Nation and Nationalism in Orwell
Orwell’s ‘Notes on Nationalism‘ is one of his most interesting, most confused, essays. It attempts to assert the existence of a phenomenon in English society of 1945, “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’”.
Specific ideologies are identified as exhibiting this trait: “Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism.” Orwell goes on to separate these fanatic nationalisms from ‘patriotism’, love of place and way of life, unrelated to the morality of a people, and purely defensive in sentiment.
“Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception,” remarks Orwell, and nationalists will decide every question prima facie, in the interests of a competitive prestige for the entity into which they have sunk their individuality, rather than on the basis of evidence gathered by the disinterested, which should prove more accurate.
It should be obvious that Orwell’s methodology is confused and bears its own ideological connotations. The conflation of all these ideologies, ignoring their material context or aims, establishes by elimination a ‘normal’ world where everyone is rational and not prepared to die or kill in the name of ideas, rather than cold hard facts.
The ‘normal’ man exists in a value-free world where ideology is not ingrained into the very practices which make up one’s daily routine – not to mention the more obvious kind contained in the written word. Far from his consciousness being impacted by the conditions in which he lives, making him more or less amenable to certain facts and political ideas, man, in this vacuum-world, can stand apart, tally up all facts and select a political view accordingly. It is philosophical idealism.
Needless to say, of course, that ‘normal’ man doesn’t exist except in Orwell’s head. Nor, I would contend, does that pure “way of life” that Orwell argues can sustain a non-nationalistic ‘patriotism’. There is no borough, city, county, region, nation, federation or continent in the world which can draw a line around itself and declare that all the people on one side of the line share a “way of life” and all the people outside it do not share that way of life.
This is contrary to many of Orwell’s claims in ‘the Lion and the Unicorn‘, about the differences between nations. But cultures, national or otherwise, like religions or any body of shared ideas, traditions and practices, are syncretic – and in any one geographical location, there will be a polyglot of ideas and practices, some shared with people to the north of the dividing line, some with people to the south and so on. This polyglot cannot itself be defined as a “way of life”, for many reasons.
Seeing as it does not exist in a vacuum, no culture is stable. It changes over time. Seeing as it is subject to real, material pressures which limit or extend the capacity to engage in certain practices, no culture is shared universally in a society that permits inequality. Seeing as a culture is a combination of ideas and practices, and that these ideas and practices are unlikely to have set or shared boundaries, no culture escapes geographic amorphism.
I’ve dealt with this essay before, as it was once approvingly quoted to me over at Labour Members’ Net, but my views on the subject appear to have been deleted and, moreover, I have recently read Raymond Williams’ excellent short account of Orwell’s life and politics, particularly this patriotism, which deserves to be reproduced.
“England, whose England? In the Road to Wigan Pier…Orwell is describing the ‘two nations’, discovering how (in that middle class phrase) the ‘other half’ lives. He is at once compassionate and indignant, drawn and repelled. He is describing a country in which two-thirds of the population are working class people at a time of depression and wide-spread unemployment. All his active arguments and images are of contrasts, intolerable contrasts.
“‘England’, as any simple idea, has been destroyed by these contrasts. The single image of his childhood has been replaced by the particularities, the variations, the inequalities, of mine and mill, slum and council house, caravan site and slagshop, teashop and Tudor villa. This is an active England, an England to move through.
“The England of the later essays, written in wartime is different…leading to a particular climax which comes ‘as near as one can…to describing England in a phrase': a family with the wrong members in control. Now Orwell was neither the first nor the last to say something like this. The statement’s interest is in where it comes on the scale of his development.
“There is not much sense of a family or of emotional unity in the depressed and suffering England of The Road to Wigan Pier. The emphasis there is on the realities and consequences of a class society. What happens, I think, is that Orwell first moves through two phases of response to ‘England': the myth of his boyhood – the special people, the ‘family’ – is succeeded by the observations of his return – a scene of bitter and bleak contradictions.
“But then, in a third phase, he creates a new myth which until quite recently has remained effective. Qualifying the original image with the facts of the economic and social inequality, he creates the sense of an England of basic ordinariness and decency, a ‘real England’, ‘an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past’, in which it can be seen almost as an accident, or at least as an archaism, that the ‘wrong members’ of the family are in control.”
