Two Concepts of Nationalism and Their Economic Markers

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The Westphalian peace treaties in 1648 which ended the thirty years’ and the eighty years’ wars in Europe are considered to have ushered in the era of nationalism and nation-states in that continent. But the concept of “nationalism” that emerged there, as Akeel Bilgrami has underscored, was a non-secular majoritarian concept, which invoked both Christianity, and a sense of “otherness”, shading into oppression, towards various domestic minorities.

There was however another aspect of this nationalism. The concept of coexistence of nation-states, each committed to non-interference in the internal affairs of others, which the Westphalian peace is supposed to have pioneered, did not preclude massive interference, and indeed outright colonial conquest, directed at other people. Within months of the Westphalian treaties, Oliver Cromwell’s army had conquered Ireland and confiscated most of its land. And Spanish conquistadores had brought in vast amounts of gold looted from the “new world” in the years just preceding the Westphalian treaties, an inflow which underlay the massive seventeenth century price inflation in Europe that gave birth to capitalism, according to Keynes. The nationalism that emerged in Europe in the aftermath of the Westphalian peace therefore entailed not only the oppression of hapless domestic minorities but also the conquest and subjugation of distant lands, and acute rivalry between major European nation-states in the pursuit of such subjugation, resulting in wars among them, often through proxies, in those distant lands. Such subjugation in other words, far from being antithetical to the emerging concept of “nationalism”, was integral to it.

This emerging “nationalism” in Europe, which was a bourgeois nationalism - championed above all, by and large mercantile capital, and expressed inter alia in the doctrines of “mercantilism” in Europe - was by its very nature, a quest for hegemony over other people. The so-called peaceful coexistence of different nation-states within Europe was accompanied by intense conflicts between them overseas. And at the economic level the objective which this nationalism set for itself was: how do we increase the wealth of the “nation”?

The mercantilist writers, among whom were many of the leading lights of the English East India Company, answered this question by asserting that the wealth of a nation consisted in the magnitude of precious metals, gold and silver that it possessed, and hence it is this magnitude which had to be augmented. Adam Smith gave a radically different answer to this question, namely that the wealth of a nation consisted in the magnitude of output it produced, or, more accurately, in the magnitude of “stock” (i.e. capital) in its possession which activated the employment of workers that produced this output; but he too, as the title of his opus makes clear, was concerned with the wealth of the nation. Contrary to what is commonly supposed, Classical Political Economy was concerned not with an improvement in the condition of humanity at large but with the wealth of the nation of its origin.

“Laissez faire” and “free trade” which are held up as the key to universal prosperity actually constitute the agenda of specific nations and act to the detriment of others, is a point worth remembering in the current period when they are again being pushed at international fora. At the WTO for instance even the public distribution system for foodgrains which exists in some third world countries (including India) and which prevents an even grimmer scenario of mass hunger than currently prevails in those countries, is sought to be undermined by the argument that the operation of such a system is “market distorting” and violates the principle of “free trade”. And this argument ironically is advanced by countries whose own subsidies for agriculture in many cases almost equal the entire GDP originating from their agricultural sector! It is essential therefore that we go behind the pretensions of classical political economy, that it is concerned with universal betterment, and see the national agenda that informed it.

Later writers such as Paul Samuelson who interpreted David Ricardo’s theory of “comparative advantage” as a way of increasing world output through a removal of the barriers to trade, and hence as being concerned with the well-being of humanity as a whole, gave that theory, and by association classical political economy as a whole, a gloss which it never actually had. Ricardo’s own example with which he illustrated his theory of “comparative advantage”, of both England and Portugal producing wine and cloth in the pre-trade situation, compared to which trade brought about a vectorwise increase in the total output of both commodities taking the two countries together, through inducing specialization, of England in cloth and of Portugal in wine, had been an absurd one to start with; this is because England could never produce wine anyway. Besides, the historical experience of “deindustrialization” imposed through colonial rule upon countries like India underscored the absolute falsity of the Ricardian theory, the fact that the “universal” benefits it talked about was merely a cover for the benefit of one country at the expense of another, for the augmentation of the wealth of one nation at the expense of another.

