17th May 2022


Some lessons from George Orwell

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"Pure pacifism can only appeal to people in very sheltered positions." While reading George Orwell's essay The Lion and The Unicorn, one must pinch oneself at times: this could have been written today.

Instead, Orwell wrote these lines in 1941.

Read and decide

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  • Under such circumstances, Orwell argued, 'pacifism is an intellectual curiosity rather than a political movement'

First of all, a caveat: Orwell got it wrong with his main message.

In the essay, he argues that the United Kingdom would only be able to defeat Hitler's fascism under a socialist government, and that the same held true the other way round: the fight against fascism would eventually lead to the establishment of socialism. He was convinced that only by nationalising factories all forces could be truly mobilised towards the war effort and defeating the enemy.

As we know, fascism was not defeated by a socialist UK. Moreover, the country became social democratic only after the war — and not because workers united, but because employers and industrialists understood that happier workers would be less susceptible to communist ideals.

As elsewhere in Europe, the welfare state was introduced to stop communism from spreading further.

Nevertheless, this essay contains many sharp observations that are relevant to this day, like much of Orwell's other work.

For example, he raises an important question we have been wrestling with since Russia invaded in Ukraine in February: is it possible at all to be a pacifist in these times?

Orwell, a lifelong socialist, was a member of the Independent Labour Party. But he was fiercely critical of the party, because it dismissed Stalin's excesses and refused rearmament. It was opposed to war in principle, and wanted to stay out.

Orwell, on the other hand, became convinced one had to defend democracy against fascism and totalitarianism.

This is why, in the 1930s, he went to fight in the Spanish civil war. He complained about British champagne-socialists, more attached to their mansions and privileges than to the cause of democracy. "The lady in the Rolls-Royce car is more damaging to morale than a fleet of Goering's bombing planes," he wrote.

When reading this, it is difficult not to think of German chancellor Olaf Scholz, who has trouble convincing his fellow countrymen that in the face of evil Germany must send heavy weapons to Ukraine, not just send helmets and field hospitals.

Under such circumstances, Orwell argued, "pacifism is an intellectual curiosity rather than a political movement".

He describes how British entrepreneurs, three weeks before the outbreak of the war in Europe, had quickly sold huge quantities of tin, rubber and copper to Germany.

This, of course, reminds us of German politicians who, after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, kept saying the Nord Stream 2 pipeline — now halted — was a purely economic project.

"The whole moneyed class, unwilling to face a change in their way of life, had shut their eyes to the nature of fascism and modern war," Orwell wrote. To him, one of the dominant facts in English life in the previous 75 years was "the decay of ability of the ruling class".

Managers vs Leaders

This is to a large extent our problem now. Europe's political leaders are mostly managers. They are used to floating on the waves of globalisation at a time when steering the ship of state was hardly necessary, when vision was almost a handicap, and when identity and transparency seemed to be the main issues in society.

Each era, of course, produces its own leaders. Now, in a major geopolitical storm, with the drums of war beating again, different leaders are needed — more heavyweight, with a deeper understanding of the world.

What is striking about Orwell's essay, in contrast to our present times, is its optimism. He sketches a path into the future, offering readers a narrative with a broader perspective — something to help them understand the world.

In his book Comment Gouverner un Peuple-Roi? (2021), the French philosopher Pierre-Henri Tavoillot wrote that in a democracy, it is not enough just 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 get meaning if they are embedded in a deeper, larger narrative full of wisdom, emotion, poetry and (self)-reflection. "Storytelling cultivates public consciousness," Tavoillot writes, because it weaves the loose elements together.

Orwell did exactly that: telling the bigger story, providing context. This is why we still read him today, despite his political misjudgments.

Today, like in Orwell's days, citizens have big questions. For decades, we assumed our lives, economies and democracies would only get better. Many now lose that feeling.

Having been peaceful for over seven decades, Europe is more prosperous than ever. At the moment, however, our confidence in the future gives way to a deep sense of vulnerability.

In 1968, people took to the streets because they wanted to have better lives than their parents. Nowadays, they take to the streets because they want to keep what their parents have.

With the war in Ukraine raging and power-hungry autocrats weaponising data, refugees, water, and gas supplies, European citizens ask, "Will there be war again in Europe?" and "What will be left of the welfare state?"

They are hungry for information and analysis. Most politicians hardly provide this. They talk about purchasing-power, diversity, or housing problems.

Those are important issues, but the larger narrative is missing. No wonder populists and political charlatans jump in, supplying grand, simplistic theories full of hatred and fear.

We live in a time of great transformations. So did Orwell.

"War is the greatest of all agents of change," he wrote. "It speeds up all processes, wipes out minor distinctions, brings realities to the surface. Above all, war brings it home to the individual. That he is not altogether an individual."

This is what is now at stake in Europe, too.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC, Foreign Policy and De Standaard. This column is adapted from a recent piece in De Standaard.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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