Tuesday, February 26, 2002
Book review time. I just finished reading George Orwell's The Lion and the Unicorn. It's marvelous. I had forgotten how much I love him - his writing, his thinking, his ability not only to think but to feel intelligently. I've been working my way slowly through My Country Right or Left, the second volume of his collected essays, letters and miscellaneous writings, covering the years 1940-1943. If you followed Andy Sullivan's website post 9/11, you know how apropos his read of the English intellectual class was of our own intellectual class in our day: the same mindless defeatism and self-hatred. The context is very different of course; while Europe may be sinking under low birth rates, sclerotic growth and unassimilated immigrants, America is in no such position, and our current enemies have no power to defeat us, only to destroy. But what resonates is the professional thinker's unparalleled inability - then as now - to think.
But that's not what's most interesting about The Lion and the Unicorn. The essay is presented as a meditation on the English character, how that character is being revealed under the stress of war, and what revolutionary changes in the social and economic system in Britain would be necessary to preserve the independence upon which national character depends. It is, to begin with, refreshing to read anything so forthright on the now-taboo subject of national character. But what strikes me most about the essay is how important class is to his understanding of the English character, and yet how all his prescriptions for the revolutionizing of English life are premised on the need to uproot the pervasive influence of class in English society.
So much of what Orwell praises about the English character - the decency, the belief in the procedures of justice, the hatred of war - these things are bound up, it seems to me, with the English Constitution, which is to say, with the feudal inheritance, which is to say, with the English institutionalization of class. France is a wheel, with spokes radiating from the center, and has been for a good 500 years if not more. Such a society can be mobilized by the center or can resist it, but it is always defined by it. England is a pyramid; the important directions are not in and out but up and down. And such societies resist mobilization. The chaotic capitalism that Orwell inveighs against is natural to such a society, as dirigisme is not. Much of Orwell's revolution was carried out in the post-war years, and it has done nothing good for the English character. Indeed, the English character is in such disrepute with the English at this point in their history that the one thing that all political stripes agree upon is that England should be less English. (The Thatcherites want it to be more like America; the Blairites more like Europe; and the Guardian more like South Africa.)
Orwell had a profound experience of socialism on the barricades in Spain. Indeed, in Homage to Catalonia (one of my all-time favorite books) Orwell comes to some kind of a recognition that Socialism - or that which he loves about Socialism - is really a feeling or experience, the experience of life on the barricades. It is the experience of solidarity, and (this is something Orwell doesn't really recognize in his pro-revolutionary writings) it cannot be the experience of ordinary life. Any attempt to institutionalize that kind of solidarity leads to the kinds of disaster we saw frequently in the century past, disasters that Orwell understood too well. Nonetheless, it is clear that the English experience of class profoundly obstructed that sense of solidarity, and Orwell understood correctly that such a sense of solidarity - which had emerged strongly in wartime - had to be strengthened and extended if the war was to be won. And so he called for the abolition, effectively, of the English class system.
Dispensing with the ignorant economics, Orwell's social critique of liberalism is still relevant, and not only (or particularly) to England. Many of us who live with the liberty of the moderns find the liberal air somewhat thin. Orwell turned to Socialism as a cure. Arendt turned to the liberty of the ancients, and tried (particularly in On Revolution) to reconstitute America's political tradition (not very successfully) on classical republican foundations. Others have turned, and continue to turn, to religious communities to fill the social void of liberalism. It is a topic we continue to live with, and one to which I will return. (Indeed, the next book I'll tackle - Michael Oakeshott's The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Skepticism - may be of help here.)
One other point on Orwell. It has struck me before that the great tragedy of recent English history is that England could not turn her Empire into something that might last. It is not obvious to me that the post-colonial road was necessarily the best one for the peoples from Ireland to India who were subject to English rule. Had England suffered these diverse peoples to govern themselves, in alliance with rather than in subjection to England, I see no necessary reason why England would not still be a world power. Orwell outlines something like this in his essay. And I suspect that the reason that the English never could accept such a vision was that, well, they didn't like foreigners, another trait attested to by Orwell. They would consent to rule them, but, with exceptions, of course, not to be their fellows. The irony, of course, is that England has, like every European country, imported large numbers of the very peoples whom they would not live with as equals in a family of nations, and now they must nonetheless live with them as equals on their own streets.