By John Merrick
March 26 2021
During the 1930s Jack Hilton, a Rochdale plasterer and activist in the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, gained certain renown as a writer. Although now little remembered (or if the difficulty in getting hold of his books is anything to go by, more like entirely forgotten), a fierce autodidact, he wrote a number of well-received books chronicling the life of the British working classes in the middle years of the twentieth century. It’s a shame then that his work has been so entirely wiped from public consciousness. Not only does he have much to say on the nature of working class experience, his work still stands out for its literary quality. There’s a lyricism to his prose, often rare in a writer such as him. Now though, if there’s any reason to remember him at all, it’s as a strange footnote to George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier.
Orwell’s book, commissioned by Victor Gollancz and included in their Left Book Club series, has done much to shape how we think about the working class. Orwell’s Wigan miners are strong, masculine figures. Their labour is hard and back-breaking; this is men’s work and we see few women in Orwell’s Wigan. Yet, it could all have been so different. After being approached by Gollancz about the possibility of writing a book on the condition of the unemployed, Orwell searched about for information on where to travel, and one of those he approached was the aforementioned Jack Hilton. Just a year earlier, Orwell had reviewed Hilton’s first book, Caliban Shrieks, for The Adelphi, where he had praised its “vivid notion of what it feels like to be poor”. It was then little wonder that he approached Hilton for advice on how to find the unemployed. Initially, Orwell wanted to travel to Rochdale, and in a letter asked Hilton if he could stay with him and his wife. For lack of space, Hilton demurred. Instead, he suggested Orwell try his luck in nearby Wigan, where “there are the colliers and they’re good stuff”.
Mines and mills
What Orwell saw in the mines of Wigan “not only shaped The Road to Wigan Pier” according to historian Ben Clarke, but also conditioned “Orwell’s socialism, which was founded on commitment to the working class, not merely as a mechanism of social change but as a group that embodied some of the central values of a future, emancipated society”. And many of these solidly built workers had – much like Orwell himself – a deeply conservative streak. Their portrayal by Orwell is, according to Raymond Williams, as “powerful but stupid”. They’re a class without a consciousness, a barely thinking mass of men who needed guidance from without. It’s not hard to see why he’s every Tory’s favourite socialist, often known best for his anti-communism.
Such a masculine vision shapes how Orwell thinks about political organising, which you can see in his disdain for the “fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist” on the left. Here, there’s a barely concealed revulsion at the feminine, a disgust at anything that would compromise the masculine ethos of struggle and toil. Mining was just such a male industry, but the main industry in Rochdale and even in much of Wigan itself took place not in the mines but the cotton mills. The mills, unlike the mines, had a far less male-dominated workforce, employing nearly as many women as men. Perhaps if Orwell had stayed at Jack Hilton’s small Rochdale semi, if he’d written The Road to Castleton Moor, things would have been much different.
The reason I write this is not merely to resurrect such socialist arcana. Rather, it’s to argue against the vision of the working class that many on the left still harbour. Now, in our era of deindustrialisation, any hope for socialist renewal must attempt to purge itself of this particular masculine imaginary that Orwell did so much to solidify – already a one-sided view then, a severe distortion now. If, as with Orwell, much of the vision of socialism is grounded in who we take to be ‘the workers’, and how we choose to see them, then we need to be clear-eyed about it, particularly in the global North. There is a case to be made that such a masculine view of the working class was historically specific, but history moves – and so must we.
Yet, many on the left remain wedded to the idea of the renewal of industrial employment. There are aspects of this in many of the proposals for a Green New Deal. Labour, in its 2019 manifesto, even spoke of it in terms of a Green Industrial Revolution. “Just as the original Industrial Revolution brought industry, jobs and pride to our towns,” the party said, so “Labour’s world-leading Green Industrial Revolution will rebuild them”. This, and with so much of the other rhetoric surrounding it, seemed to focus on a revival of industrial employment in declining regions, albeit now centred around wind turbine production rather than digging up vast seams of coal from the earth.
As Gabriel Winant writes in his excellent new book The Next Shift, “everywhere across the global North, as the power of the working class collided with dwindling manufacturing profits, a sectoral transformation ensued” during the 1970s and 1980s. That transformation was one in which manufacturing jobs were replaced by low-paid service work. In such deindustrialised communities (Winant is writing about what happened in the US steel city of Pittsburgh), much of the slack was taken up by care work, a form of labour that is, against Orwell’s masculine miners, mainly feminised, often carried out by radicalised groups, and almost always underpaid and under-unionised. Care work has always been thus, and Winant draws out the economic and social history of care as reproductive labour throughout the twentieth century, along with its changes following the breakdown of single-income households and the commodification of labour that had often been unpaid and carried out in the home.
It’s not for me to say what such an imaginary, one that goes beyond the old masculine notion of the industrial worker, should look like. But, one possible direction is offered by a new report from the think tank Common Wealth that calls for a “people-centred industrial strategy.” Such a strategy would be “concerned not just with increasing productivity through a narrow lens and boosting the efficiency with which wealth is produced, but with reshaping the distribution (or ‘predistribution’) of wealth.” It would focus less on boosting employment and instead on equitable distribution, new forms of leisure outside of the wage relation, new ways of inhabiting the world, and a new vision the human-nature relationship. Only through such alternative forms of political imagination, and breaking free from a narrowly Orwellian vision of socialism, might we hold hope of winning.
- Commonwealth. (2021) Caring for the earth, caring for each other: An industrial strategy for adult social care.
- Hilton, J. (1935) Caliban Shrieks. Cobden-Sanderson: London.
- Orwell, G. (1989)  The Road to Wigan Pier. Penguin Books: London
- Winant, G. (2021) The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.
John Merrick is a writer originally from Crewe, who now lives in London. He writes on culture, class, place, deindustrialisation, and British and Global history, and his work has appeared in TLS, New Statesman, Tribune, Jacobin, New Left Review, Boston Review and elsewhere. He is currently writing a book about the experience of working class life in Britain.