Thoughts on nationalism and culture (in response to KN Panikkar)

The most recent issue of Frontline has a very interesting reprint of a lecture by K.N. Panikkar, a scholar whose work I very much admire.  (Incidentally, his father was also quite an important historian).  The lecture (“Role of Culture and Language in the Making of a Nation”) was given at the University of Mumbai , and I suppose that accounts for the general tone of the piece which is directed at making a criticism of religious nationalism (i.e. Hindutva-style chauvinism).   There is also a critique of “modernist” nationalism in the piece, by which I’m assuming Pannikar means Congress-style nationalism, in which the demands of ethnic minorities and the low caste were not taken seriously.

Because I work on theories of nationalism and on much of the same material that Panikkar covers I found the essay interesting, but there are some problems with it as there are with most left-wing defenses of nationalism.  Here’s the problem as I see it: no matter how you slice it, nationalism has both progressive and reactionary content that cannot be willed away; the progressive content opens the door to the more chauvinist content in periods of economic hardship or political demobilization.  The nation-state similarly has both a progressive and reactionary use: it is a useful demand in the fight against colonialism and empire, but also an effective tool for the consolidation of national capital and the disciplining of a labor force.  Culture is the primary way that the progressive credentials of the nation-state are shored up so that the reactionary project can continue (sometimes openly, sometimes quietly).

So when Panikkar defends a particular variety of cultural nationalism (secular, composite, progressive) you want to be on board.  In fact, it’s hard not to subscribe to many of the claims that he makes in the face of the ideological rot that is allowed to pass for culture in much of India.  Here are the concluding parts of the lecture:

In the making of the nation, culture affords multiple possibilities. A popular and revivalist tendency is to romanticise the past and attribute to it a religious character, which in turn opens the doors to a supremacist ideology. An alternative view would recognise the culturally plural character of society as evolved through complex historical experience. More ideally, it could lead to a multicultural society by accepting the equality of all constituent cultures of the nation. All these possibilities are inherent in the relationship between culture and nation. As Ernest Gellner observed, “Nations as a natural, god-given way of classifying men, as an inherent though long-delayed political destiny, are a myth; nationalism, which sometimes takes pre-existing cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them, and often obliterates pre-existing cultures: that is reality, for better or worse, and in general, an inescapable one.”  India is not yet a nation; it is a nation in the making, as Surendranath Banerjea, an early nationalist leader, observed almost 200 years ago. Even when all objective conditions are met, a nation like India can achieve nationhood, even if inadequately, only when cultural equality is established.

This view is elegant, and it has all of the hallmarks of much of Indian secularism over the last 60 years, but it also has some of its main contradictions.  For instance, the more you want to talk about the composite culture of India, the more you find yourself doing weird things like defending feudalism and certain “good” kings or valorizing certain literary texts, even when they were composed by people deeply embedded in class and religious chauvinism.  Yes, I love Tagore, but you can’t take the landlord out of the poetry no matter how hard you try.  So the process of equality that Panikkar is describing is based on the occlusion of class differentiation that persists in and through cultural “tradition” and not merely picking one, more egalitarian version of nationalism over another.

But it’s the place where he ends that gives me the most trouble, because the implicit assumption is that the nation-state is here to stay (if you read the rest of the essay, you get the sense that Panikkar prefers the nation-state as a bulwark against the ravages of global capitalism, a title it has yet to earn in any serious way).  I think that nation-states are engines of capitalist accumulation, and even in the fight against imperialism, they become the demand of a developing bourgeoisie that needs a different state form in order to accumulate successfully.  But in order to do that, the bourgeoisie needs the “nation” to get behind its demands and so it is willing to enter into a compromise with the more radical section of the middle-class (these are the cultural figures that Panikkar references) to develop a story about the nation that is compelling.  And the middle-class of course does this happily.  They chafe at the racism of empire as well as the restrictions of religion, the problems of sexism, and the oppressions of all marginalized sections of society and they try to unite all of them together into as large a unit as possible.  I’ll characterize it like this: the most capacious and effective bond of solidarity that any middle-class can imagine is cultural.  That is both its strength and its weakness.

