In 1899, when India was still under British rule, Bengali Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote:
“Keep watch, India
Let your crown be of humility, your freedom the freedom of the soul
Build God’s throne daily upon the ample bareness of your poverty
And know that what is huge is not great and pride is not everlasting.”
Despite his determined opposition to British nationalism, Tagore saw danger in the Indian opposition movement. Indeed, during Independence, hundreds of clauses in the new Constitution were transplanted from colonial Parliamentary documents. Elite politicians took charge, filling the ranks of the bureaucracy and civil service that similarly were direct legacies of the colonial state. As Tufts professor Ayesha Jalal concisely notes, the seizure of power by those who claim to have the welfare of “the masses” at heart but in reality serve the interests of a privileged few has to date “kept the scales firmly tilted against India’s poor.”
Unfortunately, members of both the left and right have forgotten the lessons that such postcolonial countries have to teach us about nationalism. We know about Trump and Modi, who distort facts in order to justify their exclusionary ideas. However, I am more interested in the rewriting of history on the left, which receives less attention from critics. At Tufts and other privileged spaces, there is the potential for dangerous detachment from the ground within ‘leftist’ circles. By positing the nation as the ultimate expression of postcolonial liberation, people often neglect the basic idea that oppressive structures and corruption are often replicated within governments, even those responsible for independence.
Take Venezuela. Indeed, the US has had a long and dark history of intervention in Latin America. Certainly, Trump’s coercion and quips about military intervention are deeply troubling. However, conversations about this ‘U.S. coup’ have consistently ignored the plights of people on the ground. Without even getting into the messy conversation regarding Maduro’s popularity, it is simply undeniable that hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine have left citizens hungry and desperate. Regardless of the immorality of sanctions, this intractable problem remains. It is impossible to make a solely moral argument in this case, where the complexity of power structures has made people, not leaders, the real victims.
Ironically, ‘left-wing nationalism’ has strayed incredibly from Marx’s ideas. One does not have to doggedly support the Chinese government or Maduro in order to expound his philosophy. In fact, Marx warned that “a state which is not the realization of rational freedom is a bad state,” and repeatedly characterized states as instruments of the ruling class. It is on all of us to prioritize nuance over supposed ideological consistency when discussing situations involving real people and the consequences of powerlessness.
No nation in history has overcome this simple contradiction: an elite few will never adequately represent the people. The perversion of leftist ideologies by leaders who enable starvation and human rights violations has shown that supporting a ‘nation’ is not so simple. Ideologues on both the left and right should heed Tagore’s words: “Build God’s throne daily upon the ample bareness of your poverty.”