The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

This is the third book I write about in my series about the great works of the past.

George Orwell (1903–1950)

The Road is divided in two clear halves. In the first part, Orwell describes in detail the hard life conditions of English coal-miners. In the second he makes a political case: that although Socialism is the only humane way forward, there are various reasons why it appears unappealing. In other words, the Left has a multifaceted PR problem.

With this book, Orwell performs two remarkable feats: he goes beyond ideology to actually meet the people the Left should care about: the people of the working class. And he makes an interesting critique of his own side. The book becomes all the more remarkable at its 80 anniversary, where a number of changes and even reversals have taken place, while other observations still hold true.

The coal-miners of Wigan Pier

Here’s the thing: Nothing I write here can substitute the experience of reading Orwell’s immersive descriptions of the coal-miners’ life. And his descriptions surely are nothing compared to actually being there, which in turn is nothing compared to living your whole life in such conditions.

“Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit. Down there where coal is dug is a sort of world apart which one can quite easily go through life without ever hearing about. Probably majority of people would even prefer not to hear about it.”

Chapter after chapter, Orwell describes many aspects of the coal-miner’s life in painstaking detail. The long shifts, the miles long underground crouched walks to and from the working place, the lack of social security, the extremely low wages, the housing conditions, the gruesome accidents, injuries and illnesses, the horrors of unemployment.

“At those times the place is like hell, or at any rate like my own mental picture of hell.”
Child coal-miners

Our unholy dependence

Orwell draws our attention to the painful truth that our wellbeing is dependent on their suffering, and shines an indiscreet light on our desire to forget about the existence of those people.

“It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence. More than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of the manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins. In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp., and the poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants — all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.”

Disgust

Continuing his psychological exploration (not least a self-exploration) of the relationship between the middle-class and the working class, Orwell brings to light an other inconvenient truth: we don’t just want to forget about them, we are disgusted by them. We don’t experience them as kin.

“The lower classes smell.”

I can definitely recognize that perception in me, a veil of untouchability that separates me from the other, that makes it very hard for me to imagine what it must be like to be them, to care.

“It may not greatly matter if the average middle-class person is brought up to believe that the working classes are ignorant, lazy, drunken, boorish, and dishonest; it is when he is brought up to believe that they are dirty that the harm is done. […] In his eyes the workers are not a submerged race of slaves, they are a sinister flood creeping upwards to engulf himself and his friends and his family and to sweep all culture and all decency out of existence.”

The link between this instinct and a far-right world-view is obvious.

“It is quite easy to imagine a middle class crushed down to the worst depths of poverty and still remaining bitterly anti-working-class in sentiment; this being, of course, a ready-made Fascist Party.”

The emotional case for Socialism

Orwell openly identifies as a Socialist. In this book he never really defines Socialism or other political currents. He seems to associate Socialism with simple human decency.

“Indeed, from one point of view, Socialism is such elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed that it has not established itself already.”

His critique of Capitalism is based on the assumption that it necessarily produces exploitation.

Under the capitalist system, in order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation — an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream. The alternative is to throw the Empire overboard and reduce England to a cold and unimportant little island where we should all have to work very hard and live mainly on herrings and potatoes. That is the very last thing that any left-winger wants. Yet the left-winger continues to feel that he has no moral responsibility for imperialism. He is perfectly ready to accept the products of Empire and to save his soul by sneering at the people who hold the Empire together.

Let’s take a modern example: Our phones are built with rare metals excavated by children in Africa. What are we to do of this state of affairs? Orwell would say that if you care about people who are exploited and want to do something about it you can’t be anything other than left-wing (putting aside his other point, that being left-wing doesn’t necessarily prevent you from being a hypocrite). In a sense, his description of the life conditions of coal-miners (or Indians) is his case for Socialism.

“for before you can be sure whether you are genuinely in favour of Socialism, you have got to decide whether things at present are tolerable or not tolerable, and you have got to take up a definite attitude on the terribly difficult issue of class.”

Given that Orwell doesn’t actually address these issues (and given, alas, my ignorance on the subject matter) I won’t discuss them here, other than making a few observations. Orwell is aware that things have improved:

“It is not long since conditions in the mines were worse than they are now. There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have worked underground, with the harness round their waists, and a chain that passed between their legs, crawling on all fours and dragging tubs of coal. They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant.”

