By Farooq Sulehria
November 05, 2013
Defining a nation remains problematic. The Austrian theoretician, Otto Bauer, defined it as a “common historical fate”. In pseudo-academic discourses, a fashionable but highly flawed open-and-shut definition is borrowed from the British academic, Benedict Anderson.
In his view, ‘nationality’ or its ‘multiple significations’ (‘nation-ness, as well as nationalism), are cultural artefacts of particular kind. Hence, in ‘an anthropological spirit’ he proposes “the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign”.
True, imagination is a constituting element in any project of nation-building (the past is imagined as is otherness, traditions, etc). However, in the absence of tangible commonalities such as language, geography, common memory (of persecution, exclusion etc) or race, it will be impossible to arbitrarily imagine a community no matter how hard Andersons try.
In the absence of a certain commonality as a starting point, imagination will not be set in motion. For instance, imagining a community out of German tribes and, say, native Australians would have been pretty impossible at any given point. This vague, unqualified definition is an exact opposite of the rigid categorisation Joseph Stalin coined.
Stalin thought nation to be “a historically constituted, stable, community of people” based on common language, territory, economic life and “psychic formation”.
While the former definition is being imported by our middle-class graduates from western universities, the latter holds sway over traditional leftist discourses in Pakistan. One can point out dozens of examples negating the restrictive definition Stalin coined in 1913 – Israelis, Kurds, Swiss. This definition became a taproot of many mistakes.
Stalinists often try to prove that Stalin’s position was identical to that of Lenin. French Marxist Michael Lowy, however, disagrees. “It is true that it was Lenin who sent Stalin to Vienna to write his famous article ‘Marxism and the National Question’, and that in a letter to Maxim Gorky in February 1913 he spoke of the ‘marvellous Georgian who has sat down to write a big article’.
“But once the article was finished , it does not appear (contrary to a popular myth) that Lenin was particularly enthusiastic about it, as he does not mention it in any of his numerous writings on the national question, apart from a brief, parenthetical reference in passing in an article dated 28 December 1913”.
In Lowy’s view: ‘It is obvious that the main ideas in Stalin’s work were those of the Bolshevik Party and Lenin…on a certain number of fairly important points Stalin’s work implicitly and explicitly differs from, and even contradicts, Lenin’s writings’. Hence, Lenin’s famous last fight against the same Georgian on the national question in Georgia.
Unlike his contemporaries – Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky, pre-revolution Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin – Lenin unapologetically advocated oppressed nations’ right to self-determination. No ifs, no buts. He viewed the right to secede as the basic tenet for a volunteer association or union of nations. He was all praise for the peaceful dissolution of union between Norway and Sweden.
However, he did not attempt a definition. I draw on Basque Marxist Jose Iriarte Bikila to define nation as a consensus community organised by way of a political project whereby consensus overrides all other factors such as class, gender, clan, caste, sect etc.
In other words, it is a consciousness as well as a desire triggered by either one or an ensemble of tangible commonalities such as religion, geography, language, economy, even perhaps ideology. Once it begins to roll as a political project, the nation is no more a mystification that can be explained away through imagination, spirituality, anthropology or Stalinist scholasticism.
Farooq Sulehria is a freelance contributor.