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george orwell essay nationalism

george orwell essay nationalism

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.”


george orwell essay nationalism

Adapted from  Between the Bullet and the Lie: Essays on Orwell .  Used with permission of AK Press. Copyright © 2017 by Kristian Williams.

Kristian Williams

Kristian Williams

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Explainer: Notes on Nationalism, by George Orwell


What Orwell says in Notes on Nationalism (1945), and why it’s still relevant today.

George Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism was published a year before he started writing his best-known work, Nineteen Eighty-Four. You’ll find many of the themes of that later novel present in this essay, too – sometimes in startling and interesting ways.

Much of Orwell’s writing is still (or even more) recognisable in the world right now. As we lurch ever more to the Right, his essay is a timely reminder of the dangers and limitations of nationalistic thinking and self-deception.

What is nationalism?

While Orwell gives many examples of nationalism, the frame for his argument is the failings of intellectualism in the 1940s:

“the habit of mind I am talking about is widespread among the English intelligentsia, and more widespread there than among the mass of the people.”

He starts by defining what nationalism is. Surprisingly, it’s not about love for one’s country. Instead, he says nationalism is:

So nationalism creates hierarchies, and then pits those hierarchies against each other. It’s also a good set-up for hypocrisy.

We’re not short of similar examples in modern times. Assuming criminality by race is one. So is seeing refugees as a threat, rather than as people in need of help. And racism arguably has much in common with nationalism.

Nationalism isn’t the same as patriotism

Orwell writes that patriots believe their nation or way of life to be the best in the world, but don’t feel the need to force that on anyone else. Nationalism, however, is “inseparable from the desire for power”.

In this way, nationalism doesn’t just relate to how one feels about a particular country. Orwell says communism, anti-Semitism and even pacifism are all form of nationalistic thought.

Moreover, nationalism often springs from the hatred of Other, rather than the love of one’s own way of life. Similarly, the nationalist mode of thought is about (often imaginary) one-upmanship, i.e., to feel as though one’s side is ‘winning’.

“Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception.” Notes on Nationalism

This kind of nationalism chimes with English football hooliganism of the 80s . Various ‘firms’ (football fans) would regularly fight each other, sometimes with deadly force.

Their off-field antics did nothing to help their team score goals or progress up the league. It was competitiveness for its own sake, and for the benefit of the unit within the social hierarchy of football fandom.

How nationalists think

Orwell is scathing about nationalistic thinking. He describes it as an intellectual deficiency, rife with self-deception. He gives it the following characteristics.

Obsession with the superiority of the power unit. Nationalists are over-sensitive. They imagine slurs and slights against the unit at every chance. Orwell’s example is the Anglophobe American, who refuses to use a slang phrase if it has a British origin.

Instability . Nationalist loyalty isn’t fixed, but transfers as and when it’s most useful or convenient. Here Orwell points out how many nationalist leaders are foreign born: Hitler, Napoleon, Stalin.

Indifference to reality . Nationalists can recognise torture, murder and forced labour as an evil when done by others. Yet these same crimes become acceptable or excusable when done by one’s own side.

This last one is perhaps similar to how environmental outrage appears on the international stage. For instance, western countries protest whaling in Japan, yet overlook the slaughter of livestock in incredible numbers back home. One is viewed as somehow different and removed from the other.

“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.” Notes on nationalism

Nationalists believe the past is mutable. They fantasize about different outcomes, and transfer fragments of these worlds to their history books and other propaganda wherever possible.

If this sounds familiar, compare the Party’s slogan in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “who controls the past … controls the future.” And it’s not so different from claims that former president Donald Trump rewrote facts about Coronavirus to suit himself .

Types of nationalism

The essay goes on to give examples of the different types of nationalist: positive, transferred and negative.

Here there’s discussion of neo-Toryism. This is marked by the desire “not to recognize that British power and influence have declined”. For modern readers, this may chime with the Brexit narrative.

