Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

I had a mental image of this book that wasn't really correct. You might have it, too.

The standard blurb for The Road to Wigan Pier goes something like this: "In 1937, the Left Book Club sent jobbing Socialist writer George Orwell to investigate the plight of unemployed miners in the North of England. He wrote movingly about their suffering, and the lives of their families and their fellows who are still working." That's not entirely untrue, but it only partially describes the first half of this short book.

In the first hundred pages of Wigan Pier, Orwell visits a few mines and a few miner's homes, giving us some specific reportorial details. But he spends as much time with statistics and theory, explaining why the miner's lives are so horrible and how only The March Of International Socialism can save them. The second hundred pages see Orwell grappling with the inconvenient problem that Socialism was a third-rate political movement in England in 1937, populated mostly by cranks and monomaniacs and weirdos. (Not "decent normal people," his tedious refrain, with himself as the type specimen.) It also sees him spend several chapters describing in tedious detail his own specific set of class-prejudices, and extrapolating outward to assume he can diagnose the prejudices of all the "decent normal people."

(Note that "people" here, and throughout Wigan Pier, clearly means "men." One of the categories of people who are not "decent normal people" is feminists. One frankly starts to assume "decent normal people" is code for "middle-class Tory men," and wonders if politics were different enough eighty years ago that Orwell actually believed his beloved Socialists had a chance.)

The big problem with a book of political agitprop, of course, is that it dates quickly. And Wigan Pier has had eighty years to date. The central battle of the 20th century did not turn out to be Fascism vs. Socialism: Fascism was burned out in one big war, though periodic smaller outbreaks have occurred since. And, not to be too nitpicky, but it wasn't Socialism that defeated the Axis powers, either. Yes, the ruins of Europe moved in a generally leftward direction after the war, but Orwell was a true believer at this point: by Socialism he meant the whole shebang, with government ownership of everything and all the middle classes having "[sunk] without further struggles into the working class where we belong." He spends a lot of time on the devil's-advocate side of both Socialism and the then-current Depression, and frankly makes them both look dismal and horrible, like the choice between being strangled and beheaded.

Wigan Pier is additionally very clearly a book from before the Western Left realized what Stalin really was; The USSR is barely mentioned, except for Orwell to complain that his stereotyped Socialist cranks spend too much time singing paeans to Five-Year Plans and new tractor factories and the glory of Russian industry. This is not a view of Socialism that includes gulags or the Great Terror, which incidentally had been going on for the past several years at this point but still could be ignored by true believers. Socialism, in Orwell's conception, is the one true ideology which can save mankind from itself, and nothing can be allowed to halt it, and calling it that rather than Communism is primarily a matter of public relations, not of serious differences.

Luckily, he learned better. We all learned better, eventually. But that was all to come, in the years after Wigan Pier. This is a postcard from a vanished time, when Fascism seemed more transnational, and the spectre of an English Fascism standing up, taking over, and working hand-in-hand with Hitler was real and frightening. That fact that wasn't what actually happened doesn't mean it wasn't possible, and it's impossible to ever give real percentages on historical events -- well, until we get the cross-time machine working, and we can do some field research to work up the real numbers.

But, still, the spectre of English Fascism in 1937 is a creaky, anachronistic thing to read a long screed against, and Wigan Pier is more than 50% screed by volume. I can't exactly recommend it to most readers in the early 21st century, in particular anyone who suspects they would not be included in Orwell's phalanx of "decent normal people." But, then, as an American, he wasn't talking to me anyway.

Oh, one last note. There is no pier in Wigan. Orwell says it was torn down years before he got there, and never actually says why the pier would be important to a book about coal miners, or Socialism, or impending class doom. So the title is just as satisfying as the rest of the book.

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