Home Articles About Chartist Subscribe Links Search
This month
Archive of past articles
Labour movement
British politics
International politics
Economy and society
Science and culture

Orwell's eccentric socialism

George Orwell was no model progressive but Ben Pimlott finds much in his account of class-ridden England to have enduring appeal.

I have always felt as if I lived in Orwell's England. Like every English child born at the end of the Second World War, I grew up in it. My first memories are American - colourful, plentiful and warm. My first English memories are of London in 1948. By contrast, they are grey and sepia, like a backdrop to Nineteen Eighty-Four. I recall a city of bombsites and soot-covered, pock-marked buildings, of gas fires turned low to save fuel and curtains lined with blackout material to keep in the warmth, of sweets on ration, cod-liver oil capsu!es and undrinkable National Health orange-juice. Germany had been beaten, the Soviet Union was the next enemy, capitalism was on the slide and everybody looked to the state as the provider.

Today - in my mind, at least, but also I think more widely - Orwell's England still conveys a sense of time and place: in particular, the atmosphere of a capital city traumatized by two world wars, London during the threadbare 1930s and the austere 1940s. Sometimes the metropolis is in the foreground. For example, few things Orwell wrote are more grainily evocative of austerity London than The English People, a text written during the Second World War as semi-propaganda, though not published until 1947.

At other times, what the author writes about seems to have nothing to do with London. But London is there, none the less: The Road to Wigan Pier is as much about the mentality of the capital, as it is about the North. Thus, the rootedness of Orwell, the precision of his social comment, make it tempting to see his work as a kind of old-fashioned art movie. England, after all, no longer has coal-mines: and there are probably more wine bars than tripe shops in Wigan. George Orwell was a socialist. Was he also a hero, even a martyr? It is important to get things into perspective.

One obstacle to a proper understanding of his work is the posthumous cult that grew up in the years after his death, and especially (another irony) after the publication of Bernard Crick's masterly and not at all reverential biography. The cult focused on the life, presenting the writer as a Christ or John the Baptist, and conveniently dividing the narrative into New Testament segments: youthful promise, followed by retreat into the wilderness and period of obscurity; self-examination in the company of outcasts and the needy; brief, brilliant and controversial ministry; even briefer period of celebrity; early death. The cult apparently solved the problem of Orwell's refusal to be categorized: morally perfect and above reproach, the writer became the property of everybody. As a result, his work is nowadays quoted as scripture, often by people to whom he would not have given the time of day (and, no doubt, vice versa).

Orwell would laugh at this, and so should we. The passage of time ought to enable us to see him today as altogether fallible, struggling for most of his adult life to find a voice and earn his crust. To regard him in this light does not diminish the work but, on the contrary, makes it more remarkable: it helps us to appreciate that author, social inquirer and human being are of a piece. In place of the god or prophet, we discover a 'degenerate modern semi-intellectual' (his self-description) trembling on the edge of failure. We see writing that stems not from a master plan, but from a series of false starts. Indeed, so far from being structured, Orwell's actual life was chaotic. The Orwell we encounter at the beginning of this book is Eric Blair, the Old Etonian drop-out and insecure drifter, more or less on his beam ends.

By the mid-1930s, the scene has changed. With three published books under his belt and another on the way, he has acquired a literary persona (as well as a name). Yet he remains an eccentric, if by now well-directed, outsider-eking out a meagre existence on the margins of London journalistic and political life.

Orwell is a classic documentary writer, not because experts say he is- stylistically, he breaks practically every rule-but because of his story-teller's instinct for conveying the emotions of a social traveller. Orwell's skill is in convincing his audience that his own non-conventional feelings are actually the same as theirs would be, if they had shared his experience. He is not just a voyeur, peering at the dirty linen and messy lives of people the world prefers not to know about. He is a collusive, seductive voyeur. His achievement is to abolish (or appear to abolish) self-censorship, and to provide in his account an almost embarrassing intimacy: the reader is told to peer into the writer's psyche and see the unpleasant things, as well as the good ones.

