The Lion and the Unicorn: An Anniversary Commemoration

George Orwell’s war-time call to change, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialsm and the English Genius, was published on February 19th, 1941. On this February 19th, Dr Philip Bounds, author of Orwell and Marxism and an Orwell Society member, takes a look at Orwell’s book, paying particular attention to its first part, ‘England Your England’.

George Orwell’s response to the outbreak of the Second World War was a highly unusual one. Unlike many other people on the socialist left ˗ and in spite of the vigorous anti-war sentiments expressed in his writings of the late 1930s ˗ Orwell believed that Britain had no choice but to take up arms against Hitler’s Germany and its fascist allies. On the other hand, he rejected the idea that the war could only be won if patriotic Britons rallied around the existing government. Having seen the depths to which market forces had reduced the country during the slump, Orwell firmly believed that Britain would have to abolish capitalism and embrace socialism if the challenge of fascism was to be met. His message to his fellow countrymen was as startling as it was quixotic: War and revolution are two sides of the same coin. Without a socialist government to guide the country at its hour of supreme crisis, Britain may not have the strength it needs to consign Hitler and his armies to the dustbin of history.

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Orwell continued to think along these lines until at least the end of 1941. His most memorable account of his revolutionary war strategy can be found in The Lion and the Unicorn, a brief but deeply inspired book written in the Autumn of 1940 as German bombs rained down on London. Published by Secker & Warburg in February 1941 as part of the Searchlight series of books which Orwell co-edited with Tosco Fyvel, it aimed to persuade its readers that “We cannot win the war without introducing Socialism, nor establish Socialism without winning the war”.*1 But it also did something else. Drawing on all Orwell’s skills as an analyst of popular culture, it sought to relate its proposals for political action to an ambitious and highly suggestive interpretation of the English character.

Orwell’s goal in writing about the nature of Englishness was clear. Knowing that socialism had often been dismissed by its opponents as an alien creed, Orwell set out to show that there was actually a perfect fit between the politics of the left and the English people’s most enduring characteristics. His concern was not so much with the historical evolution of the English character as with the average Englishman’s bedrock habits and assumptions. According to Orwell, whose descriptive flights of fancy in the section entitled “England Your England” are as lyrical as anything he ever wrote, the English people were marked out by their gentleness, their hunger for privacy and their support for the underdog. These characteristics made them instinctively suspicious of the powerful and imbued them with a deep concern for the well-being of ordinary people. Although their freewheeling concern for freedom and justice had once made them sympathetic to liberalism, it was now increasingly clear (or so Orwell argued) that their deepest instincts could only be fully satisfied if they shifted radically to the left: “By revolution we become more ourselves, not less”.*2

Searchlight Books Cover
No reader can today feel entirely comfortable with Orwell’s musings about Englishness. Recent scholarship has shown us that national cultures are far more artificial, fragmented and historically changeable than Orwell seemed to believe. Nevertheless, The Lion and the Unicorn represents a high watermark in the British left’s efforts to invent a form of radical patriotism. Intent on challenging the association between patriotism and the political right, it serves as a salutary reminder that radical movements must always root themselves in the immemorial instincts of the people they claim to represent. It also serves as a useful entry point to the wider political culture of the 1930s and 1940s. Although many commentators have argued that Orwell’s fascination with Englishness set him apart from his radical contemporaries, The Lion and the Unicorn was one of many works in which the inter-war left tried to annex the English national character to the socialist cause. Especially influential in Orwellian circles were the abundant writings on the so-called “English radical tradition” produced by members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). This body of work, exemplified by a series of seminal books and articles by the likes of Jack Lindsay, Edgell Rickword and A.L. Morton, had its roots in the politics of anti-fascism. Taking their lead from a famous speech by the Bulgarian communist Georgi Dimitrov’s at the 1935 Congress of the Communist International, British Marxists believed that Hitler, Mussolini and their ilk had won the support of ordinary people by posing as the modern inheritors of their respective national traditions. Their response was to argue that English national traditions had far more in common with the politics of the socialist left than with those of the fascist right, not least because the real history of England had been marked a by a titanic succession of popular struggles for social justice and democracy. The spirit of this attempt to reclaim Englishness for the left was summed up in Lindsay’s ringing declaration that “Communism is English”.*3 Although Orwell was often bitterly critical of the communist interpretation of Englishness, The Lion and the Unicorn addressed similar themes and subtly reworked some of its central arguments.

Jack Lindsay England My England
Some people might blanch at the idea that Orwell was influenced by communist texts, but his debt to the CPGB’s intellectuals is not as surprising as it may seem. The communists were among the only people in inter-war Britain seeking to analyse culture from a socialist perspective. As one of the few other writers whose understanding of culture was shaped by socialist ideas, Orwell naturally paid close attention to what they said. Many of his non-fiction writings either restate, develop or refute the communist position. It is just another example of Orwell’s admirably broad-minded capacity to learn from his enemies.

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  1. George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (London: Penguin Books, 1982 [1941]), p. 100.

  2. Ibid., p. 123.

  3. See Jack Lindsay, England My England: A Pageant of the English People (London: Fore Publications, n.d. [1939]), p. 64.

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