(For context, this book was published in 1937.)
Orwell spends the first half of the book traveling to various towns in early 1900s England and attempting to experience the lives of those living there. Throughout, the theme is of the general squalor in which the lower class exists, and how it’s not something they’re really going to be able to get themselves out of magically, or through hard work alone.
He spends time as a coal miner, actually going down into the mines on a regular workday, and describes the terrible working conditions, underpay, and long hours of the miners. He goes into their homes and describes the terrible living conditions, decrepit architecture (unpleasantly small spaces packed with too many people, no gardens and generally no happiness), lack of toilets (one for many houses), often no plumbing, etc etc.
On questioning his own status as an intellectual in light of his experiences with the coal miners:
“In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal – miners working . It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an “ intellectual ” and a superior person generally . For it is brought home to you , at least while you are watching , that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior . You and I and the editor of the Times Lit . Supp . , and the Nancy poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X , author of Marxism for Infants — all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground , blackened to the eyes , with their throats full of coal dust , driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel .”
This continues for the first half, generally describing how shitty it is (for the lower class(es)) in early 1900s England.
For the second half of the book Orwell unleashes an absolutely withering tirade against socialism as a political movement. He attempts to describe what would need to be done to lift people out of poverty and generally make things better, but ends up targetting the mis-steps of the socialist movement in being overly trivial and petty, and generally pushing away anyone who would want to join it. Orwell views Socialism as the necessary, obvious, and only direct counter to Fascism (which is the more obvious evli) but laments that socialism in its current form is just generally stupid and needs to get its story together.
On the contradiction of trying to build a utopia:
“The tendency of mechanical progress is to make your environment safe and soft ; and yet you are striving to keep yourself brave and hard . You are at the same moment furiously pressing forward and desperately holding back . It is as though a London stockbroker should go to his office in a suit of chain mail and insist on talking medieval Latin . So in the last analysis the champion of progress is also the champion of anachronisms.”
I found this section of the book both fascinating and hilarious. Basically, Orwell points out that the things we value in humans are our courage and strength (especially physical beauty as it relates to being fit and strong). But contradictorily, we’re striving to build some sort of a utopia which would be safe and soft (as he points out in the quotation above)— and therefore make unneeded the types of strength and physical courage which we value. He actually goes so far so to ridicule the idea:
“But in a world from which physical danger had been banished—and obviously mechanical progress tends to eliminate danger—would physical courage be likely to survive? Could it survive? And why should physical strength survive in a world where there was never the need for physical labour? As for such qualities as loyalty, generosity, etc., in a world where nothing went wrong, they would be not only irrelevant but probably unimaginable. The truth is that many of the qualities we admire in human beings can only function in opposition to some kind of disaster, pain or difficulty; but the tendency of mechanical progress is to eliminate disaster, pain and difficulty. In books like The Dream and Men Like Gods it is assumed that such qualities as strength, courage, generosity, etc., will be kept alive because they are comely qualities and necessary attributes of a full human being. Presumably, for instance, the inhabitants of Utopia would create artificial dangers in order to exercise their courage, and do dumb-bell exercises to harden muscles which they would never be obliged to use.”
This is funny! From almost 100 years ago, Orwell is predicting EXACTLY the situation we have today: Disney Land world where there are no real physical challenges, but everyone spends their time doing dumb-bell exercises to harden muscles which they’ll never be obliged to use. Brilliant!
On Marxism’s failures to relate to reality:
“I have very seldom met a convinced Socialist who could grasp that thinking people may be repelled by the objective towards which Socialism appears to be moving. The Marxist, especially, dismisses this kind of thing as bourgeois sentimentality. Marxists as a rule are not very good at reading the minds of their adversaries; if they were, the situation in Europe might be less desperate than it is at present. Possessing a technique which seems to explain everything, they do not often bother to discover what is going on inside other people’s heads.”
