Orwell was Wrong (just occasionally)

I have been an Orwell obsessive since I was 11 years old when I read Down & Out in Paris & London. I was obviously too young to get all of it but I got a taste for his work early and it has stayed with me throughout my life. In fact, I know large sections of it by memory and went on a sort of pilgrimage to the house where he wrote 1984. Furthermore, I used to have a picture of him on my living room wall. It has now been moved to the office (or “smallest room” as it otherwise known) at the insistence of my girlfriend.

That doesn’t mean to say that I don’t think he was occasionally wrong (I’m even breaking one of his writing rules in the first half of this sentence just to see if anyone notices), but I think most people would agree that he left an amazing body of work behind.

I have also, since a young age, been a firm supporter of Scottish Independence. That said, for a long time the use of the word ‘nationalist’ has sat uncomfortably with me. It is clear to anyone who looks that the Independence movement is not nationalist in the way Orwell described it in Notes on Nationalism…

“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 between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean 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. 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.”

A very short and on the money general criticism of this essay came from the writer Philip Challinor when I interviewed him and he said…

I’ve never got patriotism at all. I mean I know Orwell approved of it but the essay he wrote about patriotism and nationalism is one of the ones I disagree with because I think the aspects of patriotism he disapproves of he has called nationalism and the aspects of nationalism that he approves of he has called patriotism.

I don’t think Orwell could have been counted as a sympthathizer with regards to Scottish Independence. As far as I know the only time he talked about it in his writing was in the same essay…

“Welsh, Irish and Scottish nationalism have points of difference but are alike in their anti-English orientation. Members of all three movements have opposed the war while continuing to describe themselves as pro-Russian, and the lunatic fringe has even contrived to be simultaneously pro-Russian and pro-Nazi. But Celtic nationalism is not the same thing as anglophobia. Its motive force is a belief in the past and future greatness of the Celtic peoples, and it has a strong tinge of racialism. The Celt is supposed to be spiritually superior to the Saxon — simpler, more creative, less vulgar, less snobbish, etc. — but the usual power hunger is there under the surface. One symptom of it is the delusion that Eire, Scotland or even Wales could preserve its independence unaided and owes nothing to British protection. Among writers, good examples of this school of thought are Hugh McDiarmid and Sean O’Casey. No modern Irish writer, even of the stature of Yeats or Joyce, is completely free from traces of nationalism.”

There are so many ‘Orwell was right’ articles out there that it is refreshing to do an ‘Orwell was wrong’ one. In the paragraph I quoted above there is a lot you can take issue with.

For example in the modern context, given that we now all live in the American Empire, and that in many ways the UK is now a satellite territory of the USA (or Airstrip One if you like), ideas about protection of independence simply don’t count. Furthermore, from a historical point of view you could point out that because the UK exists, Scottish Independence does not.

You could point out that there is a lunatic fringe everywhere. You might also say that, in the UK, the majority of the type of right-wing nationalism that he describes is to be found in England.

I think it is also clear that the charge of “power-hunger” doesn’t make a lot of sense. A power-hungry Scottish politician would head straight to London in order to work in the bigger, stronger unit and would not see the benefits in working in a smaller state.

I’ll leave it to others to talk about MacDiarmid, Joyce and O’Casey.

Time of writing is important here though. The first appearance of the Notes on Nationalism essay was in May 1945 so it is safe enough to assume it was written sometime before the end of the war. Orwell during the war had called for a type of “honest propaganda”. We can’t say for sure but maybe this is what he was attempting with the essay.

So in what he says above, I do think he was wrong. Nevertheless, I think people who want independence should be very careful about word choice as the “nationalist” label is still one that is occasionally used to deliberately create false perceptions about what is going on. If not that, then from ignorance of the real situation people immediately assume that because the word nationalist is there then something rightwing and nasty is afoot. The Orwell essay I have been talking about is frequently brought up in these discussions.

After so long it is always difficult to change a name but it might serve if more people would refer to it as The Independence Movement rather than the nationalist one. And what is more… The Independence Movement sounds sexier anyway.

Post Script

With this background I was rather surprised to come across a diary written by Orwell in Cranham Sanatorium in Gloucestershire a few months before his death.

