|THE CRITICAL QUESTION OF NATIONAL FORM: (POST-) MARXISM AND THE POSTCOLONIAL NATION-STATE: AURITRO MAJUMDER
Auritro Majumder has a Master's degree in English from Jadavpur University, Calcutta, and is presently, a doctoral candidate in English, at Syracuse University, New York. Generally interested in the histories of anti- colonial thought, his current project focuses on indigenous forms of revolutionism and Marxism in 20th century Bengal.
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According to some influential schools of critical thinking, influential in the sense that they have been imprinted at the level of common sense, the majority of the world's subjects today live in a globalizing, if not globalized, world-order. This comes about at the end of a long line of development in the 20th C century, the demise of the alternative vision of development embodied in the states of the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc, the turn to market reforms in ex-socialist countries like China, Cuba and Vietnam, and the general failure of socialist nation-states. The idea, common to much of Marxist thinking in the 20th century, of isolated socialist/communist countries surviving within a capitalist market order, has suffered a significant blow, if not a mortally endangering one. Some (post-)Marxist theorists however, like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, have critically embraced the idea (in texts like Empire and Multitude); mapping the obsolescence of the sovereign nation-states of an earlier epoch, Hardt and Negri have posited the present as one marking the victorious onslaught of 'creative labor', setting a global stage of conflict, of the multitude, (their term for the proletariat, from Spinoza), against transnational capital, the final frontier of struggle as it were.
I mention this at the outset as Hardt and Negri's theorization, marked by the success of Empire, published in the US in 2000, has been hugely influential in contemporary Leftist political circles in the West. Moving away from old Stalinist specters of totalitarianism and dictatorship, Hardt and Negri have posited a democratic Communism that has revitalized Marxism as collective social and political practice – the 'irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist' – beyond academic Marxist theories and debates, and allowed for a degree of visibility to discussions of Communism and Communist history that were generally unavailable to academic theory. Prominent theorists– Slavoj Zizek (In Defense of Lost Causes), Alain Badiou (The Communist Hypothesis), Susan Buck-Morss (Dreamworld and Catastrophe), to name just a sample – have been writing in recent years revisiting various aspects of Communist theory to revitalize, arguably, a new Communism for the future.
I want to take up in this piece, one strand of this conversation, which is about the postmodern form of late global capital, what Marxists commonly refer to as imperialism, and what it involves for the question of nation-states in the 'postcolony'. One of the chief arguments advanced in postmodern theory since the 1970s is the notion of a new stage of capital, modifying traditional ideas of labor (Baudrillard, Negri), unconscious and affect (Jameson), sovereignty (Appadurai) etc. Corresponding to this 'newness' of late capital, if one might so put it, is the relative loss of significance of older political demarcations of territory and traditional notions of nation-state. In undermining the importance of nation-states in favor of a transnational, global circulation of technologies, materials etc - so the argument goes - "late capital" has destroyed much of its earlier ('modern') foundations, like the center-periphery distinction between the West and 'the rest', the hegemony of imperialist nation-states of Euro-America, metropolitan centers of industrial production vis-à-vis peripheral extraction of resources etc. In other words, all that is solid in Marxist-Leninist theories of imperialism (as compared to other variants of Marxism like social-democracy, or that hegemonic but completely vacuous, catch-all term 'Leftism', are little invested in imperialism's impact on conventional class conflict), melt into the postmodern air.
While Hardt and Negri's theorization of a democratic multitude re-posits Marxism as a vital contemporary force for social equality, beyond party-states and ideological straightjackets characteristic of so much of 'actually existing socialism' in the 20th century, it also raises a series of questions. First of all, in positing a tendency in late capital where globalization marks the decline of traditional Western domination, and Western imperialism as we know it, it de-emphasizes the still-existing North-South hierarchy of the present. Vague as such categories are (much of what is known as the 'Global South' is actually to the north of the equatorial line, for instance), it does indicate a general global divide between the 'have's' and the 'have not's' in the industrialized spaces of Euro-America and say, Somalia or Afghanistan (or internal colonies in the 'First World"). Howsoever one would like to posit transnational class solidarity as a political ideal, the fact remains that the combination of exploitation and concessions to workers still vary widely from Euro-America to Africa, or West Asia. It is therefore an imperative for us to explore what conceptual problems arise from these oversights in (Left) radical theory.