About the problems of this kind of capacious solidarity, Panikkar provides a helpful description:

The attempts to relate culture and nationalism during the colonial period betrayed two general tendencies. The first was homogenisation and the second was exclusion. As a part of the first, a national culture was invented which invariably comprised the practices of the upper castes. The revival of Hindu classical tradition, be it in music or dance, privileged an Indian culture which was earlier the preserve of the upper castes. What is national, therefore, came to be equated with the Brahminical. In the process, the cultural practices of the lower castes were excluded from the national. Nationalism by definition is inclusive, but Indian nationalism did not develop an inclusive character based on equality. Secondly, the cultural perspective was very elitist, as a result of which culture was defined in terms of either mental refinement or the creative. Everyday practices and the creative elements within them were not reckoned as culture. As a result, the symbolic representation of the nation was confined to the achievements of the privileged, and the life of ordinary people did not figure in the nationalist pantheon. While Koodiyattam, Kathakali, Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Carnatic music and several other upper-caste forms were accorded national status, the dances of tribal people and Dalit music did not receive the same consideration.

The idea that nationalism could “develop an inclusive character based on equality” is a non-starter, though.  Nationalism attempts to build a provisional unity precisely by masking diverging aspirations in anticolonial struggles.  This is both what makes it elegant and dangerous – it is simultaneously a necessary tool in fighting against empire and an intellectual dead-end for solving problems of inequality and oppression in the nation-state.  In other places, I’ve preferred to talk about this problem as a specific problem of class and the confidence that certain sections of the middle class have in thinking about the ability of class struggle to alter radically social and political structures in the present.

If you look at what is developing in Egypt, for instance, you can also see what was developing in India in the late colonial period.  As the struggle for political change heats up, the debates between various visions of the future open up.  Nationalists try as hard as they can to paper over these differences, but it’s hard to pretend that they don’t exist or that they all share something in common that can be called “nationalism.”  Gramsci’s essays on Italian reunification are perhaps the most useful for me in thinking about this problem, where the middle-class radicals essentially fail to see in the nation-state the conditions for the reversing of all their radical aspirations, and the goal for Gramsci and others, was the creation of an organized collective that understood both the need for the nation-state and the impending betrayal by the bourgeoisie so that it could fight against both.

In the end, Panikkar’s essay is a product of the pessimism that seeped into middle-class radicals in the 1980s and 1990s in India when nationalism meant aggressive neoliberalism and cultural/religious chauvinism, neither of which could be effectively resisted.  And so intellectuals retreated into the domain of culture to find resistance there.  The idea that there could be more durable bonds of solidarity that were imagined not in isolated cultural artifacts but in the kinds of collaborative actions on the shop-floor, in urban slums, in the forests, etc. in which new kinds of culture were being forged, too, seems never to enter Panikkar’s thinking, since for him nationalism is still necessary as a way for him to relate to the broader masses in India and imagine that they all have the same interests.

The problem is that they do and they don’t – or rather, that they won’t until they manufacture it for themselves, piecing things together from the past and understanding them anew.  It might involve Odissi dance and Kumarasambhava or it might not – but it will involve a common resistance to the state and national capital, both of which are also good at using the cultural past to preserve their vision of the present.  Without a dialectical understanding of the relationship between culture and the nation, anti-imperialists become liberals, hoping that ideas can change the nation.

I imagine, too, that part of Panikkar’s complaint is also rooted in the ways that contemporary India increasingly appears to be discarding its interest in culture.  Take this piece in DNA India describing the difference between Indian and UK education:

Knowledge just for the sake of knowledge? Na, not anymore. Ask David Levinson, senior careers adviser in the Newcastle University, he would say: As everywhere else, education is witnessing a sea change in the UK as well. “Gone are the days of narrow mindedness and traditional thinking, now, educational institutions are changing to teach students how to apply the knowledge acquired and are preparing them for careers.” Levinson explains: “Earlier, it used to be like, people study English literature and become clerks, politicians or whatever they want to. That trend is waning.”

It’s true – one used to study English to get a job in the IAS or ICS in India but then you felt absolutely destroyed by the banality of the position you got (read Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August to get a sense of that).  And part of Panikkar’s plea seems to be connected to the fact that most people in India no longer take either history or literature seriously any more.  I don’t think they ever did (education and literacy have never been really directed at the kinds of liberal humanism that Panikkar imagines) so bemoaning it doesn’t really help.

