The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell

Man, this book is one weird little kettle of fish. Starting with a faintly apologetic prologue from its patron, who seems a bit confused as to how Orwell reached the conclusions he reached. I’m a bit confused too, and I’m not sure Orwell was clear on it himself.

The first half of the work is really very good, making the best use of Orwell’s reporting skills to deliver a stark and fairly harrowing view of lower-class life in a dreary mining town. There are occasional digressions into what appears to be his main point in the second half of the book, but for the most part this section is both emotionally effective and well-observed.

But it all runs off the rails when Orwell abandons report and takes up the form of a manifesto. Having explored the sad lives of the working classes in Britain, Orwell is prepared to deliver a report on what socialist movements have to do in order to actually get this class onboard: namely, jettison all those supercilious academic types. I can admit a certain amount of sympathy with this viewpoint, despite being a supercilious academic type myself. There’s certainly a sort of intellectual evangelist out there (which I have particularly noted in the realms of free software, atheism, vegetarianism, and polyamory) whose arguments for how much superior their beliefs are get enrobed in such a thick layer of smugness that they lose the sympathy even of their own allies.

I’ve always marveled at the way that the poorer states and classes in America — particularly the ones who would benefit most from a strong social welfare system — time and again vote against those who would implement it. There are a lot of complicating factors (especially in America, where race and guns muddy the issue a lot more than they do in Britain), but there’s definitely an image-management issue on the left, which somehow has been successfully spun as the left wanting to “tell people what to do”, presumably in that unbearable supercilious way of theirs*.

Now, if I knew how to deal with this problem, I would be a Democratic Party strategist and not a math professor, but I’m pretty sure Orwell is on the wrong track. Orwell’s solution appears to be to excise enough from the progressive agenda to no longer represent actual progress (actually, on rethinking, maybe the actual Democratic strategists figure Orwell had the right idea). To provide a quick list of the people Orwell thinks do more harm than good in the party, here’s a good contemptuous quote:

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.

Lest you think I’m unfairly highlighting a particularly absurd litany, later he gets mad enough to list the dilettantes of socialism again, and refers to
that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of “progress” like bluebottles to a dead cat.

So, what does Orwell hold up as the true perils to the movement? Fruit juice. Sandals. Feminism. The first two are honestly bewildering and perplexing; the third is reactionary but I can at least see why he might view feminism as alienating to the salt-of-the-earth types.

But what Orwell seems to miss completely is that a political movement can’t be made exclusively of the lower classes, not without actual violent revolution. Political activity is basically a middle- and upper-class predilection, and these classes take a wider view of “progress” than purely bettering the lot of coal miners (although, yes, coal miners are on the agenda). He also doesn’t seem to recognize that progressive purposes are interlinked: that pacifism can and should coexist with a focus on social welfare, because funding is finite and wars are expensive. To say nothing (unlike the patron, who really rips into him for this) of birth control as a significant part of empowering the lower classes to take charge of their fortunes.

So it’s not clear to me why Orwell really thinks that the party has to ruthlessly trim the effete intellectuals away from their ranks. He wants his party to be full specifically of miners, or whom he says:

It is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realise what splendid men they are. Most of them are small… but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere.

Ahem. Goodness. I can see how that might appeal to a certain sort of person, but it’s a very poor criterion for admission to participation in the cause of Socialism.

* Admittedly, this doesn’t explain Newt Gingrich, who remains popular among anti-intellectuals despite radiating intellectual smugness without the mitigating factor of actually having something intelligent to say. back.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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