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.
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.
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.