Under transferred nationalism, Orwell cites the English intellectual’s tendency for ‘colour feeling’ and ‘class feeling’. For instance, the belief that people of colour, and the working classes, are in some way superior. This isn’t as enlightened as it sounds. Such beliefs are mired in fetishisation and exoticism ( see also horror film Get Out ).

Again, note the similarity with Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, who fervently believes the proletariat can somehow rise up and smash Big Brother.

The message

“Whether it is possible to get rid of [nationalistic tendencies], I do not know, but I do believe that it is possible to struggle against them” Notes on Nationalism

Orwell concludes nationalism is a fantasy – a “distorted reality”. And yet for all this, these ways of thinking are part of the make-up of all of us.

The important thing, he says, isn’t to deny this, but to face it head on. Once you recognise your prejudices, you can stop them contaminating your mental processes. If there’s a message we would all benefit most by adopting today, this is it.

Picture credit : Call Me Fred

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Notes on Nationalism

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“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.” “One prod to the nerve of nationalism and the intellectual decencies can vanish, the past can be altered, and the plainest facts can be denied.”
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  1. Notes on Nationalism

    A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist - that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating - but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.

  2. Notes on Nationalism

    Nationalism is defined as alignment to a political entity but can also encompass a religion, race, ideology or any other abstract idea. Examples of such forms of nationalism given by Orwell include Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, anti-Semitism, Trotskyism and pacifism. [2]

  3. Essays and other works

    Essays and other works The Orwell Foundation is delighted to make available a selection of essays, articles, sketches, reviews and scripts written by Orwell. Subscribe to our serial Orwell Daily to receive edited highlights from Orwell's work direct to your inbox.

  4. George Orwell: Notes on Nationalism -- Index page

    George Orwell's essay 'Notes on Nationalism'. - First published in 1945. - 'Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction...' Index> Library> Essays> Nationalism> Index eng Notes on Nationalism George Orwell

  5. What George Orwell Wrote About the Dangers of Nationalism

    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, …

  6. George Orwell

    Read George Orwell's Notes on Nationalism free online! Click on any of the links on the right menubar to browse through Notes on Nationalism. Index Index. Essay. Other Authors : > Charles Darwin. > Charles Dickens. > Mark Twain. > William Shakespeare.

  7. Explainer: Notes on Nationalism, by George Orwell

    Orwell writes that patriots believe their nation or way of life to be the best in the world, but don't feel the need to force that on anyone else. Nationalism, however, is "inseparable from the desire for power". In this way, nationalism doesn't just relate to how one feels about a particular country.

  8. Notes on Nationalism by George Orwell

    Notes on Nationalism George Orwell 4.02 4,520 ratings480 reviews In this essay, Orwell discusses the notion of nationalism, and argues that it causes people to disregard common sense and become more ignorant towards factuality.

  9. Orwell on the Difference Between Patriotism and Nationalism

    He states that his definition of nationalism includes "such movements and tendencies as Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism." There's little doubt Orwell, were he alive today, would add Transgenderism, Trumpism and many other isms to this list.

  10. Notes on Nationalism: A George Orwell Essay Kindle Edition

    A biting state of the nation essay which reflects on patriotism, prejudice, and power. In this essay, Orwell discusses the notion of nationalism and argues that it causes people to disregard common sense and become more ignorant towards factuality.

  11. Notes on Nationalism

    Notes on Nationalism is a well-known essay written by George Orwell.Orwell wrote the essay in May 1945, in a journal called Polemic, after the Second World War had ended. In the essay, Orwell describes his idea of nationalism as: ... 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 ...

  12. Notes on Nationalism

    George Orwell is one of England's most famous writers and social commentators. Among his works are the classic political satire Animal Farm and the dystopian nightmare vision Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell was also a prolific essayist, and it is for these works that he was perhaps best known during his lifetime.

  13. Notes on Nationalism

    Nationalism is a good thing to create unity and development into one`s nation. About the author (2018) Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950), better known by his pen-name, George Orwell , was born in India, where his father worked for the Civil Service.