As some (the likes of Timothy Brennan, Crystal Bartolovich) have pointed out, Hardt and Negri's idea of a global multitude resisting imperialism is more of a theoretical fancy than a concrete political programmatic, as it patches over the present inequalities in the world-system which make such (global) collaborations difficult if not impossible – for instance, privatization and transfer of national resources, fiscal deficits and Third-World debts, institutional patronage etc, all of which perpetuate and add to North-South inequality in one or other ways. Moreover, the theorization of the obsolescence of nation-states, in the era of late capital, globalization et al, denies the significance within anti-imperialist struggles, of oppressed nationalities' struggles for liberation, by pushing such struggles into a politically anachronistic framework, literally, though howsoever unintentionally.
These are important questions given the role of the 'nation-state', or more properly the politico-formal function of state formations, in furthering the neo-liberal project of profit accumulation. One of the cornerstones of neo-liberal policy, as we have observed in the past decades, is to appropriate and utilize the structures of the state for corporate profit. As Marx and Engels noted in the opening pages of the Communist Manifesto, "The bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of modern industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie". Neo-liberal control over the state, howsoever dramatic the immediate effect, especially against the previous model of the welfare state, is thus only a continuation of this more fundamental form of political representation, the modern State. However, the welfare state often provides a degree of relief to the economically and politically weaker sections of its (putative) citizens. This is particularly important in the global South, where the state is often a site of significant struggle for the distribution of public resources and facilities. One of the ways in which the nation-state, especially in the global South posits a barrier (sometimes, literally) to the transnational flow of neo-liberal imperialism, thus is in its welfare function. Equally, we have seen how the dismissal of state formations in current postmodern thinking, while clearly useful as antidotes to statist Left theoretical frameworks, ironically overlaps at times with neo-liberal logics of 'development', for instance, in the skirting of national sovereignty through transnational NGOs and other similar players.
Part of the reason for this overlap, I want to suggest, lies in a categorical confusion between notions of nationalism, national liberation and the (postcolonial) nation-state. National liberation, in the strictly political sense of the term, refers to the decolonization movements of the 20th century, in which erstwhile colonies gained their 'independence' from imperialist nation-states (although that is only a functionalist definition excluding other histories of struggle). "From India and Algeria, and Cuba and Vietnam", state Hardt and Negri (Empire, 134), "the state is the poisoned gift of national liberation". What this categorical conflation between national liberation and the nation-state form achieves, is a suggestion that national liberation from colonial domination ends up as an equally repressive formation, like the examples of Cuba, India etc. given above. This, despite the fact that the modern-nation state formation is historically tied to the ascent of imperialist nation-states in Euro-America, rather than anything inherent to anti-imperialist struggle, and is in fact intrinsic, as the Marx and Engels observed in the quote above, to the logic of colonial capital accumulation. What this conflation elides, is the political idea that part of the broader scope of anti-colonial struggles for national liberation is a conceptual struggle against the formal structures of colonial political rule, including the form of the nation-state. Both of these gestures - of confusion and elision - is accompanied in turn by the break posited between modern colonialism/imperialism and postmodern 'Empire,' "fundamentally different," as Hardt and Negri inform us. This confusion is not simply peculiar to the most prominent duo of post-Marxist thinkers, it is part and parcel of a broad sweep of Western thinking, that has been dismissive of the importance of national liberation (from E.J Hobsbawm to Anne McClintock), especially in the non-Western world, either for a broader internationalism (as in Marxism) or out of a critique of 'grand narratives' of foundational myths and coercive statism (as in postmodernism).
