Harold Behr

George Orwell and today’s nationalisms

I wonder what George Orwell would have made of the two conflicting nationalisms — Palestinian nationalism and Zionism — now occupying centre stage in the Middle East. In his essay, ‘Notes on Nationalism,’ published in 1945, Orwell explores the topic with his customary incisiveness. However, although I am a devoted fan of his writing, I felt my eyebrows alternately rising and frowning at some of his sweeping generalisations on the subject.

‘Nationalism,’ he says dismissively, is ‘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.’  He goes on to assert that nationalism is ‘the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.’

He is at pains to distinguish nationalism from patriotism, by which he means ‘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’. In other words, nationalism is by its very nature aggressive and encompasses the constant desire to to secure more power and prestige for the nation at the expense of the individual.

As examples of nationalist movements he lists ‘Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, anti-Semitism, Trotskyism, and Pacifism’ stipulating that nationalism does not necessarily mean loyalty to a particular country or even that the unit which commands such loyalty ‘should actually exist’. Here he cites examples of such units as ‘Jewry, Islam, Christendom, the Proletariat and the White Race’, all of them objects of passionate nationalistic feeling ‘whose existence can be seriously questioned’.

I have long been an admirer of Orwell, both for his graphic prose and his powerful denunciation of totalitarianism. Yet I immediately found myself at odds with his line of thinking on nationalism. To stretch the definition of nationalism to the lengths which he does seems to render the term virtually meaningless. Nationalism, in my book, relates specifically to attachment to a particular country, its culture, history and people without necessarily pinning the labels of expansionism or aggression on it. However, I am prepared to concede that this benign interpretation of the term might have been overtaken in a world of shrinking resources and an inability to curb the exploitation of one people by another, and that it therefore needs to be modified.

Orwell rightly observes that human behaviour has its roots in religion and is permeated by prejudices of one sort or another, but I cannot go along with his desire to sweep all of that into a cocked hat labelled ‘nationalism’. Surely there is a spectrum of national ideologies ranging from the aggressive and intolerant kind of nationalism which precipitated the Second World War to the peaceful ‘live and let live’ sentiment which fosters national pride but by no means rates its own nation’s achievements as superior those of any other nation.

Nowhere in his essay does Orwell mention the possible co-existence of nationalism with democracy. In fact, if he blurs any boundaries it all, it is the one which separates nationalism from his bugbear, totalitarianism. Unfortunately, the term ‘nationalism’ has undergone a hideous transformation since the Second World War and has now come to be more or less synonymous with the xenophobic extremism of the Far Right.

To turn to the conflict now raging between the two rival and apparently immiscible nationalisms of Israel and Palestine, it seems to me that the enemy on both sides is really extremism, the one ‘-ism’ which Orwell doesn’t mention. Both religious and political extremists believe that they have the only solution to the conflict, which is to define the ‘other’ as an enemy to be destroyed or at best held at bay by means of force. Until that conundrum can be addressed by accepting the validity of each side’s narrative of its people’s history, the conflict will continue to be deadlocked.

George Orwell died in 1948 but his ideas still exercise a powerful influence on politics. I would have been happier if he had chosen totalitarianism or extremism as targets for his essay instead of nationalism, but I still take off my hat to a great thinker and a brilliant writer. It is now up to us to find new words to describe old concepts. In particular, we need to differentiate between aggressive nationalism, which carries within itself the seeds of hatred for other groups, and various forms of national pride which allow for the acceptance of other nations and respect for their own aspirations.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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