The Problematic and Thematic of Nationalism in the Post-Colonial Context: Possibilities, Limitations and Emancipation

Partha Chatterjee discusses the problematic and thematic of nationalism in Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse. The problematic refers to the modalities of nationalism; statements of possibility. The thematic refers to the rules and contingencies that constrain nationalist thought. What Chatterjee referred to as Eastern nationalism- the nationalism adopted and appropriated by non-Europeans following the initial formation of the modern conception of European nationalism- was constrained in its adherence to and implicit acceptance of European models of national progress (Western nationalism). Another thematic is the essentialism implicit in “nation-hood.”


In any post-colonial area, there are tribal affiliations, local affinities and even urban cultures that have been fragmented and differentiated by the colonial experience. The city-dwellers may well be more educated, with greater access to (colonial) government employment and a greater intimacy with the bureaucratic craft of maintaining order. The rural dwellers are farther away from the metropolis, the center of colonial power, and are thus farther away from the channels of commerce. This lack of access to resources translates into a relative state of poverty. As for tribal affiliations, the individual may witness the de-stabilization of traditional hierarchies as education and the subsequent shifts in employment and industry. There may be a shift away from the rituals of the forefathers to a more secular, syncretic culture, especially with the influence of Christianity and its agents of dissemination (schools, missionaries.) In all of this, the experiences and grievances of the respective groups are specific. To construct the entirety of this diverse population of people as a ‘nation’ in the decolonization process is to privilege the grievances and experiences of one or more groups, while silencing the subordinated group(s). Power relations come into play, as those with greater access to education and greater proximity to the colonial structure comprise the intelligentsia and the bourgeoisie.


Constructing the nation, which according to Benedict Anderson is “an imagined political community.” necessitates a common aim. Contextually, decolonization pits the colonized against the colonizer, shifting the power relations. In its nascent form, nationalism exists in a world of dichotomies. Nationalism is not the “awakening of nations to self-consciousness;” rather it is the phenomenon that follows the politicization of a peoples. Anderson contended that “historically, the political community of nation superseded the preceding ‘cultural systems’ of religious community and dynastic realms.” Of course, this precludes the possibility of nationalism as a cultural phenomenon. Nationalism is necessarily a matter of culture, as it is the intersection of circumstance, cultural politics and a new or renewed consciousness. The construction of the nation follows the politicization of those who would come to constitute the nation. However, the construct of the nation assumes a sort of homogeneity in the respective groups that make up the population of the nation. Thus, one finds the limits of nationalism: the essentialism implicit in assumptions of national homogeneity.


Furthermore, nationality is understood as an imported European idea. Elie Kedourie points to the great dilemma of Eastern (non-European) nationalism, the paradox of appropriating alien ideas to facilitate a rejection of that same “alien intruder and dominator.” Kedourie termed it as confining oneself within the paradigms of “European intellectual fashions,” while simultaneous attempting to move beyond the dominant discourse of colonialism, which is, in this case, a European one. The appropriation of nationalism is to “accept the claim to universality of this ‘modern’ framework of knowledge. It thus simultaneously rejects and accepts the dominance, both epistemic and moral, of an alien culture.” It is important to acknowledge that both the discourse of colonialism and post-colonialism occupied the same epistemic space. The existence of one did not preclude the existence of the other- they were not mutually exclusive. However, this space they share is the same space where discursive elements attempt to maintain or change the “relations of power within the society under colonial domination.”


What was more germane to the leaders of the nationalist movement was the relation of nationalist thought to the cultural landscape of their society. The problem then were the contextual differences in the respective emergence of Western and Eastern nationalism. In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon notes that “the European nations achieved their national unity at a time when the national bourgeoisies had concentrated most of the wealth in their hands.” Eastern nationalism emerged from a consciousness of the subjugated state of the people; the extractive and exploitative natures of colonization and _____

Just a fragment.

2 Comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s