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Notes On Nationalism Essay

A prominent intellectual at a recent private meeting was asked the difference between nationalism and patriotism. His response was similar to the explanation Justice Potter Stewart once offered on the difference between “obscene speech” (i.e. porn) and “protected speech”: “I know it when I see it.”

George Orwell, in his essay Notes on Nationalism, offered a much better answer.

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.

It’s a clear and simple distinction. Patriotism is primarily a feeling, Orwell implies, hence its defensive nature. Nationalism seeks something. It is desirous of power. Prestige.

Orwell notes that the World War II-era nations of Germany and Japan are the most obvious and notorious examples of nationalism. However, in the essay he complains more than once that the word “nationalism” fails to fully capture the meaning of the emotion he’s attempting to describe. (“I am only using the word ‘nationalism for lack of a better,” he writes.)

He explains shortly thereafter what he means.

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. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade.

Nationhood, Orwell makes clear, has nothing to do with nation-states. At its heart is political fanaticism, or, more acutely, deep-seated tribalism.

The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side. On the contrary, having picked his side, he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. 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 — unshakeably certain of being in the right.

Forgive me for saying so, but this last part seemed to hit rather close to home. By home, I mean modern America. (And I'm not talking about the spike in usage of the phrase "post-truth.")

The idea that modern Americans “live in echo chambers” is a concept so worn one hesitates to use the phrase, lest they lose points for reciting a cliché. But that seems to be precisely the idea Orwell was getting at.  

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.

In fact, according to Orwell’s definition of the term, one could look at modern America and ask: Are we all nationalists now?

My hunch is that most people would answer, without a sense of irony, "I’m not; but they are."


Jon Miltimore is senior editor of Intellectual Takeout. Follow him on Facebook.

Here is an essay on ‘Nationalism’ for class 11 and 12. Find paragraphs, long and short essays on ‘Nationalism’ especially written for school and college students.

Essay on Nationalism

Essay Contents:
  1. Essay on the Meaning of Nationalism
  2. Essay on Imperialism as an Aggressive Form of Nationalism
  3. Essay on the Merits of Nationalism
  4. Essay on the Demerits of Nationalism

Essay # 1. Meaning of Nationalism:

The exclusive right of the people of a country to form an independent and separate political existence is called nationalism. It is based on the tribal instinct of a man to lead a gregarious life. It is at the same time a psychological expression of kinship. Those people who claim a common peculiar social heritage and a common culture in art and literature have a tendency to nurture a feeling of nationalism. It is rooted in a common past.

According to A. E. Zimmer – “Nationalism is a sentiment to share the glories of the past, to have done great deeds together, to have a common will in the present and a desire to do more in the future.”

The concept of nationalism is of recent growth. It was unknown in the ancient or medieval period. “That India without the Indians is no India and that there were Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians all over the country, lacking, however the feelings of nationalism” was the observation of Russi Modi.

In the feudal period of the medieval age, the state was considered a personal property of the King, and the people had nothing to do with the state. In the seventeenth century the Commercial Revolution took place in Europe and it could not brook the feudal barriers. The industrialists who emerged as a new effective class in the wake of the Commercial Revolution clamoured for one state for one nationality.

It was the Tudors under whose wings a strong centralised state was established in England. This system travelled to France with the French Revolution, which threw to the wind the feudal barriers. Nationalism was the great ideal of the nineteenth century Europe. The idea that a nation has “natural rights” was first formulated as a proposition with universal validity during the French Revolution.

Napoleon’s army helped to spread the novel ideas of the French Revolution far afield Europe, where the creation of the nation-state gradually became the accepted goal. The national awakening of the Germans occurred after the Prussian disaster at Jena in 1806. The Congress of Vienna of 1815 denied the new legitimacy of the nation.

A century later, the Austrian empire was to die as a result of this refusal. In the mid-nineteenth century central Europe was rocked by the slogan of one state one nationality. In Asia it culminated in the Quit India campaign of Mahatma Gandhi in 1942.

Geographical unity, common history and common culture are other factors that are woven into the texture of nationalism.

Essay # 2. Imperialism as an Aggressive Form of Nationalism:

Internationalism is a perverted form of nationalism. This arises out of egoistic concept of one’s own nationalism that the laws and civilisation of one’s own country are superior to those of other nations. This pampers the racial feelings and degenerates into chauvinism or bellicose nationalism.

