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The end not yet in sight: Orwell’s ‘Road to Wigan Pier’ 75 years on

George Orwell’s 1937 study The Road to Wigan Pier offers a detailed and graphic account of poverty in pre-war England. On the 75th anniversary of its publication, Anthony Lock examines the contemporary relevance of Orwell’s arguments for socialism in England and beyond. 

Anthony Lock
13 March 2012

March 8th marked the 75th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell’s 1937 landmark The Road to Wigan Pier, a work of extreme candor on pre-war poverty in England. It is a cherished snapshot of the North in the 1930s, and The Observer, among others, have been nostalgic in printing pictures from the area for the commemoration of Orwell’s journey.

As an Orwell scholar, my interest in Wigan Pier is largely in the role it played in the road to Animal Farm and 1984. But the anniversary of the publication comes at a pertinent time - during what is the worst economic hardship since just after the Second World War. It is now being asked if Wigan Pier can be used to address present anxieties. Would Orwell think his original argument still stands for current poverty in the North of England and beyond?

Wigan Pier is significant because it was the first salient work produced by Orwell during a period where, by his own words, “every serious line” he wrote was intently written “directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism”. Having written previously on imperialism and other economic and social issues, he came to view certain aspects of  supposedly ‘liberal’ capitalism under MacDonald and Baldwin as stops on the road toward the most extreme form of oppression: totalitarian governments. Wigan Pier emerged when Orwell’s editor commissioned him in 1936 to investigate the poverty in the north of England, and it is, in accordance with this larger project, an argument that the causes of 1930s northern poverty themselves constitute a form of totalitarianism.

Orwell spent two months travelling the North, chiefly in Wigan, Barnsley and Sheffield, staying with families and studiously recording. Whole families living in a single room. Lavatories 150 meters away, never cleaned. Houses with half a roof. People living on a handful of slices of bread a day; a few dripping bacon scrags and cold tea. Miners tattooed blue because of the coal and dust constantly with them, travelling to work each day by means of a 3km walk underground along a path where one cannot stand up.

Orwell thought the cause of this incredible situation was a shunning of socialism, generally, and that this must be overturned. His argument is that socialism, however one may interpret it, is simply the desire to relieve social causes of oppression and discomfort. If this is all it truly is, by simple logic people should be socialists. But people are not, and circuitously the poverty remains. Class prejudices, among other things, are causes, but he writes that the paramount reason is that many recoil at the very word ‘socialism’.

Instead of speaking about sufferings and fairness, many socialists become more concerned with what they think is intellectualising, and they turn many people off by translating unemployment into Marxist jargon and caring about “ideological soundness”. The average worker, Orwell says, laughs when they hear their lives translated into the language of “dialectical materialism”.

In his developing investigation into the totalitarian, this is attributed to the way in which certain beliefs linger in the individual and collective consciousness. The most obvious manifestation of this can be seen here, when Orwell discusses a piece he saw in Worker’s Weekly. A letter to the editor, complaining of the publication’s numerous references to Shakespeare, ran:

“Dear Comrade, we don't want to hear about these bourgeois writers like Shakespeare. Can't you give us something a bit more proletarian?’... The editor's reply was simple. ‘If you will turn to the index of Marx's Capital,’ he wrote, ‘you will find that Shakespeare is mentioned several times.’ And please notice that this was enough to silence the objector... That is the mentality that drives ordinary sensible people away from the Socialist movement.”

Given 75 years have passed - years which have seen the fall of the Soviet Union and the decline in popular talk of jargon like “dialectal materialism” in general - Wigan Pier has elements that some modern readers might find distasteful, confusing, or simply irrelevant. Indeed, the length of the northern barge pole between the present and Wigan Pier’s content isn’t certain. It isn’t the most lucid read, either, and it remains debatable whether ill-feeling toward ‘socialism’ is a big cause of continuing hardship today.

But there is one striking lesson from Wigan Pier regarding poverty in 2012 that should be obvious to the modern reader, although amazingly I haven’t seen it highlighted in discussion. As someone who experienced homelessness, starvation and frontline warfare, I think it’s something Orwell would pick up on instantly.

Orwell talks of missing housing, abysmal sanitation conditions, a constant threat of tuberculosis, and no running water. In the early 21st Century, poverty, providing one isn’t homeless, is much more comfortable. The global depression has affected Britain greatly, leaving many people either unemployed or, if employed, spending all they earn. Prices for everything have gone up while the currency buys less. For some, food must be cut back to the absolute basics. And expenses must be made on commodities like the internet and mobile phones as well. Try living without those. Luxuries have become necessities but the riches come at a price. As Orson Welles says somberly in The Magnificent Ambersons – “the faster we’re carried, the less time we have.”

But at least these luxuries exist. Contrasting today to Orwell’s 1936, the only apparent differences are that poverty is more comfortable, and the reasons for the oppressive features which engender it have taken new turns. Orwell outlines miners’ costs as being “insurance (unemployment and health), hire of lamp, costs for sharpening tools, check-weighman, infirmary, hospital, benevolent fund and union fees.” Contrasting today’s income verses expenses, with wages verses inflation – figures roughly the same now as they were in 1936 - Orwell’s list of expenses, including those he mentions for the household, are analogous to what people pay today (with today’s payments including car essentials, technological necessities, and everything from train tickets to picture frames, if one purchases these).

Money doesn’t go further than it used to. But it does trade in a more comfortable climate. The outgoing expense rates and dire needs for work and housing are the same, but technological advance has provided clean houses, well-sealed, with adequate heating; the ability to access information nearly all the time and everywhere; and the ability to travel speedily around the whole globe. Gone are the northern rubicund "dust-belchers” of cities that Orwell described. Go back to 1930s standards and see if the comparison is really fair. It might knock “dialectal materialisms” out of you.

What would a cyborg-Orwell, 109 years old, remark on if he could travel again in 2012? I think, while cheering this improvement in living conditions, he’d say the same as he did the first time around - that given that the poverty and hardships that come from wage and expense balances are roughly what they always have been, socialism remains as an urgent and realisable solution. He’d probably say this because, whether or not one likes the term ‘socialism’, looked at it this way, its most vital characteristic is to resolve an imbalance which is still a major concern in 2012.

There is no Wigan Pier. Orwell only found this out when he ventured to where it should have been. Depressingly, the end to this road we’ve been discussing may not exist. Class and economic barriers may always cause problems, and instead of eradication they must merely be lowered as far as possible. It’s difficult to tell, especially when the improvement in living conditions has come so far that Orwell’s argument now seems, in places at least, inapplicable. But, if such barriers will always remain in some way, maintaining a lowered height for them will require an active concern to do this: one held understandably, keenly, and totally.

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