George Orwell (English 246: Fall 2011)

Robert Anderson, Leigh Finnegan, Ian Palm, and Spencer Stolle’s Presentation on Wigan Pier Diaries, Left Book Club, Orwell and the Intellectual (Collini)

December 20, 2011 · Leave a Comment

View into the Reasons for Orwell’s Style

Stefan Collini discusses Orwell’s tendencies with a critical lens. Orwell’s spite for the privileged Etonian upbringing was influenced in particular due to his perception that he was not considered equal to his peers while studying there. Collini sees this concept as having fueled his prophesying style. Yet on the other hand it is recognized that he used this education, his same locus of criticism, in establishing his accomplished literary style.

Not everything Collini mentions sheds a negative light on Orwell though as he begins by speaking somewhat highly of the man. Of those positive portrayals one stands out: ‘courageous truth-teller and as the champion of the individual in the face of the totalitarian tendencies of modern states has meant that his writings have helped to shape a semantic field in which freedom, honesty, and plain speech are contrasted with tyranny, ideological fashion and pretension, and in which the term ‘intellectuals’ is strongly associated with the latter of these two poles’.
Nevertheless he makes a note of the irony that seems to engulf Orwell’s writing and theory. ‘Attacks on intellectuals as a category are by those who, in at least some senses of the term, would have to be classified as other intellectuals. Where the critics situate themselves and on what grounds they claim exemption from the strictures directed against their fellow­intellectuals’. In other words Collini sees Orwell as being highly hypocritical with regards to his slandering of intellectuals.

Turning to Wigan Pier Diaries, Orwell’s controversial jibes in the second half of Wigan Pier did not relate to Stalinism, which became the next source of criticism for his later writing. This was a concept Orwell developed during his time in Spain. While his wife Eileen dealt with issues regarding the publication of Wigan Pier in England, Orwell was busy fighting for the POUM communist party in Spain. Where being shot in the throat and receiving criticisms of allegiances to the enemy spurred his more political writing.

‘There can be no question about the poisonous effect of the Russian mythos on English intellectual life’. This was one strong opinion that Orwell held with regards to his increasingly political criticisms. Consequently Wigan Pier played as the foundation of his future politically oriented criticisms. In Wigan Pier however Orwell began this tirade to a lesser extent by saying ‘as with the Christian religion the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents’. Consequently whilst there was reference to socialism in Wigan Pier at the time, Orwell’s criticism was not with what it stood for, but with the people who regarded themselves as socialist in order to stray away from the high class they were actually a part of.

Orwell’s focus on the political and intellectual agenda was further stressed in his condemnation of other authors. One such example was Auden who was lamented for his voice of the intellectual and was thus portrayed as ‘morally unhealthy’ in Inside the Whale two years later. This was in regards to the fact that Auden did not see the face of war and Orwell had. In comparison to his literary contemporaries, Orwell would make a note of how he did woodwork and a few things in his garden as an example of how he was attuned to physical reality.

Consequently it could be said that Orwell believed he was superior to his contemporaries because he had the essential component to writing, which was a broad experience of various lifestyles and refrained from pretentions.

One could say that although he sought out to visit the miners, in comparison to their lives how great a grasp did he really have. Lest he forget that he was of a firmly more comfortable upbringing. With regards to the knowledge and broad conception of the world, he criticized others for not having experienced, he was in fact ostracizing himself in one field of society (the literary circle). One example of this was with relation to Spender. Prior to actually meeting the man, Orwell had criticized him excessively. Without a formal discussion, he lampooned Spender for being a writer for the pretentious reader with little to speak of that actually generated any interest for the reader.

The following statements by Orwell express the grasp he had of his own misled criticisms however:
‘ I don’t mix much in literary circles, because I know from experience that once I have met and spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to.’ He went on to say in reference to Auden that ‘I liked him so much and was sorry for the things I had said’.
‘Instead of engaging with claims of philosophy, Orwell’s prose fell back upon a kind of tight-jawed obdurateness which effectively classified any conceptually elaborated idea or position as inherently pretentious and distorting’. This quote of Collini underlines that Orwell was actually the pretentious individual as he could not credit any other writer for he believed he had a fundamentally better grasp of society and culture. He was therefore in another form, yet again claiming the high moral ground against other intellectuals.

