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Postcolonial Theory in the 21st Century: Is the Past the Future or Is the Future the Past? (February 2021): Colonialism and Nationalism

by Tarique Niazi

Colonialism and Nationalism

Colonialism and nationalism are dialectically connected as colonialism creates anticolonial nationalism and nationalism threatens occupational colonialism, an idea that Chatterjee encapsulates in The Nation and Its Fragments. As Watson and Wilder contend in The Postcolonial Contemporary, colonialism lies at the heart of postcolonialism’s explanatory regime, which uncovers discursive strategies of domination and subordination pervading colonial culture. While colonialists created elite classes that facilitated the continuation of colonialism, a topic Chatterjee explores, subaltern classes (especially peasants and workers) were subsequently subjected to colonial and elitist domination, which Guha delves into in Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India. Colonial domination of post-colonies continues in discourses of essentialism and orientalism, which Said was the first to point out in Orientalism

Deploying Gramsci’s vocabulary of subalternity, as detailed in Selections from the Prison Notebooks, scholars of subaltern studies have recounted myriad ways in which colonial subjects passively resisted the colonial encounter in their everyday lives. In addition to Guha’s previously mentioned study, David Arnold’s and Sumit Sarkar’s respective essays, “Gramsci and Peasant Subalternity in India” and “The Decline of the Subaltern in Subaltern Studies,” probe this subject in Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial, as does Sarkar’s Writing Social History. Postcolonialists, however, have contradictory positions on the concepts of nationalism and nation-state, either embracing them in retaliation to Marxian internationalism, as Arnold does, or rejecting them as a mirror image of colonialism, as in Spivak’s essay, “Nationalism and the Imagination,” and book, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason; Said’s Culture and Imperialism; Chatterjee’s Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World; and Homi K. Bhabha’s The Location of Culture. Said projected postcolonialists’ frustration with nationalism and nation-state as he observed the postcolonial Third World slide into divisive nativism, which in his view reflected imperialism. To be nativist, he argues in Culture and Imperialism, means “to accept the consequences of imperialism, the racial, religious, and political divisions imposed by imperialism itself,” and essentially “to leave the historical world for the metaphysics of essences like negritude, Irishness, Islam or Catholicism,” which “abandon[s] history for essentialisations that have the power to turn human beings against each other” (p. 276).

In Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World Chatterjee argues that although Indian nationalism resisted colonial domination, it fell for the very modernity on which colonial domination rested. Echoing Said and Chatterjee, Spivak dubs nationalism as a reverse or displaced legitimation of colonialism in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. To Bhabha, nationalism was eclipsed by globalization, which unleashed powerful cultural trends in hybridity, multiculturality, and mimicry, making nationalism and nation-state redundant. For more on this, readers should also peruse Laura Chrisman’s “Nationalism and Postcolonial Studies” in The Postcolonial Unconscious, Sankaran Krishna’s Globalization and Postcolonialism, and Eric Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality.

Ultimately, postcolonialists saw the postcolonial nation-state become the Weberian iron cage of bureaucratic control over the “disenfranchised masses,” as Gandhi refers to them, demanding decolonized populations to obey first and protest later. Earlier, noted theorist Franz Fanon had rejected bourgeoise-led national governments that turned citizens into outcasts, as detailed in his books The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks. For these reasons, postcolonialists today remain skeptical of anticolonial liberation movements and a struggle-based model of politics, as indicated in Christine Doran’s “Postcolonialism, Anti-colonialism, Nationalism and History” and Neil Lazarus’s The Postcolonial Unconscious.