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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.

  1. February 27, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    Saw Billy Bragg on newsnight review a few weeks back and he made the good point that in England there’s a tendency to confuse historical victories in wars, etc. as being specifically English when technically it was the British armed forces, etc.

    This is something that Orwell gets confused about, too, in that book.

    Bragg’s own use of a sense of place in his song between the wars gives a sense of two nations – “theirs is a land of hope and glory / ours is the green field and the factory floor”

  2. splinteredsunrise
    February 27, 2010 at 9:11 pm

    Williams on Orwell is always good, if only as a counterpoint to the great man himself.

    There’s this aspect of “good” patriotism versus “bad” nationalism, with GO pretty much defining the latter as “what other nations go in for”. It’s a self-flattering view of course, and reminds me a bit of Slovene and Croat separatists in 1990 swearing that they were “Europeans”, and “nationalism” was what the more backward nations to the south and east went in for.

    It’s very much of its time, too. There is GO creating a myth of Englishness out of pre-existing elements, but very much the sort of Englishness he would find congenial. Fitting that his myth-making would end up in John Major speeches.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer Lewis from this period. But then Lewis wasn’t English and didn’t have a preoccupation with national identity. He did have his other preoccupations though…

  3. Alex
    February 28, 2010 at 12:18 am

    So you oppose “English MPs to vote on English laws” because of what you say here? I mean, I can’t really argue with this piece, but surely there’s a few, more obvious reasons why it should be opposed:

    1. It means two classes of MP (English vs non-English).

    2. It really really confuses the issue. If the PM is Scottish, like now, he can’t put forward proposals for (say) the NHS (since he can’t vote on them), so who would have that responsibility? And if the PM is English, he will continue as now, whereby they will put forward a specific policy for the NHS, when actually they’re only talking about the English NHS.

    3. It means in England, we get essentially one vote (for our MP at Westminster), whereas in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales get two votes (one for their MP at Westminster, and one for their own Parliament/Assembly representative).

    4. It is not a good enough devolution. Scotland had power devolved from 60 million people to 5 million. Wales had power devolved from 60 million people to 3 million. Northern Ireland had power devolved from 60 million people to 2 million. This proposal would have powered devolved from 60 million people to 50 million in England. That is poor. An English Parliament, while dealing with problems 1 to 3, would also fail to deal with this problem. Only regional Parliaments are *the* answer.

    But it should be put to referendum(s) regardless of my desired solution.

  4. February 28, 2010 at 8:06 am

    This is part of it, the more practical things I had written about in the other thread – and no. 4 would be where my focus lies. A federal republic based on similarly sized regions would be my preferred option, with some powers devolved to a sub-federal government.

  5. February 28, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    I found this really fantastic to read, and took me back to my own reading of Orwell’s fantastic essay, and like with the case of Politics and the English Language, one doesn’t have to agree with the conclusion, to admire and be consumed by the literary style which Orwell lures one in with.

    I found myself hoping the whole time, Dave, that you’d mention the conditions that England were under before critiquing Orwell’s notion of nation, and I was not disappointed. And you’re mentioning of Wat Tyler made me think of a narrative that ran through my thinking when I was starting to find my political feet; how do I operate an understanding of nation set with my increasingly internationalist outlook, and if I count the Peasant’s Revolt among my idea of what I like about my country, does this inform a nationalism or patriotism?

    I grew up in Basildon, which runs close to Billericay (a restaurant of which is mentioned in Orwell’s Down and Out – just to point to a tenuous link) which was part of the trail to Blackheath, where John Ball, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw and the other Kentish rebels sparked the first protests. My early school life paid homage (I’m not using words synonymous with Orwell for nothing here) to the revolt by constantly taking trips to the local country park, aptly named Wat Tyler country park – a hot spot for soft drugs, and ones elementary encounter with contrarian thought. My flag-waving, ex-military, monarchy loving (yet) left of centre parents (as well as an influential Trade Unionist, Christian, Daily Mail reading socialist Grandad), along with a basic mistrust of the middle classes informed by Wat Tyler introduced me to a wacky world of socialism and patriotism (the former of the two being because, though slightly cherry-picked to suit, I felt inspired by some of the historically palatable elements of British history).

