I became a teenage socialist after reading George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. It was the second of his books I picked up, after Down and Out in Paris and London, which appealed to me after working a few bad jobs. While my situation as a dishwasher making some extra cash to buy CDs and magazines was not the same as the miners and porters toiling in the 1930s—I could, and did, quit anytime I wanted—I recognized something of what Orwell was describing in the abuses and exploitation I had seen and experienced in the kitchens, and I was looking for a politics that could fight such injustice.
The Road to Wigan Pier was published in 1937, and its first half, like Down and Out, focused on working conditions—this time down the mines in the North of England. The second half, which the publisher disliked so much he critiqued it in a foreword, was Orwell’s attempt to answer the question of what to do about those conditions—a polemic against class divisions and left orthodoxy, and for a socialism that could appeal to a majority of English people. The word “urgent” is overused, but it’s fitting here: Orwell wrote the book in less than six months, delivering the manuscript a week before leaving England to fight fascists in Spain. Just ten years earlier, socialism had been a popular idea, but Orwell argued that its remaining adherents were largely cranks. This association, among other things, was ruining the prospects for a politics centered on liberty and justice—“the essential aims of Socialism.”
I must admit I found (and still find) Orwell’s insults against these devotees hilarious despite their outdated pigheadedness: “One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice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.” But the passages that feel most relevant now deal with the snobbery of the economically insecure middle class—people who, like Orwell, were educated at private schools but who had little money—and his worry that their class prejudices would drive them away from socialism and toward fascism. For Orwell, all workers, however they were educated, would have to “act together” to bring about socialism and stop fascism. Middle-class and working-class people lived different lives and had different tastes, but “poverty is poverty, whether the tool you work with is a pick-axe or a fountain-pen.”
Our challenges today aren’t exactly the same. Those who’ve flocked to organized socialism are mostly the fountain-pen (or keyboard) workers, and the lack of class and race diversity in the movement tends to prompt angst rather than prejudice. But the question of how to bring people together across difference endures, as does Orwell’s insistence on the importance of persuasion: “Socialists cannot afford to waste any more time in preaching to the converted. Their job now is to make Socialists as rapidly as possible; instead of which, all too often, they are making Fascists.” Part of the task of persuasion, for Orwell, was to “humanise” socialism—to get back to basics and explain in ordinary language socialism’s virtues.
The editors of Dissent have always shared that goal, which is one of the things that first drew me to the magazine ten years ago. Every issue since its founding has been about socialism in one way or another, but for this special section, we decided to take a more direct look at the state of our political tradition, after a period of fervent activity and growth—and reckon with our fear that the movement might be losing momentum. We also pose a question: in the face of long odds, why are we still socialists? I hope these essays will persuade the converted that, even though we pledge a lifelong allegiance to the cause, we can’t treat our politics as a faith. Rather than a science or a lifestyle, socialism is an approach to the world’s injustices that can compel us to act with one another—even in darker times.
Natasha Lewis is co-editor of Dissent.