A Spectre Is Haunting Wigan Pier? A Quickish Note.



At long last I’ve managed to blog something apart from glorified apologies! It was hard work, and I think my mind is a bit rusty. Furthermore, this post is definitely not an attempt  at a final be all and end all on the subject. I’m prepared to be rectified! However, as promised a while back, I am finally getting the blog back together!  So without any more ado…

During 1935 George Orwell lived at 50 Lawford Road, Kentish Town with Rayner Heppenstall and Michael Sayers. (I’m not sure about the building itself, but the street, which Sayers said had ‘an air of decay about it’, still exists). [1] Among many other topics, Orwell and Sayers talked about The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels. They both agreed that the Manifesto was:

‘one of the most powerful and beautifully written political documents imaginable…an epic poem in the magnificence of its vocabulary and passion. [2]

At this point Orwell was not a socialist, but rather a Tory Anarchist  and Tory anti-Imperialist. It was only after his trip to northern England in 1936 (immortalised in The Road to Wigan Pier) and his participation in the Spanish Civil War in 1936-7 (the subject of Homage to Catalonia) that he became a self-professed writer for  ‘democratic Socialism’. [3]

Now it is easy to compare the first part of Wigan Pier with the subject matter of Engels The Condition of the Working Class in England– basically how much of the working class in northern England got screwed over by capitalist industrialisation. (These days any similar work would concentrate on how the working class in northern England suffers from de-industrialisation.) However, did Orwell ever read Engels’ work before or after he went in search of Wigan Pier? (I honestly do not know. Any enlightenment out from anyone out there would be appreciated!)

However, did The Communist Manifesto (which stylistically he obviously appreciated) influence Orwell’s writing? I would say there is some evidence of this in Part 2 of Wigan Pier. Subject of Part III of the Manifesto is ‘Socialist and Communist Literature’ in 1840s Europe. In it Marx and Engel attack ‘Reactionary Socialism’, ‘Petit-Bourgeois Socialism’, ‘German, or True, Socialism, ‘Conservative, or Bourgeois Socialism’ and ‘Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism’. [4] In a similar manner Orwell spends much of Part II of Wigan Pier attacking self-professed socialists in 1930s England. [5] Did he get the idea to criticise the socialists of his day from the Manifesto?

Furthermore, there is one part of Wigan Pier which stylistically comes very close to the Manifesto in criticising some socialists. Discussing ‘Conservative, or Bourgeois Socialism’, which ‘wish[es] for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat’ the Manifesto states:

A part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances, in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society.

To this section belong economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind. [6]

In Wigan Pier Orwell claims ‘Socialism in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the middle class’, with the typical socialist often being ‘a prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaller [but not a ‘temperance fanatic’?!] and often with vegetarian leanings’. Like the Manifesto’s ‘Conservative Socialist’, this sort of socialist  has a ‘social position which he has no intention of forfeiting.’ If the Manifesto implicitly worries about the sort of people who are attracted to socialism in the 1840s, Orwell is blunt in Wigan Pier about his horror about those attracted to the idea in the 1930s:

…there is the horrible and really disquieting- prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. 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. [7]

From the Manifesto, Orwell appears to have taken the idea that there are certain ‘types’ who give the sort of socialism he wants a bad name. I should think Marx and Engels would have appreciated Orwell’s comment in Wigan Pier that ‘As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents.’

Finally, Orwell  uses the Manifesto’s ending to inspire his rallying call at the end of Wigan Pier for the English middle classes (those who aren’t fruit-juice drinkers sandal-wearers, nudists, sex-maniacs etc) to be won over to Socialism. While Marx and Engels declare ‘The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains’, [8] Orwell says ‘we of the sinking middle class…

…may sink without further struggle into the working class where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for after all we having nothing to lose but our aitches.’ [9]


1. Gordon Bowker (2004) George Orwell (London: Abacus), p.173.

2. Ibid, p.174.

3. Orwell as Tory Anarchist, Bernard Crick (1992) George Orwell: A Life, p.254. In Politics vs Literature, his 1945 essay on Gulliver’s Travels, Orwell described Jonathan Swift as a Tory Anarchist: ‘despising authority while disbelieving in liberty, and preserving the aristocratic outlook while seeing clearly that the existing aristocracy is degenerate and contemptible’ (George Orwell: Essays, 1994, London: Penguin, p.380). Orwell as Tory anti-Imperialist Crick, op cit, p.174).  Only after his experiences in the Spanish Civil War ‘and other events in 1936-7’ could Orwell say that ‘Every line of serious work I have written since…has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.’ (‘Why I Write’, Essays, op cit, p.5)

4. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels ‘The Communist Manifesto’ in David McLellan (1988) Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp.221-247. Part III, pp.238-245.

5. George Orwell ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ in Peter Davison, ed., (2001) Orwell’s England, pp.57-216. Part II starts at p.139, with Orwell’s criticisms of Socialists starting around p. 165.

6.  Marx and Engels, op cit, p.242

7.  ‘Wigan Pier’, op cit, p.175.

8. Marx and Engels, op cit, p.246

9.  ‘Wigan Pier’, op cit, p.216.