And I came across this piece, too, about farmer suicides in India:

In Maharashtra’s Gondia district, 25,000 tonnes of rice procured by cooperative societies are lying in the open. “It’s difficult to carry on,” a distraught Harne, a postgraduate in Marathi literature, scribbled in his signed parting note. “I have unpaid loans.” Harne was meticulous in keeping records. His ledger showed he had suffered losses of about Rs 10,000 for each of the six acres he cultivated —- Rs 60,000 in all. Together with his outstanding loans of around Rs 2.5 lakh, the going had looked tough.

Postgraduates in literature are massively indebted.  The conditions in India look not dissimilar from the ones that produced the conflicts in Egypt and Tunisia.  They will produce explosive political movements – the aim of which needs to be the abolition of the state form and free flourishing of culture, nationalist or otherwise.

More on Naxalites

Kunal Chattopadhyay has a really great piece on the development of Naxalism and strategies for theoretical engagement with them here.

A few notable lines from the piece:

The assumption that only the most exploited were revolutionary, meant the exclusion of the organised workers, those having a little better pay or working conditions. This of course ignored the reality that they had obtained those slight gains because of militant struggles, not because the ruling class was buying them up through bribes.

Another passage on how Maoism actually helped refocus attention on class struggle in India:

The party documents, the writings of several outstanding leaders of this current, or the party papers, like Deshabrati (Bangla), Liberation, all showed a refreshing return to the concept of class struggle. Ever since the dismissal of the 1957 Kerala government, the underlying content of the inner-party debate in the CPI was whether the “progressive bourgeoisie” were in the Congress or in the bourgeois opposition parties, and who should be the allies in the bid to form governments. This has of course been the recurrent debate in the mainstream Stalinist left all the way to the present. Prakash Karat’s Third Front was an attempt to patch together a bloc of regional forces, in opposition to the line advocated by others, such as Sobhanlal Datta Gupta in Mainstream.[14] Stripping aside the veil of theory and polish, the Maoists of the 1960s revealed that debate for the opportunistic struggle for loaves and fishes by bureaucratic leaders that it really was. And by raising the slogan, “Never forget class struggle”, they made class struggle a reality, in a way it had not been for a considerable period.

And  how Maoists have been responsible for empowering women:

Neither the party, nor its struggles, were often gendered. At the same time, the Maoist movement did provide an impetus for many young women as well as men.[28] As Kalpana Sen points out, the inspiration provided by the movement was immense. Till the mid-sixties, in most women’s colleges, there were no directly elected unions. Girls nominated by the authorities ran the unions. The militant student-youth movement of the mid to late 1960s changed that picture. Women also took part in the ideological struggles around the Naxalbari peasant struggles. They fought in the jails, put up red flag, and confronted the jailers. Moreover, the path of Naxalbari meant challenging existing values in a way that the mainstream left had not been doing for a long time. Among these was a rebellion against domestic discipline and conservatism. That so many young women came to the new party was because, in Sen’s words, “the opportunity to breathe in free air”.[29] Failure to identify patriarchy as a distinct enemy to be combated may have limited the endeavours of these cadres. But the call to immediately join the revolution was something that enabled them to overcome in practice many of the constraints of patriarchy.

Finally, an excellent critique of Maoist political theory:

The major problem that the legacy of the original path of Naxalbari left was however its rejection of the rality of bourgeois democracy and the need to work out a new strategy to fight for revolution in a country where a bourgeois democracy does exist. An idealisation of bourgeois democracy does no good. It is a very restricted democracy. Yet even that, by providing certain apparent alternatives, keeps a grip on masses. Secondly, the legacy of Stalinism, its distorted democratic centralism where the leadership has too little accountability to the party ranks, also has been a major problem. Moreover, the legacy of Stalinism has meant a legacy of the two-stage theory of revolution and popular frontism, or alliances with bourgeois partners, as revealed by the Trinamool-supporting Naxalites of 2009. Finally, if workers who demand democracy, or party members who form tendencies over ideological conflicts, are immediately branded capitalist roaders, or thrown out of the party, then one will forever split into two, two will never unite into one. Not “revolutionary authority”, but workers democracy is the answer here. But in order to carry this task to the end, to turn to revolutionary Marxism, one has to subject the path of Naxalbari to a more thoroughgoing critique, without giving up its revolutionary inspiration.

