The Corner

Politics & Policy

Orwell’s ‘Nationalism’

Articles about nationalism, and especially those that emphasize its dangers, more often than not eventually quote Orwell’s “Notes on Nationalism.” A recent Peter Beinart column opened with a reference to the essay:

In 1945, George Orwell distinguished between “nationalism” and “patriotism.” Nationalism, he argued, is the belief that your nation should dominate others. It “is inseparable from the desire for power.” A nationalist, Orwell argued, “thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige … his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.” Patriotism, by contrast, involves “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one … has no wish to force on other people.”

Beinart allows that “Orwell’s dichotomy has its critics.” I think the crucial point is that Orwell defines “nationalism” in a highly idiosyncratic way, as he suggests when he writes, very early in the essay, that “it will be seen in a moment that I am not using it in quite the ordinary sense.” Orwell then offers his definition:

By “nationalism” I mean first of all 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 secondly—and this is much more important – 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 advancing its interests. . . . 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. . . .

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.

Thus Orwell didn’t define nationalism as the belief that one’s nation—in any common sense of that word—should dominate others. His actual sense of nationalism is so “extended” that it covers, indeed means, any ideology that induces adherents to subordinate reality, individuals, and normal moral instincts to it. The phenomenon is important—and was urgently important at the time he was writing—and his examination of it full of interest. But Orwell makes such special use of his key term that anyone using it to write about “nationalism” in its more common usages should register a gigantic caveat. Or, perhaps, give Orwell a rest entirely.

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg View, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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