    Some good eggs in the SWP encouraged me to read what I considered to be inharmonious socialist materials on this subject; namely Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, two books one on Cuban history one on Russian, and then Orwell’s said essay. I’ve still not fully recovered, and I still haven’t entirely made up my mind. I buy into Anderson’s basic premise that nation is a false border, but then it’s weak on the realistic need for borders. He’s right about the arbitrariness of political blocs based on muscle, but it’s a dated premise when we start to look at European capitalism, labour exchange and borders. But is it possible told hold patriotic views as a socialist? Yes, provided you buy into the arbitrariness of borders, realise that though necessary, they have come about in history partly from empire and imperial muscle, and that you mix generously nationalism with internationalism where appropriate. It’s the stage where I am at, but I’m hapy to be contended with, and I’ve probably come to the right place.

  6. Alex
    March 2, 2010 at 11:17 pm

    “This is part of it, the more practical things I had written about in the other thread – and no. 4 would be where my focus lies. A federal republic based on similarly sized regions would be my preferred option, with some powers devolved to a sub-federal government.”

    Okay, cool.

  7. March 3, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    John Denham’s speech will be of interest to this debate – http://www.smith-institute.org.uk/19-John-Denham.php

  8. March 9, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    I just got into a conversation about this at my blog, and this is the comment wot I wrote there:

    Prompted by Kellie, I just re-read “Notes of Nationalism”. What a stunning piece of writing. What insight. Go and read it everyone now! And if you can’t for whatever reason read the whole thing, read the sections that begin “Instability” and “Indifference to reality”.

    I think it may be the case (and Orwell kind of admits this) that he is stretching a bit to use the word “nationalism” as the name for what he is talking about. I can’t think of a better word though.

    I agree with some of Dave Semple’s points, and Raymond Williams’ points are very insightful and I think mostly true. But I think that Dave is tilting at the wrong target, and Williams’ criticism does not stand up against this particular text (though it might against other “late” Orwell writings).

    First, Dave puts a lot of words into saying Orwell is wrong about patriotism, even though Orwell barely touches on patriotism here. Dave, in my view, goes way over the top here. I don’t think Orwell really claims that the English/British “way of life”, or any other, is some homogeneous, unchanging entity; I think his position still works if you admit that “cultures, national or otherwise, like religions or any body of shared ideas, traditions and practices, are syncretic” etc. (Dave is extremely eloquent on this, but goes too far with the phrase “no culture escapes geographic amorphism”!)

    Second, I think that Dave is wrong to suggest that Orwell’s nationalist is contrasted to a fantasy “normal” man. You could read it this way if you focus on the opening paragraphs, but if you carefully read the final paragraphs I think quite the opposite is true.

    This is a key point Orwell makes: “The Eltons and Pritts and Coughlins, each 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.” And: “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. If you hate and fear Russia, if you are jealous of the wealth and power of America, if you despise Jews, if you have a sentiment of inferiority towards the British ruling class, you cannot get rid of those feelings simply by taking thought. But you can at least recognise that you have them, and prevent them from contaminating your mental processes. 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. But this, I repeat, needs a moral effort, and contemporary English literature, so far as it is alive at all to the major issues of our time, shows how few of us are prepared to make it.”

    This is a point he makes again and again in his writing. Politics, he says, is necessary, is the most important thing in the world. But its practice is impossible without the exercise of our most base urges and passions. So we have to constantly struggle, make the simultaneously moral and intellectual effort to reckon with our own prejudices and predispositions, a reckoning that can never be complete.

    As an example of the truth of this, I was struck reading the essay that I probably count, in his again rather stretched and idiosyncratic use of the term, as a “Trotskyist”, and I find unacceptable the facts that refute this worldview.


