ORWELL ON NATIONALISM AND CONTEMPORARY INDIAN PARALLELS
Updated: Feb 2
The causality of the presence of nationalism before and during the first world war is commonly viewed as not the constructive and invigorating nationalism that the French revolutionary armies were said to be defined by, but by the consequent militarist nationalism which claimed sovereignty by conquest. Far gone are the days where nationalism was viewed as a liberating force against colonial regimes; popular academic views on nationalism restrict it to the opium of the masses, which when coupled with religion, has single-handedly caused liberalism in multiple post-colonial societies to fail. In this essay, I will analyse the dynamic connotations of nationalism over time, with references to Orwell’s ‘On Nationalism’ and Frantz Fanon’s book titled ‘The Wretched of The Earth’. I will critique the sort of Nationalism present in India today, and draw parallels with Orwell’s essay on Nationalism.
Political scientists have a wide range of critiques against nationalism and rightly so. Einstein famously called it the ‘measles of mankind’. Modern political science holds nationalism to be the negative force behind multiple international and intra-national conflicts, from Nazi Germany to Rwanda and Yugoslavia along with civil wars in Catalonia. Nationalism has multiple working definitions and is often colloquially used interchangeably with patriotism. Orwell talks about patriotism being distinct from nationalism, “Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, 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.”[] Orwell mentions he uses the word nationalism for the lack of a better word, he says that nationalism, depending on the context may include Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism, and that it does not necessarily mean loyalty to one’s own country.[]
Rich Lowry defines nationalism as flowing from a people’s "natural devotion to their home and to their country”. Yoram Hazony, in his book ‘The Virtue of Nationalism,’ also has a rather anodyne definition of nationalism, “that the world is governed best when nations agree to cultivate their own traditions, free from interference by other nations.”
Nothing seems controversial from these definitions on nationalism, in these terms, it sounds like the authors are trying to make a point for national sovereignty rather than sentimental nationalism. Any writer can perform mental gymnastics to make absurd concepts sound digestible and aesthetic, it is only when they are viewed critically, can we determine the goodness of it. I must argue that contrary to popular notion, nationalism is not national identity, it is also not respect for national sovereignty, it is not the same as national pride either. It is easy to see why people are attracted to nationalism, nationalism feels like the 20th century’s opium for the masses replacing religion: In the decline of religious morality, the common man must hold a support system in place of religion. This is also why we see religion intertwined with nationalism. In the era of globalization and international governance, it is understandable to have a knee-jerk protectionist reaction to foreign policy, and it is completely the fault of the statesman, who let religion creep into state politics. “We have switched from nationalism to ultranationalism, chauvinism, and racism. There is a general call for these foreigners to leave, their shops are burned, their market booths torn down and some are lynched; consequently, the government orders them to leave, thereby satisfying the demands of the ultra-nationals” writes Fanon, in Wretched of The Earth.
I have talked about what nationalism has meant (and consequently not meant) historically, and how it affects political discourse today. I will now attempt to answer the question of whether it is a force of good.
Fanon says, “In a colonized country, nationalism in its most basic, most rudimentary, and undifferentiated form is the most forceful and effective way of defending national culture. A culture is first and foremost the expression of a nation, its preferences, its taboos, and its models”. It is hard to disagree with this quote, we see glimpses of Fanon’s writings play out in the world today, with India being ruled by a right-wing ultra-nationalist ruling party with protectionist views on the economy, and no regard for any democratic functioning of the four pillars. Amnesty International’s Indian office was shut down by the government.[] Nationalism is not a force of good. It is the deception that a despot uses to hold office, to use democracy against itself, and to corrode democratic principles into an autocratic state. The very liberalism that allows every ideology to exist has led to it being potentially overthrown by strongmen. The paradox of tolerance is seen here. “The front line against hunger and darkness, the front line against poverty and stunted consciousness, must be present in the minds and muscles of the men and women. The work of the masses, their determination to conquer the scourges that for centuries have excluded them from the history of the human mind, must be connected to the work and determination of all the underdeveloped peoples” expresses Fanon.
In the end, as the final nail in the coffin, Orwell writes “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.” Orwell believes nationalist thought has obsession, instability, and an indifference to reality.[] In India, the debate around making Hindi the national language is foreseen by Orwell when he says, “all nationalists consider it a duty to spread their own language to the detriment of rival language.” Vis-à-visKashmir, article 370 and AFSPA, Orwell writes, “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.” This is further strengthened by the fact that discourse in India is at an all-time low, with the populist right-wing calling any sort of remote dissent, be it from students, farmers, or any labour organisation, as anti-national and allegedly receiving ‘foreign funding’ from India’s enemies. The prime minister is not too keen to hold a press conference in his second tenure either[], which makes him the longest-serving prime minister of the world’s largest democracy to have never held a press conference. Ironically, it was Manmohan Singh who was called mute.[]
Nationalism has arguably corrupted more minds than mainstream religion and has made humans believe in a collective identity, that Orwell and Fanon strongly dislike.
It is now clear that Nationalism is not a force for the good.
[] Orwell, George. Notes on Nationalism. 6 Feb. 2019, www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/notes-on-nationalism/ [] Ibid. [] “Amnesty Specialises in Hard Truths. No Wonder Modi Froze It out of India.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 4 Oct. 2020, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/oct/04/amnesty-specialises-in-hard-truths-no-wonder-modi-froze-it-out-of-india [] Orwell, George. Notes on Nationalism. 6 Feb. 2019, www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/notes-on-nationalism/ [] No record available: PMO on RTI seeking details of PM Modi's media interaction - India News (indiatoday.in) [] Mute Modi: Why Is the PM Terrified of Holding Even a Single Press Conference? (thewire.in)
About the author: Divij Shah is a first year B.A. Global Affairs student. He has previously worked with HRDA and the CVC, along with the Asian forum for Human Rights and Development.
Cover Image: OneIndia