The Corner

Re: Orwell and Nationalism

John – Interesting points, I’ll ponder. But I should say I am a huge fan of that essay and for reasons you might not disagree with. In fact, it was a considerable influence on me in my thinking about my book. My view of what Orwell is really getting at  is neither nationalism nor patriotism at all, but identity politics. He didn’t have a vocabularly for it at the time, which is shocking given his gifts. But he even admits as much in the first paragraph:

Somewhere or other Byron makes use of the French word longeur, and remarks in passing that though in England we happen not to have the word, we have the thing in considerable profusion. In the same way, there 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. 

“By ‘nationalism,’” Orwell continued, “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 labeled ‘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 recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”  

Orwell included in his list of “Nationalistic” movements “Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism.”  

This strikes me as a Orwell’s attempt to put his finger on the rise of identity politics. First of all, he’s picking up in large parts on Julian Benda’s argument from 20 years earlier, which was also, I believe, a warning against identity politics. I agree that Orwell gets a bit confused on the differences between patriotism and nationalism. But I think that’s in part because the differences between the two were in reality so confused in 1945 and he was really trying to get at something else entirely.  I agree with you  that he’s talking about power-worship which, I believe, resides at the core of all identity politics. The rise of  identity politics in the United States — and the West — is ultimately an exercise in gaining power. Black power, and the enabling rhetoric that went with it, was all about power-relations.  Identity politics arguments “empower” members of the Coalition of the Oppressed to trump reason and democracy by claiming positions of moral and political privilege. 

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