  9. March 10, 2010 at 7:20 am

    Hey Bob. Thanks for posting this here – it’s an interesting comment, touches on all the key issues…but leaves so much unsaid.

    Such as, how can Orwell’s view still hold valid if one accepts my point, above, about the nature of cultures / ways of life?

    How do I go too far in my comment that no culture escapes geographic amorphism?

    Second, I don’t agree that the idea of a ‘normal’ man emerges only if you focus on the early paragraphs of this essay – which I agree, is as sharp a piece as has ever been written, and with which I wrestled for a long time in earlier years.

    I don’t accept Orwell’s attempt to divide the emotional and the political. I don’t accept Orwell’s attempt to normalize some political actions through this category of ‘nationalism’, which outlines the attributes of those he disapproves of. These go to the heart of Orwell’s thinking.

    When he asks, in the paragraph you quote above, that we struggle against all these base instincts, that harks back to the ‘normal’ man I mention above. It’s a struggle against the very material conditions which help shape our views, in the name of an abstract reason that is inseperable from ideology. And it’s at this point that Raymond Williams’ criticisms remain devastatingly accurate.

    I don’t expect you to respond to this point by point – it’s an argument at your own place, after all. I’m just highlighting where I think we differ.

  10. March 10, 2010 at 10:29 am

    Trying to avoid a point by point reply…

    On “geographic amorphism”, I just meant the term is a little too complicated for me😉 Orwell would have disapproved!

    On the first thing, Orwell being OK about patriotism still working or not if we get rid of the idea of nations as unchanging essential entities etc. I completely agree with you in what you say about nations, down even I guess to the “geographic amorphism” (if I’m understand the term right). But… I believe we can say that there is thing “Englishness” (and “Britishness” and “Jewishness” and “Welshness” and so on), a product of struggle and resistance, and of mixing and merging, and of exclusions and repressions, and of compromises and defeats – not a “thing” in the sense of you can quantify it and measure it and own it and prove its existence, but there in a way we can feel – a structure of feeling, if you like, to use Raymond Williams’ term. I feel it, for example, when I leave the country, and when I come back. This thing, vague as it is, constructed and imagined as it is, can be loved, and indeed preferred to all the other structures of feeling out there, and this is OK. This is what Orwell is calling “patriotism”, and I agree with him that it is not harmful in itself. (The great anarchist theorist, Rudolf Rocker, in his critique of nationalism, uses the term “national feeling”, which he, like Orwell, says is OK.)

    On the normal man thing. Interesting that Orwell regularly uses the term “ordinary”, but does not ever use the term “normal”. I think (as a devotee of Williams) that this is significant. But anyway, I agree you can read it this way. But you can read it the other way equally well too. Orwell talks about nationalism as opposed not just to the decency of the ordinary man, but also as opposed to “a genuinely internationalist outlook”. This is what he strives for in all of his writing, despite the attempts of both his supporters and critics to paint him as some kind of little Englander.

    I don’t think it is right to say, either, that he is trying to divide the properly political off from the emotional (as the liberal tradition, from Aristotle to Kant to Habermas, does), or that he is writing in the name of abstract reason. Rather, he is promoting a particular kind of political reason, a kind of reason which is moral and emotional as well as intellectual. He uses the word “decency” for this, but he means something more complicated I think: a politics which draws on our indignation and anger and morality, but which always scrutinises these, which is always doubtful about being right, doubtful about motivation. He is not saying we need to transcend or shake off our material conditions; he is saying we need to reckon with them, look them plainly in the eye, as much as we can.

    In fact, I think this is perfectly compatible with the sort of materialism practised by, say, Williams or Gramsci or Du Bois. Gramsci talks about taking an inventory of the traces, the sediments, of the social that are left on our souls. I think this is exactly what Orwell is talking about too. He says we need to reckon with the material conditions that help shape our thinking, but not reduce everything to a mere superstructure, a mere determinant. For him, understanding is always moral at the same time as it is intellectual.

    Does that make sense?

