“A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige… 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.” Thus wrote George Orwell, one of the most intellectually independent commentators of the 20th century, in a 1945 essay.
What is particularly interesting about this essay is the fact that Orwell does not apply ‘nationalism’ to just strong feelings about a real or putative nation state. He applies it to religious groups too, and to some political movements, including those on the Left. Hence, for Orwell, if he were living today, Islamism and Hindutva would both be versions of nationalism, as would be fascism, neoliberalism and, for that matter, Maoism.
This reading of nationalism is not entirely different from late 20th century readings, such as those by Benedict Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm and Ernest Gellner: all of these place nationalism in the context of a nation state or a bid to create a nation state. As has been noted by historians, the concept of nations and various kinds of patriotism had existed before the 19th century all over the world. For instance, gypsies and Jews were considered ‘nations’ in Europe in and before the 19th century. Hence, both Savarkar and Jinnah, following a common colonial discourse, saw ‘Muslims’ and ‘Hindus’ as ‘nations’ in pre-Independent India.
However, by the early 20th century, matters — and the meaning of ‘nation’ — had changed. From the 19th century onwards, an equation had started being made between the nation and the state. Not just Hindu and Muslim nationalists in pre-independent India, but almost all other peoples — Turks, Irish, English, Germans, Nazis, Zionists, etc. — had been swept along with this new equation of nation with state, erroneously considering it an age-old inheritance simply because both the terms ‘nation’ and ‘state’ could be traced into the far past.
This was the decisive error of the times, because until the 19th century a nation did not need to be a state. Actually, most states, from the Habsburg Empire through the Ottoman Empire to the Mughal Empire (and the British Raj in India), saw themselves as containing various nations. In this sense again, when 18th century European colonisers referred to India as a country of many ‘nations’ (‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ were not the only designations used by them), they did not mean that all these nations should be given their own states. This element was added to the colonial discourse by later colonisers and by Hindu and Muslim nationalists.
Hence, nationalism, as we know it today, is the late 19th and early 20th century belief that if you are a nation, you need a state, and if you are a state, you have to be (or become) a nation. When we apply the term ‘nationalism’ to any state or movement before the 19th century, we are basically (and erroneously) talking of patriotism — a very different concept from nationalism — and other forms of hegemony or identity.
Orwell would agree with this now-established perspective, but he would not stop there. He would argue that nationalism always aspires towards a state, but it can exist even without a state. For him, the Islamic State would be very much a nationalist movement. Actually, he would consider both Islamism — even when it does not insist on a state — and Hindutva as examples of nationalism. These are the elements (in his words) he would identify in them, apart from my initial quotation: “A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige.”
“Obsession: No nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit. The smallest slur upon his unit, or any implied praise of a rival organisation, fills him with uneasiness which he can only relieve by making some sharp retort.”
“Indifference to reality: Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.”
“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.”
“Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered. He spends part of his time in a fantasy world in which things happen as they should… and he will transfer fragments of this world into the history books whenever possible. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning.”
Interestingly, Orwell does not just distinguish between nationalism and patriotism, he implies that the two are basically opposed. After all, if ‘nationalism’ depends on blindness to justice, lack of self-criticism, obsession with others, and hallucinatory beliefs, surely it would prevent you from doing what is right and good for the people around you?