“It is a pity that Marxists nearly always concentrate on letting economic cats out of ideological bags; it does in one sense reveal the truth, but with this penalty, that most of their propaganda misses its mark. It is the spiritual recoil from Socialism, especially as it manifests itself in sensitive people, that I want to discuss in this chapter. I shall have to analyse it at some length, because it is very widespread, very powerful and, among Socialists, almost completely ignored.”
On worshipping the Machine (as socialism does):
“Put a pacifist to work in a bomb-factory and in two months he will be devising a new type of bomb. Hence the appearance of such diabolical things as poison gases, which are not expected even by their inventors to be beneficial to humanity. Our attitude towards such things as poison gases ought to be the attitude of the king of Brobdingnag towards gunpowder; but because we live in a mechanical and scientific age we are infected with the notion that, whatever else happens, “progress” must continue and knowledge must never be suppressed. Verbally, no doubt, we would agree that machinery is made for man and not man for machinery; in practice any attempt to check the development of the machine appears to us as an attack on knowledge and therefore a kind of blasphemy.”
On combatting Fascism:
“In order to combat Fascism it is necessary to understand it , which involves admitting that it contains some good as well as much evil . In practice , of course , it is merely an infamous tyranny , and its methods of attaining and holding power are such that even its most ardent apologists prefer to talk about something else . But the underlying feeling of Fascism , the feeling that first draws people into the Fascist camp , may be less contemptible . It is not always , as the Saturday Review would lead one to suppose , a squealing terror of the Bolshevik bogey – man . Everyone who has given the movement so much as a glance knows that the rank – and – file Fascist is often quite a well – meaning person — quite genuinely anxious , for instance , to better the lot of the unemployed . But more important than this is the fact that Fascism draws its strength from the good as well as the bad varieties of conservatism . To anyone with a feeling for tradition and for discipline it comes with its appeal ready – made . Probably it is very easy , when you have had a bellyful of the more tactless kind of Socialist propaganda , to see Fascism as the last line defence of all that is good in European civilisation . Even the Fascist bully at his symbolic worst , with rubber truncheon in one hand and castor oil bottle in the other , does not necessarily feel himself a bully ; more probably he feels like Roland in the pass at Roncevaux , defending Christendom against the barbarian . We have got to admit that if Fascism is everywhere advancing , this is largely the fault of Socialists themselves . Partly it is due to the mistaken Communist tactic of sabotaging democracy , i.e . sawing off the branch you are sitting on ; but still more to the fact that Socialists have , so to speak , presented their case wrong side foremost . They have never made it sufficiently clear that the essential aims of Socialism are justice and liberty . With their eyes glued to economic facts , they have proceeded on the assumption that man has no soul , and explicitly or implicitly they have set up the goal of a materialistic Utopia . As a result Fascism has been able to play upon every instinct that revolts against hedonism and a cheap conception of “ progress . ” It has been able to pose as the upholder of the European tradition , and to appeal to Christian belief , to patriotism and to the military virtues . It is far worse than useless to write Fascism off as “ mass sadism , ” or some easy phrase of that kind . If you pretend that it is merely an aberration which will presently pass off of its own accord , you are dreaming a dream from which you will awake when somebody coshes you with a rubber truncheon . The only possible course is to examine the Fascist case , grasp that there is something to be said for it , and then make it clear to the world that whatever good Fascism contains is also implicit in Socialism .”
On Socialism needing to get its shit together:
“For a long time past , certainly for the last ten years , the devil has had all the best tunes . We have reached a stage when the very word “ Socialism ” calls up , on the one hand , a picture of aeroplanes , tractors and huge glittering factories of glass and concrete ; on the other , a picture of vegetarians with wilting beards , of Bolshevik commissars ( half gangster , half gramophone ) , of earnest ladies in sandals , shock – headed Marxists chewing polysyllables , escaped Quakers , birth – control fanatics and Labour Party backstairs – crawlers . Socialism , at least in this island , does not smell any longer of revolution and the overthrow of tyrants ; it smells of crankishness , machine – worship and the stupid cult of Russia . Unless you can remove that smell , and very rapidly , Fascism may win.”