George orwell the lion and the unicorn essay
George Orwell’s “The Lion and the Unicorn” Essay
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George Orwell, the author of ”The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius,” wrote this essay during the British leadership crisis in the beginnings of World War II. Wanting to unify the English, he reminds them of their past and how it makes them stand out as a nation. While writing to the elite intellectuals, he also worked to unify the middle and working classes. He writes to the English people to relate to them through maintaining their tradition, culture, and faith in the government by using culture and customs that both are familiar to and will unite the country. In this way, he reminds the people that although they may be different they all live in the same country. Though Orwell strongly was against some of the things his country did, he believed he always had a duty to her. Many people thought he was anti-war and military, but, in fact, he said he would always fight for his country no matter what the battle. He even tried reenlisting on September 9th, 1939 (Rossi, p128).
To fully understand the content, knowledge of Orwell’s personal history, Britain’s history, customs and culture are necessities. At this time, Britain was about to go into war. Germany and Italy had led their countries by dictators and totalitarianism. Orwell hated totalitarianism because it supported the intellectuals and upper class. He also did not see much of a difference between fascism and capitalism. He believed that both gave too much power to too few and that would corrupt the English. Orwell’s goal was not only to educate and bring together Britain’s people, but almost threaten the intellectuals. He tries to show England that they are unique in comparison to other countries because they do not need communism, capitalism, or fascism.
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About England he says, “the beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener… mild knobby faces, their bad teeth, and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd (Orwell p57).” In this quotation, Orwell explains to his fellow countrymen what makes them English and why they should be proud. He wanted to join them nationally into socialism because the people “are in the fields and the streets, in the factories and the armed forces, in the four ale bar and suburban back garden (Orwell p 59).” He told the Partisan Review in January 1941 that the “bulk of the middle class are just as anti-Hitler as the working class, and their morale is probably more reliable (Rossi p128).” He wanted to make the point that the middle class was essential in the changing England.
Historians use “The Lion and the Unicorn” as a great source to show what a cross road England was at before the war. It is also a source as to the beginnings of socialism in mid-twentieth century Britain. England had so many different directions to go and not many intellectuals agreed on just one. Orwell was often compared to two other socialists, William Morris and H. G. Wells. Orwell often had conflicts with H. G. Wells who wrote such novels as War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man. Wells was also considered a socialist claiming democracy to be inefficient. Wells believes that putting power in the hands of the ignorant lower class would be a disaster.
He also thought nationalism was unrealistic because no country could be independently powerful. Their biggest difference was Orwell believed that man would evolve better by law whereas Wells believed he would improve by science and technology (Partington p50). Orwell and William Morris show more similarities to each other. Morris, a poet and artist, is one of the fathers of socialism in England and lived in the nineteenth century. He is best known for his works The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World’s End. Many historians believe his ideas are parallel to Orwell’s because they both write romantically about their country and the liberty and justice of it (Vaninskaya p19).
Orwell’s main purpose in writing “The Lion and the Unicorn” is to convince the people the importance of a social revolution. Orwell’s work is used in reference to the history of socialism, patriotism, and nationalism. Today parts of socialism, capitalism, communism, and fascism are all still thriving. Even though socialism doesn’t run Britain, it did bring about a lot of changes. Because of it Britain has public healthcare, housing for the poor and affordable universities for the working class. Many people feel that Orwell’s arguments were empty and accomplished nothing, but they cannot deny the results of socialist democratic influence. He believed the only way to accomplish this was an England united by a deep sense of patriotism.
The Wide Sargasso Gyre
«Proctor, respected and even feared in Salem, has come to regard himself as a kind of fraud. But no hint of this has yet appeared on the surface, and as he enters from the crowded parlour below it is a man in his prime we see, with a quiet confidence and an unexpressed, hidden force.» – Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’
‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’
“When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air.” Discuss the idea of national culture as elaborated by George Orwell.
George Orwell’s pamphlet, ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’, opens with the line, “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.” Written during the summer of 1940 with Britain under threat from Nazi invasion, his essay outlines what he believes to be the tenets of the English culture, to understand “what part England Can play in the huge events.” He expounds the everyday qualities and activities of the English people, and uses these as stepping-stones to discuss the possibility of a socialist revolution within England. By comparing English national culture with other nations’ cultures, Orwell discusses how and why England could undergo this vital revolution, while retaining the culture that defines and perpetuates its national identity.
Orwell begins by specifying the origin of the Nazi threat in detail. He recognises that the threat comes not from the German men and women who build and operate the machines of war, but from Hitler and the wealthy, National Socialist elite. This blaming of the upper class is a theme featured throughout, and Orwell discusses the ‘stupidity’ of the British elite extensively – a point I will return to later. In his opening lines, Orwell ties the rise to power of Hitler and Mussolini to their understanding of “the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty… [which] their opponents could not.”, and disparages Christianity and international Socialism, saying they “are as weak as straw in comparison with it.” Orwell’s recognition of patriotism’s power, when used “as a Positive force”, leads him to attempt to remove patriotism from its common association with right-wing extremism, and to demonstrate its importance in creating a more moderate socialist government; something I believe he does effectively. Before I elaborate these ideas however, it is important to follow Orwell’s lead and define more fully what English national culture comprises.
