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George Orwell > The Road to Wigan Pier > Chapter 10

The Road to Wigan Pier

Chapter 10

But unfortunately you do not solve the class problem by making friends with
tramps. At most you get rid of some of your own class-prejudice by doing

Tramps, beggars, criminals, and social outcasts generally are very
exceptional beings and no more typical of the working class as a whole
than, say, the literary intelligentsia are typical of the bourgeoisie. It
is quite easy to be on terms of intimacy with a foreign 'intellectual', but
it is not at all easy to be on terms of intimacy with an ordinary
respectable foreigner of the middle class. How many Englishmen have seen
the inside of an ordinary French bourgeois family, for instance? Probably
it would be quite impossible to do so, short of marrying into it. And it is
rather similar with the English working class. Nothing is easier than to be
bosom pals with a pickpocket, if you know where to look for him; but it is
very difficult to be bosom pals with a bricklayer.

But why is it so easy to be on equal terms with social outcasts?
People have often said to me, 'Surely when you are with the tramps they
don't really accept you as one of themselves? Surely they notice that you
are different--notice the difference of accent?' etc., etc. As a matter
of fact, a fair proportion of tramps, well over a quarter I should say,
notice nothing of the kind. To begin with, many people have no ear for
accent and judge you entirely by your clothes. I was often struck by this
fact when I was begging at back doors. Some people were obviously surprised
by my 'educated' accent, others completely failed to notice it; I was dirty
and ragged and that was all they saw. Again, tramps come from all parts of
the British Isles and the variation in English accents is enormous. A tramp
is used to hearing all kinds of accents among his mates, some of them so
strange to him that he can hardly understand them, and a man from, say,
Cardiff or Durham or Dublin does not necessarily know which of the south
English accents is an 'educated' one. In any case men with 'educated'
accents, though rare among tramps, are not unknown. But even when tramps
are aware that you are of different origin from themselves, it does not
necessarily alter their attitude. From their point of view all that matters
is that you, like themselves, are 'on the bum'. And in that world it is not
done to ask too many questions. You can tell people the history of your
life if you choose, and most tramps do so on the smallest provocation, but
you are under no compulsion to tell it and whatever story you tell will be
accepted without question. Even a bishop could be at home among tramps if
he wore the right clothes; and even if they knew he was a bishop it might
not make any difference, provided that they also knew or believed that he
was genuinely destitute. Once you are in that world and seemingly of it, it
hardly matters what you have been in the past. It is a sort of world-
within-a-world where everyone is equal, a small squalid democracy--
perhaps the nearest thing to a democracy that exists in England.

But when you come to the normal working class the position is totally
different. To begin with, there is no short cut into their midst. You can
become a tramp simply by putting on the right clothes and going to the
nearest casual ward, but you can't become a navvy or a coal-miner. You
couldn't get a job as a navvy or a coal-miner even if you were equal to the
work. Via Socialist politics you can get in touch with the working-class
intelligentsia, but they are hardly more typical than tramps or burglars.
For the rest you can only mingle with the working class by staying in their
houses as a lodger, which always has a dangerous resemblance to 'slumming'.
For some months I lived entirely in coal-miners' houses. I ate my meals
with the family, I washed at the kitchen sink, I shared bedrooms with
miners, drank beer with them, played darts with them, talked to them by the
hour together. But though I was among them, and I hope and trust they did
not find me a nuisance, I was not one of them, and they knew it even better
than I did. However much you like them, however interesting you find their
conversation, there is always that accursed itch of class-difference, like
the pea under the princess's mattress. It is not a question of dislike or
distaste, only of difference, but it is enough to make real intimacy
impossible. Even with miners who described themselves as Communists I found
that it needed tactful manoeuvrings to prevent them from calling me 'sir';
and all of them, except in moments of great animation, softened their
northern accents for my benefit. I liked them and hoped they liked me; but
I went among them as a foreigner, and both of us were aware of it.
Whichever way you turn this curse of class-difference confronts you like a
wall of stone. Or rather it is not so much like a stone wall as the plate-
glass pane of an aquarium; it is so easy to pretend that it isn't there,
and so impossible to get through it.

