The Road to Wigan Pier

by George Orwell

Cover image

Publisher: Harcourt
Copyright: 1937
Printing: 1958
ISBN: 0-15-676750-3
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 232

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In 1936, the Left Book Club commissioned Orwell to write about the working conditions in industrial northern England. Orwell's career at the time was just starting. He had published three novels, but was best known (as he was throughout his life) for his journalism, book reviews, and essays. He spent two months travelling through northern England and living with the working or unemployed poor, gathering material for the first half of The Road to Wigan Pier: a vivid and memorable portrayal of the life of English industrial workers, particularly coal miners, in the midst of the Great Depression.

Orwell is exceptionally good at descriptive journalism. The first half of this book shines in part becaues it is not sensationalist; it doesn't focus on single events or catastrophic accidents as most journalism about coal mines does today. Instead, Orwell paints a far more comprehensive picture of a way of life, both home and work, supported almost entirely by personal observation and research. He shows the economic implications of unemployment, describes in detail the housing conditions, and skewers several prevailing misconceptions at the time (such as the idea that miners wouldn't want to bathe even if they had the opportunity). He does this all in a lean, efficient, and concrete style, without dramatics and constantly grounded in what he witnessed first-hand.

One doesn't realize how rare good investigative journalism is until one has the opportunity to read a piece like this. Orwell's descriptions are compellingly immersive. He builds a sense of place and atmosphere supported simultaneously on impressions and specifics. A detailed breakdown of where the money goes in a typical working family provides the foundation under descriptions of the appearance and squalor of the housing, and of remarkably memorable events such as the scramble for waste coal. Both appear in the same chapter with an eye-opening discussion of why poor families would "waste" some of their money on unhealthy sweets rather than nourishing food.

The first half of the book, despite some commentary, is primarily descriptive rather than political. The second half takes an entirely different, and more personal and political, approach to the subject. Here, Orwell starts with the premises that the conditions are obviously unacceptable, and that socialism could clearly improve those conditions, and then asks why, in the face of such obvious injustice and appalling conditions, everyone is not a socialist.

Here, I think most modern readers will receive several shocks of adjustment of perspective. The degree to which Orwell can assume his readers believe in socialism as a clear solution, and more fundamentally, believe that capitalism is an obvious failure, is startling to a modern reader (at least in the United States). To some extent, this is an artifact of his audience; the book was specifically commissioned by a socialist book club. However, I think it goes deeper than audience. This is a book written in the heart of the Great Depression, when capitalism did seem like an obvious failure and a dead end, when socialism under that name was far more popular, and before (as Orwell writes about at great length in other works) Communism revealed itself to be fascism in a different guise. I think it's challenging, to the current reader, to guess at the connotations of such words as socialism as Orwell thought of them and intended them, while keeping them separate from the connotations of the words today, tainted by authoritarian communism.

But if one can read past that, Orwell's questioning of why everyone is not a socialist is a startling critique of progressive politics even today. Many of his points (written from the devil's advocate position) mirror exactly critiques of progressives and liberal Democrats in the US today. Not all of them: the affected and incomprehensible language of Marxism is largely gone from political discussions, and from the other side of the development of the computer, Orwell's dislike of machines and industrialization now looks quaint. The idea of socialists as the political party of technology has been so altered by environmentalism that it's hard to read that portion of the essay as anything other than history.

But many of his critiques are still rarely confronted and difficult to discuss productively. Orwell starts by tackling, with a great deal of brutal honesty and personal biography, the tricky issue of class identification and the visceral dislike someone raised middle-class has for the poor. He uses his own class background as an example and memorably describes his feeling as a young man that lower-class people smell, and from there the leap to believing they are somehow inherently dirty. This prejudice is rarely discussed in US politics except in code, but one can see it vividly in the politics of nutrition, obesity, and homelessness. Even many of the racial divides in US politics are, in part, coded class divides; the politics of immigration in California come particularly to mind. Failure to separate a visceral negative reaction to the effects of poverty from the people who are poor is still endemic today. One need look no further than news coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to see innumerable examples.

Orwell goes on to point out the tendency of progressive movements to pick up people viewed as quacks and cranks by the broader population, and to have the progressive core message derailed by tangentially related concerns. Reading this passage from a distance of seventy years is eye-opening. I think most activists would identify with this problem and be able to come up with a list of modern analogues. Animal rights, marijuana legalization, and veganism immediately came to my mind, some of which Orwell also mentions and some of which are new.

However, at the same time, this passage underscores the degree to which a cause that looks ridiculous to one person in one time can be proven vital when seen from a later perspective. Orwell shows this by being spectacularly wrong on birth control, lumping it in with nudism and vegetarianism as the sort of thing that turns people off on socialism. History has proven him badly mistaken (and he's rightly called on it in the fascinating introduction by Victor Gollancz — more on that in a moment). It captures the dilemma beautifully. Those seeking change in a society attract everyone seeking change, including changes that are ridiculous or simply impossible and that alienate the rest of society, but some of those ridiculous changes turn out to be exactly the necessary ones.

Compared to the clear-eyed description and detail of the first part, the second part of The Road to Wigan Pier is problematic, subjective, controversial, and tricky. It's one thing to read descriptions of miserable lives from a distance, to nod sadly to oneself and think "how horrible," and quite another to try to find a sweeping change to society that would resolve or at least ameliorate such problems. Orwell doesn't stop with observation; he risks discussing political solutions and why they may or may not appeal to the general population. In doing so, he gets some things badly wrong and displays some of his own prejudices and blind spots, but he also challenges the reader to find a way of arguing for change that will convince. Whether one agrees with Orwell's specific program (and from this book, hampered by shifting and murky definitions of socialism, it's hard to tell what that program would be), he brings fresh honesty to the problem of building an inclusive political movement.

The second part of the book was sufficiently controversial even at the time that Victor Gollancz, the publisher and one of the heads of the Left Book Club, attached an introduction that both praises the journalism and tries to respin and distance himself from Orwell's analysis. I came into this book (as I think will most readers) biased in Orwell's favor, but Gollancz is not entirely wrong. Both he and Orwell have different blind spots, and I found I agreed with Gollancz entirely on some things (his argument in favor of birth control is simple and compelling) and Orwell on others (Gollancz takes great offense to the idea that the middle class think poor people smell, something that, while rarely said, is still part of class politics in the US today). I recommend finding an edition of this book that has the introduction intact; I think it's worth reading.

Part one of The Road to Wigan Pier requires little analysis or interpretation to be informative and compelling. It opens a window into a world with which few of us are familiar and into working conditions that still persist today, particularly in places like mining towns in Africa. Part two is more of a challenge. It helped me to have the additional background of Orwell's papers from the same time and to have read A People's History of the United States to have a clearer idea of what Orwell means by socialism, given the degree to which the word has been robbed of meaning in the US. (I suspect readers from Europe would have less difficulty.) But with that adjustment, I think provides a remarkable insight into what politics looked like in Britain during the Great Depression and into challenges of politics of social justice that persist today.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-08-30

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