  11. March 10, 2010 at 11:21 am

    It makes sense, I just don’t agree.

    With the case of ordinary/normal, Orwell might never have used the word ordinary either and still the concept would come up – some core around which a circle can be drawn. Orwell just focuses on what’s outside the circle.

    We seem to agree that the circle is almost universally permeable when looked at abstractly. If we look at it concretely, you think it poses no danger but I disagree. I think the danger comes out in Orwell’s political attitudes during this part of his life; a soft, yielding socialism of love and understanding, with no practical application whatsoever, caught up in a nostalgic conservatism.

    It’s this that lets people portray him as a Little Englander, though I don’t doubt if posed openly to him, he would have rejected the label.

    As regards his view of reason and emotion, I don’t see how it can be maintained that Orwell tries to establish “a kind of reason which is moral and emotional as well as intellectual”, and certainly not that he takes any account of material circumstances.

    His view of ‘nationalism’ as a deficiency in the flesh speaks against this. His purpose is to condemn the grosser passions of man, abstracted from all material context, which is what the analytical category of ‘nationalism’ does, lumping together such disparate political positions as Catholicism, Trotskyism, Communism, Fascism etc. Sure enough, his solution is not to intervene in that material context, to change it, it is not a political programme; it is merely the urge to think one’s way around the ‘inevitable’ danger of emotionally clouded thinking.

    The name morality can probably be attached to this type of thinking, as you suggest, but I don’t see that as a positive.

    Lastly, I completely agree that Orwell escapes the reductionist trap of ascribing everything to the ‘superstructure’, but I think this is not a result of nuance. “Notes on nationalism” make clear that Orwell has no concept of that – the dangers come only from within, never from without. The attraction of such ideologies is always emotional, never positional or programmatic or practical. So he goes much too far the other way.

    This is why I consider “Notes on Nationalism” to be part of a dangerous element to Left woolly thinking when it comes to the ‘patriotism’ Orwell juxtaposes to nationalism. Which, ironically, is just as emotionally constructed, resting on feelings rather than on a clear evocation of analytical categories sustained by evidence.

  12. March 10, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    I do agree that he is not materialist enough, but I think you interpret him as being much more un-materialist than he is. (But then I guess I am probably somewhat less materialist than you! I tihnk morality is important in politics. Marxism – and academic leftism in general – is often predicated on a drive to “correctly” analyse, but I think coming to a moral judgement is an important part of understanding too. I think we need more humility to temper the Marxist will to truth.)

    I also disagree that his “late” politics has no practical application whatsoever. He of course was pretty ill in the later part of his life, so was not exactly an activist, but he supported the Atlee government, for example, and continued in his anti-fascist propoganda. I think that the critique of nationalism, actually, is one of the most important political tasks of our time, and eminently practical for that matter.

    On ordinary and normal. I think “normal” is normative in a way “ordinary” isn’t. Mainly, I think Orwell is using “ordinary” not to mean un-ideological or un-passionate, but simply not part of the intellectual class. He is not saying “ordinary” people aren’t intellectually capable, but that intellectualism as an aspect of a way of life (surely class-inflected) creates certain deformities of thought. Again, I think this can be usefully placed alongside Gramsci, in that what Orwell is criticising is the “traditional intellectual” in Gramsci’s sense, and arguing for a more vernacular sort of thinking, that is related to Gramsci’s “organic intellectual”, his insistence that everyone is a philosopher. CLR James made similar points in Notes on the Dialectic, where he contrasted the dialectical thought of untrained rank and file union activists to the un-dialectical thought of the American Trotskyist movement.

    By the way, I’m not completely clear on what you are saying about patriotism. Is all patriotism automatically bad?

    (Feel free to continue or discontinue – I don’t want to take up your time unless you want to!)

  13. March 10, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    I’m not sure if I’m being clear as regards normal/ordinary. I’m not being so crass as to suggest that Orwell is attempting to imagine the intelligentsia as what passes for normal/ordinary. But by defining a group of people as “nationalist” and ascribing behavioural aberrations to them, Orwell is by definition being normative.

