George Orwell’s “Notes on Nationalism”

I recently read the essay “Notes On Nationalism” by George Orwell. Below are some of the more relevant passages, illuminating because of their applicability 60+ years later.

Orwell gives the name “nationalism” to an attitude or approach that he describes. It is beyond pride in one’s country or patriotism. It is a pathology that I thought was a rather recent invention. But judging from the statements below, it was abounding in his time also. He wrote this during WWII. And I think much of it correlates to a situation of war, because I see many of the attitudes he criticizes as having increased since September 11, 2001.

“. . . [Nationalism is] 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.”

“A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige.”

“. . . [E]very event that happens seems to [the nationalist] a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade.”

“Political or military commentators, like astrologers, can survive almost any mistake, because their more devoted followers do not look to them for an appraisal of the facts but for the stimulation of nationalistic loyalties.”

“All nationalists consider it a duty to spread their own language to the detriment of rival languages.”

“. . . [T]ransference [of loyalties to an entity (e.g., nation) outside one’s own] . . . makes it possible for [the nationalist] to be much MORE nationalistic—more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, more dishonest—than he could ever be on behalf of his native country, or any unit of which he had real knowledge.”

“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.”

“Much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain forgery. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning. Events which it is felt ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied.”

“The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied.”

“What [the nationalist] 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.”

“. . . [The nationalist] wants not so much to alter the external world as to feel that the battle for prestige is going in his own favour. In each case there is the same obsessive fixation on a single subject, the same inability to form a genuinely rational opinion based on probabilities.”

“An intelligent man may half-succumb to a belief which he knows to be absurd, and he may keep it out of his mind for long periods, only reverting to it in moments of anger or sentimentality, or when he is certain that no important issues are involved.”

“. . . [E]ach of them simply an enormous mouth bellowing the same lie over and over again, are obviously extreme cases, but we deceive ourselves if we do not realise that we can all resemble them in unguarded moments.”

“. . . [T]he most fair-minded and sweet-tempered person may suddenly be transformed into a vicious partisan, anxious only to ‘score’ over his adversary and indifferent as to how many lies he tells or how many logical errors he commits in doing so.”

“. . . [A]s soon as fear, hatred, jealousy and power-worship are involved, the sense of reality becomes unhinged. And, as I have pointed out already, the sense of right and wrong becomes unhinged also. There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when ‘our’ side commits it. Even if one does not deny that the crime has happened, even if one knows that it is exactly the same crime as one has condemned in some other case, even if one admits in an intellectual sense that it is unjustified—still one cannot FEEL that it is wrong. Loyalty is involved, and so pity ceases to function.”


Mike W. says:

This is fascinating, Centrist. Thanks for sharing.

Just a couple of comments. Nationalism is at least as old as nations (the nation-state started evolving into existence in the 1650’s after the Treaty of Westphalia). What is interesting is how economics play into this. As the nation-state was coming into existence, mercantilism was promoted as a way for the nation to become more powerful and economics became a method of waging war and war became an economic tool also. When governments are removed from market controls, they are less able to use the economy as a weapon and as a promoter of nationalism. Much of our economic policy is based on nationalism and is more mercantilistic than we want to believe. I post on that here:

Also regarding the propaganda of wars (both cold and hot) we can look at the methods that Great Britain used during the decade after the Revolutionary War, generating hatred among the British people for the colonists; pure and unadulterated lies regarding the economy, politics, and values of the Americans. Great Britain used very similar propagandistic machine lies during WWII in order to generate hatred of Germans (not Naziism, not Hitler’s war machine, but everyday Germans) in order to justify the killing of the common German people.

Sure, Hitler used the propaganda to accomplish his ends, but he was freakin’ nuts and we cannot justify our behavior by the was the craziest in other groups act (as you have posted on previously). The democratic West has promoted itself as being better than the authoritarian regimes in other places, but we will resort to brutal, horrible, and distasteful tactics, claiming the end justifies the means

Mike W. says:

that last paragraph should read “by the WAY the craziest…” Sorry for the typo

Mike W. says:

One other comment: The Orwell Prize is publishing an Orwell journal as a posthumous blog here:

I will try to follow along. It will be interesting.

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