Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 30, 2020

Notes on Nationalism, by George Orwell

My next (NF) book was going to be Michael Ackland’s Henry Handel Richardson, A Life, (because I am still peeved by Brenda Niall’s representation of HHR in Friends and Rivals, Four Great Australian Writers, see why, here) but Orwell’s essay in the Penguin Moderns series was on top of the NF pile… I was sure that his thoughts about nationalism were bound to be pertinent for our age… so HHR will have to wait. (But not for long because these mini-books can be read in a day.)

Orwell writes in his usual acerbic way, starting with his definition of nationalism: the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  But more importantly, he says, he means the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good or evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.  

He distinguishes nationalism from patriotism because patriotism means devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people. (I wish I’d read this essay before I read Paul Daley’s On Patriotism).  

Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally.  Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. (p.2)

(Which is why, I suppose, that the most rabid nationalists, the ones who wave the flag to try to deny Australia’s multiculturalism and are represented in parliament by That Awful Woman, seem to be resentful disempowered yobboes.)

But Orwell goes on to extend nationalism to include

… movements and tendencies such as Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Anti-Semitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism.  It does not necessarily mean loyalty to a government of a country, still less to one’s own country, and it is not even strictly necessary that the units in which it deals should actually exist.  To name a few obvious examples, Jewry, Islam, Christendom, the Proletariat, and the White Race are all of them objects of passionate nationalistic feeling: but their existence can be seriously questioned, and there is no definition of any one of them that would be universally accepted.  (p. 3).  (No doubt we can think of more recent movements to which this kind of nationalism applies).

Nationalist feeling can be purely negative too.  People can be hostile to an ‘enemy’ without feeling loyal to any other unit.

A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige.  He may be a positive or a negative nationalist — that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating — but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs, and humiliations.  (p.4)

And he will cling, says Orwell, to his conviction that his side is the best, even in the face of facts which refute it.  Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception. Orwell offers, as an example of this, the question of which of the three WW2 allies, the USSR, the UK or the US, did most to defeat Germany?  There should be a reasonable and logical answer to this.  But [#Moi, guilty as charged] we start our thinking by deciding in favour of whichever one we prefer, and then we assemble our arguments to support the case.

I was fascinated to read Orwell’s thoughts about G K Chesterton’s political Catholicism.  Yes, that Chesterton, whose Father Brown Mysteries have been turned into a cosy period detective series set in the 1950s.   I read The Man Who Was Thursday much too long ago to remember much of it, but Orwell says of Chesterton that every book that he wrote, every paragraph, every sentence, every incident in every story, every scrap of dialogue, had to demonstrate beyond the possibility of mistake the superiority of the Catholic over the Protestant or the pagan.  Who knew??

Orwell writes that the principal characteristics of nationalism are

  1. obsession (which can extend even to feeling a duty to spread their own language and suppress others);
  2. instability (that is, loyalty can be transferred: a country worshipped for years may suddenly become detestable); and
  3. indifference to reality, (referring to the way an assessment of ‘good or ‘bad’ is adaptable even in the face of outrages which do not change their moral colour such as torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians). 

There is so much to think about in this essay, and so much of it has resonance today.  He gives examples of Positive Nationalism:

  1. Neo-Toryism, i,e, the desire not to recognise that British power and influence have declined, still so relevant today, eh?
  2. Celtic Nationalism, which has points of difference among Ireland, Scotland and Wales but are alike in being anti-English.  Members of all three movements have opposed the war while continuing to describe themselves as pro-Russian […] Its motive force is a belief in the past and future greatness of the Celtic peoples, and it has a strong tinge of racialism.  The Celt is supposed to be spiritually superior to the Saxon — simpler, more creative, less vulgar, less snobbish. […] One symptom of it is the delusion that Eire, Scotland or even Wales could preserve its independence unaided and owes nothing to British protection; and
  3. Zionism, which flourishes amongst Jews themselves. Orwell distinguishes the American variant of this from the British.

Examples of Transferred Nationalism include:

  1. Communism;
  2. Political Catholicism;
  3. Colour Feeling (of which he says Almost any English intellectual would be scandalised by the claim that the white races are superior to the coloured, whereas the opposite claim would seem to him unexceptionable even if he disagreed with it). 
  4. Class feeling (a belief in the superiority of the proletariat often coupled with vicious hatred of the bourgeoisie, often co-existing with snobbery in everyday life);
  5. Pacifism (mostly those who belong he says, to obscure religious sects, or are humanitarians who object to taking human life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that. But there’s a minority with a hatred of western democracy and admiration for totalitarianism.  Amongst the young (Orwell was writing in 1945), disapproval is not impartial but directed almost entirely against the UK and the US.)

And then there are examples of Negative Nationalism:

  1. Anglophobia.  (Orwell’s style can be amusing but his scorn for English leftwing intellectuals sometimes risks overdoing it: Within the intelligentsia, a derisive and mildly hostile attitude towards Britain is more or less compulsory, but it is an unfaked emotion in many cases. They did not, of course, (he says) want the Axis powers to win the war, but many of them could not help getting a certain kick out of seeing their own country humiliated. […] In foreign politics many intellectuals follow the principle that any faction backed by Britain must be in the wrong.
  2. Anti-Semitism. Orwell is clearly uncomfortable about saying that the Nazi persecutions have made it necessary for any thinking person to side with the Jews against their oppressors.  But he says although British ant-Semitism has never had the same racial or religious fervour as elsewhere, nor any murderous intent as manifested in Europe, it is still widespread despite claims to the contrary, and he goes on to devote 14 pages in the ensuing chapter to illustrate anti-Semitism in Britain.  They make uncomfortable reading.
  3. Trotskyism: Well, Monty Python has ensured that none of us can take the internecine squabbles of the Soviets seriously again.  (Just Google The Cycling Sketch).