Orwell defines the English culture in lists, “The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant.” These lists noticeably refer only to everyday events. He does not list the Houses of Parliament, Oxford University, or the other great achievements of the Empire, but focuses on “The crowds in the big towns with their mild knobbly faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners.” He posits that these “dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling” of England and that “these are not only fragments, but Characteristic fragments, of the English scene.” It is the activities of the middle and lower classes, like the “the rattle of pin-tables in Soho pubs”, that make England different from Europe. I agree with his notion, because, as he states, culture is a living creature that is grounded in its past. The present and future direction of the nation are linked inextricably to what has occurred. Parents, and the wider society, instruct children in lessons and morals that are conducive to the English view of life, just as they were instructed by their parents. Orwell opines that English culture is grounded in its common citizens. The ‘intelligentsia’ with their out-dated, leisure-seeking lifestyle, do not determine the overriding feel of English culture. Rather, “They take their ‘cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow.’” Accordingly, it is the people within “the £6 a week to £2000 a year class” whom Orwell targets to incite the Socialist revolution.
Orwell adds depth to his earlier lists by “noticing a minor English trait which is extremely well marked though not often commented on, and that is the love of flowers.” This does not literally mean that every English person loves flowers, but instils the image of one pottering around the garden. This image reflects the value placed upon spare time and privacy. “We are a nation of… stamp collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters… all the culture that is most truly native centres around things which even when they are communal are not official.” The liberty of the individual to own a home is something that is highly valued and treasured. Orwell states that the “most hateful of all names in the English ear is Nosey Parker” – one who meddles in the affairs of others. I agree with Orwell’s characterisations. As an Australian, I operate in a no-man’s land. As a foreigner, I notice the differentiating English characteristics Orwell discusses, but as a member of the British Commonwealth, I notice the similarities. The fear of being a “Nosey Parker”, roughly translates into the fear felt by an Australian of being a “Dibber-Dobber”. In school, this was the worst insult that could be delivered, and as I have grown up, the term may have changed, but the derision directed towards someone who meddles continues.
Orwell states that the English belief in liberty combines with a second important English characteristic: gentleness. He credits this gentleness as being critical to preventing a Hitler or Mussolini equivalent rising in England. Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) may have existed, but as Orwell states later, Mosley was an ineffective leader because he modelled his movement on two countries that maintained fundamentally different cultural identities. Unlike the Germans or Italians, “no politician could rise to power by promising them conquests or military ‘glory’”. “The boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by small minorities.” and “The power-worship which is the new religion of Europe, and has infected the English intelligentsia, has never touched the common people.” As these quotes suggest, the BUF struggled to recruit the working and middle class – unlike the Nazis in Germany. The prominent members of the BUF were the wealthy who sought to further their fortunes. They were however, as mentioned earlier, largely irrelevant to the culture of England due to their ill-suited, and European focused way of life and ideas of power.
To support his view of the English as a gentle people who cherish liberty, Orwell discusses marching as a manifestation of national culture. “A military parade is really a kind of ritual dance… expressing a certain philosophy of life.” He describes the goose step as an “affirmation of naked power” which contains “the vision of a boot crashing down on a face.” He contrasts this with the English drill, which is “rigid and complicated… but without the definite swagger; the march is merely a formalised walk.” This idea continues today. Many belligerent nations such as North Korea that wish to display dominance, hold massive military parades and march in goose-step style. This is in direct contrast to most democratic nations, which march in the English style. The goose step is not used in England because it is “ruled by the sword, no doubt, but a sword which must never be taken out of the scabbard.” Orwell argues that “what English people of nearly all classes loathe from the bottom of their hearts is the swaggering officer type, the jingle of spurs and the crash of boots.” This essence of gentleness, combined with the desire to determine their private lives and spare time, stops the army from overstepping its boundaries into everyday life. Prussia, the nation that unified Germany, was renowned for its military prowess and culture. As a result, militarism and ostentatious military display established itself in unified Germany as a national characteristic, which then passed to the Italians who “adopted the goose-step at about the time when Italy passed definitely under German control.”
The mixture of gentleness with firm resistance to private intrusion, reflects Orwell’s contention that a deep-seated hypocrisy pervades all levels of English society. The English hold conflicting ideas about the Empire, licencing laws attempt to restrict the common people who are “inveterate gamblers” and “drink as much beer as their wages will permit”, and they have “retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ.” Orwell continues by saying, “the English are not gifted artistically.”, “the English are not intellectual” and that “they have a horror of abstract thought, they feel no need for any philosophy or systematic ‘world-view’.” He asserts that these latter characteristics do not stem from a desire to be practical “as they are so fond of claiming of themselves”, but from the desire to maintain the status quo.
