Alors que j’ai lu 1984 il y a maintenant plusieurs années et que je pensais pouvoir limiter le génie d’Orwell à cet ouvrage, voilà que The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) me tombe dans les mains. Au delà d’un inestimable reportage sur les conditions de vie ouvrières du nord du Royaume-Uni en 1936, ce texte en deux parties m’a profondément marqué par la justesse de son propos dans une période qui ressemble au moins en partie à la notre (après une crise majeure du capitalisme, dans un contexte de montée globale du fascisme et d’un sceptissisme des classes laborieuses envers le Socialisme...). S’interrogeant sur les conséquences du capitalisme, la pauvreté, les sentiments d’appartenance de classe, le snobisme des militants du marxisme et du socialisme, le sens du progès technologique, Orwell pose les bases d’une réflexion qui me parait plus que d’actualité, notamment si on y ajoute l’urgence écologique dont il n’était pas question en 1936. Voici les extraits que j’ai retranscris car me touchant tout particulièrement:
1. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part I, I.
“But it is no use saying that people like the Brookers are just disgusting and trying to put them out of mind. For they exist in tens and hundreds of thousands; they are one of the characteristic by-products of the modern world. You cannot disregard them if you accept the civilisation that produced them. For this is part at least of what industrialism has done for us. Colombus sailed the Atlantic, the first steam engines tottered into motion, the British squares stood firm under the French guns at Waterloo, the one-eyed scoundrels of the nineteenth century praised God and filled their pockets; and this is where it all led – to labyrinthine slums and dark back kitchens with sickly, ageing people creeping round and round themlike black beetles.”
2. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part I, I.
“That is an encouraging thought. In spite of hard trying, man has not yet succeeded in doing his dirt everywhere. The earth is so vast and still so empty that even in the filthy heart of civilisation you find fields where the grass is green instead of grey; perhaps if you looked fo them you might even find streams with live fish in them instead of salmon tins.”
3. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part I, IV.
“But mere notes like these are only valuable as reminders to myself. To me as I read them they bring back what I have seen, but they cannot in themselves give much ideas of what conditions are like in those fearful northern slums. Words are such feeble things. What is the use of a brief phrase like ‘roof leaks’ or ‘four beds for eight people’? It is the kind of thing your eye slides over, registering nothing.”
4. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part I, V.
“London is a sort of whirlpool which draws derelict people towards it, and it is so vast that life there is solitary and anonymous. Until you break the law nobody will take any notice if you, and you can go to pieces as you could not possibly do in a place where you had neighbours who knew you.”
5. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part I, V.
“Because to write books you need not only comfort and solitude – and comfort is never easy to attain in a working-class home – you also need peace of mind. You can’t settle to anything, you can’t command the spirit of hope in which anything has got to be created with that dull evil cloud of unemployment hanging over you. Still, an unemployed man, who feels at home with books can at any rate occupy himself by reading. But what about the man who cannot read without discomfort?”
6. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part I, V.
“A working-class man does not disintegrate under the strain of poverty as a middle-class person does. […] Instead of raging against their destiny they have made things tolerable by lowering their standards.”
7. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part I, V.
“Trade since the war has had to adjust itself to meet the demands of underpaid, underfed people, with the result that a luxury is nowadays almost always cheaper than a necessity.”
8. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part I, V.
“What we have lost in food we have gained in electricity. Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life.”
9. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part I, VI.
“He was fond of quoting Napoleon’s maxim ‘An army marches on its stomach’, and at the end of his lecture he would suddenly turn to us and demand, ‘What’s the most important thing in the world?’ We were expected to shout ‘Food!’ and if we did not do so he was disappointed. […] I think it could be plausibly argued that changes of diet are more important than changes of dynasty or even of religion.”
10. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part I, VI.
“We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun.”
11. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part I, VII.
“It would probably be quite easy to extract a sort of beauty, as Arnold Bennett did, from the blackness of the industrial towns; one can easily imagine Baudelaire, for instance, writing a poem about a slag-heap. But the beauty or ugliness of industrialism hardly matters. Its real evil lies far deeper and is quite ineradicable. It is important to remember this, because there is always a temptation to think that industrialism is harmless so long as it is clean and orderly.”
12. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part II, VIII.