Unfortunately it is nowadays the fashion to pretend that the glass is
penetrable. Of course everyone knows that class-prejudice exists, but at
the same time everyone claims that he, in some mysterious way, is exempt
from it. Snob-bishness is one of those vices which we can discern in every-
one else but' never in ourselves. Not only the croyant et pratiquant
Socialist, but every 'intellectual' takes it as a matter of course that he
at least is outside the class-racket; he, unlike his neighbours, can see
through the absurdity of wealth, ranks, titles, etc., etc. 'I'm not a snob'
is nowadays a kind of universal credo. Who is there who has not jeered at
the House of Lords, the military caste, the Royal Family, the public
schools, the huntin' and shootin' people, the old ladies in Cheltenham
boarding-houses, the horrors of 'county' society, and the social hierarchy
generally? To do so has become an automatic gesture. You notice this
particularly in novels. Every novelist of serious pretensions adopts an
ironic attitude towards his upper-class characters. Indeed when a novelist
has to put a definitely upper-class person--a duke or a baronet or
whatnot--into one of his stories he guys him more or less instinctively.
There is an important subsidiary cause of this in the poverty of the modern
upper-class dialect. The speech of 'educated' people is now so lifeless and
characterless that a novelist can do nothing with it. By far the easiest
way of making it amusing is to burlesque it, which means pretending that
every upper-class person is an ineffectual ass. The trick is imitated from
novelist to novelist, and in the end becomes almost a reflex action.

And yet all the while, at the bottom of his heart, every-one knows
that this is humbug. We all rail against class-distinctions, but very few
people seriously want to abolish them. Here you come upon the important
fact that every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a
secret conviction that nothing can be changed.

If you want a good illustration of this, it is worth studying the
novels and plays of John Galsworthy, keeping one eye on their chronology.
Galsworthy is a very fine specimen of the thin-skinned, tear-in-the-eye,
pre-war humanitarian. He starts out with a morbid pity-complex which
extends even to thinking that every married woman is an angel chained to a
satyr. He is in a perpetual quiver of indignation over the sufferings of
overworked clerks, of under-paid farm hands, of fallen women, of criminals,
of prostitutes, of animals. The world, as he sees it in his earlier books
(The Man of Property, Justice, etc.), is divided into oppressors and
oppressed, with the oppressors sitting on top like some monstrous stone
idol which all the dynamite in the world cannot overthrow. But is it so
certain that he really wants it overthrown? On the contrary, in his fight
against an immovable tyranny he is upheld by the consciousness that it is
immovable. When things happen unexpectedly and the world-order which he has
known begins to crumble, he feels somewhat differently about it. So, having
set out to be the champion of the underdog against tyranny and injustice,
he ends by advocating (vide The Silver Spoon) that the English working
class, to cure their economic ills, shall be deported to the colonies like
batches of cattle. If he had lived ten years longer he would quite probably
have arrived at some genteel version of Fascism. This is the inevitable
fate of the sentimentalist. All his opinions change into their opposites at
the first brush of reality.

The same streak of soggy half-baked insincerity runs through all
'advanced' opinion. Take the question of imperialism, for instance. Every
left-wing 'intellectual' is, as a matter of course, an anti-imperialist. He
claims to be outside the empire-racket as automatically and self-right-
eously as he claims to be outside the class-racket. Even the right-wing
'intellectual', who is not definitely in revolt against British
imperialism, pretends to regard it with a sort of amused detachment. It is
so easy to be witty about the British Empire. The White Man's Burden and
'Rule, Britannia' and Kipling's novels and Anglo-Indian bores--who could
even mention such things without a snigger? And is there any cultured
person who has not at least once in his life made a joke about that old
Indian havildar who said that if the British left India there would not be
a rupee or a virgin left between Peshawar and Delhi (or wherever it was)?
That is the attitude of the typical left-winger towards imperialism, and a
thoroughly flabby, boneless attitude it is. For in the last resort, the
only important question is. Do you want the British Empire to hold together
or do you want it to disintegrate? And at the bottom of his heart no
Englishman, least of all the kind of person who is witty about Anglo-Indian
colonels, does want it to disintegrate. For, apart from any other
consideration, the high standard of life we enjoy in England depends upon
our keeping a tight hold on the Empire, particularly the tropical portions
of it such as India and Africa. Under the capitalist system, in order that
England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must
live on the verge of starvation--an evil state of affairs, but you
acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of
strawberries and cream. The alternative is to throw the Empire overboard
and reduce England to a cold and unimportant little island where we should
all have to work very hard and live mainly on herrings and potatoes. That
is the very last thing that any left-winger wants. Yet the left-winger
continues to feel that he has no moral responsibility for imperialism. He
is perfectly ready to accept the products of Empire and to save his soul by
sneering at the people who hold the Empire together.

