Notes on "Notes on Nationalism"

In response to a question I posted yesterday (“When does a national become a nationalist?”), Twitter user Mick brought my attention to George Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism (1945)a thought-provoking essay on which I share some notes here:


Nationalism is not limited to nations


Orwell emphasizes from the outset that his treatment of nationalism will not be limited to “nations”:


[T]here is a habit of mind which is now so widespread that it affects our thinking on nearly every subject, but which has not yet been given a name. As the nearest existing equivalent I have chosen the word ‘nationalism’, but it will be seen in a moment that I am not using it in quite the ordinary sense, if only because the emotion I am speaking about does not always attach itself to what is called a nation – that is, a single race or a geographical area. It can attach itself to a church or a class, or it may work in a merely negative sense, against something or other and without the need for any positive object of loyalty.


To Orwell, the problem of nationalism (that is, Nationalism with a capital N that still has a strong Negative connotation today) is not merely about nationality, but about attachments to and advocation of interests of a virtually any kind of supraindividual unit:


“By ‘nationalism’ I mean […] the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advocating its interests.”


Nationalism and Patriotism


Orwell goes on to make an essential distinction between nationalism and patriotism, the former being a problem and the latter being perfectly acceptable:


“Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean 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 on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.”


This to me evokes Orwell’s own nationalistic tendencies (which he himself later alludes to), hidden here under the guise of being a “patriot”--for in my view the patriot has no need to think that the particular place and way of life that s/he defends is “the best in the world”One cannot help but be born in a specific land, in a specific culture and age, and into a specific way of life: One can defend that land and the people who live there (as the patriot does) and uphold his way of life or culture by contributing to it if s/he deems it good (as the national does), without falling into the trap of claiming superiority over others, and thus evoking concerns of one day wishing to impose that "superior" way of life onto others (as the nationalist does).


In fact, it is what the national does--when contributing to and attempting to enrich a particular way of life, together with others who partake of it--that serves to uphold and contribute to a society based on shared values in a way that goes beyond patriotism. We naturally gravitate to certain people or cultures, and away from others. This is not nationalistic. It is therefore in the question of whether or not we accept other cultures as having the right to exist, and thus forcing something else onto them by more or less aggressive means, that we enter the territory of nationalism. And let us not forget that one does not merely belong to a single culture, but to overlapping cultures (local, national, regional), and thus (in Orwell’s conception) one can be a patriot or a nationalist at any/all of these levels simultaneously.


Nationalism: A desire to secure more power?


“The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”


Orwell may be right, inasmuch as seeking to secure more power for one's own group may be used to damage another group of people. 

Yet 70 years later, in a world where “power (the ability to get things done [typically at the local or national level]) has been divorced from politics (the ability to decide what ought to be done [typically at the supranational or global level]),” (Zygmunt Bauman) the question arises whether attempts to restore the bond between politics and power within the unit(s) of choice (commune, nation or region) still ought to qualify as “nationalism”, or whether it is more apt to now view such attempts as a form of Orwellian patriotism that tries to defend the unit of choice from the nationalism of Big Brother.


Here, Orwell introduces yet another important point, that this “extended sense of nationalism” does not only pertain to different territorial designations (e.g., one’s commune, country or region), but “includes such movements and tendencies as Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism. It does not necessarily mean loyalty to a government or 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.”


In other words, Orwell’s conception of nationalism can apply to a variety of philosophical concepts.


By this designation, then, does the USA and Europe’s imposition of “new liberal” values onto Afghanistan, Iraq, ex-Ottoman/post-Soviet and other countries under the guise of “universal human rights” qualify as nationalism? Clearly, such impositions will evoke defenses on part of unwilling recipients who as a result will “patriotically” (I would add, unlike Orwell, nationally) wish to defend their land and culture, but who are nonetheless now almost reflexively labelled  “nationalists” or “totalitarians” in the West for resisting the “superior” ways that are being imposed onto them (for their own good, of course).


Inventing the Enemy


But these patriotic defenders are not entirely immune to nationalism themselves, for


“It is also worth emphasizing once again that nationalist feeling can be purely negative. There are, for example, Trotskyists who have become simply enemies of the U.S.S.R. without developing a corresponding loyalty to any other unit.”


However, in the view of Umberto Eco (who was decidedly anti-fascistic and anti-nationalistic), every country needs an enemy (and will sooner or later find enemies within or without), and since we live in a post-Westphalian world that still recognizes distinctions between countries in the sense of nation-states, every nation-state will also have its enemies:


Some years ago in New York I found myself in conversation with a taxi driver whose name I had difficulty in placing. He was, he explained, Pakistani and asked where I came from. Italy, I replied. He asked how many of us there were and was surprised we were so few and that our language wasn’t English.