Classical political economy in other words was no less concerned with augmenting the wealth of the nation of its origin than Frederich List was to be later, who advocated protectionism instead of “laissez faire”. They were both concerned with their respective nations; the only difference lay in the fact that in one case, for historical reasons (since England had been the pioneer of the industrial revolution and could out-compete other nations in the absence of their adopting protectionist policies), “laissez faire” was the key to such augmentation, while in the other, again for historical reasons, having to do with the late arrival of their countries on the scene of industrial capitalism, the key to augmenting wealth lay in protectionism.

This point, namely that “laissez faire” and “free trade” which are held up as the key to universal prosperity actually constitute the agenda of specific nations and act to the detriment of others, is a point worth remembering in the current period when they are again being pushed at international fora. At the WTO for instance even the public distribution system for foodgrains which exists in some third world countries (including India) and which prevents an even grimmer scenario of mass hunger than currently prevails in those countries, is sought to be undermined by the argument that the operation of such a system is “market distorting” and violates the principle of “free trade”. And this argument ironically is advanced by countries whose own subsidies for agriculture in many cases almost equal the entire GDP originating from their agricultural sector! It is essential therefore that we go behind the pretensions of classical political economy, that it is concerned with universal betterment, and see the national agenda that informed it.

There is however an intriguing aspect to the national agenda of classical political economy. Accepting that the wealth of the nation consisted in the magnitude of stock it had accumulated (and hence indirectly in the magnitude of the flow of goods it produced), what was this wealth good for? What was the rationale behind increasing it? The real wage rate in Ricardo was tied to a subsistence level (admittedly not to a biologically-determined level but to some historically changing level of subsistence); hence a larger wealth, i.e. “stock”, could only employ a larger work-force but could not provide this work-force with a higher real wage rate. (Ricardo’s prescription for an increase in real wage rate was that workers should restrict their procreative proclivities, which is a completely separate issue unrelated to the level of “stock”). The larger “stock” therefore was of no benefit to the workers (since larger numbers of them do not per se bring any benefits to workers). Adam Smith argued that real wages would be higher during the process of accumulation than in a stationary state when it would slide back to some lower level, no matter what the level of capital stock that was associated with such a stationary state. But this again logically precluded the workers from enjoying any benefits from a larger level of wealth.

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But it is not just the workers; even the capitalists did not enjoy any benefits from the larger wealth of the nation. In fact in Ricardo (and let us focus on his work as the soundest logical development of classical political economy) in the stationary state, the rate of profit and hence the level of profit was zero, i.e. the entire income of the capitalists became nil. True, they owned a larger stock of capital but such a larger stock per se conferred no tangible economic benefits upon them. The highest level to which wealth could accumulate in other words was one where the capitalists derived zero economic benefits from it. And of course during the course of accumulation, even when the rate of profit had not fallen to zero, the capitalists, since they are bent upon accumulating capital, got no economic benefits from their possession of wealth anyway. Hence the only segment that actually enjoyed the fruits of accumulation was the class of landlords, the magnitude of whose rents increased through it, and reached its highest level in the stationary state. But then if an increase in the wealth of the nation brought tangible benefits only to the class of landlords then it hardly seemed a worthwhile national project at all, at least on the “benefits-conferred” criterion. Marx was to applaud Ricardo for supporting accumulation by capitalists, even though he believed that such accumulation would lead only to a vanishing of the capitalists’ incomes. This position of Ricardo, to him, meant that Ricardo placed the development of productive forces above the narrow specific interests of the class to which he belonged and which he represented, namely the class of the bourgeoisie. But this was an extrinsic assessment of Ricardo, not Ricardo’s own way of looking at why accumulation should be supported. Indeed, the level of development of the productive forces under capitalism, which brings no tangible benefits to the working population under this system itself, becomes relevant only because of the potential benefits it can confer upon this population in a mode of production transcending capitalism. But such transcendence is not what Ricardo had visualized. As Marx himself had said, the outlook of classical political economy had been that “till now there has been history but henceforth there will be none”. How then did classical political economy justify the quest for an increase in the wealth of the nation?

No matter whether in periods of war or of peace among the nation-states of Europe, bourgeois nationalism was always characterized by the internal oppression of the minorities and the external subjugation of colonized peoples. These two traits were heightened in the period of ascendancy of finance capital starting from around the beginning of the twentieth century and reached pathological levels under European fascism, but they constituted a perennial hallmark of bourgeois nationalism.