It is at this point that one begins to grasp the unreality of most
people's attitude towards the class question. So long as it is merely a
question of ameliorating the worker's lot, every decent person is agreed.
Take a coal-miner, for example. Everyone, barring fools and scoundrels,
would like to see the miner better off. If, for instance, the miner could
ride to the coal face in a comfortable trolley instead of crawling on his
hands and knees, if he could work a three-hour shift instead of seven and a
half hours, if he could live in a decent house with five bedrooms and a
bath-room and have ten pounds a week wages--splendid! Moreover, anyone
who uses his brain knows perfectly well that this is within the range of
possibility. The world, potentially at least, is immensely rich; develop it
as it might be developed, and we could all live like princes, supposing
that we wanted to. And to a very superficial glance the social side of the
question looks equally simple. In a sense it is true that almost everyone
would like to see class-distinctions abolished. Obviously this perpetual
uneasiness between man and man, from which we suffer in modern England, is
a curse and a nuisance. Hence the temptation few scoutmasterish bellows of
good-will. Stop calling me 'sir', you chaps! Surely we're all men? Let's
pal up and get our shoulders to the wheel and remember that we're all
equal, and what the devil does it matter if I know what kind of ties to
wear and you don't, and I drink my soup comparatively quietly and you drink
yours with the noise of water going down a waste-pipe--and so on and so
on and so on; all of it the most pernicious rubbish, but quite alluring
when it is suitably expressed.

But unfortunately you get no further by merely wishing class-
distinctions away. More exactly, it is necessary to wish them away, but
your wish has no efficacy unless you grasp what it involves. The fact that
has got to be faced is that to abolish class-distinctions means abolishing
a part of yourself. Here am I, a typical member of the middle class. It is
easy for me to say that I want to get rid of class-distinctions, but nearly
everything I think and do is a result of class-distinctions. All my notions
--notions of good and evil, of pleasant and unpleasant, of funny and
serious, of ugly and beautiful--are essentially middle-class notions; my
taste in books and food and clothes, my sense of honour, my table manners,
my turns of speech, my accent, even the characteristic movements of my
body, are the products of a special kind of upbringing and a special niche
about half-way up the social hierarchy. When I grasp this I grasp that it
is no use clapping a proletarian on the back and telling him that he is as
good a man as I am; if I want real contact with him, I have got to make an
effort for which very likely I am unprepared. For to get outside the class-
racket I have got to suppress not merely my private snobbishness, but most
of my other tastes and prejudices as well. I have got to alter myself so
completely that at the end I should hardly be recognizable as the same
person. What is involved is not merely the amelioration of working-class
conditions, nor an avoidance of the more stupid forms of snobbery, but a
complete abandonment of the upper-class and middle-class attitude to life.
And whether I say Yes or No probably depends upon the extent to which I
grasp what is demanded of me.

Many people, however, imagine that they can abolish class-distinctions
without making any uncomfortable change in their own habits and 'ideology'.
Hence the eager class-breaking activities which one can see in progress on
all sides. Everywhere there are people of goodwill who quite honestly
believe that they are working for the overthrow of class-distinctions. The
middle-class Socialist enthuses over the proletariat and runs 'summer
schools' where the proletarian and the repentant bourgeois are supposed to
fall upon one another's necks and be brothers for ever; and the bourgeois
visitors come away saying how wonderful and inspiring it has all been (the
proletarian ones come away saying something different). And then there is
the outer-suburban creeping Jesus, a hangover from the William Morris
period, but still surprisingly common, who goes about saying 'Why must we
level down? Why not level up?' and proposes to level the working class 'up'
(up to his own standard) by means of hygiene, fruit-juice, birth-control,
poetry, etc. Even the Duke of York (now King George VI) runs a yearly camp
where public-school boys and boys from the slums are supposed to mix on
exactly equal terms, and do mix for the time being, rather like the animals
in one of those 'Happy Family' cages where a dog, a cat, two ferrets, a
rabbit, and three canaries preserve an armed truce while the showman's eye
is on them.