Naxalites and critique

The International Socialism Journal has published a very interesting piece by Jairus Banaji about the political “ironies” of Naxalism/Maoism in India.  This is a follow-up to a position that Banaji was developing earlier in response to Arundhati Roy’s now famous piece, “Walking with the comrades.”

It’s a very good history of Maoism, but I think it makes some strategic errors that prevent it from escaping the pattern of sectarian political debate of the left in India or from thinking about how one might be able to move the Maoists towards better political ideas/strategies.  One gets the sense, in much of the left critiques of Naxalism/Maoism that these are revolutionaries with hopelessly backwards ideas and dogmas (despite the fact that the histories of Maoism in India are nothing if not histories of aggressive, spirited debate).

As someone who critically supports the Naxalites against the Indian state, I find some of Banaji’s positions a little hard to swallow.  The most crucial part of the article are the four positions that he identifies that one can take with respect to the Naxalites.

Position/Alibi #1: Naxalite=Adivasi

Responses, critical or otherwise, from the left can be classified broadly into four categories. Maoists and Maoist sympathisers abstract from the profound deformities of the movement to engage in solidarity with it at any cost. They posit an almost mystical identity between the Maoists and “the people” and do precisely what Balagopal advised democratic circles not to do, namely use the poverty and general backwardness of the tribal areas as an excuse for not engaging with the CPI (Maoist) politically.

Now, I’m in no position to adjudicate this debate about how much or how little the Naxalites represent the Adivasis, but I suspect, like all ethnic groups, that there are serious divisions amongst the Adivasis and that while not all Adivasis support the Naxalites, a good many do (largely because the Naxalites have delivered some important reforms/changes for them).  I think that Banaji is right to call for a political engagement with the Maoists, but this has to be done under the heavy sign of the Indian state which is waging a fairly serious war against the Adivasis (and it doesn’t really care if kills the Naxalites amongst them or not).  It seems to me that after watching what the Sri Lankan state did to the LTTE, the best position that a left has if it wants to be taken seriously both by the Adivasis and by the rest of the exploited in India is to begin with a critique of the state and then engage with a strategic/theoretical debate with the Maoists about how best to do that.

The primary problem, though (and it’s one that Banaji recognizes but doesn’t put this critique in its context) is that there is no anti-Stalinist revolutionary left in India that has anything to offer the Adivasis.  For instance, if there were massive (or even substantial) working class, anti-Stalinist parties there would be a way to engage with the Maoists and offer them something tactical-theoretical.  Without that, a critique of the Maoists, while important, can’t really produce a change in their theoretical positions, their tactics, their understanding of the “comprador bourgeoisie”, etc.  In fact, Naxlism emerges in the wake of the decline of anti-Stalinist revolutionary politics in India as the orphan of those political parties.

Similarly, the civil society left that “romanticizes” the Naxalites (and this I think is something of a caricature … they used to do that in the 70s and 80s — there’s no mass abandoning of college classrooms for the forests happening now) does so because it sees the primary problem as the state and has no alternative to which it can hitch its wagon.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t critique the Maoists — every anti-Stalinist should.  But sometimes it feels like going after David instead of Goliath.

Position #2: the CPI(M)’s strategy of using state repression to defend its “leftist” position

A second line of response has been the CPI (Marxist)’s savage repression of all popular movements that challenge their own agendas for the state of West Bengal, using the machinery of the state to crush both the Maoists and much wider layers of the population (again largely tribal) they see as sympathising with them or opposing their own policies. Thus, whereas the CPI (Maoist) sabotaged a struggle like the one in Lalgarh by infiltrating the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities and eliminating all political rivals, the CPI (Marxist) fell back on its own vigilante groups and on state counterinsurgency forces to quell the movement there. Both parties (and large parts of the state apparatus, of course) have an interest in branding what began as and was for months a democratic popular upsurge as “Maoist”. And, of course, the two “Marxist” parties have been slaughtering each other’s cadre.

This seems hopelessly muddled to me.  I won’t defend political murder, but there has to be a difference between the CPI(M)’s violence (with all of the backing of the state) and the violence of the CPI(Maoist) (which doesn’t have the same infrastructure or monopoly on violence that the state does).

