A nationalist, as defined by George Orwell, seeks to acquire more power and prestige for any “other unit,” apart from the nation, in which he has chosen to sink his identity. According to this definition of nationalism, almost every politician of whatever ideological ilk, is a “nationalist,” even those who despise their own nation.
As long as we understand that a good argument is a disagreement in which clarity is sought with charity, we can make the argument that arguments are good and should be pursued with enthusiasm. Indeed, if a good argument is understood in this way, we should enjoy arguing with our friends as often as the opportunity presents itself. This has been the spirit with which I have enjoyed arguing with G.K. Chesterton about the vulgarity of the mob and with both Chesterton and Belloc about the French Revolution; it is also the spirit in which I have argued with T.S. Eliot about Shakespeare and the Metaphysical Poets, and the spirit with which I have argued with C.S. Lewis about love.
Now, thanks to the noble soul who posted a comment to my recent essay on “toxic patriotism,” I have the opportunity to argue with George Orwell.
This is the quote by Orwell which was posted to my essay and which has prompted me to have a good argument with him:
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. The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side. On the contrary, having picked his side, he persuades himself that it IS the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception.
My argument is not with Orwell’s definition of patriotism, with the exception of his odd assertion that a patriot believes that the “particular place and particular way of life” to which he is devoted is “the best in the world.” My love for England and my sense of patriotism does not necessitate any supercilious sense of superiority. I love England because in some sense it is home; it is the place which nurtured and nourished me culturally. I don’t need to feel that my home is better than any other people’s homes. As an Englishman, I might feel at home on the Yorkshire Moors, but I don’t think that the Yorkshire Moors are better or more beautiful than the Swiss Alps or the Smoky Mountains. As an Englishman, I might prefer Shakespeare to Dante or Dostoyevsky but that doesn’t mean that I necessarily feel that Shakespeare is their superior; and if Shakespeare is their superior, it has nothing to do with his being English. I would not, for instance, claim that Jackie Collins was a better novelist than Dostoyevsky on the grounds that the former was English and therefore “best.”
This quibble aside, Orwell’s definition of patriotism is unproblematic compared with his confused and confusing definition of “nationalism.”
Let’s begin with his assertion that nationalism “is inseparable from the desire for power.” This is not only true but is stating the obvious. If nationalism is concerned with the attainment or preservation of national sovereignty it is, ipso facto, inseparable from politics which is itself inseparable from power. Welsh nationalism desires power so that Wales can emerge as a sovereign nation in its own right, free from the imposition of British imperialism. A Welsh nationalist will see his nation as being enslaved to a foreign power. Is a slave’s desire for power a bad thing? The desire for freedom is always a desire for the power which freedom brings, and an escape from the powerlessness which slavery entails. Such desire for power is not an evil. The issue is not the desire for power but what motivates the desire. If we desire power so that we can enslave others, we have an evil desire which needs to be overcome and resisted. If we desire to love our own country by conquering other people’s countries, we are not nationalists but internationalists. As I stated in my earlier essay, the toxic patriot “treats with contempt the patriotism of all peoples, except his own.” In marching into other people’s countries to give lebensraum for their own country, the Nazis showed themselves to be that particularly nasty sort of internationalist which we call an imperialist. Those who ride roughshod over the rights of weaker nations in their quest for the “patriotic” expansion of their own country’s power and influence are not nationalists but, on the contrary, are the enemies of all authentic nationalism.
When Orwell states that “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,” he is speaking the nonsense of the bigot who thinks in stereotypes. We see, in fact, that Orwell has even divorced the “nationalist” from any concept of the nation. A nationalist, as defined by Orwell, seeks to acquire more power and prestige for any “other unit,” apart from the nation, in which he has chosen to sink his identity. According to this bizarre understanding of the word, one who seeks more power and prestige for globalism is a “nationalist;” one who seeks “to secure more power and more prestige” for the European Union, desiring that all the nations of Europe be subsumed within its imperial power, is a “nationalist;” one who sees his “abiding purpose” in securing more power and prestige for the United Nations is a “nationalist;” one who seeks “to sink his own individuality” into the cause of Marxist world revolution is a “nationalist.” This reductio ad absurdum leads inexorably to the inanity of Orwell’s final definition of nationalism as “power-hunger tempered by self-deception.” According to this definition of nationalism, almost every politician of whatever ideological ilk, is a “nationalist,” even those who despise their own nation.
Leaving such arrant nonsense aside, I’ll reiterate my own definition of nationalism as “the political philosophy which advocates political action in the service and defence of national sovereignty.” And by way of ending on a note of whimsy, I’ll conclude my argument with George Orwell with a pastiche and parody of some famous lines by Rudyard Kipling:
If nationalism was what Orwell claims
An’ not a creed of noble aims,
But only power without restraint,
‘Ow quick we’d chuck it! But it ain’t!
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The featured image is an image of George Orwell by Cassowary Colorizations and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been slightly brightened for clarity.