The Road to Wigan Pier - George Orwell

This, the sequel to Down and Out in Paris and London, is another two-parter. The first part covers Orwell's trip to the industrial North, where he stayed with working-class families and discovered the true depth of poverty there in the '30s. The second part he spends discussing how Socialism can be made more mainstream.

The first half is quite heavy on numbers, in pounds, shillings and pence. While this level of detail might have provided a solid, factual backdrop at the time, allowing the reader to understand the true level of poverty, it now acts as a barrier. Fortunately, the non-numerical parts are very evocative. It really does give a good feeling for quite how unpleasant life was. It's strange to see what's changed and what's stayed the same. Slum clearance has changed housing, but the worst is still pretty disfunctional. Orwell discusses how the working class food is neither nutricious or good value for money, and the problems of do-gooders trying to improve the diet with a lack of understanding of deeper issues. Mumble, mumble, Jamie Oliver.

The second half is rather more interesting. It focuses on the problems associated with the acceptance of socialism, which he viewed as vital if fascism was to be avoided. The book was written during a depression, as Fascism stalked Europe. The Empire was in noticable decline. Yet, as always, the short-term and long-term situation have been confused. In the longer term, a capitalistic democracy with weak socialist tendencies has actually done pretty well. Certainly, the lot of the working class has improved in absolute terms, if not relative. (At the time Orwell appeared to be happy with a revolutionary approach to socialism, so it's been interesting to read about his change of viewpoint in Homage to Catalonia.)

Orwell initially discusses the problem of trying to work around class barriers in socialism. He's not got any good answers here, but addresses the problem with refreshing honesty. He then lays down the main problems of acceptance as socialism's association with mechanised progress and 'cranks'. On the first issue, he rails against progress for progress's sake, but seems to miss that mechanisation need not just reduce work and close down possible forms of expression, but can also make new new work and new forms of expression available. Technical progress on the whole has been good for us. He ridicules the idea of people deliberately creating anachronism, but gym fanatics and art and craft hobbyists show him to be wrong. On the other hand, he does have a point with the blunting of taste in a mass-production society. Ho hum. Moreover, it's odd in retrospect that he aligns 'progress' so closely to socialism, rather than the hated capitalism.

His other issue with the acceptance of socialism was that so many socialists were cranks. Specifically, teetotallers, vegetarians, 'fruit-juice drinkers, nudists, sandal-wearers, sex-maniacs, Quakers, 'Nature Cure' quacks, pacifists and feminists'. It's certainly a sign of the times that pretty much everything in that list is now way more socially acceptable than being a revolutionary socialist!

In all, this can't be much more than a historical document. The section on Wigan captures the time and place well, but the second half is both simlultaneously more interesting and disappointing. It captures the attitudes of a man who is pragmatic enough to laugh at the 'historical inevitability' of Communism, and to try to focus on 'justice and liberty', but who has been just full-on wrong historically. Perhaps it is a good reminder of how unpredictable the world can be.

Posted 2008-10-26.