    He suggests that we can escape by employing our reason. My point is that this reason does not exist in the abstract. It is not present in some people and absent in others; analytical categories based on such a distinction break down easily and aren’t valid for drawing wider conclusions. I then subsequently used Orwell’s view to challenge his materialism.

    I don’t think that Gramsci’s view of intellectuals necessarily has a part to play here. I agree with James, Orwell and Gramsci when it comes to the need for an “organic intellectual” (which Orwell probably never openly stated, but he did hate overly-complex language). To that I would add Lenin’s insistence on the practice, which quickly condemns most intellectuals.

    But none of this really changes my point, that Orwell is being normative, just not very clearly, and that this is based on a subjective view-from-the-outside of extremist theories and groups, rather than a real attempt to understand what’s going on in its complexity. For which one still need not use overly complex language.

    As for patriotism, which was the real core of my article to begin with, I suppose whether or not patriotism is bad depends on two things. The first is semantic; what are we classifying patriotism? The second requires an outline of how it relates to practical political positions and action.

    As a reflex, I’m inclined to think all patriotism is bad. Not to say I don’t feel a warm and comfortable wave of sentiment when I step off the plane on to home soil, or darken the doorstep of my home, locked up tight, if I’ve been away for a while. But such sentiments have no practical relevance for me; if you dropped me down in the middle of France, my political views would be unchanged.

    Those people for whom ‘patriotism’ does have a practical relevance tend to be either on the political right, or on the anti-communist, anti-class wing of the political left. I welcome my education in the matter, always.

  14. March 10, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    Actually Splinty in his comment above catches well for me the sort of use to which this soft patriotism is put.

  15. March 10, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    Well, on the first half maybe I’m just being thick but I don’t see Orwell’s as being normative in your sense or a subjective view-from-the-outside, so let’s leave that.

    On patriotism. I know that the line between patriotism and nationalism as Orwell defines it can blur in practice. Myself, I think so long as we acknowledge that blurring, then we can say that patriotism in his sense is benign while nationalism is malign. The warm and comfortable wave you mention is precisely patriotism in his sense, even if probably a week variant of it, and the fact that it doesn’t affect your politics is what makes it benign. For Orwell, patriotism only becomes political defensively, at times when the “nation” is attacked or invaded, and here it presumably becomes a positive resource if the attacker is also objectively bad, as in the case of Britain or Russia vis a vis Nazi Germany. It could also be a positive resource in the way Carl Raincoat Optimist talks about – making a political tradition more vivid, I guess. I’m not one of them, but I can think of lots of soft-patriotic people with a class perspective I’ve known on the rank and file left, although they may well count as “anti-communist” in your sense.

    I just re-read Splint’s comment and realised I have no idea who Lewis is in that context.

    Anyway, thanks for helping me think about this!

  16. March 10, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    Trying to think about Splint’s Croatians. I guess their disavowal of nationalism is hollow if they were seperatists; they seem to fit quite well into Orwell’s analysis.

    But could there be an anti-nationalist patriotism? The opponents of the break-up of Yugoslavia, the ones that celebrated a cosmopolitan, mixed idea of Yugoslavia, they’d probably count. (These were the people that Red Aid/Workers Aid made contact with in places like Tusla, although Splinty probly has a different view on that.)

    I keep meaning to read Billy Bragg’s book about this.

  17. March 10, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    If patriotism can act on one’s politics, even defensively, what is one to make of policies like Lenin’s revolutionary defeatism? This stemmed from the knowledge that in reality there were two nations, whereas Orwell’s premise is the famous “one family with the wrong members in control”.

    If patriotism has no practical application, I agree, it’s benign and not a bad thing. But I fail to see, if it has no practical application, of what relevance it is to talk about it in a political context – as Orwell repeatedly does, and as others have done using Orwell’s words.