Of these hypocrisies, the English opinion regarding violence is the most confusing. It extends into two main spheres: the law and the military. In regards to British law, while “the policemen carry no revolvers” this practice “is as out of date as the muskets in the Tower.” The hypocrisy is instituted by the “typically English figure of the hanging judge”, who hands out “savage sentences”. Despite a supposed English abhorrence for violence, the judge and his decisions are tolerated. Orwell claims this stems from “the all-important English trait: the respect for constitutionalism and legality, the belief in ‘the law’ as something above the State and the individual, something which is cruel and stupid of course, but at any rate Incorruptible.” The role of violence in English society is illustrated by his ‘sword-in-scabbard’ analogy. While Orwell concedes there is corruption in the form of the rich backing certain political candidates, he is correct in stating “You do not arrive at the polling booth to find men with revolvers telling you which way to vote.” The English belief in the rule of law as an incorruptible entity remains. This characteristic reinforces Orwell’s earlier statement that Hitler would be unable to rise to power in England. Whilst Hitler was legally elected into power, the tactics he employed on the street would not have been tolerated in England. If the Munich Putsch of 1923 had occurred in London, it probably would have seen Hitler imprisoned for life. Hitler’s use of the Brown Shirts and subsequent liquidation of their leaders during the Night of the Long Knives would have been impossible; the violence and menace of the Brown Shirts would have robbed Hitler’s party of its support and left him gaoled. As Orwell states, in England “The totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as the law, there is only power, has never taken root. Even the intelligentsia have accepted it only in theory.” This fundamental difference between the two nations supports Orwell’s assertion that while the English may hold hypocritical views on violence, they are fundamentally a gentle people.
The English culture of hypocrisy extends into the military, and it is in this realm that Orwell’s argument that the English are gentle, falters. I do however, believe his opinion survives this misstep. I agree with Orwell’s defence of English Imperialism. While “the English have absorbed a quarter of the earth and held on to it by means of a huge navy”, he makes the apt, and I believe correct observation that “there is no such thing as a naval dictatorship.” Masses of bored, desensitised soldiers roaming the streets causing trouble, and interfering with people’s private, daily lives are a necessary and integral constituent of the imposition of dictatorial power. As Orwell stated, the English are famed for their naval power and sea control and did not deploy large colonial land armies. The soldiers used to maintain British imperial power were, compared to contemporary European imperial powers, fewer and tamer in their conquests. The English did not cause the international controversy of the Belgians in the Congo. In India, the English incorporated the native Indians into their bureaucracy, appointing them to positions of power and delegating limited control, rather than cutting off native hands when they did not meet plantation quotas. Despite their intrusion into Indian life, the English established the foundations of the democratic India of today; whether this is a good or bad thing is an entirely separate debate, but I think it can be agreed that within the context of Imperialism, the English were less brutal in their approach.
The one glaring exception where Orwell’s ‘sword-in-scabbard’ analogy and characterisation of the English as gentle, fails, is the activities of the Black and Tans and the Auxiliary Division in Ireland. These paramilitary organisations embodied “the swaggering officer type” that Orwell contends the English hated so much. Their intrusion into private lives and their reprisals, such as Bloody Sunday and the Burning of Cork, occurred only twenty years before Orwell’s essay was written. However, as his pamphlet deals with stereotypes and generalisations of culture, I believe that this example is not enough to discredit gentleness as a characteristic of the English national culture. A number of politicians and the King openly condemned the worst behaviour, and the Army distanced itself from the actions of the paramilitaries, “[they] were totally undisciplined by our regimental standards.”
Included in the list of ingredients of English culture is Orwell’s observation that “Economically, England is certainly two nations, if not three or four.” This is definitely true, and “England is the most class-ridden country under the sun.” I agree with Orwell’s point that the national culture is not defined by its moneyed class and that “the existence of these people was by any standard unjustifiable”, but I disagree with his assertion that during “the past three-quarters of a century there has been the decay of the ability in the ruling class.” due to their ‘stupidity’. Rather, I believe this decay arose from the change in the English social climate, and that if the ruling class can be accused of ‘stupidity’, the same label can be attached to all levels of the English class system, not just the rich.
It might well be true that since the “fifties every war in which England has engaged has started off with a series of disasters, after which the situation was saved by people comparatively low in the social scale”, but Orwell can recognise this only with the benefit of hindsight and the evolved social context. Recognition of the power of the lower classes only began in the 1940s. When the elite made poor decisions in the centuries preceding the 1850s, the rigid social hierarchy excluded the lower classes and made it impossible for them to make suggestions. Victories occurred because effective elites were facing ineffective elites. Martial victories from 1850 onward that were saved by those of a lower rank, occurred because other countries such as Germany maintained a more rigid hierarchy, forbidding the inclusion of the lower classes in the decisions of the State and military. In World War I, the poor leadership arose not from the ‘stupidity’ of the elite, but from the rapid development of weapon technology. The world had never experienced such swift and sweeping changes to technology, and an understanding of how to counter these weapons took time. Therefore, the idea that the rich suddenly Became ‘stupid’ is flawed.
