June 20, 2015


The romantic Englishman : George Orwell is often credited with elevating political writing to an art. However, writes Enda O'Doherty, it might be useful to separate out the terms "political" and "writing". For while his writing is undoubtedly of the highest order, the quality of his political judgment remains questionable. (Enda O'Doherty, 6/17/15, Eurozine)

Orwell brought to Wigan his intelligence, connections brokered by his political (chiefly Independent Labour Party) friends in London, some convictions about socialism gleaned from his reading, no doubt some knowledge of local conditions based on specific research, and certain attitudes to exploitation, power and the possibility of political change which we might surmise were as much informed by his experience of the oppressive regime of colonial Burma as by parliamentary politics in 1930s Britain (in which he took little enough interest). What he did not bring with him was any particular understanding of the British working class, of their history, traditions, aspirations or modes of organization. In George Orwell: English Rebel (Oxford University Press, 2013), Robert Colls writes:

That they shared a certain organizational talent he accepts, but there is no sense of leadership or thought or even point of view in his account [in The Road to Wigan Pier]. For a man on the brink of breaking his ties with "bourgeois intellectuals", it is strange that Orwell does not know any labour history, seems to regard socialism as some sort of fad ... shows no knowledge of the Socialist Sunday Schools and Leagues of Youth [... or has] no interest whatsoever in the more gregarious aspects of life in the industrial town - the chapel oratorios and concert parties, or the rambling and cycling clubs, or the boxing booths, banjo bands, and brass bands, the weekly hops, the free-and-easies, the charabanc outings, and Lancashire's famous Wakes [...] Lancashire was the home of football, but there is no football in Orwell. Yorkshire was a stronghold of the Workingmen's Club and Institute Union, but when he attends their delegate meeting in Barnsley he does not approve of the free beer and sandwiches [...] The friendly societies took the subscriptions of half of all working-class men in 1914, but Orwell says not a word on how they had managed to organize such a vast undertaking, nor indeed on how, along with all the other mutual societies, sick clubs and boxes, they had secured their place in law to allow them to do so. There is no fun, no ambition, no zest, no obscenity, and precious little sociability in Orwell's north. A night out in Blackpool would have done him (and English literature) the world of good. Where are the comedians? Where is George Formby, Wigan's favourite son? Where are the factory lasses? Where's our Gracie? He says that all trade-union and Labour party officials are middle-class, automatically so, and shows almost no time for those bulwarks of working-class defence - the Miners' Federation, the cooperative societies and guilds, the trades councils, the Labour party, and the multi-layered and infinitely resourceful female communities of the street. He notes the poverty, but where is the thrift? He notes the grind, but where's the Ritz Super [cinema]?

Victor Gollancz, who might be said to have been "close to the thinking of the Communist Party of Great Britain", was not entirely pleased by the book which Orwell submitted to him in December 1936 and for which he had paid so large an advance. Not a great deal of exception could be taken to the first part, which was a fairly straightforward account of conditions in the North. Indeed Gollancz at first proposed - though the suggestion was not accepted - that this should be published on its own as a Left Book Club edition. Into the second part, however, Orwell had stuffed his analysis and his always plentiful opinions, many of them strongly expressed and often focusing on the kind of people who formed a large part of the readership of the Left Book Club. Here are the urban, middle class intellectual socialists:

the more-water-in-your-beer reformers of whom Shaw is the prototype, and the astute young social-literary climbers who are Communists now, as they will be Fascists five years hence, because it is all the go, and all 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.

Famously, there is the attraction of socialist doctrine for "cranks":

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.

And finally, rising to an apparent pitch of impotent frustration:

If only the sandals and pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaller and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly.

Perhaps more than a little of this is tongue in cheek. One conclusion, however, can be tentatively drawn before moving on: at this stage of his life and intellectual development, Orwell preferred to portray socialism as chiefly a middle class fad and, while he was quite ready to idealize the working class "other" if it came to him in the right shape, he showed virtually no interest in working class politics or social organization as they actually existed.

On returning from Wigan, Orwell and his new wife, Eileen, moved out of London to rent, for seven shillings and six pence a week, a disused cottage in remote Wallington in Hertfordshire which had formerly hosted a village shop. Energetically, he tackled the overgrown garden, sowed vegetables, built a henhouse, bought chickens and geese and introduced into the family the goat Muriel (who was to resurface as a character in Animal Farm) and a black poodle called Marx. He also reopened the shop, selling small grocery items, and sweets to local children.

To believe Orwell a man of the left one must have never read a word he wrote nor observed the life he chose to live.
Posted by at June 20, 2015 9:33 AM

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