All such deliberate, conscious efforts at class-breaking are, I am
convinced, a very serious mistake. Sometimes they are merely futile, but
where they do show a definite result it is usually to intensify class-
prejudice. This, if you come to think of it, is only what might be
expected. You have forced the pace and set up an uneasy, unnatural equality
between class and class; the resultant friction brings to the surface all
kinds of feelings that might other-wise have remained buried, perhaps for
ever. As I said apropos of Galsworthy, the opinions of the sentimentalist
change into their opposites at the first touch of reality. Scratch the
average pacifist and you find a jingo. The middle-class I.L.P.'er and the
bearded fruit-juice drinker are all for a classless society so long as they
see the proletariat through the wrong end of the telescope; force them into
any real contact with a proletarian--let them get into a fight with a
drunken fish-porter on Saturday night, for instance--and they are capable
of swinging back to the most ordinary middle-class snobbishness. Most
middle-class Socialists, however, are very unlikely to get into fights with
drunken fish-porters; when they do make a genuine contact with the working
class, it is usually with the working-class intelligentsia. But the
working-class intelligentsia is sharply divisible into two different types.
There is the type who remains working-class--who goes on working as a
mechanic or a dock-labourer or whatever it may be and does not bother to
change his working-class accent and habits, but who 'improves his mind' in
his spare time and works for the I.L.P. or the Communist Party; and there
is the type who does alter his way of life, at least externally, and who by
means of State scholarships succeeds in climbing into the middle class. The
first is one of the finest types of man we have. I can think of some I have
met whom not even the most hidebound Tory could help liking and admiring.
The other type, with exceptions--D. H. Lawrence, for example--is less

To begin with, it is a pity, though it is a natural result of the
scholarship system, that the proletariat should tend to interpenetrate the
middle class via the literary intelligentsia. For it is not easy to crash
your way into the literary intelligentsia if you happen to be a decent
human being. The modem English literary world, at any rate the high-brow
section of it, is a sort of poisonous jungle where only weeds can flourish.
It is just possible to be a literary gent and to keep your decency if you
are a definitely popular writer--a writer of detective stories, for
instance; but to be a highbrow, with a footing in the snootier magazines,
means delivering yourself over to horrible campaigns of wire-pulling and
backstairs-crawling. In the highbrow world you 'get on', if you 'get on' at
all, not so much by your literary ability as by being the life and soul of
cocktail parties and kissing the bums of verminous little lions. This,
then, is the world that most readily opens its doors to the proletarian who
is climbing out of his own class. The 'clever' boy of a working-class
family, the sort of boy who wins scholarships and is obviously not fitted
for a life of manual labour, may find other ways of rising into the class
above--a slightly different type, for instance, rises via Labour Party
politics--but the literary way is by far the most usual. Literary London
now teems with young men who are of proletarian origin and have been
educated by means of scholarships. Many of them are very disagreeable
people, quite unrepresentative of their class, and it is most unfortunate
that when a person of bourgeois origin does succeed in meeting a
proletarian face to face on equal terms, this is the type he most commonly
meets. For the result is to drive the bourgeois, who has idealized the
proletariat so long as he knew nothing about them, back into frenzies of
snobbishness. The process is sometimes very comic to watch, if you happen
to be watching it from the outside. The poor well-meaning bourgeois, eager
to embrace his proletarian brother, leaps forward with open arms; and only
a little while later he is in retreat, minus a borrowed five pounds and
exclaiming dolefully, 'But, dash it, the fellow's not a gentleman!'

The thing that disconcerts the bourgeois in a contact of this kind is
to find certain of his own professions being taken seriously. I have
pointed out that the left-wing opinions of the average 'intellectual' are
mainly spurious. From pure imitativeness he jeers at things which in fact
he believes in. As one example out of many, take the public-school code of
honour, with its 'team spirit' and 'Don't hit a man when he's down', and
all the rest of that familiar bunkum. Who has not laughed at it? Who,
calling himself an 'intellectual', would dare not to laugh at it? But it is
a bit different when you meet somebody who laughs at it from the outside;
just as we spend our lives in abusing England but grow very angry when we
hear a foreigner saying exactly the same things. No one has been more
amusing about the public schools than 'Beachcomber' of the Express. He
laughs, quite rightly, at the ridiculous code which makes cheating at cards
the worst of all sins. But would 'Beachcomber' like it if one of his own
friends was caught cheating at cards? I doubt it. It is only when you meet
someone of a different culture from yourself that you begin to realize what
your own beliefs really are. If you are a bourgeois 'intellectual' you too
readily imagine that you have somehow become unbourgeois because you find
it easy to laugh at patriotism and the G. of E. and the Old School Tie and
Colonel Blimp and all the rest of it. But from the point of view of the
proletarian 'intellectual', who at least by origin is genuinely outside the
bourgeois culture, your resemblances to Colonel Blimp may be more important
than your differences. Very likely he looks upon you and Colonel Blimp as
practically equivalent persons; and in a way he is right, though neither
you nor Colonel Blimp would admit it. So that the meeting of proletarian
and bourgeois, when they do succeed in meeting, is not always the embrace
of long-lost brothers; too often it is the clash of alien cultures which
can only meet in war.

