George Orwell on Nationalism vs Patriotism

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 recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, 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.

Notes on Nationalism

George Orwell

“When I joined the militia I had promised myself to kill one Facist – after all, if each of us killed one they would soon be extinct.” – George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

Orwell distinguished between nationalism as the collective identification of the good or evil, specifically in the context of the nation-state, from patriotism. The relative identification of oneself with a geographical boundary, or as Orwell put it “the habit of identifying with a single nation,” is a facet of nationalism. And this is what we see more often than not in the Western world — nationalism, not patriotism.

Nationalism, for Orwell, was not solely the blind love of a nation-state. It also included the blind love of authoritarian ideals: “Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism.” Orwell would also include racial elements such as devotion to the “White Race.” Nationalism, while linked with the state, is not fully dependent upon it.

This is an important point, because those who deem themselves patriots often wrap themselves in the flag of an idea instead of the flag of a state. They may claim they have no devotion to the government of the United States, but to the “American way of life” or to the “American people.” This, too, is nationalism. And, as Orwell wrote, nationalism can only be negative in nature.

This may not be intuitively apparent because nationalism often appears as the zealous advocacy for an idea. So how can it be negative? It is negative because the worth of an idea, the worth of a state, can only be compared in contrast to similar states or ideas. The USA is #1 — the slogan is chanted — but this is a rank. A state can only be #1 in contrast to a second state. Nationalism’s inherently negative nature makes it, as Orwell put it, a matter of “competitive prestige.”

Orwell listed these as the “principle characteristics of nationalist thought”:

  1. Obsession.
  2. Instability.
  3. Indifference to Reality.

These three elements manifest in the tendency of nationalists to focus upon an ideology, a tendency to shift ideological targets mid-way and a double standard in evaluating the world around them.

For example, #1 and #2 are seen in the blind devotion to a political party, yet shifting focus from one party politician to the next. This is commonly seen in elections when politicians compete between themselves, such as during primary elections, before going on to compete with the opposing party. Remember: nationalism is inherently negative and a manifestation of competitive prestige. It should not be surprising that this struggle for prestige manifests itself even within the nationalist’s chosen ideology.

In #3, Orwell illustrated a phenomenon that we’ve all seen during the war in Afghanistan:

Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.

George Orwell

In 1936 George Orwell fought with the P.O.U.M. militias in the Spanish Civil War. He would later reflect, “As far as my personal preferences went I would have liked to have joined the Anarchists.” Orwell is the man holding the dog in this photo

Think about nationalism in the context of Edward Snowden. The debate in the United States has largely revolved around what the NSA is doing to American citizens. This is nationalism. The American citizen is elevated; he or she has a superior status due to said citizenship. The action itself is not being judged. Rather, the moral merit of an action is contingent upon the victim.

Imagine two brothers separated at birth. The first lives in New York City while the second lives in Karachi, Pakistan. They both attend a university, both become dentists and both raise a family. Their lives are identical in every way. They are only distinct as a matter of geography. And the NSA records the phone calls of both of them.

To the nationalist it would only be wrong for the NSA to record the man who lives in New York City. The nationalist rejects the fundamental equality of human individuals. And, so, the nationalist thus rejects the libertarian premise of natural, inalienable rights. Rights are relative to the nationalist. They do not follow you where you go. Rather, for the nationalist rights only exist within the borders of the nation-state. Rights are granted to you by the state, by its founding documents and by its ruling elite.

George Orwell on Nationalism

It is apparent that the world at large does not share Orwell’s distinction between nationalism and patriotism. However, the modern “patriot” is actually the Orwellian nationalist.


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