George Orwell, Obsolete Socialist — But Great Writer!

The Road to Wigan Pier
by George Orwell

The more of Orwell’s writing I read, the more I like.

This book is not his best: it’s one of his earlier pieces, requested by a Socialist publisher that wanted a piece describing the life of the English coal miners in the northern parts of the country, around Manchester and Leeds and Sheffield. And inasmuch as Orwell did as asked, the book is outstanding: he went to the coal mining town of Wigan, as well as several others; he got to know the miners and their families, he went into their homes, he went into the mine, and he reported what he saw: and if nothing else, Orwell was an amazing reporter. His perception and description are as good as anyone’s has ever been. He makes you feel what it was like to go into a mine: to fall down a shaft, in an elevator car going up to 60 miles per hour straight down, controlled by a man on the surface who was essentially guessing how close you were to the bottom of the shaft, half a mile or so into the Earth: and then, once you hit the bottom, you could be anywhere from half a mile to five or even seven miles away from the actual coal: and in all of that distance, the ceiling never rises above five feet or so, except for a few incidental pockets, natural caverns and the like: everywhere else, you have to duck and walk hunched over.

And that’s before you even start mining.

Orwell makes you understand what the miners go through, and how truly impressive they are. Then he takes you to their homes, and shows how truly desperate and hopeless they are: their meager diets, their broken-down slum houses, often without running water, always without enough beds, generally without enough food. It’s heartbreaking as well as inspiring: because it shows you the strength of the human animal and the human spirit, and then it shows you how we are wasting that, making people dig rocks out of the ground so we can burn them.

That’s the good part. The less good part is when Orwell gives his opinion about why the Socialist movement in England is failing. And honestly, that part is good, too; partly because I have no doubt that Orwell’s criticisms were right on the money, and partly because that guy really threw down some sick burns: his description of Socialists who had grown up, as he had, in the bourgeois class in England, and who therefore talked up the rule of the proletariat while simultaneously despising those same people, is incredibly cutting and harsh and probably exactly right. Just the parts when he talks about how working people smell is enough to prove his point.

The problem is, the book was written in 1935. So much has changed since then in our understanding of Socialism and what it can do and what it should not do, that reading this was an interesting insight into history, but not very helpful.

So the book was an interesting read, a good read, and for me, an inspiring one, as Orwell helps to push me personally closer and closer to socialism; but it wasn’t Orwell’s best. I’d recommend it only for history buffs.

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