In this he differs from many of the philosophers and agitators among his contemporaries who saw themselves as messengers for a higher cause, interpreting or relaying points of view derived from Continental theories. For such people, documentary was political ammunition in a war with set battle-lines.

By contrast, Orwell sniffs orthodoxy at a hundred yards and, having sniffed, seeks to upset its adherents. Nobody was ever more politically incorrect than Orwell-or, on occasion, more illiberal: so far from being a model for twenty-first century progressives, he reveals attitudes (towards 'Nancy poets' of the literary establishment, for example, and 'birth controllers') which, if expressed for the first time today, would get him thrown out of the faculty of an American university. However, he does not claim superior virtue. He admits that many of his own attributes are undesirable. He self-flagellates as much as he flagellates.

The core of this volume is provided by Orwell's most important non-fiction work. The Road to Wigan Pier is a sequel to Down and Out in Paris and London, the author's first book, which established his distinctive style, and also himself as a social investigator of a particular, Jack London, type. At the same time, it is transitional, marking the writer's move from amateur to professional status. Wigan Pier was commissioned by his publisher, Victor Gollancz, in January 1936, just after Orwell had finished the manuscript of his third novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Hitherto, he had lived hand to mouth. The commission marked a step forward in his standing as a writer, and signalled a new confidence.

Orwell's brief was to write about the condition of the unemployed in the North of England, much as he had previously written about tramps and social outcasts. Though non-fiction, it contains a literary convention that is fictional. The portrayal of the author as an impecunious scribbler not far removed from those he is observing ('Economically, I belong to the working class'), is unduly modest. Every other aspect of the book, however, is essentially truthful-as the meticulous 'Road to Wigan Pier Diary', included in this volume, shows.

Orwell treated the project with the utmost seriousness. For Down and Out he himself became a tramp, to find out what it felt like. For Wigan Pier he travelled North as-a burgeoning writer, armed with letters of introduction from journalists and political activists, making no pretence of joining the ranks of those he sought to observe. At the same time, he was concerned to write as sensitive a description as he could, in the time available.

The first part of Wigan Pier (buttressed by photos and simple bits of arithmetic which, alas, the passage of time has rendered quaint, rather than shocking) is a Baedeker's guide to the slums, damp, dirt, disease, accident rates and high mortality that are the consequence of poor wages and bad working conditions. It is a shattering book, yet surprisingly not a despairing one. It ends on a positive note: the reader is left with a sense that the task of breaking down social barriers is almost impossible - but not quite.

The solution, Orwell argues, is for middle-class wage-earners in Southern England to accept that their future lies in alliance with, not in fearful opposition to, the Northern proletariat. The message is uncompromisingly political. If Socialism becomes something 'large numbers of Englishmen genuinely care about', he declares, then 'the class-difficulty may solve itself more rapidly than now seems thinkable.'

By the time The Road to Wigan Pier was published, its topic had become unfashionable: everybody on the Left was talking about Spain, and Orwell himself had taken time off from writing to arrange to join the Independent Labour Party's expeditionary unit. If the book can be seen as a follow-up to Down and Out, it is also a prequel to Homage to Catalonia- the final section, on the need to resist creeping fascism, was written against the background of the growing Spanish conflict.

Spain impinged in another way as well. A week after Franco's return to the mainland, Gollancz launched his pioneering Left Book Club, whose monthly 'choices', selected by a triumvirate of Gollancz himself, John Strachey and Harold Laski, were guaranteed not only a wide but an enthusiastic and committed readership. The Club was a movement as well as a publishing venture. Its primary aim was to whip up support for the Spanish Republican cause and for a pro-Communist, anti-fascist popular front. Most of the 'choices' were by Communists or fellow-travellers.

The Road to Wigan Pier, with its open scorn for middle-class Marxists, scarcely fitted the Club's mould. Gollancz's publishing instincts, however, were even stronger than his political ones, and as soon as he had read the manuscript he offered the author a place on the LBC list. The book was duly published by the Club in March 1937 - albeit with a preface by the publisher, distancing himself from Orwell's anti-Communist opinions. By then, Orwell was in Spain, and received his copy in the trenches before Huesca. The first edition sold over 47,000 copies.