Orwell’s dismissal of Chamberlain, and by extension the ruling class, as “a stupid old man doing his best according to his very dim lights” is harsh and unfair. The Appeasement Policy of the interwar years, although ineffective, resulted not from stupidity, but from an earnest desire to never again repeat the horrors of World War I. Life was hard in England during the interwar years and there was financial ruin and hunger, but nowhere near the blight that Germany suffered. The Treaty of Versailles robbed Germany of its wealth and also, the ability to feed itself and rebuild. England was not similarly affected, so the appeal of fascism was entertained within the minds of the ruling class as an amusement or interest, rather than an explosive political movement to better their lives. This explains the limited success and the class composition of the British Union of Fascists. Orwell’s assertion that it is the masses that define England’s national culture is especially important in rejecting his claim that England’s trouble was the sole fault of the ruling class. His contention that maintaining the status quo is an English trait, and that Chamberlain enjoyed popular support, show therefore, that poor decisions stemmed not from the ‘stupidity’ of the ruling class, but from the ‘stupidity’ of England as a whole.
Orwell’s essay focused on bad decisions while ignoring the good decisions. As he wrote this essay from a position of hindsight, I will now do the same. The ruling class that he wanted overthrown by socialist revolution Was changing; it’s just that it was thrown into a period of flux so dramatic that they had little time to change. The ruling class had previously given men and women the right to vote with the Representation of the People Act in 1928, had managed to maintain democracy and bring England through the perils of the Great Depression no worse than any other nation. After the essay was written, the elite instigated great social change through the creation of the National Health System (NHS) and by making the schooling system accessible to the masses – all without Orwell’s desired revolution. His goals were largely realised, it is just that England was consumed by crises and adversity in the first half of the 20 th Century. Although many of his criticism of the ruling elite were true, with the benefit of hindsight, it is shown that he was perhaps too harsh on a group of people who were not inherently ‘stupid’, but were facing unheard of change and adversity.
George Orwell’s ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’ successfully outlines the foundations of English national culture. Reflecting the historical and social context of the time, Orwell ascribes the everyday activities of the lower and middle classes to be the main component of English culture. He rejects the influence of the wealthy, ruling elite and calls for a socialist revolution, as he believes it to be the only way England can win the war and continue to prosper in the post Imperialist age while retaining their national culture.
Orwell, George, ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’, The Complete Works of George Orwell, Volume 12, A Patriot After All 1940-1941 (Secker and Warburg 1986-7)
Untitled, Web. 1 st Jan. 2013
 Orwell, George, ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’, The Complete Works of George Orwell, Volume 12, A Patriot After All 1940-1941 (Secker and Warburg 1986-7) pg. 392
Books & Boots
Reflections on books and art
The Lion and the Unicorn by George Orwell (1941)
In all countries the poor are more national than the rich, but the English working class are outstanding in their abhorrence of foreign habits. Even when they are obliged to live abroad for years they refuse either to accustom themselves to foreign food or to learn foreign languages. Nearly every Englishman of working-class origin considers it effeminate to pronounce a foreign word correctly.
The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius was published in February 1941, well into the Second World War, after Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. It is a long essay, divided into three parts.
- England Your England (35 pages)
- Shopkeepers at War (19 pages)
- The English Revolution (9 pages)
The three essays 1. describe the essence of Englishness and records changes in English society over the previous thirty years or so 2. make the case for a socialist system in England 3. argue for an English democratic socialism, sharply distinct from the totalitarian communism of Stalin.
Now, at this distance of 76 years, the political content seems to me almost completely useless. After the war, the socialist policies carried out by Attlee’s government, thirty years of ‘Butskellism’ and Britain’s steady industrial decline into the 1970s which was brutally arrested by Mrs Thatcher’s radical economic and social policies of the 1980s, followed by Tony Blair’s attempt to create a non-socialist Labour Party in the 1990s, and all the time the enormous social transformations wrought by ever-changing technology – the political, social, economic, technological and cultural character of England has been transformed out of all recognition.
That said, this book-length essay is still worth reading as a fascinating social history of its times and for its warm evocation of the elements of the English character, some of which linger on, some of which have disappeared.
England Your England
By far the longest section is part one which is an extended evocation of all aspects of English character, so powerful, well-written and thought-provoking that it is often reprinted on its own. In its affection for all aspects of England it continued the nostalgia for an older, less commercialised, more decent England which marked his previous book, the novel Coming Up For Air.
