‘My Country Right or Left’ is a 1940 essay by George Orwell, in which he reflects on his childhood memories of the First World War and outlines why he supports the Second World War, which had broken out the year before. However, as with many of Orwell’s essays, he makes some surprising statements in the course of his analysis of the British attitude to war.
You can read ‘My Country Right or Left’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Orwell’s essay below.
‘My Country Right or Left’: summary
Orwell begins ‘My Country Right or Left’ by recalling his childhood schooldays. A schoolboy during the First World War, Orwell confides that the sinking of the Titanic, two years before the outbreak of the war, left more of an impression on him than anything he heard about during the war itself.
He does, however, recall three vivid memories from the outbreak of the war: an irreverent cartoon of ‘Kaiser’ Wilhelm II of Germany, in late July 1914 shortly before war was declared on Germany; the army commandeering the horses in Orwell’s hometown for the war effort; and a group of young men at a railway station frantically buying newspapers containing the latest reports of the war in France. He also remembers the appearance of the artillerymen during the war itself, and, towards the end of the war, how food shortages impacted his family and what they ate. He was largely oblivious to the mass carnage of the war happening across the English Channel.
Orwell recalls that, after the war, those young soldiers who had fought in the conflict resented their slightly younger peers who hadn’t fought, because they saw the non-combatant youths as soft. Many children of Orwell’s age had ‘one-eyed pacifism’: an opposition to war that was largely founded on ignorance and an inability to see the bigger picture. But as the years passed, Orwell’s generation came to feel that they had ‘missed’ out on something in being too young to experience the war themselves.
Indeed, he believes that this partly drove his own generation’s enthusiasm to participate in the Spanish Civil War in the second half of the 1930s – a war which was, Orwell observes, often markedly similar in its trench warfare to the Great War of 1914-18.
Orwell concludes by stating why he supports the current war against Hitler and the Axis powers. He sees resistance as the only option, drawing parallels with the Republican resistance to Franco during the Spanish Civil War and the Chinese resistance to Japan during the Sino-Japanese War (two conflicts which preceded the outbreak of the Second World War by several years).
Orwell pierces the widely held belief that patriotism is more or less synonymous with conservatism: Orwell, no conservative, and someone who had little time for Neville Chamberlain’s Tory government, states baldly that ‘Patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism.’ Conservatism applies belief in something that remains constant, but patriotism is actually, Orwell argues, ‘a devotion to something that is changing’; it is merely ‘felt to be mystically the same’, but this is merely a feeling rather than the reality.
To prove this point, Orwell asserts that his own patriotic devotion to England is bound up with his belief that ‘Only revolution can save’ it, and he believes the revolution has already started. Orwell returns to his early childhood experiences, of ‘an atmosphere tinged with militarism’ and the ‘sound of bugles’. He would rather have such a devotion to his country than be one of the modern ‘left-wing intellectuals’ who are incapable of feeling such things.
‘My Country Right or Left’: analysis
‘My Country Right or Left’: the title is a play on the patriotic slogan ‘my country, right or wrong’, which has its origins in the United States. The American Stephen Decatur used a slightly different version of this phrase in an after-dinner toast in the early 1800s (‘Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!’) but it later became abridged to ‘My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.’
Orwell takes this well-known expression of unthinking patriotism – jingoism, even – and plays on the double meaning of ‘right’ as both ‘morally correct’ and ‘right-wing’ or conservative, in order to argue that he will be loyal to England, his own country, regardless of political beliefs in either left- or right-wing causes.
Throughout ‘My Country Right or Left’, Orwell explores his own patriotic sense of devotion to England, while also acknowledging the complex and often conflicted nature of this patriotism. In order to save England – subtly different from the idea of preserving it as it is – revolution, even bloody revolution, may be necessary, he asserts. He feels it is almost an act of ‘sacrilege’ not to stand up when he hears the national anthem, yet acknowledges that such a patriotic impulse is ‘childish’ of him.
Such an impulse is instinctive, and Orwell’s patriotism is instinctive: it reaches beyond rational discourse. But precisely because it goes beyond the intellectual, it enables him to connect with other English people who feel a similar sense of pride in their country.
Indeed, Orwell is glad he was raised to have such a love and respect for his country, since it enables him to ‘understand the most ordinary emotions’ which other people feel. In other words, patriotism binds together a group of people who belong to that country, and the emotional power of such a connection is important, especially at such a time as 1940 when the very survival of England is under threat thanks to Hitler.
These days especially, it is so easy to equate ‘patriotic’ with ‘conservative’ or ‘right-wing’, but Orwell pushes against the idea that the two should be conflated. In one of many intriguing paradoxes associated with Orwell’s political beliefs, ‘My Country Right or Left’ offers a portrait of a writer who is that rare thing: both a revolutionary longing for change and a man in love with his country’s rich past. Like the old philosophical adage that ‘nothing is permanent except change’, it may be that England can only be saved through being changed in a dramatic and significant way.