The Blog

Great Essays on Socialism: George Orwell - The Lion and the Unicorn

During his Etonian days, long before the publication of his 1941 essay,, George Orwell claims to have developed particular socialistic tendencies...

During his Etonian days, long before the publication of his 1941 essay, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, George Orwell claims to have developed particular socialistic tendencies. He remarks, however, that this early attraction to socialism was due to a certain youthful rebelliousness rather than a thorough understanding of society. During the course of his life, and his writings, Orwell's socialism developed from a sort of prototypical middle-class heterodoxy into a coherent politicized doctrine. The coherent form of Orwellian socialism, as explored in this article, was primarily influenced by two aspects that Orwell explored in works published prior to The Lion and the Unicorn.

The first aspect that informed Orwellian socialism, documented in Down and Out in Paris and London, was his own experience living in poverty. In this work, Orwell chronicles his time spent living from shelter to shelter, with only enough money to buy bread and margarine, or, as he calls it, 'tea-and-two-slices.' Orwell recalls his time mixing with tramps and drunkards, the unemployed and the rejected, and offers lessons to his reader, and to himself:

'I shall never again think that tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.'

Indeed, Down and Out in Paris and London - in terms of developing a coherent socialist perspective - was, in many ways, Orwell's beginning. He isn't overtly politicized at this point. In fact, by his own admission, he claims to know very little about British politics. However, throughout the text, Orwell offers some practical, almost apolitical advice that could help those that are living in poverty. At this stage, the reader can witness his early concepts developing with only the odd allusion to doctrinaire socialism.

The second aspect that informed Orwellian socialism was his experience of working class conditions, as expressed in The Road to Wigan Pier. In this work, Orwell travels to a coal-mining community in Wigan and paints a rather vivid picture of the life of a miner. He takes his reader through the miners' deplorable working conditions, their less-than-nutritious eating habits, their verminous living arrangements and the rare occasions when they can enjoy leisure. He does all this with admiration, of course; often less than favourably comparing his admittedly 'lower-upper-middle-class' self to these brave, strong men. It is in this context that Orwell first introduces the reader to a far more comprehensive argument for socialism.

At this point, Orwell isn't writing a manifesto - that comes later. The second part of The Road to Wigan Pier primarily deals with oft-invoked counter arguments to socialism and tackles some of the misapprehensions that frequently leave individuals with a particular aversion to socialist ideals. Orwell demonstrates a certain antipathy for orthodox Marxists; he finds that their somewhat grandiose language - 'the expropriation of the expropriators' and the 'dictatorship of the proletariat', for example - are actually deleterious to the cause of socialism, for they seem to deter those individuals that proponents of socialism should be seeking to persuade. In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell strips the ideals of socialism to their bare foundations and, with this in mind, argues that socialism is, after all, 'common sense'.

The Road to Wigan Pier, as mentioned, is in no sense a socialist manifesto. Orwell doesn't argue for a distinct policy, but rather highlights the merits of socialism within a rather broad framework. The abovementioned elements that influenced this framework - his own experience of poverty and an understanding of the conditions of the British working class - also primarily inform his far more distinct, pamphlet-like essay, The Lion and the Unicorn.

The first two parts of The Lion and the Unicorn contextualize socialism in the historical framework of World War Two. Orwell asserts that a sort of socialist collectivism, devoid of the pursuit of capital, inexorably surfaces during times of war. Unemployment decreases (largely due to the necessity of cheap labour in the armaments factories), people become far more interdependent and the national identity seems to transcend class in a way heretofore unknown. Orwell goes so far as to say that without war-time socialism, Britain couldn't win the war and without winning the war, Britain couldn't establish socialism.

Orwell argues that post-war Britain should embrace a new sort of reformed democratic socialism that - unlike socialisms of the past - can exist alongside the ideals of patriotism. This reformed socialism is of a very prototypical, popular sort and a distinct outline is offered in the third and final part of The Lion and the Unicorn. The third part, which reads like an Orwellian socialist manifesto, proposes the need for, first and foremost, the nationalization of major industries. Orwell contends that this would not only improve a workers commitment to the state - and thus the country - but could also ensure that 'nobody shall live without working'.

Secondly, Orwell claims that there must be a fairer distribution of income. He doesn't argue for complete income equality - as often proclaimed by communists - as he believes that this would inexorably remove any sort of incentive. Rather Orwell asserts that one person's income should not exceed ten times that of a fellow countryman.

Orwell goes on to state that there needs to be a reform of the education system along democratic lines. This might seem strange for an Etonian, yet Orwell decidedly proclaims that there isn't a British institution that works more favourably for the ruling classes than the education system. The education system is, for Orwell, the primary institution for the consolidation of class interests.

These three primary points - common ownership of the means of production, greater wage equality and a democratic reform of the education system - are the basis of a fully developed Orwellian socialism.

Orwell ponders the idea of publishing an extract from the third part of The Lion and the Unicorn in the 'Daily Mirror' - it really does have that pamphlet-like, popular appeal - but ultimately resists. Orwellian socialism is democratic, progressive - at least at the time - and patriotic without being overtly nationalistic. The popular appeal of Orwell as a writer, and his celebrated political stance against communism in its oppressive, dictatorial permutation, make this essay somewhat more palatable in the broad context of British socialism.

It's seems strange, considering the vast array of Marxist and Trotskyite parties currently flying the flag for British socialism, that very few people turn to a sort of Orwellian socialism as a realistic, democratic alternative to these often stigmatized, and somewhat outdated, brands of socialism. The Lion and the Unicorn is a brilliant essay precisely because it is modest, it is well-informed and it appeals not to grandiose revolutionary ideals, but rather, to simple common sense.