Orwell's "The Lion and the Unicorn"

A brilliant, deeply flawed essay has lessons for modern times

George Orwell is known for his novels, especially 1984 and Animal Farm, but his nonfiction writing is essential reading. One of his longest and most interesting essays is “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius,” written in 1941. You can read the whole thing online here.

This essay is interesting for multiple reasons. First, its main recommendation — that Britain should nationalize its industries — was either breathtakingly prescient or breathtakingly influential, since it was basically carried out by the postwar government of Clement Attlee. Whether Britain’s experiment with socialism was a result of taking Orwell’s advice, or whether (as is far more likely) it was simply a case of lots of people thinking along the same lines, I can’t say for sure. But in this essay you can definitely see the seed of the idea.

Orwell argues that Britain’s initial poor performance against the Nazi military machine was due to its embrace of capitalism, where short-term profit motives directed businesspeople toward activities that were ultimately unhelpful for the war effort. In 1941 the Nazi system, which effectively nationalized industry for the while continuing to allow business owners to be rich, seemed like it was ascendant. Only socialism, Orwell argued, held out a hope of matching the Nazis’ ability to bend their entire economy to a single purpose.

But Nazi industry wasn’t the most effective in World War 2. That title goes to the United States. It might not have yet been apparent in 1941, but the U.S.’ system of democratically managed entrepreneurial capitalism would end up massively outproducing all other players — and maintaining that production advantage for the rest of the 20th century.

In fact, though Britain eventually took Orwell’s recommendation to nationalize a substantial portion of its industry (around 20%), this ended up doing little to make the country an industrial powerhouse, and may in fact have dealt a serious blow to the country’s living standards. Using data from a 2018 paper by Novokmet, Piketty & Zucman, I graphed the long-term trajectories of GDP per adult in postwar Europe:

The UK starts out the postwar period in a better position than the devastated countries of West and East Germany, France, and the USSR, but performs markedly worse over the next three decades. By the 1970s, British adults on average are barely richer than their Soviet counterparts! That’s a terrific failure. Nor did Britain maintain or regain dominance in manufacturing industries. Furthermore, I’d argue that this failure paved the way for Thatcherism, which seems like it was far from the best way to get Britain’s economy moving again.

Now, we can argue whether Novokmet, Piketty & Zucman got their PPP adjustments right, and we can argue about whether the Attlee nationalizations were a major cause of Britain’s poor postwar performance. But it’s certainly clear that the socialist experiment, while it might have delivered greater equality, certainly didn’t deliver the greater productive efficiency that Orwell confidently predicted.

Orwell’s other big justification for socialism — that socialist egalitarianism would endear Britain to its colonies and soon-to-be-former colonies — also probably turned out to be wrong. The nations that sought and won their independence from the British Empire after the war appeared to have been no more eager to be ruled by a distant nation governed by Clement Attlee than they were to be ruled by a distant nation governed by Winston Churchill. Now, I could simply not know enough about this history — perhaps newly decolonized nations really did see Britain in a friendlier light due to the fact that it took strides to address its internal inequalities — but overall the force of the decolonization movement seemed little affected by anything happening in British politics.

So “The Lion and the Unicorn” is a deeply flawed essay. Its confident predictions about the benefits of socialism for both economics and geopolitics were based more in starry-eyed idealism than in reality. But even so, the essay contains a large number of useful points and trenchant observations that can help us understand our own times.

For example, Orwell notes that the British socialists of his day had fallen into a sort of lazy anti-patriotism. He observes — quite correctly — that patriotism is a stronger, more deeply rooted motivating force than socialist ideology, and that even in the USSR people would primarily fight to defend their homelands. He gives a stern tongue-lashing to British leftists who, he argues, are basically concerned with preserving their position within a heterodox intelligentsia rather than crafting a program for national success and survival — who, he alleges, would listlessly denounce the UK while hoping that the Russians would beat the Nazis for them. Orwell predicted that if Hitler got the decisive upper hand in the war, British leftists would be all to eager to think up reasons to make peace with the Nazis.

This might have been an exaggeration, for the purposes of galvanizing the British Left into making themselves important to the war effort. But when I look at the American socialist movement of 2021, I see plenty of parallels with the way Orwell describes his own countrymen. In the wake of Biden’s 2020 primary victory over Bernie Sanders, some leftists chose to affect an air of aloof disdain toward all of U.S. politics — even after Biden turned out to be the most progressive president since LBJ — thus removing themselves from relevance. Meanwhile, when you see Jacobin articles declaring that “QAnon-ers are correct about a lot of things”, you can more vividly imagine the type of leftists Orwell suspected might jump at the chance to appease fascism.

Most important, though, is Orwell’s warning about the power of patriotism:

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…

In England all the boasting and flag-wagging, the “Rule Britannia” stuff, is done by small minorities. The patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious…the vast majority of the people feel themselves to be a single nation and are conscious of resembling one another more than they resemble foreigners. Patriotism is usually stronger than class-hatred, and always stronger than any kind of internationalism…The only approach to [the working class] is through their patriotism. An intelligent Socialist movement will use their patriotism, instead of merely insulting it, as hitherto.

In the U.S., anti-patriotism has become reflexive, almost de rigeur, on the political left. The traditional socialist opposition to American power abroad has merged with the new “woke” liberal consensus that America was founded on racism to produce something truly counterproductive to positive change. There are plenty of signs of this, from the near-glee with which some leftists recite litanies of the country’s problems as proof of its “unexceptionalism”, to the the lashing out against any and all symbols of the country.

There is no endgame for this sort of smug anti-Americanism. A leftist revolution to overthrow the country and establish a new one in its place is highly unlikely. And barring that, there’s really nowhere for anti-Americanism to go. People like their country. Eventually they’ll tire of the America-bashing and look for someone who will tell them that the place they live, and the people they live with, are a positive force instead of a negative one. And if the Right ever actually pulls its head out of its Trump-shaped ass and figures out how to stop bashing the U.S. Olympic team and shitting on military families and calling veterans “losers” and storming the damn Capitol building, then people who just a few years ago were marching in the street wearing pussy-hats or yelling “defund the police” may find themselves voting Republican. Thus might the Left’s greatest generational advantage in American political history be squandered.

Orwell understood this in his day. Ultimately, British socialists were able to harness postwar patriotism enough — or at least to triangulate it enough — to enact much of their desired program. Even if that program turned out not to be the most economically effective program, it was certainly a political victory, and it also enabled the orderly and prompt — and long overdue — dissolution of the British Empire. If the American Left doesn’t heed Orwell’s advice, I think it’ll end up accomplishing far less.