What George Orwell Wrote About the Dangers of Nationalism
On Facts, Fallacies, and Power
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.”
Writing immediately following the Second World War and just at the beginning of the period of decolonization, Orwell surely selected nationalism—as opposed to chauvinism or fanaticism—for sound but historically specific reasons. Today he may have chosen fundamentalism, though it is equally far from his specific meaning. He later produced a whole vocabulary to describe this process of thought: blackwhite, crimestop, doublethink, goodthink. The important thing is the kind of attachment the nationalist forms, not the particular object of that attachment: “the 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 classifies the prominent types of nationalism as “Positive Nationalism” (which is for one’s own country; e.g., Celtic Nationalism or Zionism), “Negative Nationalism” (which is against some other group; for example, Antisemitism or Trotskyism in its purely anti-Soviet version), and “Transferred Nationalism” (identification with a race, class, or country—in Orwell’s day, usually the USSR—other than one’s own).33 Naturally, it is possible to hold any of these beliefs and not succumb to “nationalism” in the Orwellian sense. The problem is not inherent to any specific body of thought, just as no particular theory will guarantee an immunity. The issue is less the philosophical content and more the subjective manner by which the individual relates to it. The nationalist holds his special doctrine not only as the unassailable truth, but as an absolute standard by which the truth may be judged. Its scope is not limited to moral or political matters, and all questions, whether of fact or value, may be answered in advance by referring to the nationalist’s creed—or, more precisely, to the “competitive prestige” of the “power unit” to which he has committed himself.
The dangers of nationalist thinking extend far beyond any particular error, and even beyond the movements that become infected with it. For once nationalism spreads past a certain point, it will tend to degrade the overall quality of political debate, and therefore of political thought—and because no fact or idea is irrelevant to nationalist ambitions, ultimately all thought.
In what is likely the most despondent passage in his diary, 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.
Political discussion, in such a setting, cannot constitute an attempt to get at the truth, or to achieve some degree of mutual understanding, or to persuade others of one’s own view, or even simply to make oneself understood. It is instead a kind of game in which both the victory and the stakes are largely imaginary. 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.”
In this sort of competition it is nearly inevitable that fantasies come to stand in for facts, fallacies overtake arguments, and character assassination becomes a favored tactic on all sides. A fog of uncertainty soon settles over every account, “which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening,” and therefore “makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied.” But no matter. Uncertainty quickly curdles into indifference. 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.” In 1984, he presses the tendency to its logical conclusion. O’Brien, the Inner Party official, the teacher-torturer, lectures poor Winston Smith in his cell within the Ministry of Love:
We, the Party, control all records, and we control all memories. . . . we control the past. . . . You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. . . . But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.
In the end, Winston is broken. He becomes converted to the Party’s view. He had once written that “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.” But at last he learns that “Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once.” His loyalty to the Party is ensured by—more, it is identical with—the surrender of his own judgment.
As with his prescriptions for improving poor writing, Orwell’s strategy for addressing the fallacies of nationalism is to teach us to recognize them, and then to appeal to our own good sense. The first step, he suggests, may lie in recognizing our own imperfection, fallibility, and bias. He writes:
As for the nationalistic loves and hatreds that I have spoken of, they are part of the make-up of most of us, whether we like it or not. Whether it is possible to get rid of them I do not know, but I do believe that it is possible to struggle against them, and that this is essentially a moral effort. It is a question first of all of discovering what one really is, what one’s own feelings really are, and then of making allowance for the inevitable bias. . . . The emotional urges which are inescapable, and are perhaps even necessary to political action, should be able to exist side by side with an acceptance of reality.
One may not be able to avoid bias, but one need not adopt bias as a principle. One can, if nothing else, refuse to surrender one’s own individual judgment. That will be partly a question of character: the ability to distinguish between what you wish and what you know, “the power of facing unpleasant facts,” the will to live without comforting lies. Perhaps what is needed most of all is a continued belief in the existence of an objective truth while maintaining a severe, demanding skepticism concerning all claims to know what it is.
That is of course but a partial solution. It may help to keep an individual mind sane and honest, but it does little to change the overall atmosphere. Orwell realized as much, and yet toward the end of his life that question of individual thought became his central concern. Faced with the continued threat of totalitarianism, Orwell came to view the struggle for freedom as occurring, not solely between classes or nations, but first and perhaps most importantly within “the few cubic centimeters inside your skull.”
Adapted from Between the Bullet and the Lie: Essays on Orwell. Used with permission of AK Press. Copyright © 2017 by Kristian Williams.