One could extrapolate that under Capitalism things may become more tolerable over time (as has actually happened in the last 80 years). He doesn’t really address that. On the contrary, he seems to believe, paradoxically, that those hard life conditions are a necessary evil:

“And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal. But-most of the time, of course, we should prefer to forget that they were doing it.”

The “fancy” hints at irony, but I’m not sure his statement is completely cynical. Also see this statement:

“In time of revolution the miner must go on working or the revolution must stop, for revolution as much as reaction needs coal.”

Did Orwell believe that a Socialist state could make the lives of coal-miners tolerable (and, in particular, faster than Capitalism did)? It’s not clear to me. At any rate, Orwell probably didn’t really feel the need to mount an intellectual argument for Socialism, given that his book was directed to the Left Book Club.

What I can extract for myself from Orwell’s observations is this inconvenient truth: it’s hard for advantaged people (including advantaged people on the left) to see the humanity of the disadvantaged, and thus it would be even harder for them to admit that that advantage is unfair or even the cause of the suffering of the disadvantaged. In other words, there is a psychological mechanism that would make it hard for oppressors and exploiters to actually become fully aware of their role. Notice how I’m not implying that all advantages are unfair (privileges), or even that all unfair advantages (e.g. intelligence or attractiveness) are a form of exploitation or oppression. The question of what forms of advantage are unjust and why Socialism is the only remedy can’t be discussed here, because Orwell himself doesn’t really delve into the subject. What we can and should take away is that people who have comparatively good lives have a duty to struggle with the question of the nature of their advantages, and a struggle it is, because their (our) psychology would make it hard for them (us) to look at it objectively.

The distasteful utopia — the paradox of progress

A further aspect of the Left’s PR problem discussed by Orwell, read in today’s context becomes kind of surreal. Reading Chapter XII of The Road I got the uncanny feeling that in the last 80 years a strange inversion must have taken place.

“the idea of Socialism is bound up, more or less inextricably, with the idea of machine-production […] The Socialist world is always pictured as a completely mechanised, immensely organised world, depending on the machine as the civilisations of antiquity depended on the slave […] Socialism, as usually presented, is bound up with the idea of mechanical progress, not merely as a necessary development but as an end in itself, almost as a kind of religion […] The kind of person who most readily accepts Socialism is also the kind of person who views mechanical progress, as such, with enthusiasm […] How often have we not heard it, that glutinously uplifting stuff about ‘the machines, our new race of slaves, will set humanity free’”

Did you notice the weirdness? While the Left today is rather associated with environmentalism and being skeptical towards/putting bounds on progress, what Orwell criticizes as one of the distasteful ideals of Socialism is now exactly what we attribute to (and regard as an advantage of) Capitalism! How could this happen? Well, probably 80 years of technological progress under Capitalism and the outcome of the Cold War helped. His observation about why Socialism would generate more progress now seems preposterous:

Given a mechanical civilization the process of invention and improvement will always continue, but the tendency of capitalism is to slow it down, because under capitalism any invention which does not promise fairly immediate profits is neglected; […] Establish Socialism — remove the profit principle — and the inventor will have a free hand.

The remainder of the chapter could easily be republished today in the guise of a critique of Capitalism, and an extremely relevant one at that — I find it utterly amazing how much his arguments about the paradoxes of technological progress hit home. In a sense, our public discourse about this topic hasn’t advanced in 80 years.

“the future is envisaged as an ever more rapid march of mechanical progress; machines to save work, machines to save thought, machines to save pain, hygiene, efficiency, organization, more hygiene, more efficiency, more organization, more machines — until finally you land up in the by now familiar Wellsian Utopia, aptly caricatured by Huxley in Brave New World, the paradise of little fat men.”
Passengers of the starliner Axiom — From the Pixar movie WALL-E

Orwell’s questions in this chapter transcend politics. We are all “almost unconsciously” working to accelerate technological progress, but what kind of world is it tending to, and do we really want that?

“in a world from which physical danger had been banished — and obviously mechanical progress tends to eliminate danger — would physical courage be likely to survive? Could it survive? And why should physical strength survive in a world where there was never the need for physical labour? As for such qualities as loyalty, generosity, etc., in a world where nothing went wrong, they would be not only irrelevant but probably unimaginable. The truth is that many of the qualities we admire in human beings can only function in opposition to some kind of disaster, pain, or difficulty; but the tendency of mechanical progress is to eliminate disaster, pain, and difficulty. […] And here you observe the huge contradiction which is usually present in the idea of progress. The tendency of mechanical progress is to make your environment safe and soft; and yet you are striving to keep yourself brave and hard. You are at the same moment furiously pressing forward and desperately holding back.”