What really marks it out is not the truth or otherwise of Orwell’s statements, but the tremendously pithy lucidity with which he expresses them. If they are not true, many of us older white liberals wish they were true. The essay invites you to play a sort of ‘Where’s Wally’ game of deciding whether you agree or disagree with his generalisations, and why. It has a kind of crossword-y kind of pleasure.
What, he asks, is England?
The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene.
Other aspects of Englishness, as Orwell perceived it in 1941, include: solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes, love of flowers and gardening, hobbies and the essential privateness of English life. An Englishman’s home is his castle means he can tell the authorities to buzz off and mind their own business.
We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official — the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’.
The common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries. The Anglican Church never had a real hold on them, it was simply a preserve of the landed gentry, and the Nonconformist sects only influenced minorities. And yet they have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ.
This strikes me as true. A kind of buried Anglicanism flavours most mid-century English culture, in Auden the Anglican returnee, Vaughan Williams the agnostic Anglican or Larkin the atheist Anglican. This idea of the softening influence of a non-fanatical, non-Catholic, barely believed religion, leads on to the next idea. If you have read his writings of the 1930s it comes as no surprise when he says:
The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic. You notice it the instant you set foot on English soil. It is a land where the bus conductors are good-tempered and the policemen carry no revolvers. In no country inhabited by white men is it easier to shove people off the pavement. And with this goes something that is always written off by European observers as ‘decadence’ or hypocrisy, the English hatred of war and militarism. It is rooted deep in history, and it is strong in the lower-middle class as well as the working class.
This reminds me of a consistent thread in Kipling’s writing which is righteous anger at the hypocrisy with which the general population despise and abuse soldiers – until they need them!
I went into a public ‘ouse to get a pint o’ beer,
The publican ‘e up an’ sez, ” We serve no red-coats here.”
The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:
O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ” Tommy, go away ” ;
But it’s ” Thank you, Mister Atkins,” when the band begins to play… (Tommy, 1890)
This anti-militarism has a comic side in that the English only seem to remember their terrible defeats: the Somme, Dunkirk. As Orwell puts it with typical pithiness:
The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction.
This anti-militarism goes alongside a profound respect for the law; not necessarily obeying it, but knowing it is there and can be appealed to at all times. ‘Oi, you can’t do that to me, I aven’t done anything wrong’ is a universal cry of the English crook and trouble-maker. The law may be organised to protect the property of the rich but it isn’t as absolutely corrupt as in other countries, and it certainly hasn’t ceased to matter, as it has in the totalitarian states.
Abroad? An old saying had it that ‘wogs begin at Calais’ and the recent Brexit vote confirms the underlying xenophobia of the British who have a proud tradition of never learning a word of a foreign language, even if they’ve lived in France or Spain for decades. This rejection of the foreign partly accounts for English philistinism:
The English are not gifted artistically. They are not as musical as the Germans or Italians, painting and sculpture have never flourished in England as they have in France. Another is that, as Europeans go, the English are not intellectual.
England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly.
Towards the end of the essay Orwell analyses the role of the ruling class. Basically, they have been unable to get to grips with the modern world and retreated into Colonel Blimpish stupidity.
One of the dominant facts in English life during the past three quarters of a century has been the decay of ability in the ruling class.
The great public schools, the army, the universities, all teach the upper classes to rely on forms and behaviour which was suitable to the 1880s. The fact that Germany was out-producing British industry by 1900, that America was emerging as the strongest economy in the world, that the working classes were becoming organised and demanding a say in the running of the country? Go the club and surround yourself with like-minded cigar-puffing buffoons and dismiss it all as easily as dismissing the waiter.
This refusal to face the world, this decision to be stupid, explains much. It explains the astonishing sequence of humiliating military defeats – in the Crimea, the Zulu War, the Boer War, the Great War the British ruling class, as epitomised by its upper class twit general, consistently failed in every aspect of war-making. In each case initial defeats were only clawed back when a younger, less ‘educated’ cohort of officers took charge.
Orwell continues the sheer stupidity of the ruling class in his description of the terrifically posh Tory politicians who ran British foreign policy during the 1930s. Two things happened: the empire declined and we completely failed to understand the rise of the totalitarian states. To take the second first, upper-class numpties like Lord Halifax (Foreign Secretary 1938-40) and Neville Chamberlain (Prime Minister 1937-40) were paralysed during the 1930s. They were terrified of Stalin’s communism and secretly sympathised with much of Fascist policy, but couldn’t bring themselves to deal with the vulgar little Hitler. Their upbringing at public schools and running an empire where everyone said, Yes sahib, completely unprepared them for the modern world.