“That was what we were taught – the lower classes smell. And here, obviously, you are at an impassable barrier. For no feeling of like or dislike is quite so fundamental as a physical feeling. Race hatred, religious hatred, differences of education, of temperament, of intellect, even differences of moral code, can be got over; but physical repulsion cannot.”
13. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part II, VIII.
“It is probably true that class-feeling is for the moment a very little less bitter than it was. The working class are submissive where they used to be openly hostile, and the post-war manufacture of cheap clothes and the general softening of manners have toned down the surface differences between class and class. But undoubtedly the essential feeling is still there. Every middle-class person has a dormant class-prejudice which needs only a small thing to arouse it; and if he is over forty he probably has a firm conviction that his own class has been sacrificed to the class below.”
14. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part II, IX.
“I was in the Indian Police five years, and by the end of that time I hated the imperialism I was serving with a bitterness which I probably cannot make clear. […] In order to hate imperialism you have got to be part of it. […] it is not possible to be part of such a system without recognising it as an unjustifiable tyranny.”
15. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part II, X.
“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 so.”
16. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part II, X.
“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.”
17. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part II, X.
“It is only when you meet someone of a different culture from yourself that you begin to realise what your own beliefs really are.”
18. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part II, X.
“If you want to make an enemy of a man, tell him that his ills are incurable.”
19. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part II, XI.
“And it is no use writing off the current distaste for Socialism as the product of stupidity or corrupt motives. If you want to remove that distaste you have got to understand it, which means getting inside the mind of the ordinary objector to Socialism, or at least regarding his viewpoint sympathetically. No case is really answered until it has had a fair hearing.”
20. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part II, XII.
“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 not only be irrelevant but probably inimaginable.”
21. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part II, XII.
“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. And here you observe the huge contradiction which is usually present in the idea of progress. The tendency of mechanical progress is to make your environment safe and soft; and yet you are striving to keep yourself brave and hard.”
22. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part II, XII.
“There is no reason why a human being should do more than eat, drink, sleep, breathe and procreate; everything else could be done for him by machinery. Therefore the logical end of mechanical progress is to reduce the human being to something resembling a brain in a bottle. That is the goal towards which we are already moving, though, of course we have not intention of getting there; just as a man who drinks a bottle of whisky a day does not actually intend to get cirrhosis of the liver.”
23. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part II, XII.
“But meanwhile the machine is here, and its corrupting effects are almost irresistible. One inveighs against it, but one goes on using it. Even a bare-arse savage, given the chance, will learn the vices of civilization within a few months. Mechanisation leads to the decay of taste, the decay of taste leads to the demand for machine-made articles and hence to more mechanisation, and so a vicious circle is established.”
24. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part II, XII.
“Given a mechanical civilization the process of invention and improvement will always continue, but the tendency of capitalism is to slow it down, because under capitalism any invention which does not promise fairly immediate profits is neglected; some, indeed, which threaten to reduce profits are suppressed almost as ruthlessly as the flexible glass mentioned by Petronius1. (1For example: Some years ago someone invented a gramophone needle that would last for decades. One of the big gramophone companies brought up the patent rights, and that was the last that was ever heard of it.)
25. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part II, XII.
“Socialism, at least in this island, does not smell any longer of revolution and the overthrow of tyrants; it smells of crankiness, machine-worship and the stupid cult of Russia. Unless you can remove that smell, and very rapidly, Fascism may win.”
26. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Part II, XIII.
“Which class do I belong to? Economically I belong to the working class, but it is almost impossible for me to think of myself as anything but a member of the bourgeoisie. And supposing I had to take sides, whom should I side with, the upper class which is trying to squeeze me out of existence, or the working class whose manners are not my manners? It is probable that I personally, in any important issue, would side with the working class. But what about the tens or hundreds of thousands of others who are in approximately the same position? And what about that far larger class, running into millions that time – the office-workers and black coated employees of all kinds – whose traditions are less definitely middle class but who would certainly not thank you if you call them proletarians? All of these people have the same interests and the same enemies as the working class. All are being robbed and bullied by the same system. Yet how many of them realise it? When the pinch came nearly all of them would side with their oppressors and against those who ought to be their allies. It is quite easy to imagine a middle class crushed down the worst depths of poverty and still remaining bitterly anti-working class in sentiment; this being, of course, a ready-made Fascist Party.”