This is an image obviously lacking in historicity. It is easy to mine a selective past for features exhibited in the present, and to weave them into a narrative that sets up the present context in a way that recommends itself. This is what writers from the Levellers to Tom Paine did with the ‘Norman Yoke’, to embed a theory of lost rights into English history, and grant the commonweal an equally ancient lineage to the divine right of kings.
In reality, evidence for the ‘Norman Yoke’ is hotly contested, and even when the term was first coined in 1642, citations of biblical precedent were more often heard for the equality of man, than was a Saxon golden age. Christopher Hill reminds us of John Ball’s words from the 1381 Peasant Revolt, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the Gentleman?” This mining of the past – any past, real or imagined – is a recurrent motif.
Orwell’s monolithic England, of past, present and future, is no less unhistorical, no less unable to accept a dynamic model of society – subject to all sorts of pressures and consisting of all sorts of processes, which themselves change over time, some of which are exerted or expressed in contradiction to one another.
Raymond Williams is more gentle than I:
“Orwell’s great influence since the 1940’s owes as much to this powerful image [of a family with the wrong members in control] as to any other single achievement. And it would not be so powerful if it did not contain some truth. Orwell’s emphasis on the depth of civil liberties in Britain and on the feelings that support them is, in the world as he knew it, and as we continue to know it, justified.
“His furtherness of the gentleness and mildness of much ordinary English life, on these qualities being positive achievements in a world of much killing and anger, is again reasonable. Certain kinds of informality, friendliness and tolerance in much of every day English life support his emphasis on ‘decency’ as a virtue. But it is possible to know and acknowledge all these things and still, in analysis, go either way.
“Orwell is nearest to what I believe to be the truth when he describes these characteristics as part of a genuinely popular culture that ‘must live to some extent against the existing order’ (CEJL, II, 59). Or again when he speaks of a ‘subtle network of compromises’, of adjustments through which certain virtues, certain achievements, are maintained alongside certain evident and radical injustices. (…)
“It can never be enough to say that certain virtues exist alongside certain injustices, as if they were contrasting facts of the natural world (on which, in his social imagery, Orwell so commonly draws). In a society, these facts are relationships of an active, historical, developing kind. And it is this kind of reality which Orwell’s image of England obscures.”
I don’t necessarily agree with Williams that Orwell’s views must contain some degree of truth in order to be powerful, or at least they need not necessarily be true in the ‘patriotic’ way in which Orwell understood them.
Rather I think Orwell’s views were and are socially acceptable, and it is no accident that Orwell’s later, less radical work, garnered more publicity than his earlier writings. Here Orwell identified traits which some people like to see in themselves and in their country, certifying these as in some way English much in the way that the English character is often cited as the reason for England’s relative passivity in the face of tumult and revolution in Europe.
We should remember that Britain, at this time, had just fought a war for its own independence and the freedom of other nations from the tyranny of Nazism. The order of the day – which firmly tied one end of the mainstream Left to the national Establishment – was national unity in the face of opposition. The election of a Labour government belied the national unity a little, ditching the face of that unity with indecent haste.
Yet it should come as no surprise that, with ‘nations’ very firmly a part of national discourse, people liked to feel that theirs had been worth defending; that it had consistently stood up for civil liberties at home and abroad, that the war had been a principled opposition to Nazism, rather than an opportunistic war brought on by inability of the British ruling class to reconcile their interests with the ruling class of Germany, Italy and Japan.
In reality, that is to say in documented history, civil liberties in this country have ebbed and flowed. From the days of the militias, when habeas corpus could be suspended, to the Official Secrets Act to the emergency war powers used by governments in the inter war years while the country was nowhere close to being involved in a war, civil liberties have fallen and risen and fallen again, and popular sentiment has often had other things to think about.
Similarly the gentleness and mildness of the English character, and the contrast with other nations. I’m sure much gentleness and mildness did and does exist in the English character – civility and kindness and generosity of spirit in the most unlooked for places. But that is not to say that one can separate these off from other, less admirable qualities, which are evident throughout the shared history of these islands. This is Williams’ key point.
Nor, a point which Williams misses, is it to say that these qualities or even a certain combination of them, is exclusively English and therefore something which makes England an actual entity rather than an ideological rallying call to a self-selecting group of people, a group much smaller than the sum of all the English. The overall point at stake is the validity of nation as a useful analytical category and on all counts, I think it fails the test.