Orwell and Patriotism

By Rossi, John | Contemporary Review, August 1992 | Go to article overview

Orwell and Patriotism


Rossi, John, Contemporary Review


GEORGE Orwell loved to shock his readers. One has only to look at the opening sentences of his essays for examples of this. |As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later,' from Marrakech or |In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people--the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me' from Shooting an Elephant.

The purpose behind this literary device was, of course, to seize the reader's imagination and not just shock for shock's sake. But this approach reflects another dimension of Orwell's craft -- his love of paradox mixed with a talent for turning the obvious inside out. Nowhere is this more evident than in the service that Orwell rendered to the concept of patriotism. In the 1940s he almost single-handedly rescued the word from the intellectual dust heap and special preserve of the far Right and made it respectable again. Sprinkled through his writings after 1939 beginning with My Country Right or Left, inside the Whale, as well as in columns for The Partisan Review and Tribune Orwell liberated patriotism from its suffocating association with reactionary Colonel Blimps. Orwell's ability to do this tells us much about the way one man can turn opinion around and also much about the movements of ideas in a democratic society.

The concept of patriotism has a long and varied history. The Oxford English Dictionary traces its use as far back as the 16th century but its modern meaning, |excessive love of one's country combined with hatred of other nations and people' only surfaced in the mid-nineteenth century. (Dr. Johnson's famous saying that |Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel' is nearly always misunderstood because he was attacking a group of his Whig opponents.) The First World War finished the word among respectable people because of the excessive claims made for patriotism and the windy rhetoric that surrounded its use by politicians in all countries. Nurse Edith Cavell's final words before her execution in 1915 could serve as an epitaph for it: |patriotism is not enough'.

Western intellectuals in the 1920s and 30s heaped contempt on the very idea of love of country but they had a more difficult time finding a replacement for it as a unifying force. For some nihilism or sexual freedom became an alternative; for a larger group Marxism in the Soviet Union under Stalin was the answer. In their case Orwell said they had lost their patriotism and religious sense without losing the need for a god and a fatherland. When Orwell began to develop his own idiosyncratic philosophy in the mid-1930s none of these answers satisfied him. The approach of another war forced him to think seriously about where his real loyalties lay. Out of that emerged a powerful and fresh way of looking at patriotism.

Orwell's political evolution took a decade. His initial political views were similar to those of old fashioned English radicals like William Cobbett. He first embraced socialism because of his experiences among the unemployed workers while researching and writing The Road to Wigan Pier in 1936. This process was completed when he fought in the Spanish Civil War on the side of Catalan anarchists. But Orwell's socialism was always cranky. He took much pleasure in ridiculing the excesses of socialist ideologues, that |dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandalwearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who came flocking toward the smell of "progress" like blue-bottles to a dead cat'.

In 1938-1939 Orwell talked like a pacifist--the next war would be another capitalist conflict which would have nothing to do with the rights of the working class. But on the eve of the war he wrote in My Country Right or Left -- he had a dream in which he saw clearly that if England went to war he would have to fight on her side. Orwell's acceptance of the war and its responsibilities, his defence of patriotism is the other side of Orwell the Radical. …

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