People of moderate disposition who imagine that Orwell's England may offer them consolation will have to look elsewhere: the author is uncompromising. In Wigan Pier, he writes of the need for an 'effective Socialist party ... with genuinely revolutionary intentions', in order to resist an English form of fascism. The Second World War radicalizes him still further. Who can be relied on? Not the English police, 'the very people who would go over to Hitler once they were certain he had won'. In his wartime essay, 'My Country Right or Left', Orwell does not mince his words. 'Only revolution can save England', he concludes, 'that has been obvious for ten years. I dare say London gutters will have to run with blood.'

But if Orwell's England is a country on the brink, its weaknesses can also be saving graces. Thus, the English 'training for war' and public-school system may even have advantages: turning out stiff-upper-lip idealists of the John Cornford type, splendidly equipped for leadership roles as revolutionaries. Meanwhile, if England gets into serious trouble, the loyalty of anybody who has experienced 'the long drilling in patriotism which the middle classes go through' can be relied upon to rally round, regardless of political opinions.

In sum, the England that emerges from this book is a country (and an idea) which Orwell regards with a kind of weary affection and matured respect, even against his own better judgement: an England whose manifold injustices should not obscure its blessings. It is a country where everybody knows everybody else's place. It is an England of tramps on the way down ('homosexuality is a vice which is not unknown to these eternal wanderers'), trade union officials on the way up ('as soon as a working-man gets an official post in the Trade Union or goes into Labour politics, he becomes middle-class whether he wish or no'), of schools like Roedean ('I could feel waves of snobbishness pouring out'), and a socialist bourgeoisie 'most of who give me the creeps'; an England where red pillar-boxes and suet puddings enter your soul, an England of privacy, an England which is also 'the most class-ridden country under the sun'; an irreligious yet vaguely theistic England that maintains an unusual tradition of people 'not killing one another'; a philistine, xenophobic England of compromises, bad teeth, lack of artistic talent or ability at languages. The English are 'not intellectual', the author tells us, approvingly - a dig at the 'Nancy poets' and other members of the intelligentsia who 'take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow'.

Like the writer himself (and, implicitly, the readers he takes into his confidence) Orwell's England is a territory of contradictions - in need of new management, but neither negligible, nor to be disregarded. Orwell indicts the double-standards, lack of warmth and pomposity of the English. No other author dissects his fellow countrymen so pitilessly. But he also refuses to scorn English qualities of common sense, empiricism and toleration.

The books, essays, reviews, articles and jottings contained within this volume do not provide a comprehensive picture of the nation in Orwell's head. What they do capture, however, is a sense of the author's changing world view, with England as his point of reference.

Will a modern young person - a black or brown Briton, born in Wilson's England or Thatcher's-feel any affinity towards it? Would Eric Blair recognize Tony Blair's England? In some respects s/he would find it unimaginably different, in others only superficially so. Some characteristic features of Orwell's sepia England have undoubtedly faded. The great work-forces of miners, dockers, metal-workers, ship-builders that dominated mid-century proletarian England no longer exist, and blue-collar workers are now supposedly in a minority. In place of slum-dwelling and the Means Test, problems to do with schooling, crime and family breakup dominate the contemporary social agenda. Among the middle class, stiff upper lips are less in evidence and social distinctions, though still harshly divisive, have blurred at the edges

Orwell's account of England endures partly because the modern bourgeoisie, complacent and blinkered as ever, still define the essence of the Englishness the world sees; and partly because the poor (now called the socially excluded), who constitute the invisible England, are ever with us. It endures as an idea because, in our better moments, many of the most bourgeois of us continue to support Orwell's dream - of an England and, a world without barriers of any description; and because everything Orwell ever wrote is part of an extended polemic in favour of seeing the truth, however ugly, in ourselves.


July/August 2001