George Orwell – “The lion and the unicorn: socialism and the English genius”



A household name and perhaps the most respected writer the Left produced in the twentieth century, Orwell is known to most people through his novels 1984 and Animal Farm. But his real talent resides in the essays which formed the political bedrock of his novels and intellectual development. “The lion and the unicorn: socialism and the English genius” is, as the subtitle makes plain, about socialism and England. He begins, as always, with a pithy opener, “As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me”. Writing during WWII, Orwell confronted the peculiarity of English society in contrast to continental Europe in which he found a general dislike to the English way of life.[1]

He goes on to define our national character through the love of hobbies like stamp collecting, pub games and partiality for a well-kept garden. He further marks us as having no definitive religious belief; as being almost hedonistic in our affection for booze and gambling and as not having a strong artistic history apart from literature. His most important point is the general respect for the law regardless of its faults and leniency to the wealthy. There is something incorruptible that we see in the dusty old judges who although seem like they were beamed in from a bygone age, strictly adhere to the principles of law and order.

Although I do not share his love of socialism, I find Orwell’s work endearing for its universal attack on dishonesty and ineptitude whether it be on the political left or right. He critiques both the aristocratic leaders of England and the left-wing intellectuals who rebelled against them. On the one hand the aristocracy was morally sound but incapable of fighting wars and handling the country but on the other hand the intellectuals alienated themselves from reality by rejecting patriotism and physical courage. Orwell discusses both these points but the latter impressed me because of its originality and how relevant his observations are today. His statement, “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality”, rings true just as much today as it did in the mid-twentieth century.[2] The ideology of multiculturalism is the obvious example where our own leaders and public intellectuals have accepted that our own culture is the same or at least equivalent to all other cultures and therefore deserves no primacy. It is at once the belief in all cultures and the belief in none. It demonstrates Orwell’s observation that the left continually attempt to separate intelligence and patriotism as mutually exclusive;

“The negative fainéant outlook which has been fashionable among English left wingers, the sniggering of the intellectuals at patriotism and physical courage, the persistent effort to chip away English morale and spread a hedonistic, what-do-I-get-out-of-it attitude to life, has done nothing but harm.”[3]

In this passage Orwell appears socially conservative because he views the contemporary progressives as regressive, the exact same assessment Maajid Nawaz makes when he coined the term “the regressive left”. They both recognise that the reaction to conservative or traditional society, in their time, is inadequate or has gone considerably astray from what a legitimate opposition should look like. Refreshing though it might be to listen to someone from the left talk with an admirable command of language and a perceptive understanding of intellectual laziness, such fluency is unlikely to re-enter the left as it stands today which is anchored in political correctness, multiculturalism and a Lord Byron-esque dedication to global, rather than nation-state, citizenry.

[1] George Orwell, Why I Write (Penguin Books, 2004), p. 12.

[2] Ibid., p. 40.

[3] Ibid., p. 85.


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