The last chapter is called ‘The Sporting Spirit’, in which Orwell demolishes the idea that ‘sport creates goodwill between the nations’.  Australia and the Bodyline series gets a mention, but writing in 1945 he was yet to see the infamous 1956 USSR v Hungary water polo match nor the obscene amounts of money spent on sporting one-upmanship between China, the USSR and the US.  Needless to say I enjoyed this chapter…

Orwell acknowledges (on p.25) that he has exaggerated, oversimplified, made unwarranted assumptions and left out of account ordinarily decent motives.  He’s trying to make a point and has used extremes to illustrate it. Fair point, I don’t think that overall his arguments are diminished by a bit of heavy-handedness here and there.

If you can put up with reading online, you can read this essay for free here and probably elsewhere as well.  But the print edition only costs $2.95 AUD, and publishers need encouragement to find and make available these gems, so buy a copy to read and keep if you can.

Image credit: Father Brown TV series image: By Source,  Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38235550

Author: George Orwell
Title: Notes on Nationalism
Series: Penguin Moderns: 07 (Mini-books, 160mm x 110mm)
Publisher: Penguin Random House UK, 2018
ISBN: 9780241339565, pbk., 51 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased at Benn’s Books $2.50


Responses

  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

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  2. Orwell is always stimulating, even when he’s exhibiting signs of some of the traits he deplores. It’s too long since I read any of his essays, though I dip into the ones on language from time to time.

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    • Yes, I agree. I haven’t read much of his NF, but I love his novels…

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  3. Hi Lisa

    First I must agree with you about Brenda Niall and HHR, and, although I enjoyed Brenda’s book as I usually do with her writing, I also had some issues with her over her treatment of the other three women as well, particularly Ethel Turner, but also Nettie Palmer, who I felt was rather dismissed as a talent under developed, whereas she made a huge contribution via her literary journalism. I have half a dozen of her personal copies of books in my collection now, which I am very pleased to have. (Sorry if this is out of place, but I missed your original review.)

    But back to Orwell: Can I say that the context of this essay is best understood if you read his essays in the second volume of Penguins Collected Orwell Essays, subtitled My Country Right or Left, which I think allows us to see the maturation of Orwell’s political thoughts during WW2. The essays were written in the first half of the war and see Orwell building upon the powerful style of writing that he first demonstrated in my view in Homage to Catalonia in 1938 ( a must-read book!) I think that although he comments on his use of hyperbole in Notes on Nationalism, his use of some inflated examples and pointed critiques is both powerful and effective, ( and perhaps I should add, fair enough in my view. The most chilling aspect of re-reading Notes on Nationalism is how this essay is a primer for the Trump Playbook, although I am fairly confident that the only thing that Trump has in common with Orwell in Penguin is the colour orange.

    I don’t know if the full Penguin set of Orwells essays are still in print, but I did notice that the Salvo’s shop in Camberwell had one of the volumes just before the lock-down for some colossal outlay like $3. I left it there for the another lucky purchaser!
    Cheers
    Chris

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  4. Hello again, Chris, and may I say how nice it is to have your contribution here:)
    I can’t comment about Ethel Turner — I haven’t even read Seven Little Australians and I don’t know any more about her than what’s in the Niall book, but yes, I did feel that her treatment of Nettie was a bit patronising. I have yet to get my hands on Modern Australian Literature 1900-1923 (which BTW isn’t even listed at Wikipedia) but I fail to see why Niall seems to think her oeuvre is inadequate. It’s as if she holds Nettie responsible for Vance’s higher profile, when he, after all, won the Mile Franklin…
    The Spouse is an Orwell enthusiast so we have a bit of a collection of Orwell’s books: his diaries, two bios, and all the novels, but not the Collected Essays you suggest. I have (very subtly) mentioned the existence of this book to The Spouse and feel fairly confident that a copy will make its way here in due course!
    Failing that, I may have to wait for restrictions to ease and make a trip to Camberwell. I suspect that at the cops would not be simpatico to the idea that shopping for a book outside my local area is ‘essential’ shopping, and the fine for breaking restrictions is about $1600, I thin, which would make it rather an expensive book…

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  5. Couldn’t agree more – Orwell is still terrifyingly relevant and such a brilliant essayist

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  6. I’m a big admirer of Orwell, both of his writing and of his politics. Homage to Catalonia is one of my all time favourites and it is enlightening that what he says there about the dishonesty of right wing newspapers in relation to the Civil War in Spain still holds true today.

    I don’t agree with his definition of nationalism, he seems to be talking about isms in general, and I’m not sure I agree with him, or you, about Trotskyism but that’s an argument to occupy a lifetime.

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    • Bill, I look forward to the day when you can join us for dinner and we can argue about Trotskyism to your heart’s content. Stay safe and well in your travels across our pesky borders…

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