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Orwell and Socialism

Reflections on the Western Left’s fragmented ideology.

· 7 min read
Orwell and Socialism

American socialism is an unusually diverse ideological movement. Today, we can count Marxists, communists, classic socialists, democratic socialists, social democrats, progressives, and postmodernists all operating in its orbit. Is it any wonder many call themselves socialists without being able to describe what they believe? History has shown that changing political systems requires a unified group large enough to take power and hold it. That unity has always been lacking in the American socialist movement because of ideological differences among its adherents.

George Orwell (1903–50) was attracted to socialism as a tool to end poverty, but became frustrated by its lack of acceptance in the United Kingdom and western Europe. Orwell identified ideological confusion as a key problem in The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937. Orwell was approached by his publisher, the social reformer Victor Gollancz, to write a book about economic conditions in the depressed areas of Northern England. Gollancz suggested that Orwell visit cities as part of his research, thinking the public would be more interested in stories about real people than the dry and boring demographics that accompany a statistical analysis. Orwell had previously lived among the working poor in Paris while he was researching Down and Out on Paris and London, published in 1933.

The author visited three cities during January, February, and March of 1936, but spent the most time (the month of February) in Wigan, an industrial town located 45 minutes west of Manchester. At the time, Wigan had a population of 87,000 and was known for coal and cotton manufacturing. Wigan Pier had been a landmark of the town; a coal-loading dock removed several years before the author’s visit.

Orwell assumed a working-class identity by moving into a rundown boarding house managed by a couple named Brooker. This husband-and-wife team operated a converted home as a shop for selling tripe and as a lodging house for paying guests. Orwell slept in a small upstairs bedroom, which was a converted drawing room. Some pieces of furniture remained, dust-laden and unused. Four beds were squeezed tightly into the room, forcing Orwell to sleep with his legs bent to avoid kicking the person in the bed next to him. A chandelier hung from the ceiling, caked in dust. The windows were sealed, allowing no ventilation, and the room reeked with the smell of a neglected hamster cage.

The first floor featured a single room serving as a kitchen and dining room. Its table was covered with oil cloth on a layer of old newspapers. Orwell never witnessed the table being wiped down—the same crumbs were there every day. Mr. Brooker, who served the meals, never washed his hands, so Orwell had to accept a greasy thumbprint on every piece of buttered bread he was given. Brooker worked in the shop most of the day, so his chores in the boarding house were neglected until he closed the shop. Often the beds were not made until 6:30 in the evening.

After his stay in Wigan, Orwell traveled to Chesterton, some 45 miles to the south-east, to explore a coal mine. The undertaking began with a ride down the main shaft in a cage. Upon reaching the working level, 400 feet underground, Orwell realized he had to walk long distances (up to a mile) to reach the sections where the men were working. The tunnels were about five feet high, so a person had to walk bent over the entire time. The miners shoveled loose coal onto a conveyor belt so it could be carried to the surface. When all the loose coal had been removed, blasting powder was used to break apart the solid black wall of coal. The space was thick with coal dust even though fans were pulling air through the tunnels. The work day was seven and a half hours with no breaks, except when a miner was able to steal 15 minutes to gnaw on a piece of bread or have a sip of tea.

The stories of real people made up the first seven chapters of The Road to Wigan Pier. Happiness in the industrial towns of the north was simple to assess. Did the husband have a job and, if so, did he make enough money to live on? Too often, the answer to one of those questions was no. In the final section, which included chapters 11 through 13, Orwell evaluated socialism as a replacement for capitalism. His starting point was the assumption socialism was the best solution to the problem of inequality and poverty in the United Kingdom. His role, he stated, was to play the devil’s advocate and critique socialism by analyzing it. To defend it, one must attack it.

In Orwell’s view of western Europe, socialism was moving backwards instead of forward, eclipsed by communism and fascism. If capitalism was on the decline, socialism ought to be on the rise. Socialism’s lack of progress must therefore indicate some defect in its approach. Orwell believed fragmentation of the socialist ideology was a major reason for its lack of success. He saw socialist theory as exclusively a middle-class ideology supported by people who do not fit the common narrative:

The typical socialist is not a ferocious working man in greasy overalls and a raucous voice. He is either a useful snob or a prim little man with a white-collar job—usually a secret teetotaler and often with vegetarian leanings, with a history of non-conformity behind him and a social position he has no intention of forfeiting.