It obviously saw something valuable in a nation possessing a larger capital stock, a larger work-force and a larger output, which are all markers of national power and national standing. Classical political economy in other words, even though it rejected the mercantilist conception of what constituted national wealth by substituting capital stock for gold and silver, did not reject the mercantilist notion of why an increase in national wealth was desirable; it too, no doubt implicitly, believed, like the mercantilists, that an increase in the wealth of a nation augmented its power. Bourgeois nationalism in short, no matter which version of it we consider, was imbued with the desirability of augmenting the nation’s power through an increase in its capital stock and output (even though this output was not meant to increase the living standard of its working population) and of subjugating other people for this purpose.

The Westphalian idea of the peaceful coexistence of nation-states in Europe was obviously jettisoned not just because of revolutionary wars such as the one following the French Revolution, but also because of acute inter-imperialist rivalry such as what characterized the first half of the twentieth century; but no matter whether in periods of war or of peace among the nation-states of Europe, bourgeois nationalism was always characterized by the internal oppression of the minorities and the external subjugation of colonized peoples. These two traits were heightened in the period of ascendancy of finance capital starting from around the beginning of the twentieth century and reached pathological levels under European fascism, but they constituted a perennial hallmark of bourgeois nationalism (and constitute a feature of the current bourgeois “internationalism” in the metropolis, which corresponds to the era of hegemony of international finance capital, and which, notwithstanding the fact that inter-imperialist rivalries get muted, does not violate bourgeois nationalism in this broader sense; we do not however address this question here).

II

The nationalism that informed the anti-colonial struggle in third world countries like India on the other hand was one that actually aimed to liberate the people from the state of subjugation that bourgeois nationalism of the metropolis had inflicted upon them. This nationalism therefore had an altogether different origin and an altogether different set of characteristics. It was marked by at least three basic differences compared to the bourgeois nationalism that had emerged in Europe. First, since it sought to throw off subjugation by a powerful colonial power, it was necessarily inclusive, seeking to unite as many people as was possible in the struggle against imperialism. It invoked the concept of the people as a whole constituting the nation, even as it forged the concept of the nation itself in the course of this struggle. It was therefore not a majoritarian religious nationalism of the post-Westphalian kind, but necessarily a secular anti-imperialist nationalism, which actually sought to rise above any religious “nationalism” by actually pitting itself against the latter. Whether in Egypt or India, or Indonesia or Algeria, a secular nationalist anti-colonial movement had to engage in a struggle against religious fundamentalism, and other divisive forms of “communalism”. (In fact imperialism was to use this very contradiction later, and exploit religious and “communal” forces for “rolling back” secular nationalist movements and governments that had emerged out of confrontations against it; but the outcome of such “rolling back” as shown by the recent experience of the middle east has not always been to its satisfaction).

I do not wish to present an idealized picture of the anti-imperialist nationalism of the third world. Within the stream represented by this nationalism no doubt there were persons, even leaders, with religious fundamentalist attitudes; and since the bourgeoisie was a constituent of the anti-imperialist struggle, and even in countries like India, established and retained its hegemony over this struggle, elements of what I have called bourgeois nationalism seeped into this anti-imperialist nationalism as well. Indeed many have seen in the attitude of the post-colonial Indian State towards Kashmir and the North-East a desire for hegemony that is no different from what had informed bourgeois nationalism in the European metropolis. But notwithstanding the admixtures that did exist in practice, this anti-imperialist nationalism was conceptually and self-consciously different from the bourgeois nationalism of the metropolis.

The second difference lay in the fact that inclusive nationalism of this kind presented an economic agenda to the people that emphasized as national goals not so much the growth of capital stock or of output per se, as the elimination of poverty, hunger and misery to which they had been pushed because of their colonial subjugation. Its focus was not national power and the creation of national wealth towards this end, which bourgeois nationalism had emphasized, but rather, as Gandhi put it in the Indian context, on “wiping away the tears from the eyes of every Indian”. Indeed such an economic agenda constituted the very condition for the growth of this secular nationalism. In India for instance the growth of the anti-colonial struggle acquired unprecedented vigour when the peasantry that had been pushed into crisis and distress during the Great Depression of the 1930s joined the ranks of this struggle; and this joining was facilitated by the Karachi Congress resolution that presented a picture of free India where such distress would not be allowed to recur. National power and national glory in other words were considered less important by this nationalism than the welfare of the people.

