Amid renewed interest in the work of George Orwell, the Morning Star heads into the archives and reprints here how Harry Pollitt reviewed The Road to Wigan Pier in 1937

Harry Pollitt

'Mr Orwell will have to try again'

Poor old Wigan! What things have been done in your name! From bad music-hall jokes to literary gents trying to hang their pegs around your name. The great thing is that we who come from Lancashire long ago learned to laugh at it all, in a way those who try to raise the laughs would never understand.

Here is George Orwell, a disillusioned little middle-class boy who, seeing through imperialism, decided to discover what socialism has to offer.

What a tragedy that a man can give up a position that the best years of his life were spent trying to fit him for, and then at a crisis in his life not see the real way to go.

Fortunately, Orwell has the sense to admit his own ignorance.

He tells us: "But I knew nothing about working-class conditions…"

"When I thought of poverty, I thought of it in terms of brute starvation. Therefore my mind turned immediately towards the extreme cases, the social outcasts, tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes. These people were the 'lowest of the low,' and these were the people with whom I wanted to get in contact."

"But I knew nothing about working-class conditions…"

It is perhaps natural that a late imperialist policeman should only see "the lowest of the low," as the place from which to get his new understanding of social conditions and socialism. But, of course, it was completely wrong, and must be responsible for the terribly distorted view that the author seems to have of everything connected with the working-class movement.

I suspect he knows nothing about this at all.

What a pity to travel all the way from Mandalay to disguise yourself as a tramp who can get into a Limehouse lodging-house without betraying his middle-class accent.

If ever snobbery had its hallmark placed upon it, it is by Mr Orwell.

George Orwell as policeman in
British Empire Burma, now Myanmar

If on his return from Mandalay he had bought one or two penny pamphlets on socialism and the working-class movement, what fatal experiences he could have saved himself from. Because one never gets to know the movement by slumming.

The result of the author's mirage is a completely false picture and wrong conclusions, that have nothing in common either with the working class or the Bloomsbury types that Mr Orwell so fiercely tilts against.

I gather that the chief thing that worries Mr Orwell is the "smell" of the working class, for smells seem to occupy the major portion of the book.

Well, pardon me if I say at once, without any working-class snobbery, that it's a lie. But if one comes to smells and one tries to formulate one's political outlook on this basis, dear me, the aroma around Pall Mall on debutante night, or in the theatre train to Golders Green, only makes me more of a Bolshie than ever.

But Mr Orwell has missed the real Lancashire. This is the real tragedy of his young life. Now at the youthful age of 34 he has been through it all and seen nothing and learnt nothing.

The Lancashire homes of shining brass, gleaming steel, of clean curtains and stoned doorsteps and back yards, the spotlessly clean homes of a working class that were the backbone of the Chartist movement, that formed some of the first trade unions, that conducted historic fights for free speech long years before Orwell was born; the Lancashire working class that were amongst the first to break with Liberal Labourism, that were amongst the first to return Labour members to local councils and to Parliament: this is the Lancashire that Orwell has missed, and in missing has lost tremendous opportunities for making a valuable contribution to the literature of our time.

Similarly with his diatribes against "bearded fruit-juice drinkers" (and I am not one of these), yet I cannot refrain from saying that when Orwell deals with this section of the population and fondly believes he is tilting against those who are coming towards socialism, again we have the same distorted picture.

He misses the new ferment and political awakening that is taking place among important sections of people, who are coming to politics for the first time: who are really concerned with the crisis in present-day society: who are anxiously wanting to find a way out: who in a 101 ways are now beginning to make their contributions to various aspects of the working-class movement.

I am not concerned whether a man wants to drink a lemonade with a straw and in shorts or whether coming out of the docks he calls for a pint of Mann and Crossman's: the thing I am concerned about is: are they concerned to try and build up a new society? If so, what is the best way in which we can help them?

 

Harry Pollitt arrested with other comrades

And we don't do this by telling them they "smell," or that they are "showing fat bottoms in shorts." It can only be done by patient argument, by careful explanation, and by really trying to understand their particular problems, and show by our understanding that we want to help.

We won't win anyone to socialism by knocking hell out of Huxley's Brave New World, and then building another conception of one that is even worse.

Mr Orwell will have to make another attempt, and really try to learn himself before he takes on the role of a new up-to-date socialist mentor and professor. And if he works as hard at this as some of those his fiercest criticism is leveled against, he may even become qualified to use his pen later on to win other people to socialism.

James Maxton will appreciate the fact that it is not my role to defend the ILP [Independent Labour Party]. But nothing in this book so completely gives its author away as his description of an ILP branch meeting.

I am sure that just as most Lancashire women who read this book would like to dust Orwell's pants for his insults and delicate nose, so workers who give their time and energy in trying to build up the labour movement will feel the same when they read some of the descriptions of working-class activity.

Is there nothing good about the book? There is.

The description of a miner getting to the coal face is superb. It will bring home to thousands of members of the Left Book Club what the miners' work is really like.

It will convince thousands that something ought to be done for the miners who would never be convinced by a miner himself, for they would think he was putting "the paint on a little too thickly."

The indictment of housing in many of our industrial centres is also a good piece of work which will surely have an effect in discussion circles, and attract them to support every campaign directed towards better housing and social conditions.

If Mr Orwell had stuck to this last, and his camera, and confined himself to fighting against these things, then he would have rendered a great service to the people who are now campaigning for improved conditions for the workers.

His book is certain to arouse discussion and controversy. I know it has taken me all my time to write in this fatherly way about it.

But if it warns people against the danger of seeing a tramp or a young man with a beard or a student in sandals, and then setting oneself up as an expert on socialism, it will perhaps have not been in vain.

If it warns those people genuinely trying to find their way to socialism, that they won't find it by peering into middens and chamber pots, but by hard work inside those organisations that strive to improve immediate conditions; by deep study of the history of the labour movement; by study of Marxism; then their own creative work will be of a much higher level than that of the author of The Road To Wigan Pier.

One thing I am certain of, and it is this - if Mr Orwell could only hear what the Left Book circles will say about this book, then he would make a resolution never to write again on any subject that he does not understand.


Notes

The Road to Wigan Pier was first published by the Left Book Club in 1937.

Lancashire-born Communist Party general secretary Harry Pollitt wrote a review for the Daily Worker of March 17 1937, which we reprint here in full.

The club had close links with the Communist Party, and the George Orwell book was the monthly club choice for March 1937.

Much controversy was aroused by the second half of the book, and the Left Book Club published the whole volume with a special foreword written by publisher Victor Gollancz, following discussions between the three club selectors - Gollancz, John Strachey and Harold Laski.

Orwell's two-month trip to Wigan, Barnsley and Sheffield was suggested by Gollancz. The author's Down and Out in Paris and London had been published in 1933, partly based on his own experiences after he disguised himself as a tramp and lived among homeless people and the poverty-stricken.

Orwell's highly controversial Animal Farm was published later in 1945, followed by Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949.

 

Taken from Morning Star archive https://www.peoples-press.com/index.php/morning-star-online-from-2004/features/item/129705-mr-orwell-will-have-to-try-again