England Against Totalitarianism

Oscar Clarke last contributed to our website with his essay “Orwell’s Battle With The Intelligentsia“, a study of the the Left Book Club in the light of a re-launch of the same. Now he considers Orwell’s war-time work, best-known through its initial essay “England Your England”, The Lion and the Unicorn.


“… elements of the partially supplanted civilisation of yore that neither the machine age nor a foreign invader could hope to kill …”


Was it necessary for England to pass through a revolution to win the war against the Nazis? This was the argument George Orwell first made in “My Country Right or Left”, restated in his contribution to Victor Gollancz’s Betrayal of the Left, “Patriots and Revolutionaries”, and then greatly expanded in The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius.

Aside from some book and theatre reviews and his column for Partisan Review, these essays pretty much constitute Orwell’s entire literary output for the years 1940 and 1941 (Inside the Whale wasn’t published until 1940, but was written in 1939). It could be concluded, then, that he was not only convinced, but obsessive – and even propagandistic – on the point: without a revolution, the war would almost certainly be lost.

And he wasn’t the only one. After the collapse of France and the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk, Tribune, where Orwell would later become literary editor, made a clarion call for a People’s War, which was soon echoed by the New Statesman. The founding of J.B. Priestley’s 1941 Committee was also motivated by the belief that the Blimps would lead us to defeat, though its focus gradually shifted to the question of post-war reforms. And Michael Foot’s Guilty Men, published by Gollancz, argued that, even though Churchill had come to power, the presence of appeasers in the War Cabinet, besides scandalous, might also be fatal.


The Lion and the Unicorn inaugurated Searchlight Books, Orwell, T.R. Fyvel and Fredric Warburg’s joint endeavour, which aimed to “kill what is rotten in Western civilization and supply constructive ideas for the difficult time ahead of us.” It was released in February 1941, suggesting that Orwell probably wrote it during the Autumn and early Winter months of 1940. What we know about this time, Orwell acknowledges in his famous, arresting opening sentence:

As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”

On the eve of war, Britain had lost its slim chance of forming a united front against Hitler, when the Soviet Union had entered into a non-aggression pact (which was essentially a military alliance) with Germany. After that, Britain had suffered successive reverses in Scandinavia, the Low Countries and France, and the America First movement was successfully preventing the country’s only powerful ally from entering the war. Now, British cities were being mercilessly bombed, and invasion remained a strong possibility. Yet, in The Lion and the Unicorn, Orwell seemed strangely cheerful. The final sentence of the essay – “I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward” – is a reasonable summation of its tone. Paradoxically, the author who is best remembered for delineating the future in terms of a “boot stamping on a human face – forever” was at his most optimistic when that outcome seemed closest at hand.


Stefan Zweig, after the Anschluss, turned to despair, believing that his beloved Vienna would never be the same again. But what he really lamented was the loss of pre-1914 civilisation. The militaristic twentieth century, with its corybantic despots, had entirely expunged the peaceful nineteenth. Whether Hitler won or not didn’t alter the major fact that something had been irretrievably lost. There are echoes of this feeling in some of Orwell’s writing in the ’thirties, especially in Coming up for Air. But the desperate nature of Britain’s situation seemed to alter his temper. The machine age had arrived; militarism and nationalism were ascendant; the pre-war era was a distant memory, but there was still something worth fighting for. Orwell saw very clearly what the stakes were, and spelled them out by quoting Mussolini: “between democracy and totalitarianism”, Il Duce exclaimed, “there can be no compromise.”

A couple of pages on from his opening allusion to the Luftwaffe, Orwell appears to have forgotten all about them, and is musing sentimentally on the eternal aspects of English life; the elements of the partially supplanted civilisation of yore that neither the machine age nor a foreign invader could hope to kill off. There is the scenery of England: its “winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes”. Then there is the cuisine: the suet puddings and bitter beer. But above all, there is the peculiar temper of the English people, who are largely uninterested in the grand theory or the weltanschauung, and are not even particularly interested in logic. Hegel, the philosopher of Germany, put the capital H in History, and venerated Napoleon as its torch bearer. John Stuart Mill, by contrast, merely argued that the state should be prevented from harassing the individual.