They could not struggle against Nazism or Fascism, because they could not understand them. Neither could they have struggled against Communism, if Communism had been a serious force in western Europe. To understand Fascism they would have had to study the theory of Socialism, which would have forced them to realize that the economic system by which they lived was unjust, inefficient and out-of-date. But it was exactly this fact that they had trained themselves never to face. They dealt with Fascism as the cavalry generals of 1914 dealt with the machine-guns – by ignoring it.
(Lord Halifax’s Wikipedia page relates that he almost created a massive scene when he first met Adolf Hitler and handed him his overcoat, thinking him to be the footman. Exactly. To Halifax’s class, everyone who didn’t go to their school must be a servant.)
And what about the British Empire? On the face of it between 1918 and 1945 the British Empire reached its greatest geographical extent, not least due to the addition of the various mandates in the Middle East carved out of the former Ottoman Empire. But despite the razamataz of the 1924 Empire Exhibition and so on, it’s quite clear that for most ordinary people and pretty much all intellectuals, the age of empire was over. it just took the ruling classes another 30 odd years to realise it. Orwell gives a reason for this decline in belief in the empire which I hadn’t heard before.
It was due to the rise of bureaucracy. Orwell specifically blames the telegraph and radio. In the golden age of empire the world presented a vast playground for buccaneering soldiers and ruthless merchants. No more.
The thing that had killed them was the telegraph. In a narrowing world, more and more governed from Whitehall, there was every year less room for individual initiative. Men like Clive, Nelson, Nicholson, Gordon would find no place for themselves in the modern British Empire. By 1920 nearly every inch of the colonial empire was in the grip of Whitehall. Well-meaning, over-civilized men, in dark suits and black felt hats, with neatly rolled umbrellas crooked over the left forearm, were imposing their constipated view of life on Malaya and Nigeria, Mombasa and Mandalay. The one-time empire builders were reduced to the status of clerks, buried deeper and deeper under mounds of paper and red tape. In the early twenties one could see, all over the Empire, the older officials, who had known more spacious days, writhing impotently under the changes that were happening. From that time onwards it has been next door to impossible to induce young men of spirit to take any part in imperial administration. And what was true of the official world was true also of the commercial. The great monopoly companies swallowed up hosts of petty traders. Instead of going out to trade adventurously in the Indies one went to an office stool in Bombay or Singapore. And life in Bombay or Singapore was actually duller and safer than life in London. Imperialist sentiment remained strong in the middle class, chiefly owing to family tradition, but the job of administering the Empire had ceased to appeal. Few able men went east of Suez if there was any way of avoiding it.
And of course, Orwell had seen this for himself, first hand, as an imperial servant in Burma from 1922 to 1928.
Lastly, the final section of part one describes the undermining of the rigid old class system since the Great War by the advent of new technologies, by the growth of light industry on the outskirts of towns, and the proliferation of entirely new types of middle-class work.
Britain was no longer a country of rich landowners and poverty-stricken peasants, of brutal factory owners and a huge immiserated proletariat. New technology was producing an entire new range of products – cheap clothes and shoes and fashions, cheap movies, affordable cars, houses with inside toilets etc, at the same time as the new industries no longer required thick-muscled navvies or exhausted women leaned over cotton looms, but educated managers, chemists, technicians, secretaries, salesmen and so on, who call into being a supporting class of doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists, etc. This is particularly noticeable in the new townships of the south.
In Slough, Dagenham, Barnet, Letchworth, Hayes – everywhere, indeed, on the outskirts of great towns – the old pattern is gradually changing into something new. In those vast new wildernesses of glass and brick the sharp distinctions of the older kind of town, with its slums and mansions, or of the country, with its manor-houses and squalid cottages, no longer exist. There are wide gradations of income, but it is the same kind of life that is being lived at different levels, in labour-saving flats or council houses, along the concrete roads and in the naked democracy of the swimming-pools. It is a rather restless, cultureless life, centring round tinned food, Picture Post, the radio and the internal combustion engine. It is a civilization in which children grow up with an intimate knowledge of magnetoes and in complete ignorance of the Bible. To that civilization belong the people who are most at home in and most definitely OF the modern world, the technicians and the higher-paid skilled workers, the airmen and their mechanics, the radio experts, film producers, popular journalists and industrial chemists. They are the indeterminate stratum at which the older class distinctions are beginning to break down.
It is fascinating to learn that this process, the breakdown of old class barriers due to new industries, new consumer products and a new thrusting classless generation, which I tended to associate with the 1960s – maybe because the movies and music of the 1960s proclaim this so loudly and are still so widely available – was in fact taking place as early as the 1920s.
The effect of all this is a general softening of manners. It is enhanced by the fact that modern industrial methods tend always to demand less muscular effort and therefore to leave people with more energy when their day’s work is done. Many workers in the light industries are less truly manual labourers than is a doctor or a grocer. In tastes, habits, manners and outlook the working class and the middle class are drawing together.
2. Shopkeepers at War
In this part Orwell declares that the old ruling class and their capitalism must be overthrown for the simple reason that
Private capitalism, that is, an economic system in which land, factories, mines and transport are owned privately and operated solely for profit — DOES NOT WORK.