I have been looking at this from the point of view of the bourgeois
who finds his secret beliefs challenged and is driven back to a frightened
conservatism. But one has also got to consider the antagonism that is
aroused in the proletarian 'intellectual'. By his own efforts and sometimes
with frightful agonies he has struggled out of his own class into another
where he expects to find a wider freedom and a greater intellectual
refinement; and all he finds, very often, is a sort of hollowness, a
deadness, a lack of any warm human feeling--of any real life whatever.
Sometimes the bourgeoisie seem to him just dummies with money and water in
their veins instead of blood. This at any rate is what he says, and almost
any young highbrow of proletarian origin will spin you this line of talk.
Hence the 'proletarian' cant from which we now suffer. Everyone knows, or
ought to know by this time, how it runs: the bourgeoisie are 'dead' (a
favourite word of abuse nowadays and very effective be-cause meaningless),
bourgeois culture is bankrupt, bourgeois 'values' are despicable, and so on
and so forth; if you want examples, see any number of the Left Review or
any of the younger Communist writers such as Alee Brown, Philip Henderson,
etc. The sincerity of much of this is suspect, but D. H. Lawrence, who was
sincere, whatever else he may not have been, expresses the same thought
over and over again. It is curious how he harps upon that idea that the
English bourgeoisie are all dead, or at least gelded. Mellors, the
gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley's Lover (really Lawrence himself), has had
the opportunity to get out of his own class and does not particularly want
to return to it, because English working people have various 'disagree-able
habits'; on the other hand the bourgeoisie, with whom he has also mixed to
some extent, seem to him half dead, a race of eunuchs. Lady Chatterley's
husband, symbolically, is impotent in the actual physical sense. And then
there is the poem about the young man (once again Lawrence himself) who
'got up to the top of the tree' but came down saying:

Oh you've got to be like a monkey
if you climb up the tree!
You've no more use for the solid earth
and the lad you used to be.
You sit in the boughs and gibber
with superiority.
They all gibber and gibber and chatter,
and never a word they say
comes really out of their guts, lad,
they make it up half-way. ...
I tell you something's been done to 'em,
to the pullets up above;
there's not a cock bird among 'em, etc., etc.

You could hardly have it in plainer terms than that. Possibly by the
people at 'the top of the tree' Lawrence only means the real bourgeoisie,
those in the L2000 a year class and over, but I doubt it. More probably he
means everyone who is more or less within the bourgeois culture--everyone
who was brought up with a mincing accent and in a house where there were
one or two servants. And at this point you realize the danger of the
'proletarian' cant--realize, I mean, the terrible antagonism that it is
capable of arousing. For when you come to such an accusation as this, you
are up against a blank wall. Lawrence tells me that because I have been to
a public school I am a eunuch. Well, what about it? I can produce medical
evidence to the contrary, but what good will that do? Lawrence's
condemnation remains. If you tell me I am a scoundrel I may mend my ways,
but if you tell me I am a eunuch you are tempting me to hit back in any way
that seems feasible. If you want to make an enemy of a man, tell him that
his ills are incurable.

This then is the net result of most meetings between proletarian and
bourgeois: they lay bare a real antagonism which is intensified by the
'proletarian' cant, itself the product of forced contacts between class and
class. The only sensible procedure is to go slow and not force the pace. If
you secretly think of yourself as a gentleman and as such the superior of
the greengrocer's errand boy, it is far better to say so than to tell lies
about it. Ultimately you have got to drop your snobbishness, but it is
fatal to pretend to drop it before you are really ready to do so.

Meanwhile one can observe on every side that dreary phenomenon, the
middle-class person who is an ardent Socialist at twenty-five and a
sniffish Conservative at thirty-five. In a way his recoil is natural enough
--at any rate, one can see how his thoughts run. Perhaps a classless
society doesn't mean a beatific state of affairs in which we shall all go
on behaving exactly as before except that there will be no class-hatred and
no snobbishness; perhaps it means a bleak world in which all our ideals,
our codes, our tastes--our 'ideology', in fact--will have no meaning.
Perhaps this class-breaking business isn't so simple as it looked! On the
contrary, it is a wild ride into the darkness, and it may be that at the
end of it the smile will be on the face of the tiger. With loving though
slightly patronizing smiles we set out to greet our proletarian brothers,
and behold! our proletarian brothers--in so far as we understand them--
are not asking for our greetings, they are asking us to commit suicide.
When the bourgeois sees it in that form he takes to flight, and if his
flight is rapid enough it may carry him to Fascism.

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