[Marxism] Orwell, George Garrett, and Working-Class Socialist Intellectuals

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at osu.edu
Thu Mar 25 05:06:51 MST 2004


George Orwell made working-class socialist intellectuals virtually 
invisible in _The Road to Wigan Pier_, because he wanted to create an 
image of "the ordinary working man" whose intellect cannot grasp "the 
deeper implications of Socialism" and contrast it with his image of 
the bookish "middle-class socialist":

*****   For it must be remembered that a working man, so long as he 
remains a genuine working man, is seldom or never a Socialist in the 
complete, logically consistent sense.  Very likely he votes Labour, 
or even Communist if he gets the chance, but his conception of 
Socialism is quite different from that of the book-trained Socialist 
higher up.  To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in 
any pub on Saturday night, Socialism does not mean much more than 
better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about.  To the 
more revolutionary type, the type who is a hunger-marcher and is 
blacklisted by employers, the word is a sort of rallying-cry against 
the forces of oppression, a vague threat of future violence.  But, so 
far as my experience goes, no genuine working man grasps the deeper 
implications of Socialism.  Often, in my opinion, he is a truer 
Socialist than the orthodox Marxist, because he does remember, what 
the other so often forgets, that Socialism means justice and common 
decency.  But what he does not grasp is that Socialism cannot be 
narrowed down to mere economic justice and that a reform of that 
magnitude is bound to work immense changes in our civilization and 
his own way of life.  His vision of the Socialist future is a vision 
of present society with the worst abuses left out, and with interest 
centring round the same things as at present -- family life, the pub, 
football, and local politics.

(George Orwell, _The Road to Wigan Pier_, 
<http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/o/o79r/chap0.html>).   *****

To Orwell, working-class socialists are "decent" in so far as they 
are not (in his opinion) his intellectual equals; educated 
"middle-class socialists" in Orwell's imagery, in contrast, are all 
indecent -- mostly "Nancy Poets" in "pansy-left circles" who (in his 
opinion) profess to love the working class but actually despise them 
-- all the more hateful because Orwell fears that he, by virtue of 
his class and profession, may be one of them: "Lawrence tells me that 
because I have been to a public school I am a eunuch" (_The Road to 
Wigan Pier_, 
<http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/o/o79r/chap0.html>).

If Orwell had not been set on creating a mythical dichotomy between 
decent but unintellectual working men and intellectual but indecent 
"middle class socialists," and if he had not been prejudiced against 
women and gay men, he could have drawn a truer portrait of British 
socialism and working-class life, including the intellectual life of 
a working-class socialist who showed him around Wigan and of whom he 
mentions in "The Road to Wigan Pier Diary":

*****   George Garrett and the USA

Author: Joseph Pridmore
Date: January 2002

I was very greatly impressed by Garrett.  Had I known before that it 
is he who writes under the pseudonym of Matt Low in the Adelphi and 
one or two other places, I would have taken steps to meet him 
earlier.  He is a biggish hefty chap of about 36, Liverpool-Irish, 
brought up a Catholic but now a Communist.  He says he has had about 
nine month's work in (I think) the last 6 years.  He went to sea as a 
lad and was at sea about 10 years, then worked as a docker.  During 
the war he was torpedoed on a ship that sank in 7 minutes, but they 
had expected to be torpedoed and had got their boats ready, and were 
all saved except the wireless conductor, who refused to leave his 
post until he had got an answer.  He also worked in an illicit 
brewery in Chicago during prohibition, saw various hold-ups, saw 
Battling Siki immediately after he had been shot in a street brawl, 
etc. etc.  All this however interests him much less than Communist 
politics.  I urged him to write his autobiography, but, as usual, 
living in about two rooms on the dole with a wife (who, I gather, 
objects to his writing) and a number of kids, he finds it impossible 
to settle to any long work and can only do short stories.  Apart from 
the enormous unemployment in Liverpool it is almost impossible for 
him to get work because he is blacklisted everywhere as a 
Communist.[1]

The words above are George Orwell's, who met with George Garrett on 
February the 25th 1936 while visiting Liverpool as part of his 
research for The Road to Wigan Pier.  Garrett's name is all but 
unknown in literary circles today, but when his writing first 
appeared in the thirties it regularly received high praise from 
established literary figures such as Orwell.  Sylvia Townsend Warner, 
John Lehmann and Tom Harisson were also "very greatly impressed" by 
the Merseyside left-wing writer and activist.  It seems appropriate, 
therefore, to begin with Orwell's account of their meeting, partly 
because its detailed description of Garrett is a useful place to 
start for those who have not heard of him before now, and also 
because it contains a number of details about Garrett's travels to 
America which are the subject of this paper.