The war so far has shown that a planned economy will always beat an unplanned one. Both Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia have states and economies guided from the top downwards towards clearly articulated political ends (winning wars). A capitalist society is made up of thousands of businesses all competing against and undermining each other, and undermining the national good. His example is British firms which right up to the declaration of war were still aggressively seeking contracts with Hitler’s Germany to sell them vital raw materials required for weapons, tin, rubber, copper. Madness!
Only a modern centralised, nationalised economy can successfully fight off other centralised nationalised economies. This, argues Orwell, is why some kind of socialist revolution must take place. In order to win the war, the British government must, in the name of the people, take over central running of all aspects of the economy.
In this section Orwell gives us a good working definition of socialism, the definition which was promised and then so glaringly absent from The Road To Wigan Pier four years earlier. Maybe it took those four years, Spain and distance from England, to be able to define it for himself.
Socialism is usually defined as “common ownership of the means of production”. Crudely: the State, representing the whole nation, owns everything, and everyone is a State employee. This does not mean that people are stripped of private possessions such as clothes and furniture, but it does mean that all productive goods, such as land, mines, ships and machinery, are the property of the State. The State is the sole large-scale producer. It is not certain that Socialism is in all ways superior to capitalism, but it is certain that, unlike capitalism, it can solve the problems of production and consumption. At normal times a capitalist economy can never consume all that it produces, so that there is always a wasted surplus (wheat burned in furnaces, herrings dumped back into the sea etc etc) and always unemployment. In time of war, on the other hand, it has difficulty in producing all that it needs, because nothing is produced unless someone sees his way to making a profit out of it. In a Socialist economy these problems do not exist. The State simply calculates what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them. Production is only limited by the amount of labour and raw materials. Money, for internal purposes, ceases to be a mysterious all-powerful thing and becomes a sort of coupon or ration-ticket, issued in sufficient quantities to buy up such consumption goods as may be available at the moment.
However, it has become clear in the last few years that “common ownership of the means of production” is not in itself a sufficient definition of Socialism. One must also add the following: approximate equality of incomes (it need be no more than approximate), political democracy, and abolition of all hereditary privilege, especially in education. These are simply the necessary safeguards against the reappearance of a class system. Centralised ownership has very little meaning unless the mass of the people are living roughly upon an equal level, and have some kind of control over the government.
Socialism aims, ultimately, at a world-state of free and equal human beings. It takes the equality of human rights for granted.
The nature of the revolution
So what would this English revolution consist of? The complete overthrow of the useless ruling class which is bedevilled by its own stupidity and simply unable to see the genuine threat that Hitler posed, able only to read him as a bulwark against Bolshevism and therefore a defender of all the privileges of England’s entrenched ruling class. Away with it in –
A complete shift of power. New blood, new men, new ideas — in the true sense of the word, a revolution… It is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free. Revolution does not mean red flags and street fighting, it means a fundamental shift of power… What is wanted is a conscious open revolt by ordinary people against inefficiency, class privilege and the rule of the old… Right through our national life we have got to fight against privilege, against the notion that a half-witted public-schoolboy is better fitted for command than an intelligent mechanic… Although there are gifted and honest individuals among them, we have got to break the grip of the moneyed class as a whole. England has got to assume its real shape. The England that is only just beneath the surface, in the factories and the newspaper offices, in the aeroplanes and the submarines, has got to take charge of its own destiny.
In this section he speaks right to the present moment and lists the agents of defeat, from pacifists through Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts to some Roman Catholics. But the real enemy, he says, is those who talk of peace, of negotiating peace with Hitler, a peace designed to leave in place all their perks and privileges, their dividends and servants. These are the worst, the most insidious enemies, both of the war effort and of the English people as a whole.
3. The English Revolution
We cannot establish anything that a western nation would regard as Socialism without defeating Hitler; on the other hand we cannot defeat Hitler while we remain economically and socially in the nineteenth century.
Orwell gives a sweeping trenchant review of the current political scene in England, 1941. All the parties of the left are incapable of reform, the Labour Party most of all since it is the party of the trade unions and therefore has a vested interest in the maintenenace and flourishing of capitalism. The tiny communist party appeals to deracinated individuals but has done more to put the man in the street off socialism than any other influence.
The Labour Party stood for a timid reformism, the Marxists were looking at the modern world through nineteenth-century spectacles. Both ignored agriculture and imperial problems, and both antagonised the middle classes. The suffocating stupidity of left-wing propaganda had frightened away whole classes of necessary people, factory managers, airmen, naval officers, farmers, white-collar workers, shopkeepers, policemen. All of these people had been taught to think of Socialism as something which menaced their livelihood, or as something seditious, alien, “anti-British” as they would have called it.
