It would be hard to find anyone in Scotland who has not read George Orwell's political allegory Animal Farm
. Published in 1945, it has been in print ever since and remains one of the few classic works of its kind. Along with Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince
, Voltaire's Candide
and More's Utopia
– all interestingly short – Animal Farm
gave and gives voice both to the ways we often respond to politics and how we try to understand political systems. Many of us know, too, that in the 1940s, Orwell went to live at Barnhill on the Isle of Jura to work on his even more famous dystopia Nineteen Eighty-Four
(published in 1948).
Before all this, however, Orwell had established a reputation for his descriptions of the social conditions in Britain in the 1930s, and for his perceptive and incisive engagement with the political choices at the time – above all the coming storm of fascism and war. Each of these positions fed into the other: his interest and concern for poverty and class inequality in Britain informed his wider critique of traditional social structural biases and capitalist exploitation; and his fear and hatred of fascism (which led him to fight for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War) underpinned his view that society was loaded in favour of the haves against the interests of the have-nots. Some are more equal than others, as Animal Farm
All these aspects of George Orwell's work have, like his books, remained not only an important ingredient in the literary canon ('books you should have read') but also embedded in the cultural consciousness of the country at large. How often these days do we hear people speak of an 'Orwellian' tyranny when speaking, often hyperbolically, about some perceived social or political injustice? Dystopias, from Lucian to Philip K Dick and Ray Bradbury, from HG Wells to Asimov and The Handmaid's Tale
, from Samuel Butler's Erewhon
to Zamyatin's We
, and many more, all confirm how compulsively writers and readers alike try to imagine the future and instantiate their fears. I heard said the other day that a world that refuses to recognise LGBT rights is an Orwellian nightmare.
Yet there are many other things to be afraid of these days, and Orwell's insights help us make some sense of some of them. Not this time his political commentaries in Animal Farm
and Nineteen Eighty-Four
, but in books like The Road to Wigan Pier
(dealing with the poverty of working men and women in Britain). These concerns of his spill over, in that book and in Homage to Catalonia
(1938, about the Spanish Civil War and the fight against the fascism of Franco), Burmese Days
(1934), and essays like A Hanging
and Shooting and Elephant
(1931 and 1936) about the Empire and his time in the Indian Police Service.
It would be a tall order indeed to discuss all this. There is quite enough to be getting on with in The Road to Wigan Pier
. The book is in two parts. The first a richly documented and powerfully stated description and indictment of the conditions under which (above all) the mining communities of northern England and those in Scotland lived in the mid-1930s. It remains a moving account of slum housing and grinding poverty, of lives cut short by danger for the miners and unremitting childbirth for their wives. He saw the grim work of the miners firsthand, down the mine and in their over-crowded hovels, and recognised that even for him (Orwell always tried to live a rugged life, even later when he had tuberculosis) there was a resilient pride there.
His account is wholly unsentimental. His point about sentimentalising 'the working man and woman' is well made for the time and for us today. Political rhetoric over recent decades has done this far too much, with its narrative of levelling up and levelling down, the common sense of the red-wall seats up North, the down-to-earth grittiness of the Scottish working man, the importance of and insidious effects of aspirational capitalism, the self-preserving nationalistic impulse of the English working family to opt for Brexit (and that of many Scots not to do so) and so on.
Orwell has much to say about the unreality of social attitudes and how, when pressed, self-defining 'socialists' retreat into their culturally-formed class prejudices, all too aware that talk of 'come the revolution' would destroy any perceived differences the middle-class believe they have to make them different and superior. In part two of the book, he will develop this into a wider critique of class and money, pointing out the hypocrisies of both the middle-classes ('the bourgeoisie') and people who run the country. Not for nothing have the commentariat pointed out that millionaires sit on the Tory front bench deciding how best to subsidise the energy bills of the new poor.
In a more precise and telling way, part one of The Road to Wigan Pier
hits home today as it did when it first appeared. Given all the social and economic changes in major industries like coal and steel, and the post-Thatcher upheavals in and to communities, Orwell's emphasis on the central role of 'energy' (then in terms of coal mining, today in terms of electricity and gas, traditional and renewable) remains a highly active issue. What compromises are we prepared to make as a society in order to keep the lights on?
Orwell would be sceptical about the Wellsian model of society (the hedonistic Eloi and the worker-bee Morlocks). Social structures and conditions today, nearly 100 years after the 1930s, have changed – we all have bathrooms and double-glazing, for instance. There is a national health service and clean air. We live much longer (unless we destroy ourselves with drugs). Yet mould kills small children, two-income families would starve without food-banks, delayed elective surgery causes untold misery, and the mantra 'heating or eating' has itself become cynically over-familiar, trotted out by Radio Four.