“Then he asked me who our enemies were. In response to my ‘Sorry?’ he explained patiently that he wanted to know who were the people against whom we have fought through the centuries over land claims, ethnic rivalry, border incursions, and so forth. I told him we are not at war with anyone. He explained that he wanted to know who were our historical enemies, those who kill us and whom we kill. I repeated that we don’t have any, that we fought our last war more than half a century ago—starting, moreover, with one enemy and ending with another.


“He wasn’t satisfied. How can a country have no enemies? Getting out of the taxi, I left a two-dollar tip to compensate him for our indolent Italian pacifism. And only then did it occur to me how I shoud have answered. It is not true that we Italians have no enemies. We have no outside enemies, or rather we are unable to agree on who they are, because we are continually at war with each other… 


“Thinking further about the conversation, I have come to the conclusion that one of Italy’s misfortunes over the past sixty years has been the absence of real enemies.”


         —Umberto Eco (Inventing the Enemy)


Competitive Prestige


Orwell continues:


“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.”


Which raises the question of whether sports fans, Olympic spectators, those who like and retweet pictures of the their favorite Armenian, Mediterranean, Renaissance, or antique works of art and architecture, or who huddle behind and support every new new thought of their favorite modern thinker or public figure—are these all engaging in a form of nationalism a la Orwell, or are these mostly harmless manifestations of our ingrained nationalistic tendencies?


This question aside, I could hardly agree more with Orwell about the modern malady of turning anything and everything into a sort of competition (“which song on the album is the best?”, “which TV show is the best?”, “which contestant was the best?”, "who was the best player of all time?" “which phone/car is the best?”, “which form of governance is the best?”, etc.).


Orwell’s characteristics of nationalist thought:


Still bearing in mind that Orwell’s nationalism is not limited to the national unit, but can apply to a variety of other supraindividual units, let us assess his characteristics of nationalist thought:


1.     Obsession: As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit […] If the chosen unit is an actual country, such as Ireland or India, he will generally claim superiority for it not only in military power and political virtue, but in art, literature, sport, structure of the language, the physical beauty of the inhabitants, and perhaps even in climate, scenery and cooking […] Nationalist thought often gives the impression of being tinged by belief in sympathetic magic – a belief which probably comes out in the widespread custom of burning political enemies in effigy, or using pictures of them as targets in shooting galleries.”


2.     Instability: The intensity with which they are held does not prevent nationalist loyalties from being transferable. To begin with, as I have pointed out already, they can be and often are fastened upon some foreign country. One quite commonly finds that great national leaders, or the founders of nationalist movements, do not even belong to the country they have glorified. Sometimes they are outright foreigners, or more often they come from peripheral areas where nationality is doubtful. Examples are Stalin, Hitler, Napoleon, de Valera, Disraeli, Poincaré, Beaverbrook. The Pan-German movement was in part the creation of an Englishman, Houston Chamberlain.


3.     Indifference to Reality. All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage – torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians – which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side […] The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them […] The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles […] Indifference to objective truth is encouraged by the sealing-off of one part of the world from another, which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening.


Is everyone a nationalist?


It is only at this pointthat Orwell admits that nationalism is not about divisions of the world per se, but rather an impulse of our minds for which we must ever be on watch:


“In the classification I have attempted above, it will seem that I have often exaggerated, oversimplified, made unwarranted assumptions and have left out of account the existence of ordinarily decent motives. This was inevitable, because in this essay I am trying to isolate and identify tendencies which exist in all our minds and pervert our thinking, without necessarily occurring in a pure state or operating continuously. It is important at this point to correct the over-simplified picture which I have been obliged to make. To begin with, one has no right to assume that everyone, or even every intellectual, is infected by nationalism. Secondly, nationalism can be intermittent and limited. An intelligent man may half-succumb to a belief which attracts him but which he knows to be absurd, and he may keep it out of his mind for long periods, only reverting to it in moments of anger or sentimentality, or when he is certain that no important issues are involved. Thirdly, a nationalistic creed may be adopted in good faith from non-nationalistic motives. Fourthly, several kinds of nationalism, even kinds that cancel out, can co-exist in the same person.”


This notion also foreshadows his cure for our ingrained nationalistic impulse—which is not to fight it, for fighting such an impulse would be as futile as trying to fight the impulse to sneeze—but to become aware of it enough to not let it contaminate our thoughts and actions:


“If you hate and fear Russia, if you are jealous of the wealth and power of America, if you despise Jews, if you have a sentiment of inferiority towards the British ruling class, you cannot get rid of those feelings simply by taking thought. But you can at least recognize that you have them, and prevent them from contaminating your mental processes. The emotional urges which are inescapable, and are perhaps even necessary to political action, should be able to exist side by side with an acceptance of reality. But this, I repeat, needs a moral effort, and contemporary English literature, so far as it is alive at all to the major issues of our time, shows how few of us are prepared to make it.”


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