Therefore, the revolution must come from below. Sound utopian? It is the war which has made it a possibility. The policy of the ruling class in the run-up to the war, the shameful incompetence of the opening year – Dunkirk – have made obvious to absolutely everyone that change is needed. Now, for the first time in its history, a genuinely revolutionary socialist change is thinkable.
A Socialist movement which can swing the mass of the people behind it, drive the pro-Fascists out of positions of control, wipe out the grosser injustices and let the working class see that they have something to fight for, win over the middle classes instead of antagonising them, produce a workable imperial policy instead of a mixture of humbug and Utopianism, bring patriotism and intelligence into partnership – for the first time, a movement of such a kind becomes possible.
Here, at the climax of the essay, he gives six practical policies:
- Nationalisation of land, mines, railways, banks and major industries.
- Limitation of incomes, on such a scale that the highest tax free income in Britain does not exceed the lowest by more than ten to one.
- Reform of the educational system along democratic lines.
- Immediate Dominion status for India, with power to secede when the war is over.
- Formation of an Imperial General Council, in which the coloured peoples are to be represented.
- Declaration of formal alliance with China, Abyssinia and all other victims of the Fascist powers.
The general tendency of this programme is unmistakable. It aims quite frankly at turning this war into a revolutionary war and England into a Socialist democracy.
Wow! The verve, the intellectual confidence, and the optimism of these passages is thrilling!
In the final pages Orwell guesses what kind of revolution it will be, namely a revolution ‘with English characteristics’, the characteristics he so lovingly enumerated in the first section. He gives a complicated analysis of the many forces against it, including comparisons with Vichy France and guesses about the strategies of Hitler and Stalin, too complicated to summarise. The essays ends by repeatedly attacking the pacifism and defeatism of English intellectuals, left-wing intellectuals and so-called communists. It is an all-or-nothing struggle. We can’t go back. the world has completely changed. We must recognise these changes, grasp them, and take them forward in a sweeping social revolution which alone can guarantee victory.
It is goodbye to the Tatler and the Bystander, and farewell to the lady in the Rolls-Royce car. The heirs of Nelson and of Cromwell are not in the House of Lords. They are in the fields and the streets, in the factories and the armed forces, in the four-ale bar and the suburban back garden; and at present they are still kept under by a generation of ghosts. Compared with the task of bringing the real England to the surface, even the winning of the war, necessary though it is, is secondary. By revolution we become more ourselves, not less. There is no question of stopping short, striking a compromise, salvaging “democracy”, standing still. Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward. I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward.
Wow! It must have been amazing to read this at the time.
And then what happened?
Churchill’s government did grasp the need for total war mobilisation on an unprecedented scale. Rationing was introduced and every effort made to quash luxury. If we ‘won’ the war it was because Hitler made the mad decision to invade Russia at the same time as the Japanese foolishly attacked America. Britain became the baby buoyed up between Russia and America.
And the war was barely over (May 1945) when Britain held a general election (July 1945) which to everyone’s amazement swept the victorious war leader Churchill from power and produced a socialist government with a huge majority. For the one and only time in its history the British enacted a sweep of revolutionary policies, nationalising the entire health service, extending free state education, and nationalising the key industries of coal, steel and so on. Within two years India was granted its independence. Surely these fulfilled most of Orwell’s definitions of revolution.
And yet… Private schools weren’t abolished and continued to serve as a beacon for privilege and snobbery. The banks and entire financial system was left untouched to flourish, continuing to orchestrate an essentially capitalist economy and redistribute money upwards towards the rich. Income was in no way controlled and so soon the divide between rich and poor opened up again. Massive social changes took place and yet – as Orwell had clearly seen, England’s essential character remained unchanged. Attlee’s government achieved much in five brief years but then was tumbled from power and England reverted to being ruled by upper-class twits, the twits who, like all their ilk live in the past, thought Britain was still a global power, and so took us into the Suez Crisis of 1956. But by then Orwell was long dead.
This is a brilliant long essay, one of the greatest in all English literature, a wonderful combination of nostalgic description for an idealised England, with a fascinating analysis of the social and political scene of his day, and then onto a stirringly patriotic call to fight not only to defeat fascism but to create a new, fairer society. It is impossible not to be stirred and inspired by the combination of incisive analysis, the novelist’s imaginative evocation of English character, and then a speech-writer’s stirring peroration.
However, it is all too easy, in my opinion, to let yourself get swept along by the unashamed patriotism and the bracing insights into ‘the English character’ so that you end up acquiescing in what turned out to be Orwell’s completely inaccurate predictions of the future and his completely unfounded faith in an English revolution.
A social revolution of sorts did take place during and immediately after the war, but what made it so English was the way that, deep down, it didn’t change anything at all.
London 1940 – seat of a socialist revolution?
The Lion and the Unicorn by George Orwell was published by Secker and Warburg in 1941. All references are to the 1978 Penguin paperback edition.
All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.