Reflections on The Road to Wigan Pier (Part 2)

In my last post, I talked about the first half of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (affiliate link), in which he describes the working conditions of 1930’s Britain with a particular eye to the conditions in coal mining towns like Wigan.

The second part of The Road to Wigan Pier is a compilation of Orwell’s thoughts on the situation, and an overview of socialist theory with Orwell’s own interpretations as to both why socialism was not prevalent and what would have to be done to make it prevalent.

It’s worth noting that my own perspectives differ significantly from Orwell’s, and there were very few points on which I agreed with him. This is both due to my own political beliefs deviating from his, but also probably in no small part due to the fact that several decades later many of Orwell’s predictions have become false.

Orwell’s Irony

One of the most ironic things about Orwell’s general presentation is that while he possesses the ability to be brutally honest about himself and with regards to his situation, he winds up falling into many of the traps that he sets for himself.

Take, for consideration, the fact that he describes many British socialists as “cranks” during his overview of why people are not attracted to socialism. Orwell proceeds to be quite bitter, and perhaps even more so than the people he criticizes.

While Orwell does call for a toning down of rhetoric and going from a concept of proletariat and bourgeoisie to a concept of robbed and robbers to appeal to a broader audience, he overlooks the fact that what he endorses is itself no more palatable to most than traditional socialism, bound up as it is in its negativity toward many of the conventions of standard life.

Orwell fails to really provide any example of the “oppressors” in his society; and while he argues that socialists should define themselves by a pursuit of “freedom and justice” in many cases throughout this section of the book, he fails to ever define freedom or justice, much less to give clear examples of why the socialist utopia (or, perhaps, since he is more cynical than to call it a utopia, a socialist world order) would actually be more free or more just than any other way of living.

It also is worth noting that Orwell’s anti-religious sentiment tends to bleed into his arguments; he often says that socialism will replace religion, but seems blind to his own implication that this would only work on the basis of indoctrination and supplanting the spiritual with the political (e.g. creating the sort of Soviet-style commissars that he derides in a couple places throughout the passages).

Likewise, he often actually derides people who are working for justice, like the feminists of the 1930s and charitable workers, as failing to drop everything and accomplish this socialist ideal.

A False Dichotomy

Orwell presents the future as a conflict between socialism and fascism, with no room for a middle ground. However likely that may have seemed from his perch in the early 20th century, the reality that we got is two-fold:

First, capitalism, far from being inevitably destroyed by other factors, has remained alive and well as a dominant economic force, and perhaps even has more principled idealistic adherents than it had prior to the 20th century due to the works of figures like Hayek and Rand.

Second, neither socialism nor fascism has risen to the point of world domination. While Orwell was an outspoken objector to Russian Communism (at one point calling its adherents members of the “cult of Russia”), he predicts that either we would be living in an uniformly fascist or socialist world.

Wrapping Up

The Road to Wigan Pier is an interesting book, and certainly a lighter read than Ordinary Men, the last book that I read, but its first part is certainly much more interesting than its second part.

While Orwell is a fantastic writer, I don’t believe that the same can be said for him as a political theorist. While he is sensible enough to deride trite and hollow arguments, he fails to advance anything of meaningful depth and coherence of his own behalf, at least according to my perceptions of his arguments.

Reflections on The Road to Wigan Pier (Part 1)

George Orwell was probably one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, and he had some great insights that make him an invaluable resource to the modern reader. However, despite the fame of his 1984, many people would be hard-pressed to mention anything else that he wrote, maybe discussing Burmese Days or some of his essays.

Outside of those works, however, The Road to Wigan Pier is one of his better known works, and probably his best known full-length nonfiction work. I’ve been listening to an audiobook (affiliate link) of it on my daily commute, though I’ve also read parts of it in digital format, and I’m about half-way through the book now.

Timelessness

I think that George Orwell’s prose has a particular timelessness to it, and not just because of the subject matter. He’s well known for his fiction writing because of the quality of his work, and there’s a certain tone to it that’s hard to emulate and easy to love.

The matter-of-factness of Orwell’s style could perhaps best be compared to other contemporaries; I think of Chesterton’s Heretics (affiliate link; free ebook), though I am sure that Orwell would be offended by the comparison. He combines stereotypically dry, but personal, British writing with lucid and detailed descriptions of the scenes that he found in English mining towns to great effect. The prose reads like a conversation with a distinguished professor who is also an expert lecturer: formal, but never boring.

