Historical Perspective

Nation and Nationalism

Subhendu Sarkar

Nationalism is once again the buzzword as it had been on a few earlier occasions in the post-1947 Indian political scenario. Today it is found to be uttered by almost everyone—from the judges of the Supreme Court and film personalities to the anchors of the TV channels and the public at the marketplace. But what strikes the eye is that at present the word is being invoked on a wide variety of issues and people are finding themselves sharply divided in their opinion regarding what nationalism actually connotes.

The word 'nationalism' first appeared in literature in 1798 but gained currency only since the late nineteenth century. However, 'nation', derived from Latin 'nationem' (breed/ race), has been in use in English language from the late thirteenth century in the sense of a group of people having blood relations. The modern meaning of the state as a territorial-juridical unit came into effect only from the seventeenth century onwards. Such coinage of a word as well as the change in meaning is never abrupt; in fact, any systematic analysis reveals that human ideas are shaped by the changing socio-economic conditions.

It is, however, interesting to note that 'nation' retains the original sense to a large extent. Many people still like to view nation as a homogeneous and terminal unit comprising people having a common bend (linguistic, racial, ethnic, religious, etc.). No doubt, it is the vestige of tribalism which has survived the process of societal development. It directly opposes the modern sense of nation which presupposes a heterogeneous society where people share allegiance to a civil state governed by a set of laws and run by a common economy. These two contradictory concepts of nation have, in fact, given rise to two differing notions about nationalism—one that feeds on primordial ties (something already given) and another that thrives on civic ties (something acquired with time for effective governance).

The change in meaning was inevitable. The parochialism was bound to dissolve with the mixing of diverse people necessitated by the socio-economic realities. As civilization progressed it became increasingly difficult to maintain the insularity of the tribal society. Since the feudal age the grouping of humans started to be gradually dictated by economics. The rupture was complete with the advent of capitalism which involves a large-scale displacement of population as well. But the primordial sentiment lingered on in the minds of people who conceived nation as an imagined community. It, however, would also surface from time to time with an emotional yearning to re-group themselves in the old form. This idea has even become the basis of political ideology.

Primordial attachments lead to two contradictory forms of nationalism—one emancipatory, another totalitarian. The anti-colonial struggles in the third-world countries were carried mostly in terms of nationalist ideology. Race, language and religion served a progressive and integrative purpose in uniting are sections of the colonial people against the imperialists to achieve self-determination. On the other hand, the same principles had also given birth to an extreme form of nationalism that advocated a doctrine of unswerving obedience to the monopolistic authority of the reactionary state that promoted majoritarianism. Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany are classic examples of this phenomenon. This reactionary nationalism gives a divisive call and whoever proves antagonistic to it has to bear the brunt.

The relation of nationalism with the state is undeniable. It was out of the question during the feudal times when the Roman Catholic Church held sway over the whole of Europe or later when the sovereigns, even after breaking away from papacy, ruled over peoples with varied primal principles. The foundation of the empires has been anything but primordial ties. Again, the modern state was born once the bourgeoisie became powerful enough to regulate territorial units to uphold their financial interests. It did not matter much whether there was a monarch as the constitutional head. The primordial attachment, in that case, gave way to civic loyalty because the capitalists needed people of all sorts living in unity within that geographical boundary which they came to see as the domestic market. It is natural that their nationalism would be inclusive in opposition to the primeval nationalism that is exclusionary. But it is also to be borne in mind that the capitalists could not always conduct business peacefully. Often there would be a clash of interests among themselves (both within and without the nation) that would sometimes turn out to be violent. The wars the monarchs fought came later to be substituted by wars fought by the bourgeoisie as empires had been replaced by modern nations. It was this aggressive form of nationalism that inevitably tended towards imperialism that Rabindranath Tagore condemned in unequivocal terms.

A discussion on nationalism, therefore, cannot avoid analyzing the nature of the modern state controlled by the bourgeoisie—the dominant economic class. Though the modern state claims to represent the interests of all the people, irrespective of their primordial attachments, and demands utmost loyalty from them to a set of laws it, in reality, protects and furthers the bourgeois cause alone. The peasants and workers who once sided with the capitalists against the feudal lords had been duped into believing that they would prosper once the bourgeoisie assumed power. But now they find themselves groaning under a repressive regime that treats them as resources to be exploited for profit. But what is interesting is that many of them fail to identify their oppressor due to lack of class consciousness. They dance to the various tunes of the bourgeoisie without feeling the need to be united as a class. That is the reason why they are affected by nationalist sentiment and fight and die for their respective nations. International solidarity of the working class becomes a distant dream.

The intriguing question is why a bourgeois state (not just a group of people) that should ideally ensure an inclusive society to promote smooth financial transactions would ever follow a reactionary policy and encourage social divisiveness within its boundary? This is suggestive of the fact that the state presents a combination of two contradictory outlooks and should be considered a separate category. In fact, it is this phenomenon that characterizes a fascist state. Essentially speaking, the fascist ideology is a construct of the pre-capitalist era based on primordial sentiments and, therefore, theoretically incompatible with it. It emerges in conditions of desperation like rampant poverty, unemployment and depression and appeals most to the petty bourgeoisie. More interested in hounding a scapegoat community (ethnic, religious or political) instead of investigating the objective socio-economic realities, it ultimately fails to find an answer to the economic problems it addresses. But it would be futile to deny its success in convincing millions of people and thereby expanding its support base, both in developed and undeveloped nations. But what about its attitude towards capitalism? Does it remain adverse to capitalism which prefers impartial treatment to all communities, at least outwardly? In fact, fascism, in modern times compromises its ideology to a certain extent and enters into a convenient deal with capitalism in order to come to power and retain its hold. Ignoring capitalism would jeopardize the necessary financial support that fascism needs to defeat the progressive forces. As a result, it adopts the dual policy of social divisiveness and economic growth. On the other hand, the capitalist forces too take the opportunity to finance fascism in the hope that the ruthlessness of its ideology will prove useful in establishing invincible monopoly of capitalism in the state.

It is well to remember that both 'nation' and 'nationalism' are products of time and are, therefore, impermanent. No matter how absolute they might appear at a given point a study of history reveals that frontiers have constantly been shaped and reshaped to recognize new nations. And national consciousness which derives its sustenance from the literate middle-class population has both progressive and regressive aspects. It initially helps to bring about development by routing stagnant feudal economy or combating the imperialist economy but in the end serves the aspirations ol a minor section of the people who are in power (the bourgeoisie) doing little to address the tribulations of poverty and unemployment that are the bane of the majority for whom nationalism is a luxury hard to afford. Emotional attachment with one's nation (a geographical area where one was born and has a common bond with others having similar cultural background) is the consequence of primordial ties that the bourgeois state exploits to further its own interests, economic and military. What remains to be done, therefore, is to launch a relentless struggle in order to raise awareness of the people—who benefit little and suffer more under the bourgeois regime—regarding the machinations of the capitalist misrule and make them realize that truth and humanity are concepts of much higher realm than nationalism.

Vol. 49, No.26, Jan 1 - 7, 2017