Wigan Pier

In 1936, British publisher, Victor Gollancz agreed to publish a book by Eric Arthur Blair on the imprint of the Left Book Club. Blair had been educated at Eton, but having failed to secure a University scholarship, had joined the British colonial service as a policeman in Burma. He came back to Europe as resolute opponent of colonialism and British snobbery. He was destitute and homeless for a period of time. He became a teacher, an assistant in a bookstore and a writer. His first full book, Down and Out in Paris and London, was published in 1933 under his pen name, George Orwell.

To write The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell visited the coal mining cities of the industrial north of England and lived with miners and their families in rooming houses and in their homes. The well-known first part of the book contains his description of work in the mines and life in the mining cities. It is careful, rigorous, first-person investigative journalism. (The Wikipedia entry on The Road to Wigan Pier has a good summary). Orwell had a keen eye for details. His prose style was clean. He describes the hard tough work of the coal mines, the dirty working conditions and the poor living conditions, making the point that many of the things held against the working class by the middle class – dirt, squalor – are not due to genetic or moral failings. The workers work hard, within a system that does not reward them equitably, and marginalizes their value as human beings.
The second part of the book is an essay about the British class system, industrialism, socialism and fascism. It reads well although Orwell repeats himself on some points. He wrote the book in about 12 weeks before going to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Although Orwell took a strong stance in favour of socialism, Gollancz wasn’t comfortable with Orwell’s ideas. He published the book as the Left Book Club selection in March 1937, having added a forward, which tried to distance the club from Orwell. His forward has been republished with the main work in print edition of The Complete Works of George Orwell. Orwell identified himself as a socialist for most of his career. The government thought he was a troublemaker. The conservative literary elites shunned him, and he had trouble getting his work published. The British Left didn’t like him because he was a critic of Soviet Communism (Stalinism). He was at odds with the conventional thought of the Left for most of his writing career.
The first three chapters of the second part of the book discuss snobbery and the British class system. Orwell’s approach is introspective and personal. He doesn’t use the terms culture and socialization, but that’s what he is describing. He considers himself to be a product of the lower middle classes – status conscious, economically insecure, and deriving a sense of security and satisfaction from snobbish discrimination against the working class in Britain and peoples of the rest of the world. Many of Orwell’s critics and enemies accuse him of saying that the people in the working classes smell. What he said is that he was convinced, as a child at home and at school, that they smell. Orwell also suggested that the working classes had their own sense of snobbishness toward the middle classes, and that Northerners were snobbish about the South. His use of the concept of snob incorporates the self-righteous moral superiority of the oppressed as well as the arrogance of the oppressor.
His descriptions of British socialism won him few friends. He thought socialism was dominated by members of the upper and middle classes – marginal to other members of their own class, and utterly alien to the real working class. He described the British socialist movement as a coalition of special interests united in their view of their moral superiority to the rest of their own class, and to the working class:

In addition to this there is the horrible – the really disquieting – prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. 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. One day this summer I was riding through Letchworth when the bus stopped and two dreadful-looking old men got on to it. They were both about sixty, both very short, pink, and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in the Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple. Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on top of the bus. The man next to me, a commercial traveller I should say, glanced at me, at them, and back again at me, and murmured ‘Socialists’ … He was probably right–the I.L.P. were holding their summer school at Letchworth. But the point is that to him, as an ordinary man, a crank meant a Socialist and a Socialist meant a crank.

His discussion of early 20th century socialism is a forerunner of modern critiques of identity politics and political correctness. His comments on feminism have been criticized by modern feminists. His criticism of feminism was a critique of the English middle class idea of the feminine, and the idealization of the feminine virtues as a pretext for snobbery and class prejudice. His critical perspective is honest, and delicately balanced. Like the later British social historians, he deflates the snobbish pretensions of the high culture of the British empire and the British middle classes. However he holds to ideals of common sense and decency, and rejects the appeals of Marxist dialectics, psychoanalytic jargon and fashionable nihilism.
He dismissed socialist theory as irrelevant to the real concerns of working people. He thought British socialism had no traction with the middle class, and little traction with the working class. As an aside, he has some withering things to say about upwardly mobile working class literary figures, who strive for acceptance in the middle class, but are scorned by the middle class. His discussion critique of socialism becomes even more interesting when he considers the relationship between socialism and industrialization. He notes that the English looked back with nostalgia for the time when England had been what Blake had famously described in the hymn Jerusalem as a “green and pleasant land” undefiled by “dark Satanic mills”, and he was conscious of a wide aesthetic reaction against industrialism.
He describes socialism as the great ideology of the machine age. He saw the socialist propaganda of the age as unsettling and untrustworthy. Socialists were fond of predicting the benefits of socialism. The typical socialist vision of the day when the workers controlled the means of production was that all people would be fulfilled in an earthly paradise, a human race of geniuses and supermen at play. Orwell wondered if the mechanization of labour would produce a race of healthy people. The working miners he saw in the coal mines were physically awesome. Would we see such strong men in a society where no one worked? And why would we assume that an industrial society could exist without defiling England’s pastoral splendor? He couldn’t see an industrial society working without some kind of totalitarian social controls. This provides an insight into the vision that inspired Nineteen Eighty-Four. The same fears could be said to have inspired Tolkien’s dark vision of legions of deformed men enslaved by the dark lords in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Lewis’s Arcadian vision of Narnia.
Orwell presented British socialism as an unreal vision peddled by marginal people to an untrusting public. He saw, accurately, the appeal of anti-modern thinking in British culture, and the appeal of fascism to large segments of the British public. His basic advice to the socialist movement was to address itself to justice and freedom, to lose its fondness for bragging about new factories in Russia, to lose its love of Marxist theory, and to attack the totalitarian threat of fascism.
The Road to Wigan Pier provides some interesting insights into Orwell’s character. More importantly, it contains an honest personal record of Orwell’s navigation of the cultural and political currents of British society during the Great Depression. Most importantly, he claims a unique honest and moral stance as a writer and critic.


One response to “Wigan Pier”

  1. Garth Danielson Avatar
    Garth Danielson

    I always enjoyed Jerusalem. And not just from that great Monty Python sketch where they have to get in the box and sing Jerusalem to get some crazy shop clerk out from under a bag. I think it was a bag. I haven’t seen that sketch in a couple or three years. The music was great too. It’s pretty much a perfect hymn in my mind, but I have limited experience with that sort of thing.
    I hadn’t read Wigan Pier but I have stripped the covers off of two copies in recent years. There is paperback with a Richard Powers cover. It comes in two editions. I have both. I pealed the covers off the books to save space and only kept a few of the books to read. Most of Powers 1500 covers were on SF books but many were on poetry and non-fiction. I have more than 400 covers. Richard Powers was great. Look at some of his stuff here…
    You can see the Wigan Pier cover here…
    I read Down and Out back in my more bohemian days. And that’s not last week, either. I remember liking it.
    I guess I am still some what of a socialist but that doesn’t play in the usa very much. People are too brain washed against it. Smacks of communism and those isms aren’t very good, unless it capitolism. I often tell people we need to privatize some industry or another, but they don’t trust the government enough to believe that it could work. I just out and out don’t trust people enough to believe any of it works all that well. They will eventually push the wrong button.
    Oh, well got to go. Almost time for movie night. I think we are watching a big alligator eatin’ people movie. We didn’t watch it last week and I didn’t get anything new this week. I got a few old things on sale like But, I’m A Cheerleader. Try to catch this, very funny.

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