Cranham, 17 April 1949

Curious effect, here in the sanatorium, on Easter Sunday, when the people in this (the most expensive) block of “chalets” mostly have visitors, of hearing large numbers of upper-class English voices. I have been almost out of the sound of them for two years, hearing them at most one or two at a time, my ears growing more & more used to working-class or lower-middle class Scottish voices. In the hospital at Hairmyres, for instance, I literally never heard a “cultivated” accent except when I had a visitor. It is as though I were hearing these voices for the first time. And what voices! A sort of over-fedness, a fatuous self-confidence, a constant bah-bahing of laughter about nothing, above all a sort of heaviness & richness combined with a fundamental ill-will—people who, one instinctively feels, without even being able to see them, are the enemies of anything intelligent or sensitive or beautiful. No wonder everyone hates us so.

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  1. For the record, if he really did say it tho it is unsourced, my favourite Orwell story is the one about when he was asked why he had come to fight in Spain and supposedly replied “Well, there aren’t so many fascists in the world….so if we all shoot one…”

  2. Tearlach MacDaid says:

    A old neighbour of ours – dead some 20 years now – who retired back to the family croft after a career as a Matron at Hairmyres, always talked very disapprovingly of Orwell (or Mr Blair as she insisted on calling him), as a unconsciously rude, difficult patient, always rolling cigarettes with “shag” tobacco against medical advice and treating folk around about him – staff and and patients alike – as if he was still in Burma. That was just after he wrote 1984, and after his year in Jura. A product of his time and place, as was my neighbour Jessie.

  3. vronsky says:

    That particular essay indeed reads like propaganda. It is hard to square with his support for Indian independence and his admiration for the Catalan soldiery. His concerns on nationalism seem entirely based on an inability (common enough still, alas) to distinguish between nationalism and its direct opposite, imperialism. One (little publicised) analysis of captured resistance fighters in Iraq revealed that they were motivated not by Islam, but by nationalism: resistance to imperialism. Orwell also bizarrely claims that Irish independence would have been impossible without English protection – an early version of ‘humanitarian bombing’ it seems.
    I’m still an Orwell admirer though. Beethoven wrote some bad tunes too.

    1. Ray Bell says:

      “One (little publicised) analysis of captured resistance fighters in Iraq revealed that they were motivated not by Islam, but by nationalism: resistance to imperialism.”

      Likewise – getting closer into Orwell territory – analyses of the Spanish Civil War tend to focus on Falange vs Republic. Few of them deal with the Basque and Catalan aspects of that war, which were extremely important (Events in Catalonia helped start the war, and the best known atrocity happened at Gernika, the old Basque capital). That’s without getting into Andalucia, which has a distinct regional identity, and played a major part in the war as well.

  4. Tearlach – When I went to Jura they weren’t that complimentary about him either. That said, most of the stories had been handed down a generation so who knows.

    Vronsky – I like the last line. That’s kind of the way I look at it.

  5. Ray Bell says:

    Nationalism is an overused word, used to refer to too many movements which have pretty much nothing in common with each other. The same could be said of the phrase “democracy”, which has been used by myriad groups to mean different things.

    By the way, If you think the stories about Orwell are odd… the ones about Gavin Maxwell on Soay are more bizarre. (I know someone who belongs to Soay, and worked for him.)

  6. Ray Bell says:

    For some interesting comments by Orwell on Scotland, read “As I please”, here –
    http://www.telelib.com/authors/O/OrwellGeorge/essay/tribune/AsIPlease19470214.html

    “Up to date the Scottish Nationalist movement seems to have gone almost unnoticed in England. To take the nearest example to hand, I don’t remember having seen it mentioned in Tribune, except occasionally in book reviews. It is true that it is a small movement, but it could grow, because there is a basis for it. In this country I don’t think it is enough realized—I myself had no idea of it until a few years ago—that Scotland has a case against England. On economic grounds it may not be a very strong case. In the past, certainly, we have plundered Scotland shamefully, but whether it is now true that England as a whole exploits Scotland as a whole, and that Scotland would be better off if fully autonomous, is another question. The point is that many Scottish people, often quite moderate in outlook, are beginning to think about autonomy and to feel that they are pushed into an inferior position. They have a good deal of reason.”

    ***

    “At one time I would have said that it is absurd to keep alive an archaic language like Gaelic, spoken by only a few hundred thousand people. Now I am not so sure. To begin with, if people feel that they have a special culture which ought to be preserved, and that the language is part of it, difficulties should not be put in their way when they want their children to learn it properly. Secondly, it is probable that the effort of being bilingual is a valuable education in itself. The Scottish Gaelic-speaking peasants speak beautiful English, partly, I think, because English is an almost foreign language which they sometimes do not use for days together. Probably they benefit intellectually by having to be aware of dictionaries and grammatical rules, as their English opposite numbers would not be.”