Orwell and The Coal Industry

Much of the first half of The Road to Wigan Pier has to do with the coal industry in Northern England. Shortly before Orwell ventured to Wigan, G.D.H. Cole wrote an article called “The Next step in the Coal Industry” which was about the conditions of the coal industry at the time and where it was headed. Cole was an English Political theorist who wrote for the Left Book Club. The Coal Industry was in decline due to less exports, competitive coal fields abroad, and alternative sources of energy. Cole believed that they were headed to the “Age of the Unemployed Miner” and that something had to be done. He supported gradual reform to not drastically increase the number of unemployed. He thought that the Coal industry should be unified and have government oversight in order to decide which pits should continue to be operated. At the end of his essay, Cole professes that nothing can be done to help the towns in Northern England until the coal problem is solved.

When Orwell arrived in Wigan he realized the importance of Coal to England. “The Machines that Keep us alive and the machines that make the machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal” (Orwell 21). For him, “In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil” (Orwell 21). Orwell seems to disagree with Cole about the problem of poor living conditions being unsolvable unless the coal problem is solved. He believes that instituting socialism would help everything.

Orwell’s diaries also help develop his views on socialism because in the diaries his views are intertwined with the events and we can see what events provoke his thoughts. For example when he is in Liverpool he describes the re-housing project which prompts him to say “Beyond a certain point therefore Socialism and Capitalism are not easy to distinguish, the State and the capitalist tending to merge into one” (Orwell, “Wigan Pier Diaries” 189). He says this because the Corporation, a conservative group, is the one building new houses to get rid of the slums. Yes the corporation is performing a rather socialist task by building new affordable houses for the miners but they are doing it for capitalist reasons: the work is done by private contractors who are friends of the Corporation so it is good business.
Question for Discussion:

Does the Coal problem need to be solved before living conditions can be improved or would instituting socialism help?

The Importance of Context in George Orwell’s Work

George Orwell’s work should be analyzed in terms of the contexts in which they were written. An analysis of his works, especially his non-fiction works, will be in incomplete if it does not take into account Orwell’s implicit motivations. Details like the geographical location of where Orwell chooses to write about, or who paid and when he was paid for his work help to illuminate Orwell’s choices of subject matter. Orwell’s subject matter is chosen as the canvas Orwell believes is best suited to paint his picture for the reader. Therefore, the physical details of the production of his works give insight into the picture Orwell intends to paint.

The publishers of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier undoubtedly had significant power over Orwell. The book was written for members of ‘The Left Book Club.’ The Left Book Club (LBC) had a very large readership, and Orwell’s selection to produce a book for them was a tremendous opportunity for Orwell to advance his professional career. The LBC was founded by legendary publisher Victor Gollancz. Gollancz was a prodigious marketer who had made the Left Book Club a fabulous success. Gollancz, at the time Orwell wrote the Road to Wigan Pier, was perfectly positioned to make Orwell a literary star. Unfortunately, Gollancz was also famous because he often intervened to make changes in the works he published.

The physical context for the creation of Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier suggests that Orwell intended to show the destitution of poverty in Northern England before he even set out to write the book. The LBC was founded, “to help in the struggle for world peace against fascism.” The club’s readers were all part of the British left. Gollancz, knowledgeable of his readers’ tastes, intended to publish books that were sympathetic with the left. To that end, Gollancz suggested that Orwell go north to document the poverty of the miners there. Orwell went north, under the direction of Gollancz, with the knowledge of what Gollancz could do for his career and the knowledge of what Gollancz wanted Orwell’s book to say. Although the contents of The Road to Wigan Pier seem to have been wholly the creation of Orwell, any analysis of the book that does not explore the pressures under which it was written will have ignored a potentially significant bias.

