Orwell’s masterly pamphlet The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (1941) is strangely elusive. I first read it in college in the 1980s, in a Penguin edition, but now find it completely absent from bookstores or local libraries. Fortunately the opening (and most interesting) chapter “England Your England” has been reprinted in the anthology Facing Unpleasant Facts, edited by George Packer. Taken as an essay, it is an Orwellian political tour de force. Though a lifelong socialist, the opening lines of The Lion and the Unicorn quickly marked the author out as a renegade from “orthodox” Marxism:
One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognizes the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilization it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it. Christianity and international Socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it.
On the religious point, Orwell is partially right of course. There are many examples of Christian peoples whose faith was altered, or even obviated, by ethnic considerations. Yet to what degree is it also possible that the essentials of religion influence national characteristics more than the other way around? England is surely not what it was in the days of the heathen Celts and Anglo-Saxons. Even Orwell hesitantly backtracks on this point. Despite the decline of Anglicanism and the limited influence of Nonconformist sects, the English people “have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling.”
“National characteristics are not easy to pin down, and when pinned down they often turn out to be trivialities or seem to have no connexion with one another…. even the fact that Englishmen have bad teeth can tell something about the realities of English life.” Orwell is at his best summing up those features of Englishness that confuse and often madden outsiders. And I think he puts not only foreigners but ideologues in that category. Fascists and Communists alike were unable to appreciate the resiliency and subtlety of nationality, because they thought not in terms of real people but power-hungry abstractions.
Orwell rises above empty labels of abuse in his comments about England’s ruling classes. He may accuse them of “stupidity,” especially in their appeasement of Hitler before the war, but he cannot deny their courage on the battlefield. He likewise absolves them of the treachery and capitulation displayed by various Quislings in occupied Europe. Though sometimes going off on economic tangents, Orwell is an honest observer. He says this about the English intelligentsia: “In the general patriotism of the country they form a sort of island of dissident thought. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.” England is no longer great. How much does it have to do with the implosion of its upper classes or near extinction of religion? One wonders what Orwell would say today.
See my related post George Orwell: An Imperfect Genius.