Is Orwell a better essayist than novelist? When you consider just how seminal and outstanding Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are, it would seem a near impossible case to prove. Yet Notes On Nationalism does just that. It is an essay on a par with his novels in its incisiveness. Even in 2018, it is devastatingly accurate. Orwell was a sage with a perspicacious mind who identified thoughts that few else did. Take, for example, the following differentiation: “Patriotism is a 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 upon people. Nationalism is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality”.
Fascinatingly, he highlights how often influential leaders of countries were frequently born elsewhere: Stalin, Napoleon, Hitler, de Valera and Disraeli. This is possible partly because of what Orwell deems “transferred nationalism”: that people are capable of tuning into nationalities not common to them. So, an English or Irish person could be a committed Soviet nationalist. He expands his definition of nationalism to include political points of view such as communism. Ideologue is an alternative word for what Orwell describes in this 1945 essay. Norman Doidge, in the foreword to Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life. An Antidote To Chaos defines ideologues as “people who pretend they know how to make the world a better place before they’ve taken care of their own chaos within”. Perhaps the second part is not what Orwell meant but the first part most certainly is. Orwell views a key part of nationalism as having an “indifference to reality. All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts”. Their feelings override the facts. This then allows the “bigoted communist” to turn into a “bigoted Trotskyist” with a minimum of fuss and explains how “in continental Europe fascist movements were largely recruited from among communists”.
The centenary, in 2017, of the Russian Revolution saw a couple of members of the Irish Dáil waxing lyrical about how misunderstood Trotsky was. It is mind-boggling to witness how pervasive this myth still remains: “When one considers the elaborate forgeries that have been committed in order to show that Trotsky did not play a part in the Russian civil war, it is difficult to feel that responsible people are merely lying. More probably they feel their own version was what happened in the sight of God, and one that is justified in rearranging the records accordingly”. This level of delusion multiplies so that the “nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them”. More to the point: “the fact that Trotskyists are everywhere a persecuted minority, and that the accusation usually made against them of being fascists is absolutely false, creates an impression that that Trotskyism is intellectually and morally superior to communism; but it is doubtful whether there is much difference”. This is quite a clever little trick: use a falsehood to create another one. The wisest thing to do, and it baffles me how infrequently this happens, is to actually interpret Trotsky’s ideas first-hand by reading his books. I have written about these works previously and there is little or no difference, philosophically, between Trotsky and Stalin: https://orbitalmick.wordpress.com/2017/07/29/defending-the-indefensible-a-review-of-leon-trotskys-terrorism-and-communism/
Sticking with my native Ireland, in 2017 we released a commemorative stamp for the despot Che Guevara, despite the facts about his violent past being openly available for all to see. Similarly, in Venezuela, modern leftists refuse to see the economic damage done in the name of communism and label the opposition fascists. Elsewhere, in Syria, people are convinced that the what is happening is a gigantic US PSYOP. Of course, you rarely hear said people discuss the fact that ninety percent of the death toll is caused by Assad. Why? Orwell: “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…the nationalist is uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit”. In order for this to occur, he sees through the so-called “intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism.” Nail on head.
Orwell talks of the delusions that “Celtic nationalism” can cause and expands his definition to include class: “Among the upper class and middle-class intellectuals, only in the transposed form. Here again, inside the intelligentsia, the pressure of public opinion is overwhelming Nationalistic loyalty towards the proletariat, and most vicious theoretical hatred of the bourgeoisie, can and often do co-exist with ordinary snobbishness in everyday life”. This is quite common. People feel guilty about the level of, what these days would be termed “privilege”. It is bollocks. The reality is that no person has any influence over what class they are until their late teenage years. Moreover, if we are fortunate enough to be born into a Western society, we can change our class by working hard in society. The best way for every human being to improve is to educate themselves and take responsibility for their own actions. What I really appreciate about Orwell is his honesty. Being a socialist, he was not afraid of criticising his own side’s actions: “the average intellectual of the Left believed that the war was lost in 1940…he could believe these things because his hatred of the British ruling class forbade him to admit that British plans could succeed. There is no limit to the follies that can be swallowed if one is under the influence of feelings of this kind”.
I find that Orwell seems at times to be directing his thoughts directly at me: “Nationalism can be intermittent and limited. An intelligent man may half-succumb to a belief which attracts him but which he knows absurd, and he may keep it out of his mind for long periods”. I occasionally feel myself slipping into these delusions, particularly at weak moments, or if I discover a new idea. In fact, ideas themselves may just be the problem. Orwell was not a nationalist and I try to follow his example. If only more people could follow suit, it would make discussing politics more rational.