Orwell on the restraining effect of cultural traditions in the modern age

This post is something of an addition to “How liberalism can destroy itself”. Two qualifications: 1) I realize that European cultural traditions could sometimes be quite violent and wrong, such as medieval anti-Semitism. 2) The intellectuals that Orwell describes are not all liberals, but liberal intellectuals certainly can participate (and have done so) in the efforts to undermine traditions in their own societies in the way that Orwell talks about here.

In his review of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, published in December 1940, George Orwell wrote

We live in a period in which democracy is almost everywhere in retreat, supermen in control of three-quarters of the world, liberty explained away by sleek professors, Jew-baiting defended by pacifists. And yet everywhere, under the surface, the common man sticks obstinately to the beliefs that he derives from the Christian culture. The common man is wiser than the intellectuals, just as animals are wiser than men. Any intellectual can make you out a splendid “case” for smashing the German Trade Unions and torturing the Jews. But the common man, who has no intellect, only instinct and tradition, knows that “it isn’t right.” Anyone who has not lost his moral sense — and an education in Marxism and similar creeds consists largely in destroying your moral sense — knows that “it isn’t right” to march into the houses of harmless little Jewish shopkeepers and set fire to their furniture. (All Art is Propaganda, p. 146)

In his essay, “Wells, Hitler and the World State” (August 1941), Orwell made a related point as he responded to H.G. Wells’ dismissal of German strength:

What has Wells to set against the “screaming little defective in Berlin”? The usual rigmarole about a World State, plus the Sankey Declaration, which is an attempted definition of fundamental human rights, of anti-totalitarian tendency. Except that he is now especially concerned with federal world control of air power, it is the same gospel as he has been preaching almost without interruption for the past forty years, always with an air of angry surprise at the human beings who can fail to grasp anything so obvious.

What is the use of saying that we need federal world control of the air? The whole question is how we are to get it. What is the use of pointing out that a World State is desirable? What matters is that not one of the five great military powers would think of submitting to such a thing. All sensible men for decades past have been substantially in agreement with what Mr Wells says; but the sensible men have no power and, in too many cases, no disposition to sacrifice themselves. Hitler is a criminal lunatic, and Hitler has an army of millions of men, aeroplanes in thousands, tanks in tens of thousands. For his sake a great nation has been willing to overwork itself for six years and then to fight for two years more, whereas for the commonsense, essentially hedonistic world-view which Mr Wells puts forward, hardly a human creature is willing to shed a pint of blood. Before you can even talk of world reconstruction, or even of peace, you have got to eliminate Hitler, which means bringing into being a dynamic not necessarily the same as that of the Nazis, but probably quite as unacceptable to “enlightened” and hedonistic people. What has kept England on its feet during the past year? In part, no doubt, some vague idea about a better future, but
chiefly the atavistic emotion of patriotism, the ingrained feeling of the English-speaking peoples that they are superior to foreigners. For the last twenty years the main object of English left-wing intellectuals
has been to break this feeling down, and if they had succeeded, we might be watching the SS men patrolling the London streets at this moment. Similarly, why are the Russians fighting like tigers against the German invasion? In part, perhaps, for some half-remembered ideal of Utopian Socialism, but chiefly in defence of Holy Russia (the “sacred soil of the Fatherland”, etc etc), which Stalin has revived in an only slightly altered form. The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions–racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war–which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action. (All Art is Propaganda, p. 149-150, copied from above link)

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