Thus the so-called superior nations in a bid to parade their superiority grabbed more and more territories belonging to weaker nations. Gradually they extended their cultural roof over the occupied areas and finally ruled over those occupied territories. In this way comes in imperialism which is a virtual machinery of exploitation.

Imperialism stands for a creed which believes in a common system of law and government over people of different stages of culture. Thus the essence of imperialism is “unification and assimilation” of less advanced and weaker people by the more advanced ones. A classic example of imperialism is the British Raj over India from the middle of the eighteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century.

The Industrial Revolution and the naval supremacy of England made England a big power and she began to grab the backward areas of Asia and Africa. England would drain away all important raw materials like cotton and jute from India and would make fine clothes out of these materials and sell these commodities in India at a very high price.

Imperialist England became fat and rich by the gains from her colonies in India. Thus colonialism is an accompanying trait of imperialism.

Essay # 3. Merits of Nationalism:

The following are the major merits of nationalism:

In the first place, nationalism creates the birth right of every set of people to aspire for an independent political life.

According to C.D. Burns:

“There is some special quality in every group which must be preserved in the interests of whole humanity. This quality can only be preserved if each group of people has an opportunity for characteristic development of its own laws and institutions.”

Thus nationalism has offered an opportunity to every set of people to contribute their distinctive share to the world civilisation and literature.

In the second place, nationalism gave rise to a healthy spirit of national rivalry and thereby-added to the enrichment of culture and improved standard of living. This is responsible for the advancement of every nation politically by the intercourse of contact, competition and antagonism.

If all groups of people would live together and were controlled by a common government, this would destroy their special character and rather degenerate them into so many uniform commodities.

In the third place, the states founded on national sentiment are more lasting and the laws therein are better obeyed than those states which are conglomerations of various nationalities artificially subjected to a common authority.

In the fourth place, nationalistic states are more democratic. It is seen that the people readily obey the authorities of the national states than that of a state having several nationalities. So J. W. Burgess rightly observed- “The national state solves the problem of the relation of sovereignty to liberty so that while it is the most powerful political organisation that the world has ever produced, it is still the freest”

Lastly, the spirit of nationalism stimulates an inherent desire in the people to make themselves free and independent from the foreign rule. India and many other countries of the third world got their freedom because they felt that they constituted a separate identity. But for such a feeling India could not attain her independence from the yoke of England.

Essay # 4. Demerits of Nationalism:

The following are the main drawbacks of nationalism:

In the first place, the extreme form of nationalism degenerates into jingoism. Breaking away of Ireland from Britain might be welcome, but if Scotland too wants to have an independent state it will not only weaken Britain but will make herself a very weak state.

It is to meet the lust for the small states to have independence that led to the outbreak of the two World Wars. In the name of nationalism, crores of rupees were wasted to the benefit of none. So nationalism is not always desirable.

In the second place, nationalism breeds pride and self-interest.

Thomas Hare rightly observed:

“Nationalism is a proud and boastful habit of mind about one’s nation accompanied by a hostile attitude towards other nations. It admits that individual citizens of one’s nationality are always right whereas others are always wrong. It is prejudiced and inhuman. It is a mania and an exaggerated egoism.”

According to Rabindranath Tagore:

“Nationalism is an organised self-interest of the whole people and the organisation of politics and commerce for selfish ends and an organised power for exploitation.”

In the third place, nationalism may go to disturb the world peace. If there is no end of nationalism, international peace and order will be a far cry. Although nationalism has been a potent force in the making of the World War, it has produced aggressive patriotism and has caused the disintegration of several empires and inspired many struggle for freedom from foreign yoke.

But nationalism in the hands of the industrially progressive countries degenerated into imperialism, which holds the country above humanity aiming in the weakness of other nations and opportunity for political domination and economic exploitation. One nation seizes its neighbour’s throat and keeps him quiet. But peace cannot come from suppression of the neighbours.

It can come only in having confidence and trust in each other, from goodwill and tolerance between nations. Unfortunately, the spirit of militant nationalism gave rise to two global conflagrations, which cause enormous loss of life and property. In protest against the ugly consequences of aggressive nationalism, the public opinion of the world is shifting in favour of establishing a brotherhood among mankind.

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