The Corner

Orwell and Nationalism

Checking in from abroad, I just came across the remarks by Iain and Jonah on Orwell and nationalsm. For what it’s worth, I looked at this a few years ago and decided that, though nothing Orwell writes is ever devoid of interest, his Notes on Nationalism was very flawed indeed.

To save myself the trouble of thinking it through again, here’s the problem as I saw it in the National Interest:

Orwell begins by specifying that nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. In his formulation, the former is aggressive and power hungry, the latter defensive and devoted to celebrating a particular way of life. In order to justify this distinction he has to define nationalism in a singular and arguably eccentric way: namely, as “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 advancing its interests.” He then extends this definition to cover almost every political unit of humanity. Nationalism in this extended sense, he argues, covers a variety of movements, including communism, Zionism, pacifism, political Catholicism and anti-Semitism.

And he observes, finally, that the devotee of some transferred nationalism, such as a Stalinist or a pan-Europeanist, is able to be much “more nationalistic, more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, more dishonest than he could ever be of his native country or of any unit of which he had a real knowledge.”

In other words, Orwell’s essay is not really about nationalism as other people understand the word at all; it is an essay on power-worship. That becomes clear in Orwell’s crucial concession that nationalism is probably least dangerous when it is attached to one’s own country–when it is no more than a harsh variant of patriotism–and most virulent when it is attached to some other unit of humanity.

For that reason the Lukacs argument (as presented by Jonah) seems to me to be very shaky. Loyalty to an idea is another variant of Orwell’s power-worshipping version of nationalism and open to his charge that “it is most virulent” when attached to some other unit of humnanity (rather than one’s own country.) Loyalty to institutions transmitted by a common culture and shared historical memory seems to me to be a better definition of patriotism. People come to share a national identity, mutual loyalty, and sense of common destiny as the result of sharing the same language and culture and of living under the same institutions over a long period of time. sometimes those people will be ethnically united, but not always. To quote myself again:

Or it may be a group that was originally diverse ethnically but that has become a single people, through time and intermarriage, rather like an extended family. Or it may consist of the subjects of a dynasty who originally felt no attachment to the state but who developed one over time. Or it may consist of immigrants to a settler society, such as Australia or the United States, who assimilate to a common culture and identity established before their arrival. What matters is that over time they come to feel that they are part of the same collective body and feel a loyalty to it and to its symbols, whether the monarchy in the UK or the flag in the United States.

Does such a definition cast doubt on the creedal definition of the U.S.? It certainly suggests that the creedal definition is at best a partial and inadequate version of American national identity, a political science distillation of a much richer and more profound cultural Americanism. Among its other virtues this cultural definition of nationality is more liberal: it allows actual Americans to dissent from items in the national creed without becoming un- or anti-American.

But I hear the cry: Sir, you have delighted us enough.


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