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By lara keller (last updated 14th April 2017)

Orwell Notes on Nationalism (3)

In 1945 George Orwell wrote an essay “Notes on Nationalism”, which is not actually about nationalism. Its target is a broader chauvinism (in the broad non-gender sense). An irrational obsessive exaggerated group feeling, of which “nationalism” is one manifestation and the closest English word for this psychology. He includes many divergent political attitudes, including pseudo progressive ones.

It starts with a reference to Byron’s use of the French word “longueur” in his satirical poem Don Juan. Its contemporary relevance makes it worth quoting:

“I know that what our neighbours call ‘longueurs’
(We ‘ve not so good a word, but have the thing
In that complete perfection which ensures
An epic from Bob Southey every spring),
Form not the true temptation which allures
The reader; but it would not be hard to bring
Some fine examples of the epopee,
To prove its grand ingredient is ennui.”
[ George Byron, “Don Juan, Third Canto”, 1821 ]

By neighbours he means the French. Robert Southey was then the British “Poet Laureate”, and one of the “Lake Poets” school along with Wordsworth and Coleridge. Byron is complaining of his “long” romantic poetic sagas, which although respected lacked authenticity, and so produce boredom in those who see through them. In the same poem Byron pokes fun at the “Lake Poets” flabby high minded utopianism. Their move from infatuation with the radical politics of the French Revolution, to romantic conservatism, he lampoons brilliantly earlier in this poem as: “Their loyal treason, renegado [rebel] rigour, Are good manure for their more bare biography”. In other words for personal gratification they swing passionately from rebellion to the establishment, and shallowly count the strength of their attachment above the nature of object of this attachment.

It is understandable why Orwell was thinking of Byron when he wrote a denunciation of chauvinistic groups in all their forms. Orwell’s and Byson’s complaint could be leveled at the writers of popular sagas like “The Establishment” [by Owen Jones] which provides neither the necessary diagnosis let alone cure.

In Orwell’s essay he uses the word “nationalism” in the sense that “nation” is any overwhelming group feeling. A nation may be a political conviction, a country or a religion. He defines it as:

“Nationalism, in the extended sense in which I am using the word, 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. 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.”

Orwell describes the mentality of this “nationalism” or rather “chauvinism” as follows:

“Nationalism, on the other hand [as opposed to patriotism], is inseparable from the desire for 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………….He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade. But finally, it is important not to confuse nationalism with mere worship of success. The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side. On the contrary, having picked his side, he persuades himself that it IS the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also–since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself–unshakeably certain of being in the right.”

Fortunately Orwell’s has advice on resisting “nationalism”:

“As for the nationalistic loves and hatreds that I have spoken of, they are part of the make-up of most of us, whether we like it or not. Whether it is possible to get rid of them I do not know, but I do believe that it is possible to struggle against them, and that this is essentially a MORAL effort. It is a question first of all of discovering what one really is, what one’s own feelings really are, and then of making allowance for the inevitable bias.”

He describes political “nationalism” as a transfer of group feeling, away from older declining territorial and religious allegiances, towards some other external object, in this case a set of interlocking beliefs.

Orwell describes a number of “nationalisms” of which “pacifism” and “class feeling” are the ones that connect most closely to the contemporary “foul abscess” of the inability of Western left wing progressives to support the Syrian Revolution and more generally the struggle for representative government in the MENA region:

“(iv) CLASS FEELING. Among upper-class and middle-class intellectuals, only in the transposed form–i.e. as a belief in the superiority of the proletariat. Here again, inside the intelligentsia, the pressure of public opinion is overwhelming. Nationalistic loyalty towards the proletariat, and most vicious theoretical hatred of the bourgeoisie, can and often do co-exist with ordinary snobbishness in everyday life.

(v) PACIFISM. The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to the taking of life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States. Moreover they do not as a rule condemn violence as such, but only violence used in defence of western countries. The Russians, unlike the British, are not blamed for defending themselves by warlike means, and indeed all pacifist propaganda of this type avoids mention of Russia or China. It is not claimed, again, that the Indians should abjure violence in their struggle against the British. Pacifist literature abounds with equivocal remarks which, if they mean anything, appear to mean that statesmen of the type of Hitler are preferable to those of the type of Churchill, and that violence is perhaps excusable if it is violent enough. …………. All in all it is difficult not to feel that pacifism, as it appears among a section of the intelligentsia, is secretly inspired by an admiration for power and successful cruelty. The mistake was made of pinning this emotion to Hitler, but it could easily be retransferred.”

Contemporary Western progressive “nationalism” combines a dogmatic hatred of the Western ruling classes (“Establishment”) mixed with pacifism, so that any kind of Western military intervention is impossible to accept. Protest is limited to opposing intervention. All failures of intervention are vindications of these protests. As Orwell says the object of the “nationalist” is not progress in the real world, but vindication of his group’s beliefs (his “nation”). These failures of intervention are successes in the mentality of the political “nationalist”.

When measured as progress in the real world, then the kind of political chauvinism that mixes “anti-establishmentism” with “pacifism” (popularized by pundits like Owen Jones) is ineffective. Ordinary people in the MENA region have not been empowered by these protests. The anti-establishment progressives have scored a great victory showing that bad Western intervention does not lead to substantially progressive outcomes. Apart from this nothing.

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