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George Orwell’s 1937 non-fiction work, The Road to Wigan Pier, depicts the agonising daily existence of the working classes in the north of England where unemployment was rife. Orwell was commissioned to report on this plight by publisher and dedicated socialist Victor Gallancz, who sought to expose the harsh realities of life in the industrial towns in the hope that if the reality of poverty was made known then it would be eradicated and the economic system that created it might be reformed. Wishful thinking indeed.
Nevertheless, Orwell undertook this task with artistry and unflinching honesty, delivering a book that, in Part One, documents the grimy, oppressed, existence of those either unemployed or barely earning a living in the hellish coal mines of northern England. However, perhaps Orwell also anticipated Gollancz’s overly optimistic aims in simply publishing an exposé of society’s underbelly — after all, in a modern context, a clear view of those who suffer is available to everyone at the press of a button, but reform comes incrementally at best — and he goes beyond the documentary in Part Two of Wigan Pier, with an uncompromising essay fiercely criticising the barriers preventing Socialist ideals translating into effective form.
Orwell’s essay is as caustic as it is complex, so it is easy to understand why there was such distaste for it at the time, even from Gollancz himself. Orwell saw the world of 1937 as being in a “very serious mess” and therefore does not equivocate in his criticisms or admissions, which would have sat uncomfortably with the middle and upper class socialists who found themselves in the crosshairs.
Orwell saw class prejudice as a toxic saboteur derailing the pursuit of Socialist reform. He jarringly summarises the revulsion of the higher classes for the working class with words that were freely used in his upbringing: “the lower classes smell.” He might simply be pointing out an inevitable outcome of undertaking manual labour while living with no bathroom, as was the case for virtually all the working class, but it also signals a deep prejudice that was not merely mental but physiological. Orwell saw that, until such prejudices were confronted and deconstructed, effective Socialism was impossible. He saw how declared Socialists could so easily turn to Fascism as they recoiled from those considered repulsive and sought to put them down. Orwell states: “To many people, calling themselves Socialists, revolution does not mean a movement of the masses with which they hope to associate themselves; it means a set of reforms which ‘we’, the clever ones, are going to impose upon ‘them’, the Lower Orders.” While such class-division exists, progress, or revolution, is simply an exercise in replacing old oppressors for new.
We can perhaps see here the dissenting train of thought that would evolve into Animal Farm — Orwell’s searing satire of Socialist ideals twisting into totalitarian tyranny. But beyond that I might draw further, contemporary, significance. Traditional concepts of class in modern New Zealand, or indeed the rest of the West, are not as distinct as they may have been in 1930’s Britain, but if we extrapolate Orwell’s conception of class to modern conceptions of race — not just the aesthetics of race that we tend to fixate on, but cultural, socio-historic race — then it seems that the “classes” that divide us now are more prevalent than ever.
There is much to unpack in The Road to Wigan Pier, but Orwell’s call to “give up something of ourselves” so that we can admit to and break down our prejudices remains as poignant today as it was in 1937. If we continue to fixate on what separates us we risk retreating into ever-multiplying fragmentary camps of identity, where only those who precisely mirror ourselves aesthetically and intellectually are permitted entry; we will inevitably build a divided world where numerous partisan factions shout and gesticulate their disgust of each other across an ever-increasing divide, never reaching out to cross it, and we will remain on the road to oblivion.