The third difference lay in the fact that the agenda of this inclusive nationalism did not entail hegemony over other people. On the contrary, since the anti-imperialist struggle had to be fought against an extremely powerful enemy, the emphasis was on solidarity with other third world liberation movements, with making common cause with other oppressed nations rather than launching a programme of oppressing other nations. I do not wish to present an idealized picture of the anti-imperialist nationalism of the third world. Within the stream represented by this nationalism no doubt there were persons, even leaders, with religious fundamentalist attitudes; and since the bourgeoisie was a constituent of the anti-imperialist struggle, and even in countries like India, established and retained its hegemony over this struggle, elements of what I have called bourgeois nationalism seeped into this anti-imperialist nationalism as well. Indeed many have seen in the attitude of the post-colonial Indian State towards Kashmir and the North-East a desire for hegemony that is no different from what had informed bourgeois nationalism in the European metropolis. But notwithstanding the admixtures that did exist in practice, this anti-imperialist nationalism was conceptually and self-consciously different from the bourgeois nationalism of the metropolis.

In fact this distinction between the two concepts of nationalism is important precisely because in India, bourgeois nationalism of the kind that had marked post-Westphalian Europe is now replacing the anti-imperialist nationalism that underlay the freedom struggle and the formation of the post-colonial Indian State. This transition from one type of nationalism to another gets completely lost if we do not draw a distinction between the two, if we merely read into the inclusive secular nationalism of the anti-colonial struggle a desire for hegemony and national power such as what traditionally characterizes bourgeois nationalism.

The fact of this transition however is obvious as much in the apotheosis of GDP growth as the national objective, even to the point of attempting to dispossess peasants, to abridge the rights of workers, and to cut down welfare expenditures on the poor, as the means supposedly for achieving this objective, as in the insecurity and sense of exclusion that is pervasively felt by the religious minorities and even the oppressed castes and women under the new dispensation. And it is obvious also in the constant reference to India’s emergence as a big power in the international arena. It is also instructive that this transition to bourgeois nationalism has been associated with a downplaying of anti-imperialism, and of solidarity with other oppressed peoples of the world, to the point where India’s decades-long opposition to Israeli occupation of Palestine, and even boycott of Israel at one time, is now replaced by closer cooperation with that country, including on “security” matters.

The adoption of neo-liberal policies was undoubtedly a major milestone in this transition to “bourgeois nationalism” from an inclusive anti-imperialist nationalism. The origin of the process of re-definition of the nation’s objective, as consisting not in the welfare of its people but in its emergence as a major power, dates back to the introduction of neo-liberal policies, when every issue began to be looked upon in terms of its possible impact on this objective, either explicitly or implicitly. Indeed a senior UPA minister had once even remarked that “corruption” could not be tolerated in India because it stood in the way of India’s emergence as a major power!

But the transition from an anti-imperialist nationalism to bourgeois nationalism is not easy in a country like India, which is why it has been so halting until now, with the UPA for instance speaking in two voices at the same time, one articulating the economic rights of the people and the other the “national” objective of becoming a big power. An essential condition for the full-blown emergence of bourgeois nationalism in a country like India therefore is that it should acquire an additional prop, i.e. it should be accompanied by communal-fascism. It was mentioned earlier that post-Westphalian bourgeois nationalism in Europe was of a majoritarian kind that excluded hapless domestic minorities; but when such bourgeois nationalism has to be carved out of a society that has already experienced the strong presence of an anti-imperialist nationalism, it requires a specific “counter-revolution” which can only be effected by those forces that were opposed to the anti-imperialist nationalism in the first place, the forces of divisive “communalism”, or “communal-fascism”. Paradoxically therefore the flowering of bourgeois nationalism on the ashes of an anti-imperialist nationalism requires the intervention of communal-fascism, which is exactly what we find in India.

III

The refusal to draw a distinction between these two kinds of nationalism takes a variety of forms, each of which is potentially damaging to the people’s struggle for liberation. The most obvious form which characterizes many ultra-Left groups is to say that hegemonism, authoritarianism, communalism and casteism were as much a part of the “so-called anti- imperialist struggle” as they are of the current dispensation, that the so-called anti-imperialist struggle was simply a Hindu upper caste movement that merely succeeded in carving out some space for the emerging bourgeoisie recruited from this background. A strand of this argument, which would be a carryover of the hostility to the anti-colonial struggle that many of the leaders of the “social reform” movement had expressed in the pre-independence years, would even suggest that from the point of view of the dalits and other oppressed segments, the post-colonial dispensation has been no better than the colonial one (and possibly even worse).And a variation of this theme is what Perry Anderson argues in his book The Indian Ideology, namely that it was immanent in the anti-colonial struggle, which invoked majoritarian religious imagery as a means of mobilizing people, that it would ultimately give rise to a Hindu supremacist regime.