Position #3: the Naxalites are vicious and undemocratic

Sharply different from both the above has been the civil liberties critique that was largely represented in the writings of the late Balagopal through most of the 1990s down to his death in 2009. Balagopal’s critique recorded features that displayed an unmitigated authoritarianism on the part of a movement he had been closely associated with, features he saw as undermining its sources of support. He referred to the “ruthlessness” of the party (the PWG) that had evolved by the early 1990s, to the calculated use of terror as a political instrument, the “medieval forms of violence” that characterised the so-called People’s Courts, the lack of possibility of any opposition to the party “so long as the police are taken care of”, the “new” culture that had “permeated the Naxalite organisations” as they recruited large numbers of new cadres “more attracted by its weapons than its politics”, and the “recognisable deterioration of quality” this had brought with it. More substantially, he saw the movement in Andhra culminating in “stagnation” by the 2000s and forced to sidestep the crisis by expanding into new territory, failing to consolidate a second generation of support. And finally, there were clear elements of a critique of the substitutionism of a vanguard struggle where most decisions were “taken and implemented over the heads of the people but justified in the name of the people”, a politics that had simply “corrupted the masses into receivers of justice rather than fighters for it”.

About this, there can be little dispute.  But there are two questions that one wants to pose.  First, under what conditions do we imagine that this internal political culture can be changed and second, do we really believe that the Adivasis are uncritical dupes of irrelevant theoretical positions and anti-charismatic leaders?  It seems to me that the Naxalites have been able to win support amongst the Adivasis not because they are demagogues and authoritarians (even though they are) but because they have been heroic, they have delivered real gains, they protect and defend villages from unimaginable atrocities, and because they do so in the spirit of a democratic transformation of the hinterland.  Adivasis (like all oppressed people) are not idiots: they’re actually capable of making tough decisions for themselves (and it bears underlining that some have left the Naxalites at extraordinary personal costs).  If there were a better option (a working class movement that could challenge the state and either take attention away from the forests or offer real support to the Adivasis), I suspect that it would be quite difficult for them not to re-evaluate their theoretical/political allegiances.

Position #4: (the non-existent position) Anti-Stalinist Marxism from below

A fourth sort of response would have to come from Marxists who have never identified with any of the Stalinist political traditions in India and do not see revolutionary movements developing in a class vacuum, in complete isolation from industrial workers and the more organised groups of wage earners and employees in the economy at large. The bulk of the Indian labour force remains unorganised into unions, and it is stupefying to imagine that a revolution against capitalism can succeed while the mass of the workers are in a state of near-complete atomisation. The impoverished notions of democracy that either reduce it to a battle for electoral supremacy or dismiss it as a fraud, the failure to encourage and develop a culture of working class organisation and debate, to encourage forms of intervention that contest capitalism in concrete ways, and build a movement that can address the widest possible range of issues starting from the desperate struggle for survival of the millions of landless in India, are all part of the legacy of a left that was moribund intellectually and deeply conservative in its culture.

And about this, Banaji is totally right — but here’s where I think I differ from him.  This has to be the starting point of understanding the rise of Naxalism (not simply one of many approaches to critiquing the politics of the movement).  Without a meaningful anti-Stalinist revolutionary political formation, the two real ideologies that oppressed peoples fall into are liberalism and narodism (Maoism-Naxalism should be seen as part of this tradition, I think).  The reason for the splits away from the CPI(M) and into Naxalism have to do with the utter lack of an alternative revolutionary politics in India (the Stalinists have been pretty ruthless to the Trotskyists).  That’s why people who were aggravated with the parliamentary politics of the various Stalinist parties took their cue from Mao (the only theoretical tool they really had) and picked up the gun and went to the jungle.  And it has to be said (for all of their contradictory theoretical positions), they have embarrassed the hell out of the Indian state.

In the Russian Revolution, what shifted the peasants over to the side of the working class was the organization of massive revolutionary political formations in the working class (and not simply a critique of the political theories of the Narodniks).  Critiquing narodnism was important as a way for the urban revolutionaries to cut their teeth about what kinds of politics could make and lead a revolution, but even Lenin defended the Narodniks against the state (while disagreeing with their strategies for making a revolution).  I imagine that Banaji is interested in building an anti-Stalinist left in India; one of the things that anti-Stalinist left will need to learn is how to engage with the Naxalites and the people that they are pulling towards them.

Incidentally, a similar position to mine was taken up earlier by another blogger, Pratyush Chandra, here.