting by those who have read it before but particularly for the new generation looking for a way out of the "mess" of capitalism that Orwell describes so effectively.

We need the likes of George Orwell today, chroniclers of the working class, their lives, loves, problems, etc – but also passionately caught up in the battles of the labour movement and for a socialist world. They would give artistic expression in a much more complicated world and a changed working class to the titanic struggles which loom and will provide abundant material for new socialist writers, novelists and artists.


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