Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier”

George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier was published by a left-wing propaganda outfit during the frightening expansion of fascism in Europe, and Orwell intended it to make a sort of desperate case for Socialism as the necessary and only likely remedy for that coming plague.

The book starts with an apology by the publisher for Orwell’s ideological carelessness and political incorrectness, for the sometimes insulting things he has to say about the holy proletariat, and for his attacks on the Socialist movement. To the modern reader, this is a sales pitch, not an apology: good old Orwell doing his cantankerous bunkum-smashing act — just what I was hoping for!

The first part of Orwell’s book is a first-hand investigation of the lives of coal miners and of the unemployed in northern England. Solid, evocative journalism, though Orwell speaks for his subjects rather than letting them speak much (except to point out how they drop their “aitches”).

Following this is a discussion of the state of the Socialist movement in England, and Orwell’s analysis of why it is losing ground. By Socialism (which he capitalizes throughout), he means a top-down, centrally-planned, world-spanning thing — and he doesn’t show any evidence of having considered other models (he seems to have remedied this soon after, judging from some of the admiring comments he made about Spanish anarchism as he viewed it during the Civil War). He doesn’t have much patience for Socialist theory or for its dreary and off-putting terminology — bourgeois this, proletarian that, expropriate the expropriators, comrade — but sees Socialism as just a simple matter of getting the exploiters off of the backs of the exploited… we’ll work out the details later:

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.

Why, he asks, doen’t Socialists drop all of the Marxist jargon, “the sacred sisters: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” and stick to a simple story “about justice, liberty, and the plight of the unemployed.”

It’s hard to believe that someone with so little tolerance for humbug as Orwell couldn’t see that the devil is in the details here — that saying “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” is easy, but enacting it in a way that doesn’t throw justice and liberty out the window is a circle that has yet to be squared.