  18. March 12, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    Good question.

    I guess in a purely imperialist war, where no side is objectively better than the other, then an Orwellian socialist would have to choose between suppressing their patriotism or betraying the principles of genuine internationalism. Given Orwell’s unequivocal denunciations of imperialism and colonialism, I like to think he would have been on the right side in World War I, with Sylvia Pankhurst and Rudolf Rocker.

    In World War II, revolutionary defeatism was the wrong approach, as large sections of the Trotskyist movement recognised and even anarchists like Rudolf Rocker. In World War II, in my view, while the rulers of the Allies may have had cynical, imperialist motivations (at least in part) for fighting Hitler’s Germany, they were objectively right, so happily Orwell’s patriotism and his anti-fascism came together, and he used patriotism as a resource in promoting anti-fascism.

    Today, it seems to me, many liberal anti-fascists use patriotism to combat the BNP – not just the mainstream politicians, but also the Anti-Nazi League/UAF, whose mantra-like invocation of the word “Nazi” for any variety of fascism seems to me to play into a little England memory of war-time enmity with Germany. If you don’t distinguish patriotism from nationalism, then you have to sharply condemn that tactic.

    I guess I am revising my claim that patriotism has no practical application, to say that patriotism has a frequently benign political application, as a resource to be mobilised in motivating struggle, as part of the stories we tell ourselves to keep ourselves active – in our case, stories of Tom Wintrington’s Home Guards, or of Tom Paine and the English revolution. When patriotism starts to be used to promote the national interest above the interests of humanity, or of social justice, then it starts to enter into the blurry territory where it passes into nationalism rather than patriotism.

  19. March 12, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    Orwell was lucky, in that his patriotism and his anti-fascism could come into alignment during the Second World War. The danger in such circumstances – which Labour experienced – is about striking the balance. The greater the influence of patriotism, the weaker the guards against lining up with one’s class enemies.

    With regard to World War II, there are a number of demands which Marxists could have agitated for even whilst supporting the preparations for war: the arming of the workers, industrial democracy and so on. It is an absolute fzct that the bourgeoisie could not be trusted with the defence of Britain.

    As was witnessed in Holland and France, as soon as things began to look hairy, they jacked it in and waved their Hitlerian flags. We were lucky – we had a natural barrier between us and the Nazi armies. Had that not been the case, our little bourgeoisie might have ignominiously surrendered too.

    In such a conflict, it is chance that patriotism and ‘right’ are on the same side – but patriotism, even the benign kind, mobilised to encourage struggle, doesn’t imply the sort of conclusions that a class analysis is necessary to draw. Essentially patriotism is a dead-weight, not useful in political analysis.

    It exists in sentiment, undeniably – but attempts to appeal to it are, when it comes down to utilising the concept of ‘the nation’, based on a contradiction. There is no ‘nation’, not even for the purposes of a war against Germany.

    (As a full disclosure, I’ve changed my position on World War Two about forty times so I am the last person who can lay claim to consistency here. I wrote this article on Trotskyism and War; not my best work, but if compared to what I say today, I think it contrasts me favourably with the “National Defence” socialists who were mobilised by Orwell’s type of patriotism, and who came in for such a barracking from the old man).

  20. March 12, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    I don’t think Orwell ever said that patriotism was a particularly useful category in political analysis. And he certainly agreed with you on not trusting the bourgeoisie to defend the country.

    I also agree, as I said before, that the nation is a construct, which Orwell wouldn’t really have seen then (I imagine he’d get it now though). But I think we (just as he stretches his meaning of nationalism way beyond the nation) can also think of something akin to his concept of patriotism, an affect of belonging, in relation to other small, perhaps also construcuted units like neighbourhood, community, region. I think we could probably also think of a kind of patriotism of class. Not sure about that.

    I’ll print out your Trotskyism and war, as this is something I find very interesting, and read it over the weekend, when I might be back!

  1. February 28, 2010 at 12:33 pm
  2. March 3, 2010 at 12:12 pm
  3. May 17, 2012 at 8:55 pm

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