Orwell’s Nation

I was reminded today of Wat Tyler, by a fantastic essay written by Dave Semple, which made me think of a narrative that ran through my thinking when I was starting to find my political feet; how do I operate an understanding of nation set with my increasingly internationalist outlook, and if I count the Peasant’s Revolt among my idea of what I like about my country, does this inform a nationalism or patriotism?

I grew up in Basildon, which runs close to Billericay (a restaurant of which is mentioned in Orwell’s Down and Out – just to point to a tenuous link) which was part of the trail to Blackheath, where John Ball, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw and the other Kentish rebels sparked the first protests. My early school life paid homage (I’m not using words synonymous with Orwell for nothing here) to the revolt by constantly taking trips to the local country park, aptly named Wat Tyler country park – a hot spot for soft drugs, and ones elementary encounter with contrarian thought. My flag-waving, ex-military, monarchy loving (yet) left of centre parents (as well as an influential Trade Unionist, Christian, Daily Mail reading socialist Grandad), along with a basic mistrust of the middle classes informed by Wat Tyler introduced me to a wacky world of socialism and patriotism (the former of the two being because, though slightly cherry-picked to suit, I felt inspired by some of the palatable elements of British history).

Some good eggs in the SWP encouraged me to read what I considered to be inharmonious socialist materials on this subject; namely Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, two books one on Cuban history one on Russian, and then Orwell’s said essay. I’ve still not fully recovered, and I still haven’t entirely made up my mind. I buy into Anderson’s basic premise that nation is a false border, but then it’s weak on the realistic need for borders. He’s right about the arbitrariness of political blocs based on muscle, but it’s a dated premise when we start to look at European capitalism, labour exchange and borders. But is it possible to hold patriotic views as a socialist? Yes, provided you buy into the arbitrariness of borders, realise that though necessary, they have come about in history partly from empire and imperial muscle, and that you mix generously nationalism with internationalism where appropriate.

Orwell avowedly wrote that nationalism

It does not necessarily mean loyalty to a government or a country, still less to one’s own country

which suits me, because it is first and foremost a style of governance that informs my political outlook, and this transcends borders, but there is a feeling of indebtedness to a country you can call your own and to which you identify many positive aspects, and for me Wat Tyler is embedded in that fabric, but I should, too, acknowledge that I am more informed by my politics than an unceasing love of my nation – which could at any time collapse, and I think is politically a weak element anyway.