    1. Great Ray, thanks, I had forgotten about those (not covering my arse, really had forgotten – have them in an old uni essay!).

      An interesting thing about those quotes is that seem to have been written a couple of years after the war and a couple of years after he wrote notes on nationalism.

  7. MryMac says:

    I think that the Scottish Independance Party sounds much better. The word Nationalism has so many negative connotations.

    1. Anon. says:

      I believe that Alex Salmond is on record as having said as much himself, and is quoted in David Torrance’s biography accordingly, but sadly, I do not have the reference within reach.

  8. the fact i forgot about them is still embarassing though.

    Reading through the old essay I quoted “In this country I don’t think it is enough realized—I myself had no idea of it until a few years ago—that Scotland has a case against England.”

  9. vronsky says:

    Just to be conversational, I wonder to what extent we’re all subliminally influenced by Orwell. I read most of his his stuff when I was young (much too young) and re-reading in later life I often get the shivering realisation: so that’s where I got that idea!

    Bertrand Russell would be another – he was excised from the school library (too late – we had already all read ‘Why I am not a Christian’). Inexplicably, Montaigne was left alone – I guess the Scripture Union didn’t read him, although one teacher got a bit crusty with me when he caught me ‘wasting my time with that French nonsense’.

    As the library was stocked partly by donation, I now optimistically entertain the idea that there was a conspiracy of enlightened parents, and some truly nasty books were sown in there like landmines. God help us, they had Paine’s ‘Age of Reason’.

    Dumbarton Academy 1961-67.

  10. Scottish republic says:

    I use the term ‘independentist’ myself but I’m a nationalist/seeparatist/anti-Brit nat etc.
    I would add that the term patriot is not one I use, a patriot being one of those individuals who buys any nationally promoted vision and thoughtlessly goes along with it – a mindless bunch are the US patriots.

    A nationalist in a positive way, DNA being irrelevant, but cultural, geographical, historical and potential (all the als) opening the doors to a hopeful future rather than a sense of national servitude to a foreign power.

    It is right to be wary of right-wing nationalism (people who have a righteous glow about them like Beacham), however an open social nationalism that welcomes all and has a political spirit of social care underlying it is to be fought for.

  11. Scottish republic says:

    I would add that the Brit nats are not open, nor do they promote social care or justice in society – quite the opposite in fact: everything is to be privatised and the poor can slip away off into the underbelly of society.

  12. Ard Righ says:

    Double plus good, what what ?

    “A sort of over-fedness, a fatuous self-confidence, a constant bah-bahing of laughter about nothing, above all a sort of heaviness & richness combined with a fundamental ill-will—people who, one instinctively feels, without even being able to see them, are the enemies of anything intelligent or sensitive or beautiful. No wonder everyone hates us so.”

    Superbly erudite.

    Ignorance, arrogance and deception. Very unfortunate bedfellows.

  13. Paul McPhillips says:

    I think I’ll be a wee bit discordant here. While I agree that Orwell’s distinction between nationalism and patriotism is contrived, I think “nationalism” IS about power, in so far as it is always political. To be a nationalist is to imagine your “nation” (whatever that is) forming part of a family of nations and thus deserving of a state of some description. Nothing wrong with that, you might say, but it is by its very nature exclusive- you’re either in or you’re out- and so irredentism is almost almost a feature if borders do not match ethnic lines.

    For this reason, the SNP are (to my mind) not really nationalists. From what I’ve seen, they are mostly just proponents of government being as close to the governed as possible (within a stone’s throw you could say )- generally a good thing. Also, they seem to have strived to create an inclusive political movement.

    Patriotism is a strange one though- there is the civic patriotism (a good thing) but there’s also the mindless variety- why on Earth should I be patriotic towards some c*** just because they’re the same nationality as me?

    1. Red Socks says:

      Couldn’t the same be used about “socialism”? Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Kim Il Jong, Jim Jones, Erich Honecker, Hoxha, Gaddafi, Ceaucescu, the Kibbutzes etc have all called themselves socialists, yet I doubt they have much in common with what a lot of people think of when they say that they are socialist. Even the Nazis were “National Socialists”.

      I’m not knocking democratic socialism here, only pointing out how language can be used and abused.

  14. Ard Righ says:

    “I’m not knocking democratic socialism here, only pointing out how language can be used and abused.”

    Yeah, see Murray Pittock and his academic twisting of language into obscene neologisms of terminology.
    A desk is a very dangerous place from which to view the world.

  15. raddledoldtart says:

    I can only stand to read Orwell’s fiction when I’m depressed already e.g. Burmese Days

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