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What George Orwell Wrote About the Dangers of Nationalism

16 November 2017

From The Literary Hub:

George Orwell begins his essay “Notes on Nationalism” by admitting that nationalism is not really the right word, but something of an approximate term for what he means to be discussing. He explains:

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.

Elsewhere he describes nationalism more simply as “the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.”

. . . .

“[T]he emotion I am speaking about does not always attach itself to what is called a nation. . . . 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.”

Within this framework, Orwell lists three “principal 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.” His special mission is to prove that his chosen nation is in all respects better than its rivals. Therefore, even to the outer limits of plausibility, any question may be traced back to this central issue. No detail is indifferent, no fact is neutral.

2. “Instability.” The content of the nationalist’s belief, and even the object of his devotion, is liable to change as circumstances do. “What remains constant in the nationalist is his own state of mind”—the relentless, reductive, uncompromising fervor. The point is to keep oneself always in a frenzied state concerning vicarious contests of honor, whether indulging in spasms of rage over perceived insults or in sadistic ecstasies celebrating some new triumph. It is the single-minded intensity that matters, not the ostensible cause.

3. “Indifference to Reality.” Nationalists achieve by instinct the kind of doublethink that the denizens of Airstrip One cultivated by conscious effort: “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—unshakably certain of being in the right.” His fundamental belief, he feels sure, must be true; therefore, the facts will have to be made to fit it.

. . . .

Orwell wrote:

We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgment have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting [forward] a “case” with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends. . . One notices this in the case of people one disagrees with, such as Fascists or pacifists, but in fact everyone is the same, at least everyone who has definite opinions. Everyone is dishonest, and everyone is utterly heartless toward people who are outside the immediate range of his own interests and sympathies. What is most striking of all is the way sympathy can be turned on or off like a tap according to political expediency. . . . I am not thinking of lying for political ends, but of actual changes in subjective feeling. But is there no one who has both firm opinions and a balanced outlook? Actually there are plenty, but they are powerless. All power is in the hands of paranoiacs.

. . . .

Orwell analyzed the nationalist’s motives: “What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him.” Since both sides are, as a rule, equally “uninterested in what happens in the real world,” the outcome of such disputes “is always entirely inconclusive,” and “each contestant invariably believes himself to have won the victory.”

“Facts are selected or suppressed in order to make a case; if need be, the necessary facts are simply invented or, contrariwise, erased.”

. . . .

What worried Orwell most was that individual people—perhaps even millions of them—might come to draw their sense of integrity from the willing submission to shifting dogmas, rather than respect for the truth or the demands of one’s own conscience. They may then cease to recognize that such things as fabricating evidence and slandering your opponents were despicable—or even simply dishonest. He found the thought “frightening . . . because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.”

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

PG suggests that Orwell’s nationalism is a widespread phenomenon not limited to citizens of twentieth-century nation-states. The grouping of people into classes, interest groups, etc., and convincing them of group superiority or group persecution is an evergreen phenomenon both ancient and modern.

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War records Pericles’ Funeral Oration praising the uniqueness of the city of Athens, its citizens, soldiers and form of government in comparison to their enemies, the Lacedaemonians.

Athens and Athenians are inherently distinct, different than any other city-state or group of people. The imperfections or faults of an individual Athenian will be more than offset by the importance of the group to which he belongs. It is honorable and virtuous to fight for such a cause and destroy the enemies who oppose it.

The same techniques were used to emphasize the differences between the Aryans and the Untermenschen in 1930’s Germany.

In twenty-first century America (and perhaps elsewhere) the term, “Othering” has arisen to describe the classification of an individual or group as “not one of us” and, thus, deserving of scorn and reproach. Additionally, groups and genders are classified and divided by their “Privilege” with privileged individuals deemed proper subjects for formal and informal discriminatory treatment.



17 Comments to “What George Orwell Wrote About the Dangers of Nationalism”

  1. I’d hazard to propose that “tribalism” would be a better word than nationalism. I realize that in Orwell’s time, nationalism was the more obvious choice, but tribalism doens’t have to mean small-scale.

    Granted, I’m from the US, and by many definitions we absolutely cannot be nationalistic because we don’t have the blood-and-soil component associated with nationalism. But we can still be intensely tribal. Go Horn Frogs!

    • I think we can be nationalistic, but I agree with you that it does seem that he means “tribalism” more than anything else. A nation is just another form of tribe, after all.

      What frightens me is how unbelievably accurate those descriptions of the World War II era nations are about this country today.

      But then I remember that most of the people in this nation are not members of the political class, and only want to live their lives in peace. The people who helped out those in need during the summer’s disasters come immediately to mind. That, I think, is more representative of humanity as a whole. Nobody stopped to ask “Who did you vote for?” before helping their neighbors out of the floods.

      But I’m a glass-half-full kind of person.

    • Agree with your tribalism thought.

      Undoubtedly Orwell was focused primarily on Europe when he wrote this in 1945 and he admits “nationalism” is not quite the right word.

      The US is a different case. The Union and the Confederacy come to mind.

  2. As long as some prefer Coke over Pepsi, there can be no peace between us….

  3. The key is, this can be applied to any overarching group–left or right or using any other distinction. The key is the ugly characteristics of the adherents, as Orwell noted.

  4. This may be human nature. The Yale Baby Lab studies seem to indicate it is so.


  5. The problem with eschewing nationalism (or, as noted, more accurately tribalism) is that it only takes one group that does not do so, and you and all of your kin are slaves. Or fertilizer.

  6. “…with privileged individuals deemed proper subjects for formal and informal discriminatory treatment.”

    Sorry, this part of your commentary confused me. Do you mean to say under-privileged? It seems it’s the under-privileged that are discriminated against (hence, their very under-privileged-ness). The privileged aren’t systemically discriminated against, that’s why they’re privileged by definition.

    • My understanding is that, on many US campuses and elsewhere, members of some demographic or social groups may be deemed unable to comment on certain issues relating other demographic or social groups because of the historical advantages which have provided benefits or “privilege” to the first group.

      Under this regime, issues related to those who are viewed as having been historically deprived of rights, opportunities, etc., cannot be properly understood by those who have inherited privilege, only by members of the historically downtrodden groups.

      As an example, recent news articles reported that in Portland, a research report on Oregon’s response to addiction was withdrawn by its sponsor because all of the report’s authors were white.

      • It’s tempting to boil everything down to one causal factor, one big bad, privilege or patriarchy. Simple. Easy to understand. Racist, but simple.

      • The Historically Deprived Groups (HDG) tell us they have the unique ability to understand the situation of the HDG, and they also have the unique ability to tell us the attitudes, motivations, and mindset of the Historically Privileged Groups (HPG).

        This indicates the HDGs are truly superior to the HPGs because HPGs 1) don’t know their own attitudes, motivations, and mindset, and 2) can never know anything about the HDGs.

        Or, as Orwell said, “His special mission is to prove that his chosen nation is in all respects better than its rivals.”

  7. OMG. Nationalism isn’t bad. Fascism and Communism who use nationalism to exclude ‘the other’ is bad. Loving one’s country and wanting to help and protect her is nationalism, but it is the right kind. Absolute government control is the problem. Limited governments have a hard time seizing power.

  8. For Orwell in 1945 Nationalism was the evil that was defeated. Before that time and since then any form of -ism showed that it can be put to good or produce tragic results. However for everyone to think or even attempt that they need to eradicate them will fail. At the core of any -ism is love and hate, basic feelings of being a human.

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