It is in part two of The Road to Wigan Pier
that Orwell's critique takes on renewed vigour. His canvas is much wider, even though it builds on the evidence from the slum conditions and the mining communities. Orwell looks at himself: a clever middle-class boy, brought up with all the attitudes and prejudices of class (notoriously that the working classes smell) and the privileged assumptions of Empire, with (for him) all its baggage of oppression and guilt.
He became a tramp, as Down and Out in Paris and London
(1933) describes, but knew that tramps did not represent the real working people. Publisher Victor Gollancz, whose Left Book Club books with their bright yellow jackets were influential in promoting liberal ideas through the 1930s, and who knew Orwell's work in the journals Horizon
, encouraged him to examine the communities themselves. The Road to Wigan Pier
was the result.
Several themes emerge from part two that have special resonance for us today. There is the stark difference between rich and poor, easy to caricature, although for Orwell at the time it was all too clear. He takes this further by analysing 'socialism' which he defines as a search ultimately for liberty and justice. Putting flesh on the bones of this, he decries the brittle hypocrisy of what he calls theoretical socialists, either bookishly spouting Marxist jargon or spinning empty visions of socialist utopianism (in this he condemns Wells), using language foreign to the actual working people for whom the message of liberty and justice are most urgent.
His argument takes a subtler form when he suggests that such over-sensitive and ill-based socialism tends to fall apart when confronted by the actual consequences of socialism – social change and a shift in the status and prestige of the very critics of the current social model. Scratch a highly aggrieved socialist, he contends, and, penetrating the shell of class prejudice, you'll find a genteel fascist.
Translate such an idea into today's world and you might say that, if you push the British people into believing that the EU are out to get us, having our own laws will give us full control, post-Empire global Britain can operate as it did in days of Empire, and Brexit is the symbolic clue for escaping the maze of national mediocrity: and Orwell's arguments take on a very modern meaning. Remember, too, that he faced the reality of appeasement and Mosley, the memory of the General Strike, and the prospects of war. We currently face the economic ambiguity of Brexit, culture wars over national identity between parts of the United Kingdom, and the war in Ukraine with its impact on energy and foreign policy. Plus ça change
More tangibly, society is shaped by capitalist interests. Its major instrument is industrialisation and dependence on machines. This leads to the mechanisation of life itself – not the woolly idealism and return-to-native-crafts ideology of William Morris but the grinding destructive work of the miners struggling to produce coal, living short and brutish lives which human beings should not have to face in a fair society. But then, he says, it is not fair.
We might share Orwell's doubts about getting rid of machines (as Erewhon
clumsily argued). Since everyone uses laptops, Twitter and Facebook, to imagine that machines have been imposed upon us is outdated. Nonetheless, the momentum of capitalism remains cleverly embedded in all our lives, leading journalists to ask if Amazon treats its employees like robots, social media has made avatars of us all, and authoritarian social models throw up fears of tyranny that take us back to things as they are. We are all innate (?) and feckless (?) conservatives.
Orwell is keen to highlight a message for his own day: that liberty and justice (best embodied for him in forms of socialism) are jeopardised by people from every class not working together but remaining suspicious of each other. He argues that the middle class, for all its professions of openness to the ideal of equality, really don't want or trust it. Unless this is resolved, he says, 'before it is too late', forms of 'Anglicised genteel fascism' will emerge. Historians know how the 1930s evolved and why.
Would it be too far-fetched to suggest that the very same social attitudes that in the 1930s led to a fake version of socialism (and an unrealistic and complacent model of society) have led, in the last 10 years in Britain, in very much the same direction? Well aware of the artificiality of class differences in his day (eg the existence of first-, second- and third-class rail carriages, clerical workers earning less than miners yet believing themselves better), Orwell ends part two by saying if we don't swing to the Left then we swing to the Right
. He says 'we [the hypocritical so-called professional classes] have nothing to lose by our aitches'.
More hard-hitting is his comment that we don't want 'a world of rabbits ruled by stoats'. How old-fashioned we might tell ourselves. We are a classless society now, modest about ourselves, pragmatic about business, getting on with life, getting on with each other. We don't hide behind the net curtains any more. We open-mindedly watch other people on TV, we want to know how other people live, we wisely see through adverts and make our own free choices. We each of us, in our own small way, believe we're the stoats. And stoatally different from weasels which are easily recognised. Orwell reminds us to look at ourselves and wonder.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is a writer and reviewer based in Scotland