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Contours of nationalism

A festschrift to Gopalkrishna Gandhi, The Fourth Lion — edited by VM Govindu and S Raghavan — is a thematic collection of essays by individuals from various fields; Excerpts:

Contours of nationalism
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The term 'nationalism' is often used as a homogeneous, undesirable category in much of the discussions in the West. But 'nationalism' is not a homogeneous category. The anti-imperialist nationalism that informed the struggles of the oppressed colonial peoples must be distinguished from the aggrandizing 'nationalism' of those who oppressed them: for instance, Gandhi's or Ho Chi Minh's nationalism must be distinguished from Churchill's.

The concept of 'nationalism' that developed in seventeenth-century Europe in the wake of the Westphalian peace treaties was of the aggrandizing variety: it was majoritarian (which located an enemy 'within'); it was imperialist (each European 'nation' vied with other European 'nations' for overseas territory); and it apotheosized the 'nation' by placing it above the people, meaning that the 'nation's' interest was not synonymous with a better life for the people. Rather, it demanded that the people should make sacrifices for the sake of the 'nation'. It was an era of what Marx had termed the 'primitive accumulation of capital', which an emerging bourgeoisie in each European country was busy carrying out.

The broad characteristics of this bourgeois nationalism remained unchanged over time, though the specific class configuration that sustained it kept changing. The finance capitals that developed in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, and caused intense rivalry among European powers for imperial possessions (or for a 'repartitioning of the world' as Lenin had put it), aggressively promoted the aggrandizing kind of 'national-ism'. In fact, Rudolf Hilferding would identify a 'glorification of the national idea' as the ideology of finance capital. This intense inter-imperialist rivalry eventually culminated in the First World War which saw 'nationalism' as the rallying cry for the war effort—a phenomenon captured, among others, by Erich Maria Remarque in his classic novel, All Quiet on the Western Front.

The Bolshevik Revolution was the first major blow against this concept of 'nationalism', but the defeat of proletarian revolutions elsewhere in Europe, followed by the Great Depression and the subsequent massive unemployment, reinforced this 'nationalism' in the horrendous form of fascism. It is only with the defeat of fascism that this form of 'nationalism' retreated from Europe (of which the formation of the European Union was a symptom); though lately, signs of its recrudescence have erupted once again, causing deep concern among the European Left.

The nationalism that developed over much of the third world in the twentieth century, and that informed their anti-imperialist struggles, was al-together different. It was inclusive, drawing all segments of the people into the anti-imperialist struggle; indeed it had to be so, since in each country it faced a mighty imperial power. There was, therefore, no question of any particular religious or ethnic group being considered the 'enemy with-in', though the imperial powers made concerted efforts to promote ethnic and communal divisions among the people to weaken the struggle against them. Secondly, this nationalism was not itself imperialist, but rather built bridges with other oppressed people to fortify its struggle against its overwhelmingly powerful adversary. Finally, it envisioned 'national interest' as synonymous with the interests of the people, with an improvement in their condition of life; the question of people making only sacrifices for a metaphysical entity called the 'nation' standing above them did not arise. The purpose of the nation, to borrow Gandhi's words in the Indian context, was to 'wipe away the tears from the eyes of every Indian'.

The question may be raised: if the class roots of the 'nationalism' that came to the fore in Europe lay, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at any rate, in the ascendancy of finance capital, or monopoly capital as some would put it, then why didn't monopoly capital in countries like India, where it had developed considerably even before Independence, promote a similar aggrandizing nationalism? Why did it go along with a different concept of nationalism?

The answer is twofold: first, even monopoly capital in pre-independence India was constrained by the colonial regime and suffered from not having access to state power, unlike its counterparts in Europe; hence, it had to join the anti-colonial struggle. Second, the anti-colonial struggle was a multi-class struggle, over which the monopoly bourgeoisie, even when it was in a leading position, did not have exclusive control. Even if it had wished to exercise control and to use such control to promote an aggrandizing nationalism, it could not have done so.

Building a 'nation' in the newly independent countries, in keeping with the vision projected during the anti-imperialist struggles, was a novel and arduous task, the like of which had never been attempted before. (In this task, as it turned out, much of the third world failed eventually.) In India, the first-ever articulation of this vision was in the Karachi Congress Resolution in 1931, which painted a picture of what an independent India would look like.

Though capitalism itself, given its immanent tendency to generate wealth at one pole and poverty at another, was recognized as being subversive of the project of realizing this vision, it was felt by the nation's leadership at Independence that if capitalism was controlled and made to fit into a wider framework of a mixed economy, with the public sector occupying the 'commanding heights', then it could still serve a useful purpose.

Accordingly, a unique regime, which blended public and private sectors, was developed after Independence in the realm of the economy, while in the realm of the polity, a government formed through universal adult franchise was to wield executive powers within a constitutional framework that guaranteed everyone a set of fundamental rights (the way the Karachi Congress Resolution had envisaged).

What is important for our present discussion is that notwithstanding obvious failures on the economic front, and many questionable actions of the state that often violated the premises of our anti-imperialist nationalism, the nation did not for a very long time repudiate the basic ideological framework of our nationhood, defined by this inclusive, non-imperialist, and people-centric nationalism, which was totally different from its European counterpart. The official commitment to this nationalism, whose concrete expression was a secular, democratic, and egalitarian order, remained unimpaired.

All this, however, has changed now. The 'nationalism' that is being promoted currently is akin to the aggrandizing European variety. It emphasizes the presence of an 'enemy within' comprising the Muslims, and the intelligentsia that remains committed to the inclusive, people-centric, and non-hegemonic 'nationalism'. It places a metaphysical notion of a 'nation' above the people, with 'national interest' having little to do with an improvement in the material condition of people's lives. And it believes in exercising hegemony, if not over the outside world as yet (that would be difficult in today's setting), then at least over the regions of the country itself whose autonomy it believes in undermining in a manner suggestive of internal colonialism. It is instructive that Articles 370 and 371 of the Constitution, which had been incorporated precisely to accommodate different regions with their specificities within the Indian union by providing a certain flexibility to our federal structure, are being summarily and unilaterally repudiated through a mere resolution of the parliament passed by a simple majority.

The question arises: how did we move from one notion of 'nationalism' to another that essentially is its very opposite. What was the process of this movement and its class basis?


The first step in this shift was the introduction of economic 'liberalization' in the country, in particular after 1991. The shift to a neoliberal regime did not just mean a change in economic policies. It brought about a change in the class configuration in the country. It hitched the country to a global scenario which had been marked by the hegemony of international finance capital.

Starting from the 1970s, the globalization of capital flows, including, above all, of financial flows, had led to a situation where the world, instead of being divided into separate spheres, each dominated by a particular country's finance capital, had now become open for the more or less unrestricted movement of a new entity, an international finance capital whose country of origin hardly mattered. Since the state remained a nation state, the openness of any country to cross-border capital flows, including financial flows, meant that the state had to act willy-nilly according to the demands of this globalized or international finance capital, for fear that not doing so would frighten finance into leaving the country en masse causing a financial crisis. Retaining the confidence of globalized finance became the overriding concern of the nation state. And this finance was not just what originated abroad; it also included domestic capital which was now integrated with globalized finance.

(Excerpted with permission from The Fourth Lion; published by Aleph Book Company)


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