What is of note in the examples of national liberation of the 20th century, in the post-colonial nation-states' formation in the middle to the latter half of the twentieth-century, is not so much decolonization in the epistemic sense, but rather an encounter of emerging anti-colonial nationalism with existing notions and forms of statehood. That there was a common sense of emphasis on the welfare function of the state, of course, was not an accidental occurrence. The example of British India is particularly relevant here - the post-colonial territories that came into existence as 'independent' nation-states, namely, India, Pakistan, and East Pakistan (which became Bangladesh in 1971), took the particular forms they did (and I am using the term 'formal' in multiple senses here, the form of secular republic, parliamentary democracy, legal structure, territorial boundaries, etc) out of several other (formal) possibilities within the national liberation movement – transnational pan-Islamic solidarity, Gandhian village-based micro-state system, Communist workers' state, even Japanese satellite states, part of a pan-Asia. Several of these, as one would notice, were in fact, transnational in scope, and some, like the Gandhian notion of Hind Swaraj, was explicitly opposed to the idea of (partitioned) nation-states; in other words, there was nothing intrinsically nationalist, or nation-statist, within several strands of the national liberation movement.
Paradoxically, one of the reasons why the post-colonial Indian state and its 'bourgeois nationalist' leadership, crippled by both internal problems and external conflict, survived its 'independence' and also the memory of contestations over such independence, was the active support rendered to it by the Communist Party of India (except for a brief period between 1948-50), whose internationalist vision of state-sponsored "development" and nation-building, was in (somewhat uneasy) alignment with Nehruvian notions of the liberal democratic state. Socialist states, the likes of Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea and China, all emerging out of anti-colonial struggles of national liberation, were, on the other hand, equally if perhaps to a different degree, influenced by statist models of political representation. Incidentally, the Soviet Union had itself turned back on its earlier twin premises of national liberation for the Tsarist colonies, and its own anti-statist fluid political form immediately after the October Revolution, to gradually consolidate what scholars term "Russification" (ironically, under the non-Russian Joseph Stalin) and the formation of an authoritarian state model.
National liberation is important within our so-called 'postcolonial' world-order, precisely because it is a category of self-representation - and self-determination - against residual and neo-colonialisms. It is not inherently or intrinsically equivalent to bourgeois nationalism, or the nation-state; in fact, if we are attendant to paradigms beyond current Western hegemonic knowledge, national liberation is the precise antithesis of colonial/colonizing formal notions of nationalism and the nation-state. These are, to quote Frantz Fanon, "efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify, and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence" (The Wretched of the Earth, 233). The institutional framework and form, of the nation-state, on the other hand, is a Western political construct, part of the formal structure of capitalist colonialism inherited – with regional variations – by the 'postcolony'.
In other words, what is needed at the contemporary moment is a distinction between national liberation and nation-states, or what James Blount termed 'Decolonizing the Theory of Nationalism'. Part of this conceptual de-colonization involves a re-cognition that the telos of liberatory struggle is not the nation-state, but rather, political representational forms suppressed and obliterated by colonialism. Finally, it is necessary to spell out that the binary between national liberation and transnational liberation, so often spelt out with a disadvantage to the former, is a false one. One does not preclude the other, and both are of vital importance to conceptualize the neo-colonial geopolitical order being put into place today. As Fanon states, "the consciousness of self is not the closing of a door to communication. Philosophic thought teaches us, on the contrary, that it is its guarantee. National consciousness, which is not nationalism, is the only thing that will give us an international dimension".
Badiou, Alain. The Communist Hypothesis. New York: Verso, 2010.
Bartolovich, Crystal. "Post-Imperialism or New Imperialism? The Eleventh September of George Bush: Fortress US and the Global Politics of Consumption". Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies. Volume 5 (2): 177-198, 2003.
Bartolovich, Crystal. "History After the End of History: Critical Counterfactualism and Revolution". New Formations. 59 (Autumn): 63-80, 2006.
Brennan, Timothy. "The Empire's New Clothes". Critical Inquiry. Volume 29 (2): 337-367, Winter 2003.
Buck-Morss, Susan. Dreamworlds and Catastrophes: The Passing of Mass Utopia in the East and West. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1967.
Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 2001.
Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin, 2005.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto. <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ >
Zizek, Slavoj. In Defense of Lost Causes. New York: Verso, 2009.