The Road to Wigan Pier
George Orwell, 1937

This book is divided into two parts. The first is an account of living conditions among the working class in northern England in the mid-1930s. The second is an address, aimed at socialists, in which Orwell, claiming to be a socialist himself, argues that the socialist movement is doing everything wrong.

This book comes with a foreword by a fellow named Victor Gollancz, of whom I had not previously heard but who turns out to have been the original publisher of this book and whose club commissioned it in the first place. It is an unusual foreword in that it disavows much of the book that follows. After reading the book, I have to say that Gollancz comes out of it looking a lot better than Orwell does.

The fundamental premise of Orwell's argument is that the 1930s mark the end of England as a capitalist nation. It must either turn socialist or it will be engulfed by the rising tide of fascism. This premise, history soon demonstrated, was completely wrong: Tory rule in Britain outlasted fascism, and while the administration that followed could be called socialist, it did not install the sort of socialism Orwell writes about in Wigan Pier. Orwell writes of a thorough re-ordering of society. He's not talking about Clement Attlee.

That said, it's hard to know exactly what Orwell means by the "socialism" he purports to advocate. He says it has nothing to do with Lenin and Marx and Hegel, but rather with "justice and liberty." As Gollancz points out, this is all well and good, but given that the "national socialists" down in Germany claim that justice and liberty are precisely what they are providing, Orwell might do well to at least give a hint about how his program would differ from theirs.

Instead, Orwell rails against everything he doesn't want mixed up with socialism. One is the idea of technological progress. Orwell starts by channeling Ted Kaczynski, arguing that technology is creating a world designed for "little fat men" — a phrase he seems quite fond of given how often he repeats it — rather than one built for the noble coal miners whose naked bodies Orwell drools over in the first part. Technology, Orwell laments, has made us "soft," and we're getting "softer" all the time — and here he leaves the Unabomber behind and basically starts reciting Zager and Evans lyrics: "Why, for instance, use your hands at all — why use them even for blowing your nose or sharpening a pencil? Surely you could fix some kind of steel and rubber contraption to your shoulders and let your arms wither into stumps of skin and bone?" No, Orwell declares, let us turn away from The Year Fifty-Five Fifty-Five, because not only is unmechanized labor great for hardening men (ahem), but it also gives people something to do. There is a long passage in Wigan Pier in which Orwell demonstrates an inability to imagine what people might do with the leisure time provided by technology. Say you decide you'd like to make a table, he suggests, just for fun. But—but—thanks to machines, you can just buy a table! So you would never do that! Fuckin' machines. "In such circumstances it is nonsense to talk of 'creative work,'" he asserts. Damn straight. Like, imagine how creative we all could be if we didn't have these goddamn computers holding us back. Tragic, it is.

But that's only half the problem. What else must be divorced from socialism if it's to stand a chance? Why, the "inferior people" currently associated with it! The most typical socialist, Orwell contends, is "a prim little man with a white-collar job" who, worse yet, is a "teetotaller with vegetarian leanings." Hey, he's me! Holy crow, I'm the one holding socialism back! I haven't felt so guilty since a girl in Orange County told me that after I died Jesus would take over the world.

Orwell repeatedly rips through a long list of everything associated with socialism that he despises. But before we get to the list, it's worth taking a step back to look at the lead-up to it. A big chunk of the second half of Wigan Pier is about class prejudice, and it's heavy on autobiography: Orwell offers himself up as a case study of a middle-class boy who was raised to react to the working class with revulsion, to be nauseated at the smell of proletarian sweat. He says he was only able to overcome this upbringing by becoming a military policeman in Burma, seeing the horrors of imperialism firsthand, returning to England as a sworn enemy of oppression in all its forms, and embracing the working class as victims of oppression — not just in the abstract, but by living among them, going to working-class bars, staying in lodging-houses, and so forth. He concludes this thread by arguing that the fortunes of the middle class in England have fallen so far that, economically, the typists and schoolteachers are in the same boat as the coal miners and garage mechanics, so the former must set aside their revulsion and work with the latter for their common interests.

Fair enough. But then Orwell proceeds to react with horror when a couple of guys in shorts — and without hats! even though one has long hair and the other is "obscenely bald"! — board his bus. And it turns out that these are socialists! Orwell can't work with these people! Sandals send him into a rage! Beards make him foam at the mouth! (In this respect he is like the supposedly "liberal" pundits of our time who cannot accept that they were wrong to support the Iraq war because, well, the people who opposed it from the beginning were, were, were hippies!) Orwell's litany goes on — and then suddenly he's sneering at pacifism and feminism and birth control, and Victor Gollancz is like, yo, hold up.

"This last is really startling," Gollancz writes. "In the first part of the book Mr. Orwell paints a most vivid picture of wretched rooms swarming with children, and clearly becoming more and more unfit for human habitation the larger the family grows: but he apparently considers anyone who wishes to enlighten people as to how they can have a normal sexual life without increasing this misery as a crank!" Gollancz ticks off other items on the list. To Orwell, "a hatred of war" makes you a crank. To Orwell, "a desire to see woman no longer oppressed by men" makes you a crank. (Hey, women are "soft"!) And we don't even have to speculate as to what Orwell thought of anyone who might support equal rights for all the "Nancies" out there. So, uh, what the fuck was this guy's problem?

