I’m guessing that not many, at least in this century, have read one of George Orwell’s best works. No, I’m not talking about 1984, I’m talking about the Road to Wigan Pier. I had to read it in college while taking a 19th century history class. I didn’t think much about it at the time as to me, it was just another assigned reading that I had to find a way to complete. Orwell, 1984. That’s all I knew. People were beside themselves in that same year as the title of the book, underlining passages, reciting quotes and looking for any sign that the apocalyptic predictions of Orwell were upon us. 

“Orwell was right!” 

“How did he know?” 

Those were the things I heard as I was making my way to class, still wondering what the hell I was doing there. I was a Melrose Park kid. The only reason that I was in college at all was that my father insisted that I go because, in his words, 

“You’re too smart to make pizzas for a living, Mike. Get that sheepskin. Then, if you want to come back to the restaurant, it will be here. Just do me a favor and get that sheepskin.” 

Like Orwell, I grew up in a middle class family. We were not wealthy by any stretch, but through the combination of my father working eighteen hours a day six days a week, we were solidly middle class. Dad made sure that I (and my sister) went to private grade school and high school too, all by the sweat of his brow.  

He also made me work at the restaurant. In high school, I worked forty-two hours a week, driving one hour there, then one hour home. He didn’t want to hear any excuses either. Work. The work I did initially, was the stuff that was usually reserved for the other employees. Cleaning grease traps was one of them. A mixture of slime, stench and decaying food filled my nostrils as I dug my ungloved hands into the mixture. I had to sit next to it, shove my nose into it in order to make sure that I got all of the repulsive gunk into a bucket to throw into the grease container in the back of the restaurant. I think my hands still smell like whatever was in that trap. 

I scrubbed floors, mopped, did dishes, and even went back with him in the middle of the night if the oven broke to fix the thermocouple. Again, one hour there, one hour home, only to get up to go to school the next day. I hated it at the time, railed against it when I was doing it, but like most things, came to understand later in life how necessary it was for me. 

I was a middle class/working class kid in a working class neighborhood, living with working class people. I’m proud of that. Still am. 

Orwell did much the same thing. For those that don’t know, Orwell was an avowed socialist. In 1937, at the height of the Great Depression, he published, to my mind, his seminal work, The Road to Wigan Pier.  

The front half of the book chronicles his travels through the miserable industrial towns of England where the conditions there made the grease trap I described earlier seem like a vacation spot in Galena.  

He communes with them, lives with them, eats with them and essentially becomes a member of the downtrodden class in order to become them and get a clearer picture of who they are and how they live. He even adopts their dress as well, foregoing his, in his words, “lower-middle class life”. The one thing he cannot lose, much to his remorse, is his accent which immediately identifies him as not one of the working class. He knows it, and they know it. Orwell laments that he can’t ditch his accent, but rather that he is stuck with it. The funny thing is, most of those he comes into contact with don’t really care.  

If one wishes to truly understand working class life before the calamity that was World War II, get the book. While you’re at it, read Down and Out in London and Paris as well, wherein the reader can journey with Orwell through the aforementioned cities and experience true poverty in that long-ago time. 

But, that is not the end of the story… 

The second half of the book The Road to Wigan Pier  is the part that most skip as it is his questioning of British attitudes toward socialism during the Nazi era. He rails at those that call themselves socialists, and one can actually hear the contempt of his words as they jump right off the page and into your eyes and ears. The question is why would he rail so against those of his same political bent? Why would Orwell disavow those who so clearly agreed with the notion of socialism and the communing with the downtrodden? As I worked my way through the second half of the book, the answer became perfectly clear.  

George Orwell was disgusted by those who advocated for socialism and socialist policies but didn’t wish to live among those for whom socialism advocated. In other words, Orwell saw those of the British middle class as little more than hypocrites, unwilling to embrace the living conditions and philosophy themselves as they continued to live their middle class lifestyles but avoiding the very people for whom they were advocates. Orwell lived among them, foregoing his admittedly middle class lifestyle while those “others” did not.  

Why? Because, said Orwell, “they stink.” They actually smelled bad and the middle class, those who lived a much easier life, complete with at least one servant, could not stand to be around them. In our parlance, they talked a big game but when it got right down to it, were unwilling to put their money where their mouth was.  

Here’s George Orwell: 

“The typical Socialist is not, as tremulous old ladies imagine, a ferocious-looking working man with greasy overalls and a raucous voice. He is either a youthful snob-Bolshevik who in five years’ time will quite probably have made a wealthy marriage and been converted to Roman Catholicism; or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaller and often with vegetarian leanings, with a history of Nonconformity behind him, and, above all, with a social position which he has no intention of forfeiting. This last type is surprisingly common in Socialist parties of every shade; it has perhaps been taken over en bloc from the old Liberal Party. In addition to this there is the horrible — the 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.”1 

“With no intention of forfeiting.” That’s the part that jumps out and he’s right. Talk is nice, talk is good but action is better and precious few are willing to abide by action. Much easier to tilt at windmills than engage in battle, said battle being more than holding picket signs or engaging in intellectual debates at Harvard, Yale, or the University of Illinois. What most of these so-called intellectual socialists and their ilk forget is that it is much easier to engage in endless talk than take up the mantle, move out of your parents’ house, or even your own and live the life, Birkenstocks and pony-tailed men living on Haight-Ashbury be damned.  

Words are always easier than action. 

Are climate “warriors” willing to live as the Amish do? Are they willing to forego everything made of petroleum products in their quest to eliminate it? Are they willing to become farmers living off the land as has been done in centuries past? My guess is no, the dirt under their fingernails something of an anathema to their sensorial being. Are the true socialists among us prepared to live in housing provided by the government at the whim of the government? Prepared to double their taxes to the powers that be? Have their lives regulated by the philosophes among us who would be put at the head of the government, whatever that might be, and determine their fate as they see fit, for it is “best for the whole”?  

My guess is not in this lifetime, as Orwell figured out so long ago. 

I can recall not that long ago so many of our elites railed against the ravages of capitalism, those of the Bernie Sanders ilk, while selling books and buying houses scattered throughout the country. Where are those of the Hollywood elite, dressed in their finest and sporting multi-million dollar homes to finance housing for all the downtrodden they purport to support? They should be subsidizing homes for each one of them, or better yet, disposing of their vast wealth to become them, the lavish dinner parties cast aside like so many dirty clothes at the end of the day. 

I do not begrudge anyone for what they’ve earned, and since earning is not a zero-sum game, I applaud those who’ve achieved, including the Hollywood elites and others who donate a portion of their vast wealth to the less fortunate, albeit a fraction of what they could if they truly meant it. Earning through the sweat of one’s brow or the ingenuity one possesses is the time honored and honorable way to make it in this world, as well as the most sustainable. What one earns they should keep…but… 

Do not lecture, foster, or incite a change as radical as socialism or any of its subsidiaries, do not advocate for revolution or civil war if you are not willing to lose all in the process, as those Founders did when they created this nation, said willingness stated quite clearly at the end of the Declaration of Independence for all to see.  

There will always be radicals embedded in every nation, history has proven that. There will always be those who crave chaos because chaos is in their nature, an unfortunate fact of living in a society of any size, but they are a significant minority. 

It is quite another to advocate for radical policies only to retreat into the safety bubble provided by one’s wealth, never really having to suffer the consequences of one’s actions; rules for thee, not for me the operative philosophy as those of the English middle-class did and so many do today who take these same positions. 

It is the reality they fear, not the theory for theory exists on the page only. 

George Orwell was right when he said, “This is the inevitable fate of the sentimentalist. All his opinions change into their opposites at the first brush of reality.”2