The first part of the book details almost exclusively the conditions in the mining towns (and, occasionally, other industrial and lower-class areas) in Britain. While it makes little effort to cater to a non-British audience (it was written for Britons by a Briton, and if you don’t have some passing familiarity of where things fall in England you’ll miss some minor elements), it’s still very understandable and clear.

One exception to this is found in the intolerable pre-decimal English currency, but from what I’ve heard about it having an explanation will not make the shilling and the tuppence comprehensible to anyone who hasn’t lived through them.

One place where the timelessness of Orwell’s study can be seen comes in the notions that Orwell has about the lifestyle of the impoverished. He decries the cheap–barely nutritious–processed food, the cheap luxuries, and the intolerable rents that his subjects face, and the daily wage work that they do with little recourse for injury or protection against job loss.

Orwell’s musings echo to this day in the statements that we often hear about our own society. I don’t agree with Orwell’s politics on all counts, but I have to say that I appreciate his honesty and the earnest presentation of his beliefs, and the rationale he gives for them.

In this sense, Orwell’s work is timeless.

Tremendous Detail

Another place where Orwell’s writing shines is in the tremendous detail of the scenes and personages he portrays.

If you ever needed proof that Orwell is a masterful writer, the first full chapter of The Road to Wigan Pier–in which he describes the various inhabitants of a house that he rented a room in and the house itself–is a perfect example of how to give enough detail to create a near-perfect mental image: I suffer from partial aphantasia and even I’m able to get some picture of what Orwell describes.

It’s also clear that Orwell has a genuine interest in his subjects. He describes people in a way that personalizes them, scenes in a way that project both details and emotion, and events in a way that provides nuanced context.

I’d compare it to John Hersey’s Hiroshima (affiliate link),

Critiques

There are places that Orwell’s writing doesn’t hold up so well. He is, by his own admission, judgmental, and honestly Orwell can be a bit of a jerk. Unfortunately, he wavers between being sardonic enough to make this humorous, and just plain rude. His attacks first against effeminate poets (it’s not entirely clear whether he detests the literary elite or homosexuals, or perhaps some conflation of the two) and later against temperate religious devotees, cement the notion that one feels he would be attacked by both sides if he were to make the same comments in the current day.

In addition, Orwell enjoys over-explaining to the reader. While his prose is good enough that it carries well, he has a tendency to give five or six times as many examples as would be required, then go into further detail, as if he expects his every statement to be scrutinized.

Of course, this could be a consequence of the fact that his work would be scrutinized, but in a day and age where Orwell’s work is sacrosanct, he does not need to build up his work to survive cross-examination. Sometimes the examples are good and varied, in other places they are tedious.

Closing Thoughts

I’m looking forward to finishing The Road to Wigan Pier because it’s quite good. It’s a compelling listen or read, whichever format I’m going through it in, though it can be fairly heavy.

The first part of the book is primarily journalistic in nature (or, now, historical), but apparently Orwell makes some political and philosophical arguments near the end

I strongly recommend it.

Reflection on Ordinary Men: Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

I have a tendency to read books which make me deeply uncomfortable with the world. I’m not sure what impulse drives me to this, but Ordinary Men (affiliate link) is one of these books.

It would be both fair and unfair to call my thoughts on this book a review. I am not qualified to critique the historical methods, factual accuracy, or mass appeal of such a book, but I can say that it is a compelling, necessary read, in the vein of Solzhenitsyn’s work.

Continue reading “Reflection on Ordinary Men: Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland”

Review of Educated: A Memoir

I have a bad habit of accidentally purchasing things for Kindle, a side-effect of having the one-click purchase set up and too many tabs open at any given time.

The reason this is important is because I accidentally purchased Educated: A Memoir (affiliate link), as well as about a half-dozen other Kindle books over the course of the years.

Educated: A Memoir cover courtesy of Amazon.

I have no regrets.

Tara Westover tells her story in a deep, personal, no-holds-barred fashion, and that in and of itself would be enough to make it compelling if it didn’t also deal with a dysfunctional family dynamic that puts King Lear to shame (or, rather, would make him look well-adjusted).

It is impossible to truly describe what Westover manages to convey without taking so many words that it would be unconscionable to suggest reading the description rather than the source it mirrors, so I’ll have to fall back to a more basic description of my response.

Continue reading “Review of Educated: A Memoir”