An essential condition for the full-blown emergence of bourgeois nationalism in a country like India therefore is that it should acquire an additional prop, i.e. it should be accompanied by communal-fascism. It was mentioned earlier that post-Westphalian bourgeois nationalism in Europe was of a majoritarian kind that excluded hapless domestic minorities; but when such bourgeois nationalism has to be carved out of a society that has already experienced the strong presence of an anti-imperialist nationalism, it requires a specific “counter-revolution” which can only be effected by those forces that were opposed to the anti-imperialist nationalism in the first place, the forces of divisive “communalism”, or “communal-fascism”. Paradoxically therefore the flowering of bourgeois nationalism on the ashes of an anti-imperialist nationalism requires the intervention of communal-fascism, which is exactly what we find in India.

What is striking about the above arguments is that they do not suggest that anti-imperialist nationalism has been superseded by a hegemony-seeking bourgeois nationalism that is sustained in this quest by communal fascism, by specific historical circumstances, or that class struggle can in principle roll back this supersession. Their suggestion rather is that such a supersession is inevitable within the given conjuncture, whence the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the overthrow of the imperial order, within such a conjuncture, is a necessarily futile exercise.

We have here a convergence between imperialist historiography that seeks to play down the sweep and the significance of the anti-colonial struggle, and an extreme Left historiography for which there is no concrete progress of any kind unless the ultimate goal of equality is achieved in one stroke. Real historical progress or retrogression, in which there can be concrete class intervention through theoretically-informed praxis, and which therefore is the product of the play of class forces, is seen by such extreme Left historiography entirely in moral terms: as either “good” or “bad”. And since the ideal by its very nature always remains elusive and unattained, the judgement of such historiography about history is invariably that its movement is “bad”, which then precludes any scope for productive praxis. This historiography in short is theoretically disarming from the perspective of praxis. It represents anger without praxis, rather like a “grin without the cat” in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. (And here my reference is not to the Maoists, who are emphatically engaged in praxis though of a kind that I do not agree with). It follows in my view from the foregoing that the distinction between the two concepts of nationalism must be an essential theoretical starting point for praxis in countries like ours.

IV

The refusal to distinguish between the two concepts of nationalism takes yet another form which is quite prevalent in Left circles, especially in the advanced capitalist world. And this debunks all “nationalism” as being inevitable progenitors of reaction. Many of the authors belonging to this strand of thought, would not necessarily express themselves against the anti-colonial nationalism of yore, but they would certainly see any praxis based on an anti-imperialist nationalism in today’s context of “globalization”, praxis that would entail for instance a degree of delinking from such “globalization” as a means of ridding the country of its baneful consequences, as being a reactionary move. Here again the only corollary that follows from such an understanding is a moral disapproval of “globalization”, but no meaningful praxis that can liberate the people from thralldom to imperialist globalization.

True, as internationalists we must not apotheosize any nationalism. Even anti-imperialist nationalism must not only be informed by internationalism but must also be seen as part of a transition to an authentic internationalist order, free of the hegemony of the metropolitan capitalist economies. But to deny the progressive role of anti-imperialist nationalism in this process of transition to an authentic internationalism is to disarm the people both against imperialism and against the communal-fascism-sustained bourgeois nationalism that has the blessings of imperialism and is making an insidious entry into societies like ours. It would also leave open the possibility of minority fundamentalisms of various kinds coming on stage as a reaction to such majoritarian communal-fascism, which would be a real tragedy and a panacea for social disintegration.

Avoiding such a fate requires that we carry forward the struggle of anti-imperialist nationalism. We carry forward for instance the agenda that was outlined in the Karachi Congress resolution, and place before the people, as a means of mobilizing them for struggle, a charter that promises inter alia a set of universal economic rights for all, as citizens of a free India, irrespective of their ethnicity, religion, gender, caste and other characteristics.