In addition to these two types is the disquieting presence of cranks. Socialism draws into itself by magnetic force every juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex maniac, Quaker, Nature cure quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.

These groups alienate decent people.

And there are the middle-class socialists who talk about a classless society but will never give up their own social prestige.

To Orwell, the working man’s view of socialism was pure. He wanted better wages, a shorter work week, and freedom on the job. The passionate revolutionary socialist, on the other hand, sees himself in a battle against oppression. The working man’s view was more legitimate because he understood that socialism represented justice and fairness. He hoped for a world with the worse abuses removed but didn’t understand the price to be paid to reach that goal. You can’t pursue socialism to achieve one piece of what it offers, because the journey to that end requires an entire political system to be torn down.

Orwell thought about the motives of the theoretical book-trained socialist in order to understand his behavior. That person presented himself as motivated by love for the working class and belief in equality. Was this his true aim? It seemed hard to believe because he has never been part of the working class and is far removed from it. More likely, it was his sense of order that drove him. Working-class problems were messy and hard to clean up. Only a new political structure could fix that problem.

Perhaps this advocate didn’t really care about the working classes and had no desire to associate with them. Perhaps he considered himself part of a group of elites who would implement political reforms designed to control the lower class. He was not an emotionless theorist, however, because he also was a man who harbored a smoldering hatred of the capitalist oppressors that anticipated violence.

Orwell suggested socialism appealed chiefly to unsatisfactory or even inhuman types:

You have the warm-hearted unthinking socialist, the typical working class socialist, who only wants to abolish poverty and doesn’t understand what that implies. On the other hand, you have the intellectual book-trained socialist, who understands that it is necessary to destroy the current civilization and is quite willing to do so. And this latter group is drawn almost entirely from the middle class and from a rootless town-bred section of the middle class at that.

Still more unfortunately, it includes – so much so that to an outsider it even appears to be composed of the kind of people I have been discussing – foaming denouncers of the Bourgeoise, the more water in the beer types of which Shaw is the prototype, and the astute young social-literary climbers who are communists now, and will be fascists five years from now, and then all that dreary tribe of high minded women, and sandal wearers, and bearded fruit juice drinkers who come knocking toward the smell of progress like bluebottles to a dead cat.

Ordinary people, who were attracted to socialism conceptually, could not picture themselves in association with these groups. They might embrace a revolution but would never support a dictatorship of the elites.

When confronted with resistance to his ideas, the ardent socialist sees opposing views as corrupt—they were expressions of skepticism about whether socialism could work or a fear of the revolutionary process. This view was too narrow—it leaves out valid reasons held by many people, including the value of spiritual and nationalistic ideas fundamental to human society. If these values were sacrificed, would the people regret what they had lost?

Orwell believed that a rise of fascism can result from socialist parties failing to control their members. The appearance of communism is a signal the labor class is unraveling and the only way to save a capitalist system is a transition to fascism. Fascism achieves the goal of socialism while retaining fundamental values like religion and nationalism.

Orwell believed that socialism could prevail over fascism if class distinctions could be put aside. He feared that if England failed to build a strong party of labor, fascism would prevail. If it came to a struggle between socialism and fascism, he hoped the diverse socialist groups would unite for the cause and put aside their differences.

Obviously, Orwell could not see the future from 1937. He was frustrated by the lack of progress socialism was making and worried that socialism’s competitors had the upper hand in a world rejecting capitalism. He could not foresee fascism would be destroyed by its lust for power and universally condemned as an unjust political system. He knew the Soviet Union was a corrupt authoritarian oligarchy, but did not know that its success, too, would be limited.

Capitalism and democracy won the Second World War and became the dominant political system worldwide because they represented the best path to opportunity and freedom. As for socialism, it remains today the fragmented ideology of the Left.

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