Orwell and Socialism

Although his opinion on socialism does not fully develop until after his experience in the Spanish Civil War, which occurred after writing this book was published, The Road to Wigan Pier nonetheless demonstrates the evolution of Orwell’s socialist ideas. In the second half of the book, the author writes about the bad reputation that Socialism has gained in England, and says that this is more due to a perception of proclaimed socialists and not about the ideals in which real socialists actually believe.

Orwell makes numerous mentions of Marxism in this section of the book, discussing the idea in its purist form rather than the corrupted version of “socialism” with which his readers are familiar. He discusses this disconnect between Marx’s philosophic, idealistic theory and the perception of contemporary English socialists: “Sometimes, when I listen to these people [English so-called socialists] talking, and still more when I read their books, I get the impression that, to them, the whole socialist movement is no more than a kind of exciting heresy-hunt—a leaping to and fro of frenzied witch-doctors to the beat of tom-toms and the tune of ‘Fee, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of a right-wing deviationist!” (Orwell 221).

Such an opinion bears little resemblance to the economic and social theory of Karl Marx, who, despite that the idea came up among French intellectuals long before his time, is accredited as the Father of Socialism. In Das Kapital, his book published in 1867, Marx discussed the way that the post-Industrial Revolution factory worker had become alienated from his work, and that his personal labor had been reduced to another material commodity. This alienation, coupled with the widening economic gap between the working class and the bourgeoisie, Marx believed would lead to an inevitable uprising of the lower class, which would in turn result in the formation of a classless society.

This pure version of the theory, however, is not the version that Orwell’s reader was familiar with, and this is largely due to the decline in popularity of socialism and socialists in England throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Socialism was first incarnated in Britain in the latter half of the nineteenth century with a group called the London Positivists, who were strong supporters of abolition of slavery in America. The Fabian Society also came into existence, which was a prominent group of socialist-minded intellectuals based in London. The Fabian Society, however, differed from Marx in that they did not believe that the proletarian revolution was inevitable. Rather, they believed that it needed to happen through legislation on behalf of the government which put more money and power into the hands of the workers. Orwell echoes a similar idea in Wigan Pier.

The beginning of the decline of English socialism came in the 1890s, after the formation of the vaguely socialism Indepent Labour Party. The group did not possess the support it needed to sustain itself as its own party, and eventually was absorbed into the liberal Labour Party as a small leftist faction. In 1917, the Bolshevik Revoltion occurred, and it was so bloody and frightening that it alienated many of the pacifists and pacifistic socialists, and made socialism seem radical and violent in its ideals. World War I also dissuaded the English from socialist ideas, as it demonstrated that, against forces like nationalism, the worker was relatively weak in his influence. The Labour Party, then in power, attempted to enact a socialist platform in 1918, and the legislation failed to past. This was largely due to a prolific belief in England in private ownership, and led to the idea that socialists are clowns.

Despite having lived in middle-class England for all his life, and despite his obvious disdain for contemporary so-called socialists in England (“One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist, and feminist in England” (174)), Orwell obviously has a good amount of knowledge of actual socialism, and has had experience with real, ideological socialists rather than the average “quack.” Orwell began his writing career writing for The Adelfi, a British literary journal that served as the unofficial mouthpiece of the Independent Labour Party. In social situations, therefore, he met and interacted with members of the ILP. These ideas began to make sense to him because of his experience with Burma, where he rejected his role as a member of the imperial police because of the squalor in which the Burmese were living. Upon returning to England, he observed that life among the lower classes in his home country was only marginally better than in Burma, and he sought a way to “quit” the English system in the same way that he had the imperial police. He decided that socialism was the best way to go about this, and this is why he spends so much time writing about it in Wigan Pier.

Categories: Nineteen Eighty-Four

0 responses so far ↓

  • There are no comments yet...Kick things off by filling out the form below.

You must be logged in to post a comment.