Gollancz blames Orwell's "compulsion to conform to the mental habits of his class." I think Gollancz is right, but I'd put it slightly differently. Let's back up to the beginning of Orwell's list, before he gets to the pacifists and feminists, before he derides Quakers and sexual liberation, even before he mocks the naturists. (Molly Mockery cries!) What does Orwell come back to over and over again? Yes, beards, yes, sandals, but what's his number one target? Fruit juice. Over and over he comes back to the fruit juice. Why?

The key, it turns out, lies back in part one. Orwell is talking about how welfare in England is pegged to the cost of food. He recalls the debate over how much should be provided, and compares a typical food budget for an unemployed miner's family with one that appeared in a letter to the editor of a magazine and contained items such as wheat bread and dates. Now, both budgets make an allowance for a beverage in the morning — after all, it was as true in 1937 as it is today that there isn't a man, woman, or child alive who doesn't enjoy a lovely beverage. The miner and his family spend two shillings and nine pence for tea with sugar. The letter-writer spends five pence for oranges to squeeze into juice. Is not the latter approach both a wiser use of money and more nutritious? "Yes," Orwell answers, "but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing." Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! I'm trying to find a joke here, but when you're starting with a man insisting that it is inconceivable that having orange juice for breakfast will ever become popular, well, there's really no way to make that funnier. In any case, the important thing is not the ridiculousness of Orwell's prediction. It's the phrase "ordinary human being."

This phrase and others much like it recur over and over again in Wigan Pier: "ordinary human being," "ordinary decent person," "ordinary man," "ordinary sensible people," "ordinary people," "ordinary working man." There is no higher compliment Orwell can think to bestow than "ordinary." And since feminism isn't "ordinary," Orwell's against it. Birth control isn't "ordinary" either. Vegetarianism most certainly isn't ordinary: on the contrary, "by definition" a vegetarian is "out of touch with common humanity." And teetotaling? Hell, how can you be ordinary if you don't spend all your time at the pub like an ordinary person?

Gollancz describes Orwell as "at one and the same time an extreme intellectual and a violent anti-intellectual," and there is some of that on display here. The closest Orwell comes to praising intellectual pursuits comes at the end of a paragraph in which Orwell again denounces the "bearded fruit-juice drinker" (though that could be most any paragraph in the book). He singles out, as "one of the finest types of man we have," "the type who remains working-class — who goes on working as a mechanic or a dock-labourer or whatever it may be and does not bother to change his working-class accent and habits, but who 'improves his mind' in his spare time." The man who, in short, doesn't let his book larnin' keep him from remaining Ordinary. Orwell contrasts this hero with the worst specimens of the proletariat: those who emerge from it and enter the middle class, by means of scholarships and the like.

Insert "needle scratching on vinyl record" sound effect here. Orwell was a scholarship boy! For that matter, Orwell doesn't work with his hands — except in operating a typewriter, one of those infernal machines — and he doesn't have a coal miner's delectable body either. And he knows it, imagining a critic accusing him of romanticizing the "ordinary" life of manual labor: "I don't want hard work, you don't want hard work — nobody wants it who knows what it means. You only talk as you do because you've never done a day's work in your life,' etc., etc." Orwell concedes, "I am a degenerate modern semi-intellectual who would die if I did not get my early morning cup of tea and my New Statesman every Friday. Clearly I do not, in a sense, 'want' to return to a simpler, harder, probably agricultural way of life. In the same sense I don't 'want' to cut down my drinking, to pay my debts, to take enough exercise, to be faithful to my wife, etc., etc. But in another and more permanent sense I do want these things."

Two points here and then I'll be finished. I was struck by how the above statement by Orwell maps onto something Ross Raszewski once said that struck me as rather insightful. To wit: "The difference between the liberal and the conservative is that the liberal says, 'I want to cheat on my wife, so I guess I believe in polyamory,' whereas the conservative says, 'I want to cheat on my wife, so I guess I'm a bad person.'" Orwell might call himself a socialist, and he might advocate improving the economic standing of the working class, but the way he slams anyone who is remotely progressive makes it clear that he's an ardent cultural conservative — and thus, like Markos Moulitsas, like Pat Buchanan, a populist more than anything else. And if the Raszewski test is anything to go by, his soul is that of a conservative as well. He may not practice what he preaches, but at least he hates himself for it instead of changing his message.

And so ultimately The Road to Wigan Pier is less a political tract than a psychodrama. Orwell once wrote that certain works of literature gave the reader a very clear picture of the author; viewed in this light, Wigan Pier emerges as a self-portrait of a man who, because his name is Eric and because he went to a school for rich kids, is terrified that he's too soft, insufficiently manly. So he overcompensates, like Chris Matthews going into raptures about Fred Thompson's musk. His intellect tells him to be a socialist, but inside him is a twelve-year-old who never grew up and is haunted by the question, "Is that normal?"

I think I'll have a glass of orange juice now.

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