Book Summary: Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World


    Chatterjee, Partha. Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? London: Zed Books for the United Nations University, 1986.

This book—a collection of tightly linked essays rather than a monograph—is in many ways the groundwork for Partha Chatterjee’s celebrated The Nation and Its Fragments (1993). Chatterjee, the political theorist of the Subaltern Studies group, here sounds many of the themes that have weaved their way through his work.

The book begins with an essay on “Nationalism as a Problem in the History of Political Ideas,” a critique, from a postcolonial standpoint, of the theories of Elie Kedourie, John Plamenatz, Ernest Gellner, and Benedict Anderson. Chatterjee has the most sympathy for Anderson’s position, but, he asks, “What … are the substantive differences between Anderson and Gellner on 20th century nationalism? None. Both point out a fundamental change in ways of perceiving the social world which occurs before nationalism can emerge…Both describe the characteristics of the new cultural homogeneity which is sought to be imposed on the emerging nation…In the end, both see in third-world nationalisms a profoundly ‘modular’ character. They are inavariably shaped according to contours outlined by given historical models” (21).

“The Thematic and the Problematic” investigates the curious bi-level nature of nationalist thought: on one level, it “appears to oppose the dominating implications of post-Enlightenment European thought,” but on another level, it “seems to accept that domination” (37). Chatterjee motivates his investigation through the critical use of Edward Said’s concept of “Orientalism.”

“The Moment of Departure: Culture and Power in the Thought of Bankimchandra” examines the thought of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (1838-1894), a leading Bengali intellectual, mentor of Rabindranath Tagore, and one of India’s first nationalist thinkers. Chatterjee specifically looks “at the ways in which [Bankimchandra’s] thought relates culture to power in the context of a colonial country” (54).

The Moment of Manoeuvre: Gandhi and the Critique of Civil Society,” the longest of the essays, is a reading of Gandhi’s famous tract Hind Swaraj (“A Free India”) as a “text in which Gandhi’s relation to nationalism can be shown to rest on a fundamental critique of the idea of civil society” (85). (In Marxist vein, Chatterjee understands “civil society” to incorporate economy.)

“The Moment of Arrival: Nehru and the Passive Revolution” reads the two major works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s pupil and the first prime minister of independent India, in order to find “the key ideological elements and relations of nationalist thought at its moment of arrival” (132). Chatterjee argues that Nehru’s ideology is one in which “the central organizing principle is the autonomy of the state; the legitimizing principle is a conception of social justice. [Nehru’s] argument then runs as follows: social justice for all cannot be provided within the old framework because it is antiquated, decadent and incapable of dynamism. What is necessary is to create a new framework of institutions which can embody the spirit of progress, or, a synonym, modernity … . Hence the principal political task before the nation is to establish a sovereign national state” (132-3).

“The Cunning of Reason” is a short (anti-)Hegelian coda and conclusion to the book. Where Hegel had found a promise of salvation upon what he grimly described as “the slaughter-bench of history” (thanks to “the cunning of Reason”), Chatterjee see Reason as “sovereign, tyrannical universality,” which “in its universalizing mission has been parasitic upon a much less lofty, much more mundane, palpably material and singularly invidious force, namely the universalist urge of capital” (168). Reason and capital, according to Chatterjee, have fused into the juggernaut of “development,” and nowhere has nationalism as such been able to halt this giant’s march through the world.