There are a number of reasons why Garrett became a forgotten name in 
1930s English literature.  One is that the body of work he left 
behind is relatively small.  As Orwell notes, Garrett could not 
escape the demands of finding work and supporting a large family (he 
had seven sons), and ultimately these factors kept him from producing 
any writing on a large scale.  Just ten short stories, two pieces of 
reportage and a handful of articles were published in his lifetime, 
although since his death in 1966 some other unreleased works have 
been discovered.  Garrett's popularity as a writer was also 
compromised by tensions arising following the end of World War Two 
and the beginning of the Cold War.  Growing paranoia surrounding the 
perceived threat posed by Communist Russia led to a sharp decline in 
the success of western proletarian writers such as Garrett, who had 
voiced their support of left-wing politics during the thirties.  This 
fall from grace affected many of Garrett's contemporaries too, and 
such 1930s working class authors as James Hanley, Jack Hilton, Jim 
Phelan and Jack Common are still neglected and under-researched 
figures in most current studies of British writing from between the 
wars.

However, the study of Garrett's work is rewarding for it reveals much 
about left-wing politics, labour history on Merseyside, the 
stylistics of resistance writing, and tactics for overcoming the 
implicit class domination that lies within conventional literary 
forms.  Furthermore, and most significantly, Garrett's work also 
contains fascinating details concerning the interplay between British 
and American left-wing organisations during the 1920s and 30s.  This 
was an immensely lively time for socialist movements on both sides of 
the Atlantic, and I'd like to look in particular at the various ways 
in which Garrett's life and writing were influenced by one of the 
most famous of all American labour movements: The Industrial Workers 
of the World. . . .

Notes

[1] George Orwell, 'The Road to Wigan Pier Diary', in Ian Angus and 
Sonia Orwell, eds. George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism 
and Letters, Volume 1: An Age Like This, 1920-1940, London: Secker & 
Warburg, 1968, p 187. . . .

<http://polsong.gcal.ac.uk/articles/pridmore.html>   *****

Why did Orwell erase George Garrett (and men and women like him) from 
_The Road to Wigan Pier_?  Perhaps Orwell sensed what Garrett thought 
of him: "[A]s George Garrett, the working-class writer who showed 
Orwell around Wigan, was quick to spot, Orwell claimed a knowledge of 
working-class life that was greatly in excess of the truth" (John 
Lucas, "Jonathan Rose, _The Intellectual Life of the British Working 
Classes_" [Book Review], _Textual Practice_ 16.2 [2002], p. 375, 
<http://taylorandfrancis.metapress.com/app/home/content.asp?wasp=6cc6l524gn0rwk9a5g8h&referrer=contribution&format=2&page=1&pagecount=64>).

Cf. *****   George Garrett: The Collected George Garrett
Edited with an introduction and notes, by Michael Murphy.
Price: £7.99 ISBN 0 0905 488 48 2

All but ignored by post-war critics, George Garrett's stories and 
reportage were praised by some of the most influential writers of the 
1930's, including George Orwell, Sylvia Townsend Warner and John 
Lehmann. His ability to shift from realism to the symbolic has been 
likened to Conrad, making his work indispensable to anyone interested 
in the full range of British writing during the decade.

Born on Merseyside in 1896, Garret's stories vividly record the 
experiences of a merchant seaman during the First World War and his 
return to the working-class realities of 'a land fit for heroes.' 
Also included are Garrett's first-hand accounts of life on the 
breadline in twenties Liverpool, and of the 1922 Hunger March. Both 
display his powers as a satirist and social critic in the tradition 
of Defoe.

The Collected George Garrett also contains his critical ripostes to 
Conrad's 'The Nigger of the Narcissus', and an extract from his essay 
on Shakespeare's The Tempest. The collection concludes with a 
previously unpublished autobiographical sketch set in the pre-1914 
docklands of Liverpool.

Michael Murphy's poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in Critical 
Survey, London Magazine, Miscelania, Poetry Ireland Review and 
Symbiosis. His first collection poems, After Attila, is published by 
Shoestring Press. He is currently writing a thesis on Modern Poetry 
and Exile at The Nottingham Trent University.

<http://human.ntu.ac.uk/research/trenteditions/trenteditions.html#garrett> 
*****
-- 
Yoshie

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