“Pure pacifism can only attract people in very protected positions.” Reading George Orwell’s essay The Lion and the Unicornsometimes you have to pinch yourself: it could have been written today.
Instead, Orwell wrote these lines in 1941.
First, a caveat: Orwell got his main message wrong.
In the essay, he argues that Britain could only defeat Hitler’s fascism under a socialist government, and that the same would happen the other way around: the fight against fascism would eventually lead to the establishment of the socialism. He was convinced that only by nationalizing the factories could all forces be truly mobilized for the war effort and the defeat of the enemy.
As we know, fascism was not defeated by a socialist UK. Moreover, the country only became a social democrat after the war – and not because workers united, but because employers and industrialists realized that happier workers would be less susceptible to communist ideals. .
As elsewhere in Europe, the welfare state was introduced to prevent communism from spreading further.
Nevertheless, this essay contains many pointed observations that are relevant to this day, like most of Orwell’s other work.
For example, it raises an important question that we have been wrestling with since Russia invaded Ukraine in February: is it possible to be a pacifist in these times?
Orwell, a lifelong socialist, was a member of the Independent Labor Party. But he fiercely criticized the party, because he rejected Stalin’s excesses and refused rearmament. He was opposed to the war on principle and wanted to stay out of it.
Orwell, for his part, became convinced that democracy had to be defended against fascism and totalitarianism.
That is why, in the 1930s, he went to fight in the Spanish Civil War. He complained of the British Champagne-Socialists, who were more attached to their mansions and their privileges than to the cause of democracy. “The lady in the Rolls-Royce car is more damaging to morale than a fleet of Goering bomber planes,” he wrote.
Reading this, it’s hard not to think of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who is struggling to convince his compatriots that in the face of evil Germany must send heavy weapons to Ukraine, not just helmets and field hospitals .
In such circumstances, argued Orwell, “pacifism is an intellectual curiosity rather than a political movement”.
He describes how British contractors, three weeks before the outbreak of war in Europe, had rapidly sold huge quantities of tin, rubber and copper to Germany.
This, of course, reminds us of the German politicians who, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, kept saying that the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline – now shut down – was a purely economic project.
“The whole wealthy class, unwilling to face a change in their way of life, had turned a blind eye to the nature of fascism and modern warfare,” Orwell wrote. For him, one of the dominant facts of English life for the previous 75 years was “the decadence of the capacities of the ruling class”.
Managers vs Leaders
That’s largely our problem now. European political leaders are mostly managers. They are used to floating on the waves of globalization at a time when there was little need to steer the nave of the state, when vision was almost a liability, and when identity and transparency seemed to be the main issues of society.
Each era, of course, produces its own leaders. Now, in a major geopolitical storm, with the drums of war again, different leaders are needed – more heavyweights, with a deeper understanding of the world.
What is striking in Orwell’s essay, unlike in our present time, is its optimism. It charts a path into the future, offering readers a narrative with a broader perspective – something to help them understand the world.
In his book How to Govern a People-King? (2021), the French philosopher Pierre-Henri Tavoillot wrote that in a democracy it is not enough to have elections, parliamentary debates, independent institutions and a free press.
While these are of course vital in a democracy, they remain separate elements that only make sense if they are integrated into a deeper and wider narrative, full of wisdom, emotion, poetry and of (self) reflection. “Storytelling cultivates public awareness,” writes Tavoillot, as it weaves the loose elements together.
Orwell did just that: tell the bigger story, provide context. That is why we still read him today, despite his errors in political judgment.
Today, as in Orwell’s day, citizens have big questions. For decades we assumed that our lives, our economies and our democracies would only get better. Many are now losing that feeling.
After more than seven decades of peace, Europe is more prosperous than ever. For now, however, our confidence in the future is giving way to a deep sense of vulnerability.
In 1968, people took to the streets because they wanted to have a better life than their parents. Today they take to the streets because they want to keep what their parents have.
As war in Ukraine rages on and power-hungry autocrats weaponize data, refugees, water and gas supplies, European citizens are asking, “Will there be war again in Europe? » and « What will remain of the welfare state?
They are hungry for information and analysis. Most politicians barely provide that. They talk about purchasing power, diversity or housing problems.
These are important questions, but the larger narrative is lacking. No wonder populists and political charlatans are stepping in, providing grand, simplistic theories full of hate and fear.
We live in a time of great transformation. Orwell too.
“War is the greatest of all agents of change,” he wrote. “It speeds up all processes, erases minor distinctions, brings realities to the surface. Above all, war brings him back to the individual. That he’s not quite an individual.”
This is also what is at stake today in Europe.