But what of the English Revolution? Why was it necessary? First of all, Orwell claimed, capitalism had proved itself inferior to the state-run economy. While the Nazis could decide exactly what they needed and then have it produced for them by the labour forces of their vanquished neighbours, war production in England was hostage to private profit. The ethic of capitalism, the veneration of profit above all else, had led to the truly incredible spectacle of British businesses selling tin, rubber and copper to the Germans in August 1939, “about as sensible as selling somebody a razor to cut your throat with. But it was ‘good business’.”

Orwell also castigated England’s ruling classes, who, time and again, had done the wrong thing with an “unerring instinct”. This was partly because most of them didn’t know what century they were living in – so sheltered were they from reality by wealth and private education – and partly because they couldn’t shake the idea that fascism was a safeguard against Bolshevism (swap the words Bolshevism and fascism, by the way, and you get the equally spurious notion of the left-wing intelligentsia, which, as Orwell pointed out, was populated mostly by members of the same class).


The class system had produced leaders who were, at best, ambivalent about fascism; and who, by their actions (supporting Franco or appeasing Hitler), were largely responsible for its empowerment. But beyond criminal, it was a system which weakened the morale of ordinary Britons. People had to know, Orwell argued, that they were fighting for a fairer society; they had to be able to see clearly why democracy was superior to totalitarianism. And this, in the winter of 1940/41, was Orwell’s immediate concern. He had witnessed the traitorous surrenders by the ruling classes in Norway and France. He made reference to the Laval-Quisling type. In the British government there were still such figures, most obviously Lord Halifax. Many of the proprietors of the major newspapers, also, had shown themselves inclined towards fascism.

Towards the end of the essay, Orwell put forward a six-point manifesto, which included the nationalisation of land, railways, banks and major industries, the introduction of a minimum and a maximum wage, the state control of all education and Dominion status for India. He noted that his goals were nothing that wouldn’t most likely be agreed to by the Daily Mirror, but then commented that some of them may not happen, or at least not for years – or even decades. He suggested that the English Revolution had already got started, but in a sleepy, unwilling sort of a way, and he pointed out that, even after it has been fully carried out, a foreign observer might fail to notice that any revolution had taken place.

In the traditional sense, then, Orwell barely seemed to call for a revolution at all, but rather just some sensible reforms which would help the country win the war and offer the hope of a fairer society afterwards. Indeed, in the final few pages, his project reveals itself to be something slightly more mystical than a revolutionary manifesto, something in the muddled and sleepy tradition of England. He was confident that the changes he proposed would occur, even if not for a very long time, because – and this is the main cause for patriotism –

The whole English speaking world is haunted by the idea of human equality, and though it would be simply a lie to say we or the Americans have ever acted up to our professions, still, the idea is there, and it is capable of one day becoming a reality. From the English-speaking culture, if it does not perish, a society of free and equal human beings will eventually arise.”

This takes us back to the Mussolini quote and to Orwell’s horror of the Laval-Quislings whose removal from government was the most urgent task of his revolution. He had come to the conclusion that Mussolini was assuredly right. Democracy and totalitarianism were incompatible, which was a good thing, because coexistence with totalitarianism was wholly undesirable. The only way England could be defeated, in the long run, he argued, was not through invasion, but by a compromise peace. The British Quislings would try to use the arguments that had been made in France, that surrender was the only option, and would then gradually erode English civilisation – just as Marshall Petain had immediately gone to war with the secular and republican ideals of France. If, however, Britain were invaded and conquered, the ideas which are its heritage would continue to survive:

We cannot be utterly defeated if we have made our revolution beforehand. We may see German troops marching down Whitehall, but another process, ultimately deadly to the German power-dream, will have been started.”

In “My Country Right or Left” Orwell recounted a dream he had the night before the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. In the dream, the war had just begun, and Orwell realised that his country deserved his loyalty. The news he awoke to proved why. For most of the nineteen-thirties, a large proportion of the ruling classes chose to side with Hitler, Mussolini and Franco against the red menace; the prominent left-wing intellectuals, meanwhile, penned panegyrics to the Soviet Union and welcomed Stalin as the saviour of humanity. Both parties, now, had to contend with the fact that they’d been dupes, fighting to some extent on the same side: for the extension of the totalitarian order over the English-speaking world. But the common people had taken no part in any of that, and now deserved to be defended, not only against Hitler, but against their ruling classes and their left-wing intellectuals. Orwell’s idea of the English revolution may have been rather vague, but he was prescient to realise that English civilisation was the best defence against totalitarianism.



Uploaded April 30th 2018


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