Review: Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier
George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier is a book for which I kept hearing recommendations. I was told that it contained biting criticisms of socialism and was a valuable source of antiauthoritarian thought.
What I found, instead, was a snobbish text that ineffectually denounces snobbery, an erudite-sounding text that lacks any philosophical or economic depth, and a persistent veil of ignorance over and presumption in favor of state intervention for any of the problems described, as well as the shortsighted implication that the solution is simply more of the same.
The book was first published in 1937, which is long after the Soviets abandoned war communism in 1921, after the end of the New Economic Policy in 1928, and even after the state-engineered Ukraine famine from 1930–33. Ludwig von Mises wrote his first devastating critique of central planning, Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth, in 1920, and Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis was published in English in 1936.
One might be tempted to forgive Orwell for his ignorance, if not for the vague, shortsighted, and infantile defenses of socialism he provides in the book. “The choice is not, as yet, between a human and an inhuman world,” he simpers. “It is simply between Socialism and Fascism, which at its very best is Socialism with the virtues left out.”
Only someone with no understanding of socialism could make such a claim. The possibility of a state with limited powers that refuses to trample on the rights of its citizens is chillingly absent from Orwell’s thought. Instead, he is driven by a persistent fear of fascism without any clear concept of what it is or how it even differs from socialism, except for nationalism which he mocks without providing a strong argument.
Even the parts of the book that seem to criticize socialism are sadly toothless. Most of the incisive lines are pointed at the English upper social classes and the breed of socialist prevalent in the United Kingdom at the time. As such, they do not reflect on socialists’ failings anywhere else, except by coincidence. The names of a few socialist writers appear in critical passages, but the target is primarily their tone, not the consistency of their arguments. There is no principled attack on socialist thought. In fact, Orwell dedicates his entire final chapter to a defense of socialism, using flimsy reasoning camouflaged by emotionally resonant language that might sway a casual or uninformed reader.
This is not to say that there is nothing of value in the book. Orwell seems to be unfamiliar with basic economics. However, his observations and evaluations raise a variety of questions that deserve some curiosity. For instance, his examination of miners’ wages shows some interesting contradictions. He shows that the labor requires significant technical skill (for supporting shafts and dynamiting new deposits of coal) and specialized physical conditioning: “[The miners] have got to remain kneeling all the while [they dig],” he notes. “Kneeling down, the whole of the strain is thrown upon your arm and belly muscles.” Yet the miners’ wages seem quite low for such specialized work, not to mention the high danger of the job. One wonders: what state favors did the coal companies receive to push down the prevailing wage?
Orwell’s discussion of “the dole” doesn’t show what he thinks it does. He argues that welfare payments are barely enough to live on. He examines budgets for people “on the dole” and discovers a complete lack of saving and laments the desire for cheap, unhealthy food. Yet, he also notes that the level of the dole is “framed to suit a population with very high standards and not much notion of economy.” He observes that a foreign laborer would be perfectly able to live on one-quarter of the dole provided to the English unemployed.
All this while he opines on the high quality of foreigners’ bodies, compared to the “soft” English. So, which is it, Mr. Orwell? Are the dole-takers starving or soft? Why is the obvious solution to a welfare payment that allows for such wastefulness a larger payment?
Orwell’s examination of rents at boarding houses has some value, but it completely lacks any comparison to outside alternatives or historical progress. In proper Marxist form, Orwell buys into the false notion of progressive impoverishment of the working class. Conspicuously absent is any discussion of government policy that might discourage the production of better housing. However, Orwell’s description of the squalor in many quarters clashes with the descriptions of boarders taking no actions to clean or improve them. His characterization of landlords as sluggish workers paints a picture of a cultural problem rather than a poverty problem. No one seems incentivized to maintain his living space, and I suspect the reason lies somewhere in government policy.
One other valuable part of the book is Orwell’s description of the state of affairs in colonized Burma and India. His critique is valuable if surface level. He details the exploitation and harsh punishments of the natives in these places and describes his visceral moral disgust at what he saw there. However, it seems that barely one minute later he is describing how the general public approves of England’s status as colonizer—an English public that is already significantly in favor of socialist policy, by his own admission. If he cannot convince socialists to abandon imperialism, what does that say about socialism in practice? Orwell fails to provide an answer.
To summarize, The Road to Wigan Pier is not a criticism of socialism, despite its reputation. At best, it is a weak criticism of some tendencies of socialists in 1930s England. The reader can make an antisocialist case by digging deeper into some of the topics discussed in the book, but it is clear from the last chapter that if any of these deeper criticisms found their way into Orwell’s mind, they didn’t stay long.
The Road to Wigan Pier criticizes foreign imperialism and social class snobbery, but Orwell still adheres to odd Luddite notions of the dangers of mechanization. The starkest example of his shortsightedness comes near the end of the book, when he states, “The capitalist-imperialist governments, even though they themselves are about to be plundered, will not fight with any conviction against Fascism as such.” This, published barely two years before the outbreak of World War II.
Read this book but do so with healthy skepticism and a firm theoretical and historical grounding in economics. Without these, Orwell’s intelligent-sounding and emotionally gripping words might pull you down a dangerous, authoritarian path.