“As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.” In the first sentence of Orwell’s essay he turns the subject of war on its head and makes its ridiculous nature clear to the reader. It is in this style that Orwell’s essay continues; he attacks everyone and everything, but still has faith in British society making many intelligent and pertinent points. The focus of the essay is the Second World War, as Orwell is living it, and the development of English Socialism.
His essay is divided into three parts, in Part I he begins by describing the English character and its main facets. He points out that Britain was very different to the continent. As he felt that its head would not be turned by the “power-worship” that had infected Europe, because ironically Britain was a rather gentle place. Even though it had the Empire the British public loathed militarism and this was shown, in some ways, by the British parade step.
Britain’s parade step, as Orwell said, was but a “formalised walk” whilst the German goose step was an “affirmation of naked power; contained in it… is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face.” Britain had its fault and was clearly a divided country, but as Orwell pointed out, in times of crisis it would come together. Dunkirk was a good example he used, but he also pointed out that this unity was not always good. For instance the unanimous support for Chamberlain’s foreign policy got Britain into all sorts of difficulties and failed to comprehend the magnitude of the problem. However, it was this unity that would help Britain through the Second World War.
In addition, Orwell felt Britain faced two other problems; firstly, they were ruled by the “idle rich” who could not comprehend the modern world and would have to admit they were obsolete if they did. Secondly, the leftwing intelligentsia was constantly undermining British patriotism. Orwell felt that patriotism was the strongest bonding force within society and that patriotism and intelligence would have to fuse to help Britain through this modern conflict.
This conflict, Orwell stated, was proving that a planned economy was far more efficient than an unplanned economy. The problem with capitalism, Orwell believed, was that during a war it was unable to produce all that was required because production only occurred if a profit could be made. He hated Fascism and felt it simply stole from Socialism what would make capitalism efficient for war. Nazism, to Orwell, was distasteful because it promoted human inequality, whilst socialism he believed was based on human equality.
Orwell summed up England’s position in one sentence, at the present time “England fights for her life, but business must fight for profits”. The rich in Britain were still leading the good life whilst the poor were being starved and Socialism was required to right this problem. Britain required equality of sacrifice, according to Orwell, because “The lady in the Rolls Royce car is more damaging to morale than a fleet of Goering‘s bombing planes.
Orwell finished his essay by looking at why Socialism had failed in England. The problem, Orwell felt, lay in the fact that the Labour party was the only major socialist party in Britain. It was riddled with contradictions, it represented the trade union members, but at the same time it stood for the independence of India.
Yet, Trade Union workers’ relatively good lives were based on the near slave labour conditions that “Indian coolies” worked under. Orwell believed the Labour Party simply did not know how to deal with both the Trade Union question and the Empire question. Orwell also noted that Communism was never very popular in Western Europe and that the other Marxist parties preached an out of date doctrine.
However, Orwell felt things were changing, Britain, as a result of the war, was in a position to take on Socialism. As he wrote “We cannot win the war without introducing Socialism, nor establish Socialism without winning the war.” Yet, Socialism, Orwell felt, required some sensible policies and he wrote out a six point Socialist plan within his essay. He called for nationalisation, limitation of incomes, educational reform, independent dominion status for India, the formation of an Imperial General Council and alliances with all the victims of the fascist countries.
Orwell went into great depth on these policies, but he did not believe this should be the exact plan, his only concern was something similar should arise and he felt Britain was in the perfect position for this to happen. However, despite his criticism of much of British society he did feel that the idea of freedom, even though not achieved, did run through English culture. He finished his essay on a positive note with these words, “I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward.” Forward he hoped to a socialist future.
Despite Orwell’s idea of English socialism never seeing the light of day his essay shows us a number of things. It makes several important points about the English character that are still relevant today. Also, it shows that we should recognise the developing nature of society and most importantly that to achieve real change requires both strength and intelligence.