Wednesday 12 October 2011

Orwell October: The Road to Wigan Pier

At first, I thought I wasn't going to get on with The Road to Wigan Pier. It's a non-fiction book, and because it's Orwell it deals with a lot of the social problems prevalent in the 1930s, and I mean, while I have sympathy for the miners (both in and out of work) of the thirties, reading a whole book about them and their woes wasn't exactly my idea of a good time. Fortunately for me, the second half of the book proved to be surprisingly interesting (well, that sounds harsh, but you know what I mean) and informative to the state of Socialism in the thirties, and it actually taught me a lot about the ways in which socialism can fail.

The first part was a bit of a slog though, I've got to admit, because there's a lot of talk about shillings and the way that miners lived, and while interesting, it's difficult to relate to because the social problems that exist now are so different, although no less serious. I've got to admit that I sort of skimmed over this section, and didn't really get much out of it other than, you know, it was (and I'm sure still is) really hard being a miner. What did still completely ring true though, was the things Orwell writes about unemployment- the fact that it's completely crushing, and depressing, and just an awful state to be in, especially when there actually are NO JOBS (this is just a description of my life for the past year, and it's really no surprise considering that we're in the middle of the worst depression since the thirties, I think?) Orwell says so many things that are just true about unemployment, and this is possibly the best:
"There is no doubt about the deadening, debilitating effect of unemployment upon everybody, married or single, and upon men more than upon women. [ok, so that I don't agree with, obviously. But that probably was slightly more true in the thirties, which isn't a good thing but still the way things were.] The best intellects will not stand up against it... to write books you need not only comfort and solitude - and solitude is never easy to attain in a working class home - you also need peace of mind. You can't settle to anything, you can't command the spirit of hope in which anything has got to be created, with that dull evil cloud of unemployment hanging over you."
 Ain't that the truth though, George?

The second part of the book, anyway, is a lot more interesting in relation to now, and has a lot to say about why Socialism just wasn't working in the thirties, and why it wasn't the least likely thing that Fascism could become the new political structure because Socialism just wasn't good enough to fight against it. I found this interesting, because in my eyes, Socialism is the complete opposite of Fascism, but, according to Orwell's reasoning (which, to be honest, I found faultless) the ultimate end of Socialism is a form of Fascism. This was ultimately a terrifying and hideous thought, but, as Orwell puts it, it's all ok- as long as Socialists remember that, at the root of everything they do is "Liberty and Justice", then all will be well.

I learnt so much about Socialism from this book, actually, that hadn't ever really crossed my mind before, and it's definitely given me a lot to think about. One thing that was most surprising, was the idea that Socialism is all about having a fully mechanised society, having machines to do things people could do, and in general having everything scheduled and perfected down to a point where nothing spontaneous can be done, so nothing bad happens, but at the same time, nothing really happens at all. This was so interesting to me because, whenever I think of Socialism, I think of a happy, smiley world, where everyone helps each other and everyone is well provided for and whether or not you get healthcare doesn't depend on whether you can afford to pay for it or not, and all other crazy ideas like that. I don't dispute Orwell though, because obviously one way to make things better for everyone, is to make everything easier for them. This whole vision of the machine driven world is a pretty horrible one when taken to its extreme, and it is clear in Orwell's telling of this just where the roots of 1984 were coming from.

Orwell, as he always does, has some bright ideas for the future of Socialism, and they are ones which I think still stand true today. Above all, he considers himself a true Socialist (thankfully!), and in order to prevent Fascism from seeming like an appealing prospect, Socialism must change the way it appears from the outside. While those promoting it may well fully believe what they do, the way they act, by being basically giant hippies (before there even were hippies) is not the best way, Orwell believes, to spread their cause. I think this makes sense (much as I love hippies)- if you think about an average Working Class person in the 1930s, who really believes to his core that he's entitled to the same things as any other person, but who is completely put off of the Socialists by their crazy hippy clothes and hair and their vegetarianism, and sort of back away thinking that, these people who are so different to them, can't possibly help them. What Orwell suggests is that, what's really important for Socialists is to not think of class as being about upbringing and accent and all other superficial things like that, but rather in what people earn- Orwell himself, for example, earns not much more than a working class man, but he has a middle-class upbringing (and an upper-class education) but, as long as everyone can get past all the superficial stuff, then they can really work together to effect real, positive change.

So, The Road to Wigan Pier turned out to be full of hidden gems. I recommend it as part of the whole Orwell experience, but there is little in the first section that really needs to be read (at least nowadays) and so much in the second section that still seems relevant today. There is also some discussion of Down and Out in Paris and London, and how that book came about, so if that's one of your favourites (as it is one of mine) this book provides a fun little addition to it. The main point of this book: Socialism=yay, as long as you do it the Orwell way. So, what are you waiting for? Off you go and spread Socialism, you lovely people!


  1. HIPPIIIIIES! *shakes fist*

    "you can't command the spirit of hope in which anything has got to be created"

    TOTES. Yes. Also, this reminded me of Woolf's A Room of One's Own, which is one of my favorite things.

    I tend to look at Socialism with a suspicious expression, but I appreciate when people acknowledge that the hippie expression of it might not be the most effective way of spreading it. It's like the people doing the 99% protest. I don't know about other cities, but in Chicago they're pretty much just taking up the sidewalk and being really smelly.

  2. I definitely need to read A Room of One's Own, not least because I need a room of my own *sigh*. I'm totes a giant socialist, but I do appreciate the kind of image that socialists give off as basically being giant hippies- but I believe you can be a socialist and still wash, as does Orwell! So, yay!