Orwell addresses various objections to his view, like the idea that “there is always some greater difficulty ahead” (i.e. other planets to colonize!) and the possibility to “cultivate anachronisms as a spare-time hobby”. He mentions in passing that “the machine itself may be the enemy” but also acknowledges that “The machine has got to be accepted, but it is probably better to accept it rather as one accepts a drug — that is, grudgingly and suspiciously.” He hits the spirit of our time (consider the current public debate about AI) when he says that “any attempt to check the development of the machine appears to us an attack on knowledge and therefore a kind of blasphemy.”

“You have only to look about you at this moment to realize with what sinister speed the machine is getting us into its power.” — Orwell, 19-frig-ging-37!

I’m not sure Orwell offers a solution to this problem. Like Orwell, “I want a civilization in which ‘progress’ is not definable as making the world safe for little fat men.” Perhaps my favorite description of the desirable future comes from Peterson:

That’s what people do in paradise: they sit around dreaming about how the paradise they already had could give rise to a paradise that’s yet greater than the one that’s there.

I tend to believe, though, that any form of paradise is an unlikely outcome, because, as David Deutsch said in his interview with Sam Harriss:

will there always be existential problems? I don’t know. I don’t know why there should be a limit on the size of mistake we can make.

I fear that, with the exponential growth of our technological power, the ways in which it can spiral out of control and collapse are only increasing. Maybe the end game of this whole story really is the construction of the Golem of artificial superintelligence. Peterson then may be right to note that

maybe what we’re deciding now with all of our individual decisions about censorship and the way that we’re going to construct the world and all that is exactly what kind of super intelligence we’re going to bring into being and I would suggest that we try to bring one in that’s good and moral rather than one that’s evil and demonic.

Improving the image of Socialism

Orwell’s position is clear: the choice is between Socialism or Fascism, and the only reason a sensible person would go for Fascism is because Socialism has got a bad rep.

“It is meaningless to oppose Socialism on the ground that you object to the beehive State, for the beehive State is here. The choice is not, as yet, between a human and an inhuman world. It is simply between Socialism and Fascism, which at its very best is Socialism with the virtues left out. […] We have got to fight for justice and liberty, and Socialism does mean justice and liberty when the nonsense is stripped off […] the real Socialist is one who wishes — not merely conceives it as desirable, but actively wishes — to see tyranny overthrown […] and you have got to drive away the mealy-mouthed Liberal who wants foreign Fascism destroyed in order that he may go on drawing his dividends peacefully — the type of hum-bug who passes resolutions ‘against Fascism and Communism’, i.e. against rats and rat-poison.”

As I said, I’m too ignorant to discuss the correctness of these claims, all I can say is that I’m not convinced, and that Orwell himself doesn’t really try to convince me — with the caveat that Orwell is right to point out that with my comfortable life I’m biased against being convinced, a bias that I have the duty to try to consciously overcome.

Orwell’s proposed solution is that the Left should stop trying to appeal only to the working class. Exploitation goes beyond class boundaries, and all those who are exploited should work together.

“all people with small, insecure incomes are in the same boat and ought to be fighting on the same side. Probably we could do with a little less talk about ‘capitalist’ and ‘proletarian’ and a little more about the robbers and the robbed […] I am implying that different classes must be persuaded to act together without, for the moment, being asked to drop their class-differences […] The people who have got to act together are all those who cringe to the boss and all those who shudder when they think of the rent […] poverty is poverty, whether the tool you work with is a pick-axe or a fountain-pen.”

In other words, to be more effective, the Left should strip the utopianism and class-orthodoxy from its image.

“All that is needed is to hammer two facts home into the public consciousness. One, that the interests of all exploited people are the same; the other, that Socialism is compatible with common decency.”

Conclusion

What Orwell puts forward in this book is a very nuanced, complex argument, intended for a Socialist audience, in a context that is in many ways very different from ours. All these aspects make it very hard to summarize The Road to Wigan Pier correctly and discuss it fairly. The beauty and wit of Orwell’s writing made it impossible for me not to fill this article with an amount of quotes that exceeded my own text. I hope you could get something out of it nonetheless. I definitely recommend you read the book — you might come away with very different thoughts, especially if you are already left-leaning.


Hi, I’m Nick Redmark, your Meaning-Centered Life Coach. Want more meaning in your life? Get it now on nickredmark.com and subscribe to the Nick Redmark Newsletter to get more of it in the future!