Orwell’s ‘English Socialism’

George Orwell’s prescription for a patriotic English Socialism, from his 1941 essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’


“Patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism. It is devotion to something that is changing but is felt to be mystically the same, like the devotion of the ex-White Bolshevik to Russia. To be loyal both to Chamberlain’s England and to the England of tomorrow might seem an impossibility, if one did not know it to be an everyday phenomenon. Only revolution can save England, that has been obvious for years… But when the red militias are billeted in the Ritz I shall still feel that the England I was taught to love so long ago and for such different reasons is somehow persisting.” The preceding words, written by George Orwell in his 1940 essay ‘My Country Right or Left’, illustrate very well the pro-English sentiment that ran through much of his writing. Orwell was a socialist, but an idiosyncratic one for his time – he abhorred Stalinism, was doubtful of Trotskyism, and his attitude to Marxism could be summed up as sympathetic but skeptical. What particularly set Orwell apart from other contemporary left-wing intellectuals was his patriotism. Rather than viewing English culture as something to be ashamed of or sniggered at, as a bourgeois anachronism needing to be swept aside to make way for a gleaming new utopia, Orwell instead had a genuine affection for his country and its people. This affection extended into the political vision he had for his nation’s future. Orwell recognized the mobilizing power that lay behind patriotic sentiment, believing that patriotism (as opposed to nationalism, which he saw as motivated by power & competitive prestige rather than defensive & devotional sentiments) could and should be employed for the success of a socialist revolution. His hoped-for revolutionary England would not just be socialist and egalitarian, but gently patriotic – free of the evils of property, but still eternally English down to its very soul. A detailed description of the English Socialism advocated for by Orwell is contained within his 1941 essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, the relevant sections of which I have excerpted below (the bolded headings were added by myself to make the demarcation between topics clear). As well as being a unique example of patriotic-socialist writing, ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ is probably one of Orwell’s best non-fiction works; I recommend that anyone who finds this excerpt interesting seek out the original essay in full.



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

They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.

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. Hitler and Mussolini rose to power in their own countries very largely because they could grasp this fact and their opponents could not.

Also, one must admit that the divisions between nation and nation are founded on real differences of outlook. Till recently it was thought proper to pretend that all human beings are very much alike, but in fact anyone able to use his eyes knows that the average of human behaviour differs enormously from country to country. Things that could happen in one country could not happen in another. Hitler’s June purge, for instance, could not have happened in England. And, as western peoples go, the English are very highly differentiated. There is a sort of back-handed admission of this in the dislike which nearly all foreigners feel for our national way of life. Few Europeans can endure living in England, and even Americans often feel more at home in Europe.

When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air. Even in the first few minutes dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling. The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant. The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd. Then the vastness of England swallows you up, and you lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single identifiable character. Are there really such things as nations? Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! 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 pintables in the Soho pubs, the old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle? Continue reading